The joint was jumping. Groups of people laughed over steaming plates of food. Bad jokes rang out from good old boys seated at the bar, and the juke box played country music.
Sierra rested her chin on her hand and took it all in. She envied them. They looked so normal. Everyday people, with everyday problems, letting off a little steam. What she wouldn’t give to be like them, to be a part of the revelry instead of on the outside looking in.
“That’s a mighty wistful expression for such a pretty lady.”
The voice startled her. She glanced up and stared into the blackest eyes she’d ever seen. Two frosty mugs of beer sweated in his hands. “Mind if I join you? The beer is yours whether I can sit or not.”
“I have a long drive ahead,” she answered with a tired smile. “I probably shouldn’t be drinking unless you’re ready to provide me with shelter for the night.”
He grinned. “That could be arranged,” he drawled with a mischievous wink.
Her cheeks famed red “No, I didn’t mean…”
“Relax, I know what you meant.” He chuckled, setting one beer on the table in front of her, “I’m not in the habit of taking advantage of strangers. I can offer you a single bed and safety for a night. If you need it, that is.”
Sierra frowned, studying him. He wasn’t her type, but he wasn’t half bad looking. Long black hair slicked back and caught in a ponytail. An interesting face, chiseled good looks, weathered by life. His body was long and lean. He wore soft, faded denim jeans and a loose plaid shirt over a pristine white tee. There was something familiar about him, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. When he cleared his throat, she realized she was staring.
“Do I pass inspection?” He lifted his beer, and gestured to the empty chair opposite her. “May I?”
She looked around the crowded restaurant. He didn’t reek of cop, and she didn’t think anyone had followed her. A vein throbbed in her forehead. She couldn’t shake the feeling she’d seen him somewhere before. Curiosity got the best of her again. “Yes, you may.”
He raised his beer and motioned for her to do the same. Bemused, she complied.
“To fortuitous meetings,” he toasted, clinking his glass against hers.
A chill gripped her. She drained a fourth of the beer in a single swallow, “Why would you say that?”
He leaned back in the booth, and stretched out his legs, “Most meetings are fortuitous, wouldn’t you say?”
She took another swig of beer. The cold drink soothed her dry throat. “No, I don’t necessarily agree.” She cringed at the crack in her voice. Inviting him to sit with her had been a bad idea.
He was nonplussed . “Ah, come on, think about it. Don’t most people, the people you really connect with, come into your life for a reason? They show up right when you need them most, even if you don’t realize it at the time.”
She grew uncomfortable with the direction their conversation was taking. Sierra shifted in her seat, prepared to bolt.
He laughed. A deep, pleasant belly life that permeated her fear. “I didn’t mean to freak you out. I guess I delved too deep to start.”
“Yeah, you think? You’re a bit intense.”
He leaned across the table and winked. “Livin’ life with intensity. That’s me. Never do anything half assed. You only get one chance.”
She laughed, surprising herself. “What, are you Batman or something?”
“Or something.” He extended a hand. “Name’s Skinbone Harris.”
She choked on her beer, covering her face as it shot through her nose.
“Yeah, I get that reaction a lot.” He shrugged.
She peered at him over her hand. “That’s your name? Seriously?”
“Seriously. White Daddy and a Hopi Momma. Both with a warped sense of humor.”
She mopped her face with a napkin. “That explains a lot.”
He crossed his long legs. “It does, doesn’t it? And see, you’re not wistful anymore. You’re laughing, and…sputtering. See? I did come into your life for a reason.”
Sierra raised her eyebrows and finished off her beer. She shouldn’t be drinking, but it felt good to unwind. “Well then Skinbone, serve your purpose and buy me another beer.”
He signaled to the waitress for two more. “You want to talk about what’s troubling you?”
“I guess I shouldn’t be asking what a nice girl like you is doing in a dive like this.”
“No. You shouldn’t. And who says I’m a nice girl?”
He raised his brows, “Careful now or I might get it into my head that you’re flirting with me.”
“That’s not at all what I was implying.” She shot back an indignant look on her face; she hadn’t meant to give him that impression.
An awkward silence fell between them. The waitress arrived and set their drinks down on the table. Sierra cupped her hands around her glass, and met his gaze, unable to restrain her curiosity any longer. “Why do you look so familiar?”
Her question caught him off guard. He lowered his beer, studying her face carefully. “I have no idea. Fortuitousness?”
“I’m being serious.”
“Okay, Serious, I don’t have a clue why I look familiar, but the fact you think so intrigues me.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to ask him if he’d ever been to Chicago when she realized that would be a grave mistake. She needed to stay anonymous.
“Maybe if we got to know each other a little better, you’d figure out why I seem familiar. Could be I remind you of someone. Speaking of which, are you ever going to tell me your name?”
She hesitated. Divulging too much information wasn’t a good idea. She settled on telling him her childhood nickname instead. “Seri.”
“Okay, Seri. Here’s a clue about me. I’m an enigma.”
Her eyes narrowed, but she couldn’t suppress her grin. “ Oh, that’s real helpful.”
“There’s more. I’m a Noetic Scientist, a Native American Spiritualist, and…”
“Assassin?” she croaked. Oh my God, she thought, it was his eyes that made him look familiar. Black eyes, just like Neil’s killer. She swallowed hard not sure what to do. She gripped the edge of her seat, forcing herself to remain calm. It had to be a coincidence, didn’t it?
He took a sip of beer, gauging her reaction over the rim of his glass. His eyes twinkled.
She wasn’t sure how to read him; didn’t know if she should be angry or scared. “You expect me to believe you?” her voice was haughty, daring him to continue.
“What I expect doesn’t matter. It’s what you believe.” His face was solemn, but his eyes crinkled with amusement.
The hell with him. His answer tipped the scales towards fear. She felt like he was taunting her. He could be playing with her but if he was he’d picked a dangerous time to do it. A million thoughts raced through her mind. Had someone put a hit out on Neil? Or on her? She wasn’t about to hang around and find out. She slapped money on the table and stood up from the table, banging her shin against the wooden booth.
He gripped her wrist. “Hey, slow down. Sit. Drink your beer. You are not in any danger. Not from me, anyway.”
The blood drained from her face at his touch. She looked down at his hand, feeling a jolt of arousal down to her toes. Jesus. Did he have electricity running through his veins instead of blood? Her knees wobbled. There was no way in hell she was going to let him see how he affected her. She bit her cheek and slipped back into the booth.
“Whoa, come on, now. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” He flashed a pearly white smile, oblivious to her inner turmoil. “Chill. If I was an assassin, do you really think I’d announce it to a total stranger I just met in a bar?”
“No. Of course not.” She took a jittery breath and composed herself. Okay, so he was joking − He had no way of knowing what a sick joke it was under the circumstances. Still, there was something unnerving about him. She couldn’t shake the feeling she’d seen him somewhere before. The coincidences were starting to add up. His ink black eyes disturbed her. She couldn’t ignore the fact that the killer had black eyes. Up until last night, she’d never seen eyes that shade before.
He reached for her hand; his eyes were gentle, as if he was trying to reassure her. “Listen, Seri, I don’t know you from Adam, but something made me approach you tonight. We were meant to meet at this dive of a restaurant. There is a reason for it. You may think I’m crazy, but I believe in predestination. That tells me we met for a reason that, for now, is unclear to both of us. I apologize if I scared you. I didn’t mean to, I was just having fun with you. You’re white as a sheet. The bags under your eyes tell me how exhausted you are, and you’re half-bagged from the beer. I may come on a little strong, but I mean well. Seri. Look at me.”
“Let me help you.”
She shook her head. Skinbone, if that was even his name, was hitting too close to home.
“I mean you no harm. I was drawn to you because I sensed you needed help. That may sound strange to you, it may even alarm you, but you need to understand I am a very spiritual person. Our lives are destined to be intertwined. You need to trust me.”
His face had an urgent quality. He was throwing off a weird vibe, and she was getting sucked in. This was bad. If she wasn’t careful, in another few seconds she’d be spilling her guts to him. That would be a huge mistake. “I really need to be going.”
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
Alarm bells went off in her head. She kept coming back to his black eyes. She couldn’t help but wonder if there a connection between Skinbone and Neil’s killer? Did he know who she was, and what she had seen? He could be toying with her, trapping her like a mouse in a maze. Or was she being overly paranoid?
“Why does it matter?” she answered, scanning the restaurant. Would anyone come to her rescue if he tried to drag her out of here?
“It doesn’t matter, Seri. Listen, I apologize again if I made you jumpy. It wasn’t my intent. I’m sorry. I go too far sometimes. Pushing the envelope, you know? I wanted to get your mind off whatever’s troubling you.”
If she was going to survive until the killer was caught, she couldn’t get spooked every time someone brought up an uncomfortable topic. She might as well wave a huge white surrender flag.
She took a deep, calming, breath. I can do this. I’ve done it already, at the gas station, the banks, with the cop and the kid who’d sold her the car. “No, I’m sorry. You’re right. I’m on edge tonight. I’m also seriously out of practice at bar banter. Does it show?”
He flagged down the waitress and ordered another round before answering. “What shows is you’re raw and you’re hurting. You’re also blowing my moment. So much for being Batman, and rescuing a damsel in distress.”
The laugh formed in her belly. She wasn’t proud of it, but she guffawed, right then and there. “If this is your idea of rescuing, you have a lot to learn.” Tears of laughter ran down her cheeks. The tension was broken. She could feel the effects of the alcohol kicking in.
He leaned back in the booth and crossed his arms, shooting her a quizzical look. His expression only made her laugh harder. The waitress deposited their drinks on the table with a confused smile, quickly backing away eliciting a fresh round of laughter from her.
Skinbone leaned across the table. “Are you trying to get us thrown out of here? I mean, if you’re that desperate to go back to my place…”
Sierra waved at him with both hands. “Stop,” she gasped, trying to catch her breath. She really shouldn’t be drinking. Hell, she shouldn’t be laughing either. The stress and the beers were catching up to her and laughing was the only way she could relive her bottled up tension. As inappropriate as it was, she couldn’t stop herself.
“You know, if you laugh yourself to death, you can’t blame me. This is not the effect I’m used to getting from women.”
Her sides ached. She snorted. Way to go, Sierra, she thought, that shows what a classy chick you are.
Skinbone looked around the restaurant in mock embarrassment, “Would you like to be alone? I feel like I’ve suddenly been dropped kicked into “When Harry Met Sally.”
The entire situation was too much. Sierra dipped her head to her hands, utterly spent. She pounded the table. “Stop. Please.”
“I would, but this is all you. I believe you were the one who dubbed me Batman. Trust me; I’m really not this funny. You’re messin’ with my MoJo.”
She reached for her beer. She raised her head, and gave him a wary look, pointing a finger at him. “Don’t you dare make me laugh again.”
He raised both hands in surrender, “Far be it from me to amuse you into convulsions.”
She struggled to keep a straight face. “God, I hate you.”
“Yeah. I can see why. I made you forget your despair.”
“Well, thanks for the reminder.” Her fingers curled around the glass. “Here’s to reality.”
Skinbone touched her glass with his and took a drink. He reached for her hand. She stopped laughing. “Reality is what you make it.”
She pondered his words, looking at him with bleary eyes, “That’s bullshit. Reality is what’s thrust upon you.”
His gaze turned serious. “Come on now, do you honestly think this was a happenchance encounter?”
“I’d prefer to think so, yes.”
“Amateur. Give me your cell phone.”
Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why?”
He reached out his hand. “Phone first. Then I’ll tell you why.”
She was drunk enough to oblige. Sierra dug around in her purse, searching for her disposable cell.
“I’m programming your number in my phone. And I’m giving you mine. Fate will bring us together again.”
“I highly doubt it.”
He arched a brow, “You wait and see. No. Uh-Uh. Don’t you give me that look. Just when you need me most, when you feel like your world is falling apart, I’ll call you. Mark my words. And the same goes in reverse. If, or when I’m in trouble, I expect a call from you.”
“All because of a chance encounter?”
“There are no chance encounters. Do you know what Noetic Science is?”
“Nope, don’t have a clue.”
“Thought not. I’m going to text the phrase to you. Look it up at your convenience. I think you’ll find it fascinating. Of course, you’ll have to temper what you learn with my Native American Spiritualism and my proclivity at being an assassin, and all.”
She glared at him, “That’s not even remotely funny. Seriously.”
“Not meant to be. Let me ask you something.”
“Oh, God. Do you have to? Why do I get the feeling I’m not going to like it?”
“Just roll with this, okay?”
“Okay. But you’re buying the next round.” She dismissed the fact that she was already slurring her words.
“We’ve gotten to know each other a little bit, and I stress, little bit.” He signaled to the waitress to bring them another round.
“For the purpose of this conversation, if I was an assassin, would you hate me or hate what I do?”
Sierra leaned back, running her hands through her hair with a groan “Why are you stuck on this topic?”
He grinned, “Because it’s interesting. And it pushes your buttons.”
The humor faded from her face. She wanted to move away from this topic
“Well, would you hate me or what I do?” he prodded, leaning over the table.
“Honestly? Both.” There, she’d said it.
“Ouch.” He covered his heart with his hand. “Here I thought I was a charming guy.”
“There’s nothing charming about death.”
“Point taken. And I never said there was. But what if I only killed bad people?”
“People who pose a threat to national security, to life as we know it, the world at large. Bad guys.”
Sierra shivered despite the heat. What was he saying? She regretted drinking so much. The bar noises seemed amplified, the crowd eating and drinking, ominous. She fidgeted in her seat, sweat beading up on her forehead.
“Hey.” Skinbone touched her arm gently. “Are you okay?
Why did his fingers feel like lightening against her skin? The too bright lights burned her eyes. Her stomach lurched at the compassion etched across his face, like he genuinely cared. Play along, she decided, give him the answer he wants and get the hell out of here.
“I guess that would make you one of the good guys.”
“I rest my case.” He smiled in triumph and raised his arms, resting his head against them. “You ever gonna tell me what’s chipping away at you?”
“You know, I think I’ll save that revelation for another time. I need to get going.” She slid out of the booth, holding onto the table for support.
“You okay to drive? My offer of a bed is still open.” He stood up with her and gripped her hand.
Sierra studied his face for a good long while. She wanted to remember it. “I’m fine.”
“Make your own reality, Seri. Don’t make surface judgments. Sometimes there’s a fine line where good and bad blur and nothing is what it seems. We will meet again. We’re in each other’s orbit now. The world is a hell of lot stranger than you think, kiddo. How you perceive it is up to you.”
Rattled, she snatched her hand from his grip. She had one foot out the door, when she realized he was messing with her head. Skinbone was one part charm, two parts con, and who the hell knew what else. She turned back, ready to give him a piece of her mind.
He’d vanished into thin air.