Beast: Lords of Carnage MC

Exclusive sneak peek of Chapters 1-3

Beast-cover

CHAPTER 1

Beast

The loud bang behind makes the woman behind the counter shriek in alarm and drop her phone.

“Holy shit!” she yelps. Her eyes bug wide as they dart to me.

“Jesus, Beast!” she gasps. “You scared the living hell out of me!”

“Sorry about that,” I shrug. “You really need to get that screen door fixed.”

Hannah takes a deep breath and lets out a noisy sigh of relief. “Tell me about it.” The blood slowly begins to return to her face. “It’s been like that for over a week. Chance keeps saying he’ll do something about it. But clearly, it’s pretty low on his priority list.” She glances toward the back of the shop with an irritated frown. “Then again, he’s not out here listening to it day in and day out, like I am.”

“He around?” I ask. “I can bitch at him if you want.”

“Nah. He’s not coming in until later on today.” Hannah cocks her head at me. “Wait — your appointment wasn’t with him, was it?”

“Nope. With Dez.”

“Oh, good.” She looks relieved. “I was worried Chance fucked up.”

“Not on this front, at least.”

Chance Armstrong is the owner here at Rebel Ink. This shop is one of half a dozen tattoo places in the area, but it’s the only the Lords of Carnage will go to. The artists here are top notch, and they’ve been doing all our work for years.

I’ve known Chance since he was a little kid. He was  a few years behind me in school. I can still remember him way back then: a geeky kid with stick-out ears and glasses. This was long before tattoos snarled the surface of his skin from the neck down. He’s come a long way since then. This place is known throughout the region as the best ink shop around.

I’m here to get some new ink on a faded tattoo. Normally, I don’t bother with touch-ups. But this one is special. It’s the first one I ever got. It’s the head of a snarling beast, with a mouth full of flame. The orange of the fire has dimmed, and it’s time to get it back in shape.

“Dez is in his room,” Hannah says, nodding toward the hall. “You can go on back.”

“Thanks.”

I head down to find him in his studio. He’s hunched over a sketch pad, busily working on a design. His dark beard covers the entire lower half of his face. An elastic band pulls his long hair back out of his way. Dez looks up at my footsteps, grunts a greeting, and sets the pad down without a word. He isn’t known for his sparkling conversation. It’s one of the things I like about him.

I lift my chin at him and sit down in the chair opposite him without preamble.

“Touching up today?” he murmurs.

I nod. “The flames,” I tell him. “Do what you want with the rest.”

I pull off my shirt to give him access to the tat, which is on my left pec. He peers at it for a few seconds, even though he knows it well. “I’ll touch up the outline, some of the details,” he tells me. “Keep the overall look of it. The blur of the old ink is actually an asset. Adds to the character.”

I settle in, watching silently as he preps his instruments. When he’s ready, I just lie back and let him work. For a long time, the only sound in the room the tattoo gun and the occasional rustle as he shifts position.

Dez works with a furrowed brow. Time passes. I mostly zone out, aware of the pain almost like a meditation.

“All done,” he eventually says. He pulls back and grabs a hand mirror for me so I can take a look.

The beast has recovered his snarl. I flex the muscle and grin. “Looks good.”

“Thanks, man.” Dez nods briefly. He’s not great at accepting compliments, but I can tell he appreciates it anyway.

“How’s the fam?” I ask as he grabs the ointment to put over the new ink.

He nods. “Okay. Stacey’s been sick a lot lately. Strep. Docs think she may need to get her tonsils out, but they’re holding off for now ‘cause she’s so young. Carrie’s been off work a lot to stay home with her.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah.” He shrugs. “She’s takin’ it in stride. Luckily her boss is being cool about it. She’s trying to get a lot of work done at home while Stacey’s asleep.”

I watch Dez place the bandage and try to imagine him at home with a girlfriend and a kid. It’s not easy. But I guess most people would look at my brothers in the club and not believe that lots of them have kids as well. I’ve seen guys tough enough to make a grown man piss his pants, down on the floor playing horsey with a two year-old. So, I know dads come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. And some of the best ones I know are covered head to toe in ink.

Not me, of course. That’s never gonna happen.

I make a mental note to toss a few extra bucks in Dez’s direction by way of a tip, and shake his hand as I get up to leave. Then the two of us head back down the hall.

Hannah’s staring into space when we get to the reception area. Her phone is lying on the desk in front of her. Her face is pale, and her jaw is clenching and unclenching, like she’s trying to keep her emotions in check. When she notices us, she quickly sits up and flashes the two of us an unconvincing smile.

“All set?” she croaks, her eyes flickering from me to Dez.

“Yeah.” Dez gives her a quick nod and tells her what to charge me for, then lifts a finger at me and turns back toward his studio.

Hanna grabs my ticket to ring me up. She takes a ragged breath and sniffles, and I realize she’s either been crying or trying not to.

“Hey, you still freaked out about that door slamming?” I ask, a little alarmed. “Shit, if it’s getting to you that much, I can grab some tools and fix it for you.”

“No, no.” She shakes her head and sniffles again, then looks up at me apologetically. “It’s not that. I’m just… I just got a text from my aunt. My little cousin has been missing for a few days.” Her voice begins to quaver on the last word, and she swallows and tries again. “She… just kind of disappeared into thin air. Didn’t come home from school last Thursday. We have no idea where she could be.” Her chin trembles. “She’s only fifteen,” she whispers.

“Shit, Hannah. I’m sorry.” Fuck, no wonder she looks like hell. She must be worried sick.

I cast about in my stupid lizard brain for something to say that won’t just make her feel even worse. “Have you, uh, talked to the cops?” I finally ask.

I’m pretty sure it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever asked that question.

Hannah snorts wetly. “Yeah,” she says in disgust. “My aunt has been down to the station a couple of times. They just ask how she knows Zoe didn’t just run away?” Hannah fixes me with an angry, intense stare. “She didn’t run away!” She cries. “But even so, what if she did? She’s still missing, and she’s still only fifteen! How can they not even care enough to look for her?”

I hold her gaze and don’t look away. She’s right, of course. It’s fucking bullshit. But I know enough about cops — especially the cops in fuckin’ Tanner Springs — to know they pick and choose what they respond to. They’re not about to give a family like Hannah’s, from the wrong side of the tracks, the time of day. They’re too busy kissing the ass of our piece of shit mayor, Jarred Holloway. The patrol cars in our city spend a shitload of time cruising around and ticketing loitering teenagers in the tony part of town during the daylight, so the rich folks can see them Keeping Crime Off the Streets. They don’t touch the real shit with a ten-foot pole. The domestic violence calls at 3 a.m. The petty drug dealers who sell to poor kids who’ve got nothing in their lives and are just looking for an escape.

And Hannah Gilchrist’s little cousin? I’m sure as shit she isn’t even on the Tanner Springs P.D.’s radar. Their family hasn’t given enough campaign money to Mayor Holloway for them to rate.

I wish I had something positive to say, but I don’t. So I don’t say anything at all. She seems to realize the information she’s revealed is too personal, and her eyes quickly flick down toward the desk. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “It’s not your concern.”

“Don’t be sorry, Hannah.” I cast about again some more. “She’ll turn up.” I find myself saying. Which is probably true.

One way or another.

Hannah gives me the saddest fucking look I’ve ever seen. “I hope so. She’s like a little sister to me, Beast. And my poor aunt…” She shakes her head. “She’s going out of her mind. Zoe’s her only child.”

“I can imagine.” Fuck, I sound like a goddamn moron. I lean on the counter and give her my money, with a generous tip for Dez. Straightening, I say, “I’m sorry. I hope she turns up soon.”

“Thanks, Beast.” She gives me a tremulous smile.

I walk out of Rebel Ink feeling pissed off and unsettled. I’ve known Hannah for years. Even though she’s only an acquaintance, the thought of her little cousin, or any fifteen year-old girl for that matter — out there somewhere, lost and alone — gets to me more than I’d like. I didn’t say this to Hannah, but I wonder if she’s even in the area anymore. The possibilities are endless. She could have run away, like the cops said. She could have been taken. Hell, she could have just gone wandering around out in the country somewhere and gotten lost, though I can’t imagine a kid that age wouldn’t have a cell phone nowadays.

Shaking the thoughts from my head, I cross the parking lot to my bike and straddle the seat. It’s early afternoon, and I’m on my way to Twisted Pipes, my club’s custom bike and auto shop. Hawk’s got a few projects on deadline and a couple of the guys are out sick, so I said I’d come help him out.

I’m just getting ready to fire up the bike when my phone buzzes in my pocket. Thinking it might be Hawk, I grab it and glance at the screen. It’s a call, not a text, and it’s Gunner.

“Hey,” I bark into the phone.

“Hey, brother.” Gunner’s voice is tinny on the other end. “You got time to do me a favor?”

“What’s up?”

I hear him take a drag on a cigarette and blow it out. That must mean he’s stressed. He’s mostly quit the cancer sticks since his old lady, Alix, got pregnant. “I got a problem. A Lemmy problem.”

I suppress a laugh. “I see. What’s up?”

Gunner sighs. “Apparently he’s out causing trouble downtown. I got a call from Zeb over at the Lion’s Tap saying Lemmy’s bein’ drunk and disorderly outside. I don’t want him to get hauled in, but I don’t have time to go get him. I’m on my way to take Alix for her doctor’s appointment.”

I nod at the phone. Alix is eight months along, and big enough that she looks ready to pop at any moment.

“Okay, I’ll take care of it. I’m just coming out of Rebel Ink. I’ll head over there right now.”

“Thanks, brother. I owe you one.”

“As long as that ‘one’ is a bottle of my favorite whiskey, you’re on.”

Gunner chuckles. “I don’t owe you that much.”

I smirk. “Let’s see how much damage control I have to do. Talk to ya. Say hi to Alix.”

“Will do.”

I end the call and fire up the bike. Then I head out of the parking lot toward downtown, wondering what kind of scene I’ll find when I get there.

 

CHAPTER 2

Brooke

The tumbling styrofoam cup of coffee spares the stack of papers on my desk, unloading its entire contents on the pants of my navy suit instead.

“God flaming dammit!” I hiss as I jump to my feet, wincing as the hot liquid burns through to my skin. I only managed to take a few sips before I overturned the whole damn thing on myself. Grabbing the handle of my desk’s bottom drawer, I wrench it open to find my gym bag. I unzip it and pull out a ratty towel, which I throw on the spreading pool beside my rolling chair and start swishing it around with my foot.

“Careful, there.”

Lafontaine’s slightly condescending voice tells me he’s right behind me. Inwardly I cringe, and just stop myself from groaning in frustration. So, not only am I going to look like crap all day and smell like a convenience store, but my boss just happened to witness the whole stupid episode. Awesome.

“Yeah,” I murmur. I turn to him and try a carefree chuckle.  “Just my luck, too. I really needed the caffeine this morning.”

“Something wrong?” Lafontaine asks, raising a critical eyebrow at me.

I suppose it’s not too surprising that a special agent with the FBI would take every innocuous remark as an opportunity to glean information. Lafontaine has probably never had a casual conversation in his life. But even so, he’s reading entirely too much into a simple accident. I’d love to tell him that to his face. Unfortunately, I’ve learned from experience, he doesn’t take kindly to suggestions from underlings. No matter how small.

“Oh, no, no,” I reply hastily. I can’t afford to let him get the impression I’m not operating on all cylinders. “I just, ah, worked out extra hard at the gym this morning.”

“I see,” he replies. The frown he gives me implies he doesn’t quite believe me, but thankfully he lets it go. “Agent Brentano, I’d like to see you in my office, please. Five minutes.” He looks down at me in thinly veiled distaste. “I’ll give you a chance to clean yourself up first.”

Fuck. “Right away, sir.”

The echo of his heels tap judgmentally down the hallway. Growling to myself, I grab my purse from the top drawer and book it down to the restrooms, leaving the towel to soak up the rest of the spill. The whole way there, I’m muttering to myself, but stop abruptly when a coworker tapping on a laptop looks up at me with a confused glance.

Special Agent Craig Lafontaine has been my boss since I’ve been at this FBI field office in Cleveland, just a hair short of four years. He’s almost exactly what you’d expect the director of an FBI field office to be like from watching the movies: a man of indeterminate age, well built and in shape without looking like a weight lifter. Hair the color of cardboard, cut short with a side part so straight you could use it as a ruler in a pinch. A face that’s blandly handsome and naturally devoid of expression, which makes him perfectly disconcerting to have a conversation with. It serves him well during interrogations. It’s not so great when you’re working under him, though.

In the time I’ve known Lafontaine, I’ve learned essentially nothing about him as a person. I don’t know anything about his hobbies, private life, or likes and dislikes. I have no idea whether he’s married, or has kids. And I realize that’s by design. Lafontaine is the consummate career FBI guy.

And even though he’s never said it in so many words, I’ve always gotten the distinct feeling that he doesn’t love having a woman working for him.

Four minutes later, I’ve managed to mostly mop myself off and used the hand-dryer on the wettest part of my pant leg. I stand in front of Agent Lafontaine’s closed door and give it three quick taps with my knuckle. I think I hear a murmur, but I’m not quite sure. A couple of seconds later, he barks, “Come in, I said!” Feeling my face flush, I reach for the knob and walk inside.

“Take a seat.”

He’s frowning at his monitor, and doesn’t look at me at first. I do as he says. I sit patiently, taking deep but quiet breaths and doing my best to project self-assuredness. Eventually he raps sharply on a key and turns to me, leaning back in his chair.

“I’ve got a case for you,” he says without preamble.

“Okay.” I’m relieved at the normalcy of his news. But it feels weird. I can’t quite figure out why he acted like I was about to be reprimanded if this was all he wanted to tell me.

Lafontaine glances down at his normally pristine desk, and I notice there’s a manila folder on it. It’s thin for an FBI case folder: barely an eighth of an inch thick. “Take a look,” he says.

I reach forward and slide it toward me. He’s silent as I open it and begin to skim the top sheet. “An HT case?” I ask, glancing at him.

He gives the barest of nods. “We’ve had a tip come in. A town southeast of here, where we don’t have a resident agency.” He shifts slightly in his seat. “I want you to go down and check it out. See if there’s any credibility to it.”

“What’s the town?” I look down at the file again.

“Tanner Springs.”

My eyes freeze on the page. My whole body goes rigid. Every nerve ending is alert.

I try as hard as I can not to let a single flicker of emotion show on my face.

“You grew up there. Right?”

He asks, but it’s not a question. He knows. Of course he knows. The background investigation process to become an FBI agent is incredibly thorough. The agency knows practically everything about me: my family, where I was born, my education, my associates. They know my credit history, my mental and physical health history, whether I’ve ever lived outside of the country, and who I went to my senior prom with.

(Trick question. I didn’t go to my senior prom.)

“Uh-huh,” I murmur, even though it’s not necessary. Inside my head, I can hear the rushing of blood as it pounds through my ears.

“Review the file. You’ll head down to the location, interview the parties concerned, and assess the viability of the situation.”

“What kind of tips have there been?” I manage to croak out. My voice sounds tight in my throat, like I’m not getting enough air. I focus on my breathing, in and out, hoping it will calm my nerves.

“It’s one tip. A shop owner, in particular. Owns a sub shop in a mini-mall in town. Apparently, one of the other businesses in the mall, a laundromat, has a lot of foot traffic lately. Mostly men.” He snorts softly. “The complaint he filed said these men are inside for a long time, but none of them ever come into his shop to grab a sandwich. His business has gone down. He thinks there’s something suspicious going on, and he’s convinced it’s a front for a human trafficking operation.”

“That’s all?” I’m perplexed. It doesn’t seem like enough to go on for Lafontaine to want to follow up on it.

He frowns. “This not a big enough case for you, Agent Brentano?” There’s an edge in his voice.

“No, no, not at all,” I stammer.

“Orders from on high,” he barks. “The agency has been dinged one too many times recently for not following up on tips that ended up having merit. Until further notice, the protocol is to follow up on all tips of certain types, no matter their source.”

Ah. I get it.

Cover your ass.

I’m just going out there to show that Lafontaine did his due diligence.

“Wouldn’t it possibly be sufficient to interview the person who left the tip by phone?” I suggest, hoping against hope.

As soon as Lafontaine’s hard stare meets mine, I know that’s the wrong answer.

“What’s the matter, Brentano?” he snaps. “Are you too important for this job? Who knows, maybe you’ll crack open a major case, and Philadelphia will snap you up.”

Oh, shit. 

I think I know why Lafontaine is giving me this case. It’s punishment. He knows I’ve been angling for a transfer to Philly.

And as much as he doesn’t love having me around, I’m guessing he’d like it even less if I got what would amount to a promotion.

My stomach sours at the thought that he knows exactly what he’s sending me out for. He can’t know all of it, though — there’s no way even the bureau’s background check process could dig that deep into my past. So I have to assume that he just thinks he’s sending me on a fool’s errand to a podunk town that I just happen to have grown up in.

And goddamnit, as much as I don’t want to go, I’m not about to give him the satisfaction of knowing just how much I don’t want to take this assignment. I will shut my trap, suck this up, and do my damn job. No matter how much I am dreading it.

“Not at all, sir. I’ll get right on it.”

“Take the file. You’ll leave tomorrow.” Lafontaine swivels in his chair and turns back toward his computer monitor. The message is clear: we’re done here.

“Thank you,” I say. I scoop up the file and rise to leave. Back out in the hallway, I let out the breath I realize I’ve been holding and stare down at the folder.

Son of a bitch. 

*   *   *

That night — after stopping at the dry cleaner’s on the way home for a rush job on my navy pants — I sit on my couch in my dingy one-bedroom apartment and stare at the pages of the file. A glass of wine sits on the low table in front of me. Next to me on the other cushion, my guinea pig Walter grapples with a half-carrot I’ve given him, making soft wheek wheek sounds of contentment.

There’s not much more information in here than I already knew when I left Lafontaine’s office. For the dozenth time, I tell myself he’s sending me on a wild goose chase. But that’s irrelevant. I still have a job to do.

“This is bullshit, Walter,” I tell him. “You know that?”

But Walter doesn’t answer, mesmerized as he is by the carrot.

I sigh and haul myself up to my feet. I’m going to have to pack my bag tonight if I want to head out of town tomorrow morning. But first, I have to get Walter a pig-sitter.

I flip the deadbolt lock to my apartment, then wander outside and knock on a door at the end of the hall. A few minutes later, a pint-sized twelve year-old answers.

“Lily,” I say. “Can you do me a favor and take care of Walter for a few days?”

Lily breaks into a wide, gap-toothed grin. The braces she recently had put on will take care of that eventually, and to tell the truth, it will break my heart. “Sure!” she cries excitedly. “I’m sure my mom won’t mind. Mo-o-om!”

Lily races inside her apartment, and then a few moments later races back. “Mom says it’s okay!”

“Thanks, Gretchen!” I call out. “I owe you one!”

“Don’t mention it!” a voice calls back.

“Come on,” I say to Lily, holding open the door for her to come out. “I’m leaving early tomorrow, so let’s bring him over now.”

Lily follows me back to my place, helps me corral Walter, and listens patiently as I go over instructions she’s heard already from previous pig-sitting gigs. Together we carry his cage and food back to her place, get him set up in her bedroom, and I tell her I’ll see her when I get back. I thank Gretchen again, and walk back to my apartment, noticing as I always do how strangely quiet it seems without Walter around.

I settle back in on the couch to finish my wine and mentally go over what I need to pack with me. I might be gone for a week or more, so I’d better err on the side of having enough clothing to go that long without doing laundry. As I’m going through my pack list in my head, I realize I haven’t made a hotel reservation in Tanner Springs yet. I grab my laptop and start the process of booking a room for myself with my government credit card. It’s unlikely places would be full up in a town that size, but still, I’m a planner. I’d rather have my sleeping arrangements taken care of before I get there.

I pull up a search for “hotels Tanner Springs.” The first hit is for a chain hotel I don’t remember being there the last time I was in town. I click on it and look at the address, trying to imagine in my mind’s eye where the hotel must be. There used to be a city park there, I think.

My stomach starts to feel a little unsettled as it hits me that I’m really going back. This time tomorrow, I’ll be in the town where I grew up, for the first time since the day I turned eighteen years old.

Suddenly, I’m a little afraid I’m going to throw up.

Stop it, I tell myself crossly. This isn’t high school anymore. You’re not the same person. You’re just doing your job. You’ll get in and get out, and that will be it. You don’t want to do it, but you’ll be fine.

And it will be fine. It has to be.

For better or for worse, I’m going to Tanner Springs. I’ve got a job to do. And I’m damn well going to do it.

 

CHAPTER 3

Beast

Hannah’s still preoccupying me as I ride toward downtown. I’m half a block away from the Lion’s Tap when I see a thin, unsteady figure shambling around in front of the bar.

“Christ,” I mutter, but the word’s drowned out by the noise of my engine. Pulling into an empty parking space in front of the bar, I cut the motor and call out a name. “Lemmy!”

After a second, the figure slows and turns around to peer at me.

Lemmy’s not his real name. I’m not sure most people in Tanner Springs even know his real name anymore. Except for family, of which he has little. Once upon a time, he bore a fair resemblance to Lemmy Kilmister, the front man for Motörhead. He played up the similarity, letting his hair grow long like the rocker’s, and the nickname stuck. These days, about the only thing that’s left of that resemblance are the wispy gray muttonchops he still sports on his sunken cheeks.

I climb off the bike and stride toward him. I haven’t seen Lemmy in a while, but he looks even worse than usual. His eyes are bloodshot as hell, and a blood vessel has burst in one of them. His mud-colored T-shirt hasn’t been washed in several days, and he smells like whiskey and piss. He’s emaciated to the point of starvation. Inwardly, I wince.

“What?” Lemmy barks in confusion. “I just came out here for a smoke,” he slurs, pointing a gnarled finger toward the bar. “Have a smoke with me, Beast. Then come on inside and have a drink.”

“A little early for me, Lem.”

“Naaaahhh!” he wheezes, waving his hand in front of him to swat away the ridiculous idea. A haze of alcohol breath wafts toward me, and I take a step back. “Isss five a’clock, somewheres!” He starts to cackle uproariously at his own joke.

The door to the bar opens and Zeb comes out. “Hey, Beast. Gunner call you?”

“Yeah.” I watch as Zeb flashes Lemmy an irritated look. “How long’s he been here?” I ask.

“Long enough,” Zeb answers wryly.

The door’s opening seems to have made Lemmy forget about having a smoke. He lurches forward to catch it while it’s still open. “C’mon,” he wheezes. “Less have a drink. On me.”

Zeb snorts. “You ran out of money half an hour ago, old man.”

“Come on, Lemmy,” I say, catching him by the arm. “I got a better idea. Let’s go get something to eat. Sop up some of that alcohol.”

“Nawww…” he protests. Luckily, as bad a drunk as Lemmy is, he’s not a mean one, so he doesn’t get mad or try to take a swing at me. The last thing I want to do is hurt the poor fucker.

“Yeah. Come on. There’s plenty of time to get a drink later.” I tighten the grip on his skinny bicep and start to lead him away. “See ya, Zeb.”

“Thanks, Beast.” Zeb casts a glance at Lemmy that’s both sympathetic and exasperated. “Appreciate it.”

“No problem.”

I pull Lemmy down the street, barely listening to his drunken murmurs of objection. I’m on my bike, so I can’t drive him anywhere. He’s far too drunk to be able to balance on the back of it. I manage to keep him talking and take him in the direction of the Downtown Diner, just down the block.

I get him in the door, and settle him in at one of the faded leatherette booths. Once I’m sure he’s not gonna tip over, I go grab one of the waitresses, a middle-aged woman named Penny.

“Hey, Lemmy could use a good meal,” I tell her. I reach into my pocket and pull out a bill. “Grab him something with a shitload of carbs, and a pot of hot coffee, will ya?”

“You’re a good egg, Beast.”

“Don’t let it get around. I got my reputation to protect.”

She snorts. “Don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me.”

I wait with Lemmy until Penny’s got a pot of joe in front of him. Then I go outside to call Gunner and let him know I’ve got his uncle in hand. He tells me he’ll be on his way over with a car to take Lemmy home just as soon as Alix’s appointment with the doc is finished.

When I come back into the diner, the owner, a fat fuck of a man named Dick Dawson, waddles toward me with anger in his beady, squinty little eyes.

“What in God’s name are you doing bringing a drunk in here?” he wheezes self-importantly. I flick my eyes over to Penny, who’s looking at me apologetically. I’m guessing she got an earful from this tub of shit about letting Lemmy sit down.

No good deed goes unpunished, I think to myself. For fuck’s sake.

I raise myself up to my full six feet and seven inches. “Would you care to repeat that?” I rumble.

Dickless blanches but doesn’t back down. “This is a private establishment,” he stammers. He tries to stand taller, too, but all it does is cause his gut to hang out further over his belt buckle. “As the owner, I reserve the right to refuse service to anyone I choose.”

“Fair enough,” I say easily. A couple of the other customers have turned to watch our conversation. “And as Lemmy’s friend and temporary guardian, I reserve the right to beat the shit out of anyone who denies him some fucking coffee and lunch.”

“I’ll have the cops called on you,” Dickless chokes out. All the color is draining from his fat face, but I have to give him points for trying.

I shrug. “Not fast enough. By the time they get here, you’ll already be picking your teeth up off the floor.”

“Let him have some goddamn coffee, Dick!” one of the other customers calls out.

“Nah! I wanna see a fight!” someone else replies.

“Not gonna be much of a fight, I don’t think,” a third one says. A wave of laughter flows through the diner.

“He may be right, Dick,” I murmur, taking a step forward. He instantly moves back, instinctively crossing his arms in front of him. “Not sure you’re gonna last very long against me. What’s it gonna be?”

Dickless purses his lips and shoots a quick glance toward Lemmy’s booth. “Just… make sure he doesn’t cause any trouble.” He turns on his heel and walks away, past Penny and into the kitchen. A chorus of hoots and catcalls follows him.

I walk up to Penny and hand her another bill. “This is for having to deal with that asshole,” I mutter.

She rolls her eyes. “You don’t know the half of it. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure Lemmy gets the works. Country omelet, bacon, and enough toast to sop up the sauce in his stomach.”

I nod. “Thanks. Bring me another cup for some coffee, will ya?”

Sliding into the booth seat facing Lemmy, I lean back and give him a look. He’s obediently conveying his steaming cup from the table to his mouth and back again. His eyes are unfocused, but when I say his name he does his best to look at me, squinting through his drunken haze.

“Zeb said you were causing a disturbance in the Lion’s Tap, Lem. What’s up with that?”

“Wasn’t causin’ no disturbance,” he mumbles. “I’se just talkin’, is all. Can’t a guy talk anymore?”

“What about?”

“Can’t remember…” he stares down into his cup. “Oh yeah! About how Zeb wouldn’t serve me no more.”

I let out a snort. “Is that all?”

“Yuh.” He takes another gulp. “Is that any way to treat a reg’lar?”

Just then, Penny comes up with Lemmy’s food, so I’m spared having to reply. Just as I’m pulling out my phone to text Gunner, it rings with an incoming call from Hawk.

“Where the fuck are you?” he barks without preamble. “I need you down here at the shop.”

“Sorry. Something came up. Gunner needed me to pick up Lemmy.”

At the sound of his name, Lemmy perks up and looks at me. I shake my head and point down at the food. Eat.

“Ah. Fuck. Okay,” Hawk says grudgingly. “So, when you coming in?”

“Soon. I was just about to get hold of Gunner to find out when he’s available to take over. He should be along as soon as he’s done taking Alix to the doctor.”

“Where you at?”

“Downtown Diner.”

“Yeah?” Hawk’s voice perks up. “Do me a favor and pick me up a burger and fries to go. I worked through lunch and I’m fuckin’ starving.”

“Doesn’t that old lady of yours fix you lunch?” I tease him.

“Sam?” he laughs. “Sure, if I asked her to, she would. But I’m not into fuckin’ salads. Or ants on a log, which is all Connor seems to want to eat right now.”

“What the fuck? Ants on a log?” I briefly wonder if Hawk’s lost his damn mind.

“Haven’t you ever seen that shit? It’s uh, celery with peanut butter in the middle, and raisins on top to look like ants sitting on it.”

“That’s fuckin’ weird, man.”

“Tell me about it. So yeah. Bring me a burger and fries. Extra ketchup.”

“What am I, your servant?” I complain.

“Do it because you love me, brother. Gotta go.”

Jesus. My brothers are all turning into a bunch of pussies with this family man garbage. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I like Hawk’s old lady Sam, and I’ll admit his kid Connor is pretty cute. And I’ve never seen Gunner happier than when Alix is in the same room.

But Christ, I can practically feel my balls shriveling up, just being around all this happy family domestic shit. For fuck’s sake, even Thorn’s been talking about starting a family with his old lady, Isabel. Thorn.

I call over to Penny and tell her I need a burger and fries to go. Then I sit in silence for a few minutes, watching as Lemmy devours his food like a starving man, which he probably is. I shoot Gunner a text letting him know where we are. A few seconds later, he texts back and says he should be here to pick Lemmy up by the time he’s done with his food.

“I’ll be in Alix’s car,” he writes.

Penny comes out with Hawk’s order, which I pay for in cash. A few minutes later, just as Lem is finishing up his bacon, a late-model Kia pulls up next to my bike.

“Lemmy, your ride’s here,” I tell him.

Now that he’s full of food he’s pretty docile, and stands up without any prompting. “Can I take this with me?” he asks, holding up a piece of toast.

“Sure. Come on.” I swing out of the booth, say goodbye to Penny, and guide him toward the door. At the last second, I realize I’ve left the to-go bag on the table. I wave Lemmy out the door and go back for it. Through the window, I see Gunner climb out of the car and lead his uncle toward the passenger side. I lift my chin in greeting at him. He gives me a wave.

I’m still looking back, watching Gun help Lemmy into the car, as I start to pull open the front door of the diner. There’s resistance, so I pull harder, yanking on the handle.

A cry of alarm snaps me to attention. A chick with blond hair tumbles through the doorway. She pinwheels her arms forward in an attempt to regain her balance. In the process, she knock the to-go bag out of my hand and onto the floor, just before she falls right on top of it.

“Goddamn it!” I bark, more than anything pissed that I’m gonna have to order another burger for Hawk. “What the hell is wrong with —.”

And that’s where my words fucking die in my throat. Because as she twists herself onto her butt and looks up at me, I catch a glimpse of a jawline, and then a nose, and there’s something so unmistakably familiar about them both it’s like a gut punch out of nowhere.

Fuck. Me.

It can’t be. But it is.

Brooke fucking Brentano. 

 

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