Chapter 1

"Shine, shine, shine, shine.  Shine the glasses while they dine.  Another day, to waste away, hoping death will stay at bay," the young bartender sang nervously as he cleaned some shot glasses.

            Just his luck, outlaws lurking in every pub and, on the day after his eighteenth birthday, his dad forced him to take shifts in the family's saloon.  He'd seen the scars that his father acquired over the years and there was no way in hell that he'd willingly put his life in such a precarious position.  Every idiot knows that when a fight breaks, the bartender is the first to get a bullet through the head.  It's a law of nature.  Why couldn't he be an insurance salesman?  Hell, he couldn't even drink the damn liquor he was serving.  His parents stuck to the old rules.  They were always telling him, "We came from the good ol' U S of A and we'll be respectin' their rules and customs.  No drinkin' 'til yer twenty-one."  So, he got to spend his days watching neighbors and strangers getting piss-ass drunk, dodging random bullets, and cleaning up great globs of god-knows-what.

            "Life sucks," he muttered filling a large mug with booze.

             "Depends what you make of it."

The boy jumped a mile, the mug sliding through his fingers.  The glass shattered, sloshing amber liquid across the floor and on his leather boots and slacks. 

"Fuck, damn, shit, crap, hell!  That's coming out of my pay.  Like I needed this."

While trying to shake the beer off his shoes, the boy racked a hand through his light brown hair and turned to glare at whomever broke his angsty train of thought.  He stared, slack jawed, at the guy seated on the other side of the counter before recovering his pissed countenance.  Unnatural blue-green eyes stared at him through a mop of pale blond hair.  Such an odd color.  It reminded him of some liquor bottles they got every once in a while, but just a shade off.  The guy couldn't be much older than he was, but looks could be very deceiving.  His gloved hands stood before him in a sign of submission and surrender.  Add another oddity to the list.  Red, fingerless gloves.  Didn't see them everyday.  Hell, he hadn't seen anything like them before.  That and his hooded duster.  Although, they didn't really get company like this guy often.  Too young.  Too clean.

"Hey, I'm sorry about scaring you.  Didn't know you were that deep in thought."

"It ain't yer fault.  This job has my nerves doing goddamn loop dee loops up and down my spine."

"Really?  That bad?"

"What'll it be?" the bartender asked, nodding.

"Got anything without alcohol in it?"

Definitely not a usual. 

"Nothing cheap.  We gots water, tea, root beer, milk…"

"How much for a root beer?"

"Fifteen double dollars."

"You weren't kidding."

"We don't get many customers who don't wanna get wasted out of their mind."

"That's why I don't do hard liquor, and I can't stand the piss-ass crap that bars pass off as beer."

The bartender smirked as the blond scrunched his face up in disgust and stuck out his tongue.  A man with taste.  Definitely didn't get those often.  He rummaged under the bar to get a bottle of root beer as the man reached in the inside pocket of his duster.  

"Wouldn't know much 'bout the beer anyway.  Folks won't let me drink it 'til I'm 'legal'," he muttered, pushing wine bottles aside in his search.

"Legal?  But there isn't an age limit here."

"Tell 'em that.  'Our fathers and their fathers' fathers came from the good ol' U S of A and there weren't no drinkin' 'til the age of twenty-one.  We lived through it and you can, too.'"

The boy stood up and froze when he caught a glimpse of silver amongst the black folds of the blonde's coat.  Shit.  Shit.  Shit.  There was always a catch.  Sure the guy was nice, civil, and sober, but he had a fucking gun.

"Ah, the old 'we had to deal with shit, so we're going to force you to suffer through it, too' ploy.  For some reason, parents always try that and then wonder why their kids rebel later in life.  Aha!  Here it is!"

The blond held up his leather wallet in triumph, a big grin on his face.  The smile faltered when he looked up at the bartender.  His brow furrowed in confusion and concern, until he followed the boy's line of sight.  Quickly, he pulled his coat around him, hiding the gun from the tender's point of view.  Thin fingers reached into the dark brown wallet and pulled out two bills.  He pushed them across the table and glanced up at the still unmoving boy.

"Don't worry.  I won't cause any trouble.  It's just for protection.  As a last resort."

            The bartender nodded dumbly and placed the bottle of root beer on the counter.

            "So, what's your name?" the grinning blond asked, taking the bottle.

            "Huh?"

            "Well, that's a funny name."

            "No, no, it's just, um…Why?"

            "Customary conversation tactic.  You know: Hi, my name is… Howdy, my name is… How ya doin'?  How 'bout this weather lately?"

            "Um, Seamus."

            "Hey, Seamus.  Name's Sven.  Nice to meet you."

            Sven stuck out a hand and Seamus tentatively shook it.

            "So, have parent problems?" Sven asked after a sip of root beer.

She flicked her long copper hair over her shoulder and grinned.  Bingo.  Target acquired.  Oh, and what a pushover.  Young, nice, and totally unsuspecting.  He wouldn't know what hit him until she was ten blocks away and safely out of harm's way.  Easy money.  Seamus shot her a look from behind the bar, but she just winked and crossed her fishnet-clad legs.  The little bastard always made things more interesting.  Not that any of his good work ever paid off.  Never loosing eye contact with her, he leaned in close to the blond man and whispered sweet warnings into his ear.  The blond turned and scanned the room, pale eyes finally settling on her.  She looked down at her lap, feigning to smooth out her short black skirt or to dust off her knee high boots.  Glancing up, she smiled to herself.  He was still gazing at her, his head tilted slightly and his raised eyebrows lost beneath a tangle of bangs.  Not bad looking either.  This gig would be fun.  She straightened her red top and reached for her drink when some jerk bumped into her left elbow.

            "Hey!  Watch it, ass hole!  You almost spilled my drink!"

            Dark sunglasses staring blankly, the tall, tan man turned to face her.  No wonder he ran into her.  There's no way in hell that he could see in the murky pub with those shades on.  He was just lucky that she wasn't big, mean, and ugly.

            "I'm sorry, miss," he replied, nodding slightly.

            He turned away, running a gloved hand through his spiked black hair.  She smirked.  His other hand combed through the pockets of his brown overcoat, halting only when fingers found his wallet, safe and sound.  So, her reputation did proceed her.  How marvelous.  Her brow furrowed as he pushed the coat back away from his body.  All black clothing?  Sure, it was a fashion statement, but only in the coolness of night.  The double pleasure of twin suns and desert climate, however, dampened the chic-ness of darks in the day.  Ok, black shades, black hair, black gloves, pants, shirt.  Hell, even his gun was black!  Can you say brooding city?  Trade coats with the blond and his outfit would be complete.  A glimmer of gold tacked to the inside of his coat caught her attention.  She squinted.  It looked like some sort of cat.  Ah crap.  Undoubtedly, it was a lion.  Hazzah, tall, dark, and brooding was a hired gun.  Shit, they were hiring young.  The kid couldn't be over twenty-one.  Ah, but dark times and all.  After all, many men thought that poor defenseless she of only eighteen needed a big bad bodyguard to keep all the scary monsters away.  Of course, that mind set was fine and dandy to her.  The easier to rob them blind and witless.  Speaking of which…

            The blond vacated his seat at the bar, picked up his belongings, and after bestowing what looked to be a great deal of money to Seamus, meandered out of the pub with a wave.  Fun time.  She deposited some coins on the table for her drink and slinked out after her prize.

"…an insurance agent or somethin'.  Anything that's nice an' relaxing.  If I don't get shot in this job, I'm gonna die of a heart attack from all the goddamned tension!"

            "Well, as long as you're not a door to door insurance salesman.  You'd probably run a higher risk of getting shot in that profession than this one."

            "I'll be right back," the young bartender chuckled.  "What'll it be?"

            "A screwdriver."

            "Sorry, we're all out of orange juice."

            "Then just a shot of vodka."

            "Coming right up."

            He watched the blond in the mirror behind the bar as the boy went to get his drink.  Blondie was the target?  Sure, he fit the physical description and, minus a long braid, looked exactly like the profile picture.  But his personality… He'd been to this bar a few times, quite a few since the kid had started work.  He had never seen the boy so relaxed or happy before.  It was an unsettling change, yet fully welcomed.  Since when did a murderer put someone at ease?  He started as Seamus placed the shot glass in front of him.

            "Thanks."

            "No prob.  So what should I do about my parents?" Seamus asked, turning back to Blondie.

            "Tell them how you feel.  If they don't agree, save up some money and move out.  You are eighteen.  You're an adult and you can take care of yourself."

            "I can't earn much money here."

            "Stick it out.  Things will get better.  If you're interested in insurance, you should go to December.  Big place there by the name of Bernadelli.  I have a friend that works there."

            "Thanks.  I don't get many people I can talk to."

            "It's no problem.  It's what I do."

            Blondie stood up from the barstool and slung his bag over his shoulder.  Reaching into his duster, he recovered his wallet from the folds of his coat and pulled five bills out.  Grinning, he held out the money to Seamus.

            "You already paid."

            "Think of this as a tip."

            "It's far too much…"

            "Take it as a down payment on your ticket to the future."

            Mouth agape, Seamus took the fifty double dollars.

            "Th.. Thank you…"

            "Just don't waste it.  Later."

            Stuffing his wallet in his back pocket, Blondie casually waved over his shoulder as he wove his way out of the bar.  Through dark glasses, he watched the blonde's exit in the mirror's grimy reflection.  Fingering his shot glass, he pondered his assignment.  Was the information they gave him wrong?  They said he was the Spike.  Ruthless killer.  The murderer and maimer of innocent hospital victims, pinning his prey to the walls of their rooms.  Crucifying them.  He knew killers could become detached, he'd been in this business for four years.  But Blondie was different.  He was hiding something, but who wasn't.  However, the shaded guilt and pain lurking in those eyes did not belong to a seasoned killer.  He sighed and downed the vodka.  When did this job get hard?  The shot glass clinked against the bar.  He waved his gloved hand at Seamus.

            "Another shot.  Keep 'em coming."

            He would need them.

"Oh, I'm so sorry, sir," she said sweetly, innocently fluttering her eyelashes.  "Did I hurt you?"

            "Not at all," the blond squeaked from his position sprawled across the ground under her.

            "Are you sure?  I hit you pretty hard."

            She tilted her head innocently to the side, copper cascading over her exposed shoulder.  Her pale hands flew across his body, checking for injury, ridding his white tank top of imaginary dirt.  She ran one hand slowly down his thigh, her other hand slipping down his back.

            "Eep… I'm fine.  Really.  I swear!"

            Trying to free himself, he wiggled underneath her.  Nimble fingers enclosed on leather and the wallet was hers.  She pretended to stagger to her feet, but then fell to his side, the wallet hidden from his view.  The blond stood up and glanced down at her.  She slid the wallet into the back waistband of her skirt and grinned bashfully.

            "Are you ok?" he asked, extending a red gloved hand towards her.

            Always the gentleman.  Too bad he was so gullible.

            "Oh, I'm fine.  I'm just so clumsy."

            She giggled airily.  He smiled softly as he dusted the dirt off her black cloak.

            "Just be more careful next time."

            "I'm so sorry again.  Well, I gotta go.  I was in a hurry and all."

            She turned and trotted down the alley.  Score, easy paycheck.  However, she hadn't gotten more than ten feet when the blond chuckled.

            "Excuse me, miss?"

            Crap.  Wincing, she stopped, composed herself, and then cheerfully turned back to the blond.

            "Yes?" she replied with a look of puzzlement to the blonde's back.

            Slowly turning, he tossed a small leather satchel tied with red cord up in the air and caught it again.  Her jaw nearly hit the toes of her knee-high boots.  The goddamn fluff-ball pinched her purse!  A smirk quirking his lips, he weighed the satchel in his hand.

            "Feels like a decent amount of money.  Pretty good for a pickpocket.  Let's see.  How about a swap?  Your purse for my wallet?  Seems like a fair trade to me."

            A pale eyebrow raised in question.  She pouted and crossed her arms.  How dare he outsmart her at her own game!  Her pride would not relinquish her new prize, but to lose a whole week's wage in the process?  Pride was the underdog and an upset looked out of the question.  Glaring, she walked over to the blond and thrust the wallet at him.  He smiled, graciously took his wallet, and politely returned her purse.  Grumbling, she snatched the purse from his hand, spun on her heel, and stalked down the alley again.

            "Hey!  Wait!  Where're you going?"

            "Leaving.  There's no money to be had here, so just leave me alone!"

            Much to her annoyance, the blond hurried after her, skidding to a stop in front of her and blocking her way.  With a shy smile, he held out a twenty double dollar bill.

            "What's that for?

            "For you."

            "I don't do hand outs."

            She batted away his hand and tried to stride past him.  He grabbed her arm and offered her the money again.

            "It's not a hand out.  You're good.  If I had been anyone else, you would be the proud new owner of a nice leather wallet.  You just picked the wrong person to steal from.  Even if the bartender hadn't warned me, you wouldn't have had a chance.  Just be glad I'm not one to run to the police."

            His hand slid down her arm and turned her hand palm up.  He placed the bill in her hand and closed her fingers around it.

            "Take it.  Have a nice meal.  On me."

            There it was again.  That sweet, soft smile.  So innocent and caring.  It asked for nothing, wanted nothing.  It just understood.  Blushing slightly, she returned his smile and shyly tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear.

            "Thanks," she murmured softly.

            "No problem."

            Slowly, she turned and walked down the alley out to the street.  That had been…interesting.  He had caught her in the act, yet he held no anger.  No accusation or pity.  When many would have beaten her to a bloody pulp or worse, he offered her friendship and respect.  How curious.  Lost in a haze, she bumped into a blur of dark brown and black.  A low "I'm sorry, miss" rumbled from somewhere behind.  Had the whole scene actually happened?  She shook her head again.  God, she was being stupid.  All dreamy eyed over a measly double dollar bill like some crazed teenybopper mooning over a heartthrob's gum wrapper.  Her hand's moved to put the bill in her purse, but paused.  She gazed down the street.  She'd never eaten at Fitzwilly's before.  Striding forward, she thought, There's always a first time for everything.  Suddenly, a gunshot shattered the silence of the peaceful town.