A suddenly snow-laden wind smashed Chelsea into her car as she went to let Bentley out. “Holy shit, that’s cold.”
The doors on the other side opened, and her monster hunting partners joined her outside. Keegan’s breath fogged the air as he rubbed at his arms. Rick hunched against the wind. Bentley didn’t seem to notice the wind and snow as he wandered into the long grasses, nose to the ground.
The sharp cold couldn’t cut through the black, leather duster she wore, but her eyes watered. “Hurry and piss, Bent. I’m not made for this weather.”
Keegan’s dark hair blew into his eyes. “Damn, even Beau and others are inside tonight.”
She balled her fingers and breathed on them. “Get inside.”
Rick and Keegan didn’t even make token protests before hurrying to the bar. Once Bentley had relieved himself, Chelsea braced herself against the wind and made her way inside.
The Blind Bronco overflowed with hunters. They all seemed a little spooked. All eyes darted towards Florence. The peppy, teen aged beauty queen kept her grades high and her haunt immaculate. As drunk hunters were not the cleanliest of people, tonight her sweet disposition was being tested.
Chelsea settled at one end of the bar, hiding Bentley in the corner. Florence loved the big mutt and had given him the run of the place, but tonight she might not appreciate muddy paws.
Keegan motioned Rick over to Chelsea with a brief word as he headed to Beau Chang. Florence’s grandfather was not only kept hunters in line, he also usually paid out the local bounties. Keegan would be picking up Chelsea and Rick’s share as well as his own.
Rick didn’t join her. Instead, he headed for Florence, probably ordering their post hunt beers. Tall, and broad, Rick seemed almost out of place in this trailer on a dirt road in the middle of the prairie. His square jaw, unblemished face, and clean-parted hair seemed more suited to a comic book than the life of a monster hunter, scraping by on bounties and odd jobs.
Florence indeed handed him three beer bottles with a smile that looked genuine, instead of harassed. Chelsea found herself frowning at them. She liked Rick, but after seeing him fight, she had a lot of questions about this hunter. That she liked him, and that Florence did as well, only stoked Chelsea’s unease.
It’s not like I have the best judgment in the world.
He shuffled over, eyes bright and smiling. Chelsea’s stomach bottomed out. The man had tried to lie about his name and had done so poorly. Like many new hunters did. Yet he had beheaded a fairly big monster in moments. He moved a bit like the older people she hunted with, smooth and precise. But Rick had… an edge. He was so much faster… better than anybody she’d ever seen.
He slid the beer over to her, still smiling. Chelsea wished she’d kept track of his hands instead of thinking about how he fought. But while she didn’t trust Rick, she did trust Keegan and Bentley to keep her safe, so she drank deeply of the offered beer.
Rick settled in beside her. “What’s up?”
She studied him, debating what, if anything, to say.
His easy smile faded, then reversed. “What’s wrong?”
She shrugged. “Don’t know.”
Cheeks shading towards pink, he studied his beer bottle in silence. Chelsea scratched at Bentley’s ears, uneasy and not sure what to do about it.
Keegan broke the tension, handing Rick a wad of bills, and sitting on the stool between them. “Twenty percent for you, and ten each for me and the wandering artist over here.”
Rick held out the money. “Whoa. Why am I getting so much?”
Keegan avoided the other man’s hand. “Me and others agreed. You killed that thing, pretty much alone.”
Chelsea sat up. “Bentley helped.”
“Agreed.” Keegan sipped at his beer. “But he doesn’t get a cut. Rick took a big risk and made the job super easy, so he gets more.”
Red crept up Rick’s face and he hunched over his beer. Keegan glanced at Rick and then over at Chelsea. She shrugged. Her instincts were screaming that there was something weird about Rick, but also that he was a genuinely good person.
Her hunting partner shook his head, took a sip of beer, and then broke the tension. “So, Rick, what brings you this particular part of the country?”
“It’s a place to start.”
Keegan sighed. “Oh fuck. Someone else who plays the vague game. Okay, I’m out. I want some light conversation.” He rose, flipped a middle finger at Chelsea, and headed back to Beau and the older hunters.
Chelsea kicked his ankles as he walked past. “Ignore that asshole. So, look, where did you learn how to fight?”
Rick flashed her a panicked glance and took a long drink of beer.
“You know how to kill monsters, but you don’t know hunters.”
He gave a shaky laugh. “Well, um…” His eyes darted wildly.
She found a thread of pity for the man. He was so transparently uncomfortable. “Are you from an old hunting family, or something?”
His relieved sigh matched his wide eyes. “Y-yeah. M-y family has been hunting monsters for a long, long time. But… I can’t do it their way anymore.”
“Their way seems pretty effective to me.” Chelsea shivered as she remembered the fight. He had beheaded a monster with one blow, before anybody but Bentley had even engaged.
“Yeah…” He stared at his bottle, eyes far away.
She didn’t want to feel sorry for him. She also didn’t think he deserved suspicion. She hadn’t met a hunter yet who wasn’t running from something, though few would ever tell you exactly what that was.
So she shrugged. “Look, I meant it when I said I don’t know what’s wrong with you but I don’t hate you or anything. I think you’re hiding something—”
He turned to her, hands in the air.
She didn’t let him stop her. “And you are. Hiding something. And it’s okay. You don’t have to tell me what it is. It obviously hurt you. So you probably aren’t a serial killer or anything.”
He gave a small laugh. “Probably?”
“I always reserve the right to be totally fucking wrong in my assessment of people. I usually am.”
This time his laugh was big and shook his whole body. Keegan glanced over from the other side of the trailer. Chelsea flipped him a middle finger, and he gave one back.
Rick glanced over his shoulder. “Everything okay?”
She nodded. “Keegan was just making sure I wasn’t about to kill you.”
“You two together?” The question seemed innocuous.
Chelsea hedged her bets anyway. “As together as any two hunters can be, I guess.”
Rick smiled at her, a bright, happy smile that lit up his face. “So you guys mind if I tag along for a while. Learn the ropes kind of thing? I’ve always had a partner before.”
Chelsea took a long drink and scratched at Bentley’s ears again. “Only if you promise me some fighting lessons.”
Rick held out a large, calloused hand. “Deal.”
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