Lauren Westlake had not yet seen the monster that hunted the woods of Locke. Nor was she privy to some of the uncouth and less than reputable members of the community. But as she pushed open the doors of the Mill Saloon, she was aware of one thing: something was wrong in Locke.She pulled off her hat and tucked it into her bag, flushing out her hair. The bar was as one expected, dark and smoky. There were few lights and even fewer women. Booths lined the outer walls except for the one that housed a wooden bar adorned with various hides, pelts, and horns fitted to inexpressive plaques of death.As she walked through the open area that served as both a dance floor and a drunken staggering area, many heads turned to watch her pass. Lauren was indeed an attractive woman; as well as confident, with a sense of purpose and an intensity that might be viewed as unusual in such a small town.Sitting down on a stool with a smile, she placed her hands on the counter of the bar. The bartender was a thick man in shoulder and girth with a heavy beard of coal hair. His shirt was too loose and his pants too tight. The thick slur of his voice hinted that the good bartender was sampling his own goods.“What can I get ya, pretty lady?”Lauren looked around the bar; most people had returned to their business. But some continued to stare. A particular one, dressed in a manner that attracted the attention of the drunken, masculine sort.Looking sideways at the bartender, she replied. “Whiskey, straight.”She watched the woman cross the room, drawing stares from every man; the cut of the shorts alone would have facilitated that. Dark red lips and piercing hazel eyes fixed on Lauren immediately. The woman crossed her arms underneath her breasts and cocked her hips suggestively.“What’s your story?”“Better question. What is the story with those shorts? It has to be thirty degrees outside. Are you looking to catch pneumonia?”The woman looked at her in shock. Lauren was quite certain that another woman had never talked to her that way. Lauren reached back and grasped the dirty-looking glass and took a sip, wincing as she did so. She had overestimated her once rather stout resistance to the brown stuff.Times certainly change.“I’m not looking for a fight there, cupcake. Just scurry back over to whichever of these fine young gentlemen you were hanging on.”The provocatively dressed woman, however, would not be so easily deterred. “It is fair to say you some kind of out-of-town cunt then, isn’t it? You looking for trouble, bitch?”Taking another sip of the whiskey, this one smoother than the last, she smiled. “Not in the slightest.” Touching the weapon at her side with a sweeping finger, she continued. “I have come to this wonderfully cold corner of hell that you call home to help. Last thing I need is a sad little bar fly buzzing about.”The woman looked at her with a horrified stare. Even the bartender, normally quick to disperse from tense situations, could not tear his eyes away from the train wreck before his eyes. “Who the fuck do you think you are talking to me like that?”Lauren drained the last of the whiskey, feeling a warm sensation trace down her spine and a familiar fog drift past her senses. “I believe I might be the bitch who beats your hillbilly ass if you do not march back to your boy toys.”There was a moment where Lauren thought the woman might respond to her challenge, but it passed as the hard stare went glossy. It was the early stages of sorrow and tears, mostly from embarrassment and as well the deep throes of anger.“You…”“Yeah?”The woman bit her lip as if to say more and then turned, flashing nearly the entirety of her womanhood at Lauren before fading back into the throng of staring drunks once more. As if on cue the bartender leaned forward, pushing another glass of dark amber liquid.“Seems like maybe you could use another.” Lauren feigned protest. “On the house, you’re a bold one to talk to Charlene like that.”She thought about saying something back to the bartender, perhaps dissuade this newfound tough-gal personality, but thought better of it. It might serve her well to be perceived immediately as a kind of hardass. People would certainly be less inclined to question her motives if she did not allow a lot of room for discussion.“I have to agree with him. Quite bold.”His voice had a rough, deep quality to it, but there was as well something profoundly articulate in his speech. Turning, she looked into his cool blue eyes, vast oceans of serenity that stared back into hers with a distant glint.A light beard covered his face, like he had been hiding from a razor for several days. His lips were a kind of small, perfect curvature that made her heart flutter in a way she would never admit to another person. He wore a long sleeve shirt under a black button-up, a swooping, gold design across the chest. As he opened his mouth to speak again, he extended a hand, exposing heavily muscled forearms that rippled as he reached out.“Dominic,” he spoke with clear inflection.Lauren stared at him for a moment, uncertain of what to do next. It was one of those moments when it felt like the world had plunged into slow motion. Each utterance, every smell amplified beyond its normal dominion.Dominic stared for a moment, seeming very at ease leaving his hand out there waiting for her. With a sheepish smile, she extended her hand as well. He had a strong grip, but not one that was intimidating or a turn-off.“Lauren,” she spoke.He smiled and it was a dazzling one.Once again, she felt her heart flutter.Why was she acting like such a girl? Perhaps it was the whiskey. She shook her head. Realizing that he was watching her carefully, she blushed.“Clearly you are not from around here, Lauren. I could not help but overhear your conversation. You are a peace officer?”There was something distinctly odd about the way he asked the question. As if he were transplanted from another time period, pulled from an era of courtesy.“It is not often I hear cops referred to so eloquently.”He smiled, more a manipulation of his perfect lips, and revealed a sliver of teeth underneath. “My apologies, perhaps I should have gone with something more colloquial such as copper or uniform.”Lauren laughed in a way that was more the giggle of a high-schooler with a crush than an admonition of humor. She could not help but feel like an idiot. Grabbing the whiskey for courage, she drank it in a quick gulp. “That would have been strange. No one has used those words since the 50s.”Dominic smiled again. “Indeed. Pardon my old-fashioned manners. How then would a lady from the modern era have referred to officers of the law?”“Officer would have worked fine. I’m a federal agent. Agent Westlake,” she continued, stumbling over her words. “I came to investigate a murder. A strange one.”“Strange how?”Lauren allowed the veil of silliness to depart. It was replaced with the business tact she had learned to use as an efficient front. “There have been several instances across the country of violence that are unique, to say the least.”Dominic sat back in his stool, signaling to the bartender for something. The heavy bartender pushed a heavy mug forward. “Unique?”Lauren looked at him strangely, uncertain if she should give credence to the warning in her stomach. The concern she felt immediately that a random man was taking interest in what she had to say.“Are you very interested in murder, Mr…?”“McManus.”“Dominic McManus,” she spoke softly.He tilted his head at her, a small smirk on his lips. “And as far as murder is concerned, Agent Westlake, we should all be aware of such things. A death is a sad thing, especially where a life is forcibly taken.”Lauren nodded. “Agreed. These murders, however, are of a very specific and violent nature.”“Hmm?”Lauren moved closer to Dominic, leaning in slightly. He smelled of the woods, like camping. She swallowed hard before she continued. “They look as those an animal attacked. Yet the wounds are not consistent with any known predatory creature that lurks in any of the woods of the northern continent.”“Is that so?”She nodded. “More often than not, the victims are women. Most are attractive, single women who are lost in the woods or walked home late at night, alone.”Dominic smiled.“Are you asking me to walk you home?”“What? Huh? I didn’t mean…”Dominic’s smile dissolved immediately. “Was I too forward? My apologies, I thought that…”Lauren looked at him, completely flummoxed.“No, I mean that wasn’t my. But you…”“Shall I leave?”Lauren was beat red now.“No. Please stay. Unless of course you…”“As you were saying,” he replied, alleviating the awkward discussion that would follow rife with open-ended questions and quests for validation. “Women walking alone. Attacked. Murdered. And the cause?”Lauren regained her sensibilities quickly. “That is just the thing, no cause. There has yet to be one arrest or the closing of a single case.”“That is dire.”She nodded.“There is talk that the attacks may be supernatural.”“Supernatural?”She inched closer still, his smell delicious. Perhaps it was the long train ride or the time that had passed since she had slept with a man. Or perhaps it was simply because he was gorgeous.“Werewolf.”The look that rose to Dominic’s face was one of quiet disbelief mixed with concern “Werewolf?” he repeated briskly.Lauren nodded. “Weird and completely insane, right? As if there are such things as werewolves. I personally believe it is some kind of a transient serial killer: a smart, resourceful creep who moves on when he has made himself too visible, uprooting and changing his identity.”“Sounds reasonable. Has there been a murder here that mirrors your previous investigation?”“A woman was killed on the lake. She had similar markings. I was supposed to have arrived this afternoon, but the weather is dreadful and the transportation less than timely.”“The weather is unfortunate here at times, especially this deep in winter. I am quite sorry to hear that your trip was unpleasant. Though I am confused, were you called in to investigate?”Lauren tapped the counter, grabbing the bartender’s attention. With a swift finger, she pointed for a refill. “Not exactly. There was an inquiry about the specifics of the murder that was flagged by the bureau. When I got wind of it, I made my way here. This is a small passion of mine.”“So this would be an on-going investigation?”She nodded.“Then perhaps speaking to a complete stranger about it would be taboo?”Lauren looked through the haze of whiskey and realized her error. He was not wrong. Speaking to some random person about events that were not meant to be public knowledge was more than taboo, it was grounds for dismissal.She felt like she would cry.Or at the very least scream quite loudly.“Please do not be concerned. I have no intention of participating in some gossip circle. But this is a small town and if people do not already know, they will very soon. I did not mean to put you on the spot.”Lauren tried to recover.“No, it wasn’t an imposition.”The words sounded silly as she spoke them. She was overcompensating for the dwindling pool of thoughts she had to draw from. Dominic smiled again. His face came alive each time as if his joy were an aphrodisiac.“That is good to hear. I would not want to make you uncomfortable. I can imagine a long train ride and your altercation with the woman here tonight would be enough to turn you off of this small town.”She nodded. Feeling the whiskey take over completely, it broke down the walls of her implicit rules; the fortress behind which she dwelled so efficiently. “There might be some things here worth my time,” she slurred slightly.It was no secret that her skill at flirtation was less than par. Dominic looked at her, the intensity of his blue eyes speaking of a much older being than the one who sat across from her. She shook her head, the mist of intoxication making her think strangely.Suddenly, her emotions were all over the place. And then looking at Dominic, something animalistic took over. Something overtly sexual grabbed a hold from the inside out. “So what was that bit about walking me home?”
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