Chasing Bigfoot: A Shifter Agents Standalone Storyby Lauren Esker / Fantasy / Romance & Love
A Shifter Agents standalone story
This takes place shortly after Guard Wolf and features characters from Handcuffed to the Bear.
Copyright ?Layla Lawlor/Lauren Esker 2016
Casey McClaren stepped down from the driver's side of the truck and took a deep breath of the pine-scented air. The trees pressed close around the clearing, a forest like a dark wall, draped with moss and gray with rain. Her hiking boots sank into mud, and she pulled the hood of her slicker over her head.
It was quiet here on the Olympic Peninsula, even with vehicles crowding the tiny parking lot at the trailhead. Disembodied voices floated to them from among the fog-draped trees, but here in the parking lot, the only sounds were the rain's soft patter and the pops and pings of the truck's cooling engine. When she concentrated, she could hear the distant drone of an engine, perhaps a jet or a vehicle elsewhere on the park road. But they were deep in the mountains here. Except for the road, this place could belong to a different, much earlier time.
This morning they'd left their downtown Seattle condo, picking up Starbucks on their way through town, just like any other day. Now, three hours later, they seemed to have not only left the city behind, but the entire century.
The passenger door slammed, and Agent Jack Ross grinned a winning, white-toothed smile at her over the roof as he snugged a Mariners cap down over his short dark hair, keeping the rain off his glasses. "You're lead on this one, Trainee McClaren."
Casey stuck her hands in the pockets of her slicker. "I still can't believe you gave me Bigfoot for my first field case. That's just not right."
"Hey, Bigfoot sightings are up this year, and we're the agency that deals with weird stuff. It can't all be secret mad science labs and rogue lion shifters, you know."
"Thank God," Casey muttered.
"Are you the federal agents?"
The speaker hurried down the gravel path to meet them at the edge of the parking lot. She was a small, dark woman, bundled in a yellow slicker over a beige uniform. "Shirley Bedeker, Park Service," she said, shaking first Jack's hand and then Casey's. "Thank you for coming out. I know this is a little irregular."
"This barely registers on the scale of irregular stuff we've seen, believe me," Jack said. He glanced at Casey, his expression encouraging.
You're lead on this one. Apparently that meant she'd be asking the questions too. Casey straightened her back and tried to project an air of confidence and self-assuredness, though she suspected it only looked like she'd had a little too much coffee. "Can you show us the damaged structure, please?"
"Of course." Shirley Bedeker led the way with a rapid, ground-eating stride. "I really hate to bother you, because I'm sure it's a hoax. We get a few of them every year. But rarely with this level of vandalism, or, er ... persistence."
Jack gave Casey another encouraging look. She fumbled in her pocket and pulled out a notebook, on the general principle that a proper investigator ought to have a notebook, only realizing as she flipped it open that a completely blank notebook, fresh from Staples, wasn't going to make the hoped-for impression. Still, she pushed onward. "On the phone, you said this was the fourth incident this year, correct?"
"Yes, although it's hard to say if they're all the same people. Unfortunately, we always have some vandalism, as well as occasional bear damage. But this time, there are-wait, stop." She paused at a pair of traffic cones, blocking off part of the path. "Look here."
A set of footprints were clearly impressed where the gravel turned to mud at the path's edge. They were bare, human-looking, and each was at least eighteen inches long.
"Fake?" Jack asked.
"Of course they're fake. It's not the first time someone's come up here with rubber feet and made Sasquatch footprints. But combined with the vandalism, it's really too much."
She pointed up the trail, where the massive pines and cedars thinned out in a clearing at the trailhead, and Jack and Casey got a look at what had been a set of bathroom facilities.
Now, there was nothing but wreckage. The roofs of the two small buildings had been pulled off, the walls dragged down. The rubble was spread over several dozen square yards, looking forlorn in the rain. About a dozen people in slickers or ponchos wandered about the wreckage, taking pictures, pouring plaster to make casts of whatever they found on the ground, and murmuring to each other in low voices.
"Investigators?" Casey asked Bedeker.
Bedeker's face assumed a long-suffering expression. "Squatchers."
"What?" Casey asked blankly.
"Sasquatch hunters," Jack put in. "The Bigfoot brigade. They're all over around here."
"Honestly, most of them are good people," Bedeker said. "They contribute to the local economy and don't leave the place a mess. At times like this, though, I wish they didn't have quite such a well-organized grapevine. They even managed to beat the police out here."
Casey prodded at a downed piece of the wall with the muddy toe of her hiking boot, lifting it to reveal another partial Bigfoot print. "This just happened last night, right?"
"Yes. We reported it to the police, of course, but it's not a high priority for-Oh, excuse me!" She headed off across the clearing toward a cluster of people leaning over a strand of yellow CAUTION tape. "Excuse me, that area is off limits."
"What do you think?" Casey asked Jack in an undertone. He'd squatted down to examine a shattered chunk of the roof. "This was vandals, right? A bear couldn't have done this."
"Well, I definitely know bears don't make rubber Bigfoot tracks. At least, the non-shifting kind don't." He touched the splintered edges. "A bear would have the strength. But the damage would look different. There should be claw marks and signs of biting. Bears don't tear things up for fun. They're looking for food. And this looks more like human-caused destruction."
"Using what?" Casey asked, looking around at the scattered pieces of the buildings. "A bulldozer?"
"You could do a remarkable amount of damage simply by hooking a rope to the tow hitch of a pickup truck. Sometimes people can be-"
A camera went off in their direction with a flash of light.
Casey spun around. The photographer, a punk-styled young woman, was squinting through the viewfinder of a cheap digital camera at them, holding a plastic bag over it with her other hand. Half her head was shaved and the hair on the other half was teased up into a tousled white-blond perm, with pink and blue streaks in the front, now wilting in the drizzle. She wore an oversized WSU hoodie, hiking boots, and-despite the chilly weather-a pair of tan cargo shorts that left her legs bare. Or ... her leg. The right was flesh and blood; the left was a high-tech black and chrome prosthetic with a rubber cover wrapped around the knee to keep the rain off. The cover had a skull spray-painted on it in Day-Glo pink.
"Miss Moreland," Jack said. "I take it this is Bigfoot week?"
"Every week is Bigfoot week in the Pacific Northwest, Agent Ross." She gave him a cheery smile.
"Casey, meet Peri Moreland, Seattle's number one conspiracy theorist."
"Oh, that's flattering, but you should know I'm number four or five at best." Moreland continued to photograph the shattered remains of the rest area as she spoke. "Any comment on the reports of werewolf activity in downtown Seattle, Agent Ross?"
"Rumors," Jack said. "Rumors of werewolf activity. Halloween was a week ago, Miss Moreland. As one professional to another, I shouldn't have to tell you that the supernatural rumor mill goes nuts at this time of year."
"As one professional to another, what does your agency do all day, Agent Ross?" Peri Moreland inquired. "Can it be we're out here for the same reason?"
"Obviously we are, but I think the two of us are expecting different outcomes."
The look of irritation that crossed Moreland's face appeared to be genuine. "I never said I believed in Bigfoot, Agent. I'm here for the truth, that's all." She gave him a long, searching look. "Something I believe your agency knows a little more of than they'd like to admit."
She strode off. The prosthesis didn't seem to slow her down.
"I sincerely hope she didn't lose that leg in a tragic encounter with a shifter or anything like that," Casey murmured. "Er, she's not a shifter herself, is she?" It still annoyed Casey that, unlike most shifters, she couldn't identify others of her kind by sight. She and Jack guessed it was something to do with Casey having grown up away from other shifters, raised by her non-shifting grandmother. Or maybe it was simply a minor disability; Jack said the shifters' ability to sense each other varied from person to person, and some didn't have it at all, like color-blindness in humans.
"No to both of those questions. Well, as far as I know. She's just a persistent thorn in our side."
"Who happens to be right," Casey pointed out.
"Yeah, I know. But we can't exactly tell her that."
Jack pulled a camera from his pocket and began snapping photos of the wreckage. The two of them worked their way over to where Shirley Bedeker was scolding a not-very-chastised-looking pair of college-age kids about staying on trails. A large section of the woods at the edge of the clearing was cordoned off with the CAUTION tape.
"What's behind there?" Casey asked, peering over it herself. All she saw was forest floor. "Tracks?"
"No, this is one of the few places in the park where we have an established patch of Pacific white arnica." Bedeker pointed proudly to a scraggly weed that looked, to Casey, indistinguishable from the other half-dead weeds around it. "It's very rare. The park is the only place in the state where it can still be found, and it doesn't transplant well."
Jack looked like he was suppressing a grin. "Okay if we ask you some questions about the other vandalized buildings? You said there were several other incidents."
"Come here and I'll show you on the map."
Where the trail left the clearing and entered the woods, there was a large map on a signboard. Bedeker pointed to the "You Are Here" button and then traced her finger up the trail, to a location seven or eight miles away. "The most recent one was the Cross Creek warmup shelter, two weeks ago."
"Was it the same thing?" Casey asked. "A destroyed building with Bigfoot tracks around it?"
Bedeker nodded. "Unlike the trailhead here, the Cross Creek cabin is accessible only by an ATV road, and there was no sign of recent vehicle activity. We assumed a bear had done it, and that the tracks were added later by someone else playing a hoax. Before that ..." Her finger moved along the trail. "Some of the interpretive signs on the canyon loop trail were damaged this summer, and a boardwalk through the wetlands was torn up around the same time. A little damage during peak season isn't unusual, and it wasn't until the most recent incidents that we started to think they might be related."
"They're escalating," Jack said thoughtfully.
"I'm afraid it looks that way. The damage to the Cross Creek cabin wasn't so extensive. We'll be able to repair it before the start of the spring tourist season. This, though ..." She spread her hands helplessly at the devastation in the clearing. "The rest area will have to be completely rebuilt, and we haven't got the money for it."
Thinking about the destruction as the result of human agency, not a curious animal, gave Casey an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. "They must have been very angry," she said.
Jack gave her a look that was a little curious and, she thought, approving.
"More likely drunk," Bedeker said. "Kids get wasted, come out and cause trouble. This isn't the first time it's happened, though this is the worst I've seen since I've been working here."
"I suppose so," Casey said, but she was thinking that the thoroughness of the destruction around her spoke of fury, not boredom.
"Okay if we walk back on the trails, take a look around?" Jack asked.
"Of course. Let me know if you have any more questions." Bedeker looked ruefully at the downed pieces of the buildings. "I'll be here for a while yet, keeping an eye on this bunch. Do you need this left in place, or is it all right if we start cleaning up the site?"
Casey looked at Jack, who said, "Can you wait until tomorrow to start cleaning up?"
"I guess an extra day is hardly going to make a difference." Bedeker sighed heavily, and turned around. "No, you can't be over there-"
Jack flashed Casey a quick grin and jerked his head at the woods. The two of them started into the woods on the trail that led to the other vandalized cabin. Casey put away her notebook, empty except for a couple of scribbled notations on the other incidents and a doodle of a stick-figure Bigfoot with a question mark above its head.
"That's a good point about the culprit being angry," Jack said, as they left the commotion of the clearing behind. "I was thinking something along those lines, too."
Casey tried not to preen. "Maybe someone who's trying to make a protest statement? Like, about government waste or something."
"But that doesn't go along with a Bigfoot hoax," Jack pointed out. "Though it's possible they were right the first time, and the Bigfoot tracks were left by different people than the vandals."
The wet weather and the heavy coating of moss on every tree and boulder dampened sound, lending an eerie hush to the forest. In her two-legged shape, Casey's sense of smell wasn't much keener than a normal human's, but the damp weather held scents that even her blunt human nose could detect, and her lynx instincts stirred. As an urban shifter, she didn't often get a chance to experience the deep woods.
"Are we hiking all the way up to the other cabin today?" With the clammy chill in the air, she sincerely hoped not.
"What, the vandalized one? No, not right now. I was thinking we'll find out more if we're able to sniff around, literally."
"Ah," she said. "Find somewhere to shift."
By now, twists and turns of the trail had taken them far enough from the trailhead that Casey could no longer hear human voices, except when a trick of wind or distance carried a snatch of conversation to her ears. It might not be truly private back here, but it felt like it.
She brought her hand near Jack's, but couldn't quite decide if it was unprofessional and inappropriate to hold hands or not, even if no one was watching. They were still figuring out the balance between having a relationship and working together in the field. The SCB had no policy against dating co-workers, and Jack wasn't her official superior, although much of her training thus far had been with him. Casey only knew that she didn't want to screw up either of these things: her relationship with Jack, which was still new and tentative-they'd only known each other for four months-but at the same time the best thing she'd ever known; and her job with the SCB, which had given her new purpose and direction after she had lost virtually everything.
Jack smiled down at her and brushed the backs of his fingers against the backs of hers. Then he stepped off the trail into the damp foliage, fading behind the thick bole of an evergreen festooned with moss. "Keep lookout for me, and then I'll cover you."
"What do we do with our clothes?" she asked, taking up a station in front of the tree.
Jack took a trash bag from his jacket pocket and shook it out. "Way ahead of you."
"Wow, you thought of everything."
"I hate wearing wet pants."
Casey tilted her head to keep an eye out down the path while also, from the corner of her eye, watching Jack sliding his jeans over narrow hips. "Gotta say, I heard the view was nice in this park, but I had no idea."
Jack laughed. He folded his glasses and tucked them into a pocket of his jacket before packing it in the bag. "Before you shift, make sure this is well hidden behind the tree. Hate to have some hiker walk off with our wallets and car keys."
He stood naked now, hip-deep in ferns. Before Casey could properly soak in the image, he leaned forward and shifted. The enormous grizzly bear erupted from Jack's muscular, tattooed body. Casey caught her breath; she never tired of watching his smooth, effortless shifts.
Jack raised his head, pricking his round, furry ears. His muzzle wrinkled as he scented the wind. Muscles rippled under blond-tipped brown fur as he waded through the ferns onto the trail.
"We're going to scare the hell out of any hikers who spot us," Casey said, taking his place behind the tree.
Jack made a huffing sound.
"Same to you, buddy." One of the problems with shifting was that they couldn't talk; the throats and vocal cords of their animal forms were unable to accommodate human speech. A shifter got good at using body language to convey meaning, though, and right now she was reading Jack's impatience loud and clear. She didn't blame him. There weren't many opportunities for a giant grizzly to shift in the middle of downtown Seattle. It had been awhile since Jack got to stretch his grizzly's legs.
Gooseflesh prickled on her bare skin as she folded one item after another into the big black trash bag. She shook mud and water off her hiking boots before putting them on top of her slicker, standing with her bare feet sunk deep in cool moss. November wasn't yet cold enough to snow, at least not this low in the mountains, but she could feel the wintry chill in the air. Shivering, she stuffed the bag among the tree's gnarled roots, rearranging the ferns to cover it. Then she let her lynx side take over.
The world remapped itself from a place built primarily of visual input to a multi-dimensional world of sound, smell, and sight. Damp air held scent marvelously well. Casey pricked her tufted lynx ears and opened her jaws, inhaling the wet air and sifting through a richness of forest smells, telling her the tale of all the tiny rustling lives of the small creatures in the rainforest understory around her.
Jack gave another impatient snort. Casey yowled back and trotted out of the ferns, shedding water easily from the long guard hairs of her heavy gray-and-yellow spotted coat. She was no longer cold in the slightest. The moist November afternoon felt perfectly comfortable, the damp forest floor pleasantly cool on her footpads.
Jack bumped her with his shoulder and leaned his head down to sniff at the ground. Bears didn't look it, but they had an incredibly sensitive sense of smell, as acute as a bloodhound's. Casey was no slouch in that department herself, however. She sniffed too, getting mingled human and animal scents, new and old. There had been any number of humans over this path, as well as the tantalizing tickle of squirrels and mice, the mouth-watering fragrance of deer.
Old bear scent, but nothing recent. If a Bigfoot had been around, she couldn't tell, though she wasn't sure what it might smell like. There were always going to be scents that couldn't be pinned down; it was like standing on a city streetcorner and trying to identify the exact source of every sound. Rotting fungus could be indistinguishable from a corpse-and indeed, in this wet Pacific rainforest, she smelled a lot of decay, the heavy earthy scents of leaf-mold and mushrooms and probably some carrion off in the forest somewhere. Human scents were equally diverse. People came to the forest wearing Axe, wearing Chanel, wearing patchouli. They came in brand-new sneakers and in old, broken-down ones; they came wearing new vinyl rain gear, and they came wearing old rain boots that had been used to tramp around a farm, still bearing traces of manure and tobacco.
After they'd both had some time to sniff around, Jack raised his head and jerked his muzzle toward the trailhead, then dipped it to her. Another eloquent jerk of his head angled in the other direction.
Split up? She wished they'd discussed the plan when they could still talk. Damn it, Avery had warned her about this. Jack worked best as a loner. Even as many years as he'd been working with the SCB, and with his usual partner Avery, he'd never quite gained the habit of telling other people what the hell he was up to.
And now he was shuffling off into the forest. Thanks, lover, Casey tried to project in his direct, in disdainful lynx-speak. I appreciate all the detailed instructions.
Nevertheless, she was fairly sure what he wanted her to do. She was smaller and less conspicuous, and therefore more useful at the trailhead. A huge boar grizzly would have all the locals either running for their cars or grabbing cameras, while a lynx could lurk unnoticed in the undergrowth ... and sniff around for anything unusual while she was at it.
She trotted up the path, back in the direction she'd come, sniffing the air alertly for anything out of place. A cigarette butt, long since drowned in the rain-thanks for smoking in a national park, dumbass. A used condom-ewwww, seriously? A fast-moving squirrel bent on business elsewhere-no, do not chase; we are well fed on bagels and Starbucks coffee right now.
She stepped off the path into the ferns as the trailhead neared. Allowing instinct to take over, she crept forward on soundless furry paws, letting her lynx hindbrain set each foot in the track of the one before. Many was the time that a human could pass within feet of a wild predator in heavy undergrowth and never even realize it was there. The noisy comings and goings of domestic animals, or the humans who owned them, were anathema to a wild creature such as Casey now was.
From the edge of the woods, with ears flat, Casey watched the humans in the clearing bustle about, taking video and pictures. She saw it on two levels: her human mind still remembered and understood what they were doing and why, but her lynx instincts registered a hive of incomprehensible human activity. She had to concentrate to keep her mind on why she was there.
She began to prowl cautiously through the trees just beyond the edges of the clearing, scenting the leaves and ground as she went. There was little chance of picking up the vandal's trail. If they'd gotten here before Park Service employees, police, and Bigfoot hunters had traipsed all over the area, the odds would have been better. It would still have been hard to pick out the vandal's scent from that of the other people who had used the trailhead recently, though.
She wished she could go into the clearing and sniff around properly. She made a mental note to suggest to Jack that they come back at night, after everyone was gone. It was still unlikely that they could pick up the vandal's trail at this point, but maybe they could find something ...
Her ears pricked up and her whiskers twitched. That wasn't a human smell. In fact, it was a smell she'd become very familiar with, after months of dating Jack.
Not a big surprise-the park was probably full of them-but the timing was interesting. Maybe the damage really had been done by a bear, after all.
Or a bear shifter? It wasn't possible to tell by smell, at least according to Jack; you had to be physically close to another shifter to identify them as such. Not that she could have anyway.
Casey focused on trying to follow that elusive scent to its source. The bear hadn't been on the trail, or she would have smelled it there, but it must have entered and left the clearing at some point. If she could pick up its trail through the ferny undergrowth, she could find where it had gone.
The smell was much stronger here ... and, huh. She was now looking at more Bigfoot tracks under the ferns. A Bigfoot that smelled like a bear? She snuffled at the tracks, her nose almost touching the indentation of the bare foot. The strongest smell here was a plasticky smell. This track was artificial, then. It had been made with some kind of plastic object. But it appeared to have been made right on top of the bear tracks, which was curious-
A twig snapped.
Casey's fur bristled. She looked up, and found herself staring into the eyes of a human. It was the punk girl, Moreland.
From the look of things, Moreland had followed the Bigfoot tracks into the edge of the woods, snapping pictures of them. And Casey had been so caught up in her own scent-trailing that she'd allowed herself to be snuck up on. No wild lynx would ever have been caught off guard like this. How embarrassing.
"Oh," Moreland said softly. "Hello."
Casey wasn't quite sure what to do. What did a wild lynx do, when confronted by a human? She settled for a baffled stare, with ears at half-mast. It wasn't too different from what her human side wanted to do under those circumstances.
Moreland brought up her camera carefully. Casey experienced a blank moment of terror before remembering that her shifter nature wasn't visible to normal humans, let alone detectible on a photograph. Still, she turned her head to the side, so Moreland caught her profile instead of getting her face from the front. Even as a lynx, she couldn't bring herself to stare directly into a camera flash without squinting.
"Oh, nice," Moreland whispered, reviewing the photo on the camera's viewfinder. She looked up and snapped another.
Casey realized that she could easily be stuck here all day, playing artist's model. She shook her damp fur and walked off into the woods, following the scent of bear. Moreland took a few more pictures until Casey managed to put some ferns and the trunk of a tree between herself and the camera.
Were there naturally occurring lynx in the park? Well, if not, maybe a lynx sighting would be a nice change from Bigfoot.
She couldn't pick up the bear trail again. All the scent seemed to be concentrated around the clearing. Had it left the other way, and walked down the road?
Or shifted, got in a car and drove away ...
She made a broad loop through the woods and came back to the trail near the place where they had left their clothes. Jack was already dressed and waiting for her. She was a little disappointed; she'd been hoping to have a chance to hunt in the woods with him. They hardly ever got to do that. Maybe before they headed back to civilization ...
She shifted behind the tree. Jack handed her clothes back to her, with an appreciative smile. "You look like a wood nymph back there."
"Yeah, well, I feel like a human-sized goose bump." The dank chill had settled on her immediately as soon as she shifted out of her lynx form, made worse by the fact that her fur had been damp, so now her skin was equally damp. The lynx's underfur had remained dry, but Casey's bare skin had no such protection. She stamped clammy feet into her boots and huddled in her slicker.
"Find anything?" Jack asked, and Casey wondered if he'd given her the clearing not just because a grizzly was more conspicuous, but also to give her a chance to examine the crime scene without having a more experienced agent looking over her shoulder. The level of trust made her feel a little tingly.
"I did, actually." She told him about the bear scent as they started walking back toward the trailhead.
"Interesting. I did get a few whiffs of bear all along the trail, but it wasn't recent. Just regular bears wandering around the park, I thought. But if there are our kind of bear in the area, could be that too."
"Do you know if there are any?" Casey asked. Their werewolf coworker Avery Hollen kept track of all the werewolf packs in the state, but wolf shifters were a little unusual that way.
"I don't know. Most bear shifters are loners by nature, so this is a likely place for one of us to live. You'd think the last thing a bear shifter would want to do is trash the place and attract attention, though."
"They're individuals, like any people are," Casey pointed out. "Maybe it's someone who's got a grudge against the Park Service for reasons having nothing to do with being a bear. Or maybe because they're a bear, they resent the government's bear-related policies ... oh, I don't know. Are there any federal bear policies? Anyway, the point is, just knowing they're a shifter doesn't really help."
They were in sight of the clearing again, and Jack slowed to a stop. Casey looked down and found that she'd taken his hand without meaning to as they walked, her fingers curling into his as if they were made to fit there.
Jack brought her hand to his lips and kissed it, then let it go, switching back to "serious agent" demeanor. "What next? You're lead on this one, remember."
"I was thinking we could come back at night, when we can look around without anyone seeing us. Maybe we can figure out if our mystery bear really is a bear shifter, and if so, where they went."
"Good plan. How do you feel about a campout?"
"I'd feel better about it if our camping equipment wasn't on the other side of Puget Sound." She rubbed her arms; she still hadn't completely warmed up.
"We don't need camping equipment. We have our own, built in."
"Fine, you can eat raw rabbit for dinner. I'm planning to find a restaurant."