Donnie bent over and tapped the plaster cast with his pencil. To his satisfaction its matte grey surface did not crack or break, indicating the plaster had nearly set. He rose, wiping the dirt from his knees and gazed around the woods. It was in many ways a typical Midwestern forest in early autumn. Densely packed green broadleaf and coniferous trees stretched on for miles, the predominant green coloration interrupted only by the occasional birch or yellowing deciduous. It had been a dry spring so the soil was a bit on the crusty side, though not outright parched. It made his job easier, actually. He looked back at the foot wide cylinder of plaster of Paris sitting on the ground and glanced at his digital watch.
“Better give it at least another five minutes,” he murmured to himself.
He reached into his khaki jacket pocket, pulled out an electronic device about the size of a cell phone and raised it to his lips.
“Audio log entry 23, time 4:26 PM,” he spoke into it. “I am in the Pinebrook Forest Preserve approximately six miles northwest of Pinebrook High School. I am about to retrieve specimen number seven. I discovered the prints nearly 24 hours ago during my preliminary reconnaissance of the area. The cast seems not to have been disturbed and given the quality of the prints and the consistency of the soil I am expecting a high quality impression. I still have five additional casts to collect before sundown. Hopefully, they will all be intact.” He cleared his throat and adjusted his sunglasses with his free hand. “As noted in previous entries, there have been multiple sightings of the ‘Pinebrook Beast’ in this area. Though I still need to compile a geographic profile based on my initial observations all encounters and physical evidence of the cryptid (or cryptids) seem to be concentrated around the high school within ten to fifteen miles. I will start geographical profiling tonight after I retrieve, clean, photograph and catalog all the specimens. End audio log entry.”
Donnie slipped the device back in his pocket. He squatted down next to the plaster cast, reached around and retrieved a small metal spade hanging from his belt. He carefully loosened the soil around the cast and gingerly lifted the thing from the earth. He slowly rotated it in the air, examining the cast.
“Beautiful,” he said softly.
It was a paw-print – a very large paw-print from, presumably, a very large animal. It featured four clawed toes and a large central pad. The detail was admittedly quite good for a plaster cast; Donnie could even make out the leathery texture of the pads. He put it down hurriedly reached back into his pocket and brought out the recording device.
“Audio log entry 23 addendum,” he said hoarsely. “Specimen exceeds all expectations. Clearly not a bear or large cat yet too big for any other known animal endemic to the area. Superficially resembles a wolf print, but again, larger than anything I’ve seen before.” He hesitated. “Admittedly I haven’t been able recover any hair, fur or any other trace evidence, which is odd. Still, it’s only a matter of time. These prints are the real deal. End audio log entry”
After tucking the device back in his coat he unshouldered his backpack, opened it and pulled a large plastic ziplock bag out. He slipped the plaster cast inside the bag and then took a clipboard and pen out of the backpack.
“Specimen date…location…” he muttered under his breath as he scribbled furiously.
Suddenly, he froze. He slowly looked up.
Two figures were standing about twenty feet ahead of him. One was a teenage boy and the other was a teenage girl. Both were wearing jeans, tennis shoes; the boy had a long-sleeve plaid shirt and the girl a green blouse and an off-white knitted wool jacket. They were staring intently at him.
“Um, hello,” said Donnie, bemused, waving a hand.
The pair looked at each other uncertainly.
“Yeah, hi,” said the boy. “What, uh, what are you doing out here, man?” he said, gesturing vaguely around at the forest
Donnie rose to his feet and clearly his throat.
“I’m…uh, doing surveillance work,” he managed. “Taking samples, checking on…the wildlife, that kind of thing.”
There was an awkward silence between the three.
“Are you a park person or ranger or something?” inquired the girl, brushing back her short, messy blonde hair. “‘Cause we’ve never sme-….seen you around here before.”
“N-nno, I’m not associated with the city government or United States Forest service,” said Donnie reluctantly.
“You know this area is off-limits,” said the boy. “No camping, hunting, fishing, collecting. And you’re supposed to stay on the path.”
Donnie bit his lower lip, glancing down at his feet. Then he looked back up at the pair and narrowed his eyes.
“Well, what the hell are you kids doing out here?” he asked suspiciously.
“Just…going on a walk,” said the girl.
“A walk? We’re miles from the nearest trail and any road. And I know this isn’t exactly the Alaskan wilderness but…it is a little dangerous out here. You two look like you just walked out of the mall. Where did you come from?”
The girl hesitated, but the boy quickly chimed in.
“There’s a new trail back there,” he said, pointing backwards. “They just finished it last month. We heard someone out here talking and we wanted to check it out. So, again, what are you doing out here?”
“Y’know, I think I’ve seen him before,” said the girl thoughtfully before Donnie had a chance to reply. “Donnie…Boiler? Boolar?”
“Buellar,” sighed Donnie.
“Hey yeah,” said the boy suddenly. “He’s that cryptozoologist dude who was on the…” the boy trailed off as though realizing something important.
Despite himself Donnie beamed. He wasn’t used to being recognized.
“OK, you’ve found me out,” he said, relaxing a little bit. “Yes, I’m Donald Buellar, professional cryptozoologist and author. I’m actually out here investigating the Pinebrook Beast. You’ve heard of it, right?”
The girl nodded slowly.
“Actually I think there be more than one cryptid, er, that’s what we in the business refer to as fauna or flora that are believed but not proven to be extant,” he explained, turning back to his clipboard. “I know it sounds silly, but cryptozoology is a real science…er, many people accept that it is,” he admitted as he wrote. “Coelacanths – that’s an ancient clade of fish that were kind of the missing link between aquatic and land-dwelling animals – were thought to be extinct until representative species were discovered in 1938 and again in 1998. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that large unclassified species of mammal could be dwelling out here – some ancient throwback, possibly related to the dire wolf.” He tore the sheet of paper from the pad, tucked it in the plastic bag and sealed it. “You, uh, you kids wouldn’t have happened to see anything unusual out here?”
“Uh, besides you?” said the girl. “No.”
“Heh, ah well,” said Donnie, grinning. “Hey, you two want to take a look at this? It’s pretty amazing.”
“Whatcha got there?” said the boy. The two of them hadn’t moved since Donnie spotted them.
“A plaster cast of some paw prints,” said Donnie proudly. “I’m…wow, I’m ninety percent sure this could be it,” he said more or less to himself.
“The Pinebrook Beast,” shouted Donnie irritably. “The big break I’ve been waiting for! I’ll need to take these to a zoologist or some other expert but they’re like nothing I’ve ever seen before and this isn’t the only one. I’ve found around a dozen pawprints and even some deer corpses that look like they were taken down by a predator that’s way too big for the area. Even if those so-called scientists don’t believe me there’s more than enough evidence here to get those Monster Quest idiots up here. Only this time they’ll find the real thing! Hey! You kids want to-” he said looking up.
They were gone.
Donnie looked around wildly.
“Hey, HEY!” he called. “Where did you go?”
There was no sign of either teenager. The forest was thick but there weren’t too many trees wide enough to hide behind in the immediate area and there hadn’t been a sound. In fact, the woods had grown eerily quiet.
Nervously licking his lips, Donnie brought out his recorder.
“Audio log entry…24,” he said. “While recovering specimen number seven I encountered a pair of teenagers. Locals, I think. They claimed they were out on a walk but we’re far, far away from any trail and they did not look dressed for a nature hike. Not sure what their game is. Seemed to recognize me. Probably trying to spook me for fun. Still, there was something…off about them. I’m going to proceed with caution. End audio log entry.”
After carefully packing the plaster cast away Donnie hefted his backpack over his shoulders, checked his map and continued onwards.
* * *
Donnie knew something was wrong the second he spied the cast sitting next to the fallen log. The grass around the paper cylinder containing the plaster had been disturbed and there were little flecks of dried grey material splattered on the log. He hurried over and gazed down at it.
“Dammit,” he muttered in disgust. “Not again.”
It looked like someone had smashed the top of the cast and scooped most of the nearly congealed plaster out of the mold. It lay scattered around the ground. The base of the print itself had been ground down leaving no trace whatsoever of the paw impression.
Cursing again, Donnie kicked the flimsy paper tube out of the earth and reached for his audio recorder.
“Audio log entry 32,” he growled. “Specimen number thirteen has also been vandalized and destroyed. Recently, by the looks of it. Though I don’t have any proof the kids I encountered while recovering specimen number seven are behind this I strongly suspect this is the case as nearly all of the specimens I’ve attempted to retrieve since speaking with them have been destroyed.” He paused. “That said I find it highly unlikely they were able to find all of them faster than I was able to recover them. Either they already knew where they were and only started destroying them after learning what they were or…something else is at work here,” he added fretfully. “If the two of them are behind this I don’t understand their motivation. The casts were scattered around the preserve, most miles apart, and it would take a coordinated effort to destroy that many in so short a time. Far more effort, I think, any teenager, however bored, would put into causing mischief.” He hesitated. “It would also suggest they are intimately familiar with the area, which is….” he trailed off “…not usually frequented by the public,” he said finally, choosing his words carefully. “All in all, I’m baffled. Need to keep moving, though. I only have one more specimen to check on and I’m losing daylight. End audio log entry.”
He stopped briefly to recover the paper cylinder and stuff it in a plastic bag and then left the site, his expression stoic belying equal parts irritation and apprehension. He made his way down an incline into a wide creek bed and started following the trickling waters downstream. His worn yet serviceable hiking boots made little squelching sounds as he trod across the pebble-strewn bank of the stream. Donnie glanced up at the sky. The sun had just touched the horizon and was beginning to dip below it. He had removed his sunglasses hours ago and was now having trouble seeing again. He quickened his pace. The only sounds now were his footsteps, the burbling creek, and the muted whisper of the wind.
Eventually, he climbed out of the shallow gully and made his way along a natural trail. As he walked he heard something small rustle in the bushes not far from him; he ignored it as best he could. The trail soon disappeared and Donnie waded into a small clearing full of tall grass and bramble.
“Where the hell was it?” murmured Donnie, looking around.
Realizing he was having trouble recognizing the area in the dim light he reached for his flashlight and flicked it on. It was one of the larger, more powerful varieties with a wide beam. Donnie scanned the clearing, the spotlight-like beam of light illuminating everything it touched.
“OK,” he said softly. “I found the last prints near that dying elm…ah, there it is.”
As he turned the flashlight towards the tree, Donnie did a double take. For a moment he thought he saw two tiny yellow slits staring at him through a clump of bushes on the left. He quickly swung the beam towards the bushes but saw nothing. After a few seconds, Donnie shrugged nervously and made his way to the elm.
Sure enough, a small paper cylinder was sitting a couple of yards behind the leafless elm in a patch of bare soil. Donnie slowly walked up to it and shone his light down. To his surprise and delight the thing looked untouched. Furthermore, the plaster had turned a gritty light grey, indicating it had completely hardened. Donnie fumbled for his audio recorder with his free hand.
“Audio log entry 33,” he whispered quickly. “I’ve found the last specimen – specimen 14 – and it appears not to have been disturbed. I’m going to recover it and get the hell out of here. End audio log entry.”
The excited cryptozoologist kneeled and tapped the cast it with his knuckle, confirming that it was indeed quite solid. Not bothering to loosen the soil this time he put the flashlight on the ground beside him, gripped the paper cylinder with both hands and slowly lifted it out of the earth. After brushing away some dirt that had stubbornly clung to the impression, Donnie inverted the cast, put it back down on the ground, grabbed his flashlight and examined its surface. A perfectly-formed print negative could be seen much like the paw-print from before. It was slightly smaller than the others but bore the same pattern and proportions of heel, toes, and claws.
“Let’s get this baby home,” said Donnie, unshouldering his backpack.
He unzipped the main flap, reached inside and pulled out another plastic bag. He put the final cast inside and reached for his clipboard and pen. As he scribbled on the paper, he heard footsteps – footsteps from something distressingly large and close-by.
Donnie broke out in a cold sweat. He slowly raised his head and, in the light of his torch, saw a pair of large furry feet standing no less than five feet away. They looked…exactly like the kind of feet that would leave the paw-prints Donnie had discovered.
With a whimper of terror Donnie looked further upward. The feet belonged to a massive, muscular, bipedal creature with thick midnight black fur, large paws – or were they hands? – adorned with talons, a strange, vaguely lupine head with pointed tufted ears, a partial muzzle and glowing yellow eyes. But what it did next frightened Donnie to his core.
The furry creature folded its arms and glared down at the skinny man.
“Donald Buellar,” it intoned in a powerful yet unmistakably feminine voice. “You and I need to have a little chat.”
* * *
The article was one of the shorter ones tucked away in the middle of the newspaper with no accompanying picture. Its caption read ‘No Sign of Self-Proclaimed Crytozoologist for Over a Week.’ Melinda’s mother slid the page over to her daughter across the kitchen table.
“Do you know anything about this, young lady?” she asked in a firm voice.
Melinda stared down at the article, up at her mother, opened and shut her mouth, and then sighed.
“Yeah,” she said unenthusiastically.
“What, exactly, did you do to him?”
“He’s fine, mom,” sighed Melinda. “We had to…put a stop to what he was up to. He’s really loud and he was getting too close to the truth. I…we convinced him to take a trip down to Mexico.”
“Why would he do that when…if he was so close to uncovering the ‘Pinebrook Beast,’ why would he go, eh? Melinda, if you threatened or hurt the poor man I-”
“We explained to him that what he was doing would disrupt a lot of lives,” interrupted Melinda quickly. “That and, uh, we may have told him we know EXACTLY where the legendary Chupacabra is and that, since it’s only a mindless beast, we wouldn’t mind him revealing its existence.”
“So you lied to him?”
“Well…maybe,” said Melinda, smiling wanly. “I mean, we don’t know it isn’t real and, well, we’re real, right?”
“And what if he comes back?”
“We convinced him to hand over all the evidence and I had Lily check his hotel room and car for anything he may have held back. If he does get any ideas, well, there isn’t much proof left and we’ll be ready for him if he returns to Pinebrook.”
Melinda’s glared at her daughter.
“Fine,” she sighed. “Just…next time…let me know in advance OK,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t like the idea you’re doing all this behind my back.”
“Sure thing, mom.”
The second requested story, this one from nacharcoal . His original proposal would have necessitated a much longer, more complicated story beyond the scope of the requests, so I took his seed idea, trimmed it down and incorporated a character from The Lycanthrope Club I've been meaning to explore more.
I liked this one a lot, and in my opinion, thought it was better then the other request, but that may just be because you wound it into the story we all know and love. And as always, your ability to write thoughtful and descriptive dialogue that gives true depth to characters that few writers can match. Keep up the good work Helio, and it's good to see you writing again, I've missed your stories!
Good short story. I have a question: Melinda's mother is a werewolf too?