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Chapter one: Stranger Danger
"You have excellent strokes, Señorita."
"So they say." I muttered comically, tracing a finger on the rim of the steaming coffee mug. I had thought this meeting would be-should have been- quick and I would finally catch up on a few hours of a much needed sleep. But noo, Mr. McQuade had to be the slowest coach alive. I mean, seriously who on Earth could take twenty-freaking-four minutes in examining a portrait of themselves? That's right! My brand new client. If it wasn't for his trio of bulky bodyguards glaring daggers at poor old me, I would have spilled my cheap, whipped cream espresso at his smug little turtle face. Instead I just sipped at it. "Are you ready to sign up yet?"
"Y-Yes. In a bit."
"Take your time, please." I kept my tone polite. You wouldn't be the one running entirely on black coffee and twenty-eight hours of no freaking sleep.
Bored, I looked around the booth. A typical midnight bar. Laughter and music and alcohol drenched air. A man to my right passed out cold, the beer in his hand spilling all over the creaky wooden floor. Another followed short. Those who hadn't passed out yet still whistled and gambled, cat-calling the high-heeled women.
"Want a refill, sugar?" A waitress came over, exposing too much of her cleavage under the frail apron. I lifted the empty mug for her to fill. I had already drowned four of these and pondered over how many more I'll be able to sip before my bladder ran out of space.
"Thanks." I told her, heartily. Cheap or no, coffee was the magic elixir that pumped my blood. Sipping, I checked my pretty wrist watch, 1:24 a.m. Wonderful.
Suddenly all the noise stopped. No more shouts and cries, no more clamping and slapping. The men stopped swigging their mugs. Stopped whistling and cooing. No more sounds, no more noise. Just the eerie silence with only the music playing numbly in the background. A chilly wind blew past as the double panel, cherry doors of the bar swung shut. A man entered the lobby, a faded beanie over his head, hands deep in his coat pockets and lips pressed together in a straight line. He had a creepy atmosphere about him. I didn't recognize him from town. Maybe no one did. A stranger with an attitude. Not always a good thing. He walked over to the bar, unfazed by the sudden silence and the numerous eyes following his stance. He sat on the swivel stool and said something in a low accent. The wary bartender dropped a translucent jug in front of him and filled it with honey-colored beer.
Just then, a huge man with his huge mustache stood up, his half-filled mug swinging in his hairy hands. His eyes were barely open. He grinned a dozy grin and opened his mouth to probably say something silly but before he could utter a slurry word, his legs gave out from under him and he dropped out cold on the ground. His friends roared with laughter, banging their fists on the table. And as if on cue, all the noises resumed. Just as fast as they had paused.
"I'll take it!" The close proximity of the announcement jolted my attention. Whaa? Beaming at me, Mr. McQuade repeated, "I'll buy it." He held the laminated canvas- encased in its makeshift wooden frame and gestured to his bodyguard. A redhead stood, combing back his frizzy hair with one hand. In the other he held a white satin sheet. He came over to our table from across the room and draped the sheet over the portrait, as if it was a delicate treasure. The action pleased me. But when he winked a dirty look at me, I scowled.
Mr. McQuade produced a small grey envelope from inside his designer jacquard vest and handed it to me. Payment. "Six thousand, I believe?"
"Of course." He stood up from the dull leather chair and held out a perfectly manicured hand to me. I shook it, standing as well.
"Pleasure doing business with you, Mr. McQuade." This line always made me feel like I'm a gangster. I take my pleasure, indeed. He he.
"Same. Ms. Sterling." He sauntered off with a nod, the trio of muscle following close behind.
I placed a few bills on the table and walked over to the bathrooms. Thankfully, they were just being mopped clean. "Hey, Sam." I greeted the feeble old lady who was busy scrubbing the profanities spray-painted at the wall. You'd think people could mature.
"Mm, what are you doing here at this hour, Paige?" She gazed up at me. Her clothes were soaked wet.
"Duty calls." I replied, entering a stall. "It escapes my logic as to why Mr. McQuade picked this place and time." I called when I was done, going over to the basin. "But y'know, it's over now. I'm heading home." I yawned. Home. I fished in my handbag and handed her a fifty dollar bill. "Here, get yourself a jacket, 'Kay?" The expression that graced her features was enough to make me smile, even after the shitty day.
"Oh, Paige. You're too kind. Thank you."
"Nah, I just try." I passed her a sassy grin. Walking out the bathroom, I sighed. Finally I'd get to go home. The business with Mr. McQuade had been a success, but had also taken me a bitch load of time. And now I had nothing to look forward to but cuddling onto my pillows and sleeping the whole week. La dee la dah!
There just happened to be one ittle bittle, teeny meeny problem. A freaking brawl. Come on! No fair. Go away crowd! Midway between me and my freedom, a crowd was forming. Three tough looking albeit wobbly, drunken guys had surrounded an unlucky victim. The most drunk was the boss, he was also the most enormous. Anyone could have painted him green and told me that he's the Hulk and I would have agreed in a heartbeat.
He barged onto the guy and slammed his fist against his unsuspecting jaw. Ouch. I cringed as I heard skin crack. The poor man crashed back on another bulky drunk who looked like he lived in a jungle. His hair was literally green. He shoved him into a corner. Hulk threw another punch but he dodged it this time, spitting blood at his side. On closer inspection, he was the same stranger person who had arrived just twenty minutes before. Who would've thought? He cursed at them, charging onto the Hulk with a series of blows. He was faster, given his lankier frame but it was evident that he stood no chance. It was like three against one. So uncool. He jammed his shoulder into Hulk's gut, causing him to buckle over. But the bald one of the minions shoved him aside, balling a fist right into his eye. Within a few minutes, Mr. Stranger had received so many fists that he could barely stand.
"Why isn't anyone stopping them?" I asked a waitress.
She just shrugged. "It's legal to fight after midnight."
The bald dude punched him square on his stomach, making him curl over. Tarzan kicked him from behind, making him lose his footing. The leader took the chance to straddle the man, landing on him with such force that it knocked the air out of him. And then he started punching him, over and over and over. Within seconds, the man's arms fell lifeless on the bloody ground. But Hulk kept on beating the crap out of him. He was gonna kill him.
"Alright, enough!" Maybe it was the caffeine or maybe I was just plain stupid, "STOP IT! YOU TROLL!" I rushed over and kicked him on his meaty back, trying to push him off the unconscious guy.
"The heck is your problem?" He slurred, reaching for my throat. I took a few steps back.
"He's out. You win. Let him go."
"And what if I don't?"
"Look at him! He's as good as dead!"
"She's right. It's enough!" The bartender shouted from behind, walking out towards us. "Just throw him out. He's done for."
The both of them held a scary staring match. Hulk lost. He nodded towards his posse. The bald guy shoved me away, bending down to grab the stranger's legs. Tarzan took his elbows and together they carried him out, throwing him in the dirty gutter. His eyes snapped open when his skull made contact with the pavement. "Don't come back, next time we won't be this lenient." They growled, kicked him again and left.
"You okay?" I asked, crouching down. He spat blood at his side, looked dizzily at me with almost lavender-colored eyes and passed out again. "Guess not." I tilted his head noticing a bloody gash on his cheekbone. I had definitely never seen him before. He had a nice chiseled jaw, even if it was damp with blood and ugly cuts. His dirty blonde hair stuck to his forehead. He looked so beaten up, lying lifeless on the filthy dark alley. "Daw, I can't just leave you here." I pulled his arm to sling across my shoulders and hoisted him up. He barely woke up again, but followed the plan, putting his weight on me. "Come on, ya big lump of oatmeal."
Breathless and swaying, we finally reached my red Mustang. Sometime down our trek he had buried his face in my hair, making it sticky with the smeared blood. Groaning, I got him seated on the passenger side and secured the seatbelt.
I lived in an old, rusty building. I was waiting for the lift to completely die before moving. Talk about lazy.
Entering my apartment, I got him settled a tall oak-wood chair, careful not to get blood on the furniture. I examined him properly in the lamp light. He had a bruising eye, purple and black; his eyebrow was cut, his lip was busted, dried blood was smeared all over his face, going down his chin. The ugly gash on his cheek was not bleeding anymore but it looked sour.
Nursing a complete stranger was not in my plans. But since I couldn't sleep anymore, I didn't mind it all that much. Sam was right, I'm too kind. I grabbed a clean kitchen towel and filled a bucket with warm water. I took his dark grey trench coat off; it was smudged with red blotches. I searched for I.D and found nothing but a half filled hip flask in the inside pockets. I popped the lid open, took a gulp and instantly regretted. The stuff was bitter. I stuck my tongue out, gah. Maybe it was expired. But does alcohol expire? I left the flask on the coffee table.
Concerned about the hygiene of his wounds, I stripped his black cardigan off, revealing a very well toned figure. I mean, man. He was, dare I say it, hot. His muscles were ripped with a nice tan, broad shouldered frame, a four pack of abs and very nice biceps. I think I drooled. He groaned, making me snap out of it. Blushing, I dressed his knuckles, the antiseptic caused him to wince and open a droopy eye.
"Sorry." I frowned. Poor guy was in heck load of pain. I walked back to get the alcohol from the table. "Here," I popped the bitter drink open and held it gently to his swollen lips. "Drink this."
He took one small sip and coughed at the ghastly flavor. I drew it back. "N-no, it's fine." He spoke, his voice coming out hoarse and croaky. He coughed some more and shifted to reach for the flask. I handed it to him, bemused. "It gets better." He explained, looking at me with squinted eyes. He drank more.
I helped him clean up. He had a gigantic cut at the back of his head, his hair sticking to it. "You'll need stitches." But for the moment I just fixed it up with lots and lots of gauze. We spent the next hour bandaging him up, his rib was dislocated. But nothing major.
He went to sleep, soundly sitting there. I turned the lamp off, turning to go to my room when I noticed something glint at the back of his faded blue jeans. I reached out and pulled it. It was heavy. Metal. Vaguely resembling the shape of a… Gun.
"Oh my God."
My hands began trembling, dropping the object as the realization struck in. I stared at it, lying at my soft navy carpet.
He had a gun.
All this time. He had a bloody gun. I panicked. My hands clasped to my mouth to stop me from screaming. I moved backwards, still staring. My heart was beating so damn fast. My mind counting the enormous possibilities.
What if he was a criminal? Running from the law. Maybe the Hulk knew him from a rival gang. Maybe I should have let them kill him? If I wasn't this stupid I wouldn't be in this mess. What if he wakes up and makes me his brand-new prey? Oh My Goodness. I'm so doomed. Should I call the cops? No, no way. I swore an oath that I'll never again have anything to do with the likes of them. But I had to do something.
I gathered up some courage and picked up the ice-cold, revolver. It felt ten times heavier, now. I carried it away and hid it safely under my plush gold, mahogany couch. Letting out a breath I didn't know I had held, I dumped myself on the silky cushions. I glanced up at him. Snoring. And a little beaten up.
He was so darn cute.
Sighing, I cupped my face in my hands. They smelled of Detol. Ugh, this was gonna be a long night.
The sunlight peeking through the cream curtains aimlessly wandered through the living room and came sinking into my eyes. And honestly? I was pissed.
Not your best morning person.
"Stupid sun. Stupid." If I had a gun I would have shot its guts out.
"I should not have thought that. Oh, God." I blinked open my eyes, balling the blanket in tight, freaked-out fists. The episodes of last night tumbling right into my mind.
Wait again. Blanket?
Sure enough, right on top of me, mostly just gracing the floor-was my red velvet, strawberry shortcake blanky. I don't remember getting you, berry. I sat up, confused. My neck hurt and so did my back. Probably because I tend to sleep like a deranged frog. And maybe the couch didn't like that?
I think I strayed from the subject. I should resume panicking. But, I'm too lazy to do that right now. Seriously. I tried. Mornings do something naughty to my brains.
"And I was having such a nice dream." I wanted to sob.
"Care to elaborate?"
"Yeah, cuz I have this awful headache."
"H'm," The voice talking in my head was so melodious. Like a lullaby. I was drifting smoothly back to sleep.
Wait once more.
Okay first, this has to stop. I need coffee. And second, I willed myself to open my eyes, struggled and finally looked up to see a zombie-like person lying on my trundle daybed. His bandaged head resting on the headrest. His eyes closed. And a bit swollen.
I think I stared too long and his sixth sense kicked in, or for whatever reasons. He suddenly snapped his eyes open, looking straight at me. Like a freakzoid vampire. I screamed. And jumped off the back of the couch, falling in a not-so-ladylike fashion. Grandmamma would be so proud.
I felt a little something hard, pinching my butt. I knew what it was. Didn't bother with it.
That lasted for about 30 seconds.
My doctor had advised me to refrain from physical exercise. Or emotional outbursts. From anything in particular, that could involve my heart to race. I was thus, medically, a very calm person. I was proud of it. Mostly.
But I'll need to see Dr. Tulip after this. I just knew it.
I heard him shuffle. "Did I just scare you?" Of all the things, he chose to say this. My heart was going to have a field day on this one. He chuckled when he received no reply. I wanted to melt at the sound. Okay, I did. A little.
I did, although yell bloody boombashas when he crept up on me, in all his 6'1 glory. Further intimidated, I screamed more. Scrambling away from him in utter terror. He spoke again, causing me to panic all over again because I didn't understand it. Give me some credit! He looked like a zombie. Acted like a vamp. Spoke some gypsy tongue. And not to mention the butt-pinching pistol!
When I was at a profitable distance, I stood up, stumbling into the oak-wood chair. And ran all over to my bedroom, not looking back. I shut the door.
And dragged my study in front of it. Extra measures. Because I noticed that I had left him his weapon. Hallelujah.
I heaved some heavy breaths, my heart was beating like it belonged to a mouse. I don't know why but I was feeling ridiculous. One of those times when someone shouts so loud that it makes you scream your nuts out, without knowing shit. Yup. This was one of those times.
My brain was confused. One part of me wanted to pull my hair out. Why? Well, because it was the most logical outcome. I had a stranger in my living room. He had a gun. And he had no I.D. Voila!
And the second half of me, addicted to habit, wanted me to calm down. To reason. Because if, by chance, I didn't die of murder- I'd die of a panic attack . Simple. So why bother?
Considering the opinions of both my councilors, I made the wise decision to grab my brand-new hockey stick-which I had brought for this purpose only. And then I crawled under my bed.
"Hey, ah." He was at the door."Look, I've a pretty weird hangover and you're freaking me out. Do I get some sort of a disease-or something?" He seemed so miserable.
"N-No," My stupid mouth stammered before, "You have a gun." I could stop it.
"Oh," He acknowledged the information. "So, you're not coming out then." I heard him sigh heavily. "Okay, well. Um, I don't really remember what went down last night, ah, I hit my head. And its bleeding. Like a lot. So, can you just direct me to the nearest hospital?"
So he's got a concussion. Oh, God. And bleeding. He must have damaged the dressing in his sleep. Shit. That cut was bad. I ran a hand in my chocolate brown hair. The nearest hospital is not a walking distance away. In his condition, he'd barely make a corner.
"No? ah, that's cool. Cool. I'll just ask the neighbors." Neighbors? My neighbors will eat him alive. Literally. He moved back and said in a louder voice, "I don't know you, but thanks, y'know. You clearly saved my life last night." He hesitated, "I owe you."
Hs voice sounded so velvety when he was being grateful. I waited for him to speak again. He didn't. "Hey, wait!" I left my post under the bed and scrambled out. Dragged the table away from the door and waited a beat, hand resting on the knob before unlocking the door. "I'll take you."
I saw him standing by the front door. Leaning against a wall. His right hand was firmly pressing his scrunched-up shirt against his bandaged head. In the other he held his coat. Guess he was willing to freeze in the December cold than wear an unhygienic outfit. He looked at me and smiled. I would have swooned if he didn't look like he was about to pass out of blood loss. His neck was sleek with fresh blood dripping down his hair.
"Crap." I rushed over to him, grabbing my car keys off the coffee table. I looked at his bare chest wrapped immaturely with white bandage. "Wait." I ran back to my room and rummaged through my wardrobe to find my over-sized cotton polo shirt and an ugly knitted sweater that would have fit the hulk. I gave him these.
"And blue and black. And oh lookie! White." He narrowed his eyes at me. I motioned for him to hurry dressing up. We power walked over to the elevator and later out down the parking lot. I grabbed his arm to help him not trip.
He whistled when we reached my car. "I remember this from last night. What's her name?" he asked as if it was a living, breathing creature.
"Hello there Sheryl." He glided his hand on the bonnet.
A feeling of déjà vu dawned on me when we were seated. Only, before we were driving to my apartment and he was unconscious. I ignited the engines and geared up for the ride. Starting with the speed of eighty m/s. The car roared to life and whooshed off. Most of my hair flowing backwards and some of the bangs stinging my eyes. I sped up. The air engulfing my thoughts. I know I was breaking several traffic rules, but it made me feel a great deal better. Helped me concentrate on the roads rather than on the man who had scared me half to death minutes ago.
We reached DR. PHIL AND CO. in ten minutes tops. My knuckles were white because of the killer grip I had had on the wheel. I let out a breath. My hair was a mess.
I pulled the breaks and waited. I didn't know what to say or do. So, I kept staring ahead.
"You wanna come?" He said, climbing off the vehicle. I shook my head. "Alright then, thanks." He walked backwards, still looking at me. "It was nice meeting you. Bye." He waved, turned and disappeared inside the building. Leaving me there to debate on what to do next. I gave up and climbed out as well, chasing after him.
He did have my clothes.