The first incident took place on a summer night on a beach near Santa Monica, California. Morning joggers were shocked to find the remains of half a dozen teenagers, who had been enjoying a moon-lit beach party. The bodies had been crushed and pounded into the sand; as though a fleet of heavyweight beach-buggies driven by fiends had passed over and over the victims until all life was extinct and the bodies mutilated beyond recognition.
A straight trail of disturbed sand ran from the highway into the sea. As far as the forensic team could tell, the victims had been unlucky. Had the vehicles left the highway a few yards earlier or later, then they would have missed the teenagers completely. An inch by inch search was made of the area, and many photographs were taken, but no clear tyre tracks were found.
Puzzling depressions, roughly circular and about fourteen inches across, were found at the edges of the disturbed area. The lab report suggested that the vehicles might have had a series of large pads fitted to the tyres, but the reason for the modification remained obscure.
In police headquarters, a file grew thick with pictures and statements. Everyone in the area was questioned. Officers travelled up and down the highway seeking information from regular users. Nobody had seen a gang of fiends in off-road vehicles with pads on the tyres. The parents of the teenagers buried their dead. Fresher corpses claimed the attention of the Santa Monica Homicide Squad. The case remained on file; a mystery; unsolved.
Just over a year later, at a conference of police officers at Trenton, New Jersey, a delegate from Los Angeles joined a discussion on bizarre unsolved cases in the hotel's Starlight Bar. He told the group about the Santa Monica Crushers. He was astounded to learn that there had been a similar case just up the coast from Atlantic City two years earlier.
Another officer, a tanned, outdoor type from Washington State who was full of backwoods machismo, had participated in the investigation of an unsolved crushing near a lake in Mount Rainier Park five years earlier. A sergeant from Florida, a tall, pale woman in her middle thirties, was sure that she had heard of a crushing case soon after her graduation from the Police Academy.
The main business of the conference was to discuss advances in the technology used to transmit information between the nation's police forces and the government agencies concerned with federal and international wrong-doing. A study of unsolved crushing cases became part of the agenda as a demonstration and a test.
Requests went out to data centres for files. The delegates were astounded by the level of response. They received reports on crushing cases, most involving property rather than people, going right back to the end of World War One. When they had eliminated cases which did not fit the pattern of the original four, they were left with twenty-nine incidents. The first had taken place in the summer of 1919. Statistical analysis failed to find a regular pattern to the intervals between subsequent crushings.
The incidents had begun in a small way in Massachusetts and Connecticut. A computer plot of data versus location showed a mysterious plague sweep westwards before becoming totally random. The last three reports had come from Oklahoma, California and then New Jersey.
Masses of information flowed into a powerful police computer in Washington, DC. Countless facts were ground down to common factors. All of the crushings discovered more or less immediately had taken place at night. Every report had come from an out-of-the-way area near water; the sea or a lake.
Many incidents coincided with public holidays in the middle of the year: Easter, Independence and Labor Days, and Thanksgiving. As the data was ground finer, the crushings were found also to have a link with the full moon. Everyone made the obvious connection with werewolves, but Hollywood had failed to provide its public with examples of werewolves crushing their victims to death with off-road vehicles after bloodily dismembering them.
Several investigators noted in their report that the distinctive trail left by the crushers looked like it had been made by a herd of large animals, which had been driven to and from the water. But they had failed to find tracks leading away from the crushed area; left by either animals or the heavy vehicles used to transport them.
Some investigators believed that a kind of tracked vehicle had been used. The suggestions began with vehicles of World War One vintage, such as contemporary tractors and the Renault FT17 tank, and developed to a modern, off-road vehicle. No one could provide a convincing explanation of why the tracks or wheels had been fitted with large, almost circular pads.
The search for common denominators continued. Information from hotel and motel registers, airline passenger lists and credit card purchase records were fed into the computer to be matched against the location of crushing incidents first of all, and then public holidays that had coincided with a full moon. The name Smith appeared everywhere in the records. The investigators prayed that the cult of crushers did not have ordinary names.
Weeks went by. The original conference became a distant memory but the delegates continued to devote as much time as they could manage to reviewing evidence, talking to the original investigating officers and passing on everything that turned up to the computer team in Washington, DC.
Labor Day and a conjunction with a full moon approached. Search programs automatically copied details of current airline reservations to the Washington computer. The name Castelar emerged from the mass of data late on the Friday before the holiday. Castelars had been found in the vicinity of most of the crushings. About twenty male Castelars and their wives seemed to be planning a family reunion at Elk Falls in eastern Minnesota. There was a convenient lake half a dozen miles out of town.
The investigation had become famous in police circles, but the delegates from the summer conference managed to arrive quietly in Elk Falls. Some had reservations at the two motels. The rest had hired campers to use as surveillance vehicles.
The local police chief maintained an attitude of good-humoured scepticism when he recognized a former colleague in a bar. His local Castelar family had lived in the area for forty years and had a record as respectable as any. He could not visualize his Castelars crushing other humans brutally with strange vehicles.
While the police chief felt unable to ignore the findings of the computer's sifting operation, he placed them on a par with the so-called proofs that UFOs contain visitors from other planets. The Elk Falls police chief believed that there had to be another explanation, even if he was unable to come up with it.
Lake Onan offered good fishing to the visitor and good business to the merchants of Elk Falls. Police chief Hardy Rykowskiy swore the mayor and his top advisors to secrecy before he revealed the details of the computer report. The group decided unanimously that there was no way that they could close the area to tourists on the days around the full moon.
They had been shown a series of connections thrown out by a computer. The visiting police officers were taking the matter seriously, even though they admitted their reservations freely. If the town council closed the area and nothing happened, both they and the regional police forces of the largest nation in the free world - those represented by delegates to the summer conference - would become an international joke.
The sensible alternative, the major and his advisors decided, was to be prepared for trouble, and to be prepared to contain it if anything happened.
A ghostly full moon was well above the horizon when the sun set, sparking fire on a few wisps of cloud. Three campers containing undercover police officers were parked in strategic positions where the road from Elk Falls met the lake. The officers were armed with Magnum handguns, hunting rifles with hollow-nose, big game ammunition and repeating shotguns.
Two helicopters fitted with searchlights and pods of rockets were standing by to tackle the crushing vehicles if they showed up. None of the Castelars, local and visiting, either owned an off-road vehicle or had shown any interest in them.
John Castelar Senior owned a large house with extensive grounds on Riverside Drive, a quarter of a mile out of Elk Falls. As Sunday night darkened, the surveillance teams reported that all of the family had gathered behind John Castelar Senior's home. A barbeque and vast quantities of liquor were being enjoyed. Restricted to coffee and sandwiches, the routine reports from the surveillance teams became increasingly envious.
At half past midnight, the watchers went on red alert. The female Castelars had either gone into the house or returned to their hotel. Their men were organizing a convoy. Half a dozen vehicles set off up river, past the fifteen-foot drop of Elk Falls, towards Lake Onan. Police vehicles followed at a distance. Helicopter pilots warmed up their engines and prepared for a fast take-off.
Action became anticlimax. The crew of one of the campers radioed that the male Castelars had stopped a quarter of a mile from the lake and were standing around, drinking cans of beer beside their cars. They were about thirty yards from the darkened police observation post.
One a.m. approached. The full moon had almost reached its zenith, flooding the area with silvery light. The police watchers had established a mobile control centre beside the road, a mile from the lake. Three cars, a van and both helicopters were waiting on a firm stretch of ground. Two of the three campers were positioned on either side of the road and a quarter of a mile from it, watching for the approach of crushing vehicles.
A report on the Castelars from the nearest camper ended in the middle of a sentence. Then came shouts of surprise, amazement, fear. Three shots slammed into a growing wall of noise. Screams ended in crashes, then total silence.
The police officers in flanking campers reported that they could hear the crushers and called for assistance. A visiting detective snapped out of his state of shocked inertia. He rushed out of the control van to wave the helicopters into the air. Heavily armed officers packed into their cars and screamed up the road toward the lake.
Less than a minute later, the helicopter pilots reported sightings of a group of large vehicles at the edge of the lake. They opened fire with their rockets. Explosions brightened the lake shore. A radio voice shouted something about a herd of animals. When the beasts charged back toward the Castelars' vehicles, the helicopters resumed their attack.
The rockets ran out. Everyone held his or her breath. There was no movement on the ground. Searchlights and headlights probed the battlefield, cutting through walls of drifting smoke, lighting raw craters. Neither crusher vehicles nor large animals could be seen.
The central police camper had been flattened. Both officers were just bloody smears in the wreckage. Pieces of human bodies were scattered along the strip of hard-pounded earth from the wreck to the lake. The rockets had demolished nineteen male members of the Castelar family.
Late-season tourists began to arrive at the scene of the slaughter, drawn by violent explosions. The local police chief quickly created a picket line to give himself time to come up with an explanation for what had happened. Then someone remembered that the helicopters had been fitted with low-light television cameras and video-recorders to capture pictures of the mysterious crushing machines if they put in an appearance.
A technician moved a television monitor to the rear door of the control van to allow the massed police team to view the tapes. They flew to the lake on fast-forward, then slowed. Large objects were frolicking about on the shoreline. Someone remarked that it looked like a scene out of a Tarzan movie.
Trunks squirted water into the air as a large herd of elephants splashed merrily in the shallows. Then brilliant flashes flared on the screen as rockets struck home. The elephants began to stampede back toward the Castelars' vehicles.
Between brilliant explosion-flashes, the audience could see huge bodies blown apart on the ground, left behind by the racing herd. When the screen-filling, obliterating flashes ended, however, there was no sign of the elephants.
A large object, shrinking like a deflating blimp, passed across the screen in less than a second. The view was distorted as the pilot rotated his machine in search of targets. Whenever the helicopter steadied, images of shattered human bodies could be seen on the ground.
According to the local news services the following morning, there had been a shoot-out between two gangs of drug-smugglers by the lake. A sustained effort had cleaned up the site of the massacre before morning. Rubber-neckers were allowed to see that there was nothing much too see and they soon lost interest. They had a public holiday to enjoy elsewhere.
The remaining Castelars were rounded up and taken to a nearby National Guard barracks for questioning. Although distracted by grief, shock and anger at the deaths of nineteen of their men, the women refused to answer questions about the deaths of two police officers locally and the deaths of dozens of other citizens around the United States.
The results of extensive investigations were fed into the police computer in Washington, DC. Space industry experts examined the videotapes recorded in the helicopters, and ran the pictures through their enhancement computer programs to eliminate the effects of the helicopters' erratic motions and the obscuring explosive flares.
One month after the slaughter at Lake Onan, the police officers involved in the long investigation were invited to Washington for a final briefing. Before he rose to address the meeting, Ed Holstein, the chairman, made sure that everyone had signed a document to pledge confidentiality. He began his explanation by showing enhanced versions of both helicopter videotapes.
"Before anyone else says it, I'll say it for you," Holstein remarked into a thick silence when the monitor screens went blank. "Yes, it does look like Tarzan meets Ray Harryhausen. You have just seen a herd of African elephants blown to bits by aerial ordnance and, as they died, transform into human beings. We didn't need silver-plated rockets. High explosive was completely effective against our herd of were-elephants.
"Going back to past incidents, we've shown pictures of the round pads to zoological experts and they've confirmed they were elephant tracks, not pads on wheels or tracks. And some officers involved in the earlier cases recall comments about elephants, but they were not taken seriously at the time because no one could say where the elephants had come from or gone to.
"Dealing with the origins of our were-elephants, the first Castelars came to the States in the spring of nineteen nineteen, from the River Ebro valley in northern Spain. Jim Silverton of Trenton, New Jersey, Police Department made a trip over there and found out some very interesting facts.
"Spain is the only country in the world with a tradition of were-elephants; mainly in the west and north. Elephants are not native to that country, except in zoos, but Jim wondered if the traditions were a carry-over from twenty-five thousand years ago, when cavemen were sticking spears in woolly mammoths and painting them in caves in places like Altamira. Our were-elephants weren't mammoths, however.
"Jim found that the tradition, in fact, dates back to around two hundred BC, when Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, brought elephants across the Straight of Gibraltar and took them through Spain and France to scare the hell out of the Romans. His equivalent of tanks, I guess. People have been seeing and hearing elephants in remote parts of northern and western Spain ever since.
"Naturally, no one in authority has ever dared to take the reports seriously. We have UFO stories. The Spanish have were-elephants.
"Coming back to the Castelars, four brothers and their families landed in Boston a year after the end of World War One. The early crushing incidents chart the slow spread of their children westwards. Then came air travel, which made family reunions easier and added a larger random element to the spread of incidents.
"As far as we can make out, a male Castelar doesn't become a were-elephant at every full moon. Drink also plays a part in the process. The early incidents seem to be due to one or two members of the family getting drunk, changing into were-elephants, and making a dash for a body of water.
"The major incidents in the past arose from family gatherings when a whole bunch of them got drunk and charged to the sea or a lake, crushing everything in their path; people and property alike.
"And now we come to the reason for your signing the document at the start of the briefing. One of the most intensive investigations in the history of police operations in the American continent has come, literally, to an incredible solution.
"If we didn't have tapes from the helicopters to show the transformation process happening in real time, no one in his right mind would ever believe such a thing as a were-elephant can exist.
"This is just one thing we can't afford to go public on. If we're correct to assume a gene transmitted in the male line of Castelars is responsible for were-elephantism, there could be many others in the States. But if we release the story, most people will laugh at us and the few that don't will become totally paranoid and we'll end up hip-deep in nuts.
"We've all had cases where some nut has killed a neighbour because they thought the neighbour was a werewolf or a vampire. We don't want to hand them another excuse to add to the list.
"We got away with Lake Onan, but it was a damn near thing. You'll be relieved to hear any further cases won't be our problem. They'll be investigated by the Military. The Department of Defense wants to know pretty goddam urgently how a hundred-and-eighty-pound man can change himself into a seven-ton elephant.
"So that's it. Knowledge of the crushings is now top secret, and every document is classified." Ed Holstein pushed his lecture notes into a desktop shredder in a symbolic gesture. "That concludes the formal business of the meeting. I suggest we all get good and drunk tonight and forget it ever happened."
"Maybe one of us should stay sober," said Jim Silverton, who had made the trip to Spain, cutting across a buzz of conversation. "And stand by with a bazooka, just in case some of us have Spanish blood. It's a full moon again tonight." ■