“You better hope I don’t catch you, you bastard,” Grady muttered, abruptly swerving his Harley to avoid a portion of a blown tire in the middle of the asphalt highway. Dry, hot wind swept through his hair, blowing bits of sand into his face. His eyes narrowed, even behind his sunglasses, against the possibility of a pebble or bug strike. The glare of the setting sun reduced visibility, but he raced after the other motorcycle. Dusk was coming quickly. When darkness fell out here on the flats outside Oklahoma City, it was dark. There were no streetlights, no houses, no nothing but narrow dirt roads meandering around low hills onto the plains, heading to nowhere he wanted to be.
He throttled the engine and hunched lower over the gas tank. The wind tugged at his leathers as he chased the bastard who had taken a pot shot at the president of the Steel Kings, his motorcycle club based in Oklahoma City. He didn’t give a flying fuck that most locals considered them an outlaw club. He didn’t care that they wouldn’t likely get help from the local county sheriff, either. The relationship between the county sheriff’s office and the Kings was tenuous at best. No, this was inside business that got taken care of by insiders. As the Sergeant at Arms for the club, Grady “Merc” Corben could, and did, take care of business.
The chase had started on Interstate 40, heading west. But after only a mile, the Joker had turned off the interstate, taking the off ramp at an alarming speed and nearly losing control of his bike as he headed north, then swerved off onto a side road that eventually turned into a lesser-traveled county road. Grady had lost sight of the guy a time or two, but he knew every road, marked or not, in this part of the state. He also knew, if not by sight, the names of all the sheriffs of those counties, knew that they often hesitated to get involved in the on-again, off-again disputes between clubs not only in Oklahoma City but points west and south. With one exception: the Jokers, reputed to have recruited a number of MS-13 gang members into their ranks. Hence the uptick in blatant violence.
He had identified the shooter and would-be assassin of the Kings’ president and founder, Levi “Vlad” Hancock, as a member of the Jokers, thanks to the huge logo emblazoned onto the back of his jacket: an image similar to a skeletal death mask one often saw Latinos displaying on their Day of the Dead. The guy definitely wasn’t trying to hide. If he were lucky, the bastard wasn’t going to get away with it, either. The Joker was more than likely headed back toward his home base just outside of Amarillo, Texas, but if Grady could cut him off, anticipate the road he would come out on, he could take care of this problem privately and permanently.
The Jokers were bad news, part of a Mexican cartel making headway up through Texas and into the southern plains, infringing on not only Steel Kings territory, but leaving a swath of death and destruction in their wake. They dealt in drugs. The bad stuff like meth, fentanyl, and large volumes of tainted spice, often laced with caustic materials. Grady also knew they were involved in human trafficking, mostly young teens, male and female. Not that he could prove a damn thing. This, he could do something about.
“Not in my county,” Grady swore, the wind taking his threat and flinging it behind him. The Mexican Mafia, the cartels, the independents . . . it was getting out of hand. Clashes between their club and the Jokers had increased over the past six months or so, and Grady was tired of it. And yet he couldn’t stay away. The clashes offered him that unique thrill, so addicting he often couldn’t resist. The adrenaline, the camaraderie, the sense of purpose that he thrived on.
He leaned forward, accelerated, faster, and then faster still, the asphalt beneath his tires nothing more than a gray blur, the dotted white lines slowly fading away until he found himself on a rural, two-lane asphalt road. There were no markings, the land so flat he could see for miles in every direction. Gradually, the asphalt disappeared, and he found himself on a rutted dirt road, filled with gouges that forced him to slow down or risk losing control. Unfortunately, he didn’t see any sign of the Joker. Fuck!
He paused at a crossing of dirt roads in the middle of nowhere, his sunglasses shading his eyes from the bright, setting sun. He shook his head, cursed a blue streak once again, and yanked the glasses off his face. Tucking the earpiece between his teeth, he brushed his fingers through his shoulder-length hair. It was quiet out here, only the hint of breeze riffling through his hair, a cow plodding over the rise directly east of him. Slowly, head tilted slightly, he cast his gaze over the landscape in a full circle, listening for the sound of a bike, his eyes narrowed in concentration, hoping against hope that he heard it, that the chase wasn’t over yet, his heart fluttering with the adrenaline coursing through his veins—
There! To the west, barely visible against the setting sun, a small puff of dirt rose from the rural dirt road, perhaps a mile in the distance. He grinned. “Gotcha.” Grady slid the glasses back on, revved the engine with one hand, and shifted gears automatically with his boot, the motion so natural he didn’t even have to think about it anymore. He accelerated, moving at a steady rate, knowing that the Joker would be casting frantically around, seeking pursuit. This way, he’d stay hidden until as late as possible. Grady gauged his speed so that he’d come up behind the Joker right on time. Both hands were on the handle grips of his bike, but anxiety still ran through him, his hands twitching to feel the hard, cold steel of his 9mm Beretta in their grasp. For now, it was tucked safely into the back of his pants underneath his well-worn black leather jacket.
For a moment, and a moment only, he questioned his motives, his enthusiasm, and his desire to confront the rival club member. For just a moment, the smell of the dirt rising around him, the sound of the motorcycle engine, the feel of it thrumming and vibrating beneath him, the pursuit . . . it reminded him of that other place, that other time, not so long ago. That time he could not yet banish from his memories, nor his dreams even if he wanted to.
Dusk fell, with total darkness soon to follow. He pushed his bike faster, streaking along the dirt road, his gaze shifting from the road to the disappearing dust trail of the other bike. He hugged the sides of the trail, nearly losing his seat a couple of times as he hit a rut or bounced over a rock half buried in the dirt, but he couldn’t give up. Not yet. He hit a softer patch of dirt, his front tire digging in, the back tire fishtailing until he shifted gears and throttled down, throwing a leg out to prevent him from tipping over. His heart pounded, and he felt the urge to shout with the thrill of the chase. But as darkness descended, so did visibility, and he wasn’t able to close the distance between himself and his rival before darkness completely shrouded the escaping Joker.
With a curse, he pulled his bike over to the dirt shoulder of the road. His heart still pounded heart in his chest, the tempo of his heartbeats also throbbing in his head. A headache formed behind his eyes and wrapped around his skull like a vise, the intense pressure prompting a frown, a grimace of pain, then gritted teeth and curses. No, not now. His eyes scanned the darkness, but he saw nothing. Not a damned thing. He didn’t hear anything, either. No motorcycle engine, no nothing. The low-lying hills surrounding him, shadowed in the darkness like rising lumps of dough, remained quiet, absent even of the chirp of crickets.
“Shit.” Grady’s hands tightened around his custom handgrips, his heartbeat slowly decreasing, the remnants of adrenaline causing his hands to tremble and his nerves to tingle, even as an unquenchable urge took over. He punched the kickstand down and climbed off his bike. Hands fisted, he strode into the darkness, away from his bike, staring up at the blanket of sky shifting from dark, dusky purple to dull black. Darkness came so quickly out here, and minutes later he eyed the sliver of a crescent moon rising slowly, the glimmer of stars faint. Soon, millions of stars would blanket the night sky. He sucked in a deep breath. He often sought the darkness, the stillness of the middle of the night to calm his thoughts and soothe his often-ragged emotions.
The smell of engine oil, the tarry aroma of hot asphalt cooling off, the sand, the dust, but most of all that blackness above, took him back to a place he didn’t want to be. Not physically, not emotionally. The old feelings came back. But they weren’t really old, were they? He lived with them every day and night.
He stood, gazing out at the distance surrounding him, no lights, no houses, no nothing. He threw his head back and yelled, a wordless, aggravated cry of anger and frustration. It wasn’t just that the Joker that had gotten away that prompted this disgust. He shouldn’t have let the Joker get away in the first place. He was better than that. He could’ve avoided the chase if he’d acted sooner. But he’d hesitated. Loathe as he was to admit it, he had frozen, lost in a memory, transported to another place when the gunshots went off. That hesitation had only lasted a few seconds. Not long, but long enough to give the fucking Joker a head start, and now he had lost him. He had failed Levi, failed his duty as Sergeant at Arms, failed yet again.
He lowered his chin to his chest, forcing his hands to go limp as he swallowed thickly, shaking his head slowly as he closed his eyes, trying to get his head back into the right place. For several moments he wallowed in self-loathing . . . no, best to call it what it was. Self-pity. With a heavy sigh, Grady forced himself to let the anger go, to allow those often-uncontrollable feelings and emotions to leave his body. He needed and sought the numbness that he invited.
During the day, it wasn’t so difficult. He was good at faking it during the day, putting up the persona of a tough guy, an enforcer, a guy who knew how to handle anything that threatened his sense of equilibrium. That security right now was found with the Kings. At night, like this, when it was quiet or when he lay in bed staring up at the ceiling, it was then that his waking nightmare prompted his hypersensitivity, jolted his senses, and caused every muscle in his body to tense. At times like that, a door slamming, a car backfiring, even the sound of helicopters overhead often prompted him to launch himself out of bed to find even greater darkness, hunched down in a closet, his Beretta in hand, his eyes scanning . . . looking for an enemy who wasn’t there.
He shook his head and walked back to his motorcycle. He needed to go back to the headquarters and check on Levi. He hadn’t been hit, but Grady wanted to make sure he was okay just the same. His loyalty toward Levi “Vlad” Hancock, president of the Steel Kings, was unswerving. Just as it had been to his buddy and best friend, David Barnes, when he was in the army. He and David had been buddies since basic training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. They had been in the army five years before they’d been shipped overseas to Iraq the first time. He’d had a thirteen-month stretch of combat duty in the same unit and then returned to their home base for a year, then redeployed to Iraq a second time, for nine months, then back home for six, then back to Afghanistan the following year, another thirteen-month tour.
Don’t go there. He tried to close off the memories, but they were there, always waiting, taunting his peace of mind and sense of precarious stability. Grady shook them off. He would think about them later. Tomorrow. He would worry about it tomorrow. It was his mantra. He pushed the memories away, the pain and anguish, the anger, and focused on the here and now. He was on the plains outside of Oklahoma City, not heading up into the foothills of Kandahar. His job now was to protect Levi and his fellow members of the club, right now primarily against the Jokers, but other inconveniences as well. He wasn’t looking for insurgents, Al Qaeda, or ISIS out here, although he knew as well as everyone else that they could very well be there.
He climbed onto his bike, his ass perfectly cradled by the custom leather seat. A quirk of a grin lifted the corner of his mouth as he settled into the black leather solo saddle. He had shelled out nearly twelve grand on the Harley Forty-Eight, fully customized. Gas tank painted red iron denim, custom jet-black header pipes, exhaust and intake pipes, chrome mufflers . . . the works. Worth every penny. He’d tucked his combat pay away in an individual brokerage account, earning compound interest. All his paychecks, his combat pay, all of it had been saved. No wife, no family, no house payments. Even with the money he’d spent on the Harley, he had plenty to rely on, and he rarely touched any of it. His needs, food, and shelter were taken care of by the Kings.
He started his bike, always pleased by the low rumble of the engine, the vibrations. The sound touched the pit of his belly, a constant, soothing sound, one that assured him that he was alive. He gave one more glower into the darkness surrounding him, at the point where the Joker had disappeared, and then turned the bike around, his headlight illuminating a narrow strip of the asphalt as he headed back in the direction he had come, making his way back to headquarters.
Their headquarters was an old, abandoned bar on the outskirts of northwestern Oklahoma City. A number of small structures and outbuildings were also part of the parcel that Levi had purchased from the bank for a song. All he’d had to do was pay the back-property taxes, and as soon as that had been settled, they’d moved in. The place was far enough from any neighborhoods to avoid protests by the locals, but they pretty much left each other alone.
The place looked like an old-fashioned western saloon, with the exception of a cinderblock-and-stucco exterior rather than clapboard planking that was used back in the 1800s and early twentieth century. That was his home now. Not the main headquarters building, but one of the outbuildings, the one furthest from the main structure, tucked into the northwest corner of the property. The converted saloon and bar was located just off the blacktop of an unmarked, rural asphalt highway that headed north out of the county into the hills to the north. It looks like, once upon a time, it had been a watering hole for man and beast between Oklahoma City and Wichita, Kansas. A couple hundred yards down the road on the west side of the highway stood an old fifties-style gas station, long since defunct, and next to that, an equally dilapidated and abandoned cinderblock diner, most of its roof and plastic signage long since taken away by ever-varying Oklahoma weather and winds.
He looked forward to heading back home. Home. Was there such a thing? Was there such a place where he would always feel content, or was this just a temporary feeling, a lull in his ever-shifting sense of stability? He shook his head, trying to push the bad thoughts away, the discouraging memories, the anger that once again grew inside him. That anger seemed to originate from the very marrow of his bones. He would check on Levi, tell him he had lost the Joker, and then head for his shack. Not really a shack, but a one-room cinderblock cabin, where he would sulk the night away in peace and quiet. Levi didn’t expect Grady to be his bodyguard or to protect him and the crew from everything. As the president of the motorcycle club, Levi was no fool. He knew that he always had a target on his back, that somebody always wanted a piece of him, whether it be the law, a rival club member, or even the Mexican cartel.
Levi was a good guy, somewhat of an enigma not only to Grady but the other members of the club. Levi, “Vlad” Hancock was difficult to pin down. Grady didn’t know much about his past, but he did know Levi had gotten the name because of his love for horror movies. He’d been dubbed “Vlad,” named for Vlad Dracul, otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler, a ruler of mid fifteenth century whose reputation for torture inspired the Dracula myth. Levi loved to tell the story. Of course, Levi didn’t impale anyone, though he could be ruthless when he needed to. When he felt it was appropriate in dealing with his enemies.
Like the Jokers.
The same could be said of the vice president, Seth “Sticks” Sterling. Seth didn’t talk much, but when he did, his words were respected by all. Most of the time. He and Seth had a tenuous peace between them. Back when Grady had joined the club just over nine months ago, Seth had voiced his doubts about him. Not about his background, but his reasons for joining the club. Having spent much of his time in Oklahoma City in the years before he joined the army, Grady had heard of the Steel Kings. They’d been around since the sixties, morphing as the decades passed. Leaders and members growing older, phasing out, new blood coming in. In fact, before he enlisted, one of his best friends had been a full-fledged member of the club. His friend was dead now, killed in a motorcycle accident. It hadn’t been his fault. He’d been driving along one of Oklahoma’s rural highways, minding his own business, when a truck pulled out from a side road without even looking. Simon T-boned the truck, flew over the hood, and landed on his head, dying instantly. Don’t go there either.
In Grady’s younger days, the Kings had a reputation. They still had it, although they no longer were involved in drug trafficking. They made their money in other ways, many of them incongruous to the public’s general perception of motorcycle clubs these days. While Grady got along well with Levi, his relationship with Sticks was a little rockier. They often clashed, but when the chips were down, he had Seth’s back, and he knew that Seth had his. That’s the way it was. In truth, the club and its structure wasn’t that different from that of his army unit. Their loyalty to one another was unquestionable, even in spite of his background, after his unfavorable discharge, after an incident that had left him angry, jobless, and on the edge.
His thoughts and memories and resulting unrest had him bypassing the road that would take him back to the headquarters. It was as if he was inexorably drawn to the neighborhood in the southwestern portion of the city, into a neighborhood he tried to avoid without much success. He slowed his bike and rumbled down the streets, gazing at the house as he passed. The families that must just now be sitting down in the living room after dinner, lights blazing, friendly, warm, houses filled with laughter and happiness. At the end of one street, down by the corner, he pulled his bike to the curb and turned it off, gazing at the house three doors down from the corner on the left.
That’s where she lived. He often watched her house, and on those days when he was fortunate enough to actually see her, his heart gave a traitorous leap of excitement. Grady cursed himself for that excitement. All that did was betray his best friend in the world. He’d always been attracted to Callie, but she had eyes only for David. He didn’t blame her. David was a good guy. Still, it hadn’t stopped the admiration he felt for her, didn’t blur her beauty—inside and out—from his eyes, nor stop the fantasies of sleeping with her, of having sex with her that he had imagined so many times over the years. God, he was an asshole.
He couldn’t help it. As strong as his loyalty to the Steel Kings, so too was his undying loyalty to David. Even though it was his fault that David had died. Even though it was his fault that Callie was his widow.
It was all his fault.