It's Day Two of the week of excerpts from my brand-new supernatural suspense novel, REVENANT. Yesterday featured the prologue, today is
Earl had been a regular at the Ridge Runner for so long no one dared consider sitting in his spot, even when he wasn’t there. Far end of the bar, wobbly two-person table kitty-corner across the room from the entrance. Close to the john, far enough from the door to be out of the firing line of the almost lethal gusts of frigid air that swept into the room any time a patron entered or exited from late October through late April, day or night. Winter was by far the longest of the four seasons in Paskagankee, Maine.
Bartender and longtime Ridge Runner owner Bo Pellerin slopped a fresh beer on the table as Billy Ray Cyrus—the real Cyrus, not wannabe rock-star daughter Miley—whined and complained about his achy-breaky heart, whatever the hell that meant. Earl Manning considered himself something of an expert in the field of achy-breaky hearts, as his last trip to the doctor, roughly three years ago, had resulted in a stern warning from the old quack to slow his drinking pace. Earl didn’t think that was what Billy Ray was talking about.
Actually, “Stop drinking entirely,” was what the quack doctor had said, “before all that alcohol kills you.” The guy spun some bullshit about mitral and tricuspid valve deficiencies and plaque buildup in the arteries—apparently Earl’s achy-breaky heart had less to do with love and loss than a weakening muscle critical to the body’s continued operation, at least if he believed the quack, which he didn’t—just before hitting him with almost a three hundred dollar charge. Earl had ignored the outrageous bill just as he had ignored the diagnosis, vowing at that time never to return to the fucking quack’s office.
That was three years ago, and look at him, still sitting at his table just beyond the far end of the bar, still drinking—more, if anything, not less—and still very much alive. Sure, he suffered from the shakes some mornings (most mornings if he was being honest with himself); and sure, there were those disconcerting moments when he had trouble catching his breath climbing a normal flight of stairs and was forced to stop and rest halfway, but that sure as hell wasn’t due to heart trouble. After all, Earl reasoned, he was only in his late twenties, and achy-breaky hearts were for geezers, Billy Ray Cyrus’s opinion on the matter notwithstanding.
The front entrance swung open and then slammed closed. Earl barely noticed. It was almost midnight and the Runner was hopping, so the damned door seemed to be on a swivel, anyway. Plus it was early summer, meaning the cold air that normally accompanied the arrival of a new patron had gone on vacation for a few months. It would be back soon enough, but for now, the only things that might have entered the bar were a new customer and a few mosquitoes, and Earl couldn’t care less about either one. As long as he could still get Bo’s attention when his thirst demanded another beer, he didn’t give a damn if Billy Ray Cyrus himself had just walked in.
His disinterest didn’t last long, though. He glanced up, bleary-eyed, and discovered it was a woman who had entered, a woman he did not recognize, and a beautiful one at that. Aside from Blanche Raskiewicz, who had been frequenting the Runner longer than Earl and whose skin was so weathered and dried out it looked like her face had been patched together out of strips of old leather, the “fairer sex” tended to stay away from the Ridge Runner. It was not an establishment that saw many female faces.
Especially female faces like this one.
The woman was young and beautiful. Long jet-black hair cascaded in waves halfway down her back, terminating in lazy ringlets a few inches north of her butt, which was accentuated in skin-tight faded jeans with no visible panty lines. Earl knew because it was the first thing he checked. His eyes might be red-rimmed from all the Budweiser and he might almost have reached the point where he would soon begin seeing double, but he was as much an expert in panty lines as he was in achy-breaky hearts, and he would have bet his miserable life this chick wasn’t wearing any.
The face framed by that black hair could fairly be described as angelic, with flawless copper skin, a delicate, slightly upturned nose and the most intense green eyes Earl had ever seen. Her mouth was a slash of vivid red as she pursed her lips in concentration, walking slowly through the crowd, clearly searching for someone specific. Ridge Runner patrons parted before the beautiful young woman like the Red Sea before Moses. She didn’t seem to notice. She was probably used to it.
She meandered through the bar and the raucous cacophony of drunken voices dimmed, eventually fading away entirely. Even the music seemed to have stopped for the time being. An occasional cough and the shuffling of boots on the dirty floor were the only sounds. Earl wondered who the lucky bastard was that she was looking for and, more importantly, why. He knew pretty much everyone in here, and all of these dumb fucks put together didn’t have the class this babe had in her little finger. That much was obvious.
Earl didn’t care how classy she was, though. He had a prime view of this chick’s pantiless ass and that was good enough for him. She had made a hard right turn after entering the bar and was moving steadily counterclockwise around the outside of the room, still searching, peering left and right as she walked. Soon she would pass directly in front of Earl’s mesmerized face and shortly after that would be right back at the front door where she started.
Obviously, the guy she was looking for wasn’t here, which was hard to believe. Earl figured if he was the lucky son of a bitch who had made plans to meet up with this hot piece of ass at the Ridge Runner, he would camp out a couple of days in advance, just to be sure he didn’t miss her. Although, in his case, that wouldn’t have meant doing much of anything different than usual. His waking hours more or less coincided with the Runner’s hours of operation, anyway.
The girl reached Earl’s rickety table and instead of continuing past as he assumed she would, she took a seat, easing onto the empty chair next to him and fixing him with a stare from those curiously green eyes. They were spellbinding, and it took a few seconds for Earl’s brain to process the fact that she had just spoken to him. “Uh . . . ‘scuse me?”
A knowing smile flitted across her face, as if she had this effect on men all the time. Probably she did. “I said hello,” she repeated. “How are you doing tonight?”
“Just great. Getting better all the time, in fact.” It finally occurred to a stunned Earl Manning that he was the one she had been searching out, as hard as that was to believe.
“Buy you a drink?” Earl asked, frantically attempting some basic math in his alcohol-addled brain. He wasn’t sure he had enough cash left to buy anything for this gorgeous specimen, but didn’t really care, either. If he couldn’t pay that asshole Bo Pellerin at closing time he would worry about it then.
“White wine would be lovely,” she said, still smiling, her eyes locked onto Earl’s. God, but they were captivating.
Earl signaled Bo and the bartender approached with a look of incredulous disbelief written all over his face. Earl figured the same look was probably on his own face. “White wine for my friend, please,” he said, wondering if anyone had ever ordered wine before inside the Ridge Runner.
For just a moment he thought Pellerin was going to make some sort of wise-ass remark. The bar’s owner didn’t, though. Instead he turned without a word and walked back behind the bar. Bo grabbed a dusty bottle Earl had never noticed before off one of the mirrored shelves and poured the contents into what Earl guessed was a wine glass. Who the hell knew? Hopefully the damned thing was at least clean, although the prospect seemed unlikely.
Bo placed the glass in front of the chick and walked away and Earl realized he had no idea what to say next. He wracked his slow-moving brain as panic threatened to overwhelm him. This was the most stunningly beautiful girl he had ever had a shot with. The only other one who even came close was that bitch Sharon Dupont, and that had been a long, long time ago, back when she was still a high school kid, years before she had kicked her drinking habit and become a cop, of all things.
His mind snapped back to the present, and to the awful knowledge that if he didn’t say something soon, preferably something suave or at the very least semi-coherent, this gorgeous babe was going to think he was mute and maybe mentally deficient, too. The only thing he could think of was, “Do you come here often?” which was pointless. For one thing he already knew the answer to that particular question, and for another he realized, even in his present state of drunkenness and rising panic, it was the most clichéd pickup line in the book.
She saved him.
“So, do you come here often?” she asked, and coming from her it sounded like the wittiest conversation-starter ever. Bo Pellerin dropped the wine bottle down on the bar with a thud and walked away, shaking his head as he went. The girl continued gazing at him, smiling softly, acting like he was Jake Freaking Gyllenhall or something, rather than what he was: a twenty-nine year old rail-thin raging alcoholic with bad skin and a balky heart sitting in a dive bar in the middle of God-forsaken nowhere, a rifle shot from the Canadian border.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do,” he answered, surprising himself by speaking clearly and not slurring his words. He wondered how long he could keep up that little bit of verbal gymnastics. “But I know you don’t; I would definitely have remembered you.” Earl had no idea what the hell was going down here, but he was determined to ride this train all the way to the station, and felt like he was doing a pretty damned good job so far, even if all he really was doing was hanging on for dear life and waiting to see what would happen next.
She sipped her wine and Earl gulped his beer. “I’ve been looking all over for you,” she said, as if they were a couple, rather than total strangers, as if it was perfectly normal for a model-beautiful young woman to be sitting here in the Ridge Runner chatting up a loser like Earl Manning. He was acutely aware that every man in the place—every single one—was watching them like some practical joke was being played and they didn’t want to look away because they were afraid they might miss the punch line. For just a second Earl wondered if that might be the case.
“Is that right?” he finally ventured. “Well, now that you’ve found me, what are you going to do with me?”
“Everything.” She smiled suggestively, placing her hand lightly on his arm. Earl thought briefly he might lose it right then and there, and wouldn’t that be hilarious?
“Wh-whass your name?” he asked, his diction finally betrayed by the combination of nerves and drunkenness. He was a little surprised it had taken this long.
“Raven,” she said, acting as though she didn’t notice his little slip-up, although it had to have been obvious. The young woman finally dragged her gaze away from Earl’s face and glanced disinterestedly around the bar, only now seeming to realize that they weren’t alone. Earl thought it might be the strangest thing he had ever seen. Of course, this whole bizarre episode would probably qualify.
Raven leaned over, supporting herself by placing one delicate hand in Earl’s lap, instantly bringing him dangerously close to losing it again. She whispered into his ear, “What do you say we get out of here and get started? I don’t think I can wait much longer.” Her voice was soft and girlish and Earl would have sworn her breath shuddered a little with anticipation. Or maybe that was his.
“Okay,” he agreed, rising unsteadily to his feet and reaching into his pocket. He pulled out all of his money and tossed it onto the table, not counting it, not even looking at it. He didn’t care how much was there. If it was more than he owed for this night of drinking then that asshole Pellerin could treat himself to a nice, undeserved tip.
Raven looped her arm through his and began walking toward the front door, leading Earl through the crowd of disbelieving drinkers. Again they parted at her approach and again she seemed unaware. Earl took the opportunity to slip his left hand into the left rear pocket of her jeans. They were so tight he had to work to slide it in, but he figured it was well worth the effort.
The rickety wooden screen door slammed closed as they walked into the gravel parking lot, Raven moving confidently and Earl half-stumbling along behind, hand jammed into her back pocket, feeling like a guy who has just found out he won the lottery even though he didn’t buy a ticket. The buzz of excited conversation swelled behind them and then faded with the closing of the door.
The darkness became more pronounced as the pair moved away from the dirty lighting of the tavern. Bo Pellerin had once confided in Earl that he didn’t see the need for exterior lighting in the Ridge Runner’s lot—not many women came here and most of the ones who did, well, Bo seemed to feel were better-looking in the dark, anyway. Dudes could damn well find their own way to their vehicles. Plus, floodlights were too fucking expensive to maintain.
Most of the time Earl didn’t even notice the darkness as he made his way to his fifteen-year-old Ford pickup. Hell, by closing time he was almost always blind drunk anyway, so what difference would lights make? Tonight, though, maybe as a reaction to the strange turn of events, he felt a shiver of fear worm its way into his gut. Anything could be out here. Anything.
Raven tugged insistently on his arm and, seeming to sense his trepidation, whispered, “Please lover-boy, don’t make me wait. Stop teasing me!” And just like that, Earl Manning forgot all about the darkness and what it may or may not contain.