Chloe shivered. Never let it be said that late summer in San Francisco was cold but goose bumps rose along her arms as the door to the shop swished open with a cheery jingle, admitting a man with dark, shaggy hair and an eye patch. His beat up work boots and dusty army jacket set him further apart in the ultra feminine vintage boutique. A couple of chatting girls followed him in but Chloe couldn’t pull her eyes off this man that just didn’t fit. Her Uniter-gifted empathy was picking up some serious intent, although she didn’t think it was malicious, just…intense
She didn’t think his intentness had anything to do with clothes, either, despite how carefully he was poking through the racks of clothes. He pulled out a sky blue dress with silver stitching and Chloe felt a twinge, empathy reading momentarily forgotten. She’d been saving up money to buy that dress for weeks. He added a stylishly cut leather jacket, a funky top, and a couple of scarves to his haul before making his way to the counter. Chloe couldn’t tell what kind of woman he was trying to dress but she was a little envious of the attention he put into picking each piece.
He glanced at the glass case, then looked her in the eye and smiled. Chloe blinked and smiled back reflexively. She’d been dazzled, startled, and even scared by a smile before but she’d never felt such a rush of warmth and comfort. Before she realized that her empathy was still locked on him and managed to make her smile a little more real, though, he’d turned back to the glass case, pointing at what had caught his eye.
“That one,” he said, looking up and smiling at her again.
She blinked against the rush of warmth, then looked down at what he was indicating. Her jaw dropped when she saw it was the necklace Lana had had in the case almost since she’d opened the shop. Dainty, dangling diamond starts hung from a gold chain, a delicate ruby heart and a tiny, intricately crafted golden skeleton key almost hidden amongst the stars. It cost more than Chloe made in 3 months and Lana had always refused to lower the price.
“It’s worth every penny
,” she’d said. “And if they don’t see that, they don’t deserve to own it
.” It was the only bit of sentimentality that Chloe had ever seen Lana display.
Chloe gently lifted the necklace out of the case as he held up the dress and asked, “From a unique shop girl’s perspective: is this okay for an eighteenth birthday party? Not too cat scratch fever, not too ‘playing dress up in mommy’s cloths’?”
Chloe pursed her lips, ignoring the urge to ask why he thought she was unique and focused on the dress. “It’s perfect,” she said with resignation.
He paused, then asked, “Something you wanted?”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, waving away her melancholy. “It’s a special dress meant for a special girl on a special day. It’s really perfect.”
His face lit up and Chloe just went with the elation that swamped her. “That’s exactly what I thought! Of course, I had to convince her we needed to have a party in the first place, so what do I know.”
Chloe rang him up, unable to keep from smiling. He handed her a black credit card and said, “Don’t tell me how much. Just run this.”
She laughed and handed him the slip, starting to put his items in a bag as he signed it. She hesitated at the necklace and asked, “Do you want this gift wrapped?”
He looked at the necklace and his face softened. “No, just put it in a box. I’ve got something special for it to go in.” He looked behind her and his face lit. “And I’ll take that, too, but don’t worry. I’ll pay cash.”
She smothered a laugh when she saw the Scooby Doo shirt that Lana had despaired of ever selling. “I don’t think that’ll fit you.”
“It’s for a friend,” he said with a little laugh. “It’s sort of a ‘welcome to the club’ present.”
She smiled and rang up the shirt, sliding it into the bag. “That’ll be forty dollars.”
He blinked, then pulled two twenties from his wallet. “And that’ll teach me to go vintage.” Chloe laughed as she took the money. “Uniter…”
Her hearing went on the fritz, her world narrowing in on that one word before snapping back to normal.
“Excuse me?” she said with a nervous giggle, thinking for a second the Order had managed to slip an assassin into the shop.
“United we stand,” he said, looking at her oddly. “Like I said, I was helping a friend with a term paper and that phrase just keeps popping into my head.” As she silently berated herself for hearing things, he started backing away with his bags. “Keep the change.”
She watched him all the way to the door, swearing to herself that she’d call Alek as soon as he was gone, before shifting the money in her hand. The edge of a white business card peeked out from between two bills and Chloe felt another chill.
The only thing written on it was a phone number and a name. Xander Harris.