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I Was a Teenage Bigfoot

Jim Butcher

  I Was a Teenage Bigfoot


  There are times when, as a professional wizard, my vocation calls me to the great outdoors, and that night I was in the northwoods of Wisconsin with a mixed pack of researchers, enthusiasts and . . . well. Nerds.

  “I don’t know, man,” said a skinny kid named Nash. “What’s his name again?”

  I poked the small campfire I’d set up earlier with a stick and pretended that they weren’t standing less than ten feet away from me. The forest made forest sounds like it was supposed to. Full dark had fallen less than half an hour before.

  “Harry Dresden,” said Gary, a plump kid with a cell phone, a GPS unit, and some kind of video game device on his belt. “Supposed to be a psychic or something.” He was twiddling deft fingers over the surface of what they call a “smart” phone, these days. Hell, the damned things are probably smarter than me. “Supposed to have helped Chicago PD a bunch of times. I’d pull up the Internet references, but I can’t get reception out here.”

  “A psychic?” Nash said. “How is anyone ever supposed to take our research seriously if we keep showing up with fruitcakes like that?”

  Gary shrugged. “Doctor Sinor knows him or something.”

  Doctor Sinor had nearly been devoured by an ogre in a suburban park one fine summer evening, and I’d gotten her out in one piece. Like most people who have a brush with the supernatural, she’d rationalized the truth away as rapidly as possible—which had led her to participate in such fine activities as tonight’s Bigfoot expedition in her spare time.

  “Gentlemen,” Sinor said, impatiently. She was a blocky, no-nonsense type, grey-haired and straight-backed. “If you could help me with these speakers, we might actually manage to blast a call or two before dawn.”

  Gary and Nash both hustled over to the edge of the firelight to start messing about with the equipment the troop of researchers had packed in. There were half a dozen of them, altogether, all of them busy with trail cameras and call blasting speakers and scent markers and audio recorders.

  I pulled a sandwich out of my pocket and started eating it. I took my time about it. I was in no hurry.

  For those of you who don’t know it, a forest at night is dark. Sometimes pitch-black. There was no moon to speak of in the sky, and the light of the stars doesn’t make it more than a few inches into a mixed canopy of deciduous trees and evergreens. The light from my little campfire and the hand-held flashlights of the researchers soon gave the woods all the light there was.

  Their equipment wasn’t working very well—my bad, probably. Modern technology doesn’t get on well with the magically gifted. For about an hour, nothing much happened beyond the slapping of mosquitoes and a lot of electronic noises squawking from the loudspeakers.

  Then the researchers got everything online and went through their routine. They played primate calls over the speakers and then dutifully recorded the forest afterward. Everything broke down again. The researchers soldiered on, repairing things, and eventually Gary tried wood-knocking, which meant banging on trees with fallen limbs and waiting to hear if there was a response.

  I liked Doctor Sinor, but I had asked to come strictly as a ride-along and I didn’t pitch in with her team’s efforts.

  The whole “let’s find Bigfoot” thing seems a little ill-planned to me, personally. Granted, my perspective is different from that of non-wizards, but marching out into the woods looking for a very large and very powerful creature by blasting out what you’re pretty sure are territorial challenges to fight (or else mating calls) seems . . . somewhat unwise.

  I mean, if there’s no Bigfoot, no problem. But what if you’re standing there, screaming “Bring it on!” and find a Bigfoot?

  Worse yet, what if he finds you?

  Even worse, what if you were screaming, “Do me, baby!” and he finds you then?

  Is it me? Am I crazy? Or does the whole thing just seem like a recipe for trouble?

  So anyway, while I kept my little fire going, the Questionably Wise Research Variety Act continued until after midnight. That’s when I looked up to see a massive form standing at the edge of the trees, in the very outskirts of the light of my dying fire.

  I’m in the ninety-ninth percentile for height, myself, but this guy was tall. My head might have come up to his collarbone, barely, assuming I had correctly estimated where his collarbone was under the long, shaggy, dark brown hair covering him. It wasn’t long enough to hide the massive weight of muscle he carried on that enormous frame or the simple, disturbing, very slightly inhuman proportions of his body. His face was broad, blunt, with a heavy brow ridge that turned his eyes into mere gleams of reflected light.

  Most of all, there was a sense of awesome power granted to his presence by his size alone, chilling even to someone who had seen big things in action before. There’s a reaction to something that much bigger than you, an automatic assumption of menace that is built into the human brain: Big equals dangerous.

  It took about fifteen seconds before the first researcher, Gary I think, noticed and let out a short gasp. In my peripheral vision, I saw the entire group turn toward the massive form by the fire and freeze into place. The silence was brittle crystal.

  I broke it by bolting up from my seat and letting out a high-pitched shriek.

  Half a dozen other screams joined it, and I whirled as if to flee, only to see Doctor Sinor and crew hotfooting it down the path we’d followed into the woods, back toward the cars.

  I held it in for as long as I could, and only after I was sure that they wouldn’t hear it did I let loose the laughter bubbling in my chest. I sank back onto my log by the fire, laughing, and beckoning the large form forward.

  “Harry,” rumbled the figure in a very, very deep voice, the words marked with the almost indefinable clippings of a Native American accent. “You have an unsophisticated sense of humor.”

  “I can’t help it,” I said, wiping at tears of laughter. “It never gets old.” I waved to the open ground across the fire from me. “Sit, sit, be welcome, big brother.”

  “Appreciate it,” rumbled the giant and squatted down across the fire from me, touching fingers the size of cucumbers to his heart in greeting. His broad, blunt face was amused. “So. Got any smokes?”

  It wasn’t the first time I’d done business with the Forest People. They’re old school. There’s a certain way one goes about business with someone considered a peer, and Strength of a River in His Shoulders was an old school kind of guy. There were proprieties to be observed.

  So we shared a thirty-dollar cigar, which I’d brought, had some S’mores, which I made, and sipped from identical plastic bottles of Coca-Cola, which I had purchased. By the time we were done, the fire had burned down to glowing embers, which suited me fine—and I knew that River Shoulders would be more comfortable in the near-dark, too. I didn’t mind being the one to provide everything. It would have been a hassle for River Shoulders to do it, and we’d probably be smoking, eating, and drinking raw and unpleasant things if he had.

  Besides, it was worth it. The Forest People had been around long before the great gold rushes of the nineteenth century, and they were loaded. River Shoulders had paid my retainer with a gold nugget the size of a golf ball, the last time I’d done business with him.

  “Your friends,” he said, nodding toward the disappeared researchers. “They going to come back?”

  “Not before dawn,” I said. “For all they know, you got me.”

  River Shoulders’ chest rumbled with a sound that was both amused and not entirely pleased. “Like my people don’t have enough stigmas already.”

  “You want to clear things up, I can get you on the Larry Fowler show any time you want.”<
br />
  River Shoulders shuddered—given his size, it was a lot of shuddering. “TV rots the brains of people who see it. Don’t even want to know what it does to the people who make it.”

  I snorted. “I got your message,” I said. “I am here.”

  “And so you are,” he said. He frowned, an expression that was really sort of terrifying on his features. I didn’t say anything. You just don’t rush the Forest People. They’re patient on an almost alien level, compared to human beings, and I knew that our meeting was already being conducted with unseemly haste, by River Shoulders’ standards. Finally, he swigged a bit more Coke, the bottle looking tiny in his vast hands, and sighed. “There is a problem with my son. Again.”

  I sipped some Coke and nodded, letting a little time pass before I answered. “Irwin was a fine, strong boy when I last saw him.”

  The conversation continued with contemplative pauses between each bit of speech. “He is sick.”

  “Children sometimes grow sick.”

  “Not children of the Forest People.”

  “What, never?”

  “No, never. And I will not quote Gilbert and Sullivan.”

  “Their music was silly and fine.”

  River Shoulders nodded agreement. “Indeed.”

  “What can you tell me of your son’s sickness?”

  “His mother tells me the school’s doctor says he has something called mah-no.”

  “Mono,” I said. “It is a common illness. It is not dangerous.”

  “An illness could not touch one born of the Forest People,” River Shoulders rumbled.

  “Not even one with only one parent of your folk?” I asked.

  “Indeed,” he said. “Something else must therefore be happening. I am concerned for Irwin’s safety.”

  The fire let out a last crackle and a brief, gentle flare of light, showing me River Shoulders clearly. His rough features were touched with the same quiet worry I’d seen on dozens and dozens of my clients’ faces.

  “He still doesn’t know who you are, does he.”

  The giant shifted his weight slightly as if uncomfortable. “Your society is, to me, irrational and bewildering. Which is good. Can’t have everyone the same, or the earth would get boring.”

  I thought about it for a moment and then said, “You feel he has problems enough to deal with already.”

  River Shoulders spread his hands, as if my own words had spotlighted the truth.

  I nodded, thought about it, and said, “We aren’t that different. Even among my people, a boy misses his father.”

  “A voice on a telephone is not a father,” he said.

  “But it is more than nothing,” I said. “I have lived with a father and without a father. With one was better.”

  The silence stretched extra-long.

  “In time,” the giant responded, very quietly. “For now, my concern is his physical safety. I cannot go to him. I spoke to his mother. We ask someone we trust to help us learn what is happening.”

  I didn’t agree with River Shoulders about talking to his kid, but that didn’t matter. He wasn’t hiring me to get parenting advice, about which I had no experience to call upon anyway. He needed help looking out for the kid. So I’d do what I could to help him. “Where can I find Irwin?”

  “Chicago,” he said. “St. Mark’s Academy for the Gifted and Talented.”

  “Boarding school. I know the place.” I finished the Coke and rose. “It will be my pleasure to help the Forest People once again.”

  The giant echoed my actions, standing. “Already had your retainer sent to your account. By morning, his mother will have granted you the power of a turnkey.”

  It took me a second to translate River Shoulders’ imperfect understanding of mortal society. “Power of attorney,” I corrected him.

  “That,” he agreed.

  “Give her my best.”

  “Will,” he said, and touched his thick fingertips to his massive chest.

  I put my fingertips to my heart in reply and nodded up to my client. “I’ll start in the morning.”

  It took me most of the rest of the night to get back down to Chicago, go to my apartment, and put on my suit. I’m not a suit guy. For one thing, when you’re NBA sized, you don’t exactly get to buy them off the rack. For another, I just don’t like them—but sometimes they’re a really handy disguise, when I want people to mistake me for someone grave and responsible. So I put on the grey suit with a crisp white shirt and a clip-on tie, and headed down to St. Mark’s.

  The academy was an upper-end place in the suburbs north of Chicago, and was filled with the offspring of the city’s luminaries. They had their own small, private security force. They had wrought iron gates and brick walls and ancient trees and ivy. They had multiple buildings on the grounds, like a miniature university campus, and, inevitably, they had an administration building. I started there.

  It took me a polite quarter of an hour to get the lady in the front office to pick up the fax granting me power of attorney from Irwin’s mom, the archeologist, who was in the field somewhere in Canada. It included a description of me, and I produced both my ID and my investigator’s license. It took me another half an hour of waiting to be admitted to the office of the dean, Doctor Fabio.

  “Doctor Fabio,” I said. I fought valiantly not to titter when I did.

  Fabio did not offer me a seat. He was a good-looking man of sober middle age, and his eyes told me that he did not approve of me in the least, even though I was wearing the suit.

  “Ms. Pounder’s son is in our infirmary, receiving care from a highly experienced nurse practitioner and a physician who visits three days a week,” Doctor Fabio told me, when I had explained my purpose. “I assure you he is well cared for.”

  “I’m not the one who needs to be assured of anything,” I replied. “His mother is.”

  “Then your job here is finished,” said Fabio.

  I shook my head. “I kinda need to see him, Doctor.”

  “I see no need to disrupt either Irwin’s recovery or our academic routine, Mister Dresden,” Fabio replied. “Our students receive some of the most intensive instruction in the world. It demands a great deal of focus and drive.”

  “Kids are resilient,” I said. “And I’ll be quiet like a mouse. They’ll never know I was there.”

  “I’m sorry,” he replied, “but I am not amenable to random investigators wandering the grounds.”

  I nodded seriously. “Okay. In that case, I’ll report to Doctor Pounder that you refused to allow her duly appointed representative to see her son, and that I cannot confirm his well-being. At which point I am confident that she will either radio for a plane to pick her up from her dig site, or else backpack her way out. I think the good doctor will view this with alarm and engage considerable maternal protective instinct.” I squinted at Fabio. “Have you actually met Doctor Pounder?”

  He scowled at me.

  “She’s about yay tall,” I said, putting a hand at the level of my temples. “And she works outdoors for a living. She looks like she could wrestle a Sasquatch.” Heh. Among other things.

  “Are you threatening me?” Doctor Fabio asked.

  I smiled. “I’m telling you that I’m way less of a disruption than Mama Bear will be. She’ll be a headache for weeks. Give me half an hour, and then I’m gone.”

  Fabio glowered at me.

  St. Mark’s infirmary was a spotless, well-ordered place, located immediately adjacent to its athletics building. I was walked there by a young man named Steve, who wore a spotless, well-ordered security uniform.

  Steve rapped his knuckles on the frame of the open doorway and said, “Visitor to see Mister Pounder.”

  A young woman who looked entirely too nice for the likes of Doctor Fabio and Steve looked up from a crossword puzzle. She had chestnut-colored hair, rimless glasses, and had a body that could be readily appreciated even beneath her cheerfully patterned scrubs.

  “Well,” I said. “He
llo, nurse.”

  “I can’t think of a sexier first impression than a man quoting Yakko and Wakko Warner,” she said, her tone dry.

  I sauntered in and offered her my hand. “Me neither. Harry Dresden, PI.”

  “Jen Gerard. There are some letters that go after, but I used them all on the crossword.” She shook my hand and eyed Steve. “Everyone calls me Nurse Jen. The flying monkeys let you in, eh?”

  Steve looked professionally neutral. He folded his arms.

  Nurse Jen flipped her wrists at him. “Shoo, shoo. If I’m suddenly attacked I’ll scream like a girl.”

  “No visitors without a security presence,” Steve said firmly.

  “Unless they’re richer than a guy in a cheap suit,” Nurse Jen said archly. She smiled sweetly at Steve and shut the infirmary door. It all but bumped the end of his nose. She turned back to me and said, “Doctor Pounder sent you?”

  “She’s at a remote location,” I said. “She wanted someone to get eyes on her son and make sure he was okay. And for the record, it wasn’t cheap.”

  Nurse Jen snorted and said, “Yeah, I guess a guy your height doesn’t get to shop off the rack, does he.” She led me across the first room of the infirmary, which had a first aid station and an examination table, neither of which looked as though they got a lot of use. There were a couple of rooms attached. One was a bathroom. The other held what looked like the full gear of a hospital’s intensive care ward, including an automated bed.

  Bigfoot Irwin lay asleep on the bed. It had been a few years since I’d seen him, but I recognized him. He was fourteen years old and over six feet tall, filling the length of the bed, and he had the scrawny look of young things that aren’t done growing.

  Nurse Jen went to his side and shook his shoulder gently. The kid blinked his eyes open and muttered something. Then he looked at me.

  “Harry,” he said. “What are you doing here?”

  “Sup, kid,” I said. “I heard you were sick. Your mom asked me to stop by.”

  He smiled faintly. “Yeah. This is what I get for staying in Chicago instead of going up to British Columbia with her.”