A gunshot, a scream. Then nothing.
With a smooth gait Sean Lincoln (nee Sean Lenihan) made his way over to the indicated seat. He was dressed in a gray thin striped suit with crimson suspenders and a white open collared shirt. Casual, yet refined was the look he was going for and he might have pulled it off if he wasn't carrying a sack of peanuts.
Finding the chair to fit his backside comfortably he snuggled in and quietly shelled a peanut (putting the spent shell back in the bag) and waited for the Major to address him.
The Major consulted a stack of papers, "Finished training I see. Good. Good." He leaned back and fussed with a pipe for a long moment. "Something has come up. An agent has been killed." He pushed a newspaper, the San Carlos Star, toward Sean, the headline was "Werewolf Kills Again!"
"Our man was investigating these 'Werewolf' killings. And something got him instead. I don't think you've spent much time in Texas, have you? Well the political situation there is touchy. The idea of the Lone Star Republic is still very much alive in many people's minds, so any investigation we do must be kept quiet. But we want to know what's going on out there."
Quickly skimming the article, he cleared his voice and asked "Werewolf killings? With all the ranchers and the like couldn't it be some starving displaced coyote?"
"Not likely," said the Major. "It's something the trackers out there don't recognize - prints, the kind of attacks and all that. Too damn big to be a coyote or a wolf."
"Ah, I see," he said rubbing his jaw (a habit he picked up from his time in the ring). "I'll need to see whatever we have on the prior killings, pack a few things and I should be ready to leave on the morrow."
The Major pushed a folder across. "Here you go. We've got a rail car for you at the station, you can board anytime you want. It leaves at ... 6:30 AM. Let Perkins know if you need any special equipment, and let us know how you plan to approach."
Lenihan scooped up the folder and began glancing through it, nodding to the Major on his way out. The assembled documents gave him little to work with, which was bad in that he didn't like going into situations uninformed; it did have its good side too in that it gave him more freedom to choose his angle. An idea struck him, and he turned left to go downstairs.
The basement housed Perkins and his collection of experimental trinkets and other equipment that most could not believed even existed. Lenihan hadn't had much opportunity to deal with the brainy scientist too much, but talk of werewolves and frontier politics had him on edge. The armed guard at the door didn't crack a smile when Lenihan offered him some peanuts while he fished out his badge. Producing the metal star very nearly caused some emotion to show on the stone face, but upon further reflection he might have imagined it.
Some time later, Sean left the basement with a strong carpet bag. In the bag were some calling cards identifying Sean Lincoln as a reporter for The Sun Herald, and a few issues of that newspaper which featured his byline. Some suitable clothes had been promised and would be delivered to the train car before departure. Also in the bag was a box of ten silver .45 cartridges for the FSS standard weapons; Perkins had handed them over with a raised eyebrow but no comment. The final object in the bag was a pocketwatch which could be caused to spray a small cloud of knockout gas. Perkins had warned Sean that it was experimental and a little fragile.
Sean found himself awakened by the smell of bacon and eggs, visually confirmed by the reluctant raising of his right eyelid. He still sat at the table, face down over some notes and the file the Major had given him. Vaguely he remembered putting his head down to grab a few minutes rest, which turned into hours. His dinner plate had been retrieved and replaced with the hearty breakfast which now loomed in front of him. A clatter in the galley jolted him upright.
Max never slept, or so it appeared. Sean couldn't remember if he had ever seen the man rest, although surely he had once or twice in the past ten years or so. "Thanks for breakfast!" he called out, reaching for the napkin.
As he drew the plate closer, Sean tucked the napkin under his chin and began to dismantle the morning fuel before him. Max came through the swinging door a whirlwind of activity. "We'll be arriving soon," Sean said checking the time on the mantle clock. "I'll be cutting it close to make my next train, if I get into any trouble I'll wire you at Montrose so when you go into town be sure to check in. Other than that, do what you do best, hold down the fort."
Max nodded. "I'll tap our telegraph into the line and keep hq updated. Good hunting." His next words were drowned out by the train whistle. He smiled, "Arriving sooner than we thought. We made good time."
"We always do," Sean said grabbing his bag and heading to the door. "See you soon," he said with a tip of his cap and added "get some rest," with a smile.
Looking more like a bookish reporter than most bookish reporters, Sean stepped out onto the ground on the side away from the platform. Here he was out of sight of most of the passengers going on to San Carlos and would be able to board the train without making it obvious he had come from the private car. To make it even easier, there were a number of other private cars on the siding, all brightly painted and announcing a circus, which blocked the view even more so he was able to slip onto the end of the platform unobserved.
He had fifteen or twenty minutes 'till the train left, most of which time was needed to unhook his car, plenty of time to get onboard and find a seat. With another whistle, the train began the last leg of the journey.
Sean gathered his bag and patiently waited his turn to exit the train. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he hefted his bag and walked out on the platform to enter the town. Left and right he surveyed the town and oriented himself with respect to where he had been told Miss Sarah's boarding house was located, and noted the location of the San Carlos Star in the process.
Setting the boarding house as his destination Sean started down the street, taking turns switching the bag from right to left hand and pausing to wipe his brow with a handkerchief. Each time he stopped he took a chance to observe whoever might be observing him. Aside from cyring out in pain, he did his best to appear weak to the rigors of the hard west life.
Shadowing was not one of Sean's strongest suits, but he thought that no one was taking an undue interest in him as he walked toward Miss Sarah's. About half the twenty or so passengers who had disembarked were heading toward the two hotels that faced each other across Main Street like sparring prizefighters. The rest dispersed across the town to their individual destinations. Sean walked down, away from the county house, past the saloons and alley walls covered with posters and broadsheets old and new, down to one of the small cross streets that connected Main and Broad. Although he couldn't see a sign, he knew that this one was called Magnolia for some reason. On Main, there was a general store on one corner of Magnolia and Main and a Chinese laundry on the other. Turning the corner he walked down a hundred feet or so on a residential block to the medium sized and well maintained house with the modest sign out front reading "Miss Sarah's, Rooms to Let to Clean, Well Behaved Gentlemen and Ladies."
Sean opened the gate, that fact that it did not squeak said a lot about Miss Sarah and what she demanded of her tenants. Climbing up the five steps, Sean rang the bell mounted by the front door and set his bag down on the porch.
After a moment, the door opened and a woman in her mid-20s, nice looking and tidy, with a bit of a prudish air appeared. "Yes?" she inquired. Sean snatched the hat from his head and held it in front of him, "Ma'am, my name is Sean Lincoln. I just arrived in town and was looking for a room." By diverting his eyes, he attempted to portray himself as an awkward, socially challenged, yet good mannered man.
Miss Jones looked him and up down with an appraising eye, before stepping back. "Come in, Mister Lincoln." Miss Jones led Sean in a few steps and to the right into comfortable sitting room. "Please make yourself at home while I fetch the coffee."
"Yes ma'am, thank you ma'am." Sean lugged his bag into the sitting room and found a seat. When Miss Jones returned with the coffee, he stood and politely accepted a cup. Waiting for Miss Jones to claim her own seat, he sat down and began the role he had worked on since leaving Washington.
"Miss Jones, as I said my name is Sean Lincoln. I just arrived here in San Carlos, and am looking for a room and a friend." He blushed on cue, "I do not mean that the way it sounded, ma'am. My partner Daniel Riobrios is here working on an assignment for our newspaper back East." Lincoln reached into his jacket and found his credentials.
Miss Jones face fell at the mention of Riobrios. "You are a colleague of Mr. Riobrios?" She examined his credentials then extended a hand resting it on Sean's for a moment, "Mr. Lincoln, I am afraid I very bad news for you. I ..." she stopped. She rose and went to a desk in a corner of the room. She fished in a pile of papers on the corner and lifted out a newspaper. She offered it to Sean. "Here Mr. Lincoln. I am sorry."
The San Carlos Star was one that Sean had seen before with the details, such as they were, of Riobrios death.
Sean read the article, timing his emotional response to coincide with the big reveal of Riobrios' death. He shuddered and wiped at his eyes. "This can't, I didn't know," he stammered while fishing the handkerchief from his pocket. With several dabs at his eyes he composed himself and apologized for his display.
He looked back at the article, "Miss Jones, there are not many details contained in this article about Daniel's," he paused, "passing." As the foul taste of that word subsided, he continued. "Forgive me if I sound somewhat out of line, but was Daniel working on any particular story that could have led to this tragedy? Perhaps this gentleman could help me," Lincoln looked at the byland on the story, "William Richardson."
"Richardson is the editor, he might be to help. I don't know," Miss Sarah paused delicately for a moment. "Did Mr. Riobrios have any family?"
"Yes, I mean no. We at the paper tend to think of ourselves as family," Lincoln explained. "Daniel was not married, I do believe his brother was killed in the War, yet another heartache for his dear mother, I fear." Sean shook his head, "I suppose I should send word back."
Lincoln set his cup on the table and stood. "Forgive me, but I really should send a telegram." He looked at his bag and looked up at Miss Jones. "Are there any vacancies, ma'am? I know Daniel would want whatever he was working on to be finished. He was that way, you understand." "Yes, I mean no. We at the paper tend to think of ourselves as family," Lincoln explained. "Daniel was not married, I do believe his brother was killed in the War, yet another heartache for his dear mother, I fear." Sean shook his head, "I suppose I should send word back."
Lincoln set his cup on the table and stood. "Forgive me, but I really should send a telegram." He looked at his bag and looked up at Miss Jones. "Are there any vacancies, ma'am? I know Daniel would want whatever he was working on to be finished. He was that way, you understand."
Miss Jones also rose, "There are two rooms." She hesitated, "Mr. Riobrios room has been left untouched since his ... passing. I had no need of it, since I had another room vacant. Perhaps, if it would not be an imposition, you could help me go through the room and determine what disposition should be made of his things?"
"Certainly, I will see that all his things are returned to his family."
"Then let me show you to your room." She led Sean upstairs, pointing to a door on the left, "Mr. Riobrios," then turning right to open another door. "Will this room be suitable?"
The room was small and tidy with a window looking out at a small backyard with a trim little garden. There was a bed, a dresser and a wardrobe. A bolt could lock the door from the inside, but there was no lock with a key on the door.
"Yes, very," Sean said looking in.
Sean put down his bag and paid for a week in advance. Miss Sarah thanked him and added, "Dinner is 6:30 promptly, Mr. Lincoln. Essie is a fine cook."
Sean nodded and made his own suggestion, "Since we have a few hours then, shall we look at Daniel's things?"
Miss Sarah nodded and led him back to the door she had indicated earlier. The room was slightly larger than Sean's and more lived in. In addition to the dresser and wardrobe, there was a desk and a locked trunk at the foot of the bed.
The pair began with the clothes in the wardrobe, going through the pockets and packing them carefully in a suitcase. The pockets were empty save for lint, a few hard candies and a laundry ticket.
The trunk was, in fact, locked, and Miss Sarah had no idea where the key was, so they turned to the desk. In addition to the usual papers that one would expect, there were back issues of newspapers from various towns in the area, many of which had stories about the ""Werewolf." With amusement he noticed that several of the stories had used the same quote from the animal trainer of a circus as an "expert" saying that the tracks were unlike any he'd ever seen as "proof" that it was a "werewolf."
A noise downstairs interrupted them. "Oh! Essie must be back from the market. Excuse me, Mr. Lincoln. She'll need my help getting dinner started." Miss Jones slipped out, giving Sean the excuse he needed. FSS Agents received training in hiding places for documents and the like and as soon as the Miss Jones was out of sight, he quickly began to search the likely places. He had marked a loose floorboard, but got no joy. Several other likely spots also turned up empty, but afer removing the desk drawer, he found an envelope taped to the top of the opening. He tucked that away in his jacket to review later, then returned to examining a scrapbook of Riobrios stories.
A little later he was interrupted by the return of the other guests whom he joined for dinner. The other guests were Mister Jacob Fisher, a junior bank clerk, and Mister David Hoffman, who worked for a manufacturer back East and who was staying for a few months to look into business options. They had the remaining two second floor rooms. Miss Jane Janes, Sarah's younger sister, who taught at the local school had a room on the ground floor, and with Essie the cook, rounded out the family.
Sean made small talk with the other tenants, relying upon the truism that most people enjoyed talking about themselves, he was determined to learn as much as he could and then evaluate how much was to be believed. Table manners, accents, and many other behavioral idiosyncracies were all things that he studied when preparing for a role and they often proved to be valuable for spying a faker (unless they were themselves acting). When it became time for him to share he decided to open with "I am here hunting the Werewolf," adding "with a pen."
Quizzical looks prompted Miss Sarah to clarify "Mr. Lincoln is a reporter." Sean then went on to explain just what he did, for whom, and then sounded like a reporter, "Have any of you seen the Werewolf?"
The young banker laughed, "No one has seen it, Mister Lincoln. How could they when clearly such a thing doesn't exist? It's a wolf, perhaps a large wolf, but just a beast."
"Or a man," said Hoffman darkly with a slight Germanic accent. "A murderer or Red Indians, trying to make it look like a beast."
"But why, Mr. Hoffman?" asked Jane lightly. "Why would someone do such a thing? I think Jacob, Mister Fisher, is right it is a beast. A wolf. Or a bear."
"Some men are beasts, too, Miss Jones," said Hoffman.
"He is right about that," Lincoln conceded. "Whatever it is, I would have guessed that someone would have tried to track it down and stop it. This is cattle country, isn't it?"
Hoffman nodded, "And yet the," he snorted, "'Beast' has not attacked any cattle."
"An intelligent 'beast' then? or perhaps one with discriminating tastes?" Sean mused. "Whether you think it a werewolf or not, doesn't the question of why it is doing what it is doing interest you?"
Shrugs, comments about how it doesn't really affect them, and so on were the responses around the table, combined with curiosity but no urgency.
Sean let the conversation drift on its own, not pushing any points. After the weather, politics, and local gossip each had their turn; dinner came to a close. Rising, he gave compliments to Essie and thanks to Miss Sarah for her hospitality.
Each party went their own way, and Sean decided to return to his room to unpack and delve deeper into Daniel's notes.
Sean lit the lamp in his room and settled at the small table by the window. He put Riobrios scrapbook on the table and next to it the hidden envelope. He fetched a map of the region from his own luggage as well.
First on his list was whatever Riobrios had hidden. He opened the envelope and examined the contents. He was pleased to find a map with markings on it for the location of seven of the eight "Werewolf" killings; the eighth, of course, being Riobrios' own. Sean marked where Riobrios' body had been found and looked at the map. The markings were scattered around the county, all seemed to be within ten miles or so of one of three towns - San Carlos, Montrose or the oddly named Mathilda's Crossing. The one exception was Riobrios himself, he was killed about halfway between San Carlos and Montrose, about 25 miles from either. With the exception of Riobrios, all the victims were loners, single men either farming, ranching or mining and living alone outside the city.
Leaving that for the moment, Sean returned to the envelope. He found a draft letter to the FSS expressing concern that Lone Star Republic was very strong. Riobrios felt that if Texas could somehow secure itself from Mexican attack, it would declare Independance.
A scribbled note contained some nearly indecipherable phrases and words: Werewolf, Weapon?, How; also a doodle of a big wolflike creature.
A torn handbill for the circus was also in the envelope, with the picture of the lion-tamer circled. On the back was another note - "big cat? Tracks are wrong, not feline."
Sean reviewed the locations and victims, convincing himself that there must be something that related all the men. Since they themselves were not connected then it must have been location, or more simply put -- they were some place someone did not want them to be. Daniel's murder stood out, which to Sean meant that he was purposely targeted and that was because he must have been onto something.
Something occurred to him then and he reviewed the dates and locations. The most recent killing had been near Montrose, and it was the only one that Riobrios didn't have any handwritten notes on in his scrapbook. Perhaps he had been on his way to investigate the location.
The circus handbill eliminated the possibility that some mountain lion or other cat was on the prowl which still left the possibility of a coyote, but with the familiarity of wild packs in this area someone would have made that identification quickly. The fact that there were tracks to compare meant Daniel had seen them, so that was something that Sean ought to see for himself.
And where did the Lone Star Republic fit in? Sean didn't believe in coincidences, and Daniel's mention of a weapon got him to thinking about what if the werewolf was some kind of trained animal being prepared for war. The idea gave him shivers, America was not ready for another war...ever.
He wondered if the US might just let Texas go if they tried to secede, with the war wearieness at such a peak.
Following a good strech, Sean put the envelope back in a safe place and decided that he would have to pay a visit to the outskirts of the three towns to get an idea of where these men were killed and what could possibly be out there that was so important to protect. First would be Daniel's last stand, hopefully Richardson could point him in the right direction.
He went to bed with his plans spinning in his head.
The next morning, he woke to the smell of coffee and biscuits and after a quick wash-up in the basin, he went down to find the coffee, biscuits and a plate of scrambled eggs on the sideboard in the dining room. Hearing his step, Miss Sarah came out of the kitchen. "Ah, Mr. Lincoln. Breakfast is also included, but you must find your own lunch. The others have already left; you are a late riser."
"The trip and Daniel's passing must have taken more out of me than I thought," Sean confided. "But I do feel rested and it smells good." Sean took a seat and shook out his napkin, placing it on his lap. Discovering his hunger, Sean dove into the hearty meal and voiced his approval.
"This is delicious, thank you." Sean sopped up some remaining eggs with a biscuit and asked, "Miss Sarah, how far is Montrose? I was thinking about going there today."
"Fifty miles," she looked confused, "didn't you come in on the train from there?"
"Oh my," Sean rubbed his eyes and shook his head, "you are right. I've done so much traveling and seen so many towns in the last few weeks." He sighed and pushed himself up.
"The life of a reporter, always chasing the news." Sean folded his napkin and prepared to begin his investigation. "Thank you so much for your hospitality, Miss Sarah."
Sean walked uptown to the office of the San Carlos Star. It wasn't quite a one man operation, although there was only one man there at the time. The man was Richardson, Sean turned on the charm and soon they were sitting down and discussing Riobrios.
Richardson liked Riobrios, although he didn't think he was a great newspaperman. Richardson intimated that he thought Riobrios had some other job or interest in the region and that journalism was an afterthought. He was cagier about the "werewolf," but Sean thought that was because Richardson himself was uncertain about what was going on.
"Has anyone seen this werewolf?" asked Sean wondering how they came to the conclusion that a man-wolf was stalking the Texas plains. He began to share what little information he had regarding the locations of the victims and how it appeared that Daniel broke the pattern and was on his way to investigate. Sean chose to remain silent on the notes regarding the Republic and speculation about a weapon.
"Not that I know of," said Richardson. "I saw one of the bodies, it was mauled pretty badly. No one could say what kind of animal did it. Someone said 'Werewolf' and the story just sort of took off. Some of the Mexicans and Indians are superstitous and believe it."
Richardson was happy to compare notes, but could add little. "Whatever it is, it just seems to cluster around these three towns."
Sean stared at the wall map in Richardson's office, and the three towns in question. He jabbed a finger in the area comprising the middle of the triangle formed by the towns. "What is here?"
The triangle was extremely shallow, the three towns forming nearly a line. It occurred to Sean that the three towns in question were the only three in the county connected by rail.
Richardson answered the question. "Nothing that I know of."
"The rails, " Sean said, "any special reason only these three towns are connected?"
"They were the only ones on the route that heads westward. There was no reason to connect the other towns, I suppose," said Richardson.
Sean scratched his head, "And the only connection all the victims had was they were all loners who lived outside of town? what became of their property?"
"I don't know," said Richardson. "Not that any of them had much."
"And the sheriff, what has he done?" Sean pondered, "Should I talk to him?"
Richardson waved a hand, "That's your call. You've read in there what he's done," he pointed at the paper.
Sean just shook his head.
"Senor Lincoln!" the voice was a thrilling whisper. Sean looked around for the speaker. In the fading dusk, he saw a woman with rich black hair surmounted by a mantilla, her face obscured by a veil, at the corner of a nearby alley. Her dress was of a piece with the mantilla, Spanish clothing of the upper class, such as was still worn by some of the rich in Mexico. Her eyes above the veil were striking. Seeing that he had seen her, she gestured to him and took a step or two down the alley.
Sean adjusted his hat and looked left then right down the street to see if anyone was paying him any attention. With a slight trot he headed across the street to avoid a wagon pulling away from the general store and proceeded down the alley. Subtly, his hand dropped down to the metallic comfort which hung on his waist.
The woman kept ahead of him, leading him away from the street and away from prying eyes, before turning and waiting for him. Her eyes darted from side to side as she stood near the back wall of some establishement, perhaps a stable from its construction.
Sean walked over to a wall and leaned against it, thereby giving himself a better overview of the area and assurance of noone coming up from behind. "Ma'am," he smiled with a nod.
"Mr. Lincoln, you are looking for el hombrelobo, si? It is very dangerous."
"El hombrelobo?," Sean began to translate the few words he knew, "man-wolf, the werewolf. Yes, I am." Sean looked around just as the woman had done, "Tell be about the hombrelobo and who are you?"
"Leave it be, Mr. Lincoln. Leave it. I must go before they find me." Gathering her skirts, she began to move quickly up the alley past Sean, giving him as wide a berth as the narrow alley allowed.
"They, who are they? Senorita!" he called out trying to follow the woman.
He followed her a few steps up the alley, she continued, speaking over her shoulder, "The men who control the beast."
Behind him, unseen, some boards in the wall shifted and a figure slipped out approaching him quickly. Sean heard the sound and turned. Running at him was the largest Chinese he'd ever seen. Naked from the waist up, his muscles rippled as he came towards Sean with hands wide.