The next few weeks were amazing for Alex, as Steph began spending the night consistently.
While accumulating more than just a toothbrush at her apartment. After a while, Steph had taken over two of the drawers in Alex’s dresser. And had begun keeping the fridge stocked with her favorite beer, much to Alex’s delight, while helping tend the flowers on the roof.
The dark-haired girl still had a burning question though, as they spent another lunch hour together at the Black Lantern. “How come I’ve never been to your apartment?”
Steph blinked as she finished her sip of beer, setting down the glass. “Huh?”
“Your apartment. You know, where you live.” Alex leaned on the bar between them. “You always stay with me. Not that I mind, I’m just curious why we’ve never gone to your place.”
“Um… because I don’t have a car to bring you back with me,” she said simply. “Also, you live at your job, and the record store is closer to here than my apartment.”
“I have a bike too. I’m sure I could ride there.”
“It’s up a few hills. Even I don’t like riding home.”
Alex tilted her head. “Are you keeping me away from your place on purpose?”
“No!” Steph answered quickly.
“Then why do you keep coming up with excuses?”
Her girlfriend sighed. “Because my place is tiny, and kind of sucks,” she admitted. “’Apartment’ is a really strong word for ‘one-bedroom suite above someone’s garage’.”
“I like staying with you way more than going back, anyway. The commute is easier, and now that I have clothes here, there’s not a lot of reason for me to go home.”
Alex frowned. “Wait, you’re not sneakily trying to move in with me, are you?”
“I- okay, here.” Steph pushed her beer aside and reached out, grabbing Alex’s hand. “Babe, I love you. You’re my everything. I cannot stress enough how much you mean to me. But moving in together this quickly is not a lesbian stereotype that I want to conform to.”
“Alright, I think we’re going to have to come up with a lease of some kind,” Ryan interrupted from beside Alex, as he used a rag and brush to clean the beer taps. “One that covers potential roommate situations.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Am I not allowed to have guests over?”
“Even if I did say no, I doubt you’d listen. But I’m not sure how much I like the idea of you two having complete run of the bar when nobody else is here.” He finished the last tap, then began putting them back together. “I’m not unconvinced that you aren’t coming downstairs and sneaking booze at night.”
Alex traded a quick look with Steph. Man, it would be a lot easier to persuade him otherwise if we hadn’t totally done that.
Among other things.
“If this lease was written, what would the roommate situation be?” She asked carefully.
“First and foremost, no feral animals.” Ryan looked at Steph. “Or house pets that act feral.”
Steph narrowed her eyes. “You had better be talking about Valkyrie,” she warned. “Because if you’re not, we’re gonna fight.”
Ryan smirked as he kept going. “It would also establish you as an official tenant. Making the above apartment your residence, not just the room you live in. Which is actually beneficial to both of us.”
“Really?” Alex asked.
“Yea. I was meeting with the lawyer for some paperwork, and when I mentioned your living situation, he almost had a heart attack. He highly recommended that I either evict you, or we do up a formal arrangement, because right now you’re basically squatting. Which means that if anything happens while you’re up there, I’m liable.”
“Ah.” She pressed her lips together. “Well, I would definitely rather not get evicted.”
“And I don’t want to evict you.” Ryan finished with the beer taps, finally turning to face her. “We can deal with it later, though. I still have a bunch of landlord stuff to go over, which is not helping the size of my reading list.”
Alex smirked as she looked at the paperback book under the register, a yellow-and-black novel about how to run a small business for dummies. “Have you finished that thing yet?”
“No. I keep getting distracted.” He sighed. “This job sucks sometimes. And it’s cutting into my park ranger work. I got a really stern email from my supervisor about missing some reports two weeks ago.”
“How scandalous,” Steph remarked dryly. “Tell him that you’re trying to save trees.”
“I’d rather do the reports informing the government about our endangered wolf population, and how we need to save them from being run out of the state.”
“Oh. Yea, that sounds more important.”
“I agree.” Ryan rubbed his face. “Just one more thing on my plate. Alex, can you help me clean up back here before you go back to making eyes at your girlfriend?”
Alex sighed. “Slave driver,” she muttered.
“I heard that.”
Steph snorted as Alex turned back to the bottles on the bar, climbing back on the stepstool and resuming the task she’d been performing. She started picking up the bottles on the highest shelf, cleaning the dust off of them and the surface they sat on.
Yea, our customers are definitely not top-shelf booze drinkers, she thought idly as she wiped off a nearly full bottle of scotch with a blue label. I wonder how long this one’s been here?
She was wiping down another bottle when the door to the bar opened behind her. “Welcome to the Black Lantern,” Ryan greeted the customer.
“Hello there.” Alex glanced in the mirror behind the bottles, noting a man she hadn’t seen before, wearing blue jeans and white polo shirt with a small logo. He wasn’t slim, but not overly fat either; she almost had him pegged as a construction worker, based off of his build. A neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee framed his jaw, matching the short hair on top of his head.
Their new visitor adjusted the shoulder sling on his laptop bag as he checked out the rest of the bar. “Wow. Nice place you got.”
“Thank you.” Ryan stepped around Alex. “First time here? I don’t think we’ve met.”
“I’m sure we haven’t. I just got in late last night.”
“Really? What brings you to Haven Springs?”
“Work, unfortunately. Though this seems like a nice little town.” He leaned on the counter. “I’m curious, how many people live here?”
Ryan looked up in thought. “Last I heard, between eleven and twelve hundred.”
“Small,” the man noted.
“For sure. But it has its charms.”
“I can see that. The scenery is amazing.”
“It absolutely is,” Ryan agreed. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” He extended a hand. “Theodore Peterson, though I prefer Ted.”
“Ted it is.” Ryan nodded as he shook hands with him. “What can I get you?”
“Well, I’m actually hoping you can help me with something.” Ted looked around. “I’m trying to find a young woman named Alexandra Chen, and I was told that she worked here. Is she in today?”
An immediate chill went up Alex’s spine as she blinked, freezing at the sound of her full, legal name.
“Alex?” Ryan stood upright. “Why are you looking for her?”
“I wanted to talk with her.”
“Can I ask what about?”
“I’m afraid it’s private, but it’s very important.”
“Well, she’s not here at the moment.”
Play along. She placed the bottle back on the shelf and resumed cleaning, though she kept an eye on Ted in the mirror.
“Are you her boss?”
“I don’t suppose there’s any way you could call or text her? I’d really like to speak with her as soon as I could.”
“You a lawyer?” Steph asked, as she stared at him.
Ted looked at her, unperturbed by the interruption. “No.”
“Are you a process server?”
“I am not.”
“If you are, you legally have to tell us.”
He pondered that for a few seconds. “… I’m not familiar enough with Colorado law to know if that’s true,” he admitted. “But it doesn’t matter, I’m still not a process server. Or a legal professional of any kind.”
Alex shifted her focus, trying to get a read on the man. But he didn’t give off any kind of aura she could pick up. As far as she could tell, he was truly neutral of the interrogation and more than willing to answer questions.
Ryan folded his arms. “I have to be honest, Ted, I don’t like calling in my employees for meetings with strangers who won’t say what they want. No offense.”
“I understand, given what I’ve heard on the news and what she’s been through over the past couple of months. But I promise that I’m not here to make trouble. I just want to talk to her about a private matter.”
Ryan inhaled slowly. “I can shoot her a text. See if she’s willing to meet with you. But I can’t promise she’ll answer.”
Ted sighed. “Look, mister…”
“You can call me Ryan.”
“Ryan, I’ve been asked to speak with her as soon as I could. I promise that I’m not here to make Alex’s life harder, and it will be a short conversation.” He paused. “Is it okay if I have a seat, and maybe wait for a little bit?”
“Sure.” Ryan gestured towards the back of the bar. “Do you want a drink?”
“I’d love a Jack and Coke.” Ted turned his eyes towards the mirror, meeting Alex’s gaze. “I’d also like Alex to bring it to me when she’s done, so we can talk. But if she decides not to, I understand.”
With that, he left the bar, taking a seat at a table on the other side of the stairs.
Alex sighed as she turned to look at the others. “… well, shit.”
Ryan glanced between her and Ted, as she got off the stepstool. “He knew what you looked like before he came in here,” he deduced quietly.
“You think so?”
“Only way he could be sure it was you.”
Alex looked at Ted, noting that he was ignoring the three of them as he faced the far wall, seemingly content to do something on his cell phone. “What do you think?” she asked Ryan.
“I have no idea.” He paused. “But he said he was asked to speak with you. That means he’s following orders, which means he’s probably not going to go away until he does.”
“You think he’s dangerous?”
“Probably not, if he knew who you were and was happy enough to leave you be.”
“Did you get a read on him?” Steph asked.
“I tried. But I didn’t pick up on anything.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well… he’s not mad at me. Or scared, or sad, or happy, or overly emotional in any way.” Alex peered at him again, but still couldn’t see any visible aura. “… I don’t know.”
“What do you want to do?” Ryan asked.
Alex considered her answered for several seconds, looking the man up and down. “… I’ll meet him, I guess,” she allowed. “See what he wants, if nothing else.”
“You give a signal, and we’ll tackle him,” Steph assured her. “I’ll beat him up while Ryan gets you out of here.”
Ryan frowned. “What, you don’t think I could take him?”
“Maybe you could, but if he fucks with my girlfriend, there won’t be anything left of him for you to take.”