Chapter 1: Never Fake! We Swear!
Maybe Wilson Banks should have picked up on the life-changing aspect of his new assignment when Jerry first mentioned it to him. Life-view-changing, anyway.
No, it was ultimately life-changing. Or both.
Regardless, he’d never considered things like extra-sensory perception to be true any more than he’d believed in the reality of many of the articles he wrote. This assignment was an annoyance to be ducked in favor of something—anything—that wasn’t such typical tabloid fodder.
“Come on, Jerry, I froze my ass off chasing quotes for that Yeti story eight months ago.” Wilson pulled out the pencil he had tucked behind his ear and pointed it at Sensational News’ (Never Fake! We Swear!) features editor. “Can’t you give me something else?”
“You want to interview all the victims of the chimney shitter in Boise?”
Wilson slumped. On the plus side—depending on one’s perspective—at least that story was true. Bigfoot? Not so much. Considering the speculation about the sample one of the recipients of the malodorous deposits had saved (“There’ll be DNA in those droppings!”), he cringed at the thought of chasing down the chimney shitter story.
He let out a long sigh. “How far back in the boonies is this hillbilly who says he trapped Bigfoot?”
“Nah, you’ll still be in civilization. It’s a quaint tourist trap in Northern California. I’ll put you up in a nice little B&B.”
Wilson shifted, pushing back in his chair. One of these days he was going to get into this office when Jerry wasn’t around and check out these damned chairs. It felt like Jerry had shaved down the length of the front legs to deliberately make reporters slither forward on the hard seat. The better to get them to agree to anything and rush them out of there?
“Besides.” Jerry tapped his middle finger on his desk calendar. “There’ve been multiple sightings over the years. We’ve tracked them down; you just have to sweet talk them. Get me some good soundbites and maybe a fuzzy picture or two.”
“A bed and breakfast, eh?” That did sound relaxing. He could deal with another round of interviewing loonies…er…confused people who apparently couldn’t recognize a bear for what it was if it happened to stand, in exchange for a little R&R in a pleasant setting during his downtime.
Jerry bounced back and forth against the tilt mechanism in the top-quality leather office chair in which he had his own rear parked. A slow grin spread across his face. “In an updated Victorian with all the amenities.”
Wilson grimaced as his butt slipped forward again. “Fine. Give me the Sasquatch story.”
It was doubtful he’d come up with images fuzzy enough to make a black bear look like Bigfoot—he shivered at the thought of getting close enough to snap a picture anyway—and he wasn’t going to fabricate one. He had his standards. But maybe he could find a nice footprint? If nothing else, he could photograph a few witnesses.
“Great.” Jerry was all business, sliding a manila envelope across the desk and leveling his patented squint at Wilson before turning to his computer. “See Mark on your way out. He’s got your travel itinerary.”
Wilson let out a long breath and heaved out of the chair. If Mark had his itinerary, then his airline and lodging reservations had already been made. He hadn’t really had the option of talking Jerry into giving him something less deceptive. Less…quintessentially low-brow sensationalism.
Not that it mattered. It all paid the same.
He scowled at the thought of facing Mark, but letting Mark get to him wouldn’t help anything. The differing ways they each dealt with their post-breakup relationship only emphasized how hopeless their affair had been in the first place.
Wilson should have known from the beginning that Mark wasn’t ready for the kind of commitment Wilson wanted. But no, Wilson had been unable to pick up on the clues over the roar of his biological clock—did men have those?—ticking in his ears. However he labeled it, Wilson wanted to settle down.
He would never verbalize it because it was too basic. Cheesy—hell, it had become a downright cringeworthy meme—but he wanted the full “live-laugh-love” package with someone who could be his best friend, all the while making his skin tingle with a glance.
As it turned out, after spending too many months convincing himself they simply needed more time, Mark did not share his hopes and dreams.
There was nothing wrong with having an open relationship, not as long as both parties were in agreement. But ultimately Wilson wanted monogamy, and Mark’s resistance had gone beyond it simply being too early in the relationship to commit to that.
Mark’s face twitched like he was trying to suppress a smirk as Wilson approached his desk. Wilson narrowed his eyes. His ex seemed to enjoy finding little ways to screw with him when making his travel arrangements. Like on every tortuous leg of that long flight to Kathmandu. “Oh, you wanted an aisle seat? I would have sworn you preferred window.”
That had been the reason for Jerry’s squint. An admonishment to not start anything. Which was ridiculous, because Wilson was never the one instigating the pettiness that still persisted between them. He valued his job too much.
Wilson could deal with whatever Mark had done. Keep it professional—which, he obviously should have done in the first place by resisting Mark’s flirtatious overtures two years ago. Alas, in every other aspect of life, Wilson was a realist, but when it came to romance, he was an eternal optimist.
Wilson pasted on a smile and stopped in front of Mark’s desk. “Jerry said you have something for me?”
“Right.” Mark swiveled in his seat and took his time flipping through files standing in a sorter on his desk. The desktop was as neat and impeccably organized as ever. The stapler perfectly aligned next to the calendar, the pencil can—no, two cans, because pens and pencils mustn’t mingle—lined up along the edge. Each file was in its own slot in the sorter. Mark knew precisely where the correct folder was.
Wilson stifled a desire to tap his foot. He wouldn’t give Mark the satisfaction. Finally, Mark selected a file and handed it over with an affected cheery grin. “Here you go. Your flight’s in four hours, so you might want to head home to pack.”
“Four—” Wilson cut himself off and opened the folder. It was Friday afternoon. Jerry hadn’t said anything about working the weekend.
He frowned at the airline trip summary staring back at him. Sure enough, his flight out was this evening. He flipped through the pages, and he had a late check-in set up at a B&B in—he suppressed a snort—a town named Tallbear.
No doubt Mark would have some excuse about a cheaper flight time, or the accommodations all being booked by business travelers during the week. If Wilson asked. Which he wouldn’t.
And for some reason, remaining unruffled, as Wilson did in virtually all situations, would piss off Mark. Wilson would have thought that was an admirable quality, but during their final breakup scene, Mark had raged, “Does nothing get your goat? Nothing? Because seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever once seen you get worked up over anything.”
An unfair comment if ever there was one. Wilson was pragmatic. He accepted empirical evidence for what it was and moved on. If Wilson’s mom had said it once when he’d been growing up, she’d said it a thousand times. There was no use crying over spilled milk.
Not being emotional was not the same thing as not having emotions. And it certainly wasn’t the same as not having feelings.
Wilson gritted his teeth. “Thanks.” On the plus side, maybe he’d be more likely to find random people available to talk to him on a weekend. Hopefully they’d be out and about doing whatever there was to do in a small town.
He strode to the elevator. It took every ounce of restraint he could muster to not power punch the DOWN button. Once inside, Wilson closed his eyes and rolled his shoulders, willing the tight knots to ease out of his neck muscles. After a final cleansing breath, he reopened his eyes and pulled out his phone to check the weather forecast for his weekend destination.
* * * *
An hour later, Wilson had crammed a couple days’ worth of clothing suitable for Northern California autumn climate into his carry-on bag and stood in his tiny Chicago kitchen, wolfing down a sandwich.
His gaze landed on a pair of dish towels his mother had given him. The only homey things in the gleaming, modern, albeit small apartment kitchen. She’d stitched one of her favorite sayings onto them. One towel proclaimed, When it rains look for rainbows, and the other said, When it’s dark look for stars.
Was there a saying for when your boss sent you on a wild goose chase looking for Bigfoot during what was supposed to be your days off? But he couldn’t help smiling; Mom’s attitude had rubbed off on him.
Wilson placed his plate in the sink and hefted his suitcase. He’d already started thinking of this trip as a kind of working vacation with all expenses paid. Because why not? He enjoyed chatting up people. That was part of what made him good at this job.
* * * *
At O’Hare Airport, Wilson presented an easy smile as he approached the ticket counter. Mark had probably thought he was twisting the screws when he’d booked the flight for early evening on a Friday, a commonly busy time for airlines.
What Mark didn’t realize was that Wilson had better odds of a free bump to first-class on an oversold flight when the airline would be more likely to upgrade people to make room in coach. The keys to getting that bump were to arrive early, which he’d done, to dress like he would fit in with the paying first class passengers, which he’d also done—a suit wasn’t required, only well-groomed business casual—and to be pleasant.
Worst case scenario, he could use up some of his frequent flyer miles to get that upgrade. He had more than enough. Well, no. Worst case scenario, there wouldn’t be a first-class seat available.
“Good evening.” Wilson used a cheerful tone that was upbeat enough to put someone used to irate customers at ease while not crossing over to irritatingly phony. He handed his paperwork, frequent flyer card, and identification across to the harried young man whose tight smile leaned more toward mildly stressed than full-blown aggravated, so Wilson had hope.
The ticket agent silently perused the documentation and clicked a few buttons on his keyboard. Wilson gave him enough time to ascertain precisely how much of a frequent flyer he was before saying, “If you’re upgrading passengers on this flight, I sure would appreciate your consideration.”
The man glanced up at Wilson without moving his head. He didn’t actually roll his eyes, but the expression in them did the deed while conveying a sentiment akin to a sarcastic, I’m sure you would, without actually saying the words.
That was par for the course, so that in itself wasn’t worrisome. Wilson held his breath as the man clicked a few more keys, apparently—hopefully—checking availability.
“All right, Mr. Banks.” The ticket agent’s lips compressed briefly before morphing into a stiff smile, as if he hated to say the words, but couldn’t think of a good reason to deny the bump up to first class. “I can do that for you.”
Wilson sent a silent—and ironic—thank you to Mark for inadvertently handing him the ideal conditions for a free upgrade. To the ticket agent, he said, “Fantastic. Thanks so much.”
Best to keep it short but sincere. He punctuated that with an unaffected grin.
“That’s only for the flight to San Francisco.” The agent continued clicking away on his keyboard, and his smile seemed a bit brighter. “Your connecting flight to Arcata is a regional jet with only a single cabin. Just a carry-on?”
“Correct.” The news that had cheered the ticket agent didn’t dampen Wilson’s mood. He’d flown enough to know that would be the case. It would be a short enough flight. He could deal.
In no time at all, he had his boarding pass in hand. Sadly, he couldn’t say it took no time at all to get through security, but eventually he got to his gate.
His luck was holding, because an earlier flight at the gate was in the process of boarding, so the “good” seats—i.e. the seats near an electrical outlet—were recently vacated. He slid into one before anyone else could figure it out, or worse yet, unwittingly sit there with no intention of using the outlet.
He pulled out his laptop, plugged it in so he’d have a full battery at the start of the flight, and took another look at his itinerary before making his Google search. He executed a low-key fist pump when the B&B came up with its very own website with a simple, clean-looking landing page. That boded well for the professionalism of the place.
A brother and sister, Chauncey and Lena Hughes, owned the B&B. Lena ran the place while Chauncey handled maintenance and yard upkeep. There were no pictures of the owners, but the name, Chauncey, pointed toward them pushing retirement age. Hughes House was a large structure and even had a few guest cottages outside of the main house.
Per the itinerary, he had a room in the main house with a queen-sized bed. So no private hot tub like the cottages had, but a sweet-looking oversized clawfoot tub. At least, the room pictured on the website had one. Hopefully, his room did, too.
He opened another tab and did a search for the town. If it was truly a tourist trap as Jerry—and the existence of such a high-end B&B—had indicated, it would likely have a page touting everything it had to offer.
Wilson’s grin flashed as Tallbear’s website popped onto the screen. It had a “things to do” tab as well as a listing of upcoming events right on the landing page.
He skipped past things that would be of interest only to tourists—it was townspeople he wanted to interact with. He grimaced as he scrolled down the page. He would take a hard pass on the organized mountain bike ride. He wasn’t that dedicated to the job even if he could assume it would be mostly locals, which he couldn’t.
The “Honky Tonk Saturday Night” advertised at a local saloon would work just as well as a means to meet and chat up random people, with a bonus of them being more inclined to say things after a few beers than when sober. He sighed at the thought of spending an entire evening listening to country music, but at least it would be better than pedaling a bike up a bunch of hills, and more likely to attract a share of locals. He hoped.
Trolling the semi-weekly farmers’ market on Saturday morning could also be a good way to strike up casual conversations. It would be a great place to get a general feel for the story. Help him set the scene and identify the mindset of the typical resident. Give the story a little color and maybe uncover some extra witnesses.
He was impressed by both websites. They’d been similar enough that Wilson suspected they’d been designed by the same person. Sensational News was looking to redesign its own. These had been well organized and easy to navigate. The sections and categories presented information in a manner that was easy for users to navigate. Clutter-free with drop-down menus.
The content was well-formatted, making it easy to scan key features with additional details easily available for those who wanted to read further. Load times had been fast.
He made a mental note to check mobile compatibility, accessibility, search engine optimization, and browser consistency. The powers that be at Sensational News might want to add this web designer to the list they were looking at.
He pulled a bundle of papers from the manila envelope Jerry had given him and flipped through the pages. The interviews Mark had set up were scheduled for Saturday afternoon and would fit nicely between the early morning farmers’ market and the evening at the bar. His return flight wasn’t until late Monday morning, and Sunday was left open for him to fill however he saw fit.
He slipped the stack of papers into the envelope. He would reserve formulating his own story theme until after his interviews, but while he had easy internet access, he opened Google, typed in “Bigfoot,” and hit ENTER. Checking the current lore would help ensure that his own story was fresh, and not merely a rewrite of popular myths.
Which, as it turned out, were pretty lackluster, so making his own story refreshing shouldn’t be too difficult. Concepts to avoid included a UFO tie-in, the ever-popular “Bigfoot is an unevolved Neanderthal,” and the eye-roll-worthy “Bigfoot is a supernatural guardian of the earth”—which at least would explain the infrequency of the sightings while the species still maintained a population large enough that they hadn’t gone extinct. Most of all, Wilson’s Bigfoot wouldn’t have been spotted diddling the livestock, even if one of the “witnesses” wanted to push that angle.
When the gate personnel announced preboarding, he quickly gathered his belongings and tried not to look pretentious under the glare of the impatiently waiting crowd as he joined the short line of first-class passengers, most of whom made little effort to dim their entitled (or in one case, outright smug) expressions.
In his seat, he again pulled out the manila envelope and flipped through the copies Mark had printed of previously published tabloid articles, both Sensational News’ own and their competitors’. He added “were-Bigfoots” to his list of themes to avoid. It made for entertaining novels if one didn’t think too hard about how the laws of physics didn’t quite work with the differences in mass between humans and whatever they were purportedly shifting into, Although it was perfectly fine to do so in fiction, his standards prevented him from writing something that silly as fact. Even tabloid “fact,” complete with scare quotes.
The rest of the articles were variations on the theories he’d found on the Internet. They’d merely differed in their quotes and sighting claims. Overall mundane stuff.
He exchanged the old articles for the briefs about the allegations of the people he’d be interviewing. Once the plane was stable in the air and the flight attendants announced permission to do so, he reopened his laptop and created a document for each interviewee, then jotted down some thoughts on the topics he wanted to cover based on their statements.
There wasn’t much he wanted to ask Harold Clayton, the second of his appointments. That man’s story left a sour taste in Wilson’s mouth. Unfortunately, it was the kind of thing that would draw in readers, so he pretty much had to go through with the interview, regardless of his personal aversion.
Harold had killed someone when he’d laid out a reinforced, heavy duty, old-school barbaric bear trap aiming to catch a Bigfoot he swore often visited his grove of blackberry bushes in early August. According to Harold, Bigfoot stripped several bushes of berries each year that it came.
He hadn’t trapped Bigfoot, but he had caught a naked and apparently disoriented old woman who’d raided the wrong person’s berry bushes. That mistake had earned the poor woman a gruesome and painful death sentence as her snapped leg bled out. No, actually her heart had given out first. Small mercy.
It had also earned Harold a couple years for involuntary manslaughter. He’d done his time, but hadn’t changed his tune. He still swore up and down that he’d been watching from his kitchen window a good distance from the grove, and that he’d seen Bigfoot enter the rows of bushes. If he’d seen the old woman go in there, he would’ve called out and warned her.
Not that thinking it had been Bigfoot would’ve been much better, since either a fraudster in a costume or, most likely, a bear, had been the regular marauder visiting Harold’s grove, and that souped-up trap would have severely maimed, if not killed, any bear that happened across it.
Enough. Wilson blew out a heavy breath and shoved everything into his computer bag. He knew how to proceed now, and put it all out of his mind as the plane began its descent to the San Francisco airport.
* * * *
The drive from the Arcata airport to Tallbear was awe-inspiring once he entered the forested areas. Even in the dark, his headlights picked up enough to fuel his imagination.
It was easy to envision a primitive species wandering amongst the giant trees, both those still reaching for the sky high above, and those that had fallen to become home to myriad bits of greenery and mosses and small animals.
He could almost taste the earthy umami flavor of the mushrooms, the sharp bite of the wild onions, or the sweet perfection of undomesticated berries.
It was a bit harder to imagine Bigfoot acquiring his supposed great size on such a diet, until he considered that quite a few herbivores grew fairly large. Besides, he could envision Bigfoot as an omnivore if he wanted. It wasn’t like scientists had examined remains to make a determination based on the teeth. Or even analyzed verified droppings.
Wilson rolled down his window and drew in a breath of fresh, clean air. The forest had an earthy, musty scent fueled by decaying leaves and fallen trees, tinged with a hint of zest from wild herbs.
A breeze rippled the leaves that seemed to go on forever. It would be a lovely place to hike and enjoy a picnic, yet a potentially terrifying place to find yourself lost and alone, or even stuck for a time in a broken-down vehicle.
But as vast as these forests seemed…were…there wasn’t really an expanse large enough, unexplored by humans, to the point where a huge species could survive undetected, was there?
Well, not “undetected,” but unproven. Absolutely no valid, evidence that couldn’t be otherwise explained had ever emerged. Not only had a live creature never been captured, but the total lack of dead Bigfoot bodies or even droppings was further evidence of its non-existence.
Tallbear itself wasn’t that unlike other small towns he’d visited. Streets lined with neat homes, others lined with houses that had seen better days and more motivated owners.
The school he passed looked like hundreds of other schools. It was empty now, but during a typical weekday, kids would emerge from yellow busses, some eager to greet their friends, others dragging their feet. No doubt the halls were lined with posters advertising upcoming events hanging between the dented lockers.
A neighborhood playground had the usual equipment: climbing apparatuses, swings, and slides surrounded by wood chips. More trees provided shade for the adults who would be watching the little climbers from the benches placed around the perimeter.
Wilson unleashed a jaw-cracking yawn when he finally pulled the key from the ignition of his rental car. The B&B’s porch light and an interior foyer light were on, but the rest of the huge house was dark.
At the main entrance, he entered the personal code he’d been given, which would grant him access to the front door and his assigned room. A fortyish woman with warm hazel eyes and light brown hair pulled back in a messy bun looked up from an overstuffed chair in a cozy seating area. She closed the book she’d been holding and glanced at a tablet on the side table as it pinged an alert.
“Welcome to Hughes House, Mr. Banks.” Her smile mirrored her words. A natural smile of one who truly enjoyed her work. “I’m Lena Hughes. I hope your journey was uneventful.”
“It was, thank you. I hope I haven’t kept you up.”
“Not at all.” Although the way she blinked as she briskly shepherded him toward an open doorway could be interpreted as the actions of someone whose bed was calling to her.
Lena proceeded to point out the dining area. “Breakfast is included in the price of the room and is served from seven to ten. We also offer a sandwich bar at noon, and a hot meal in the evening.”
As they passed, she pointed out a large seating area with a sizeable library alcove where guests could mingle, then escorted him up a wide stairway to the second floor, then down a hall, where she entered the code to open the door.
“You may come and go as you please.” She spoke at a lower volume than she’d used on the main level and stood back to usher him in. “We only ask that you be considerate of the noise you make after about ten o’clock. Many of our guests are tourists keeping later hours, but some are also business travelers like yourself with schedules that require early rising.”
“Thank you, and good night.” Normally he’d be chattier, but he was tired, and she was valiantly stifling a yawn.
With the door securely closed, he hefted his suitcase onto the bed. He peered out the window—the view overlooked the now-deserted street—and closed the blinds.
The room was everything the pictures on the website had promised, complete with the oversized clawfoot tub. Which beckoned, but not as compellingly as did the bed. But a hot soak using one of the varieties of bath salts on the adjacent stand would be a must after enduring the country bar tomorrow.
Chapter 2: Bigfoot Is a Gay Twink!
Wilson rubbed his belly appreciatively after putting down his fork. The double serving of bacon and veggie quiche and mixed fruit would easily see him through until lunchtime.
Morris Lincoln chuckled and bumped shoulders with his girlfriend, Eleanor Mann, as she sputtered, “And what about that one with a picture of a dolphin with human arms?”
“Or the ever popular bat kid they found in some cave?” Morris wiped at his eyes. “And speaking of Bigfoot, wasn’t there a story about him having a lumberjack love slave?”
Lena raised an inquisitive brow as she entered the dining room and topped off their coffee cups.
“Wilson here’s writing a story about Bigfoot for Sensational News,” Eleanor explained.
“Oh, I figured.” She glanced at Wilson with a perky grin. “A representative from the tabloid set up your reservation, and that’s the obvious topic for this area.”
One side of Wilson’s mouth quirked up. People making fun of the ludicrous headlines favored by tabloids didn’t bother him. He knew people didn’t read them thinking they were factual. Well, most people didn’t.
No, they read them for the entertainment value, and the more preposterous the headline, the better. Wilson preferred to angle his reporting as farcical things real people claimed they saw or heard rather than making up stories from nothing, à la survivors of the Titanic discovered onboard at the bottom of the ocean, but they all sold the same.
But self-imposed standards or not, if he was writing about Bigfoot, he was still peddling baloney.
“I envy you.” Morris dabbed his lips with his napkin. “I mean, I do some traveling for work, too, but I don’t really see that much of the cities I go to. Here you are, staying in a pleasant vacation spot, getting paid to talk to people about nonsensical things like Bigfoot.”
“Nice work if you can get it,” Eleanor quipped.
“It’s not all fun and games.” Wilson shook his head. “Some of it’s distasteful.”
Lena made a sound like she was dislodging a persistent bit of sausage stuck in her throat. “Let me guess…Harold Clayton?”
Wilson nodded. Understandably, he wasn’t the only one repulsed by that story. “I don’t look forward to that interview.”
“He one of Bigfoot’s love slaves?” Morris guffawed.
“No.” Lena’s tone was terse, but she softened it with a sad turn of her eyes. “He killed my aunt.”
Morris’s eyes widened as his face blanched, properly chagrined. “Sorry. How awful.”
“I’m so sorry.” Wilson winced. “I had no idea of the relationship.”
Lena patted Morris’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. You had no way of knowing.” Turning to Wilson, she added, “Keep me out of the story, please. Nothing I say is on the record.”
“And I suppose you’ll be including that in your article regardless?”
“I’m sorry, but it’s—”
She waved away his explanation. “If you’re going to write about Aunt Ida regardless, I want her personalized and not characterized as some lunatic nobody cared about. I don’t want it to be something people would laugh at.” Lena’s voice cracked. “Look up Carol Bingham at a table selling preserves while you’re at the farmers’ market. She was Aunt Ida’s best friend, and she’ll be able to relate some stories about her. I just…can’t.”
“Thank you. I’ll be sure to do that.” In fact, maybe “the dangers of Bigfoot obsession” could be the theme of his article—while still not discounting the possibility of his existence, of course.
Needless to say, that exchange effectively threw a bucket of ice-cold water on the conversation to the point where Wilson had to suppress a shiver, so he excused himself. The farmers’ market should be starting up anyway.
* * * *
Wilson bobbed his head to the beat of the live music playing in the rotunda at the center of the plaza accommodating the farmers’ market. It was impressive—both the market and the music, provided by an acoustic folk group playing a mix of original tunes and popular covers.
He zipped up his light windbreaker. Not that it was windy, but the air was still chilly. Yet the sun was shining today, and by noon he might want to shuck the jacket.
The market had a nice mix of fresh produce, baked goods, cheese, farm-fresh eggs, preserves, honey, and other canned foodstuffs, along with refreshments, homemade beeswax candles, crafts, and the like. Overall, an impressive variety and number of booths for a relatively small market.
Pomegranates were plentiful, as were mushrooms and chestnuts. He eyed the arrays of fruits, vegetables, and salad fixings. Was this where Lena picked up the ingredients for her delectable quiche?
It was easy enough to sort the market-goers into two categories. The locals—or at least the regulars—walked around with purpose, mostly knowing what they wanted. If they stopped to chat with someone, it was clear they knew who they were speaking with. They all had their own well-worn reusable grocery bags in tow, and some even had little carts or wagons to haul their purchases.
Tourists, on the other hand, were a bit more aimless, and a lot more starry-eyed. They tended more toward the candles and preserves, or fresh fruit they would eat within the day, if not the hour. If they bought enough, then they also ended up with crisp new reusable bags to carry their bounty.
An older man hawking an assortment of produce eyed him speculatively. Not suspiciously, precisely, but more in a people-watching, “trying to figure out where Wilson fit on the spectrum of shoppers” kind of way. Which was understandable.
Obviously, the man had never seen Wilson before. Wilson didn’t project the cheery exuberance of the vacationers and appeared to have some kind of purpose, but neither was he efficiently going from booth to booth filling his nonexistent shopping bags.
The man’s hairline had receded, and he kept both his hair and beard trimmed short. He wore casual, bright blue clothes that didn’t scream “I’m a farmer,” but didn’t preclude it, either. He seemed a friendly and chatty sort, based on his interactions with other customers. He came across as someone who’d lived here his whole life and had his finger on the pulse of the town. In other words, he was exactly the kind of person Wilson wanted to engage.
“Good morning.” Wilson’s lips curved up as he approached the man’s booth. He didn’t have to force his smile. He enjoyed this kind of thing.
“Good morning.” The man grinned widely in return, every bit as effortlessly. If Wilson had pegged him accurately, he was someone who wanted to know Wilson’s story as much as Wilson wanted to hear what he had to say. “Welcome to Tallbear.”
“Thank you. It’s a lovely town.”
“It is, indeed.”
“Looks like a nice place to live.” Wilson offered his hand. Being honest and upfront about his purpose usually worked best for him, at least with people who seemed approachable and outgoing. “I’m Wilson Banks. I write for Sensational News.”
“Ah.” The man’s smile didn’t dim any as he took Wilson’s hand in a firm grip. Wilson let out a soft breath. He’d judged correctly. “Marvin Cordell. Lifelong resident.” He let go of Wilson’s hand and winked. “How many guesses do I get to work out what you’re writing about?”
Wilson laughed. “I imagine you’ll only need the one.” Some of the sundries booths were even peddling Bigfoot carvings aimed at the tourists, so it wasn’t like they weren’t well aware of the region’s reputation.
“Let me ask you this.” Marvin cocked his head, but his eyes twinkled his enjoyment of the subject. “Do you actually believe the stories?”
“Yes and no,” Wilson said. “Of course there are some who are just making things up for attention, but I do believe that some—most—people believe their interpretations of what they claim to have seen. But that’s not quite the same as my believing they aren’t misguided.”
Marvin’s head bobbed as Wilson finished his reply. “Yeah, that’s pretty much where I fall, too. ’Course, I’m not one who’s seen a Bigfoot, so I suppose that makes it easier for me to dismiss those who have.”
Wilson paused a moment, deciding. “Would it be all right with you if I recorded our conversation?” He put up a hand. “No problem if you’d rather not. But it sounds like you might have some good background info, and if you don’t object to possibly being quoted, I’ll want to make sure the quote’s accurate.”
“Yeah, sure. Why not?”
“Great. Thank you.” Wilson pulled out his phone, opened his favorite recording app, and set it on the table. He briefly named the location and interviewee before continuing. “Okay, you mentioned that there are local people who’ve claimed to have seen Bigfoot. How widespread is it? Do many locals say they’ve seen one?”
“Not as many as you’d think, but the thing is, the ones who have are insistent. Say they’d know the difference between a standing bear and…something that wasn’t.”
“What do you think they saw?”
Marvin shrugged. “Hard to say. Not necessarily all the same thing. Take Emma Pearson, for example. She’s been swearing up and down for fifty years now that, as a teenager, she saw a gen-you-ine Bigfoot.”
Emma Pearson was one of the interviews Wilson had set up for the afternoon, so he didn’t press for details of her sighting. He would get that firsthand. This was about Marvin’s take on things. Backdrop for the eventual article. “What do you think she saw?”
He shook his head. “The thing is, Emma’s levelheaded. Always has been. She’s not one who would make up that kind of story for attention.”
“Is she one who might confuse a standing bear for something else?”
“At a distance, and if it’s standing still?” Marvin rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I suppose anyone, especially more imaginative folks, might think it’s a Bigfoot. And it’s true that what Emma saw was a good bit away from her. Hell, it was even somewhat obscured in some trees, so she saw it as it darted between trees.”
“Darted? So it wasn’t standing still?”
“Right. So I don’t think it was a bear she saw. Maybe a well-trained circus bear could do that, but in nature, it would drop to all fours if it was going to take off running.”
“So you don’t think she’s making it up, and you don’t think she saw a bear…?”
“That pretty much leaves us with someone in a costume having a little fun. And that’s not just conjecture that some might do that. They’ve been caught in the act.”
True enough. And they’d been busted fabricating all kinds of evidence before, too, all the way down to claims of sequencing Bigfoot’s genome. Needless to say, real scientists tore apart that claim.
“So you’d place Emma in the ‘victim of a well-done hoax category’ of the three main types of Bigfoot witnesses?” Because “actually saw a legit sasquatch” was not an option either of them seriously entertained.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Know anyone who’s perpetrated the hoax?”
Marvin shook his head. “Takes someone with a particular build to be able to fill out a Bigfoot costume properly, so that limits the suspects right there. Not to mention the cost of it. Most of us figure it’s the occasional outsider having fun at our expense.”
“How about lesser levels of the ruse. Fabricating footprints and such?”
“I know a few who’ve spotted footprints that were humanlike, but just too darned big to be human. I don’t believe they’re the ones that faked ’em, though.”
“The people who’ve seen the footprints think they’re bogus, too?”
“Oh, yeah.” Marvin nodded with conviction. “Generally speaking, the locals know it’s all fun and games. It’s only a handful of the folks that’ve spied a really good hoaxer in a Hollywood-level costume that believe in it.”
“What do you suppose their motivation is? The fakers? What’s in it for them?”
Marvin shrugged. “For the fun of it, maybe.” He snorted a laugh. “Some have speculated that tabloids might be behind some of them, to drum up stories. That way they’ll have real people to make claims of sightings.”
Wilson’s brow crinkled. “Interesting theory. And honestly, I wouldn’t put that past a few of them, although I can assure you, Sensational News doesn’t do that.” Or so he hoped. He’d never caught wind of such a thing, anyway.
“Of course not.” Marvin’s eyes twinkled, and his grin curved brightly.
“Considering what happened to Ida Wallace—not that she was perpetrating a hoax—it’s become a bit of a dangerous pastime. High liability for a business to undertake.”
A raucous burst of laughter rang out, and Marvin halted whatever he was going to add, more’s the pity since local reactions to Ida’s death would fit nicely in the storyline he was leaning toward.
They turned their attention to a group of people gathered around a table selling preserves, nut mixes, candied apples, and more. The merry laughter of one man in particular carried down the path and sent a ripple of…something over Wilson’s skin.
Delight? Desire? Or something more basic, like a simple joy in another’s happiness?
The man looked to be in his low thirties at the most, so close to Wilson’s own age. He was obviously a local, pulling one of those collapsible wagons with a neat row of reusable shopping bags organizing his purchases.
What first caught Wilson’s attention was the bright cherry red of the wagon’s canvas body, and the orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple bags lined up in proper rainbow order within. But what made him really stand out was his bearing—the “I’m going to be me, and I don’t care what anybody thinks” jut of his chin that came across more as a life’s philosophy than as a challenge to all comers.
Okay, maybe the shoulder-length black hair with sparkling streaks of silver, gold, and purple stood out, too. And the azure-blue eyes that seemed too brilliant to be real—yet Wilson sensed they were—that perceived Wilson’s gaze, followed by a grin that communicated beautifully despite the lack of words.
I see your interest, that grin seemed to say. And I return it. Not that Wilson’s own appearance was anything near as striking at the man’s, being a basic brown-eyed brunet. But he was fit and didn’t have trouble getting dates when he wanted one.
Wilson was indeed interested in following up on that flirtatious come on. Besides the man’s open and friendly demeanor, he had a slim build in an average-height body that moved with a dancer’s natural grace.
Wilson blinked and shook off the instinctive pull to pursue that thought. Too bad they weren’t back home in Chicago. Although, really, why not try for a weekend fling? He turned back to Marvin. “It was great meeting you. I appreciate your openness.”
“Likewise.” Marvin beamed like someone who would be scouring future editions of Sensational News, looking to see if he’d been quoted in Wilson’s article.
“Mind if I snap a picture of you here behind your table?”
“Nah, go ahead.”
Wilson turned off the recording and stepped back to frame his picture. He was pretty sure he would get an affirmative reply to his parting question but mentally crossed his fingers. “Do you know Carol Bingham? I understand she has a booth here.” And the background she could give on Ida Wallace would likely be important to his story. He liked Lena’s thoughts about personalizing her aunt.
“Sure, I know Carol. That’s her booth you were just lookin’ at.” Marvin gestured toward the booth with the intriguing man, whose attention was back on Carol and the others gathered around her table.
Maybe fate was going to take a hand in the decision of whether or not to follow up on the dazzling man’s wordless invitation. Not that Wilson believed in fate any more than in the existence of Bigfoot.
He thanked Marvin again, got a quick signature on Sensational News’ online release form, and took his leave, meandering toward Carol’s table. The crowd had thinned out by the time Wilson made it there, but the captivating young man remained, looking over her wares. He had already pulled aside a dozen jars of preserves, and was browsing the infused vinegar and oil options.
“Good morning.” Wilson nodded to Carol and picked up a jar of jam. “Your table is popular.”
“It is.” She turned to him with a preening smile, though her brows conveyed a hint of curiosity in their tilt. “I offer a variety. Simple favorites, some with a twist.” She indicated the jar in Wilson’s hands. “Along with some more sophisticated options.”
In his peripheral vision, the man he’d noticed stilled. The glittery man held a couple bottles of infused oil, but his head had stopped its back and forth motion as he’d compared the two.
Wilson was holding strawberry with lemongrass jam. “I love strawberry. What does the lemongrass add to it?”
“Tang,” Carol said. “An earthy, yet citrusy favor. Would you like a sample?”
“Please.” Wilson gazed to the side. The man didn’t startle like many would have done when busted staring. And the man was full on staring. Instead, he nodded and grinned with a knowing glint in his eyes.
That gleam proclaimed that he knew Wilson’s true reason for appearing at that table. Which wasn’t entirely true, but the man’s presence had affected the timing of Wilson’s approach. And the gleam also echoed—and amplified—the interest that had been hinted at with that earlier grin.
“Are you in Tallbear just for the day?”
Because, of course it was as obvious to anyone with reasonable facilities of deduction that Wilson was likely an out-of-towner as it was that this man was a local. And that knowledge hadn’t affected the guy’s come on, so Wilson gave himself the green light.
“For the weekend.” He maintained a steady gaze and used a tone that hopefully conveyed, “Plenty of time.” He added, “I fly home on Monday.”
“Ah.” A knowing and pleased slant graced the man’s lips as he put down the bottles and shifted one into his keeper pile.
Carol had pulled out crackers and an open jar from a cooler all the while keeping an amused eye on the two men. “Working?” she asked.
“Yes, technically.” Wilson lifted a shoulder in a careless manner. “I’ve got a few interviews set up for this afternoon, but otherwise, ‘working’ simply involves chatting with people.”
“Ah.” She arched a brow, not quite warily, but perhaps a bit thoughtfully. “A reporter, then?”
“Wilson Banks.” He nodded. “I’m a reporter writing for Sensational News.”
She didn’t roll her eyes but wasn’t quite able to quell a smirk.
The vibrant man burst out laughing.
Wilson’s mouth quirked into a grin. He peddled bullshit; he knew that as well as they did. But it was well-paying bullshit, and he could laugh all the way to his investment adviser with his paycheck.
Putting one hand to his chest, and the other up in the air as if surrendering, the man sputtered, “Oliver Hughes, aka ‘Bigfoot.’ I don’t know how you managed to track me down.”
Wilson chuckled. “Nice to meet you, Oliver. I appreciate the, uh, intro, but I don’t think An interview with Bigfoot is the headline I’m shooting for.”
“You can’t say I didn’t offer.” Oliver’s eyes shone with merriment. Up close, the azure blue was arresting, and he didn’t appear to be wearing any kind of contacts, let alone the color-enhancing kind.
“Hughes?” Wilson lifted his brow. “Any relation to Lena and Chauncey at Hughes House?”
It was Carol’s turn to guffaw.
Oliver let out an exaggerated heavy sigh. “Lena insisted on using my first name on the website. Thought it sounded uber-dignified. For obvious reasons, I don’t use it. I go by my middle name.”
“Ah. Chauncey is a family name?”
“And you handle maintenance and take care of the grounds at the B&B?”
“Yeah.” He indicated the wagon. “And I get to make the semi-weekly rounds at the farmers’ market. None of which adds up to full-time work. Lena’s the primary force behind Hughes House. Mostly I’m a web designer, and a graphic artist in training.”
Bigfoot is a web designer! Jerry would probably love that headline. Or better yet, Bigfoot is a gay twink!
Wilson shivered. “Nice. You designed the Hughes House site? And Tallbear’s? Maintain them, too?”
“Yep.” Oliver stopped short of taking a bow, but it was clear from the way his back straightened that he was proud of his work.
“Impressive. I looked at them on only one browser. Are they consistent over all the major browsers?”
“Sure.” Oliver tilted his head as if to gauge the reason for Wilson’s interest in such specifics.
“A top priority.”
“Great. Currently Sensational News subcontracts out their web design and maintenance, but they’re looking to expand their web presence and move it all in-house. If there’s any chance you’d be interested in moving to Chicago, you could put together a presentation for them. They’re in the process of screening candidates.”
Carol’s eyes narrowed as she handed Wilson a napkin with a jam-laden cracker. Oliver, on the other hand, had a faraway look in his eyes. “I’ve always wanted…” His lips pressed together. He shook his head. “Thanks, but probably not. I’m pretty settled here.”
Carol gave a slight, tight, and probably subconscious nod.
Oliver gave an equally slight and tight shake to his head, as if convincing himself to switch gears. “Anyway, if you’ll be done with those interviews by evening, I could introduce you to Tallbear’s oh-so-hoppin’ nightlife.” He smirked. “Unless you’d rather spend it browsing Lena’s library at Hughes House.”
Wilson took the cracker from Carol’s hovering hand. “I’d like that. The nightlife, that is.” Although Oliver’s competition would have been that clawfoot tub rather than Lena’s books. “Thank you.”
“I’ll pick you up at eight.” His tone was decisive, and a touch dismissive.
Oliver swiftly completed his transaction with Carol. The bright streaks shone as his sleek black hair swayed with a parting nod to Wilson, and he moved on down the lane of produce sellers.
Carol put a hand on her hip as Wilson bit into the cracker. “I know damned well you didn’t come over here looking for jam, so no need to keep up the pretense.”
Wilson widened his eyes as the mix of sweet and tart—far fresher and crisper than anything he could purchase in a grocery aisle—flooded his taste buds. He swallowed and shook his head. “Even if you refuse to say another word, I still want to buy a couple of these.” He would have to check his bag to get around the security rules, but it would be worth it.
“There’s not much I can tell you, anyway. I’m not one who’s pushing a claim that they’ve seen Bigfoot, and I’m not that close with anyone who has. You’ll be better off talking directly to them.”
Interesting choice of words. She hadn’t “claimed” to have seen Bigfoot, not that she “hadn’t” seen him. Her. Them. But he had enough claimants to talk to already, so he didn’t push.
“It’s a tabloid, so yes, I’m going to include statements from people who insist they’ve seen Bigfoot, but I think the slant my story might take will be on the dangers of becoming too obsessed with proving it.”
He stared steadily into her eyes, unflinching, but with a stiffened back as he let that hang there. It would be obvious which case in particular he was referring to.
Her jaw tightened. “And what makes you think I could help you out there?”
“It was Lena’s suggestion, actually.”
The lines between her brows deepened, but she was listening.
“Obviously, Ida’s Wallace’s tragic death would have to be the focus of such a story. Lena—and I am in complete agreement—wants to make sure Ida is presented accurately and is personalized and not turned into a caricature for the sake of an entertaining story.”
Silence stretched for a few moments as Carol stared past Wilson, her lips pursed. Of course, she wouldn’t want her good friend’s death included at all, but like Lena, she was shrewd enough to know that was outside of her control.
Hell, it was outside Wilson’s control. That particular incident was the reason this town had been chosen as the focus of his assignment. If he didn’t write it, eventually some other tabloid would decide it was time to capitalize on the tragedy.
“Okay.” Her nod was almost imperceptible. She drew in a deep breath. “I don’t know anything beyond what was reported in the local news regarding what happened to her, and I can’t explain how or why Ida was there, but I can tell you what kind of person she was.”
Whether by happenstance or influenced by the change in atmosphere at Carol’s table, shoppers gave them a wide berth.
Some of the tension in his frame released. “Thank you.” He got her approval to record their conversation and set his phone on the table between them. “I understand Ida was a good friend of yours.”
“She was my best friend. A wonderful woman with more empathy in her little finger than many could muster up if their lives depended on it.” She narrowed her eyes at Wilson.
His scalp prickled, but he resisted the urge to lift his chin in defiance of her implication. He might be a bit jaded—it came with the job—but he wasn’t indifferent to human suffering. Ignoring the jibe, he nodded for her to continue.
“She married the love of her life right out of high school, but he died young, and she never remarried or had children of her own. Lena and Oliver were like surrogate children to her. She loved to take them to the park when they were little, and spent hours reading to them. That’s where Lena got her love of books.”
Wilson swallowed around the lump in his throat. This would add a nice emotional element to his story.
“She was active fighting for causes she believed in. She donated handmade quilts to benefit auctions. In particular, she became a warrior for LGBT human rights.”
“For her nephew?”
“Oliver’s coming out brought that cause to her attention, but she did it for everyone under the rainbow umbrella.” Her lips curled almost reluctantly. “She loved rainbows. She worked them into many of her crafts. She had a booth selling them here at the market.”
“What kind of things did she make?”
“Her lap quilts were highly coveted. They took time, so demand usually exceeded her supply. Her tote bags were big sellers. She made them in a variety of shapes and sizes. Her pillow covers did well, too.”
“She enjoyed sewing?”
“She loved to sew. She loved to create. And she loved to put that to good use promoting her causes, whether it was by donating product to fund-raisers, or by helping visibility.”
Wilson raised an eyebrow enquiringly.
“Rainbows have become a symbol for LGBT rights, and people know it. She liked to think that people proudly carrying her rainbow applique totes were raising awareness and stifling bigotry.”
“That kind of thing does help. She was right about that.”
Carol stared again beyond Wilson, as if picturing scenes from the past. “We went through school together.” She blew out a lengthy breath and shook her head, then looked steadily into Wilson’s eyes. “I’m going to tell you this next bit only because I figure someone will, and I want to get in my commentary to go with it rather than have it misconstrued.”
Wilson nodded silently, not wanting to risk her changing her mind.
“In high school, Ida and I ran with a fun group of kids. Some would say we were a wild bunch, but we were just having fun. We never did anything criminal.” She paused. “Well, I guess this was technically illegal, but not truly criminal.”
He blinked and gave a slight nod as if agreeing, although he had no idea to what.
“We didn’t’ get busted or anything, but everyone knew about it the next day. Knew who’d been involved. Most thought it was a fun joke. Only the overly straight-laced types had anything bad to say about it.”
Wilson held his breath.
She shook her head again and snorted a snickering little laugh. “Eight of us went streaking through the town square late one night. Arm in arm, two groups of four, singing ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are the Champions’at the top of our lungs.”
Wilson barked a short laugh. That was the kind of antic he’d always envied the braver, rowdier kids for having the balls to do when he’d been a staid tow-the-line teen. He’d been that way more because his dad would have thrown a full-blown shit-fit if he’d ever done such a thing than because he wouldn’t have enjoyed going along.
He grinned, hoping to reassure her. “I assume you’re concerned about how that looks in light of the circumstances in which she was found?”
“The whole nudity thing is what many have latched onto, as if it’s the only thing that matters, somehow defines her, or somehow makes it all her fault.”
“I don’t think it’s the only thing that matters, and it certainly doesn’t make what happened her fault, but it is…interesting. You haven’t mentioned her recent mental state. You’ve spoken as if she was completely lucid up until the incident.”
“And she was. She was not senile.”
“Was she a nudist in general?”
“No.” Carol’s tone was uncompromising. Then she shrugged. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that she wasn’t. The teenage caper and whatever brought on the birthday incident were apples and oranges, and to my knowledge she never went outdoors in the nude any time between those two incidents.”
Wilson cocked his head. “Birthday incident?”
“She died on her birthday.” Carol’s face screwed up. “We were going to go out later that evening to have dinner and see a movie.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Carol wiped her eyes and sighed. “Not that it really matters, I guess. It was horrific regardless of the day.”
“Yes.” An unspeakable tragedy, but all the more confusing in light of Carol’s revelation. He’d thought sixty seemed a little young for senility to have been a factor, but he’d assumed maybe early-onset Alzheimer’s or something like that. Something had to explain that odd behavior. “So, you’ve got no theories about what brought on her decision to go berry-foraging in the nude on Harold Clayton’s private property that day?”
Carol shook her head. “It’s inexplicable.”
At least she wasn’t working up any kind of conspiracy theory about Ida being the victim of some kind of elaborate murder plot.
“Well…” Wilson cleared his throat. “Thank you so much for talking with me about Ida. You’ve been very helpful, and I assure you I’ll treat her character sketch with the dignity and respect she deserves.”
He wasn’t yet sure how or even if he would work in the teenaged hijinks, but he liked her social-justice-warrior background, and how she’d been a hands-on aunt to her niece and nephew.
“She was a good woman,” Carol replied.
“Do you have anything to say about Harold Clayton?”
She sniffed. “Well, he sure wasn’t one of our streaking crowd. He was a couple years behind us in school and fit in better with the more conservative types.” She lifted a shoulder. “Still, he got along with everyone. I never had a problem with him. Before this.”
“I can’t look at him. What did he think would come of setting out a trap like that? Best case scenario he wouldn’t catch anything. There was a good chance he’d cripple a bear. Zero chance he’d catch a non-existent Bigfoot. He ended up killing a beautiful human being…” She went back to staring glassy-eyed into the distance.
“Do you believe his claim that he didn’t see her go back there?”
She nodded. “He wasn’t evil. Just…negligent. Beyond negligent, I guess, since he actively set that trap, but it wasn’t with the intent of hurting a person. And I don’t believe he would have let that happen on purpose.”
“Okay. Thank you, again. I appreciate your cooperation. I know it wasn’t easy for you to talk about this.”
She pursed her lips and nodded. “Don’t hurt Oliver. He’s a good kid.”
That came out of nowhere, and he didn’t sense she was referring to physical hurt. Oliver wasn’t a kid, and he knew that Wilson was here only for the weekend, so there would be no expectations of…anything beyond a single night of fun. Or possibly two, if all went well. But he nodded his agreement.
He turned off the recording app. As expected, she declined a photo, and he didn’t push it.
After slipping his jam purchases into the pockets of his windbreaker, he checked the time on his phone, then strode purposely toward his parked car.
He caught a glimpse of a sparkling dark head with streaks of color bobbing as its owner talked animatedly with another produce seller. He smiled, and his steps felt lighter as he thought beyond the afternoon’s interviews to the coming evening, and the band belted out the chorus to “Walking on Sunshine.”