Stalker by Robert Johns

From: Pauline Brewster [editor@cryptozoologist.com]
To: Martin [martin@qualmail.net]
Subject: IMPORTANT – DO NOT DELETE WITHOUT READING!!!!!!!

Martin,

You’re going to love this one!!!! I’ve attached an email sent to us by someone called Jeff who claims that his house was besieged by a cryptoid (my words, not his – he says “hairy creature”) in the 80s at some place called Barrow Wood. He says that not long ago his friends went camping in the woods and returned in something of a hurry saying that someone, or something, was stalking them! He says that he won’t ever return there and has contacted us to see if we have heard about it before. Apparently, it’s been bothering him to the point he’s quite anxious about it.

I’ve done some checking and there is a place called Barrow Wood in a town called Badgers Crossing in Daxonshire. Anyway, read the attachment. If it’s true this could be the one you’ve been waiting for!!

Let me know what you think.

Regards,

Pauline.


From: Martin [martin@qualmail.net]
To: Pauline Brewster [editor@cryptozoologist.com]
Subject: Re. IMPORTANT – DO NOT DELETE WITHOUT READING!!!!!!!

Pauline,

If this is real then I’m keenly interested. I’m going to take a look. Will be gone for a few days to do some digging. Will let you know how I get on.

Usual rates for expenses apply.

M


Sat in the driver’s seat of his old black Range Rover Martin looks at his notes and crudely drawn sketches, opens up an Ordnance Survey map of the area and locates the area of Barrow Wood. There is, he has been told, the foundations of a house at the end of an old track where he should be able to park. It is also where Jeff’s house used to stand, where all of this began in 1982 so it is of interest. Martin drives out to the old house, the track is heavily overgrown and pitted with deep potholes but it doesn’t deter him. There is a large flat area, and it is here where he pulls up and gets out of his Rover and wades through the waist-high long grass. The long expanse of Whistling Ridge can be seen with large dark clouds, heavy with rain, boiling above them. Martin looks at the trees at the edge of Barrow Wood and notices that, based on the direction of the wind, those rain clouds will be coming his way. He stubs his foot on something and realises it is a pile of old bricks, mossy with age. Martin stalks through the grass and within a few minutes he has identified the outline of where the house used to be. He remembers the tale on the email attachment and, in his mind, pictures the old bungalow and that night when the creature tried to force its way in. It’s an unlikely story but he deals in unlikely stories. He is a cryptozoologist and his job is to study these things. He thinks about the report he will write. How his story may make him famous. Martin takes some photographs of the site with a Canon SLR camera and walks back to his Rover. He opens the tailgate and pulls on his black Berghaus waterproof jacket and throws on his American army ALICE rucksack. It is heavy as it contains everything he needs to live in the woods for a week but he is used to carrying this weight. He locks the Rover and zips the keys in a pocket in his jacket and sets off towards the woods. The sky darkens as the clouds approach.

Martin makes light work of climbing over a rotting wooden fence. It has been choked by weeds and is barely standing. Now he is in the woods, a short distance from where the house used to be but he wants to get a bit deeper into the woods and establish a camp so he pushes through the undergrowth.

Barrow Wood is an old English forest with many indigenous species of tree but there is evidence of some forestry in years gone by as the native trees are soon replaced with patches of pine. The ground varies from bracken to brambles and apart from a few animal paths, Martin is simply exploring. He keeps his senses alert, listening to the woodland noises around him and scanning the forest. Sometimes he stops, listens and watches, to determine if he is alone. And then he carries on. He notices a particular scent in the air. An earthy scent, as if the forest has released its own perfume and he knows exactly what it means and pulls up the hood on his jacket. A few minutes later there is the sound of sizzling bacon as the promised rain begins in earnest.

Martin finds an old fallen tree and decides that it will make an ideal place to camp. He shrugs out of his pack and drops it next to the trunk. It is an old pine that has collapsed during some storm years ago. The trunk is wide and will provide protection from view. Above him, the rain continues to fall so he pulls a sheet of camouflaged plastic from the top of his pack. The basha has elastic bungee cords attached to the corners and Martin uses these to secure it to some nearby trees to create a pitched roof to keep the rain off. This will be his living and working space. He then pulls out his bivouac bag and lays it out under the basha and then fastens the pack up again before venturing out to find some wood to build a fire with before everything gets too wet.

Martin gets the fire going. The wood was damp but manages to light and the smoke soon billows around the camp. He doesn’t mind as he hopes it will mask his own scent. He needs to avoid washing now so that he can rid himself of the clean smell that will give him away to any wildlife in the area. Whilst the fire is going he cooks a boil in the bag meal in an aluminium pan balanced on the edge of the fire. Whilst the water in the tin is heating up Martin pulls his hood up and ducks out into the wood again, taking with him a roll of green string. He starts to wind it out, wrapping it around trees at waist height, until he has created a cordon around his camp. He then takes four cheap bamboo wind chimes from his pack and fastens them at points around the string cordon. The chime weight is then fastened loosely to the floor to stop the wind from blowing it against the tubes. It will need something more substantial to move it, like something hitting the perimeter string.

Martin zips up his bivouac bag and settles down for the night. The rain stopped an hour earlier but the water is still dripping from the trees, pattering onto his basha. The noise sends him to sleep. He sleeps until around five in the morning and the light is starting to filter through the trees and the gentle noise of birds chirping gets louder. As he rubs his hands over his face and partially unzips his sleeping bag he freezes. Over to his left, on the other side of the fallen pine, he hears the wind chime clanking briefly. He tears open the zip on his bivvy bag and leaps out. He scans the trees but can see nothing. Quickly jamming his feet into his Scarpa boots he scrambles over the tree trunk to the perimeter string. The wind chime is still dancing gently and there is a faint odour in the air. The smell is unpleasant but thankfully not too strong. Martin notices some ground sign in the form of slightly flattened grass and a snapped bracken stalk. It looks fresh. Martin pauses, listening hard, but all he can hear are the forest sounds.

The day is warm and the sun shines outside of the wood. Shafts of light penetrate the canopy of branches as Martin pushes on through the wood, having broken camp. He sets out in the direction that his morning visitor had left, a south-westerly direction. The English forest becomes an old forgotten plantation of cypress trees and the forest floor is a soft bed of brown needles. Martin keeps up his routine of stopping and listening but nothing out of the ordinary is heard. As he pushes on into the woods he notices something out of place. At the base of one of the cypress trees is a cone shaped structure made up of branches that have been laid at an angle against the trunk. They are densely stacked except in one place where a gap has been left. It is clearly some form of shelter. Martin takes his camera from his pocket and takes some pictures of the shelter from all angles before venturing forward towards the gap. His senses are on high alert. He slips his pack from his shoulders and crouches down. The shelter is a little over a metre and a half in height. He gingerly peers inside and, seeing that it is empty, crawls inside.

The shelter is cramped but serves a purpose. It looks as if it hasn’t been used in a while as Martin’s crawling around leaves scuff marks in the needle-strewn floor. Some old rabbit bones, bleached white, are scattered by the edge of the shelter. Martin takes a few more photographs and then struggles out and picks up his pack and then freezes. He remembers an old military phrase: absence of the normal, presence of the abnormal. It reminds him of the importance of atmospherics. There is no normal all of a sudden. The birds have stopped their chattering. There is presence of the abnormal; that smell has returned. Stronger this time. Martin feels as if he is being watched. Slowly, he slips his pack on and pulls the shoulder straps tight. His heart starts to beat faster and he can feel the adrenaline racing through his system. His mouth goes dry, his vision and hearing heighten. He strains to listen and then he hears the dry cracking of a twig, over to his right. His head spins round and he scans the trees, looking for movement, or a shape that does not belong. He lifts his right foot, turns it to the right and plants it on the forest floor, rolling gently from heel to toe to feel for any twig that may break underfoot. Then he shifts his weight onto his right foot and moves his left to join the other, all the time watching, listening, smelling. Another crack, further away this time. Martin follows slowly, treading carefully, but whatever is making the noise is faster than he is. The foul smell subsides and is gone. Martin allows his body to recover and lets out a huge sigh.

Martin sets up his basha in the late afternoon but keeps his sleeping bag and bivvy packed in his rucksack. He wants to give the illusion of camping so he lays out his stove and cookset – his aluminium pan and a metal mug. He sits at the base of a large pine and waits. He has set out his early warning system of string and wind chimes and he closes his eyes and allows himself to soak up the sounds around him. There is a gentle breeze that blows through the trees, reminding him of the sea. He can hear the birds squawking above him and the creak of a branch as it moves with the wind. He fights a brief anxious feeling that nothing will happen and settles down. He knows how to wait.

Nothing happens for almost two hours and then Martin notices a tiny change around him. Once again, the birds have stopped singing. He becomes hyper-alert once more and slowly scans his surroundings. There is a crack over to his left and he smoothly turns his head that way, not making any sudden movements. He pauses and then sees something in his peripheral vision move between two trees about twenty metres away. He fixes his gaze on the area, trying to force himself to see what is currently hidden. His heart beats faster. His hand reaches for his camera next to him and he raises it to his eye, hoping that the lens will magnify the image for him. He peers through the viewfinder and sees nothing so he lowers it a fraction of an inch. Another crack, near the trees that he is focusing his attention on. He stares hard and, very slowly, gets to his feet, wincing slightly as his jacket rasps gently on the bark of the tree. He allows himself a brief emotion of excitement. He is going to see it and maybe even photograph it. And then it moves into his view. He raises his camera and instinctively presses the shutter. His excitement means that the odious smell goes unnoticed. He keeps his finger on the shutter and the camera takes a burst of pictures of… a deer. A deer that looks at him and then bounds away. He lowers the camera in disappointment and sits back down and reassesses the situation. It is only then that he discovers that his mug and pan are missing.

After a brief tempest of emotions, Martin gets himself under control and decides that he needs to up his game. He has let his quarry get too close and didn’t notice. It got through his early warning system and got within a couple of metres of him. He wonders what it could be and why it took his cookset. It, whatever it is, is displaying intelligent thinking which is both exciting and disconcerting. Martin packs his basha away, he’s not going to let it come to him, he’s going to go after it. He casts around his camp, looking at possible entry and exit routes for the creature and finds where it has crawled under his perimeter string. The needle strewn floor is scuffed and this is Martin’s first clue. He looks at possible routes from this location, peering at the ground and the trees. His eyes work hard, focusing and refocusing until he sees the almost invisible spider’s web hanging limp and broken indicating that someone has passed this way. And from then on, the chase is on.

Tracking the creature through the woods is not easy but Martin is skilled, one of the best. What is against Martin though is that he doesn’t know what he’s tracking, so he can’t preempt its behaviour, he can only guess. He knows that what it is might be hostile. It did try to force its way into that little boy’s house all those years ago. That is if it’s the same thing. He will assume it is and then he realises that apart from a small Jack Pyke pocket knife he has nothing to defend himself with.

Martin has found a large stick which he brandishes like a club. He feels a bit more secure with it. He looks at his watch and notices that evening is drawing close. The forest is dense around him and he is back in the broadleaf trees. Deep broad grass covers the floor and the creature’s tracks are now easy to find. It starts heading up a hill and underfoot Martin can feel that the ground used to be rutted. It is a long forgotten cart track. He pauses and peers ahead and sees something about a hundred metres ahead. He raises his camera to his eye and uses the lens to identify it. It appears to be a wall. It looks ruined and there are weeds crawling over it but it is a wall nonetheless. He moves right, leaving the track and has another look through the camera and sees part of a building. It is as derelict as the wall and was probably a farmhouse or something. Martin takes a few steps forward and then stops. Is this where the creature lives? He smiles at his thought as if the creature lives in a house like a civilised human being. He changes his choice of words; is this the creature’s lair? That’s better, he thinks. The implied threat will give him an edge. He stalks forward, walking parallel to the track, step by cautious step. And then…

The forest around him is surrounded by the deafening din of metal being banged against metal. What birds were still around bustle away noisily. The banging lasts for maybe a couple of seconds and stops. And then starts again. There is a pattern to it. It is coming from the ruin ahead. Martin’s mouth goes dry, he feels a stab of fear straight through his core. Is it a warning, or is it enticing him in? What should he do? He looks at the club in his hand and it feels somewhat useless. Darkness is closing in. He is approaching unknown territory with no idea of what lies ahead. He knows someone, something is in the ruin banging metal on metal. Probably his pan and mug. Taunting him? It feels like it. Come and get them back it seems to be saying. Martin is torn. Does he take the risk to see what the creature is, or does he back off, consolidate and try again under his own terms? The banging stops and he hears a low moan coming from the ruin. A long, deep moan that, at first makes Martin think that someone is in pain. Maybe that’s why they were banging the metal objects together – to attract help. But the moan turns into a long howl and fear takes hold and Martin runs.

He realises that whilst he was so absorbed with tracking the creature he has become lost in Barrow Wood. It is a large wooded area but not so big that he will be lost forever, it just makes it difficult to find his way. The night has fallen but he can still see the luminous points of his Silva compass needle so he knows which way is north. He decides to head that way, to try and find the road to Broccton-Under-Edge and then, out of the woods, trek back to his Range Rover. The problem is that something is in the woods with him and he doesn’t know if it’s a threat or not. He is assuming that it is and so he must walk slowly and deliberately to avoid detection. In the near pitch darkness, it is incredibly difficult. Branches whip at Martin’s face and brambles coil around his feet, tripping him. Every step is a step closer to safety, he tells himself, fighting the shame that has caused him to flee. But then he tells himself that no story is worth losing his life for. Yes, it may be the greatest story ever to break but right now he is not prepared for it. Much better to retreat now and come back better prepared. He smiles wryly as he realises that better prepared actually means coming back armed.

Clang! Clang! Clang!

The metal on metal again! Over to his right! Echoing against the tree trunks, impossible to determine how far away. Or how close. Panic shoots through Martin. Did he let his guard down? Did he miss something allowing it to get close? He creeps onward, but this time he stops every few steps and listens. And smells. And smells a foul stench like excrement and urine mixed together. It smells of decaying meat and unwashed bodies. It is unbearably strong and it makes him gag. Martin can’t tell where it is coming from, only that it is close, very close! He raises the makeshift club, ready to defend himself. He hefts it like a baseball bat, pulls it back and waits for the attack to come. He doesn’t see it but he feels it as it hits him on his right upper arm. He swings the club in a backhanded swing, twisting his body violently and yelling loudly. The club strikes nothing, continuing on its arc until his body brings it back under control. Whatever had hit him was not hard, or heavy and has fallen to his feet. He crouches down and feels around until his fingers close over the cold aluminium pan, with its rolled edge. It is his pan. Martin trembles and drops the pan to the ground. He notices that the smell has gone.

Martin moves more quickly now. He knows that whatever it is, it is better at seeing in the dark woods than he can. He just needs to get to safety as quickly as he can. The Broccton road is his focus now. It’s in the open and he might just be able to flag down a passing car. He thinks to himself that he should spend a bit of money when he gets back and buy one of those mobile phones. He always regarded them as a bit of a toy but what he would give for one now! From behind him, he hears the same low moan that he heard at the ruin. Again it builds into a bloodcurdling howl and Martin stops involuntarily. The fear is intense now. He doesn’t think he can escape. An irrational, cowardly part of his brain wants to stop and just accept his fate but then the self-preservation part kicks in, hard! In a split second, he thinks that to stop will mean that he will never see his friends and family again, never enjoy the simple pleasures of life such as a pint of beer, or a film. The girl he likes who works at the Tesco near his house, he’ll never see her again. They are such irrational thoughts but they are the thoughts that make him run. The time for stealth is gone, he must run and run hard! As if by some miracle he avoids tripping or being taken down by low branches. He is running harder than he ever thought possible with his heavy pack on his back. His fingers reach up to his left shoulder strap and close around the buckle there. Being a military pack, it has a quick release system on the shoulder straps and his fingers squeeze each side of the buckle. It pops open and he shrugs it off his back and lets it drop to the floor behind him. He knows he can come back for it another time. Now, without the weight on his back, he can move faster.

As Martin moves faster, so does the creature following him. The smell has returned, enveloping him, more noticeable as he breathes harder. He can hear a deep rasping behind him, the breath of his pursuer as it works efficiently to take in oxygen. The sound of it crashing through the undergrowth, catching up with him, overwhelms everything! Martin lets out a yell, to summon the last bits of energy from his body but there is nothing left. All that powers him now is fear. He can sense it only feet behind him. He realises that he has one tool left. One last chance. His camera. As he runs, he thumbs the switch on his camera, switching it on. He pops the flash unit up from above the viewfinder and listens hard for the tiny whine as the flash powers up and then he holds the camera over his shoulder, points it behind him, and presses the shutter. An explosion of light behind him causes the creature to let out a tortured scream as it is temporarily blinded. It stops running for a moment and Martin gains an advantage. And then, ahead of him, he sees a break in the trees. A grey strip, the Broccton road! He bursts through the undergrowth and out of the treeline. His feet burst free from the clinging brambles and onto the hard tarmac.

The Broccton road has no streetlights and twists and turns through Barrow Wood. A pair of headlights illuminate the road ahead but too late for the driver to see the man in dark clothing, clutching a camera, burst out of the treeline. There is a sickening thud, a screech of rubber on tarmac and a wet slapping sound as Martin’s head hits the tarmac hard, followed by his shattered and lifeless body. As the police and ambulance arrive no one notices Martin’s camera laying nearby. It is in pieces and the bright headlights quickly overexpose the film destroying the pictures forever.

© Robert Johns 2018

Notes On This Story

Stalker is the sequel to my Badgers Crossing story Intruder. I did toy with the idea of following on directly from the events of The Intruder but that may have been a bit too Blair Witch so I drew inspiration from two sources: Julia Leigh’s 1999 debut novel The Hunter (later made into an excellent film starring Willem Defoe) and my own experiences of searching for big cats such as the Beast of Bodmin and others. We meet our cryptozoologist Martin (name inspired by the character from Leigh’s novel) as he decides to find out who or what terrorised Jeff in the previous story (about ten years previously) and he delves deep into the mysterious Barrow Wood. As the story develops, it becomes unclear about who is stalking who and by the end, the roles have reversed.

I chose to end the story as I did as I wanted to leave the door open for this mysterious creature to return. If there had been any concrete proof of what it was, then some of the mystery and magic is lost. This is something I discovered on my many expeditions – the fun is in the hunt. When the evidence is found, then it is a bitter-sweet moment of knowing that you have found the answer, but the realisation that you have nothing left to search for until the next mystery pops up!