The wind blew off the sea as the three Harleys made their way through the last series of snaking turns and hit the straight stretch on Highway 1 running parallel to the ocean. The night was well under way, a fact that Savva ‘Reaper’ Pajari was well aware of. He had to report to the president of his club, Czar, the moment they arrived back in Caspar, but time didn’t matter for that. Even if Czar at his home in Sea Haven, tucked in close to his wife, he’d just hit the roof and climb in through the bedroom window. They’d done it more than once.
He lived for two things, riding free and fighting. He needed to feel solid muscle under his knuckles. He needed to feel fists hitting his body, tapping into that well of ice that covered every emotion. That swift explosion of violence and sweet pain as fists connected, was his life, and had been his life since he was five. Now, he needed to stay sharp somehow, in this new bullshit direction the club had taken.
He rode along the highway, aware of the others on either side of him. Brothers, some for over thirty years. Men he counted on. Men he called family. Still, he was apart from them and he knew it, even if they didn’t. He turned his head toward the ocean. Waves sprayed up into the air, rushing over rocks and battering at the cliffs. Sometimes he felt those battered rocks were him, time wearing him away, little by little.
His soul was gone so long ago that he couldn’t remember having one. Now, his heart was slowly disappearing. There wasn’t a place on his body without a scar. He had another to add from this last trip. He also would have to have Ink tat his back, three more skulls to add to the collection of those resting in the roots of the tree on his back.
Viktor Prakenskii, the man known as Czar, was the best man he knew. His job was to stand in front of Czar, his self-appointed task from the time he was a little boy. He’d been doing it for so long now, he didn’t know any other way of life. He stood in front of all his brothers and sisters—in Torpedo Ink, his club. He was proud to wear the club colors. He’d die for those colors and still detested any mission he ran if he had to take them off.
They turned off the main highway onto Caspar Road leading to the town of Caspar, where they’d set up home. They designed their compound around the old paymaster’s building for the Caspar logging company. They had spent the first few months working on the building, turning it into their clubhouse. It housed multiple bedrooms, a bar, their meeting room—known as the chapel—and a kitchen. They shared bathrooms, whichever was closest to their assigned sleeping room. Czar had insisted each of them purchase a home nearby. He wanted those roots put down deep.
Reaper didn’t give a damn where they all slept. As long as he could defend his club and their president, he was fine. The compound had a bed and right now, he needed one. He was forty-eight hours without sleep. He’d stitched up the wound in his side himself, making a piss poor job of it too, but all he’d had was a little whiskey to disinfect it and that had burned like hell. It still did.
They rode up to the compound and Storm and Keys parked their bikes while he scanned the lot. Either Czar was home or at the bar. Reaper was fairly certain he’d be at the bar waiting for a report. He didn’t like to disturb his wife, Blythe, or their four adopted children. Reaper didn’t shut his bike down and waited for the others to turn to him.
“Goin’ to find Czar,” he said, unnecessarily, but they were looking at him like he should say something. He didn’t like stupid shit, like the formalities that seemed so important to others. He didn’t care if people liked him, in fact, he preferred they stay the hell away, except for his brothers who understood him and made it clear they expected him to at least talk once in a while.
“I can report in,” Keys offered. “You could use the down time.”
Reaper shook his head. “Won’t be able to sleep right away. I have to check on him anyway. You know how I am.”
“Want company?” Storm asked.
He shook his head. “Not necessary. Savage will be with him, probably a few others. Get some sleep. We all earned it.” Savin ‘Savage’ Pajari was his birth brother. Like Reaper, he acted as Sergeant at Arms, protecting Czar at all times. Between the two men, they had their president covered whether he liked it or not around the clock. “I already texted Czar we were comin’ in when we were an hour out.”
He was certain if he did that, Czar would go to the bar rather than have Reaper come to his home—exactly what Reaper wanted. It was the new bartender. He didn’t like anything out of the ordinary. He didn’t trust it. The woman was definitely something out of the ordinary. Code could find dirt on anyone, but he hadn’t found a single trace of her anywhere. She worked for cash, under the table. She wore designer jeans, but she drove a beat-up car on its last leg, rust breaking through the paint. The fucking thing smoked every time she turned the engine over.
Torpedo Ink, his club, had a garage up and running. Did she take her car there to get it fixed? Hell, no. She drove off every night thinking no one knew where she was going. That was the hell of it. She drove back toward Fort Bragg, took Highway 20 and turned off at the Egg Taking Station, a campground in the Jackson Demonstration Forest. Why the fuck would a classy woman be bartending in a biker bar, drive a beat up Honda Civic older than she was and be camping? It made no sense. He didn’t like puzzles and Anya Rafferty was a not only a puzzle, but one big headache.
Reaper had watched her for over a month. Five weeks and three days to be precise. He’d learned she was a hard worker. She listened to people, remembered their names and what they liked to drink. She flirted just enough to get good tips, but not enough to cause fights. She was generous with the waitresses, sharing tips she didn’t have to share. She was careful and guarded yet gave the illusion she was open. She was kind to those less fortunate.
He’d watched her give a homeless man a blanket she carried in her car, and twice she brought him coffee and a meal. Twice she spent money he was certain she didn’t have to get food or shoes for someone living on the streets. She seemed to have an affinity for the homeless and he was certain she knew all of them by name. She volunteered in the soup kitchen Saturday mornings even though she couldn’t have had more than a couple of hours of sleep.
She didn’t flinch around the bikers, but it was obvious she wasn’t from their world and didn’t have a clue how to fit in. She took her cues from Czar and sometimes asked him questions. She’d never asked Reaper a single question, but she sent him a few shy smiles, which he didn’t return. He’d spent more time in the bar in the five weeks she’d been there, then he’d spent in a bar for most of his life.
Reaper glanced away from the compound, up toward the bar. He could see the lights shining through the dark from the banks of windows. His heart accelerated. His cock jerked hard in his jeans. That was unacceptable and that was why the woman had to go.
Every one of those in his club had been taught to be in complete control of their bodies at all times. They were beaten, starved, tortured, and had unspeakable things done to them in order to shape them into disciplined killing machines. He felt very little emotion and certainly not physical attractions. The bitches partying hard, getting it on with anyone and everyone, did nothing for him. Not one thing. He often walked through a room full of half-naked or naked women and his body didn’t so much as stir.
One look at Anya Rafferty. Listening to the sound of her voice. Her fucking laugh. The way all that hair fell around her face like a dark cloud. A waterfall. She had more hair than two women put together and he found he thought a lot about that hair when he should be thinking about keeping his president alive. Or himself. He refused to allow his cock to drive him. That part of his anatomy would never drive him. He didn’t trust anyone, especially not a woman who made his body ache until his teeth hurt.
He sighed and turned his Harley, heading for the bar. He’d told Czar Anya had to go. She was a problem. Nothing about her added up. Nothing. Protecting Czar was his number one priority and if she wasn’t forthcoming, she had to go. He told himself that shit, but he knew it wasn’t the truth. He hated bullshit. Detested it. Especially when he was trying to bullshit himself. He could make all the excuses in the world, but the truth was, the bartender upset him. She got under his skin without trying.
Once in the parking area, Reaper swung his leg over his motorcycle and forced himself to stand upright, his two feet planted on solid ground. He’d been on his bike so long he wasn’t certain he had the legs for earth any longer. Placing his dome on the bike he did a casual sweep of the parking lot. In that one moment, he took in every detail of the cars and lines of motorcycles parked there. He recognized several of the bikes. Two prospects were lounging close, keeping an eye. He didn’t acknowledge them, but he saw every detail. He removed the small leather bag from one of the compartments hidden in his bike and made his way across the parking area toward the bar, still looking around to every conceivable parking spot.
What he didn’t see was the bartender’s old rust bucket. He paused for a moment at the bottom of the stairs, breathing deep, not knowing if that made him happy or if his mind went somewhere he refused to acknowledge. She was gone. Czar did what he’d asked and her presence was removed. That should make him happy. Well. He was never happy. He didn’t know how to be. He’d forgotten. Relief maybe—except now he had to go the campground and make certain she was okay. Damn it. He swore under his breath and climbed the steps leading up to the bar. His gut burned like hell with every step, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the ache in his chest.
Music poured out of the building, a loud, drubbing beat. That only added to the pounding in his head. He ignored it and yanked open the door. Raised voices and laughter mixed with the clink of glasses. Funny, now that it was an established biker bar, the place was hopping almost every night.
He stepped to the side of the door and took a long look around, noting every jacket or vest with colors. Mostly small time clubs, or weekenders. A couple of legitimate road warriors. Three wannabe hard-asses, drinking, looking for women and most likely a fight. Five, sitting in the corner, bad-asses wearing Demon patches. They noticed him the moment he walked in. All five were packing and they weren’t drinking, at least not enough to say they were there for a good time. He did a quick inventory of his body. He could move fast if needed. He never minded a good fight and most likely, any minute, he’d be welcoming one. He let the Demons see his gaze linger on them before he allowed himself to scan along the bar.
He had a gun tucked in his waistband at the small of his back. Another was down in his boot along with a knife. A third gun was inside his jacket, easy access, just a cross-body pull and he was in business. The truth was, he rarely used a gun or a knife when he killed. He preferred silence, but weapons came in handy occasionally and he was proficient in the use of all of them.
He knew he was looking for the bartender. Anya. He fucking loved that name. It suited her face. Her voice. It was possible her piece of junk car had broken down and she had hitched a ride with someone. He didn’t see her anywhere and it pissed him off that he’d even looked. Worse, the pressure in his chest grew.
Tonight’s bartender, Preacher, looked harassed. He glanced up from the sea of customers and shot Reaper a welcoming grin, his eyes scanning for wounds, dwelt for a moment on the blood on Reaper’s shirt and then jumped back to his face. Reaper gave him a nod, indicating he was fine and Preacher nodded back. He jerked his chin toward the hall behind the bar. There was a doorway to the left of the bar, but Reaper stalked across the room and flipped up the jointed wooden slab that allowed him to walk through the opening to get behind the bar. He moved down the long hallway straight to the office.
The door to the back office was closed, signifying a meeting of some kind. If the door was closed, any waitress or non-club member stayed out. Unzipping his jacket, Reaper went right on in, hoping Savage didn’t put a bullet in him as he waltzed through the door. Savage was unpredictable at times. His brother gave a quick scan of his body, much the way Preacher had. Czar stood up to face him, doing the same. He frowned when he saw the blood. Shit, he’d forgotten his shirt was a mess. It wasn’t all his, either. Savage’s gaze jumped back to his face.
“I’m fine,” he said, to stop the questions.
Code had been pouring over books with Czar, which was laughable. Czar hated number crunching and only pretended to listen to Code half the time. With Czar and Code at the table were two other club members, Absinthe and Ice, Storm’s twin brother. All had their eyes on him and the blood on his shirt. Something was up to have so many gathered this late at night.
“What happened?” Czar snapped before anyone else could say anything.
Reaper tossed the leather carrier bag onto the table. “Assholes called us in a little late. Who the fuck goes off to hide leaving their wife and kid to face certain death because they don’t want to pay a gambling debt? He’s supposed to be the big-assed president of a club and he’s hiding in a dark hole surrounded by his brothers, leaving his woman and child exposed.” He poured a wealth of disgust into his voice, because, really? Who did that? Who could live with themselves? How could his brothers look up to him? “I wanted to cut his throat.” He glared at Czar. “Don’t send me on a mission like that one again. Next time, I won’t have such restraint.”
Czar studied his face. Reaper kept his expression blank. Czar shook his head. “First, tell me how you got blood all over your shirt. Is that yours? Or someone else’s? Please tell me it isn’t the client’s.”
Reaper shrugged because, hell yeah, some of it was that douchebag client’s. He’d gotten exactly what he deserved. The club was called Mayhem. Laughable. Truly laughable. In Reaper’s opinion the bullshit president had deserved to die so, yeah, he’d shown restraint. “Maybe I didn’t make myself clear. The weasel ran up a gambling debt and then, rather than pay it, when the goons showed up to collect, had his boys get him to safety. He went across two States and only then remembered he had a wife and daughter.”
“And he contacted us to get them to safety,” Czar reminded, his tone mild.
“After he made sure his ass was in the clear. Two days later, Czar. Two fuckin’ days. He didn’t even warn her. By the time we got there, so had the idiots sent to collect. Bodies or money.” He touched his side. The burn of that blade going in was still fresh. “They decided to have a little fun with the two of them before they cut them up. Girl is fourteen.”
“You stepped between the girl and the knife,” Czar said.
Reaper didn’t answer. What was there to say? Was he really going to let a pathetic excuse of a human being kill a fourteen-year-old girl and her mother? Not happening.
“How many stitches?” Code asked.
“What the hell difference does it make?”
“Someone’s in a bad mood,” Code observed. “Five? More?”
“Six. I don’t need the doc. I took care of it myself.”
A small hoot of derisive laughter went up. Reaper flipped them off.
“I gotta see this,” Ice said. “If it’s anything like the last one you stitched yourself up, you’ll be looking like Frankenstein in no time.”
“Already does,” Code said. “Just a little.”
Reaper glanced at Savage. He hadn’t cracked a smile and there was a slight hint of worry in his eyes, but he didn’t say anything.
“You taking antibiotics?” Czar asked.
“I will. I’ll get them from the doc.”
“Tell me what really happened, because otherwise, I’m going to think you’re slowing down. You could have killed these idiots in seconds, Reaper. What the hell were you doing to take a hit that cost you six stitches?”
“We’re done talkin’ about this,” Reaper declared.
“We’re done when I say we’re done.” Czar’s voice dropped an octave, low enough that the room went silent. Low enough to caution Reaper that his president wasn’t asking.
Reaper shook his head. When Czar talked like that, he expected answers. “Didn’t want the kid to see me kill him. I directed the hit where I knew it wouldn’t do much damage. She had Down Syndrome and she was terrified. Her father left them hanging out there like that. Pissed me off. I didn’t want the kid to suffer any more than she already had.”
Czar sighed. “Reaper, she’s the daughter of the president of a motorcycle club. The Mayhem club may not be as big as the Diamondbacks, but they’re violent. She’s bound to have seen things.”
“She was terrified,” Reaper repeated. “It was my call. I had her close her eyes, turn her head away and then I killed the bastard. Before she could look, I covered her eyes and took her the hell out of there.”
“You don’t get to take chances with your life,” Czar hissed, slamming his palm on the table.
Reaper leaned toward him. Looked him in the eye. “I’ve been takin’ chances with my life since I was five years old. I been killin’ that long. I know how to take a blade when I need to.”
“The point is, you didn’t need to,” Czar snapped.
“My call. I’m there, I have to make the decision. You’ll be happy to know, I didn’t kill her father when we delivered them safe to him, although it took restraint. He was willing to pay us the fee we asked for, but not pay his gambling debt? He put his wife and daughter in jeopardy, Czar. What kind of man does that?”
“The club paid for the fee to have us retrieve them and bring them safely to him. The gambling debt is personal.”
“You know, if they catch up with him, he’ll give us up in a heartbeat. He was already plannin’ to do that. I killed the two hitmen. Whoever sent them out will want revenge.”
“All of you wore a mask and gloves,” Czar said. “He never saw your faces.”
“No, but Mr. Mayhem President put a tracker in with the money,” Reaper said. “He was plannin’ on selling us out to get out from under his debt. He’ll give up the link online, that’s all he’s got.” He smirked. “Killed the club member followin’ us and put the tracker in his fuckin’ mouth.”
“Code said you texted him to shut down our online operation and he did. We’ll set up again later.”
“Just so you know, full disclosure and all, I beat the livin’ hell out of that piss-ant president, Czar. Don’t know if he lived or not, but if he did, he’s not going to be the same man. He was going to give us up and that tracker was the last straw. Already wanted to shove a knife down his throat.”
Czar shook his head and pushed the bag of money across the table to Code. “Add that to everything else. We’re in good shape. We’ve got most of the businesses up and running. Still working on some of the houses. Reaper, are you going to actually move into yours?”
Reaper shrugged. He had no idea what the hell he’d do with a house. Czar had insisted all of them have an actual home. His was on the edge of the cliffs with a stairway leading down to the cove and two roads winding around Caspar so he had access old logging roads. He liked to know he could escape anything easily.
“Soon.” He just required a bed. He had one at the compound. He didn’t need a house to go to every night. Empty. Echoing every time he walked through it because he put the minimum amount of furniture in it. A bed. That was pretty much it. Maybe, if he was lucky, the entire structure would fall into the ocean and he’d be done with it.
He changed the subject. “Got a few bad asses sitting at a table. Waiting, Czar. They request a meeting with you?”
Czar nodded slowly. “Waited until you got here. Code found out a few things about them. They’re from up north. Demons, smaller club, but already have a reputation. They want to talk about extending their reach, using us to do it.”
“Probably drugs,” Ice spoke. “We don’t do that shit anymore. We’re rehabilitated.”
The others laughed. “Yeah. We’re don’t spread drugs around but we kill people when it’s needed,” Absinthe said.
“A few hard asses out there as well, think they’re real tough from the way their actin’,” Reaper continued. “Look like trouble and they’re drinking heavy. Talkin’ loud. Didn’t even notice when I walked through the door, but the others did. The Demons. We aren’t a well-known club. Barely established. We aren’t even the big club in this area. Why come to us?”
Czar shrugged. “Don’t know until they talk to us.”
“Did they indicate they found us online through the website Code has?”
Czar shook his head. “Don’t think so. Think they chose us because we’re here, on the coast.” He studied Reaper’s face. “I wouldn’t meet like this with someone wanting us to do a hit.” He made it an assurance.
Reaper moved away from the door toward the back of the room where the overhead light didn’t quite reach. He was tired. Exhausted. Even if he went to bed, he knew he wouldn’t sleep, or if he did, he’d have a nightmare. He had them often now, something he was careful not to share with the others—not even Savage.
“You up for this,” Czar asked. “We could tell them to come back.”
“Told you, Czar, someone else should handle inquiries, make certain they’re legit. We all have a lot of enemies, but you most of all. Don’t like you out in front like this,” Reaper said. He put his back to the wall, making certain he had a clear shot to the door. Savage was on the other side of the room. They’d have the five Demons boxed in.
“If you could, you’d build a wall around me,” Czar pointed out.
“You’ve got Blythe and the kids,” Reaper said. “Aside from the fact that you’re the brains for all of us, you’ve got them.”
Czar’s face softened. “I’ve got all of you. I don’t worry because I have my brothers.” Still looking at Reaper, he continued. “Ice, go get them and bring them back. They come through the door one by one. You stay behind them. Box them in. Absinthe, you search them. Tell them they want to give up their weapons.”
Reaper was happy Czar wasn’t taking any chances. Absinthe could influence with his voice. He was smooth and charming and the moment he put the suggestion in the minds of the Demons, they’d hand over their weapons without hesitation. If there was going to be a fire fight, it wasn’t going to happen on Torpedo Ink’s chosen home turf.
“Stay to the left of the room at all times,” Reaper said, all business. “Savage and I will have them in a crossfire. None of you want to get caught in that. We’ll mark the ones between us we’ll take. The rest of you look comfortable and friendly.” He was good at planning death. He’d done it hundreds of times. Czar was equally as skilled, probably his teacher, since Czar was older. He’d been the one to get them all out of that hellhole alive.
Czar nodded his head and Ice was gone, leaving the door open. Reaper leaned against the wall, relaxed. This was his world, one he knew intimately, and a woman like Anya Rafferty with her long dark hair and her bleeding heart didn’t belong anywhere near it. He sighed, realizing she’d crept right back into his thoughts.
He should have followed her all the way into the campgrounds. They were a good distance from the entry, if he remembered correctly. His club had had a shootout there. A massacre. It was a place outlaws could hide and that meant Anya wasn’t as safe as he’d like her to be. He shut down that line of thinking. He wouldn’t want any woman camping alone out there.
He straightened suddenly. What if she wasn’t camping alone? There could be a man out there. She could be supporting some shiftless loser who didn’t want to work or take care of his woman. He should have gone all the way in. Damn it. Now his head wanted to explode and wasn’t in the game where it should be, just as he knew would happen. The woman was wreaking havoc and it was a damned good thing Czar sent her on her way. Still, he had to check on her, just to be certain she was safe—just the way he would with any woman.
His bullshit meter was screaming at him but he ignored it as the first man stepped through the door. This would be their top enforcer. Sargent at Arms. The badass of the five. He studied the man’s face as Absinthe took his weapons. Yeah, he was the real deal. What was he doing in a small-time club? There had to be more to the Demons than they had ferreted out. The enforcer passed over his weapons without a murmur, his eyes sweeping the room, taking in the setup, realizing he couldn’t see either Reaper or Savage clearly.
Both men had a way of blurring their image. It was useful when hunting others. They’d developed the skill over the years, starting when they were toddlers and Czar had them practicing. Most of it was learning to choose the right place to stand. The shadows covering them. The stillness one needed so the human eye wasn’t drawn in that direction.
The Demons came in one by one, just as Czar directed. Ice tailed them, closing the door behind them. Reaper made certain to watch each of them as they came through, noting which one would be the likeliest to start trouble—that would be, Tether, the youngest, the one eager to prove himself. The first one, the one they called Razor was the one Reaper determined was the most lethal. He marked him as the one to take down first.
“I’m Hammer,” one said. “President of the Demons.” His patch confirmed that.
“Czar.” Their president extended his hand and shook. He indicated the chairs surrounding the oval table.
Only Razor hesitated. He realized sitting put them in a vulnerable position, especially without weapons. Absinthe had conducted a search of each man even after they’d obeyed his soft, whispered command to hand over their guns and knives. He was thorough about his search, knowing Czar was in the room. They all protected their president. Czar didn’t always like it, but it didn’t matter. He was their number one priority at all times. In this instance, if things went to hell, it would be Code’s job to take Czar down and protect him with his own body, while Reaper, Savage, Ice and Absinthe killed every one of the Demons.
Soft feminine laughter drifted down the hall and Reaper almost stiffened. Almost. He cursed under his breath but managed somehow to stay disciplined enough not to move. That sounded a lot like the bartender. He had to keep his head in the game, not worry about some woman that was probably sent to kill Czar. Well, okay, he didn’t believe that for a moment. He’d think about her later and the fact that those three hard asses were looking for women. Right now, the only thing in his world, was replaying step by step in his mind, how he would kill the Demons and protect his president.
Razor had to go first, Reaper would draw and shoot him in the head. Two bullets to make certain, although he didn’t miss. The president second, even though Code and Absinthe would go for him as well. Savage would take the two sitting to either side of their president, the ones assigned to protect him, just as Code was assigned to Czar. The two were named Weed and Shaft. Their cuts had their road names as well as their offices. It was unusual for a president, enforcer, secretary and road captain to all come to a meet at once. Something big was up.
“How can I help you?” Czar asked.
There was a small silence while Hammer sized him up. Razor was clearly uncomfortable with the setup, but he kept his mouth shut. His gaze moved restlessly around the room, always looking for anything that might threaten his boss.
“I’ll get right to the point,” Hammer said. “Heard good things about your club. You’re small, but you get things done. We’ve got a situation. We’re small too. Three chapters. Good territory. We keep it as clean as possible. Don’t have trouble with the locals. Hear you’re in pretty good here as well.”
Czar shrugged, but didn’t respond, his eyes steady on the Demon president’s face.
Reaper had seen him give that look a thousand times. He’d learned it in the school where hardened criminals ruled and if one wanted to stay alive, you didn’t make mistakes, like flinching at the wrong time.
“We have a route that goes from our territory to here. Stops dead and then picks up on this side of Santa Barbara.”
Czar shook his head. “This is Diamondback territory. You want something to go through their territory, you contact them, pay the fee and they’ll take it through.”
Hammer hastily shook his head. “They swallow any pipeline, use it for their own purposes and use a club like ours as pawns. They’d want a cut of what we’re doing and that cut would be more than we could afford right now.”
“You get caught, they’ll declare war and wipe you out. They have more chapters than just about any other club in the world. They’re loyal to their brothers and out of respect we’re careful not to do anything that would step on their toes, like creating a pipeline without giving them a cut.”
Hammer and his secretary, Shaft, exchanged looks. To Reaper they seemed a little desperate.
“What exactly is the product?” Czar asked.
Just the fact that Hammer told them straight up, was another indication that they were desperate.
Czar leaned toward him. “I don’t like bullshit. I’m two seconds from putting a gun to your head and pulling the fucking trigger. What are you doing here? My old lady is waiting for me and I don’t like keeping her waiting. Not. Ever. So, don’t waste my time.”
Instead of looking worried, or even scared at Czar’s words, Hammer looked as if he was relieved. He took a deep breath and told the truth. “This is going to make my club look weak, and we’re not. We got in bed with a club that runs a gambling operation. We help launder the money. Recently they found out about the counterfeit operation we’ve been running. We keep it slow. Nothing big, feeding a few bills here and there along an Eastern route we’ve got. They want to take it big time.”
“How’d they find out about your operation?” Czar asked, always going for the most pertinent fact immediately.
“One of our prospects decided to try his hand at gambling and got in over his head. Instead of coming to the club, he traded his debt for information.” Hammer’s tone was strictly neutral.
“Where is he now?” Czar’s voice dropped an octave.
Just that tone put the room on edge. Reaper had seen him do it so many times, but each time it happened, he was always impressed.
“He didn’t survive,” Hammer said.
“Anyone else talkative in your club?” Czar asked.
“The men in this room are men I trust implicitly. The ones in my chapter, same thing. The other chapters wear our colors and I’ll fight for them and with them, but I don’t know them as well as I do my own brothers.”
That was an honest answer. No one could know every man in every chapter of a club.
“They all in on the counterfeiting?”
He nodded. “Distribution. We have the plates. They’re good plates. I’ve got a good man who knows what he’s doing. We play it safe and don’t get greedy, we can make it work, make it untraceable back to us. This other club wants to get greedy.”
“How big are they?” Czar asked.
“That’s the thing. They’re ghosts. They call themselves ghosts.”
Reaper stirred then, something he never did. That called attention to him and the Demon’s enforcer nearly came out of his seat. Reaper ignored him. “A word, Czar.”
That was never done either, especially by one of Czar’s men. They always allowed Czar to make his play. They talked it over after.
Czar didn’t give anything away as he rose and jerked his chin toward the only other door in the room. Reaper let him come across the room and then stepped so his body was between his president’s and the Demons.
Czar closed the door and turned to him, his eyebrow raised, but concern on his face.
“The bastards going after the Mayhem’s president’s wife and child, the one we saved, it was the Ghosts after them. They weren’t wearing colors, but they referred to themselves as ‘ghosts’, as in I’d never see it coming because his friends are ghosts. Last words out of his fuckin’ mouth.”
“You think the Demons are setting us up?” Czar asked.
Reaper loved his brother. Czar believed in him, in his ability to protect not only him, but his family, and the others. He believed in Reaper’s instincts, his gut. Right now his gut was telling him the Demons were in trouble with this new ‘ghost’ club.
Reaper shook his head. “Got a bad feelin’ in there. They don’t want to be, but they’re scared. Something more is going on then they’re telling us.”
Czar clapped him on the shoulder. “Never think for one minute that I don’t need you, Reaper. It’s always been you and me. We lived in hell. Now we’re not, we’re calling our own shots. Don’t let the newness, the difference, fuck with your head.”
Reaper knew he’d been taking chances with his life. Czar knew it too. Now, with his brother looking him in the eye, he nodded curtly, not wanting to talk about it. It was the damn woman. The bartender. That hair. That laughter. Her fuckin’ skin. It looked so soft he’d been tempted to actually touch her. He didn’t touch anyone unless he planned to kill them—then they were dead. No one touched him unless they planned to get dead—then they were. Not unless they were one of his brothers and he’d had to learn to tolerate that.
“Let me go in first, Czar,” he cautioned. “Stay behind me. I’ll get you to your seat and then slide back into position. Question him after I’m where I need to be.”
Czar didn’t argue as he often was prone to when it came to matters of his safety. He detested the others putting their lives on the line for him, but as far as Reaper was concerned, it was the one thing Czar had no say in.
Reaper led him back in and over to the table without seeming to. He was casual about approaching the table, leaning in to snag some peanuts that were sitting in a can toward the middle. If they’d been at Czar’s home, his old lady, Blythe, would have put those peanuts in a bowl. He sauntered back to the wall.
Czar waited until he was nothing more than a blur, just as he’d asked him to. “This club you call the ‘ghosts’, are they an actual club? They ride? They have colors?”
The Demon president nodded. “They came to us with respect. We have no idea of their numbers. They’re up by the Oregon border. We don’t have much intel on them.” He rubbed his jaw. “My fault. I should have looked into them more, but at the time my old lady was…” He shook his head. “No excuses. We did what we did. I need to be able to run my product through this territory. I need you to do it.”
“You haven’t said why. How did they get you to come to us? Did they specify us?”
Hammer shook his head. “No, don’t know if you’re even on their radar. I think they’re looking to get their hooks into the Diamondback club. A club that big must have gamblers. You and I both know, if they start a war with them, the Diamondbacks will swallow us.”
“Even so, why not tell them to go fuck themselves? You don’t know their size. They have no reputation. Why not just kill them?” Czar’s voice was mild.
“They have my wife.” Hammer dropped the truth right into the middle of the room and the tension went up a thousand percent. Suddenly there was no air.
Czar looked up to meet Reaper eyes. Who the hell made war on women and children? Who had the balls to kidnap the president of the Demon’s club and hold her until they club did what they were told.
“How long have they had her?” Czar asked, suddenly all business. He went from mildly interested to total concentration.
Reaper loved the man, the way his brain kicked into high gear and he was aware of every detail, absorbing it, coming up with ideas and sorting through them for pros and cons until he knew exactly what to do.
“They took her two nights ago. Gave me a week to get it done. Came to you first. Her health…” He shook his head. “She had cancer. Just finished her last treatment. Immune system is down. She’s only twenty-six. Young.
Damn it, I don’t know where she is, but she’s a good old lady. She’ll keep her shit together and she’ll know I’m coming for her. I just need to buy some time to find her.”
“These people don’t play nice,” Czar said. “This isn’t the first time they used a man’s family against him. In that case, they were there to kill the wife and daughter. I don’t think you have a whole hell of a lot of time.”
“You willing to help?”