Charlie holds up two silent fingers, then one. When he points at me the world blurs at the periphery and a familiar calm washes over me.
“Good evening, folks. This is Mike Adams and I want to thank you for joining me tonight out in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. On this edition of Finding Cryptos, we’ll be on the hunt for the creature known as the Jersey Devil.”
Charlie gives me a thumbs up and I turn and walk deeper into the pines. I hear Sophia moving close behind me, holding the boom mic just out of the shot. Our producer and a group of volunteer ‘Crypto Hunters’ are slamming through the underbrush. I continue.
“Now, we’re about a mile outside of the area known as Leeds Point, the so-called birthplace of the Jersey Devil. Legend has it that the Leeds family lived out here in the early 1700s.” I pause and step over a particularly large branch. The route we’re taking could barely be called a path. It’s more like a group of stubborn patches that refuse to succumb to the forest.
“Mrs. Leeds was apparently a very… ah… fertile woman. She had already given birth to twelve children and had a thirteenth on the way. Her previous children had given her no trouble when they came into the world. It was clear this one would be a different case. Mrs. Leeds was screaming in pain all through the evening, though she had birthed her previous children in near silence. The sound was almost inhuman. Finally, around midnight, she brought a monstrosity into the world. A horned head adorned a spindly body, with two leathery wings protruding from its spine. The creature stared up at her from a puddle of amniotic fluid as the family looked on from around her bed. Her scream was mirrored by the abomination before it flew up their chimney, the sound ringing through the night . Locals say when the moon is full, the screams still echo through Leeds Point. Lucky for us, there’s a full moon rising.”
I make a cutting motion across my neck and Charlie lowers the camera. Sophia sighs in relief as she lowers the boom mic. I stop and wait for the rest of the volunteers to catch up.
“Charlie, do you think you could get a shot of the moon coming up over the trees?”
“Yeah, sure thing,” the burly man replies as he moves silently for a better angle. I haven’t quite figured out how such a bear of a man can make so little noise. Cameramen like him are few and far in between. Sophia moves closer to me, collapsing the unwieldy microphone.
“So, the Jersey Devil,” she says looking at me. “Do you think we’re actually going to find anything this time?”
“As long as our viewers think so, we’ll be fine.”
I look toward the group of volunteers as they approach. They’re mostly men in their late thirties, with a few women in the same age group. These are our typical hunters.
“We’ve gotta make this one convincing,” I say out of the corner of my mouth, “I hope you’re ready.”
I open my arms and smile as Rodney joins us in the clearing. My producer is flushed from the short hike. He’ll be manning our base camp while we take the hunters out. Sophia hands him a water bottle from her bag and he gulps it down greedily. The rest of the volunteers are circling around us.
“Glad you could make it out B-Rod,” I say and slap him on the back. He waves me off and continues guzzling water. I turn to address the rest of the crowd.
“Fellow crypto hunters, I recognize some of you from our previous hunts. This makes me believe you’re half-crazy to follow us around the country. Good, you’ve gotta be a little crazy for this gig.”
I pause for the forced laughs from the group. A few remain silent.
“Tonight we’re going to be splitting into teams. My cameraman Charlie and I will be taking two volunteers with us. We’re going to look for the old Leeds house. Sophia and my good friend B-Rod will be remaining here at our now official base camp. The rest of you break into two teams of three.” The group looks amongst themselves, automatically grouping with the hunters they know best. One pair looks a little out of place. I wave them over as the other groups form around them.
“Alright looks like we’re divided. Each group take a walkie talkie and a GPS tracker. If you see anything out of the ordinary, call it in on channel 3. Grab your gear, leave what you don’t need, and lets get huntin’.” I raise up a hand and let out the howl we’d claimed as our trademark. The other hunters mirror my howl. I turn and see Charlie grinning despite the howl pouring from his throat.
We click on our flashlights and move north toward the supposed location of the Leeds’ home. I can’t imagine there will be anything left after three centuries, but the viewers expect a thorough investigation. Charlie has attached the boom mic to his camera and is filming the woods around us. The last shreds of sunlight die out as we pick our way through the pines.
“So,” I say to the couple, “are you two new to the hunt?”
“Not exactly. We were fans of the last season and we live in the area so we figured, you know, why not?” The woman laughs while her partner nods.
“Alright, well why don’t you introduce yourselves to the camera?” I say as Charlie turns the camera on them. They slow down and look at each other.
“My name is Lauren Decatur and this is my brother, Steve.” The woman tells the camera. The two stare into the lens for a few moments before Steve breaks into an awkward smile. I sigh inwardly and prompt them.
“So tell us why you’re here tonight.”
“We’re here to find the Jersey Devil,” Steve answers “and when we find it, I’m going to put a bullet in its horned head.”
He moves his jacket and I can see a sidearm holstered there. My heart starts beating faster.
“Uh.. Steve I think you might have taken the title a little too literally. The show’s called Crypto Hunters because we’re looking for them, not poaching them.”
“This is personal,” he says and lowers the flap of his jacket. I look over at Charlie but the big man is as impassive as ever. I take a breath.
“Okay Steve, just keep that thing holstered, alright buddy? I don’t want anybody getting hurt tonight.” He doesn’t respond and after a few seconds Charlie lowers the camera. He looks over at me and I shake my head slowly. Where does Rodney find these people?
After a few more minutes of hiking, we arrive in a clearing. Dancing beams of light reflect off of what looks to be the burned foundation of a long forgotten home.
“Holy shit,” I say and motion toward Charlie, “this has to be the place. Who else would be living all the way out here?” Charlie gives me a silent countdown and I slip into my television persona.
“We’ve just come upon the remains of the Leeds’ home, deep in the Pine Barrens. The house appears to have burned down long ago. Perhaps the hellfire of the Jersey Devil’s birthing consumed the home? Let’s move in for a closer look.”
As Charlie and the Decaturs move toward the foundation, I quietly pull the walkie talkie from my pack. I change the channel from three to four and whisper softly into the mic.
I slip the walkie back into the pack and hurry to catch up with the group. I manage to get back into the shot before a scream echoes through the trees.
“What was that?” I whirl around to face the camera, eyes wide in staged fear. Charlie sweeps the camera lens over the trees behind us before focusing on the Decaturs. Lauren has a hand over her mouth, her pupils shifting back and forth with almost comical speed. Steve moves his hand toward the holster, jaw set. I pull out my walkie talkie and switch to channel three.
“A bloodcurdling scream has just pierced the air somewhere to the south. I’m attempting to raise our base camp,” I say loud enough for the mic to pick me up.
“Base, this is Adams. Did you hear that?”
“Mike,” Sophia’s voice squawked, “that scream was close to us. I’m calling in the other groups.” Her voice is tinged with just the right amount of trepidation. The Decaturs look to me and I wave them forward. I switch the walkie back to channel four and hit the button twice. Another scream comes from our camp a few moments later.
“We may have found it,” I shout to the camera, “the Jersey Devil itself m-”
A second scream answers from much closer. I spin toward the sound and lose my footing, crashing into Charlie. The big man hardly moves as I bounce off him toward the ground. I can’t even feel the impact. The adrenaline pushes me to my feet and I lock eyes with Charlie. Something flies overhead, too fast to be caught by our flashlight beams.
“Hey wait up,” I shout to the Decaturs. Charlie and I run to catch up with the jogging siblings. The camera light bounces between trees, filming forgotten as we approach the camp. A shriek crashes out of Lauren’s throat when she sees the remains. I arrive a few steps behind her and feel genuine terror grip my stomach contents, wrenching them from my mouth with a powerful heave. The half-digested sandwich I’d had for dinner splashes over my boots.I look up through watering eyes at what’s left of camp.
Sophia’s head rests a foot away from her body, blood pooling underneath. Her face looks passive; she didn’t have time to react to the vicious attack. Rodney is another story.
Resting against a nearby pine are the remnants of our producer. Twin holes are drilled into his chest, dark blood staining rivers down his white shirt. His mouth is frozen in twisted agony as one of his eyeballs dangles from its socket. His arms are a mess of bloodied wounds. I stare at my dead friends while the sandwich congeals on my shoe. Another scream brings me back to reality.
One of the volunteers runs through the campsite, being chased by something massive. All we can do is watch as the volunteer is grabbed and hoisted by his neck, legs kicking uselessly in the air. The creature smashes his face into a nearby tree, wood splintering from the impact. His lifeless body falls to the ground and the monster turns to face us.
The Jersey Devil is described as a skinny creature with a goat’s head and bat wings. Somebody got it wrong. The head does resemble a ram, but in addition to the curled rams’ horns, twin jagged spikes protrude from its head. It stands taller than Charlie, white fur covering its’ considerable bulk. Two giant wings unfold from its back as the creature takes a step forward and lets out a scream.
Steve reacts first. He unholsters his gun with practiced speed and draws a bead on the creature’s chest. The rest of us react a second later and we run back the way we’d come. We hear the battle behind us, the staccato echo of small arms fire punctuating the screams.
Just as suddenly as they’d begun, the screams and gunshots stop. Whether there is a victor or Steve has simply run out of bullets we can’t tell. We just keep running.
Lauren’s conscience catches up with her and she slows her pace, forcing Charlie and me to slow behind her. She looks at me and I see unspoken pleading in her eyes. I know she needs to go back to the camp, to see if her brother somehow survived.
Charlie pushes past her and continues to run back toward the Leeds’ home. I’m right behind him. Lauren is yelling after us, calling us all the names she can think of. We don’t stop. A scream sounds behind us, cutting through the night. It could be Lauren.
We run into the clearing and slow a little, trying to catch our breath.
“Oh God, what are we going to do?” I’m jogging toward the burned out foundation. Charlie doesn’t answer. I feel him close behind as I reach the site of the creature’s birth. There’s not much in the way of cover, the years turning the wooden framework to dust. There seems to be an opening that leads underground. I make for it.
I’m only a few feet away when a scream sounds from overhead. I skid to a stop as the creature slams down in front of me. The force of the landing permeates through the ground before it begins to rise. I start to back up and run into Charlie. His bulk offers too little resistance and his mountainous body crumbles and falls. A gaping hole in his chest is barely visible as the camera crashes to the ground. The camera light shatters and Charlie disappears into darkness. My own flashlight illuminates the beast as it bites into Charlie’s heart, blood squirting from his aorta in three equal streams.
Instinctively, I take a step back. Instinct forgets that Charlie’s body is directly behind me and I trip over his remains. I go down hard and the air explodes from my lungs. My head hits the ground and my vision momentarily goes white. Blinded, I claw at the ground behind me. I’m struggling to draw in a breath but my diaphragm is openly rebelling. As my vision begins to clear I see the creature stalking toward me. It’s opening its mouth to let loose another one of its ear-shattering shrieks. A flood of erratic thoughts strike me as I continue crawling backwards. Had any of the volunteers made it? Would the footage from the night ever be found? Who would play me if they found the footage and made the movie?
The creature releases the scream it had been building, but it wasn’t the one we’d been hearing through the night. This one was at a lower pitch. It didn’t sound as feral somehow. I feel the first dangerous threads of hope course through my veins. I continue to crawl, but the beast has stopped pursuing.
I feel the rush of air before I hear the flapping of another immense set of wings. I turn and look up to see another monster half illuminated in my forgotten flashlight. It’s larger than the Jersey Devil, black fur covering its’ muscled body. The monster’s red eyes meet mine and I see the head is lacking horns. The strings of hope are ripped from my body, leaving me a dangling marionette of despair. I try to roll away but one hoof pins me to the ground. I let out my first scream of the night.
A brood of miniature goat creatures are climbing from the new arrivals’ back. They swarm over me, covering my body in an instant. I feel the individual stabbing pains of their bites from a dozen sites on my body. Their mother continues to pin me down and my flailing slows. I can see the dark clouds of death in my periphery. Before the darkness consumes me, I hear a chorus of screams in the distance.