He’s pumped. Forty press-ups, right before the camera rolls. Body-shirt and bulging arms, slicked-back hair, unblinking eyes — but out of shot, he’s quivering with nerves, pacing, smoking, trying out his lines a dozen different ways. And that swagger he puts up on screen? It’s not even skin deep.
“I’m Kurt Carter. I’m here to take you on a quest — a journey — an adventure, tracking down the creatures science won’t admit exist — creatures so strange you’ll think they’re from another world. But they’re not. They’re from right here, in your town, on your street. They’re from right around the corner,” and he moves in, whispers to the lens, “right in your own backyard.”
His career will be short but significant: a pebble thrown into a pond, the ripples spreading, long after the stone itself is gone.
“It’s science,” he insists. “No different than biology, or physics, or whatever. It should be seen as such.”
He’s standing in the street, talking to camera, and only as we pan around, we realize he’s in the middle of a busy thoroughfare. The lights change. The din of car horns rises, drowns his words, and he glares at the approaching traffic, then quickly, deliberately, steps out in front of it. Tyres screech, horns blare, and Carter, with a blind insouciance, crosses to the far sidewalk, turns to camera — and shrugs.
That first season is gold. Pure gold.
What he offers is accessible. You don’t need money, expertise, or trips to some outlandish, far-off place. This is a safari you can launch from home, or the instant school gets out. Just grab a soda, stake out the nearest vacant lot — and watch!
You’ve heard the stories — some of them, at least. But not the details, or the names he gives them: the Southside Vulture, the Hanged Man, the Face in the Drain; the Boston Bear, the Downtown Dogs, or “Sam”, the fifty-foot long python, living in a Houston sewer.
“These are creatures that we share our world with. You may not see them, but remember — they see you. And you better hope they’ve fed tonight.”
He takes rumors, folk tales, mixes in a bundle of statistics (crime reports, census details, missing pets), the monologs of drunks and street people —
He loves the street people.
“They’re our new zoologists. They see things. They’re our eyes and ears out in the wilderness, unblinkered by outmoded scientific rules.” He gestures to the knot of drunks and bums behind him. “I tell you: I would trust these people any day over some guy with letters tacked onto his name.”
He carries cigarettes, sandwiches, and later, beer to trade for stories, inevitably raising questions about ethics and, more pointedly, reliability.
Kurt Carter brushes them aside.
“You gotta give to get,” he says.
Then, there’s the Zee.
He drops the name into his on-screen patter, but as yet, won’t talk about it, won’t explain.
There’s an undercurrent, something dark in even his most anodyne performances. He’s driven. He’s intense. Still nervous, the studio pads out the show with light relief: Zoe for glamor, Billy for fun. If someone’s needed for an all night stake-out, dressed as a mailbox or a garbage can, or dangling from the downtown el — that’s Billy’s job.
Zoe’s a former high school swimming champ. Just put her near a lake, a pond, a swimming pool, and in seconds, she’ll strip down to a black bikini, and plunge right in. “I am addicted to water. Water is my drug.” Soon they’re choosing the locations so that sometime, in a fifty minute show, she’ll find a river, an ocean, or a pool — relevant or not.
“There’s a creature called the Coptocapigos,” says Carter, solemnly, while Zoe races lengths behind him. “In larval form, it’s practically invisible. It can enter the body through any orifice — yes, including those. Once inside, it migrates to the liver, causing massive organ failure as it changes into adult form. The Coptocapigos are slowly moving north, and it likes nothing better than the still, pure water of a family swimming pool. Chlorine doesn’t touch it. So next time you’re invited to a pool party…”
Cut to Zoe, minutes later, slapping him around the head with her T-shirt.
“Why didn’t you tell me first? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Staged comedy. The pool water is analyzed. It’s clean. No specimen of this unpleasant organism can be found.
“Do you believe in the Coptocapigos?”
“I know people who do.”
“But do you?”
“Let’s say I’ve met people who are too scared to go swimming. And that’s good enough for me.”
“Do you go swimming?”
“I shower every day. That’s pretty safe.”
“What do you believe in, Kurt?”
“What I can see. What I can touch. What I suspect.”
“What do you believe in?”
“I believe –” Deep breath, pause, and when he speaks again, his voice is low and hesitant, as if he doesn’t want to say the words, but feels he must.
“I believe in the Zee.”
Streetlights on a wet road. Kurt running, Billy and Zoe close behind.
“I saw — there –”
The camera lurches, loses them a moment: shots of tarmac, gutters, garbage pails —
Kurt, arms flailing, charges down an alley, falls, smacks into a brick wall.
Cut to close-up, moments later. Kurt’s breathing hard. There’s a dark smudge on his brow.
“It was here!” he gasps. “It was — it was here –”
It’s a clip they’ll re-run at the start of every show; a phrase the hip, the cognoscenti, readily import into their lives, in stunned and breathy tones. (“Where’s the beer, man?” “It was — it was here –”)
Experts guest-star, doctorates from Harvard, Princeton, Yale — what Kurt calls the “designer labels”.
Charles Styrakis, M.Sc., explains how light would have to bend or change its frequency for a creature to become invisible. “And it would still be seen, in the sense that we couldn’t see beyond it. Unless the light itself were to curve, in which event, we might expect some visual distortion. It wouldn’t strictly be invisible…”
Dr. Myra Stokes, a physicist, explores the possibility of creatures living inside solid matter, as we live in air, or fish in water. She gamely indicates the volume of sheer emptiness in so-called solid objects, and the presence of bacteria that live in rock; but shakes her head, a little wistfully. “I think we must conclude –”
Carter doesn’t meet these people. He won’t meet them. Their segments will be slipped into his shows and privately he fumes against them, crude distractions from (in his words) “a serious investigation.”
Billy, Zoe, and a weary cameraman look on as Kurt questions a homeless man. He sends for liquor. They get drunk together. Other bums appear. The liquor vanishes.
The first bum claims a knowledge of the Zee.
“It gets its name,” says Kurt, “because it’s the end of everything.”
“My name,” says Zoe, “starts with a zee.”
“But you,” he tells her, gallantly, “are the beginning of everything. Never the end.”
It’s a vague, desultory affair, one the fan base has been speculating on for months before it actually begins.
“The fans pushed us together,” he will later say. Zoe leaves the show for several episodes. A new female assistant takes the role, but doesn’t stay.
Zoe comes back.
There is no hiding it: her relationship with Kurt has visibly cooled, and message boards flood with comments, analyzing every detail: “See the look she give him?” “What she mean by ‘pedantry’?”
Here, perhaps, is where his popularity begins to wane.
So here is where he plays his hand.
“When I was young — I grew up in the Midwest. An Indianapolis suburb.” (On screen, black and white shots, big, wooden houses.) “My father was a doctor. My Mom a realtor.” (Photo portraits of each; then back to Kurt, chin stubbled, pupils too large — conjecture from the fans as to what drugs he’s using, and what quantity.) “It was not a happy house. My Mom and Dad did not get on, but separation would have meant a cut in income, and they liked the lifestyle, so they stuck together. My Dad was an alcoholic. Mom wasn’t far behind. I had a younger brother, Tom, and we’d stay out the way, stay in our rooms, day after day, much as we could. We’d play games there. I’d invent them, try to keep him occupied. I only realized after, I was trying to distract myself, as well.
“We’d hear them yelling, and I’d tell him that the house was full of dinosaurs, and we were listening to them roar. Or Martians. Whatever. We’d pretend to ready mortars and bombs and AKs up there, till it finally went silent. I guess by that time one of them had left or passed out or — yeah. Well.
“This went on for a long time. I’m talking — I dunno. Years, I guess. Then one night, the yelling and the screaming had been really bad, maybe worse than ever. And it stopped suddenly. We waited. There was no sound. I told Tom to sit tight, and I went downstairs.
“My Mom was gone. My Dad was lying on the couch. He was covered in blood. There was blood up the wall. I saw his chest was caved in on the side. The only thing he managed to say to me — it was just one word. Zee.”
“It meant nothing at the time. But later, I heard stories, and I’ve kept on hearing them, my whole life through. I understood then what killed my Dad. Killed my Dad, and took my Mom.
“The Zee’s the end of everything. The Zee is exit. Omega. Dead stop.
“The Zee is death.”
“My name’s Kurt Carter. I’m here to take you on a quest, an adventure. A search for the creature that killed my parents.
“That creature is the Zee.”
He has maps. He has sightings plotted, all across the States. He describes the Zee and others are convinced they’ve seen it too.
Negation. Terminus. The utter wiping out of everything of value. The blind black hole that ends a life.
“It hasn’t got a shape. Or it’s got every shape. It hides in everything.
“The Zee destroyed my family. The Zee ruined my life. Because that’s what it does. And chances are that it’s in your town, on your street — tonight.”
“It wasn’t just the ratings that took off.”
These days, Billy’s working as a sound engineer for PBR. He’s heavier, a little slower, but the pixie grin still flashes up from time to time, the comedy relief in a show that, near the end, became very grave indeed.
“We got mail, sure. Usually, some guy’s got a raccoon doing his trash, y’know? Shit like that. But suddenly — suddenly the mail’s in sacks. The e-mail’s crazy. We get so many hits, the site goes down. But here’s the trouble: most of this, most of it, is whack-job shit. Oh yeah. I saw the Zee, and now my life’s a mess. No, pal. Your life’s a mess ‘cause you’re a paranoid schizophrenic and you stopped taking your meds, OK? Your life’s a mess ‘cause you’re on crack or what-else.
“But it’s not just that. There’s a whole new series in these letters, if you wanna run it. There’s a guy in Corcoran begging that we testify in his defence. He’s on death row. I looked him up. He kills his girlfriend and her mom. Drugs and money, that’s it. But no, he’s telling us that it’s the Zee, it’s gotta be the Zee, and he just caught the blame.
“Fact is, we got ourselves a huge hit show. It was the worst thing coulda happened. Like, if we’d stayed small, who knows? Maybe we’d be out there still. Maybe Kurt’d be around. Maybe…”
“He was obsessed.” Zoe screws her nose up. “Like, sure, we knew there was this bee in his bonnet. But it was like he’d dedicated his whole life to hunting down this, this — whatever it was. He didn’t care about the show, the show’s a means to an end, that’s all. Finance. Technology. TV’s a weapon, he once told me. Where to the rest of us, it’s just a job, it gets your face known, it pays the rent, OK? It’s going to a bar and getting comp drinks, or front of the line at a club. But him… even the physical discipline, the bodybuilding, it wasn’t to get girls. I know that better than anyone, OK? It was to look good on screen. Image is money. He knew that. Didn’t always get it right, but he knew it, even so.
“You notice that all changed, as things went on? How it got left behind? The body shirts and tight jeans? That last season, it’s like he’s dressing from a thrift store.
“By then, see, nothing mattered to him. Nothing but the Zee, the Zee, the Zee. I wasn’t with him then. Maybe if I’d been around, it could’ve turned out differently. But you never know, do you?”
Night shoot, Brooklyn. Interview with an unknown male, off-camera: “It was the worst thing. I tell ya. Worst I ever seen. Came up outta the ground, outta the walls…”
Kurt, on camera, gesturing into the dark: “Here?”
“Yeah, man, right here, and just kinda — flowed around him. Then it folded over and, man. He was gone.”
“Yeah. Like a fold, see?”
“Can you describe it? Can you tell me what it looked like?”
“____ no, man. I can’t describe that ____. No way.”
Camera lingers on a blind alley at midnight, garbage can upturned and spilled. Kurt’s face grim, drawn, transfixed with pity as he views this unseen man, off to the camera’s right.
That’s if there’s anybody there at all, of course. Or anyone who’s not an actor.
Because rumors start to circulate.
A mystery will only get you so far. After a while, a mystery needs answers. You’re not dealing with Buddhist monks here. You’re dealing with TV viewers, and no-one’s going to stick around if they get bored. You keep ‘em dangling too long, they’ll switch channels. And they won’t switch back.
“You gotta give ‘em it, Kurt. You gotta show them.”
“Testimony,” he insists, jabbing with his finger. “Eyewitness testimony.”
“Bums, criminals, and crazies. How ‘bout a photo?”
“I don’t have a photo.”
“Well, a photo that might be it. We got some great guys in CGI, really great, y’know? And nothing like a visual to hook an audience.”
“I can’t do that. I will not, cannot –”
For a few shows, then, it’s back to the old style.
“My name is Kurt Carter. Urban Cryptozoologist. From the rooftops of Manhattan to the backlots of L.A….”
An ape in Cleveland? Lots of jokes there, Billy in a monkey suit, clinging to a model skyscraper. Or a big cat, hiding in the dried-up riverbeds of Southern California? Why not?
But with Kurt, you can see his heart’s not in it. Everything’s forced, lackluster.
He hasn’t shaved. A rugged look, perhaps? He’s dressing like the bums he interviews, among whom (so gossip goes) he’s spending more and more of his spare time.
His money’s gone. He loses the apartment in New York. He down-scales, moves in with a friend. The friend sells the story to a website. Kurt moves out.
The last of the third season airs. He makes a pitch for season four. A wallet full of photographs — streets, buildings, interiors. Some photocopied medical reports. Police files. Scribbled personal accounts.
“I have the proof. I have the testimony. I have the records. This is the biggest threat to people in this country. Bigger than terrorism, heart disease or gun violence. Bigger than cancer. And it’s right where we live, right in the center of it. This street, this building –”
He’s on a daytime talk show, awkward and uncomfortable. Fans see the change in him. He’s lost weight. There are bags under his eyes, a dark, unhealthy color, like a bruise. There’s a tic in his left eye which the camera catches, and word goes out that it’s a wink, a secret sign — for what?
To tell people he’s kidding?
Or that he knows something he isn’t letting on?
“This is an urban phenomenon. This thing needs people. It’s evolved with us. Alongside us. Maybe a thousand years back, or a million years — it probably looked different. More like an animal, say. Something we’d recognize. A bear, an alligator. Or some species we don’t have now. But we built our cities. These great, sprawling conurbations. And it adapted. Found a way to hide, even in plain sight. It’s here. Wherever you live, it’s here. It’s the perfect killer, camouflaged so you could walk straight by and never see.”
The fourth series goes out that year.
Kurt Carter isn’t in it.
“He dropped the ball. He had it, and he dropped it. It happens, you know?”
The studio spokesman shrugs and sighs.
“Lot of guys, they pick themselves up, carry on. Try something new. But Carter — he’s a one-trick pony. He’s done, that’s it. He’s done.”
Billy and Zoe’s Backyard Monsters airs in the fall. Mix The X-files and the old Monkees TV show. Strictly for laughs. The Haunted Barbecue! The Michigan Meringue Monster! Satan in Santa Monica! They travel, they dress up, they wear monster masks bought for a dollar in the joke store. Billy gives his impish grin, Zoe looks delicious.
Nevertheless: they bomb.
The term “urban cryptozoology” will not gain credence for another six years, with the publication of research by two women at the University of Chicago. Exercising great resourcefulness, and considerable courage, Dr. Angela Delsol and Tasha Williams have investigated some of the city’s more notorious districts, places where the murder rate hits crazy figures and nobody, but nobody, will call the cops, especially not for some weird animal they’ve spotted rooting in the trash.
“Low-income families live differently,” their introduction states, with some caution, knowing that their colleagues are already skeptical about their work. “They face different problems, and they deal with them differently. They have other things to think about besides the kind of bird or beast they’ve just seen in the local park.”
Kurt guests on a TV show, The Psychiatrist’s Couch. Again, he tells the story of his upbringing, his parents’ deaths, his efforts to track down their killer.
He looks older. His hair is greying at the temples, thin on top. He stumbles in his speech as if telling the story for the first time, though an inspection of the transcripts reveals it’s almost word-for-word the way he told it on his show, years earlier.
Is this an act? Is he pretending to have trouble with the story, as if it’s still too fresh, too raw for him?
He drifts, does hack work, writes features online, re-hashing his old shows. Yet even now, he’s seldom too far from the public eye: his face is on a wealth of memes and gifs, scattered over social media. Kids who’ve never seen his shows still quote him. “Monsters in your own backyard!”, uttered in a suitably portentous tone, will nearly always raise a smile.
But not for Kurt.
The rumor is, he’s broke.
He hustles for a new show. He drinks too much. He’s found one evening in an alley, semi-conscious, stinking of booze; claims he was engaged in his research and suffered an “encounter” with — but he won’t, or can’t, say what.
The new show, long promised, fails to appear. He retreats to his original North Hollywood apartment, organizing archives, going through what he regards as “evidence”: the anecdotes, the tales, the out-of-focus videos and photographs. There’s talk of a museum or display somewhere, yet again, nothing comes of it.
Sometimes, he sits quietly, the TV off, computer down, a glass in hand.
He’s had suspicions for a while, but never proof.
Now the walls begin to tremble, rippling like the surface of a pond stirred by the breeze.
He stands. He puts a hand against the plasterwork, feeling a movement, deep within the fabric of the building, slow and rhythmic, like a pulse.
Nothing changes. Not when he looks at it. But as he turns away, he catches a slight shifting in the corner of his eye, and knows: he’s being stalked.
It’s not just the walls, not just the wood and brickwork. It’s the pipes, the wiring, even the furniture and fittings. Everything he’s grown familiar with. He smiles, tight-lipped, knowing this is what he’s waited for.
The perfect predator, the one you go to willingly.
The one that looks like home.
This is the Zee.
He’s been here, in the middle of it, all along.
Many believe Kurt Carter must be dead. Others claim he took a new identity, or moved to Europe or North Africa or else Peru (there’s a fashion for “Carter-sightings” among fans, and the man is rumored to be anything from a homeless addict to the MC of a popular TV quiz show, to whom he bears a slight resemblance).
The apartment itself is repossessed, its contents sold. The new owners stay briefly and the property is sold again. “Kurt Carter’s Haunted Playroom!” screams a headline, though the story itself is mere clickbait.
If he’s dead, no-one has ever found his body.
All archives and possessions have been auctioned off. The collection has been scattered.
At Stanford, Professor Delsol is appointed first Chair of Urban Cryptozoology, following her identification of the small, elusive archway lizard, a hitherto unknown scavenger, entirely dependent on the human ecosystem.
In her NYT best-selling book, Secrets of the City, Professor Delsol twice mentions Kurt Carter, both times in footnotes. He is described as a “popularizer” and a “showman”.
She has recently reported the peculiar delusion that the walls of her apartment have begun to move.