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River Monster

by Tammy Murfin

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© Copyright 2015 - Tammy Murfin - Used by permission

Storycodes: MF; M/f; Other/f; outdoors; lake; dive; cave; explore; video; capture; swallow; submerge; hunt; discovery; cons/reluct; X

[ This is a work of fiction. The Animal Planet TV channel, the show River Monsters and its host Jeremy Wade have NOTHING to do with these fictional events. The characters are fictitious and not intended to portray any real person. ] Story continued from "Skinny Dipping"

Paula, at 24, was the newest and youngest member of the cable TV channel‘s field team. She was one of the scouts who would check out the locations where reality shows might be filmed. She was given a new assignment, teamed with a Mark Mills, a 28 year old experienced field investigator. Mark was a good team lead overall, but Paula had been told by another scout that he liked to find tasks for his newbie partner that were sometimes embarrassing or scary. Their assignment was conveniently close to her home in Oklahoma. She was especially glad it did not involve tornado chasing as her prior job for the Weather Channel had.

There had been a recent story about two teens who had gone missing in a lake at a place where three fishermen had vanished in the last five years. A significant number of the people who lived nearby claimed it was not simple drowning, but that the lake was home to a species of giant catfish that could swallow a person whole. The host of the show that investigate the rumored existence of man eating creatures in lakes and rivers, saw it as an opportunity to solve a mystery, and since the lake was right in the middle of the country, the producer was ecstatic about saving money by not going to some far corner of the earth.

Mark and Paula arrived in the nearby town and registered at the only motel in town. They had called ahead and arranged interviews with townspeople. The hardest ones were with the parents of the missing teens, Julie and Billy Ray. The local sheriff had shared the missing person’s report that said Billy Ray’s pickup was found near the bank of the lake not far from the dam in May last year. At the time, during an extended drought, the lake had been 20 feet lower and the spot where the truck was found was now almost a quarter mile from shore, and 20 feet down. The one surprising thing they learned from the parents was that both teens were lifeguards the prior summer, excellent swimmers and known for teaching safety first as lifeguards. Swimming together and not alone, it was very strange that they should drown. The report also mentioned their clothes were found in the truck, they were apparently skinny dipping, but that made it even more unlikely that they had left the area – naked.

It really was a mystery. And after they spoke to six fishermen who reported their boats had been bumped by something large, almost capsizing them they began to wonder if the Great Gobbler might not be real. When they learned that three of the fishermen had been anchored in calm water, thereby eliminating a collision with a submerged log, it became something worthy of a more detailed check. Mark had some equipment overnighted in and asked the sheriff if they could be guided to the area where the truck was found. They would dive the site and see if there was something the show might be able to handle.

The dive site was near the water intakes used to control the lake level, but even with enough recent rains to raise the level 20 feet, the lake was still eight feet below its “full pool” and no water was being released. With the floodgates closed, a dive would be safe, but the show would need to be filmed soon, before the water release made the dive area unsafe.

Mark, Paula and a local deputy took a shallow bottom Sheriff’s department rescue boat to the site the next day once their equipment showed up. Mark showed Paula how the full helmet dive mask with a voice microphone, lights and video camera worked and explained that she would dive alone while he, being the stronger one would monitor the recording equipment and handle a strong safety line tied to Paula.

Paula felt like hitting him when she asked, “Let me get this straight, I swim down alone tied to a line and poke my head into holes where there may or may not be fish able to swallow me whole, while you sit up here watching TV and fishing with ME as the bait!”

Mark smiled and said, “That about covers it. One of us has to manage the equipment, the deputy can’t. And he and I can pull out a 115 lb young woman a whole lot easier than a 220 pound man.”

“And the hypothetical thousand pound fish won’t have a say in that?” replied Paula.

Mark laughed and told her, “Do the job or quit, your choice. You know I am supposed to review you at the end, this is part of your probationary period.”

Paula put on the dive tank and then the helmet. They checked the voice channel and camera and lights were working, and then Mark tied the safety line securely to Paula’s weight belt. “That’s so you can release the weights and the line if it gets snagged. It’s only 55 to the deepest part of the channel so you won’t be staying deep enough to need a stop to decompress when you come up. Watch your time and tank though”.

“Yeah Mark, I am certified, and I know a dive alone, even with a safety line and the voice channel isn’t perfectly safe, so I will be extra careful. It’s that big fish that worries me, but I will go, even though I hate doing this.”

Paula slipped off the platform on the stern of the jet drive boat, a 28 foot “tri-hull” that was wide enough to be a stable platform for rescues and a crew of 8. There were only Mark and the deputy on board and as soon as they rechecked the audio and video they lashed the end of the safety line to the tow bollard at the bow. Most of the 100’ line was coiled at the bow so it would feed out as Paula went deeper. The boat was not anchored, and would be shifted when Paula asked for more line.

The dive was simple and would have been boring had Paula not been nervous. All the recent rains had left the water murky with only about 10 foot visibility, like a fog, but the spotlights mounted on the top of the helmet on either side were effective. Once Paula reached the bottom, 20 feet down, she could see the limp grass and marks that were the rough dirt road where the pickup had been found. Mark told her he had a fair image on the video and to proceed east from her position. Using the compass attached to her wrist next to the dive watch, she moved off that way. It was only about 30 feet later that the ground fell away as she reached the bank of the original stream. The water was actually getting clearer as she slowly descended into the deeper water and she spotted some darker openings near the bottom of the old stream bed on both the side nearest the boat and the far side, only 15 feet away.

Paula positioned herself a good ten feet away and turned her head to shine the lights and camera into the openings, small caves that had been cut into the old banks long before the dam was built. Mark had to repeatedly ask her to move in closer when the cave was more than a foot or two deep. Paula was hesitant and kept acknowledging his requests and obeyed after saying “Moving in as requested. I still don’t like this.” The deputy and Mark were trying hard to be sure their mic was off as they were laughing at the sound of Paula mumbling “stay away big fishy” or “I am not food for you Mr. Gobbler” that she repeated. This went on for about 9 of the small caves, they were all empty and even Paula finally stopped her mumbles and just swam right up to the last cave on the far side without a prompt.

Mark and the deputy saw the opening approach on the video monitor, it was a bit larger than the others and appeared a bit deeper being on the outside of a bend in the old creek. As Paula turned to shine the lights and camera into the cave, they saw it actually went in about 10 feet and might have a curve into a deeper spot on one side. Mark said, “go slow Paula, this would be a great shot to build suspense before a commercial break on the show.”

“Roger that, slow and careful said the worm.”

Mark and the deputy were laughing at her remark when a bright flash flared in the camera and they lost the video feed. “What was that?” Mark asked over the voice line. At that moment, the last few feet of the safety line snapped over the bow and the entire boat jerked violently ahead a few feet before it coasted to a stop, just rocking. The monitor and recorder had landed on top of Mark as he and the deputy slid to the rear of the boat and slammed into the transom and the connections had come loose.

Mark got up and put the gear back at the seat and quickly reconnected the wires while the deputy went to the bow and started reeling in the safety line. Mark kept saying, “Paula, stat rep, are you all right?” and heard nothing. The camera was also a blank. Meanwhile, the deputy was bringing in the line hand over hand with less and less resistance. Mark jumped up and started to get into his tank when the deputy hauled in the end of the line, still attached to Paula’s weight belt. The deputy told Mark, “Stop right there, no one’s going into that water.”

Mark responded, “Bullshit, Paula’s in trouble!” The deputy held up the weight belt and showed Mark the blood stains on the belt behind the buckle. “It’s buckled closed. If something grabbed her and yanked hard enough that this belt cut through her like a cheese cutter when the line went snapped tight, no one is going to help her. Or what’s left of her if the fish got her. We are going to call this in and get men with spear guns out here before anyone goes down to find her.”

It took several hours to round up the armed divers and get their boats to the scene. They had even called in a couple of Navy Seals home on leave and deputized them to help. Nine divers went down with spear guns and a couple of shotgun shell tipped anti-shark rods the Seals happened to have. It did not take long to find the cave. A battery powered dive light from Paula’s helmet was shining right into the cave. One of the Seals took point and moved in slowly with the shark stunner held in front and bright lights so he could see clearly. The cave did turn a few feet in, opening into a chamber. The bottom had a deep layer of muck and marks of something having moved through it. The diver came out and signaled it was empty and waved Mark forward to go in and use his camera.

Mark swam slowly in, recording the cave and its contents. When he reached the chamber, he saw that the first man’s flippers had fanned muck away from something whitish. He zoomed in with the camera and then reached down to pull it out of the muck. It was lucky he had no voice connection as his scream would have deafened the others as the human skull came loose in his hand. He fled the cave and headed to the boat, just managing not to get sick.

Not much else happened – the divers patrolled the area from the dam to the cave and upstream for a quarter mile and saw nothing. No sign of Paula. And no sign of the Great Gobbler. The coroner came out and waited while some state police forensic experts retrieved the remains from the chamber. All in all they had four skulls and a large assortment of larger bones.

Over the next four days, the bones were identified as belonging to both of the missing teens and two of the missing fishermen. All showed the markings of having been digested in stomach acid, and examination of those and the mucky mass of fish poop conclusively proved that the Great Gobbler was a catfish, clearly a man, or woman, eating monster. Seven more diving expeditions went hunting, and the second discovered Paula’s dive tank, stuffed under a snarl of old wood almost half a mile from the cave. She and her helmet remained missing.

The sheriff’s department refused permission to the show to film an episode. Everyone was told to be silent about what had happened, at least until that fish was eliminated. “These were our people and we are going to respect them, not turn this into a media frenzy and have outsiders come to hunt that fish. The deputy chipped in with, “Or that want to feed it.” The Sheriff looked at him and he explained, “Some folk would want to let the wife go swimming and not have to worry about a divorce, and others might want to get themselves gobbled.” The Sheriff shook his head, “Bill, you need a vacation.”

Mark wasn’t fired, but when his boss and the HR folk finished with him and his habit of endangering his partners, he quit and no one has seen him since. His job prospects with any other show were nil.

The Seals were recalled to duty and left without finding the Great Gobbler. The Sheriff’s rescue team made a few more dives and found nothing, but then more rain raised the lake and the floodgates were opened making it impossible to swim near the dam and dangerous for boating due to floating logs and washed in debris upstream.

One week later, Paula walked into the Sheriff’s office. She knew they would want a statement, and decided to arrange the return of her battered dive helmet along with a letter of resignation through them.

She answered the questions briefly,

“Where had she been?”

“Living in a lake house about a mile from the dam, owned by a distant relative.”

“Why did she hide?”

“Initially to punish Mark for putting her in danger, and then to decide what her new career might be.”

“What happened in the lake?”

“I was grabbed and gobbled up by that giant fish.”

“What do you remember about that?”

“As I entered that cave it lives in, I saw it’s eyes and started to try to back out, It burst out and opened up real wide. Its impact knocked me back and doubled me up and then there I was, inside its mouth. I think it started to swallow me down into its stomach.”

“How did you escape?”

“My hot lights made him spit me out. He just swam away.”

“What about the safety line?”

“As I was being gulped, I unbuckled it off so it would not hurt me if the fish bolted away. I would have been split in half like a worm pulled off a hook. And he did take off after he spat me out with the line stuck in his mouth a bit.”

“It was buckled when we found it and had blood on it, how do you explain that?”

“Yes. After it pulled loose and the fish swam off, I caught the belt, buckled it, and hung on as it was being hauled in. Cut my hands a bit,” showing him the scrape and bandage on one hand.

“Why didn’t you let them haul you out?”

“Well I knew Mark would just say I rigged it and not believe me, and probably stick me for the equipment damage. I was half way to the boat when I decided to disappear and let him sweat.”

“So you swam upstream following the giant fish that had tried to eat you?”

“Hell no, I swam to the other side by the dam, as far away as possible, and hiked to my cousin’s house.”

The Sheriff decided that she really had done nothing wrong – the fish was the cause and problem for the department. Paula had been a victim of Mark’s irresponsible choices. She had been swallowed whole by the Great Gobbler and lived to tell about it. Paula was one lucky young lady.

The summer passed with not a sign of the Great Gobbler. The victim’s relatives kept after the Sheriff to do more, but having conducted eight underwater searches within a half mile of the dam with no sign of the fish, all they could do was warn people not to swim or boat in that area.

No one wanted to post signs like “Danger, Giant Monster Fish, Boaters and swimmers will be eaten.”

So they posted warning signs at the dam and nearby roads about underwater intakes that made swimming and boating dangerous and also explained the fishing was poor because of those underwater currents.

Word did leak out and a small number of people behaved much like the deputy had expected. The fish was not seen, but it did not go hungry..

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