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Moving Color

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The neon sign Coyote Tattoos was off when Agent Stern stepped out of his rented car, but the hanging sign on the door read “OPEN” and he could see people moving around behind the darkened windows.

Despite himself he was nervous, but it was an eager kind of nervousness. What would he find? Skulls? Crosses? Satanic symbols? Or would there be pinups coating the walls with women bent horrifically out of proportion to emphasize the curves that men lusted after?

Would the artist he went to find—a fellow that everyone referred to as Peapod, or sometimes just Pea or Pod—be the stereotypical tattoo grunt? Built like something out of a cartoon, with a thick beard and a bald head and more tattoos than Stern could count? Piercings in his nose and eyebrows and lips and all over his ears, thick black eyeliner?

Even as he thought of it, Stern laughed to himself. His idea of what a tattoo artist should be was borne of media depictions and an archaic ideal of tattoos. These days most people had some form of tattoo.

Hell, some people were getting their needs tattooed on their skin: “DNR”, “Heat Monitor” or “Pacemaker”, “Allergic to Penicillin”.

This Peapod person was probably very normal-looking by today’s standards. At least for the layperson—Peapod probably would stand out quite a bit among the suits and ties of the FBI.

Agent Stern paused as he approached the doors. He was ashamed that he had only just noticed the bent metal bike racks and the long line of motorbikes chained there. It was easy to guess who they were: the Hornets logo was emblazoned on each bike.

The Hornets weren’t a gang , but from what he had gathered thus far, they were still a large group of rather tough individuals for all they were “only” extreme sports enthusiasts. He didn’t want to get tangled with them, but it seemed that he couldn’t avoid it.

Not when he wanted to speak to this Peapod.

Hoping that he didn’t look as awkward as he felt, he opened the door.

It was a well-lit shop despite the darkened windows. There was a neat desk with appointment books, a newer computer with a drawing tablet attached, and assorted sketch books tied shut by satin ribbons. A waist high partition separated the front area from the back, forming a waiting room of sorts; there were comfortable-looking chairs and low tables for guests as well as photo albums opened to random pages. It looked like examples of Peapod’s art, judging what he could see: pages from sketchbooks, pictures of tattoos, preserved prints of patterns next to the matching tattoos.

The saloon-style doors on the partition were held open by bungee cords, allowing the group of Hornets to spill in to the working area. A few of them were in the waiting area and peered suspiciously at Stern when he entered. “Yeah?” one of them asked, edging toward the desk at the front. “What do you want?”

“Manners,” another snapped and looked up and down at Stern. Despite his chiding, he was just as brusque. “You’re new. What do you need?”

Unnerved and trying to hide it, Stern tried to peer past them into the rest of the shop but didn’t get very far with the big burly Hornet blocking the way. “I was looking to speak with the artist called ‘Peapod’,” he said carefully. “Is he here?”

“Wouldn’t be open otherwise,” the first one near the desk said.

The other looked over his shoulder toward the working area and called over the distant buzzing of what Stern assumed was the tattoo gun, “’Ey Pod! You got a suit here askin’ for ya.”

A voice that Stern didn’t recognize said, “Then mind your manners, Novoa.”

The big Hornet grumbled and squinted at Stern. “You got a name, suit?”


“Ha!” the Hornet near the desk mocked. He relaxed but only a little, leaning against the desk. Clearly this artist Peapod had some sway over them if he could set them to rights so easily. “Serves you right.” He squinted at Stern. “You like some tea or somethin’? Pod’s always got some hipster shit somewhere around here. Or some water? Too fancy to drink it regular but there’s a lemon one and a cucumber one too.”

The Hornet apparently called Novoa grumbled. “Pod’s gonna be a bit. In the middle of a job.”

“No, thank you,” Stern said to the first Hornet. To Novoa he asked, “Do you know how long he will be?”

Both Hornets peered at him. “ They ,” Novoa said with pointed emphasis. “—have been working for a bit. Shouldn’t take too long.”

The other Hornet cackled. Stern noticed a patch on their jacket of a rat holding a gear above a broken muffler and mentally labelled him “Junk Rat”. “Then again, ‘too long’ might mean something different to you.”

“I’ll wait,” Stern said mildly and found a seat. The chairs were just as comfortable as they looked and sighed as he sat. For a while the Hornets eyed him distrustfully. Junk Rat remained by the desk and Novoa moved to block the opened saloon doors; the rest of the Hornets moved further in the working area, ostensibly away from “the suit”.

He picked up one of the binders and began flipping through them. As if by some cosmic chance, he had found some of the artwork that had led him to this particular shop and this particular artist. He marveled at the incredibly detailed tattoos, naming them as he recognized them: Chupacabra, Mothman, Yeti, Bigfoot, Swamp Ape, a half-transformed werewolf on a jagged cliff howling at the moon.

Glancing at the front of the binder, he found that it was labeled “Cryptid Series” and continued to thumb through the art. Here was a picture of a great bird stretched across a man’s shoulders and another with an Asian-style dragon (Stern could admit to himself that he didn’t know from which Asian culture it came from) twined around an arm.

He was so engrossed in the artwork—such great detail, it was incredible!—that he almost didn’t notice the movement of the Hornets. They milled around, leaving in a great rush led by the enormous Novoa. Soon the waiting area, originally rather spacious, was full of distrustful Hornets.

Moving as slowly as if he were faced with their namesakes, Stern closed the binder and put it down as two more people came out from the working area. The first was another Hornet, their head bandaged—either they were injured or that was where they had gotten a tattoo—and following them was another person, clearly the artist, the one that Stern had been waiting for. Peapod.

They , as the Hornets had indicated they wanted to be called, was somehow exactly what Stern had expected and yet completely different.

For one they were young , perhaps even younger than the young Aubrey Little at the Amnesty Lodge. Their hair was purple and with it tucked into a messy bun on top of their head, Stern could see that they also had an undercut. Perhaps he was just showing his age but he had never understood the appeal. It looked nice on them, at least.

They had piercings but not nearly as many as he had expected: there were two on their lower lip with bright orange stones, and a few in each ear, but otherwise they seem rather unadorned. As he had expected, the artist had tattoos on their dark skin: geometric designs on their neck (Stern winced to think at how painful that must have been), an incredibly detailed sleeve of a forest scape lit by the full moon.

The Hornet met Stern’s eyes. Their lips, pierced similarly to Peapod’s but featuring only black metal hoops, twitched. “A suit, indeed,” they said, and Stern realized that the voice he had earlier was theirs. “Have my boys been good? Did they offer you a drink?” this was directed pointedly at Junk Rat and Novoa.

“We tried,” Junk Rat whined. “Even offered that hipster gunk with the cucumber.”

Peapod looked over Stern and he shivered when he realized that their eyes were an unnatural shade of green—colored contacts, clearly. “A moment more, if you please,” they said politely enough. “I have a few things I need to tie up before I can assist you, Officer…?”

Agent , actually. Agent Stern.”

Peapod’s bright green eyes lingered thoughtfully on him for a moment longer before he nodded. “A moment more, please, Agent Stern.” A few of the Hornets eyed him with even more distrust; he ignored them and nodded once to Peapod.

The Hornet that Peapod had been tattooing—clearly the leader of the group—eyed him before turning away. “Clear out, boys,” they said and the group obeyed. Novoa stood just outside the door like an enormous living gargoyle, watching the proceedings.

“You know the drill,” Peapod told the leader of the Hornets. “Or so I assume. But just in case—”

The leader threw their head back and laughed; outside the Hornets all turned. Stern could see Novoa say something inaudible through the glass and with all of the other Hornets laughing. Then they all began to recite in ragged unison, “ wash four to six times a day with unscented soap, not antibacterial , dab with clean paper towel to dry. No swimming, no direct sunlight, for two weeks. Lotion with unscented soap but not in excess.

“I think we got it,” the leader of the Hornets said dryly.

Peapod laughed though it was a little tense. They rang the leader of the Hornets up and payment was exchanged; Stern lifted the binder of art into his lap again and flipped through them again. There was incredibly detailed ouroboros, and on the next page was an enormous wolf bound by ribbons; facing it was a small flock of harpies with wings that shone like steel.

“A pleasure as always, Hollis,” Peapod said and Stern looked up. They were coming from behind the desk and clasped the Hornet—Hollis—at the forearm. Hollis gripped them back and looked pointedly at Stern. Peapod gave a slight nod which Hollis returned.

They walked to the door and poked their head out. Making a gesture, they set the remaining Hornets away. Soon the engines were roaring to life and they all thundered away.

“I apologize, Agent Stern,” Peapod said as they approached the table. “How may I assist you today?”

“Just Stern is fine,” he replied as Hollis came back inside. They locked the door and flipped the sign to CLOSED. “I’m not entirely here in official capacity.”

Peapod regarded him shrewdly. “I find that hard to believe,” he said mildly. “Not if you introduced yourself to me as ‘Agent’.”

“Don’t take his bullshit, Pod,” Hollis said. Despite their words they remained polite, looking more annoyed that argumentative for the sake of being difficult.

Agent Stern made a face. “Is ‘Peapod’ your real name?”

“People call me Peapod.”

“May I have your legal name?”

Peapod frowned. “What would you do with it?” they asked. “When you ask that way, you sound like a trickster.”

Agent Stern pulled out the little notebook from the breast pocket of his jacket and thumbed it open. “I prefer to use legal names when I write my notes,” he explained. “And I will, of course redact information as necessary to protect those that I speak to.”

“With a guarantee like that, how can you not agree?” Hollis asked Peapod sarcastically.

Sensing that he had rolled poorly, he made a face and reached into his jacket to pull out his ID badge which he held out for them to look over. “I’m with the FBI, specifically the Unexplained Phenomena taskforce. For the past few weeks I’d been here seeking out information regarding…” he hesitated.

“‘Unexplained phenomena’,” Hollis echoed, clearly the more talkative of the two. “Why don’t you go on and visit the Cryptonomica?”

Stern tucked the badge away. “I’ve tried to speak with Ned Chicane,” he admitted. “But I suspect he’s avoiding me.”

Both Peapod and Hollis looked amused. “With an opening like the one you just gave us, I’m sure he was excited to speak with you.”

“I should perhaps work on that,” Stern agreed. He leaned forward and tapped at the album he had been flipping through. “Truth of the matter was that I hadn’t originally intended to visit you—the tourist area wasn’t quite what I was searching for, you know—but then I noticed that you did more than just tattoos.”

“Get to it,” Hollis grumbled, crossing their arms over their chest impatiently.

Stern nodded. “A video was posted a few weeks, maybe even months at this point, of the Bigfoot. We traced the video’s origin to this area.”

For a long moment, everyone was quiet. Somewhere, Stern could hear water bubbling—possibly a fish tank. “Bigfoot.” Hollis sounded just as disbelieving as everyone else.

“Bigfoot is native to the Pacific Northwest,” Peapod observed. “We are in West Virginia .”

“There have been Bigfoot sightings all over the world.”

Peapod shook their head, lifting their hands to their hair. They untied it from its messy bun and let it fall down past their shoulders. “Is that why you’re here?” they asked as they shook their hair out and ran their fingers through it to get it out of their face. “My cryptid series?”

“Your art is very distinct,” Stern told them firmly. “Highly detailed—and in the rare instances where you do similar patterns—” he paused and thumbed through the book, finding the three images of Bigfoot he had found while waiting. “They’re all consistent.”

Suddenly Hollis threw their head back and laughed. “You’re bothering Pod because their art is consistent? Do you think that Pod had…what, saw Bigfoot, hung out with him, and came back to tattoo pictures of him?”

Peapod looked apologetic. “Hollis has a point,” they said gently. “Is that what you think I’ve done?”

“I don’t know,” Stern told them firmly. “I’m just following what leads I have. Do you take hikes? Do you have some kind of inspiration for this version of Bigfoot that you’ve been drawing? Or the others in your cryptid series?”

“If I say that I dreamed them up, will you police my dreams, too?” Peapod asked dryly. “No, Agent Stern, when a customer asks for a piece from me, I do my research and draw the art according to our consultation. If they ask for flash or for something similar that I’ve done for another customer, I do my best to make it consistent but still unique.”

Stern nodded. “I must say, business aside…your artwork is remarkable. So detailed.”

“It’s a gift.”

Hollis laughed. “I don’t think I could bear to get a tattoo from anyone else at this point.” Peapod smiled shyly at them. “Now if that is all, Agent Stern, perhaps I can show you the door.”

Is that all, Agent Stern?” Peapod asked.

Sighing, Stern got to his feet, choosing to take the dismissal for what it was. “For now, thank you.”

Peapod walked to the desk and dug around behind it. “Here is a pass for the Cryptonomica,” they said, handing it to Stern. “It’s not free , but it is highly discounted. I don’t work closely with Ned, but we do have a deal that if my customers get a cryptid tattoo, they can get into the Cryptonomica for a reduced rate. That’s where I get some of my inspiration—mostly because it’s so dark in there.”

Thanking them both for their time, Stern left and walked quickly to his rental car. When the door closed behind him, he breathed a sigh of relief. There was just something about Peapod—whatever their real name may be—that unnerved him.

Still…he looked down at the ticket. With it, he would get in to the Cryptonomica for $3—he got that much at least. Scrubbing his face, Stern moved to start the car and paused. There was a shadow on the imposing walls of Coyote Tattoos, a large silhouette of a person.

Shadows do not have faces or eyes with which to see, but Stern had the strange feeling that this one was looking right at him. But shadows also didn’t watch or look .

His mouth running dry, he watched the shadow stand there. Then it moved, traveled along the façade of the building with terrifying speed.

Stern noticed that its legs traveled across the parking lot and breathed a shaky laugh at his own folly when he saw that the shadow connected to a person—a normal person that walked at a normal speed across the lot toward the nearby Subway. All very normal things.

Perhaps it was just Peapod’s peculiar style of drawing cryptids—almost hyper realistic, or as much as can be allowed with a tattoo gun on something as imperfect as a living person’s skin—that had set him on edge. He didn’t know.

He watched the man and his shadow walk to the Subway and disappear from view.

Starting the car, Stern made his way to the Cryptonomica. A thought kept bothering him but he brushed it away as the lingering unease from the faces in Peapod’s books, just his imagination getting away from him: shadows don’t have eyes .

The Cryptonomica was once more a dead end. It was half museum and half tourist shop, but as Peapod had mentioned he could see why the artist might find inspiration there. In those dark corners, the stuffed displays must seem like all sorts of fearsome creatures.

Kirby, Ned’s assistant, was friendly enough and talked excitedly, just as he had done during Stern’s initial visit. He dropped the useful tip that Peapod’s name was actually Tamo though he couldn’t remember their last name, and that they were called Peapod because of their affinity for Polynesian tattoos. Stern hadn’t understood the reference until Kirby explained that the traditional Samoan tattoos were called pe’a , and someone had misread it as “pea”.

An innocuous and rather unhelpful anecdote, but interesting; he would have to look into that, and ask how Peapod—or Tamo, whatever they prefer to be called—had shifted gears from tribal tattoos to realistic cryptids.

And Kirby explained excitedly that they were Tamo’s specialty, what they were known for—unsurprising, since that was initially what Stern had been drawn to. They had been out of town the week before as they traveled for a convention in Pennsylvania. Kirby didn’t remember the name of it but suggested that Stern look up the artist’s Instagram page and to approach them that way if he was still interested in speaking to them.

Stern didn’t have the heart to tell him that he had little interest in speaking with Peapod again.

Thanking Kirby, Stern made the drive back to Amnesty Lodge—encountering a few Hornets on the way, who didn’t seem to notice him—to do more thinking. The chill in the air was receding, so some of the hiking trails should be opening up soon. Perhaps there was a tour service in town that could indulge his curiosity, or perhaps he could just do a hike on his own.

Something in him shuddered at the thought of being alone in those thick trees. There was no cell service out here, and if he got lost or hurt…well, he remembered his survival training before he was assigned to the unexplained phenomena taskforce and it wasn’t something he had any desire to repeat.

In space, no one can hear you scream , his mind supplied rather unhelpfully. That was from Alien.

Groaning to himself, Stern made the turn toward Amnesty Lodge.

Stern was roused from his writing by a firm knock on his door.

Straightening himself—noting with disgust that his pants needed to be pressed again, or perhaps he should just change into something less formal for the evening—he looked through the peephole, just barely catching himself from yelling in surprise at the enormous eye staring back.

Then there was nothing but red and Aubrey Little came into view. She was laughing—and Stern could hear it through the door—as she spoke to Dani about something.

Taking a deep breath to calm his racing heart he opened the door.

“So,” Aubrey blurted before he could so much as greet them. “I figured we could all use a morale boost, yeah? So I booked a Paint and Sip for everyone but we’re running a little short on participants.”

“We need one more,” Dani explained. “Aubrey didn’t look at the minimum number of people when she booked it.”

Aubrey made a face. “Everyone chipped in already so you don’t have to pay much—just like a buck or two. Oh, and if you have a particular wine you want to drink, you should bring it. Ned and Duck are in town getting the wine so it’s a little late to make requests and they have questionable taste in most things so I’m not sure we should expect anything great from them, you know?”

Stern blinked at the two of them. “Paint and Sip?” he echoed.

After changing into something more comfortable—a pair of jeans that was probably too tight for someone his age, a faded tee—he made his way downstairs to the kitchen area of the Lodge. Barclay had already begun moving tables around, moving them into two neat columns and setting out two chairs per table.

“Need some help?” Stern asked, his smile wavering when Barclay jumped. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.”

Barclay laughed nervously, pressing a hand to his chest. “Whew,” he said and gave another nervous laugh. “I’m just moving chairs around for the Paint and Sip.” Barclay peered at him. “Did Aubrey get you, too?” he asked wryly.

“Something like that,” Stern replied and moved to help him carry a table. “Why are there only two chairs per table? Wouldn’t it be better to have more seats?”

He laughed at the face that Barclay made. “Date night,” he said with all the bile it deserved.

“I thought it was a morale boost?”

An odd look cross Barclay’s face. “Morale boost, date night,” he laughed nervously. “Potayto, potahto, I guess. I think she’s been telling something different to everyone.”

“I’m surprised that she invited me,” Stern admitted as they reached for the last table. “I had the feeling that not a lot of people like to be around me. Perhaps it’s my sunny disposition.”

Barclay gave another nervous laugh. “Nobody feels innocent when the police—or a suit—are around,” he said gently. “Perhaps you just put everyone on edge. I’m glad that you changed out of your suit. You look better like this.”

Startled, Stern nearly tripped. He kept his head down as he lifted his end of the table again, following Barclay’s quiet instructions. When he got the courage to look up, he found that Barclay wasn’t looking at him; he had the distinct feeling that he had missed something and his stomach twisted in knots.

They continued their setup quietly, unfolding chairs and setting out items. Barclay said little and Stern was distinctly aware of the silence between them. He and Barclay had never been one for long conversations—Barclay had always seemed to be incredibly uncomfortable around him—but now it was worse.

Keeping his head down, he set out plastic wine glasses—he made private note of the brand because until he had lifted them, they had looked like glass—and plastic bowls and pitchers of water. They were just setting out assorted pots and buckets of ice lined with plastic bags to keep from melting all over the table when the door was kicked open.

Barclay dropped his bucket with a crash, sending ice cubes spraying everywhere. Duck Newton looked as startled as newborn deer, nearly dropping the box in his hand.

“Wine’s here!” Aubrey cried, oblivious to Stern’s racing heart and Duck and Barclay’s open terror. She caught sight of Stern. “Agent Agent! You made it! Question, do you have a first name? Or is it just Agent?”

Stern opened his mouth to answer, but Aubrey continued anyway, seemingly oblivious. He wondered how oblivious she really was.

“Well, I’m glad that you could join us,” she told him, sounding honestly sincere. “I was joking about the $5, by the way. Everything’s already been handled. Did you have any bottles you wanted to bring down?”

“Nothing that would be appropriate for a Paint and Sip,” Stern said mildly. “I suspect that the alcohol levels for these types of thing should be lower. Barclay, why don’t you tell me where the broom is and I’ll sweep up this ice before someone slips?”

Aubrey seemed to notice the ice on the ground for the first time as Duck edged away, lips pressed tightly shut. The door opened again and Ned waddled in, two boxes stacked in front of him; one of them was sliding as he caught sight of Stern.

“Well don’t just stand there!” Ned cried. “Help me! Or do you want to be the reason that nobody gets their alcohol?”

At the same time, Aubrey said, “No, the more the merrier, Agent Agent! Go and get your alcohol! What is it, bourbon? I can see you as a bourbon kind of man. Or tequila? Moonshine? Ooh, go get it!”

“I got it,” Dani said quietly, taking the top box from Ned who scowled. “If you don’t like wine, Agent Stern, we have soda as well. I’ve been told that the most fun to be had out of these kinds of events is when you’re really drunk.”

“I’m not driving!” Duck yelled from the table where he had set down his burden. He hung his head and Stern turned away to give him his privacy. “Fuck, I didn’t mean to say that, I’m sorry.”

Aubrey seemed to catch on. “Oh,” she said. “If you don’t want to drink, that’s fine. I’m sure Barclay can—oh, Barclay! Barclay, do you still have some of that cider?” Not even waiting for the cook to respond, Aubrey turned back to Stern. “If he still has some of that cider, it’s amazing! And if you like to drink, it goes really well with spiced cider. Or bourbon—whatever you drink. And we can get you some soda or juice or water…”

“Breathe,” Dani advised, patting her back. “She’s really excited about this,” she told Stern.

“Well this is the first time I’ve done this with people,” Aubrey said. “Of course I’m excited! This is exciting!” she bounced away.

Stern cleared his throat and Dani looked at him. “I’ll…I have some tequila upstairs. And…other assorted jars of alcohol.”

“Bring them if you’re willing to share,” Dani suggested. “Or even if you’re not. It’s halfway to a BYO kind of party.”

He cleared his throat again, feeling very distinctly like an outsider. “I’ll…be back.”

“Dinner before the event will start in half an hour,” Dani assured him. “No need to rush.”

There was no need to rush, Stern thought a little sourly to himself. But he shouldn’t anyway. Clearly Barclay was uncomfortable around him now. Perhaps he should take the long way around to give him some time to recover.

From what, Stern couldn’t imagine. But whatever had happened, clearly he was distressed.

Nobody feels innocent when the police—or a suit—are around , Barclay had said. Is that why?

After checking around to make sure there was nobody nearby to see, he let his shoulders slump tiredly. He had a job to do, but…well, that didn’t mean that he wanted to be a bully and cause such distress. Especially if he was to be here indefinitely…well, he couldn’t exactly make enemies of the staff at the Lodge. He’d have to make it up to Barclay somehow.

He did take the long way, passing the area near the back awning that led to the hot springs, climbed the back stairs toward the second-floor rooms, wandered down that hall, and returned to his room. There he double-checked the folds on his slacks and inspected his jacket for imaginary dust or dirt.

All told he took nearly ten minutes to return and found that there were already more people in the kitchen area. He recognized Kirby from the Cryptonomica who waved at him, a kid from the Lodge that Stern thought was named Jake, and the woman that everyone called Mama. There was another woman that was speaking animatedly with Duck—clearly they were familiar with each other. From the jacket that was draped over the back of a chair, she was probably also a forest ranger.

Dani and Aubrey were setting out metal stands and opening jars of Sterno; Ned and Barclay were carrying out large hotel pans of food for a buffet-style dinner. “Hey watch this!” Aubrey exclaimed and snapped; there was a pop and the flash of flash paper that sparkled as it fell over one of the Sterno lighters.

It didn’t light and Aubrey pouted.

Laughing, Dani leaned over and used a long-reach lighter to light the cloth wick. Aubrey shook her hands around. “The Lady Flame, everyone!” Dani bowed to an imagined audience and the two of them giggled.

“Hurry up!” Ned complained. “This is hot! And heavy!” the two women skittered out of the way and Ned huffed as he nearly dropped the tray. “Whew! This is hard work.” Catching sight of Stern, his face lit up. “Hey, buddy…”

Turning, the women waved. “You’re back!” Aubrey exclaimed. “I thought that you would have run away! You were gone for so long.”

Barclay ducked out of the kitchen, neatly dropping his tray into the rack. “Oh,” he said. “You’re back.” He sounded much less excited to see him.

“Stern’s gonna join us!” Aubrey told him. “For dinner and for Paint and Sip.”

The look on Barclay’s face showed clearly how excited he was for that. “So he mentioned.”

Ned shoved the pot holders in his hands into Stern’s chest. Instinctively, Stern reached up with the back of his hand to catch them. “ You take this, and I’ll take that,” he said, reaching for the neck of the bottles in Stern’s hands.

I will take those,” Dani said firmly, taking the bottles from Stern.

“Ned would drink them and hide the rest,” Aubrey explained. “We’ll keep it safe for you. Dr. Harris Bonkers, Ph.D will guard them, right?”

The enormous white rabbit on the table—probably not very sanitary, for all his white fur was clean and glowed white as newly-fallen snow—twitched his nose. Seeing them all looking he lifted his ears attentively.

I will guard them,” Dani repeated. “Go help get the food out.”

Shaking his head, Stern obeyed.

“Have I made you uncomfortable, Barclay?” Stern asked in the kitchen as he adjusted the oven mitts on his hand.

Barclay jumped and nearly dropped his tray. “No,” he said quickly—too quickly. Even Barclay knew and he made a face. “Just…I’m just being silly. I’m sorry about earlier.”

“What happened earlier?” Stern thought hard. “In town you mean?”

Immediately Barclay looked alarmed. “What happened in town?”

Stern shook his head. “Nothing major, but I wouldn’t say I made any friends today,” he admitted. “I’ll tell you over dinner?”

For a moment Barclay regarded him oddly before nodding in agreement. “We have a few more trays to set out,” he said.

Smiling for a reason he couldn’t name, Stern lifted the next tray and got to work. Dani had indeed saved not only his alcohol but also a seat next to Barclay near the end of the table.

“Close quarters,” Aubrey said apologetically. “We don’t have a lot of tables left since most of them went to the Paint and Sip.”

“Is Tamo joining us?” Mama asked as she sat down across from Stern and Barclay.

Stern flinched. “Tamo?” he echoed faintly.

“Are they bringing…anyone else?” the kid—Jake? Jack?—asked quietly. He sounded just as excited as Stern himself ways.

“Is there something wrong?” Aubrey asked as she shoved an entire slice of meat into her mouth without cutting it. “I’m missing something, right?”

“I met Tamo today,” Stern said quietly, looking down at his plate. He was less hungry now.

The kid Jake cleared his throat. “They’re pretty close with the Hornets,” he explained carefully. “They and Hollis are pretty close—that’s the leader of the—”

“We’ve met,” Aubrey said a little sourly, mouth full. She chewed and swallowed. “Sorry, Jake, I didn’t…”

“Not an issue,” Jake assured her. “Just…it’s weird, you know?”

Dinner was more subdued after that. “What happened with you and Tamo?” Aubrey asked after a long and awkward pause. “They seemed really nice when I went in to make the appointment.”

Stern made a face before he could stop himself. “I may have…asked a few questions that my have made them uncomfortable. As I was told, sometimes suits make people uncomfortable.”

Duck laughed a little too-loudly before swearing under his breath and shoving something in his mouth to shut himself up.

“Ah,” Ned said in that way he had that made Stern want to grit his teeth. “Searching for the ever-elusive Bigfoot, huh? Still looking for that guy?”

The other forest ranger looked at Duck with concern as he stuffed another roll in his mouth. Stern figured that it would be best if the Heimlich maneuver was performed by a professional.

“It is why I’m here,” Stern reminded him as neutrally as he could. “I found their art online—there was an article about up-and-coming artists and they were one of them. They’re most famous for their cryptid series, I think.”

Mama cleared her throat. “Actually,” she corrected. “They’re known for their blacklight tattoos, first. It’s hard work to use it, apparently—the ink gets everywhere and it becomes harder to see. We’ve talked about it before, actually. Not many artists are willing to use it, and fewer shops will allow it.”

“And their design work,” Jake piped up. “They’re not only a tattoo artist. They helped to design some of the logos and stuff for the Hornets.”

Aubrey choked. “Really?” she demanded. “Do you think I could...I don’t know…”

“Commission them?” Jake asked. “I’m sure. They do signs here, too.”

Ned made a face. “Yeah, they were sniffing around The Cryptonomica after the incident with the Pizza Hut sign. Asking if we needed a new sign.”

“They’re usually around The Cryptonomica,” Kirby pointed out. “You gave them a pass and they bring you business from the people that want to get cryptid tattoos.”

It sounded like an old argument so Stern let it be. He carefully cut his meat and ate. Kirby and Ned continued to bicker while the ranger slapped Duck on his back as he coughed up chunks of bread.

“Honestly,” Mama said, sounding a peculiar brand of frustrated and amused that only parents seemed capable of. “I don’t know what I’m to do with y’all.”

Tamo and Hollis arrived as they were finishing up dinner, carrying in enormous tote bins of supplies. Stern told himself that he wasn’t hiding from Tamo’s unnaturally green eyes when he hurriedly asked Barclay if he needed help in the kitchen.

“They really have you rattled, huh?” Barclay asked sympathetically.

“It’s not them ,” Stern explained as he loaded the commercial sinks with dishes before he realized that he didn’t know what he was doing. “They go here, right?”

Barclay’s smile was a little shaky. “We have a dishwasher. And a sterilizer.” he waited for a moment before adding, “but the dishes need to be rinsed first, so yes.”

Before he could stop himself, he made a face; Barclay barked a rough laugh of surprise. They were just loading the dishwasher, arms wet up to their elbows (and in Stern’s case, all down his front since he wasn’t expecting the spray from the industrial nozzle) when Mama poked her head in through the door.

“Come on,” she told them. “We’re about to start.”

Both men made faces at her and she cackled as she left. “I guess we better go,” Barclay said reluctantly. “Come on, the rest can wait until later. We’re nearly done anyway.” Drying their hands, they both wandered out and found that the dining room had transformed while they were cleaning.

The tables were now covered in thin plastic tablecloths, and the pots and buckets of ice had been filled with bottles of wine and beer. There was also a large punch bowl full of a questionable liquid.

“Don’t drink it,” Barclay whispered to Stern who nodded wordlessly. “Oh look, I see your bottles over there.”

It was hard to miss. Aubrey was waving excitedly to them and gesturing to the table in question. Which was right at the front.

Right by Tamo.

Their friendly smile turned a little frigid upon seeing Stern. Hollis, sitting at the table behind them, snorted and took a long swig of their beer.

“Is everyone here?” Tamo asked Aubrey who looked around, counting to herself, before nodding at Tamo. “Alright, everyone to their stations.”

“Do you mind if I sit with you? It looks like everyone else is taken,” Barclay whispered.

Looking around, Stern found that the only open spot was next to him. “Of course,” he assured the cook.

“Tonight we’re doing a forest landscape,” Tamo told the group. “Hollis?”

Grunting, the Hornet sat up and reaching under the table nearby, pulled out a small painting, perhaps one foot wide and two feet tall, of a dark sky, an enormous orange-red moon, and spires of pine trees reaching toward the stars like gnashing teeth.

Stern sucked in a breath. It was pretty, the colors wonderful but it seemed far out of the realm of possibility for him. Barclay seemed to be of the same mind; he swore under his breath and poured himself a healthy glass of wine which he drank quickly. Reminded of the point of this whole exercise, Stern poured himself a glass of liquor.

While he didn’t drink quite as fast as Barclay, he did sip very quickly.

Glancing at Stern and Barclay, Tamo turned around and looked at the painting that Hollis held up. “Wrong one,” they said dryly.

“Why not?” Hollis asked, turning the painting to look at it. “I think it’s quite nice.” Nonetheless they put that painting down and lifted another.

It was simpler: trees losing their leaves in the early autumn and a person sitting on the edge of a cliff cast as silhouettes against a night sky filled with swirling colors and a full moon.

“Oh thank fuck,” someone said; Stern thought it might be Duck.

“I’m not drunk enough for this,” Ned announced. Stern silently agreed.

Tamo’s smile was razor-thin when it rested on Stern.

By the time that Stern stumbled up to his room, he wasn’t sure if he was red in the face from embarrassment or if he was simply just that drunk. He and Barclay had drank wine and liquor like it was water.

On the plus side, Stern thought that they had bonded quite a bit in their shared mortification.

On the down side, Tamo spent nearly the entire Paint and Sip period referencing Bigfoot.

How about we add a person sitting and watching the stars? How about we make it Bigfoot?

Maybe we should keep the trees sparse— we don't want to give Bigfoot a place to hide here, do we?

Duck and Ned guffawed too-loudly at each joke while Barclay seemed to flinch. Worse, Tamo didn't seem to be doing it out of maliciousness or to mock everything about Stern—just to tease him. 

But bless his heart, Duck proved to be his saving grace when he drunkenly slurred that he wanted to draw Mothman in the picture. Soon, instead of having a quietly contemplative person sitting at the edge of the small cliff, everyone was making their own thing. 

The kid Jake turned the cliff into a ramp and painted a crude snowboarder, clearly himself, catching some air against the moon. Aubrey painted Dr. Harris Bonkers, Ph.D to nobody's surprise, and despite his giggles Ned drew an enormous cat standing beside the ledge, not on it, with luminous yellow eyes. 

Still, Tamo cast pointed looks over at Stern and Hollis snickered each time. 

Shaking his head to rid himself of the memories of those mocking stares, Stern tucked his finished painting against the wall near his bed and began undressing. His back to it, he didn't notice the Bigfoot in the painting turn its head ever so slightly.

Shadows moved outside where no human eye could see. It would have looked normal, perhaps just some of the reflected glare from the bright flood lights outside of the Lodge, if it wasn't for it moving contrary to the gentle evening breeze.

The shadows darted under one of the parked cars as gravel crunched and footsteps approached. “What's this?”  a voice asked. The figure reached into their satchel and pulled out an etch-a-sketch and placed it on the ground.

They stepped back as the shadows flowed over it.

“I’m surprised to see you here,” the figure continued. “Why are you here? Normally you’re hiding.”

The shadows receded, revealing the surface of the etch-a-sketch. A single word had been drawn in the aluminum powder behind the plastic plate: TROUBLE .

“Hm,” the figure said thoughtfully. “Am I in trouble? Or is someone else.”

The word was erased; the shadows flowed over the board again. When they receded, there was a drawing instead: a circle with a pine tree at the center. Behind the tree were stripes that if the etch-a-sketch had such an option, would be filled with the colors of the setting sun.

“Ned?” the figure asked, clearly surprised. “Well, he’s always been trouble.” The shadows rattled the etch-a-sketch emphatically, causing some of the image to fade, and the figure snorted. “More than just him?”


“Hm,” the figure said again. The board rattled as the word was erased. When the shadows receded once more, there was a picture in its place of a tall ape-like creature. “You’re talking about Agent Stern.”

The shadows erased the etch-a-sketch and wrote, ALL OF THEM .

“Do you think that Agent Stern is here because of me?” the figure asked. “Or is he really looking for Bigfoot?”

BE CAREFUL , the shadows advised through the etch-a-sketch. MORE TO BE DONE .

“Hey!” a voice yelled and the figure turned back to the Lodge and squinted against the bright outdoor lights. Hollis was approaching, a tote bin in their arms. The etch-a-sketch scraped against the ground as the shadows shoved it under the car. “Come on, Pod, it’s dark and I hate being out here this late.”

Tamo looked down at the shadows beneath the car. “Load up, I’ll drive you back,” he told it. “Then I’d like to have a long talk. It’s time to be more cautious and you’re right—there is more to be done.”

Looking up at the dark shape of the Lodge’s roofline against the brilliance of the stars, Tamo smiled.