“What a pleasant surprise,” she cooed. “Didn’t expect to see you here tonight.”
“Can we go someplace… a bit more… private?” he said, and swiped at a stray drop of rum on her décolletage.
Shelby’s cherry lips trembled. “My darlin’, I thought you’d never ask.”
He followed her to the opposite end of the bar, up the old, winding stairs. Green doors lined the second floor hallway. They walked past the occupied rooms, lights out and doors locked, but the sounds revealed the activities within. Levi took a deep breath, and Shelby led Levi by the hand to the very last door. A brass plaque affixed to the door by large coppery rivets read “Honeymoon Suite,” the words scrawled on in red paint.
“Only the best for my best man,” she said. Levi followed her inside and shut the door behind him.
“Shelby,” he said, “I need to ask you some questions, and you’ve gotta swear you’ll never say nothin’ to nobody. Not even Tatianna.”
“Okay.” Shelby sat on the edge of the king-sized bed, legs crossed, and leaned back on her elbows.
“Those three men downstairs, the outsiders… when did they get here?”
“About two hours ago.” Her eyelashes fluttered.
“Did they say anything to you? Ask any questions?” He paced across the creaky hardwood.
“Not really. Just ordered three beers. I told ‘em the beer tastes like shit, but they insisted.” She uncrossed her legs, spreading her knees wide. Her fingers played with the metal clasps on her purple brocade corset.
“Did they speak to anyone else? Has a person, or a group, maybe, been in, y’know, like them? Not your typical outsiders?”
She let out a long sigh. “We’re not having any fun tonight, are we?”
“Shelby – I need to know.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Does this have anything to do with your little girlfriend outside?”
Levi’s heart temporarily halted. He spun to face her. “What did you say?”
Shelby smirked, and she sat upright. “Your cute little girlfriend. I saw you two sneaking around out back. Where’d you find her?”
“You have to forget you saw her,” he said, his voice low and serious. He knelt in front of Shelby, placing his hands on her knees. “She is in danger. Some Skulls might be after her, and I’m trying to help her get back home. We thought some of her people might be here…”
“Well, I’ve never seen Skulls like those men, so I think you’re safe there. And I haven’t seen anyone else around like them downstairs. Wish I could help you more, honey, but if your girl’s a little, um, off like they are, I’d bet they’re from the same place.”
A wild grin spread haphazardly across Levi’s face. He jumped up. “Thank you.” He bent down, kissed her on the lips, and ran out of the room, leaving her on the bed alone.
The outsiders remained seated, waiting. Levi walked straight to their table. All three looked up at him, silent.
Well, this is more awkward than I’d expected, he thought.
He took his time sitting down in the empty chair. The men on either side were closer to Levi’s age, just a few years older. They were muscled and hard, their hair cropped short, military style. The man directly across from Levi had graying hair, but his deep set blue eyes were chilling. Levi made a point to look each of them square in the face. They looked back, expectantly.
“Gentlemen,” Levi began, “I think I know who you’re looking for.”
Suspicion filled the old man’s eyes. “James, I presume?”
“Of course, yes,” Levi said. “I am James. You’re looking for me.”
The man’s expression remained stoic. “I believe we may have an imposter.”
Levi kept calm. “No, it’s just that no one’s called me ‘James’ in years… almost didn’t recognize my own name.” He snickered.
Several seconds passed as the man evaluated the truth of Levi’s lies. “You seem awfully young for someone of your expertise,” he said at last. “But I suppose this dump of humanity spawns the most sinister of criminals… what was that old saying? ‘Garbage in, garbage out.’ But we all must do what we must to survive.”
“Spoken like a man who understands the criminal mind.”
“Yes, I do, rest assured. You’ll be well compensated for your service here. Actually, what you’re doing is rather noble… giving this town the very thing it has searched for since the Exodus.”
Levi nodded in agreement, but he had no idea what this man was talking about. “Glad to be of service, sir.”
“Good. I’ve sent a message to the town’s ombudsman, a Preacher Skaggs…”
“… We will meet in the morning to discuss our plan. I will require your presence to detail your duties.”
“Sir, I prefer to remain anonymous to Preacher Skaggs, if I may. We are not on the friendliest of terms.”
“Very well. Meet me here, tomorrow, 2 p.m. I will arrange for a private room in which to speak.” He stood, and his companions mimicked.
“Yes, sir. Thank you,” Levi said, standing, reaching a hand toward the man as an offering to shake, “I didn’t catch your name.”
The cold eyes squinted. “Perhaps you should stop your drinking habit while you are working for me. I need your full mental capacity.”
Levi smiled, and picked up one of the full beers on the table. “Well, I guess I’d better get my ‘habit’ under control right away,” he said, and chugged the foul drink in four giant gulps. A belch escaped just as he set the empty glass down heavily.
The man’s face was stone. He turned from Levi just as he said, “It’s Montgomery. Remember it this time.” He walked away. The two men followed on an invisible lead.
Bodyguards, Levi thought. Who the hell is this man, and what sort of plan would he need to discuss with Skaggs?
He started toward the front door, but before he reached it, Levi noticed a delicate, round face peeping through a window. He burst outside, grabbed Cam’s arms and pushed her back into the shadows.
“What are you thinking?” he whispered fiercely. “What if someone saw you, huh?”
“I was worried! You were gone twenty minutes!” she whispered back. “Besides, everyone in there is either too drunk or too horny to notice a face in the window.” Cam crossed her arms.
Levi sighed. “Did you see the men I was talking with?”
“No,” she said, “I only saw you drinking and then walk towards me.”
He sighed again. “Let’s get out of here. We need to talk.”
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