Sitting back in his rickety, uncomfortable chair at the back of the dive bar, Hoxson Storm took in the scene. The place was a damn zoo. Rough-looking bikers drank and carried on, rock music blared on the speakers, and the sounds of pool balls clacking cut through it all.
And, the smell of shifters was thick in the air.
The voice of Thorne, Hoxson's boss and the leader of his crew, the Silver Talon Mercenaries, one of the top dragon shifter mercenary teams in New York City, was loud and clear in his earpiece. But Hoxson didn't say a word. Instead, he continued to scan the crowd, looking for any sign of his target.
"Come in, Hoxson!"
Hoxson realized he wasn't about to get Thorne off his back.
"He's fucking out in space again," came the voice of Jace, the team's sniper, through his earpiece.
"Man needs his focus," said Mick, the team's demo expert. "Let him do his thing; he's running solo."
"'Focus' doesn't mean he can go radio silent on us," said Corvo, the Talon's Second-in-Command.
Hoxson snorted and sipped his beer, realizing the whole team was there. He realized he had to say something or the chatter in his ear would never stop.
"You guys want to do a Skype call instead?" he asked. "At least that way I could see your gorgeous faces."
"There he is," said Corvo. "'Bout fuckin' time."
"Hoxson, what do you see?" asked Thorne, his voice as crisp, calm, and professional as ever.
"You see the target?"
Hoxson took another sweep of the room with his eyes.
"I see more than a few targets," he said. "And more than a few familiar faces."
"Good," said Thorne. "Place is your hometown; that's why you're out there, after all."
Hoxson's lips pulled back in a rueful expression. Starwood, California, the small shifter town where he'd grown up with his long-dead adopted family, was the last place he wanted to be. But that's where the mission was, so that's where Thorne sent him. And Hoxson was a man who obeyed his orders.
"You think any of your old pals are in on this shit?" asked Jace. "Might be able to use your history with them to get some leads."
"I don't think I'm on good enough terms with any of these fuckers for anything like that," said Hoxson, his eyes landing on Bryce Ford, one of his high school's badass upperclassmen who looked like he'd gone straight from tearing up the parking lot of the school with his motorcycle to getting wasted at the local biker bars.
Other than a bit of a gut, he looked the same. And so did just about every other person he recognized from his past.
"You guys need to stop chirping in my damn ear," he said. "I'm gonna look like a damn schizo talking to voices in my head."
"Good call," said Thorne, Hoxson imagining the stern nod Thorne likely made as he spoke. "You get back into it; and keep us posted if you find out anything worth reporting."
"Will do, boss," said Hoxson.
"Over and out."
With that, the voices in his head stopped, and Hoxson sat back, beer in hand, and enjoyed the brief silence.
Deep in his gut, he knew it wouldn't last.
The mission was simple: go back to his hometown of Starwood and learn what he could about the rumors of local bear shifter clans linking up with dragons in the area. All they had were rumors to go on, but that was all their client had to offer. But the pay was good – very good.
One catch, however: the client wanted discretion. No big mercenary assault like those the Silver Talons were known for. They wanted one merc in to survey the scene. Hoxson, the team's recon expert, made the natural choice. And when Thorne found out that Hoxson had grown up in the town where one of the bear clans was headquartered, it was all but done.
So, here he sat, on his first night back at Willy's, the biker bar where he'd had more than his share of underage beers back in his high school days. Things were calm so far, but he'd been here enough nights to know that Willy's was always just a powder keg waiting for a match.
"Holy fucking shit," came a big voice from behind Hoxson. "Look who the fucking cat dragged in."
Hoxson didn't turn right away. Instead, he took a slow sip of his beer and tossed back the shot of whiskey next to it. When he finally shifted his weight around and looked up, he couldn't help but snort.
It was Jack Knowles, another kid Hoxson knew from back in the day. Except, now, his hair was thinning, and his already-pug-ugly face was covered in hatches of scars.
He didn't look too pleased to see Hoxson.
"Hoxson fucking Storm."
"Knowles," said Hoxson, his body already tensing for a fight he knew was on the verge of breaking out.
Jack strode around the table, plopping his denim-and-leather-clad body into the seat across from Hoxson.
"Goddamn, man," he said. "How long has it been? Ten years?"
"Something like that," said Hoxson, his eyes staying locked on Jack.
"And now you're back," said Jack. "Guess you're under the impression you're welcome back in Starwood, huh?"
"Grew up here," said Hoxson. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Jack snorted through his thick, braided beard as he looked away and shook his head.
"Because you've got more than a few fuckin' enemies in this town. You think you can just pull up a goddamn chair, order yourself a pint, and, what, take in the fuckin' scene like you're a tourist or something?"
He shook his head.
"Fat fuckin' chance."
"I don't know what's sadder, Jack," said Hoxson, taking another slow sip of his beer. "The fact that you're still holding a grudge, or the fact that you think that shirt can fit over that fat fucking gut of yours."
Jack let out another snort.
"Not even gonna pretend to play nice, huh?" asked Jack.
"Never was something I was good at."
"No shit," said Jack. "You've fucked enough guys’ girls back in the day to make sure that was loud and fucking clear."
Hoxson was running out of patience. He knew a fight was about to break out, and he wanted to get right to it.
"Listen, shithead," said Hoxson. "You gonna distract me all day, or are you gonna actually put your money where your mouth is?"
"Heh," laughed Jack. "Someone's real fucking perceptive."
Then, a musky smell flooded into Hoxson's nostrils. He recognized it right away as the smell of bear. And it was close. He could feel a presence behind him, and he knew right then and there that bears were close. Very close.
He knew he could've made a move, but he wanted to see what Jack had in mind.
"Do it," said Jack, his eyes over Hoxson's shoulder.
With that, Hoxson was yanked out of his seat and to his feet. The smell of bears was overpowering as the shifters took hold of him. All around him, the eyes of the other patrons in the bar latched onto him.
"See, I've made some new friends," said Jack.
Hoxson snorted and glanced over his shoulder at the men who'd lifted him out of his seat. Just like he'd been thinking, they were bears from some biker crew he didn't recognize. They both flashed him the same eager-to-kill glare.
"And they love to fight."
"What a coincidence," said Hoxson. "So do I."
Jack nodded slowly.
"Then why don't you let these boys take you out back and you can show them just how much you love to throw down."
"Nah," said Hoxson. "Let's just do it right fucking here."
With that, Hoxson pulled his arm forward and brought it back right into the gut of the bear on his right. A fleshy thud sounded out as the air rushed out of the bear's lungs. His grip loosened enough for Hoxson to slip out of his grasp. The other bear still had a hold on him, and as Hoxson whipped around, he grabbed his beer glass off the table with a quick swipe and smashed it right into the side of the bear's head.
That did the job. Hoxson was free, his heart thudding in his chest as he got ready to fight.
"Fucking asshole!" shouted Jack as he shot up out of his seat and grabbed a nearby pool cue. "Come on!"
A couple more men that Hoxson recognized as bears jumped out of their seats at the bar and came around to join the fight. The dragon inside Hoxson roared to life, seemingly taking a life of its own and urging him to shift right then and there. But he didn't want to bring it out just yet.
Nope, he decided, no talons and teeth, just fists and feet.
And that was fine with him.
Hoxson spun around on his heavy black boots and swung his fist at the staggering bear on the right. His blow landed hard, knocking the bear back onto the table behind him. By now, the dozens of drinkers in the bar were gathered around to watch the fight. Hoxson wasn't happy about this – he didn't want this kind of attention.
The other still-standing bear began to shift. Fur sprouted from his skin, and his hands and fingers spread into claws. His face stretched and ballooned out and, soon, he was in his full bear form.
"Get his ass!" shouted Jack.
Hoxson wasn't too thrilled about going toe-to-toe with a bear, but he knew it wasn't as though he had a choice. He glanced back quickly to see that Jack and the other bears were gearing up to jump into the fray, and Hoxson began to worry slightly – he could take one bear, sure. But two more on top of that?
He didn't want to spend too much time thinking about it. Hoxson grabbed a nearby pool cue and swiped it through the air in the front of the bear, the animal growing and tried to paw the thing away. Then, it stood up on its hind legs and rushed toward Hoxson. He leaped out of the way at the last moment, the bear slamming into the table where Hoxson had been sitting and smashing it into splinters.
Once the bear had its back to Hoxson, he cracked the pool cue in two and drove one of the sticks into the back of the bear, the animal howling out in pain as he did.
"Fuck!" shouted Jack. "Fuck!"
The dragon in Hoxson stirred again, demanding to come out. And Hoxson knew that all it would take was a quick shift and a blast of fire breath to end this in seconds.
The bears at Jack's sides moved in close, their eyes menacing. Hoxson took the other broken half of the pool cue in his hands and prepared for a fight he wasn't sure he could win.
"Now what?" he shot out. "You gonna kill me over some high school shit? Pretty fucking lame, even for you, Jack."
"Who says I want to kill you, Hox?" asked Jack. "Just want to rough you up a little."
"You mean you want your fucking bear friends to rough me up a little."
"Hey," said Jack, shrugging his shoulders. "Whatever gets the job done."
The bears closed in on Hoxson and he braced himself for a fight.
But before anyone could make a move, the doors to the bar flung open. A group entered, freezing in place as they realized a fight was on.
And in the group, Hoxson spotted a face he'd thought he'd never see again. And not just any face, but the most beautiful one he'd ever seen in his life.
It was the last thing he remembered before the bears rushed him and knocked him out cold.