Cryptozoology – the search for creatures whose reported existence is unproved, such as the Abominable Snowman or the Loch Ness monster. (Dictionary.com)
Cryptid – a creature or plant whose existence has been suggested but is unrecognized by scientific consensus and often regarded as highly unlikely. (The Skeptic’s Dictionary)
Porky Johnson moved quietly through the claustrophobic greenery of Florida’s Ocala National Forest. Despite his nickname, he was a wiry, muscular man. Sweat ran down the furrows of his leathery face and soaked strands of hair that had pulled loose from his graying ponytail.
Above him, Spanish moss waved slowly in the humid air. Porky ignored the movement. What he was looking for wouldn’t come from up high. It would barrel in at gut height like a damn train.
He took a fresh grip on his rifle. Why had he thought this was a good idea? He should be making some kind of trap instead of traipsing through the palm trees and scrub oaks. He slapped at a mosquito on his arm, then froze as the sound seemed to echo off to the left. He peered through the woods, trying to see around rotting wood and palmetto fronds.
A crash came from behind him, followed by the thud of running feet, getting louder and closer.
Porky ran, jumping over logs and dodging branches as he searched for a good place to make his stand. The thing was closing in on him. He picked a tree at random and spun to press his back against it.
He had barely raised his gun when it barreled out of the undergrowth, black and hairy, its underside caked with mud. Porky took one shot, two, and then it was on him. He dropped the rifle and made a creditable try at scaling the smooth bark of the tree.
The creature made a noise between a growl and a scream as it rushed him.
Porky felt hot pain and heard a crack as the animal crashed into his calf. He fell and rolled into a ball, covering his face with his arms. A stench like urine and rotting meat filled his nostrils as another pain shot across his forearm.
A shadow blocked out the sun. Porky whimpered and closed his eyes. Something warm and wet snuffled against his ear. Then it was gone. He heard it thunder down the path before it crashed into the trees.
Porky slowly raised his head as the noise faded into the distance. A mockingbird began to sing, and a gnat flew up his nose. He snorted weakly and checked his leg. Broken, and he had a bleeding gash on his arm. The rifle lay in some vines nearby. Porky pulled the gun into his lap with trembling hands and let out a shaky breath. “Goddamn that critter!”
In the Boulder, Colorado offices of Tripping magazine, editor Angus MacGregor watched Porky’s online slideshow to the end. Angus was a tall, substantial man with salt and pepper hair. A transplanted Scot, he still retained most of his accent. Now in his fifties, he was prone to wearing slacks and tweedy jackets when the weather allowed.
Angus clicked the play button again, then paused at the critical scene and unplugged his laptop. He carried it down the hallway of Tripping’s low-rent office, stepping over the curled rug edge at the doorway of his part-time employee, writer Michael Abernathy.
Michael was in his early thirties, with a narrow face, olive skin, and dark, curly hair. He wore his usual outfit of jeans and an untucked T-shirt. Today’s shirt featured Charles Darwin riding a tortoise, rodeo style.
Angus set his laptop on Michael’s desk. “Look at this and tell me what you see.”
Michael pushed up his wire-rimmed glasses and looked at the photo on the screen. “I see trees.”
“Look closer,” Angus said.
Michael leaned closer. “Palm trees. Also something that might be poison ivy.” He looked at Angus. “This isn’t one of your man-eating plant stories, is it? Tripping can’t afford to go to Asia, and anyway, the biggest thing they’ve found in those pitcher plants is a rat.”
“I heard they found a monkey in one,” Angus said, momentarily distracted.
“A monkey the size of a rat, maybe, that died and fell into the plant.”
Angus refocused his attention on the laptop’s screen. “There,” he said, pointing. “That’s an ear, and right here are the bristles on top of its head, and that is a tusk.”
Michael studied the screen. “A wild boar?”
“A giant wild boar, left over from prehistory. Daeodon,” Angus said reverently. “Sometimes known as Dinohyus, the terrible hog.”
Michael pushed the play button. Another photo came into view, this one with a red arrow pointing to what appeared to be a snout poking through the undergrowth. “There’s no way to tell how big this animal is from these pictures.”
“Roughly the size of a rhino,” Angus said.
“Uh-huh.” Michael turned to his own computer and typed rapidly, then skimmed over the touchpad. “Daeodon, from the Greek words for hostile and teeth,” he read. “About twelve feet long, five feet tall at the shoulder. Strongly resembled a giant, monstrous pig. Bone-crushing predator and scavenger with huge jaws, prominent tusks. Lived 18 to 25 million years ago in North America.” He tapped the pad to enlarge the photo of an intimidating fossil. “Leaving aside the issue of Daeodon managing to lie low for 18 million years, why would it be in Florida?”
“A one-ton hog goes where it likes, Michael. Anyway, they were very widespread.” Angus turned the laptop toward him and clicked a few times, then hit the down arrow. “Fossil evidence for Daeodon has turned up not far from where this video was taken. Florida has a mild climate, good cover and plenty to eat.” He tapped the touchpad a few times and turned the laptop with a flourish. “Here’s the best part.”
“Whoa.” Michael examined the gory close up of a gash in a man’s arm, as well as a shot of the same man standing on crutches, a cast on his lower leg. “Wait… His name is Porky Johnson? Seriously?”
Angus clasped his hands. “This is it, Michael. The Monster Pig. Hogzilla. People have reported seeing what look like giant hogs, but this is the first time one has attacked a human, and we’re in on the ground floor. This video has only three hundred views.”
“And it was posted by the guy who got attacked?”
“All right, so we have a cryptozoological angle, but what about the travel part? Is there anything to do or see where this guy lives?”
“It’s Florida, Michael! Palm trees, blue skies, white beaches…”
“Florida isn’t all coast, you know. What part are we talking about?”
Angus checked his computer screen. “Ocala, home of the International Bacon Museum. Porky Johnson happens to be the proprietor.”
“So that’s why Porky was out hunting Daeodon. He’s in search of extreme bacon.” Michael typed Ocala into Wikipedia’s search field. “It sounds awfully sketchy to be worth a trip. I was thinking we might use the Highgate chicken ghost as our next feature. You know, Sir Francis Bacon’s experiment in frozen food, gone horribly wrong? Surprisingly few people have heard of it in the U.S.”
“Refresh my memory,” Angus said.
“Sir Francis Bacon stuffed a chicken carcass with snow to see if it would keep longer, then caught pneumonia and died. Only, instead of Sir Francis haunting the spot, people see the ghost of partially plucked poultry.”
Angus raised cupped hands as though he were weighing two things. “Mangy spectral hen or prehistoric hog monster.” He dropped one hand. “Hog monster wins.”
Michael scanned his search results. “Ocala is in central Florida. No beaches, but they do have the Ocala National Forest. There’s also Silver Springs, Florida’s oldest amusement park, which was the setting for the movie, Creature from the Black Lagoon. I see it’s now a state park.” He clicked through some more pages. “I guess it could work.”
Angus gave him a sardonic look. “I wasn’t asking for permission. I just thought you might be excited about an actual cryptid. You’re forever saying we should cover real phenomena, like giant squids and prehistoric fishes.”
Michael clicked on another page. “Well, if it turns out to be a real giant pig, it’s no longer a cryptid, is it? But my guess is that Porky Johnson dreamed it up to promote his museum.”
“And broke his own leg?”
“He could have broken it falling off a ladder, then said it was a giant hog. Should I call Suki and ask if she can go?”
Angus picked up his computer. “I thought we might drop by.”
Michael chuckled. “You just want to see Gigi.”
“So what if I do?”
Suki Oota, the freelance photographer who took Tripping’s photos, lived in an upscale condo complex on Canyon Boulevard, not far from downtown Boulder, Colorado.
Michael rang the bell. A few high-pitched barks came from inside.
Suki Oota opened the door. “Oh, hey.” Her spiky black hair and half-Japanese beauty made her look like an anime character, only taller and without the improbable breasts. She wore a fluttery top with a butterfly print, and jeans.
A long-haired Chihuahua squirmed at their feet in excitement. It sported a starched dress of white cotton with a cherry print. The white and cream plume of its tail waved like a flag above the skirt. Angus picked up the dog. “Hello, Gigi! What a pretty wee lass you are today!”
“Thanks.” Suki waved them inside. “If you could put her down, that would be great. Getting this shot is turning out to be harder than I thought, and I don’t want that dress to wrinkle.”
Angus put Gigi down. “Can we help?”
Suki thought for a moment. “Yeah, maybe. C’mon.”
The dog pranced ahead of Suki’s bare feet as she led the way.
“What’s Gigi supposed to be?” Michael asked. “A doggy June Cleaver?”
Suki entered one of the apartment’s bedrooms, which had been turned into a photo studio. “In that she represents middle-class values and innocence, sure.”
They stepped into the room. A raised wooden platform, about six feet square, sat against the back wall. Dirt and trash covered the surface, with fast-food containers and rusty metal featuring prominently. The center of the platform was dominated by a shopping cart on its side. A decapitated rag doll dangled from its wire frame by one foot.
Angus squinted uncertainly. “Is it meant to be an anti-littering poster?”
Michael walked toward the scene, holding his hands like a frame and looking through them. “I see a scathing indictment of our consumption-driven society.”
Suki lifted Gigi onto the platform, then moved a burger wrapper, revealing a rubbery prop foot. It ended in the bloody stump of an ankle. “I’m working on a series of post-apocalyptic postcards.”
“With an adorable dog,” Michael said. “Something for everyone.”
Suki took a piece of dog-food sausage from one of her vest pockets and rubbed it on the gory end of the prop. Gigi watched, tiny pink tongue licking her nose.
Angus shook his head. “What’s wrong with a nice calendar or a set of Christmas cards?”
“People are already doing those things, and doing them well.” Suki handed the prop foot to Michael. “When I say so, put this under the doll and then get out of the shot.”
Michael slapped the ankle end into his other palm. “Got it.”
Suki went to her tripod and camera and studied the viewfinder while Gigi nosed at a filthy sock. “Okay, go ahead.”
“How do you want the foot oriented?” Michael asked.
“Toes at stage right, pointing toward me.”
Michael put the foot down and backed away.
Gigi licked the prop eagerly.
“You know,” Angus said dryly, “if you put some wet food in the crevice next to that fake bone, you could probably get her to show some teeth.”
“She usually eats chicken, which is too light to match the prop,” Suki said, taking photos. She straightened, a thoughtful look on her face. “Duck and sweet potato might work, though.”
Suki listened to the story of Porky Johnson and his giant killer pig, her expression neutral. Finally she said, “I have to tell you, I’m not crazy about alligators.”
“Who said anything about alligators?” Angus asked.
“No one, but I did a shoot in central Florida once, and the place is lousy with them.” Suki stroked her dog, which sat curled on her lap, dress removed. “Plus, I’m still training Gigi. I’d hate to leave her with someone who might undo my work.”
“Bring her along,” Angus said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Michael said. “How are we going to get interview subjects to focus with little Miss Cute frisking around? I’ll have a recorder full of oohs and ahs.”
“I can put her in another room or in the car if it’s a problem,” Suki said. “I have wanted to take her on another trip. Of course, dogs don’t fly for free.” She looked thoughtful. “You know, I have a colleague who lives near the Ocala National Forest, and he’s out of town a lot. Here’s my offer. If we can stay at my friend’s house for free, you pay for Gigi’s airfare in addition to mine. If we can’t stay at his place, you pay only half her airfare.”
“How much is that likely to be?” Angus asked.
“Half is a hundred bucks. I wouldn’t ask except for the alligators.”
“I’ll talk to Pendergast. He might approve it this one time,” Angus said. Pendergast was the orthodontist who backed Tripping as a hobby. Angus rubbed his hands together. “Sunny Florida, here we come!”
Rain pounded on the roof of the rented SUV. Suki peered through the front windshield as she drove down the two-lane road, rows of pine trees looming on either side. Angus sat beside her, Michael behind.
Gigi had her own padded box, strapped to the seat back so she could look out the window. She had gone to sleep an hour before.
Michael stared out the side window at the gray skies and pounding rain. “Where’s this place we’re staying?”
“Salt Springs,” Suki said. “The house belongs to a photographer I know. He had a bad bout of dengue fever on a shoot and bought the house thinking he’d retire, but that didn’t last. He’s on assignment right now.”
“Does the house have a pool?” Michael asked.
“No, but it’s on Lake Kerr.”
“It should be warm enough to swim, when it stops raining,” Michael mused.
“Probably, if you don’t mind the occasional alligator,” Suki said.
“What is it with you and alligators?”
“They’re basically dinosaurs, Michael. It’s freaky.”
They crossed bridges, the waterways below sometimes obscured by the tops of trees. Finally the rain stopped. Ahead, the sun sank toward the horizon, an orange ball behind blackly silhouetted pine branches.
They approached an intersection. On the left sat a building that probably had started life as a mobile home. Multi-colored lights looped across the front. The sign under the eaves read, “The 88.”
Suki pulled into the dirt parking lot, rocks crunching under the tires. In the back seat, Gigi raised her head and whined.
“Why are we stopping?” Michael peered out the window. “This isn’t the house, is it?”
“It appears to be a bar.” Angus raised his brows at Suki. “Fancy a pint, do you?”
“I’m hoping they have food.” Suki parked between two pickup trucks and turned off the engine. “I thought we’d pass a grocery store by now, but we haven’t.” She pulled out her phone and looked at it. “Still no signal.” She looked up. “How about you guys?”
Angus and Michael checked their phones and shook their heads.
Suki pocketed her phone. “If this place doesn’t sell food, maybe someone can tell us where to get some.”
They got out, stepping around puddles in the rutted dirt. Suki went to the back seat and got Gigi, who yawned hugely as the leash was clipped to her harness. Once on the ground, she shook herself, then trotted to the grassy edge of the lot, sniffing as she went.
They waited while she peed, then walked toward the bar’s front door in the waning light.
Inside, neon beer signs glowed on the dark wood walls, and country music played over speakers. The clientele was slightly more male than female, but not by much.
Angus wiped his feet on the doormat and smiled at the blonde woman tending bar. “Looks like you’ve had a bit of rain.”
A few people glanced at him before going back to their conversations.
“It rained on and off all last week,” she said. “It’s supposed to be more of the same this week. What can I get you?”
“Do you serve food?” Suki asked, from behind Angus.
“Just chips and pretzels, but you’re in luck. We had a little potluck earlier.” She tipped her head toward the back wall, where a card table held a slow cooker and a closed Tupperware container with crumbs around it. Disposable bowls and utensils sat next to a roll of paper towels. “Help yourself to beans and cornbread if there’s any left.”
“Thank you so much.” Suki lifted Gigi into sight. “Is it okay to have the dog in here?”
“As long as she stays on someone’s lap and not on the floor.”
“Fantastic.” Suki handed Gigi to Michael. “Hold her while I get a plate.” She went over to the card table.
Angus took out his wallet. “We’ll also take three bags of chips, two beers and a Coke.”
“Fine.” A burst of laughter came from the far corner of the room.
“Any special reason for the potluck?” Michael asked, bouncing Gigi absently.
The bartender put three frosted mugs on the counter. “One of the locals is having his fifteen minutes of fame. Some reporter came out to interview him.”
Angus frowned. “About the monster hog?”
The woman turned, three bags of chips in one hand. “You heard about it?”
“As a matter of fact, I have.” Angus put money on the counter.
The laughter on the other side of the bar increased. A booming voice cut across it. “And then she said, ‘Is it supposed to do that?’” This remark was met with howls of laughter.
Michael stood on tiptoe, trying to see. “Let’s hope it’s just the local newspaper.”
“It’s not.” Angus picked up the drinks and made his way toward the sounds of hilarity.
“How do you know?” Michael asked, picking up the chip bags with the hand that wasn’t holding the dog.
Angus didn’t answer. He was already making his way through the room.
Surrounded by laughing patrons, Porky Johnson sat with his cast-encased leg propped on another chair, his crutches leaning against the jukebox. Crow’s feet fanned across his cheeks as he laughed uproariously.
The man across from Porky wore nylon pants with zippers around the knees, so they could be turned into shorts. The T-shirt that stretched across his muscular torso read, Super D! He was very tan, and wore his graying hair in a buzz cut. The general effect was of a jovial soldier of fortune.
As Angus approached, the man stood and clapped Porky on the shoulder. “What do you say I buy us another round?”
Angus stepped forward, drinks in hand. “Already done. How are you, Clint?”
The man stared at Angus, eyes narrowed. Then he grinned, revealing improbably white teeth. “Angus MacGregor!” he said, in an atrocious imitation of Angus’s Scottish accent. He passed one of the proffered beers to Porky before taking the other for himself. Nodding toward the remaining Pepsi, he said, “Still on the wagon, Angus, or on the wagon again?”
“Still on,” Angus said, his smile fixed in place.
Michael edged through the crowd and joined them, holding the chip bags in one hand and Gigi in the other. “What’s going on?”
Clint sneered at him. “A boy with a rat. Interesting choice, Angus.”
Michael caught sight of Clint’s T-shirt. “You work for Supernatural Digest?”
“I’m the executive editor.” Clint turned to Porky. “Angus used to work for me, but he left to pursue other interests.”
“Such as co-founding my own magazine,” Angus said.
Clint swallowed a mouthful of beer. “Right… What’s it called again? Flipping? Dripping?”
“Tripping,” Angus said. “As in day-tripping. We provide travel information with our coverage of paranormal events, for people who want to experience the uncanny for themselves.”
Porky gave a braying laugh. “I can’t recommend this particular experience. Not unless they come here with a pack of dogs and a grenade launcher.” He rapped his knuckles on the cast. “The critter damn near got me.” His voice was nasal and slightly high-pitched, with a pronounced southern accent.
Angus nodded. “We’re here to speak with you about the giant hog, Mr. Johnson. I’m Angus MacGregor. We spoke on the phone.” They shook hands. “And this is my head writer, Michael Abernathy.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Johnson,” Michael said.
“Call me Porky.” Porky offered Gigi his fingers to sniff. “Hey, killer! You want to sit on my lap?”
Gigi licked him, and Michael put her on Porky’s lap.
Angus took a notebook and pen from his shirt pocket. “I was planning on calling you tomorrow, but since you’re here—”
Clint shook his head. “Oh, no. I have an exclusive on this story, don’t I, Porky?”
Porky nodded. “That’s right.”
Suki appeared beside Angus, holding a bowl and a spoon. “Did you sign a contract?” she asked Porky. “Is he paying you for your story?”
Porky looked uncertain. “Not exactly…”
“Then it’s not an exclusive.”
Clint gave Suki a head to toe appraisal. “A girl as beautiful as you shouldn’t have to talk so much. What’s your name?”
“Suki Oota, photographer for Tripping.” A chair nudged the backs of Suki’s knees. She turned her head to smile at the young man standing behind her. “Thank you.”
Clint stuck out his hand. “Clint Mitty, executive editor of Supernatural Digest. Super D to its many fans.”
Suki ignored his hand and stirred her bowl of beans. “You know, I’m pretty sure ‘Super D’ is internet slang for ‘super douche.’”
Porky Johnson shook with laughter, causing Gigi to brace herself on his lap. “She got you, Clint!”
Clint laughed too, but there was a steely glint in his eye. He set his mostly full mug on the table. “Porky, what do you say we get you home? It’s almost time for your favorite show.”
Porky drained the rest of his beer and suppressed a belch. “All righty.”
Suki reached for Gigi. “Here, I’ll take her.” She settled the Chihuahua on her lap.
Porky took the crutches Clint handed him and groaned slightly as he stood. “Clint here’s been driving me around, taking me to the grocery store and all. It’s been a real help, I can tell you.”
Angus patted Porky’s shoulder. “I’m not surprised. Clint’s a good man.” He took a business card out of his pocket. “Mr. Johnson, would it be possible to tour the International Bacon Museum while we’re in town? That’s exactly the kind of thing Tripping’s readership likes to visit.”
“Come by tomorrow,” Porky said. “I’m working half days while I’m laid up, but I’ll be there after lunch, right Clint?”
Clint put an arm around Porky’s shoulders. “Did you forget, Porky? You said you’d show me that big boar wallow again, to see if there are new tracks around it.”
“I’ll draw you a map so you can find it,” Porky said. “I don’t think I should traipse around the woods tomorrow. My leg’s aching.”
Angus nodded solemnly. “You don’t want to push things. When should we stop by?”
“Anytime after one,” Porky said. “You want me to draw you a map?”
Angus took a note pad and pen from his pocket. “I do better with directions. We’ll be coming from Salt Springs.”
Porky told him how to get to the museum, finishing with, “Look for the building shaped like a pig, on the right.”
“Perfect,” Angus said. “We’ll see you tomorrow.”
“See y’all then.” Porky hobbled toward the door.
Clint followed, turning just before he exited to give Angus a mocking salute.
“Asshole,” Angus muttered, as soon as the door had closed.
Suki put her bowl on the table. A different young man set a beer down next to it. Suki smiled up at him. “Thank you.” She turned back to Angus. “You used to work with Super Douche?”
Angus nodded as he took Porky’s seat. “Clint and I were junior reporters at Supernatural Digest, working for Collie Carmichael. Back in the summer of ’89, there was a flurry of Bigfoot sightings across the nation. Collie sent me to Washington and Clint to Pennsylvania. I came back and said there was no story. No photos, no tracks, just a couple of goofy hikers who showed me some rocks they said had dropped out of thin air.”
“Don’t rocks always drop out of thin air?” Michael asked.
“Unless you’re underwater,” Suki said.
Angus went on. “Clint, on the other hand, came back with photos of some mucked-up ground that might have been footprints, plus pictures of broken branches. He also had a lurid tale, not from the person who called in the sighting, but from two young women who swore a dark, hairy figure had watched them swim in a lake.”
“I suppose Clint had pictures of them, too,” Michael said.
Angus nodded gloomily. “Two dripping-wet blondes in bikinis, clutching each other and looking terrified. I still remember the caption – Best friends feel the heat of Bigfoot’s gaze. Apparently the lake was some distance away, so Clint recreated the scene by turning a hose on the young ladies. Then he took them to dinner.”
“Gotta love that journalistic integrity,” Michael said.
Angus sighed. “When Collie retired, he made Clint editor of the magazine, and I learned never to let lack of evidence keep me from getting a story.”
Suki waved another beer-offering patron away. “Thanks, but I’m driving.”
“Clint doesn’t seem to have a photographer with him,” Michael said. “Maybe Supernatural Digest isn’t doing that well.”
Angus smiled sadly. “Clint is an accomplished photographer, and Supernatural Digest has the highest circulation of any publication in our niche.”
Suki took a swig of her beer. “So basically, we hate him.”
(end of excerpt)