* This story failed to publish in August 2022 for unknown reasons. Please enjoy it as our September episode of ATOMIC TALES. — Steve*
“Exactly who is this poking around our agency Studebaker, Agent One?”
The look Dr. Shannon Teragon gave me as we left the Pine Barrens Ranger Station held both curiosity and concern.
“Tammy Rubens,” I replied. “She’s a reporter I’ve run into before.”
“When?” As usual, Agent Five’s question came out as little more than a rumbling whisper. But the agency hadn’t hired Nelson “Dead Eye” Corrigan for his melodic voice.
“That bee incident in Colorado… And again before the giant leech attack in Devil’s Foot, Utah.”
“Suspicious… Don’t you think, Ray?” Doc Teragon arched an eyebrow at me.
I shrugged. “She’s a reporter. I’ll find out what’s up.”
Miss Rubens was already making a beeline to intercept us; I met her half way.
“Agent Ray,” she cooed, “Nice to see you again. What are you doing here?”
“The usual: investigating local livestock problems.”
She scrutinized the rest of our party. “Care to introduce me?”
“Sure. This is Agent Nelson, and accompanying us is Specialist Shannon.”
We exchanged handshakes.
“Specialist in what?” Miss Rubens asked.
“Science,” Doc replied slyly.
“Can you specialize in that?”
“You’d be surprised.” Doc’s dad had founded the USSB, and she was every bit as sharp.
“What are the motorcycles for?” the reporter asked, pointing to the trio of dirt bikes hitched behind our Studebaker.
“We’re saving ourselves both time and a hike.” I decided to change the subject. “Jersey is far afield for the Denver Examiner, isn’t it?”
The reporter gave a sheepish grin. “What can I say? The UFO stories I turned in were a hit; so the boss sent me to look into the Jersey Devil.”
Five fixed her with a steely gaze. “Find anything?”
“Nope. So… Back on the road for another snipe hunt. Unless you’ve got some inside info you’d like to share…?”
I shook my head. “Sorry. We just got here.”
She stepped in close and took my hand. “You’ll tell me if you turn up a monster, won’t you, Ray?”
Her body felt warm and enticing; I fought down a blush. “You bet.”
“And who do you work for again…?”
“The US Science Bureau,” Doc put in. She stepped between the reporter and me as I edged back. “You can contact our office in Washington, if you need more information.”
Tammy Rubens’s brown eyes sparkled. “I will. See you around, Agent Ray.”
“Maybe, Miss Rubens.”
She called back to me over her shoulder as she sashayed across the parking lot toward her blue Chevy Bel Air. “I told you before, Ray… It’s Tammy.”
Doc chuckled once the reporter passed out of earshot. “I think Tammy’s got a crush on you, Ray.”
“Yeah? Well… The feeling’s not mutual. Let’s get our gear and mount up.”
Five chuckled as well, but both my companions were kind enough to button their lips as we unpacked the Studebaker and got on our bikes.
Fifteen minutes later, we were cruising through Pine Barrens, a vast, wooded wilderness in southeastern New Jersey.
The swath of pine trees and sandy soil reminded me of desolate parts of Cape Cod. It was hard to believe we were just a couple of hours from New York City—and only half that to Philly.
I had no idea where we were going, and I don’t think Five did, either, but Doc Teragon had it all mapped out in her head.
I’d lied to Tammy, of course. We’d come here to check local UFO sightings and reports of the Barrens’ mythical monster, the Jersey Devil. Doc was hoping that it’d be similar to the giant insects we often battled rather than the mutant gecko Thirteen and I recently turned up in Vegas.
“These geckos are like that mutant ape you turned up in Colorado,” she’d said.
“You mean the yeti.”
“If you prefer, yes. Whatever mutated them vanishes from their systems when they die. I wish the Nevada guard hadn’t killed them. I need a live specimen we can contain. Eight won’t let me experiment on his wife—Donna—and no one has ever seen a juvenile ant. This alleged monster could be our best chance.
“Dad and I don’t think it’s coincidence that these creatures are turning up where UFOs are spotted. So, let’s get out there and bag a monster!”
To that end, Shannon had brought a special gizmo: it looked like a shotgun but actually fired a barbed net.
Five and I packed normal weapons: our 45s, shotguns, plus a rifle for Dead Eye. Let Doc catch the Jersey Devil, if she could; our sniper and I were there to protect her.
As twilight approached, Doc put up her hand and signaled a stop.
Five and I pulled up next to her and admired the indigo surface of the nearby lake. The cool autumn air smelled of pine, marsh grass, and pond water.
Doc rooted around in her backpack. “The creature was last sighted here,” she explained. “Folklore says that the Jersey Devil eats unbaptized babies… But if it’s some kind of mutant animal, I think it’s more likely to crave local prey.”
She took out two large packages, like you might get from a butcher, and unwrapped them. “This is raw venison… and this… is filet of chain pickerel.”
“Explains the gamey reek,” Five muttered.
“We’ll circumnavigate the lake shore, find a likely spot, and use them as bait. Good? Just remember to be careful. I’ve got the net gun, and I want this thing alive.”
I nodded. “Whatever you say, Doc.”
We unlimbered our gear and followed her into the brush.
The sky was clear that night, and darkness came on quickly in the barrens. Soon, stars blazed brightly overhead, but our flashlights weren’t much help picking our way through the reeds.
“Should have brought a machete,” Five grumbled.
Doc halted. “Shh…! I hear something.” She pointed into the head-tall cattails and turned off her light; we did the same. The starlight shone just enough to paint the reeds surrounding us with an eerie pallor.
A faint clicking sound echoed through the still night air.
Doc Teragon took out one of her bait packets, which she’d attached to a heavy nylon clothesline.
As the clicking grew louder, she threw the bait deep into the brush.
We waited, the silence broken only by the weird ratatat drumming and the soft clicks of Five and me unholstering our pistols, just in case.
Doc started reeling the line in.
“Trolling for monsters,” Five whispered.
In other circumstances, I might have laughed, but right then my skin was crawling.
Suddenly, the line jerked, yanking the doc off her feet. She sprawled into the marsh with a grunt and a soft splash.
Cursing, she climbed to her feet and kept reeling in the line. It came back quickly… Empty. “Drat!”
The clicking grew louder; it sounded more like cackling now.
Goosebumps prickled my body as a hideous shape rose from the weeds before us.
The thing’s head looked like a long triangle, pointed at the bottom with a rounded, bumpy skull on top. It had neither mouth nor neck, but the beast’s malevolent eyes glared at us over the tops of the cattails.
“The Devil…!” Dead Eye croaked.
As he and I crouched, stupefied, Doc unlimbered her net gun.
The creature advanced, its clicking building to a machine-gun-like chatter.
Doc fired, and the net whirled out with an explosive BOOF!
The Jersey Devil uttered a piercing shriek and lurched aside; the net missed it and tangled in the reeds. The monster sprouted enormous wings, more than two yards wide.
“Don’t let it get away!” Doc cried as she reloaded her gizmo.
With a sudden rush and a powerful flap of its wings, the beast soared overhead. All of us fell to the ground, buffeted by its escape. Only a strong, boggy scent lingered.
Almost before I could think, Five had his rifle out. He fired once.
With a wail like a dying woman, the monster splashed down at the edge of the lake, twenty yards ahead.
“Just winged it,” Dead Eye reported.
“C’mon!” Doc commanded, leading the charge to where her quarry fell.
The devil splashed around at the shoreline, trying to gain its footing as Shannon fired her second round.
This time, the net ensnared its mark. Within minutes, the three of us had the thing secured and dragged to higher ground.
“What the devil is it?” Five asked, peering at the writhing, inhuman figure in the netting.
Doc Teragon sighed. “No devil, unfortunately. It’s a shoebill stork. I’ve read about these. They’re native to the Nile basin in Africa. It must have been swept here in a storm—or maybe gotten loose from a local exotic bird collection.”
“So… It’s not paranormal?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Not even a little.”
“Well, it sure as hell looked like a monster, rising out of those reeds.” What I’d mistaken for a triangular face had merely been the stork’s enormous bill, tilted downward. Trussed up, it looked more like a dinosaur than a demon.
“That’s probably what the locals thought, too,” Doc mused. “Who knows how long it’s been here. There might even be a breeding population. Rats! I really thought we had one this time!”
“Don’t take it too hard, Doc,” Agent Five noted with a wry smile. “Maybe you bagged a new mascot for the bureau.”
About “Jersey Devil”
I began writing “Jersey Devil” in the middle of writing “Invisible Invader.” I hadn’t intended doing it that way, but, as they say, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
My scheme in this case had been to get ahead on Atomic Tales by writing two stories in one week. That’s not too crazy a notion with this series; the stories are short, and I always hope to write them in bunches. Doing so makes it easier both on me and on Christopher R. Mihm, who turns my mini-epics into full-cast audio extravaganzas. In fact, I’d intended to spend all of June 2022 writing the Atomic Tales: Strange Invaders series—and possibly even finishing the whole arc.
But remember what I said about life above? It applies to things other than writing, too.
In this case, a burst of family health issues—including two brothers coming down with covid (they’re recovering, thanks)—ate up a huge chunk of my planned writing time. That left me under extra pressure to complete at least one story, so Chris could finish it by the end of June, for next month’s podcast.
With that in mind, I wanted to put everything I could into getting “Invisible Invader” done and delivered before working on “Jersey Devil.”
I wrote the first part of “IA” after a long week of other stuff—including losing 3+ hours of work on my Atomic Tales map because of an internet glitch—and intended to write the rest the following day.
But as I went through my morning routine that day, I started wondering if I could charge right into “Jersey Devil” if I finished “IA” early enough in the afternoon.
“Why not?” I thought. I then pondered how I might start my second tale.
And as I was thinking about that, it all came to me—the start of “Jersey Devil.”
So, I sprang out of the shower, dried off, and started writing, without even fixing breakfast, despite the fact that I was literally in the middle of writing “Invisible Invader.”
I wrote about a third of “Jersey Devil” before my morning inspiration ran out. Then I grabbed something to eat and finished “Invisible Invader.” After that, I went back and finished our agents’ adventures in the Pine Barrens, all before dinnertime.
New Jersey’s Pine Barrens are real, in case you didn’t know, as is the legend of the Jersey Devil, a winged monster that supposedly lives there.
The shoebill stork is also real, and it’s a terrifying-looking creature, like a cross between a dinosaur and a killer bird. It grows up to five feet tall and has a wingspan of up to eight feet. It also has what many call a “death stare”—that is, a look so fiendish that it seems like something out of a horror movie, a gaze that could kill. The bird can make a clicking noise that sounds like a machine gun as well as weird inhuman shrieks.
When standing the right way, looking straight on, the thing looks like a man, except of course for its uncanny eyes—until, of course, it suddenly takes to the air. In profile, the huge bill that gives the bird its name becomes apparent. Look it up online; it’s truly an amazing creature!
In my opinion, the shoebill stork is a prime suspect for what the Jersey Devil was/is, though I have no more idea of how one might get to the US from Africa than Doc Teragon did in the story. But I thought it would be fun to get my “theory” out there in the form of this tale.
Plus, it was about time that we had another story in this paranormal-SF series that turned out to be something fairly normal. Not quite a “Scooby Ending,” but more the way things turn out in real life.
(Thus, my need for a real monster, last time.)
See? I told you it’d all make sense in the end.
Though who knows what really lurks in the Pine Barrens?