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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Keeping Bad Company - First Four Chapters

I hope everyone is having a great Sunday, and that you enjoy the first four chapters of Keeping Bad Company. It's almost here! Early next month sometime. I just can't wait to share it with you all.

To get all caught up with Sly and Layla, check out my free 5-star rated short story "Things That Go Bang In The Night" on Amazon.



1

 

            “DO they have girls in Tennessee?”

            Walsh twisted around on his perch on a barstool beside the entrance of Le Femme. “We’ve got more women in Tennessee than you’ve got dentists in the UK.”

            “Then why’ve you got no old lady, and crooked teeth?”

            He touched his tongue to his bottom front teeth out of reflex. They were only a little bit crooked. In a charming way, he liked to think. He didn’t get any complaints – not about the teeth anyway.

            He shifted his gaze from his tormentor – a freshly patched punkass from Manchester more interested in the action inside the club than manning the door as ordered – to his old friend Sully. “Guess you guys’ll just patch anyone these days, huh?”

            Sully lifted his massive shoulders in a shrug. “We need the new blood. London chapter’s on the thin side these days.”

            And it was. Walsh had seen that for himself in the weeks he’d been here. Back in his motherland.

            Kingston Rutherford Walsh had gone by “Walsh” since he was old enough to understand how very uncool his mouthful of a name was – at age ten. He’d grown up fast, the scrawny single child of an unwed mother, working odd jobs for the grocer who owned the storefront on the ground level of their building. He’d joined the RAF at eighteen; his mother had plastered the walls of the flat with photographs of him in his uniform. That one newspaper clipping that had dared to call him a hero. With his devastating shoulder injury had come medical discharge. And with that, an epic sense of displacement – he wasn’t made for regular life, for the narrow social boxes of the city to which he’d been born.

            Joining the Black Dogs seemed inevitable in hindsight. His military loyalty and discipline had served him well. And it was with the club that he’d learned he had a knack for numbers, and for getting businesses up off the ground. He opened twelve club-owned businesses in London before he was sent to the US – to Knoxville, Tennessee – to turn around a strip club. He’d fallen in love – with warm summers, waving tides of long grass, the smell of tilled earth, and sweet iced tea. He’d patched over to the Knoxville chapter. The club used him as a joint resource, sending him from chapter to chapter, as a kind of MC managerial consultant. He had a nice little two-room house by the railroad tracks, a huge rainy day fund sitting in the bank, a brand new Dyna, and an account he wired money to in London for his mother every couple of months.

            He’d stopped in to visit her that morning, with flowers, chocolate biscuits, and one of those damned teenager iced coffees she’d developed a taste for. She’d bussed his cheek and called him “my handsome man.” Mothers.

            At the curb, a cab let out three boys in their twenties, all of them clearly drunk. They pointed to the blue neon above the door and whooped, shoving and back-slapping.

            Amateurs.

            “This is Le Femme, yeah?” the least intoxicated asked Walsh.

            “That’s what it says on the door.”

            “Are the girls as hot as they say?” another one slurred.

            “Hotter.”

            “Ask to go into a private room with Cinnamon,” Sully said as the trio had their IDs checked.

            Once they were through the doors, and the din of thumping baseline from inside had faded, Sully said, “Boys, it’s opening night, and we’ve got a full house.”

            “Why wouldn’t we?” the newbie asked. He was still young and stupid enough to believe that if you built it, they would come – whatever it was.

            But Sully sent a clearly grateful nod toward Walsh. “Our thanks, brother.”

            Walsh tipped his head in acknowledgement. It wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last time he led the charge into a successful, legitimate venture for the Black Dogs, be it stateside, or back home.

            “Hey!” The cab was still at the curb, the cabbie leaning out of the window. “Those little wankers ran off without paying!”

            Walsh climbed off his stool with a sigh. He didn’t feel like an argument; and what was a little cab fare compared to the money Le Femme was about to pull in tonight? Plus, he was in a generous mood.

            The club had opened without a hitch, all his suggestions implemented beautifully. It was an unseasonably nice evening for London in November: gentle breeze, cloudless sky, smell of greasy pub food floating down the street from Evans’s. Neon signage – a restaurant, night club, three pubs that were trying to be swanky and call themselves “bars,” a tattoo parlor, tobacco shop, a Goth boutique shut up for the night – painted rainbows on the oil-glossed street. Walsh thought he might wander down to Evans’s in a bit, have a pint and some dinner, bring something back for the lads. He’d have lunch with Mum tomorrow – she’d like that – before he headed back to the States day after that. The city whispered through his hair and he was, in the moment, content.

            “How much?” he asked the cabbie as he reached the street, digging for his wallet.

            And then the night exploded.

            Literally.

            Sound flooded everything, all his senses. Hearing, sight, taste, touch – all of it was swamped with sound. A great smothering wall of violent noise. And heat. And pressure. The air sucked out of the world, just went shooting away, and that unstoppable cacophony of fire and screams shoved him forward. He hit the side of the cab, and had the breath knocked out of him. The acrid smell of combustion flooded his lungs. 

            He blacked out for a second, two, three, he didn’t know how long. Next thing he knew, he was slitting his eyes against a rain of stinging powder. Ash. Debris. And he hurt. It hurt to breathe. Hurt to move. Hurt to think. His head throbbed, as did a hundred little bee stings along his arms and legs. He took a deep breath and shoved away from the cab.

            And lost consciousness again.

            This time he woke up on the sidewalk. He shoved to his hands and knees and waited for the world to stop spinning. When it did, it didn’t look any better.

            The boxy former warehouse they’d transformed into Le Femme was consumed with orange flames; they licked up into the night sky, vivid tongues of color amid the smoke and shifting clouds of ash. Most of the roof was gone. Black blast marks stained the concrete.

            Behind him, the cabbie was shouting something. His voice sounded like it was coming from down a drainage pipe. Not that Walsh was listening. He blinked and strained to see if anyone was coming out of the club. They weren’t.

            It felt like it took ten minutes to gather himself, get to his feet, and take the first lurching steps toward the fire. He staggered to his knees when he reached Sully. The big man was burned, red and black and slick with blood. A splinter the size of a dagger had punctured his throat. His eyes stared glassy and unseeing toward the burning sky. Walsh felt for a pulse anyway, out of foolish hope.

            The Manchester kid – Walsh didn’t even know his name – had lost an arm…and his life.

            He didn’t want to think about what everyone inside looked like. He didn’t want to think, period. This was too much like war. Too much like a time in his life he hadn’t thought to see again.

            He was watching the flames when the wail of sirens reached his ears.

            This is it, he thought. This is how it starts. With fire and blood.

 

 

In a sleek, chrome and steel office, in a high rise with a view of the Palace of Westminster, Sebastian Rolland glanced away from the landmark and toward the interior of the room.

            “Mr. Rolland.” His personal assistant, Cartwright, stood in the threshold.

            “Yes?”

            “Just received word from Barnes, sir. The message has been sent.”

            “Good.” Had he been the kind of man who felt satisfaction, Sebastian would have experienced it now. “Survivors?”

            “Barnes believes there was one, sir. Just one.”

            “It only takes one, Cartwright, to carry the story along.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Is that all?”

            Cartwright nodded…but he lingered, a notch of concern sprouting behind the nosepiece of his glasses.

            Sebastian picked up the tiny rake of his desk-sized rock garden and drew it through the sand and pebbles. “What?”

            “Sir…sir, if I may ask–” He paused, and Sebastian nodded. “Why send this particular message to this particular chapter of the Black Dogs? They were not involved in what happened in Atlanta.”

            Sebastian sighed. This was why he made the decisions, and Cartwright fetched his coffee. “It’s simply a matter of understanding how their culture works,” he explained. “These ridiculous fucking bikers have a Three Musketeers motto: all for one and all that rubbish. Action against any of them will get a reaction. Action against their London chapter demonstrates our reach. Make sense?”

            Cartwright nodded.

            “That’ll be all, then.” He dismissed him with a wave.

            When he was alone, Sebastian swiveled back to face the night through the window. He heard the faint wail of sirens; they were too close to be headed for Le Femme, but he liked to imagine that was the case. He toyed with the little rake and wondered, again, why Maxwell had never revealed the identity of his brother’s killer. “I’ll handle it,” Quinn had said. And then he’d gotten his stupid ass gunned down, and all Sebastian was left to go on was the name of an Atlanta homicide detective, and a lead on the Black Dogs.

            There was someone else, though, someone well below the reach of Sebastian’s people. Someone so small, they’d never even considered the possibility of a threat.

            He would find him, though. And it would start with the ridiculous fucking bikers.

           

           

2

 

“I worry about you.”

            Layla set her roast on the stovetop and heeled the oven door shut. Her very modest kitchen in her very modest house with its very modest furnishings now smelled of beef and peppercorns and red wine. On the other side of the breakfast bar, her mother Joyce held five-month-old Mick on her lap. The baby – Marcus Michael Hammond – stared up at his grandmother in unblinking fascination. He’d never seen anyone who wore such an orange shade of lipstick, or who had anxiety running through her veins in palpable currents.

            “But as you can see,” Layla said, gesturing to the kitchen around them with an oven mitt. “Things are just peachy.”

            Joyce pursed her lips, studied the drab oak cabinets, and bounced Mick on her knee. “Uh-huh.”

            So far, project Ingraham-Visitation was…if not a success, then at least not a total disaster. Layla had picked up her mom and stepdad at the airport that morning – Valerie and Jillian had stayed behind with an aunt – and things had been…not as tense as expected. If nothing else, Joyce was over the moon about her grandson. Even if she wasn’t psyched about his DNA.

            “You’re thin,” Joyce said.

            And the tension began.

            Layla reached around and smacked her denim-covered butt. “Trust me: I’m not that thin.”

“You look tired,” her mom persisted. “And your hair needs trimming.”

“Mom.” She strove for patience. “How many parents of five-month-olds do you know who don’t need a hair trim?”

Joyce exhaled and adjusted Mick, bringing him into her chest so she could snuggle him. The baby looked, to Layla’s silent amusement, totally perplexed by the situation. His little blonde brows were drawn together. The blonde fuzz on top of his head stood erect thanks to numerous grandmother groomings.

Layla’s heart squeezed. Her little man. Named after her father. Adored by every shady-ass member of his family. The blessing she’d never thought to ask for. Her reason for digging deep roots in Georgia.

“I’m–”

“Mom,” Layla interrupted with a small grin. “You’re trying to make sure I’m not some poor misused victim of Stockholm syndrome – right?”

Joyce’s cheeks had the good grace to color. “That’s not what I meant…”

Oh, but it was. And the low growl of Sly’s motorcycle as he pulled into the drive was the perfect punctuation to that sentiment.

Layla tensed, and tried to pretend she hadn’t. “Dinner’s about ready. All I have to do is set the table.” She reached for the baby. “Let me take him so you can go wash up.”

Joyce glanced down at her hands, secured under Mick’s arms. “I’m fine.” She stood, adjusted him on her hip so she had a free hand. “Here. Hand me the plates and I’ll walk them over.”

She was fast realizing – as she heard Sly’s keys at the back door – that she wasn’t ready for mom and husband to reunite just yet. She’d wanted a buffer, of at least a couple minutes. To say Joyce didn’t approve of Sly would have been an understatement. But there wasn’t a way to delay the moment, so Layla pulled down a short stack of dinner plates and handed them over as the door swung open and Sly stepped in.

He’d come from work – navy work shirt open over white t-shirt, oil-spattered jeans, favorite broke-down boots. His wheat gold hair was flattened from the helmet and he was wreathed with the smell of cigarette smoke. His face – Layla had learned to read the subtle tweaks of it – was carefully blank. His blue eyes settled on Joyce, and Layla knew her mother had to be thinking the same thing she herself thought every time she glanced at Mick: the baby was the spitting image.

Joyce’s hand curled too tight around the plates, knuckles whitening. She lifted her chin and Layla saw the tremor course down her throat as she swallowed. “S-Sidney.”

Surprised, Layla glanced at her husband. He gave her the barest shrug with his eyebrows. They had both known Joyce didn’t like Sly; it had been a shock, back when Mick was born, to learn that she was afraid of him.

“Hi, Joyce,” Sly said. His voice, if not friendly – he didn’t do congenial as a rule – was even and pleasant. He braced a hand against the doorjamb, leaving grease smudges on the white paint, and shucked his work boots. He glanced at Layla and she read his expression: I’m trying.

I know you are, she thought back to him. You’re also ruining my trim paint.

As if he could read her mind, he went to the sink to wash his hands, dropping a kiss on her upturned forehead on the way.

Joyce stood rooted in place, brittle and unsure of the situation.

Layla sighed internally. So much for this visit being smoother than the ones before. Back when she was just a few months pregnant, she and Sly had flown to LA, after their wedding, so Sly could meet Paul, Val, and Jill. The girls had been horrified and fascinated by the strange older, gritty, incommunicative alien from Planet South. They’d wrinkled their noses at first…but had pulled Layla aside before they left and confessed they thought Sly was “totally hot.” Paul had been his usual kind self, though his brow had been heavy with confusion. This man was nothing like the boys Layla had dated in LA – in her mind, that was a good thing. In Paul’s, it was hard to imagine. And Joyce…well, she’d been much like she had now: bewildered.

“Mom, let Sly have Mick, and we’ll finish putting dinner together,” Layla said, tone gentle.

Joyce’s grip tightened on the baby, eyes darting to Sly where he stood toweling his hands.

“Come here, little dude,” Sly said, opening his arms.

Mick smiled and leaned toward his father.

With obvious reluctance, Joyce handed him over, sighing shakily after. “Okay.” She sounded like she was trying to convince herself she hadn’t just relinquished a baby to a wolf.

Layla glanced up and caught Sly’s gaze before he left the room. Marriage hadn’t civilized him; it had pulled her into the wolf pack.  

 

 

“So, um, Sly.” Paul always stumbled a bit on the name. “How are things at the…garage?” He also wasn’t comfortable talking about working-class things. He made a game try, though, which Layla appreciated.

            They were arranged around the dinky round table they’d picked up a secondhand store, beef roast, green beans and mashed potatoes sending curls of steam up toward the brass chandelier.

            Sly paused and gestured toward Layla with his fork. “Good, I guess. You’d have to ask the boss lady.”

            “Business is fantastic,” Layla supplied when Paul looked her way. And she wasn’t lying: King Customs was seeing profit margins only dreamed about before…back when Mark had been in charge…She didn’t like to dwell on that.

            “Sweetie,” Joyce said, voice dropping a fraction, “you aren’t still in business with those…those…”

            “Bikers. And yes, we are.” And might be until the end of time. She left that part out.

            “Oh,” Joyce said, hand going to her throat. She blinked like she might cry.

            “Do you enjoy your work, Layla?” Paul asked. He was trying to be helpful, tone brimming with fake cheer. Bless him.

            “I do.” It wasn’t as simple as enjoy, but she wouldn’t go there. “I’m sure the rest of the shops on our street hate the noise, but KC’s doing really well.”

            Paul smiled. “That’s good.”

            The sound of Sly’s phone ringing was a blessing. She could hear their collective sigh of relief as Sly stepped away from the table to take the call.

            “Yeah?” she heard him say as he stepped into the living room.

            As a rule, Joyce didn’t approve of phone calls during dinner. She seemed to be making an exception in this case. She turned to Layla. “So if business is good, you should be able to afford a bigger place soon, right?”

            Layla frowned at her plate. After the wedding, she and Sly had bought a little brick ranch house in Cartersville, just a few miles from the Russell house. The three bed, two bath home was outdated, but comfortable, and Layla was little by little improving the look of the place. Already, Sly had laid a dark hardwood throughout. The kitchen was next on the list of renos. And Cheryl had lent her advice on what to plant in the bark chip beds that flanked the house on all sides. There was a massive oak tree in the backyard that begged for a tire swing, and Layla had unearthed a wrought iron arbor in the side yard that she’d planted with climbing New Dawn roses.

            “We’re not looking to move anytime soon.”

            Joyce blinked like she’d just pronounced the sky to be green.

            “I like our little place. And we have a lot of work we want to put into it.”

            “Well, I–”

            Sly reentered, phone held at his side, expression unreadable.

            “What?” Layla asked, feeling an old familiar anxiety spike in her belly. In this family, bad news was never as simple as a flat tire or a busted water pipe.

            “That was your detective.”

 

 

“What are you…oh, damn.”

            Lisa finished lighting the last of the tall tapers in the center of the table and turned to face her husband, trying not to look too satisfied with herself. She’d spent a good hour in the Victoria’s Secret dressing room that morning, growing a pile of discarded lingerie options, making faces at herself in the masterfully lit mirror that melted flaws and enhanced assets. She’d felt like an idiot. Drew wasn’t picky; he wasn’t hard to impress or please. He’d caught her from behind more times than she could count, when she was in tattered old jeans and an oversized man’s t-shirt, and told her how hot she made him against the back of her neck.

            But she’d wanted tonight to be special. There was nothing romantic about basal thermometers and ovulation charts; she didn’t want her man to start thinking that he was a means to an end for her: just a way to get a baby. She wanted him to understand just how badly she wanted him, and how badly she wanted him to want her in return.

            She wore a deep purple push-up bra with little crystals sewn into the cups, matching bikini bottoms, garter belt, white silk stockings. She’d gone all out.

            Drew’s expression was priceless.

            She set the lighter on the linen-covered table and propped a hand on her hip. “Dinner first? Or…”

            “Not dinner.”

            She grinned…

            And then his phone rang.

            He swore as he fumbled it out of his pocket and checked the screen. “It’s Sly,” he said, with a boyish, panicked frown.

            “See what he wants; man of few words, that one,” Lisa said, reaching down to fiddle with the top of one stocking. She’d just as soon get rid of any interferences while they still could.

            Drew’s expression went from annoyed, to concerned. “Now?” he asked into the phone. He glanced up with a warring mix of heat and apology in his brown eyes.

            Worry tweaked Lisa’s nerve endings. Something was wrong.

            “Yeah,” Drew said. “No, no…I get it. Yeah.” He disconnected and his pained face would have made her laugh if she wasn’t flooded with anxiety. Things had been too quiet for too long…it was only a matter of time before…

            “What is it?”

            “Detective Sheppard called Sly. Said it was an emergency.”

            Her brows twitched. If high-and-mighty Sheppard was calling outlaws, then the shit was deep.

            “Baby, I’m sorry–”

            “No, it’s fine. You should go.”

            He took three aggressive steps forward, closing the gap between them, catching her gently by the hips and drawing her in against him until she could feel how much he hated to leave against the flat of her stomach. “Do not put clothes on,” he said in a pleading voice. He kissed her, one of those sweet, insistent, incendiary kisses of his she loved. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

            She squeezed his biceps. “You’d better be.”

            But the moment he was out the door, she let loose the shaky breath she’d been holding. She shrugged into her terry bathrobe and reached for her cell phone.

            Layla picked up on the second ring, and Lisa didn’t even bother with a greeting. “What do you think this is about?”

            “Dunno.” Layla sighed. “I’m sure we’ll find out, whether we want to or not.”

 

 

Eddie met them in the precinct parking lot. He slotted his Jeep in beside Sly’s Harley and joined them where they sat on the lowered tailgate of Drew’s truck.

The November night was crisp and windswept.  Sly watched the tip of his cigarette flare orange in the shadows and exhaled through his nose, the smoke ghostly against the dark backdrop.

Eddie flipped up the collar of his suede jacket and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Why the hell are we here?”

“I figure the dick’ll tell us,” Sly said with a shrug, and slid down to the pavement. “And he better be quick; my dinner’s getting cold.”

Drew made a face. “Yeah. And Lisa’s ovulating.”

“TMI, dude,” Eddie said. “Keep that shit to yourself.”

Sly flicked his cigarette to the pavement before they reached the sidewalk and refrained from lighting another one. The place made him twitchy and restless. Two uniformed officers were dragging a belligerent drunk kid in Affliction everything up to the door, and they had to wait until the way was clear to step into the lobby. Inside, the din of trilling phones and closing doors and muted conversation drowned out the cursing of the douchebag in cuffs. The squad room teemed with activity; the desk sergeant juggled a phone in each hand.

“Shit,” Sly murmured to himself. He hated it here.

As the uniforms finally got their charge wrestled into a chair, Detective Leo Sheppard appeared, striding through the glass door into the lobby with a Law & Order worthy scowl marring his dark good looks. “Gentlemen,” he greeted. “Come with me.”

He led them through the squad room and down a narrow back hall hung with aerial photographs of Alpharetta. The room at the very end was a conference room, a mini-blind-covered window overlooking the dumpsters out back, harsh fluorescent tubes glaring down onto the cherry look-a-like table. A small white shoebox sat in the center of the table.

Sheppard went to the head chair and Sly hung back by the door, Eddie and Drew flanking him. The detective may have put a bullet in Maxwell Quinn, but he wasn’t to be trusted. Sideways glances proved the other guys thought the same thing. They stuck their hands in their back pockets and waited.

Sheppard fell into the chair, looking exhausted, and pulled a disgusted face when he glanced up at them. “I didn’t call you in here so you could stand around posing like The Expendables. You’re not in trouble. I–” He caught himself with a sigh; yanked his tie loose. “I need your help.”

Sly felt his brows shoot up.

“I think I hit my head on the way in,” Eddie said.

“Detective,” Drew said, ever respectful, “I can guarantee you don’t.”

“Help with what?” Sly asked. He didn’t have the patience for this. He was hungry, tired, and even worse, not sure he wanted to go home and face his mother-in-law again. That added up to annoyed.

“Do you want to sit?” Sheppard asked. When they didn’t, he continued with another sigh. “You all know about Maxwell Quinn’s son, right? I figure Mark kept you up to speed on him.”

Sly nodded. “He’s doing time for vehicular homicide.”

“Not now, he isn’t.”

Okay, so maybe he wasn’t so annoyed anymore. “He’s dead?”

“He’s loose. New evidence was brought to light and his sentence was overturned.”

What?” Eddie asked. “He was high off his ass when he plowed into that taco stand.” He grimaced. “There’s a joke there, somewhere.”

Sly ignored his friend. “What evidence?” he asked Sheppard. Max Quinn, married five times, had left behind one child, a son named Chad. The kid was twenty-two, a complete embarrassment to the human race, and addicted to everything he could get inside his veins. After Quinn’s death, Mark had been the first to tell them that, according to the chain gang grapevine, Chad Quinn was no better than the rest of his family and would be serving time. Chad, the sole inheritor of his father’s estate, would have been a major target for his dad’s old business partners, if he hadn’t gone and gotten himself arrested. Sly almost wondered if killing three pedestrians at a food truck festival downtown had been purposeful, just so Chad could escape the answer-hungry foreign partners of The Refined Gentleman.

“A Fulton county detective – Grey – reopened the case. Surveillance footage from a bank next door showed that it wasn’t Chad, but a friend, behind the wheel. Chad was two blocks away, and came running to the scene. The friend fled; Chad got collared.”

“Bullshit. His uncle’s a rapist; his dad sells rape. And we’re just supposed to believe he’s the victim of coincidence?”

“The footage was doctored,” Eddie said.

“Obviously.” Sheppard drummed his fingers on the table. “But I wasn’t involved in the case – either time. I couldn’t contest it. I don’t know how Grey got all the way to a judge, but the whole thing smells damn rotten.

“I told Grey that, when I ran into him at the state pen.”

“You were there why?”

“Doesn’t matter.” He’d been visiting Mark; Mark had kept them up to speed on that, too. “But Grey…I think he’s all wrapped up in this Quinn, Refined Gentleman clusterfuck.”

“Why?” Sly asked.

Sheppard reached for the shoebox, and his hands shook. “Because this was delivered to the station to me today.” He pulled off the lid, set it aside, and reached inside, coming out with a handful of glossy candid photographs that had obviously been taken with a telephoto lens. “That’s my family,” he said, and his voice lost some of its usual icy calm. “And this” – a gesture to the pictures – “can’t be anything but a threat.”

Eddie stepped forward, snagged the pics, and passed them around. A house, a sprawling behemoth of a house, tan stucco with skinny cypress trees flanking its wings. In its circular drive, a red-haired woman with a baby on her hip walking out to a blue BMW.

“My sister,” Sheppard explained. “Ruth – that’s her and her husband’s house by the golf course.” He swallowed hard, and it made a wet sound in the back of this throat. “She’s all the family I’ve got.” When his eyes lifted, they glimmered with naked fear and vulnerability. “And Quinn’s people have found her.”

“Anyone could have taken these,” Eddie said, playing devil’s advocate.

“Yeah, but I didn’t shoot just anyone.” Sharp grooves of distress carved around Sheppard’s mouth. “I shot Quinn, and now it’s time to pay the piper.”

Drew said, “If that’s true, then you need to put a security detail on your sister.”

“He can’t,” Sly said, and saw the miserable confirmation of that sentiment on the detective’s face. “Not if he wants to keep his badge.” To Sheppard: “You have a whole station full of cops, but you called us.”

“Yeah. I must have lost my mind.”

 


 

3

 

            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 to human traffickers, 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 PowerBar he’d choked down at a red light that morning. The Mountain Dew he’d had back at the shop churned around his gut 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.

            “Jesus.”

            “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 pacifier, 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.”

“Overturned?”

“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?”

            “Chad.”

            “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 marquee 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.


 

4

 

            COFFEE, shock jock radio, slow traffic, burgundy sunrises: the start to all of her mornings. Layla was the first one onto the King Customs lot each day. She unlocked the doors – pedestrian and roll top – booted up the computer, lined up the boards, looked over the schedules she’d made the night before. Mick had a play pen wedged in the corner behind the desk and she played mommy between handling customers and mechanics. It was chaos, but it was her life. She’d chosen it.

            This morning, Joyce had insisted on keeping Mick home with her. “That garage isn’t any place for a baby,” she’d said. Then she’d tried to convince Layla to take a personal day so they could shop and catch up. Layla had refused. She didn’t trust the garage to function without her careful supervision. And she couldn’t stand the guilt of being around her mother and feeling uncomfortable there. If she was at work, she wouldn’t have to think about that. She wouldn’t have to ponder all the ways in which her old life and her new life glanced off one another in incongruous surges of tension. If her past and her present weren’t part of the same tapestry, what did that say about her? How many of her own personal threads had unraveled and been re-stitched in new patterns?

            She missed Mick.

She wished she and Sly had a habit of carpooling.

            Pale daylight was skating across the lot of King Customs when she turned into it. This was always the most peaceful time of the day – now, and after night fell. After dark, though, was an exhausted sort of peace. This was a breath-held, energized quiet.

            This morning was going to be an exception. Two cars were parked in front of the office: an old Volvo wagon the color of Georgia red clay, and a dark blue Crown Vic. The Crown Vic – and she hated that she could recognize a specific unmarked cop car – was in her usual spot, so she parked beside it, and climbed out with her purse and travel coffee mug held up like shield and sword. Detective Sheppard sat on the hood of his car, working on the last nub of a cigarette. She was surprised to see him smoke; he’d never smelled like he did. On the bench beneath the office window, Father Morris sat in faded jeans and a sweatshirt, an out of fashion windbreaker zipped over it, his hands in the pockets.

            “Sorry,” Layla said as she closed her car door with a hip. “I’m not awake enough to come up with a suitable joke.” She gestured between the two of them, the odd picture they made.

            Sheppard leapt to his feet in a way that brought to mind a guilty little boy. He looked so serious, she wanted to laugh. She didn’t, but bit down on her tongue as he tossed his cigarette butt to the sidewalk.

            “I just thought of it. A priest, a cop, and a mob wife walk into a bar…”

            Sheppard didn’t grin. “Morning.”

            Layla quirked her brows and stepped around him. If he wanted to be melodramatic, she could play along. “Morning.” Glancing toward Father Morris, she said, “Good morning, Father. To what do I owe the pleasure?” When Sheppard frowned, she said, in an undertone, “What? He has much better manners than you.” She unlocked the door and stepped in, flicking on the lights, letting them follow if they would.

            “Good morning, dear,” Father Morris said. He entered first, and took great care settling his small frame into a chair as she went around the desk, shed her jacket, and pressed the power button on the computer. “You look very nice this morning.”

            She hadn’t had time to finish drying her hair and it was frizzing something awful. A giant hole had opened up in the armpit of her thousand-year-old Gap sweater and she was hoping she could keep her elbows at her sides all day to hide it. The toes of her favorite ankle boots were scuffed beyond the reach of shoe polish. But she smiled at the aging father and said, “Thank you.”

            Sheppard perched a hip on the far edge of her hulking metal desk and reached to toy with her paperclip holder. He picked up the plastic cube and rolled it between his palms. “When’s Sly getting in?” he asked without making eye contact.

            “He was in the shower when I left.” Though why he showered before getting covered in grease every day, she’d never know. “And since he won’t want to stick around and have breakfast with my mother, he’ll be here soon.”

            “Your mother?”

            “We’re not going there. Why do you need him?”

            He shot her a fast, narrow-eyed glance. “How much did he tell you?”

            She didn’t respond right away. It wasn’t his business how honest she and her husband were with each other. “Are you hiring him?” she asked instead.

            He reached inside his suit coat and withdrew a sealed white envelope.

            Layla felt her brows go up. She nodded. “He told me about your family. And about Chad Quinn.”

            Sheppard flicked a glance toward the priest.

            “Father Morris isn’t going to pass any of this along to anyone,” she assured.

            “I don’t run in any of the right circles for that,” Father Morris joked in his calm little way.

            Sheppard made a face. “I won’t say it out loud,” he said, resistance lacing his words. “I can’t say that I’m hiring them.”

            Layla held out her hand. “That works. You’re not getting a receipt anyway. There’s no balance sheets for vigilante justice.” The envelope landed in her palm; it was heavier than she’d expected.

            Sheppard stood. “Have him call me?”

            “Sure thing.”

            “I don’t regret what happened with Quinn…but nothing can happen to my family, Layla. I can’t be the reason they’re in danger.”

            He’d never, she figured, felt this sort of remorse. He’d always played by the rules. Once you crossed the line, skeletons went up in your closet like a whole new wardrobe, and there was no taking them out.

            “I understand,” she said gently.

            His face was heavy with stress lines as he nodded to her and the priest and saw himself out.

            “I encouraged him to come and see me,” Father Morris said as the Crown Vic fired up in the parking lot. “I think counseling would help ease his conscience.”

            Layla twitched a smile. “How’d he take that advice?”

            “There was an expletive involved.”

            “He’s kind of a wired guy,” she lamented.

            The father nodded. “So many are these days.”

            The sun’s red dawn was softening to a rich gold through the windows. A mockingbird with a beak full of pine straw hopped through the lot and then took wing. It was setting up to be a beautiful day. It felt like a lifetime ago since Layla had nothing more to worry about than how blue the sky would turn out to be. She said a silent eulogy to her former na├»ve self, then said, “Is anything the matter, Father Morris?”

            He took his time answering, fitting the pads of his fingers against those of the opposite hand, taking several careful deep breaths. “There’s something I want to talk to Ray about. A possible – well, he calls them charity cases. I have a feeling he won’t want to see me come to him with another small problem. Not when things are so…” He gestured to the walls around them.

            Layla smiled, and could feel that it didn’t touch her eyes. “Father, you’re probably the only one in the world who thinks our souls are worth saving. Uncle Ray will listen to your problem.”

            “I thought it might be better received if you told him about it.”

            Her brows lifted in surprise. Since when was she the gatekeeper to all things nefarious? But she nodded.

            “I have a family of parishioners,” he began, “with four children. A nice family; they’ve been a part of my church since Ken and Martha were first married. All of the children had their christenings with me. I know them well.” He took another deep breath and looked very old, his hair more white than gray, his hands veined and brown and wrinkled. “Their youngest daughter is…troubled. She left home about six months ago and Martha came to see me last night, in tears, very convinced that the girl has become involved in some sort of drug-selling ring.”

            “Hate to say it, but that’s not uncommon.” Especially, she thought, if this girl was from a strict, religious family.

            “No,” he agreed. “But I promised her parents that I would try to find her. Even if she won’t come home, they want to know that she’s safe. That she’s still alive. They want the chance to talk to her.”

            “And you think the guys could find her,” she guessed.

            “I think they have a very good chance. The gang Martha mentioned – every crime organization in the area has some kind of dealings with the Black Dogs.”

            Half of whom Ray employed. One of which was her own poor misguided brother. A note of fear shivered up her spine. She was only willing to be involved with the club up to a point. Everything about this scenario frightened her, for so many reasons.

            She reached for a pen and a Post-It. “What’s her name? I’ll at least pass the info along to Ray.”

            “Arlie Scott.”

 

 

Technically, Johnny lived with Rico these days. Ray had unofficially kicked him out the night he’d announced he’d prospected with the Dogs. “When you’re wearing that” – he’d flicked the front of his new cut with a fingertip – “you’re not the nephew who lives under my roof.” He’d slept at King Customs that night, with a dinner of Seven-Eleven beef jerky, his dreaded cut shoved beneath his head as a pillow. Layla had found him the next morning; he’d seen the tears that filled her eyes before she turned her head away. She’d offered, on more than one occasion, the guest room at her new place. But he hadn’t been able to bring himself to take her up on it, and so he slept on Rico’s futon, amid old Cheetos bags and week-old laundry, on the nights he didn’t crash at the clubhouse after a hard day of being everyone’s go-fer.

            There weren’t blinds on the living room windows, and first light, slatted with the pattern of the fire escape one story up, pressed at the heavy seams of his eyelids. No hangover had ever been worse than the complete exhaustion that dragged at him. He sat up, blinked back sleep, and waited for the room to stop spinning.

            The apartment, as usual, looked like the Tasmanian Devil had blown through. Burger wrappers, Big Gulp cups, uncountable issues of Car and Driver. There was a clean-clothes/dirty-clothes organization system no one had ever been able to figure out; stacks of t-shirts and jeans and breakaway track pants turned walking into the kitchenette into an Olympic event. And that was without mentioning the horror of the bathroom.

            Why didn’t he live with his sister again?

            Upstairs, Mr. Montrose turned on talk radio, and the scratchy voices reverberated through the floor. The sound made Johnny’s teeth itch, and he flipped back the fleece throw he’d slept beneath. Time to face facts: it was another day.

            He was still in jeans, socks, and an undershirt. He finger-combed his hair on the way to the bathroom. Blocking all sensory receptors, he brushed his teeth and splashed cold water on his face. Wash your hair, his aunt Cheryl’s voice sounded in his head. Later, he told her ghost. First, he wanted to –

            In his back pocket, his phone chimed with a text alert.

            “Shit.”

            It was from Jaeger: Get ur ass here ASAP. Jaeger wasn’t an asshole on purpose, it was just one of his more charming traits.

            Before he could put his phone away, another text came in, this one from Layla. Will you be in this morning? She always wrote in complete sentences. Eddie’s bringing donuts. :)

            Guilt writhed in his belly like an unhappy snake. Assholes he could deal with; sweet, cajoling sisters, not so much. She tried, valiantly, to make up for the years they’d spent apart. But it was hard to relive the past they didn’t have when there was a baby that looked just like Sly involved. He had these dim, long ago memories of Layla’s little-girl face hovering over his, sun painting a halo around her dark head, and he couldn’t rectify that child with the woman Sly had bedded and wedded. It was just wrong. No matter how hard Sly tried to play big brother, it was never going to feel natural.

            He was saved having to respond by Rico.

            “Dude, you in there?” he called through the door.

            Who else would be in there? “Yeah,” Johnny called back. “You need in?”

            “Nah. Meet me in the kitchen.”

            Jesus…what now?

            He stared at his reflection in the toothpaste-flecked mirror. He looked like shit. “Shit,” he repeated to himself. He slipped his phone into his back pocket…and his fingers touched a scrap of paper. He pulled it out; it was the receipt from The Pink Elephant, from the night before. He’d paid cash for his last round, but with his first, the bartender had brought him a receipt. He hadn’t noticed before, but there was a phone number scrolled across the bottom, alongside a smiley face the message: Call me sometime. I’ve got a weak spot for cute bikers. He folded it up and put it in his wallet for safekeeping, not sure if he planned on calling her, or if he liked the idea of her having weak spots.

            Rico waited for him on a barstool at the kitchenette’s peninsula. His hair – slicked back during the day – stuck up in wacky bedhead spikes, a black that gleamed silver in the early light. He was still in the t-shirt and boxers he slept in, and was nursing what Johnny knew was an espresso from a mug that read “You wouldn’t like me when I’m sleepy.” His slender brown fingers trembled around a cigarette, and his exhaled plumes of smoke stuttered with nerves. This was serious, then.

            “What’s up?” Johnny asked as he slid onto the stool beside him and stared at the dingy window above the sink. A thick cloud of white tumbled across the view: Mr. Montrose had opened his bathroom window to apply hairspray again.

            Rico took a breath. “You got in really late last night.”

            Dread gathered in his throat. “You were still up.”

            “Yeah, but…” Rico had rehearsed this, but he’d been unable to come up with counterpoints. It was typical; it was one of the things Johnny had always liked about his best friend. “You” – sharp drag on the smoke – “This is my place, you know? And you should – you should show some courtesy.”

            A knife between the shoulder blades wouldn’t have hurt worse. “What?”

            “You can’t just – just – come in all late, you know? And, like, disturb my work.”

            “You hack into websites!”

            “But I get paid for it!” He turned a big, brown-eyed glance to Johnny that brimmed with regret. He had one of those easy to read, expressive faces – like a puppy, Lisa always said – and he couldn’t conceal how much he hated what he was saying. But he said it anyway, and Johnny wondered whether it was Ray, or – in a brother back-stabbing move – Sly who had told Rico to scorn him for his, as they called them, “poor life choices.”

            “Rico,” he said, helplessly.

            “I don’t think.” Rico sucked in a huge breath. “That this is gonna work out. You living here.”

            And just like that, the Dogs were taking his closest friend away.

            “I–”

            His phone rang. It was Jaeger. Of course.

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