“L-l-l-look, Sal--- Or, uh, Blackbeard. Or whatever you want to call yourself,” Paragon continued, unwilling to give up on the possibility of a deal. “Look, we’d tried to clip you and we fucked up. But killin’ us, that don’t get you nuthin’.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Nate/Sal Zeezi bantered. “I used to ‘ave quite a taste for it.”
“I can give you a couple of bucks. You disappear and we tell everyone we left you dead in the woods, right? No one comes lookin’ for ya--- Everyone’s happy.”
“He’s not interested,” Paula interrupted. “Just shut up until J.D. gets back.”
“The wackjob? He’ll fuckin’ kill us all! For Christ’s sake, Sal!” insisted Paragon.
“Hey, Sal, c’mon,” Al chimed in. “I ain’t got no beef with you. Paragon voted to have you wacked!”
“You disloyal motherfucker,” spat Paragon.
Gino leaned against the car and continued to be quiet. He shook his head silently, listening to his two cohorts curse at one another. Paragon had been made a capo over Al, despite the fact that Al was older. But Paragon was more of a climber, a Mafioso schmoozer, who shook all the right hands and kissed all the right asses. Al was just a crew boss, nothing spectacular, but he brought in steady flows of cash to the Atlantic City boss.
Then Paragon asks Al to go on a ride. He thought they were going out for blackjack and sandwiches at A.C.’s famous White House, but instead they had picked up his cousin, Sal. All the objection in the world wouldn’t save him. Paragon had gotten permission. Sal was doomed as soon as the boss said, “Yes”, but if Al had to watch one of his own family die, he had to go to say good-bye. That was the least he could do. Now, Al saw another option and for the first time in his life, made the bold play.
“Sal, look,” began Al. “If Paragon had a little accident here, I’d look good to be made a capo. You do this for me, I’ll set you up in the midwest somewhere and when the old man dies, you come back!”
“Nice try, Al, nice try, but Gino knows,” objected Paragon pointing to the large bodyguard who was now stretched out on the hood. “I’m a made guy. When Gino tells the old man...”
“If, I tell the old man,” said Gino bored. “Someone’s gotta take Al’s place as crew boss.”
“I don’t fuckin’ believe this!” yelled Paragon, looking toward Paula. “How ‘bout you? Don’t you wanna get in on this deal?”
“You got some real loyal friends there,” said Paula icily. “It’s the least of what you deserve.”
“You wanna a piece o’ me, sweetheart? Go ahead shoot,” taunted Paragon, taking a few steps closer. “Go ahead, blow my fuckin’ brains right now, go ahead, do it.”
“Just stay there,” said Paula convincingly.
“Here, c’mon! I’ll put my head right against the barrel, here,” said Paragon, doing just that. “Go ahead. All you have to do is pull.”
On the other side of the woods, I was running as fast as I could with Taylor slung over my shoulders. He was considerably lighter than Mike and I was considerably more motivated. Overhead, I could hear the creature behind us trying to stay aloft, while breaking the branches of trees above in a desperate attempt to reach us under the dark foliage. After about 100 yards, I was just about winded and Taylor suddenly regained most of his senses.
“What is it? WHAT IS IT?!” he squealed, as it threatened to dive even closer.
“Shut up,” I growled, trying not to lose my balance.
I heard a huge branch give way, and then the breaking stopped.
“Oh, GOD!” screamed Taylor.
I dove into the dried up riverbed a second before the thing swooped over us. Despite it’s impressive size and wingspan, it seemed to have no trouble navigating the dense woods. I looked up, just as it landed and spotted my staff sticking out of the leaves.
“Stay low and keep crawling,” I ordered Taylor picking up a rock.
The creature looked back at me and screeched. It’s call rattled my bones and pained my ears, but I got to the staff. It lumbered toward me, uneasy on the ground. I made a viscous toss with the rock, grazing its beak, then attempted to follow up with the staff. The creature backhanded me with a wing, pinning me against a tree, then attempted to impale my head on the beak. I slid out just in time to hear the wood crack above my head, as the beak penetrated almost all the way up to the skull. It’s foul breath hit me like a wave of black nausea.
Reeling back, I smacked it in the chest, but I was off balance and stumbling backwards. The tiny claws on the end of its wings began scratching at me, tearing my clothes and flesh. Finally, the ground rose up ever slightly and I fell backwards, scrambling to the shrubs behind me. It would’ve skewered me, except that when I pushed some of the branches away, the rising sun shone like a beacon through the trees. The creature wailed, and, frightened and confused, leapt into flight and flew deep into the dark forest. For a few minutes, I just sat there with my back against a tree, hoping against hope this thing wouldn’t come back. That it didn’t even exist, but deep in my heart I knew. There was man, there was nature and there was a Jersey Devil. And if that were true, what the Hell am I supposed to do?
I circled around back to Paula’s original camp. There wasn’t much left, but I threw some provisions into her backpack and found another knife. In the distance, I could see the mobsters and Paula, but the situation had changed. Tommy was now holding Paula hostage, while Nate/Sal had a gun to Paragon’s head. Al and Gino were in the middle. Just before I got up to join the little stand off, I spotted a book, bound in a plastic binder. It was labeled “Comco Industries, Wetlands Development Plan”.
Before I even started walking, the gangsters could already see me and with Taylor in tow, I wasn’t going anywhere. I calmly walked into the middle of things and pushed Taylor to the ground roughly.
“Ow!” he yelped in pained.
“Taylor, are you all right?” asked Paula.
“Stay right there, wackjob,” insisted Tommy. “We’re just about to make an even trade here. I give you the girl, You give me Mr. G and we all go our separate ways without puttin’ holes in anybody.”
“You can keep her,” I growled.
I pulled out my gun and aimed at Paula. Tommy backed away in shock, but kept a tight grip on her.
“Hey, hey, hey!” objected Paragon, not wanting the situation to further slip out of control. “Your boy’s got me hostage here.”
“J.D.,” said Paula a little too innocently. “I thought you wanted to---”
“You’re no student,” I interrupted, throwing the book at her feet. “You’re doing a fucking impact study for Comco, so they can bulldoze this spot and building another fucking mini-mall!”
“You work for Comco?” asked Taylor, shocked and lucid again.
“Look,” she said uncomfortably. “They paid for some of my tuition, they funded the study--- So what? Everything I report will tell them not to build here. They can’t push anything past the Pinelands Commission anyway.”
“Uh, guv,” reminded Nate/Sal gently. “We got a bit of a sticky wit, ‘ere.”
“Shoot these crazy bastards, Tommy!” insisted Paragon.
“If I shoot Sal, wackjob shoots me and Sal probably shoots you,” explained Tommy. “I’m not that good’ve a shot, Mr. G.”
“Hey, can we get in on this?” asked Gino, amused.
I aimed my other gun at Gino and Al.
“Just stay right there,” I hissed. “We’re all gettin’ out of here, right now. Back to the ranger station and we go our separate ways.”
“Uh-uh, no way,” said Tommy. “The God damned campers took at shot at me and they probably already called the cops. Hey, where’s Joe at?”
“The Jersey Devil got ‘em,” I sneered.
Maybe it was all the adrenaline, but I was getting a little too cocksure. The folklore reference turned out to be a dumb play. Tommy’s eyes went wide. He saw the staff. It didn’t take a genius.
“Mr. G,” he swallowed. “It’s him.”
“Him what? Him who?”
“The guy who killed Tony Teens with the snowplow last year, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember that.”
“That guy’s dead,” insisted Gino. “The cops shot the snowplow to shit and it went off the end of a pier. No one could survive that.”
“He could,” said Paragon, pointing to me. “Makes sense, J.D., Jersey Devil. You got quite a rep, no wonder the cops can’t find ya. They’d have to search the friggin’ trees.”
There was no point in hiding it now. How ironic it was to have my true identity exposed to so many on the day I find out that I am just a man imitating a legend. Paula looked at me with those desperate searching eyes again. We both felt betrayed by one another, but for the first time in a long while I was thinking of leaving the Pines. Maybe for good. Maybe for something better.
“Yes, I killed Tony Teens,” I admitted. “He was a murderer of children, a pervert and a thief.”
“The cops never charged him with no murder,” remembered Al.
“He murdered,” I assured him. “I know.”
“Well, now that we know everybody here,” said Paragon sarcastically. “Are we just gonna stand here and wait for the cops?”
“I can get us out of here,” I said. “But we’ll have to take the long way out. First sign of civilization, we all go our separate ways. Nate, give me his wallet.”
Nate/Sal roughly searched Paragon, but he came up with his billfold quickly. I took his cash and handed the rest back.
“That’s the spirit, guv!” said the proud pirate.
“I may be leaving for a while,” I informed him. “Might come in handy.”
“Chump change,” scoffed Paragon, as I pocketed the wad of hundreds. “You’re smalltime, wackjob.”
I grabbed Paragon roughly by the lapels and gave him a mean, up-close grimace.
“You’d better pray, I stay that way,” I threatened.
We hiked in silence for about an hour, each group standing about six feet apart. Tommy, gun in hand, walked behind Paula. Sal/Nate walked behind Paragon and while Gino and Al carried Taylor, I walked behind them. Each hostage cast side glances, waiting for the moment when their captor would slip, fall or otherwise make a mistake.
Tommy was making clumsy passes at Paula, hoping to scare some sex out of her before leaving her to die in a ditch. She decided it was safer to talk to me.
“So what’s the big deal with Comco?” she asked.
“They’re land developers, one of about two dozen trying to peck away at the Pinelands.”
“Don’t sound so pissed off, I told you I’m trying to save the owls.”
“You’re playing right into their hands if you believe that. No matter what the impact study reveals, they’ll turn it to their advantage. If you say their are hardly any owls, they argue that the birds habitat has moved. If you argue there’s plenty of owls, they’ll say its overpopulated and its safe to remove part of the habitat.”
“You know what’s even more ridiculous? The fact that if Comco really wants the land, they’ll hire poachers to come out here and blow every living thing to kingdom come. Then the poachers stuff some of their prizes, dummy up the paperwork and sell them to the Park Service for display in the Natural Wildlife exhibits. At the same time, Comco will offer to clean up some illegal dumping in the Pinelands secretly done by one of their sister corporations. But what they’ll really do is take the opportunity to clear a section of trees on a piece of land who’s development rights they don’t even own yet. And if all that doesn’t work, they simply bribe some county clerk to alter the local maps so the edge of the protected Pinelands looks to be a few hundred acres shorter. But you know what the really sad thing is and the real reason they haven’t bulldozed half the Pines?”
“Nobody in their right mind would want to live out here.”
“It’s progress, business,” interjected Paragon. “You got somethin’ against people making a buck?”
“This entire area is part of a water table which feeds millions of people and they’re destroying it. They’re destroying themselves.”
“Welcome to reality, pal. You think we’d be here if we hadn’t blow away all the friggin’ Indians?” countered Al.
“It’s the way o’ the world, guv,” added Nate/Sal. “The conquerors conquer and the losers get buggered. You think the Indians woulda let us live if it ‘ad been the other way around? Savages the whole lot.”
“We can do both,” insisted Paula. “A few houses here, a few trees there. In harmony with nature.”
“Once their foot’s in the door, they won’t stop at a few. A few houses aren’t profitable enough for them,” I counter.
“It’s just about money,” added Gino.
“It’s about greed,” I corrected.
“So what?” said Paragon.
“Can you breath your money? Can you drink your wealth? What’s the point of robbing Peter to pay Paul?”
“Because maybe Paul’s the boss!” joked Tommy.
The gangsters laughed. Despite their “ethics” or lack of them, despite their lifestyle and greed, deep down their were just a bunch of school boys. School boys who got started playing a dangerous game and found they couldn’t stop. Paragon was laughing so hard he nearly choked and failed to notice the sign in front of him. He stumbled over it and everyone with a gun snapped to attention and prepared to fire.
“Clumsy, sod,” griped Nate/Sal helping him up.
As Paragon stood, he pulled away the underbrush which concealed a very old, stone mile marker.
“Guv, lookit dis!”
I walked over, keeping one eye on Al and Gino. The marker read, “Pasadena 1”.
“Pasadena?” I said aloud.
“Aye, ya know the spot then?” whispered Nate/Sal.
“It’s a little town in Burlington County, but we’re too far south.”
“It’s an old marker, guv.”
“But we’re miles away.”
“Maybe it used to say 10 or 100.”
I pushed more of the shrubs away. There was too much room left on the stone. If anyone had wanted to add a number, there was plenty of room. And what was written there didn’t look worn. The carving was pretty deep.
“What’s so fascinating about Pasadena?” asked Paula.
“They say in Pasadena,” I began. “There lived a man who was a real Hell raiser--- I forget his name. Anyway, he was sick and gettin’ on in years. He told the people in the town that when he got to Hell, he’d let them know how hot it was. And, legend has it, the day he died, the well boiled over. People came from everywhere to see it, then the town just closed itself off. At least the section with the well did.”
While I was telling my story, Paragon made eye contact with Gino and Al. He made all but the slightest facial gesture, but it said volumes to them. Paula screamed.
“J.D. look out!”
By the time I turned, Gino was already coming at me with a branch, while behind him Al held his hand over Taylor’s mouth. I turned and fired, just as Gino knocked the gun aside with the branch. Tommy took at shot at Nate/Sal, but missed as Paula grabbed his gun and struggled to pull it away. It was enough of a distraction to give Paragon a chance to grab for Nate/Sal’s gun.
Gino pushed me back against the tree and I bashed him in the chin with the end of my staff in one quick move. As Gino and I struggled and fought, things suddenly fell apart. I suddenly heard Sal talk in his real voice.
“Fuck you, Paragon!”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Paragon go down in a hail of gun fire from Sal’s bullets. The doubloon lay on the ground nearby and I could see Nate’s ghostly form hovering over it. Paula managed to wrench away Tommy’s gun, just in time to get out of the way of Sal. He smacked Tommy in the face with the butt of his gun. He fell to the ground unconscious.
“You didn’t have to do that,” said Paula.
“Hey, the only reason I don’t shoot you, is because I like your tits. So you’d better wise the Hell up, bitch. Oh, Jersey Devil man!”
By this time, I had gotten out of Gino’s grasp, but he had picked up the gun. He and Sal both aimed their weapons at me.
“Leave him alone,” insisted Paula, aiming hers.
“I ain’t gonna kill him,” assured Sal. “I’m just gonna borrow a pinky or two!”
“Hey is that real?” said Al, noticing the doubloon.
Just then there was the clatter of gun hammers from all directions. Paula, Taylor, the gangsters and myself were surprised to find ourselves completely surrounded. They flowed out of the shadows of the trees like wisps of steam, dressed in worn overalls, tattered flannel shirts and impossibly worn boots. One had a club foot, two others had deformed hands and many of their faces were twisted and deformed. Their guns were antiques, 20, 30 maybe even 40 years old. Their leader, a bearded old codger with impossibly huge buck teeth spoke anxiously, noting the presence of Paragon’s corpse.
“That’s some mighty fine kiltin’ you done, cuz,” he said kind of comically. “I be Mayor Abey and this be my kin.”
“Welcome to Hee Haw,” Sal said sarcastically. “Where’s the nearest phone, Gomer?”
Abey’s “kin” consisted of about two dozen souls, pathetic, but armed. They had an dangerous air about them. Not like the gangsters, who were just trying to be tough, but like one of those large, strong down syndrome kids. If you lost control of them, there’d be no telling what they’d do. Abey’s kin forcibly took away the guns and gestured further into the dark woods ahead.
“Abey,” I said gently. “We don’t mean to trespass---”
“You all done that already, cuz!” he smiled stupidly. “This here’s Pasadeena Countree. An’ no one ever leave Pasadeena. Ain’t no one leave ever.”