The sun was coming up over the treeline, warming the interior of the car. Dean slipped out of their coat and pushed it behind them into the back. They drummed the steering wheel nervously, expectant of the fork in the road that would lead them to Courage.
Dean wished for the nth time that week, that the radio was working, but like so many parts of their old Mustang it had caved to old age. The silence was driving Dean slowly insane, at least that's how it felt. The ringing of their phone startled Dean and fussy fingers reached for the breast pocket of their shirt.
“Yeah?“ Dean grouchily inquired of the caller.
“Good morning, boss. I have more information on the bus situation. You wanna hear?“
Dean rolled their eyes. “Please,“ they answered, the sarcasm practically dripping from their lips.
“'Kay. That girl who tweeted, Nancy, I called her parents. They told me the trip is a kind of reward for a project those students did. They enacted historical moments for kids with Down Syndrome. The teacher, a Mr. - wait a moment – Lockhart promised them a reward and the kids asked if they could go to Courage. They're all seniors and they said they wanted some timeout before the exams. The students made the arrangements and nobody thought about looking up the place. You get where I'm going with this?“
“Thrill seekers?“ Dean guessed, but was aware of other possibilities Terri's research suggested.
“At the very least. So, what do you know about Courage?“
“Apart from the inhabitants being werewolves? Not much. We hunters steer clear of places like that, unless the killing gets out of hand.“ Dean picked up a notebook from the passenger seat and held their phone between shoulder and ear while driving with the notebook perched on the wheel. Not the safest way to drive, but Dean was used to doing it.
“Well, hold on to your knickers, this is good. They got a website and all for tourists. You can book rooms at the inn, they recommend hiking trails. It all looks really legit and they even got recommendations of people who allegedly visited there. Each one saying how nice the inhabitants were.“
“You gotta be kidding me.“
“Nope. And I gotta say, as far as these kind of pages go, it looks pretty good. I booked your room at the inn using the site. The page has been up since November last year – coinciding with the elections of a new mayor. Whatever that means, I guess you'll find out.“
“Will the kids be staying at the inn, too? Or is there another place?“ Dean asked, not really interested in politics.
“They rented a couple of cabins by the lake. According to the website, it's close to the woods. Either these kids are very stupid, or very stupid, you know? Should I be doing more digging on the place?“
Dean thought for just a second. “Nah, I figure, I go in, push everyone back onto the bus and get outta there.“
“Armed to the teeth, of course.“
“There's no telling what these animals will do to stop us. At least, I have the moon on my side for one more night.“
“Good luck, boss.“
Dean merely huffed a reply of sorts and hung up the phone.
Ten minutes later, Dean saw the inconspicuous sign leading off the main road: Courage 5 Miles.
Entering town, Dean slowed their car. They were frowning since they'd seen a couple of men coming down the street with fishing polls. They'd waved. What kind of werewolves waved at strangers? What kind of werewolf community put up websites to invite strangers to visit, for that matter?
Something wasn't right, Dean could feel it. Even now, as they were looking around the place while slowly steering their vehicle down Main Street, everything seemed far too normal, almost idyllic. And more people were waving and smiling at Dean as they watched them. To say Dean had a bad feeling about all of this would have been an understatement.
Dean made their way to the inn, parking their car in front. It was a wooden structure, well settled, and home-y looking. Dean contemplated whether they should gear up with a visible weapon right now, just to send a clear message, but then decided against it. They didn't know the rules of the town. If Dean wasn't careful, they could get thrown into jail for wearing a weapon where the inhabitants would then make a meal of them come full moon. Dean wasn't going to make it that easy for them.
They exited the car and took their overnight bag from the backseat. Then Dean entered the inn. It was like walking into a fairy tale where everything looks nice and cozy like grandma's house, but the hairs at the back of your neck told you there was a wolf hiding inside granny's nightgown. The wolf of this particular establishment smiled at Dean from behind a reception counter.
“Good morning. I'm Grey, how may I help you.”
“Morning. My associate has booked a room for me. The name's Sutter,” Dean said as they came closer.
“Let's see.” The man, for lack of a better word, busied himself with his computer. He was typing in the slow speed of someone unused to working with it, Dean noted. “Sutter, Dean.” Grey looked at Dean for a long moment.
“Is something wrong?” Dean asked.
“You are Dean Sutter?”
Grey blinked a few times. “I guess, I would have expected...a man?”
For a second, Dean fought the impulse to laugh. He'd thought that maybe the people of Courage had heard of them, that their name was enough to make them unwelcome. But the man behind the counter was obviously confused by Dean's gender.
Dean looked Grey straight in the eyes, unblinking.
“I'm sorry, M...Dean Sutter. That's a single, no smoking, for two days?”
Dean nodded. “That's right.”
Grey pushed the register at Dean, asking them to sign and how they were going to pay.
“Credit,” Dean said and pulled their wallet from the back pocket of their jeans. They gave Grey their credit card.
The whole registering process took less than ten minutes. Dean watched every movement Grey made, but nothing seemed out of place, nothing indicated that the person working in this more than ordinary inn was anything but a man. And yet Dean knew better.
They took their key and credit card from the counter and started ascending the stairs leading to the upper floor.
“Ahhhh...Sutter?” Grey called before Dean could even reach it.
“Have a nice stay.”
“Thank you.” Dean shook their head. This place was too weird for words, and they would only relax when they would see it in the rearview mirror of their car – hopefully following the school bus with all the kids and their teacher inside.
Dean spent 20 minutes in their room, not unpacking. They let their bag fall next to the door, checked the view out the window and looked into the bathroom. It was a nice room, everything was tidy and smelled fresh. It felt so friendly, it gave Dean chills. They waited some time – time the man behind the desk would hopefully think he spent unpacking – before leaving their room again.
“Mr...Sutter.” Grey winced at his renewed use of Mr. Dean just barely kept from smirking. “You're going out. Do you need directions somewhere? Maybe a recommendation for a fishing spot?”
“I didn't come here to fish, though I hear the lake has some nice spots?”
“The lake's beautiful. It's to the south-west. If you go back to Main Street and head the way back you came into town, just before you cross the bridge on the right there's a path leading down toward it. I'd recommend the tour around, you won't be disappointed by the view, though I think it's more beautiful at dusk when the moon shines onto the lake.” Grey smiled.
“Thank you,” Dean answered with a fake smile of their own. They walked toward the door, thinking I bet you also love to howl at same moon, don't you? They didn't say it, werewolves had excellent hearing and muttering under their breath had gotten Dean into trouble more than once.
As they stepped out of the inn, the sun warmed them pleasantly. Dean opened their shirt and pulled it out of their jeans, keeping the t-shirt underneath tucked in. They went to their car and got their sunglasses from the rear view mirror, then Dean pulled a gun from the glove compartment. They pushed it into the back of their pants, before heading down the way Grey had told them to take.
Dean was surprised to see how ordinarily small town-ish Courage was. If they didn't know better, they would have thought themself to be in just any place on the American map with less than 1000 inhabitants. They shook their head over this scam, but none the less admired the beauty of the place.
As Dean walked down the path toward the lake, a couple of teens ran by them. They took little notice of Dean who stopped in their path and looked after them.
Probably part of the group I'm looking for, they thought. At least they're still alive and well.
Dean continued their way, arriving at the lake not twenty minutes later. It certainly was beautiful and quiet to look at. Except maybe for the group of teenage boys jumping into the water, splashing and cajoling at each other.
Swimming in a lake in mid-September? Dean shuddered.
They walked toward where the teens were having their fun and watched others as they walked between a couple of cabins. Dean was looking for their teacher and found the man sitting on a bench. He was rolling himself a cigarette, a cup of coffee standing next to him.
“Good morning,” Dean greeted, walking toward the bench.
“Morning. Taking a walk 'round the lake?”
“Yeah, it's warmer than I thought it'd be. Not warm enough for swimming, though.” They looked over to the boys splashing in the water. Dean smiled bemusedly, while still trying to take everything in. They didn't like small talk, but they knew that it was helpful for getting information.
“That's what I told them, but it's not like they're ever listening to me,” the man said, but cast a fond look around their cozy living arrangements.
“May I?” Dean asked, pointing at the bench.
“Sure.” The teacher picked up his mug and took a sip. Then he placed it on the armrest next to him. He was done rolling his cigarette and put it in his mouth, lighting it. “Would you like one?” he asked Dean, pointing at his tobacco.
“No, thanks. Appreciate the offer. I'm Dean, by the way.” They held out their hand.
“Aidan, nice to meet you.” The teacher shook the proffered hand.
“I take it you're the teacher of these kids, right? Not their dad.”
Aidan laughed. “Teacher yes, history. Don't have any kids myself.”
“Me either. Wouldn't have thought to encounter a whole bunch of high schoolers out here. This place seems far away from anything teens seem to be interested in these days.”
“I would've thought so too, but the kids wanted to especially come here. It's great, though. Fresh air, some hiking, campfire stories. The kind of thing I used to do when I was their age.” Aidan smiled happily. It didn't take much to imagine the jovial man hiking up a trail or building a tent. He seemed quite outdoorsy, despite the fact that he taught history.
“Well, we were a different generation. We didn't have cell phones and laptops,” Dean said and Aidan seemed to now look at them more attentively. Dean knew they looked younger than they were. Aidan probably meant to point that out, but he held his tongue after scrutinizing Dean.
“That's true,” he just said and then looked back over to the boys. They'd scrambled out of the lake and were now running back toward them, towels slung over their shivering shoulders. “Too cold after all, boys?” Aidan called toward them, grinning.
“Water is great, you should try it,” one of them told him, but could barely keep his teeth from chattering.
“When hell freezes over. Go shower and dress warmly. I don't want any of you catching pneumonia.”
They ran by quickly toward their respective cabins. Aidan looked after them, shaking his head. “They always know better.”
“We were just like them,” Dean said.
“True. I don't even wanna think about all the grieve I gave my parents and teachers.”
Dean nodded. They leaned back, enjoying the sun on their face for a moment. Then Dean sat up again, leaning his elbows on his knees. It was time to talk business. “Do you feel safe here, close to the woods? You've heard the rumors, haven't you?”
“Rumors?” Aidan asked.
Dean took off their shades, looking at the teacher. “Strange things happening in those woods.” They pointed behind them.
Aidan looked over his shoulder to where tall trees stood behind the cabins. “Strange how?”
“Well, people have seen strange creatures there. Things that looked like...werewolves?”
“Werewolves?” Aidan grinned and shook his head. “You trying to mess with me, Dean?”
Dean remained serious and shook their head. “I wish I was. Howling can be heard around the full moon, and this is no wolf country. Have you seen animals around here, like deer?”
“No, but my kids would scare off bears with the racket they're making. Listen, I don't believe in those things, though it's a great idea for a story to tell the kids later.” He was still smiling.
Dean wasn't surprised at his reaction. The existence of supernatural beings was kind of an open secret. People who wanted to know or had encountered these beings were aware, others weren't. At this time, Dean would have thought there were more people who knew or believed. Of course, their observations were affected by the fact that their whole life revolved around their job, the search, the hunt.
“I was just mentioning it, because tomorrow night is the first phase of the full moon. Werewolves change on three days per month, tomorrow will be the first. Maybe you should get your kids out of here before that,” Dean suggested.
Aidan lost his smile. “You really believe that?”
“Well, I don't. There's nothing strange here. Have you seen those people, they're possibly the friendliest bunch I've ever encountered. No city folk, just ordinary people.”
“One could say they're too nice, too ordinary. Could just be a front.”
“Listen, man, that's crazy talk. There are no werewolves, and you better not go around and put stories like that into my kids' heads. Stay away from them,” Aidan warned. He stood and put his cigarette out. He took another good long look at Dean before he walked away toward the cabins.
Dean remained, looking over the lake. After another minute they rose and resumed their walk, contemplating what their next move should be.