Raw text, so apologies for typos.
Happy Friday, and happy reading.
Keeping Bad Company, Copyright © 2014 by Lauren Gilley
They promised to look into it and then met Ray at Waffle House for a late dinner and reconnaissance. Ray, already full of Cheryl’s cooking, sipped his coffee and asked, “What do you think, Sly?”
If it was at all possible, the Russell patriarch had mellowed. Losing his brother to jail, almost losing his daughter and niece had finally instilled in him that he couldn’t do everything, that it was okay to do more delegating. Sly had seen the pills the doctor had prescribed him: he needed to calm the hell down, or face a heart attack.
“I think he’s damn spooked to reach out like this. But is it related to Quinn? Dunno.”
Ray held a swallow of coffee in his cheek and glanced over at Eddie, then sideways at his son-in-law.
“We’ve been waiting on the other shoe to drop–” Drew started.
And Eddie said, “Maybe it’s not gonna drop on us.”
Ray shrugged. “It’s worth a few phone calls.” He said nothing further, which meant he wanted to spend the rest of the evening not thinking too hard about it. Sly tended to agree.
It was after ten by the time they paid the tab and dispersed. Drew and Eddie walked to their rides. Sly lit up on the sidewalk in the yellow neon glow of the Waffle House sign, and Ray lingered beside him a moment, hands in his jacket pockets.
“I thought you’d stopped,” Ray said with a gesture toward the smoldering Camel in Sly’s right hand.
He shrugged and took a drag. “I did. Technically.”
“It’s bad enough Mick’s old man is a hundred-years-old. He’s gonna have lung cancer too.”
“Forty-one,” Sly corrected without rancor. The ribbing didn’t bother him; ribbing was Ray’s way of caring, and care he did.
To demonstrate his understanding, Ray said, “Did Joyce make it in alright?”
Sly snorted. “Just in time to give me the ‘I hate you for touching my daughter’ look when I walked in the back door.”
Ray socked him on the shoulder and stepped off the curb. “Tell her we said ‘hello.’ And Cheryl wants her to come to dinner tomorrow night.”
Yeah, that would go over well. “Sure,” Sly said to his back.
Halfway to his truck, Ray paused and turned, his expression not quite so blank as one of Sly’s poker faces. “You talked to your brother-in-law the last couple of days?”
“He’s due into the shop tomorrow.”
Ray twitched a frown. “’Kay.” He didn’t say what Sly figured they were both thinking: what in the hell were they going to do with the kid?
Johnny checked the time on his phone. 10:18. Dinner would be long since cleared away, leftovers packed into Glad containers in the fridge. He frowned. He’d told Layla not to expect him – and he wasn’t sure he’d wanted to go anyway – but his stomach was gnawing at his backbone. The last time he’d eaten had been the Power Bar he’d choked down at a red light that morning. The Mountain Dew he’d had at the shop before leaving churned around now like a vat of battery acid. The company he could have done without, but the dinner would have been nice.
Instead of the Formica-topped table in his sister’s depressing kitchen – the place smelled like baby food, smoke, and a life thrown down the toilet – he sat at the end of a long, scarred bar, sideways on his stool, monitoring the meeting taking place at a round center table and the door of the place at the same time. It was a shithole of a bar, one with a view of the interstate ramp and a Texaco. This weekday night crowd seemed to be made up of truckers and construction workers. Windowless, the building was narrow, cramped, and stale-smelling. Half the neon signage along the wall flickered or was out. Johnny would have preferred to be just about anywhere else, but he was a prospect, and prospects did as they were told.
Cheryl had been the first one to break into tears when he’d dropped the news on the family. Layla had gone white to her hairline; she’d pressed a hand to the base of her throat, the other held protectively over her then-pregnant belly, and leaned back against Sly. “You’re a dumbass,” Lisa had said, scowling fiercely. The men had been less demonstrative, but their disapproval had been just as heavy across his shoulders. As Ray had put it, he was already part of close-knit family; why did he feel the need to go join someone else’s? Especially when this new family was leather-and-life-bound, without a prayer of escape. Once you were patched, you were patched; a person didn’t just walk away from an outlaw motorcycle club.
“I think he’d take you up on the offer if you asked him to dance.”
Johnny pulled his gaze away from the door. The comment had come from behind the bar, from the black-haired bartender who was keeping his beers fresh.
She wasn’t bigger than a minute, with long, long legs that didn’t seem to help her in the height department. Pale, slender, she was all blue eyes and white teeth. Her hair, obviously died, was a midnight bluish black, tied up in a heavy ponytail with a wispy fringe of bangs. She had a definite goth thing going – black tights under supershort cutoffs, skull-printed black tank top, arms loaded with bracelets, too much eye makeup – and he found himself liking it, even though that wasn’t his usual type.
“What?” he asked.
Her grin was too cheeky for this hellish bar full of old men, too bright and full of life. “That guy you’ve been staring at the last hour. I didn’t take you for the kind to crush on the DOT crowd, but I’m sure he’d think you’re purdy.”
It took him a beat to catch what she meant, then he felt his cheeks flush. He’d been staring at the entrance, but he could see, given her vantage point, that it could look like he was staring at the man in the orange vest two stools down.
“Oh…no, I’m - I’m not–”
She giggled, pressed the back of her hand to the tip of her nose to squelch it, and looked all of about sixteen. “I know,” she said, shaking away the last of her laugh. “You just looked so serious over there. I had to say something.” She flashed him another smile, this one almost shy and inviting.
Johnny fidgeted on his stool. He’d never been any good at flirting.
“You’re with those bikers over there, right?” She gestured to the Black Dogs, and then to Johnny’s very plain black leather prospect cut. “You’ve got one of those vest things.”
“Cut,” he corrected automatically. Then he felt bad for being short. He softened his tone. “And yeah, I am. Mostly. Sort of.” This sounded bad. He cleared his throat. “Yeah, I am.”
She giggled again, eyes curling up into crescent moons. “You’re cute.”
He felt the tips of his ears turn scarlet. What the hell did he say to that?
“Hey, how ‘bout a refill, darlin’?” another patron called from down the bar, and she whisked away with a flick of her dish rag and a wink for Johnny.
Glad she was gone – he could only fumble through their exchange for so long without crawling inside his collar – he turned back to his watchdogging…and nearly leapt out of his skin when he saw Danner standing right behind him.
“You’ve got to stop jumping, probie,” the blonde biker admonished. Thirty-two, Danner had been patched in just under a year ago. He was keen on having someone lower in the ranks around, but didn’t abuse his power. Aside from Johnny’s sponsor – Jaeger – Danner was the Dog he liked best. “No chick ever put ‘jumpy’ on her list of turn-ons.”
It wasn’t possible to blush anymore, so Johnny ducked his head. “I don’t jump,” he said lamely.
“Uh-huh. Settle your tab. We’re going.”
Off to God-knew-where to do God-knew-what. He sighed, dug a crumpled ten from his wallet, and left it on the bar.
He glanced over his shoulder once. The bartender was scraping a tip off the bar into her apron pocket. Her smile was gone; for the first time, he saw the shadows under her eyes.
The lights in the center of the house were off when Sly killed his engine in the driveway. In the silence that descended, the last rally of autumn crickets sawed out a hard song. The air was heavy with chilling dew. He counted two lit windows – the spare bedroom where Paul and Joyce were staying, and the master bedroom where his wife waited for him.
He let himself in the back door, relocked it, toed off his boots, and moved through the main part of the house without turning on a light. They’d been in the place long enough now for him to know its pathways without thought. When he reached the mostly-closed door to the master, a floorboard groaned beneath the carpet. The softest of sounds came from within: Layla’s quiet gasp of surprise.
“It’s me,” he said as he eased the door open.
The scene that greeted him was a welcome one, amusing, endearing, and arousing all at once.
Layla sat in the middle of their bed, an open bottle of foot lotion abandoned on top of the sheets; he could smell the honey and lavender undertones of it. She was in the shapeless white t-shirt she slept in, legs curled beneath her, bare toes peeping out, her toenails painted a bright red. Her mahogany hair spilled loose around her shoulders, damp and curling at the ends from the shower. Her fresh-scrubbed face was bright, cheeks pink, eyes green and round and trained on the door. One hand was braced on the mattress, the other was shoved beneath her pillow; a taut line of tension gripped her arm. She’d been reaching for her .38.
Sly propped a shoulder in the doorjamb and watched the startle leave her, replaced with the warm, patient emotion she always beamed his way with mind-reading glances and patient smiles. “You gonna shoot me?”
A corner of her mouth twitched. “You gonna give me a reason to?”
She wasn’t the same girl he’d picked up at the airport on a sticky August afternoon, in her yellow sundress and high-heeled sandals. She was thinner, leaner, harder around the edges. There was a caution, an awareness, about her now that was more animal than genteel Southern lady; it was sexy, but he regretted it all the same. She was more guarded with strangers, more suspicious of smiles. She carried a gun in her purse beside the extra baby food, and she knew how to use it. She was a ferocious mother. And when Sly reached for her between the covers at night, she arched into him, breathed against his neck, welcomed his touch. But she had changed, and it was because of him. Every so often, he allowed himself to feel like a bastard about that.
She rearranged her legs so they stretched before her, and abandoned the gun for the foot lotion. “What did Sheppard want?” she asked as she squeezed a dollop into her palm.
There was wisdom in playing things close to the vest. Logic dictated that the less someone knew, the less it could hurt them. That had been Ray’s policy when it came to Cheryl for a long time. But as they’d all come to learn over the last couple of years, information had a way of attacking even the most innocent and uninvolved. As a result, Sly told his wife more than he should have; they didn’t have secrets, and he liked it that way.
Sly crossed to his dresser and started lining up his keys, phone, and wallet across the top with military precision. “He thinks someone’s threatening his family. A box of PI photos was delivered to the precinct – got him all jumpy.” He glanced sideways and caught Layla’s reflection in the dressing table mirror.
“Hmm.” She made a thoughtful face as she massaged lotion into her arches. “Who does he think is behind it?”
“Quinn’s son, he says. The kid’s case was overturned and he’s out of the joint.”
“There’s a dirty cop involved.”
She made a face, one he was coming to recognize – my, God, how many nefarious people can there be in the world. Then she shook it off. “And he came to you guys.” She didn’t sound surprised; he turned and leaned back against the dresser, brows lifted in silent request for her to elaborate.
She was happy to oblige. “When Leo shot Quinn,” she said, pulling her feet up so she sat cross-legged; Sly tried to ignore her use of the detective’s first name. “The department cleared him; it was a good shoot. No one dug too deep, so they don’t know Quinn was unarmed, that the gun in his hand had been planted, or that Ray was ever there. If this is little Quinn – what’s his name?”
“How appropriate – If this is Chad, then Leo’s got every reason to think that going to his boss will turn the spotlight back on himself. He can’t risk the department finding out he shot Quinn in cold blood.”
“But why blackmail a cop? Just have him killed.”
“They need him for something,” Layla said, and Sly watched her realize the truth of the statement as she said it. Her Chapstick-soft lips formed a little O. “They’ve put him over a barrel, and that’s right where they want him.”
But why? echoed silently through the room between them.
“Sly,” she said on a sigh, “can’t things ever just…be?”
He hated to tell her, but the no-secrets thing cut both ways. “No.”
“Ha! Whoever heard of an MC doin’ business outta Alpharetta?”
Johnny wondered the same thing.
In the glow of the security lamps, Simon Piper’s skin had a certain wax museum sheen. His rat-brown ponytail hung in limp tatters over one shoulder; bony arms protruded from the home-cut sleeves of an old Bud Light t-shirt with a denim vest over it. He smelled – end of sentiment. Just smelled. His teeth gleamed wet and tobacco-stained in the night.
“The neighbors don’t like it much,” Doc said, pushing up his bandana to scratch at his scalp. “But I expect they’ll get over it.”
Piper laughed – a clogged, nasty sound. His presence was a blemish against the posh uptown scene unfolding around them.
A year before, when the Black Dogs had lost their clubhouse to fire, they’d faced a decision: rebuild, or start over in a new building. Black Dog Cycle had been lucrative…to a degree, no doubt hampered by its East BumFuck location. Prez and vice prez Stack and Rev had concluded that if the Temple crowd could afford some bike parts, the wealthy Alpharetta crowd could afford even more. There were tons of weekend road warrior dentists, doctors, and lawyers looking to spend more than they needed on Harley-brand everything, down to bandanas and headlamp polishing cloths. Given that half the Dogs’ crew were taking day jobs as mechanics with King Customs, a relocation just made sense. Stack had leased a stand-alone, two-story stone and stucco building with front and rear parking, a marquis out front, and boutique neighbors. The place had been a law office at some point, so the downstairs had been redesigned for retail shelves and a counter. And the upstairs they’d renovated into a new clubhouse, one with a bird’s eye view of the street and anything unsavory that could be coming down it. Though, what more unsavory there could be besides the Dogs, Johnny didn’t know. There were already three petitions circulating to have the MC kicked out of the city. And business was booming. They didn’t belong here…and they seemed to be loving that.
In the dark cool evening, a few stragglers from the steakhouse across the street were bundling into Burberry coats and walking to their cars, shooting glances at the old Caprice parked under the streetlamps and the crowd of bikers gathered around its open trunk.
“How many are here?” Jaeger asked. The light painted shiny patches across the plastic cases of dozens and dozens of bootleg DVD cases.
Piper picked at his nose like they weren’t watching him. “Three-hundred and fifteen.”
“You counted,” Corey said. “I’m impressed.”
“I can count!”
“Far as you know.” Jaeger turned to Johnny. “Take these up to the storeroom. Danner, give the kid a hand. I don’t want this shit sitting out here longer than it has to.”
Danner grumbled something under his breath that sounded like “fuck me.”
Johnny leaned down into the trunk – it smelled like piss for reasons he didn’t want to understand – and gathered up an armload of stolen merch. He had no idea why the club would want to move the stuff, but it wasn’t his place to ask. So he followed Danner to the exterior staircase along the side of the building and clambered up to the clubhouse entrance.
“We need another prospect,” Danner said as they moved through the common room and headed back toward one of the half dozen storage rooms that overlooked the back lot.
“You just don’t like our quality time,” Johnny said, mock-pouting.
“I’d like it a lot more if I wasn’t schlepping shit around with your wannabe ass.”
Johnny sighed. It was all part of the script: pretend to hate the prospect, say mean shit to the prospect, debase him on every level. When they weren’t within the club, Danner was a decent guy to hang around with.
“You know–” A case slipped off the top of the pile in Johnny’s arms and crashed to the short-napped carpet. It busted open with a crack. “Shit.”
But when he deposited the rest on a work bench and reached to pick it up, he didn’t find a broken copy of The Avengers. Instead, a slender, retail-ready plastic bag of white powder.
He picked it up and held it at arm’s length like it might bite. “Um…what the hell is this?”
Danner shot him a patronizing glare. “What’s it look like?”
Johnny’s pulse leapt in his ears; he felt, for reasons inexplicable, like he’d been betrayed. “I didn’t know we dealt coke.”
“We don’t. Not officially.” Danner shrugged. “We move products that move well, whatever they happen to be.”
Johnny swallowed back the rest of his questions. He was neck-deep in sin – voluntarily. Now wasn’t the time to get inquisitive.