As usual, the teaser for the next book in the SoCal series contains spoilers for those which came before, so beware.
Knife & Flesh is Trick’s story. Trick is a former Army sniper and has been a key player in club work since they returned to the outlaw life. Not everything about that work and life rests easy on him. That work and life continues to get more complicated, and to rest heavier on Trick.
You got a quick glimpse of this story’s female lead, Juliana, in Fire & Dark.
For now, we’ll say no more about Knife & Flesh except that we plan to release it on 1 August 2015 and will reveal the cover and set up preordering a couple of weeks before that.
Without further ado, Chapter One of Knife & Flesh:
Lakota, the club Secretary and Treasurer, went around the table, handing out thick envelopes to each of the men around it. Trick didn’t turn around for his; he simply lifted his hand when Lakota held out the envelope over his shoulder and pulled it down to the table.
Some of his brothers opened their envelopes and rifled through the bills. Trick didn’t. He knew it wouldn’t be light, and he knew what his cut should be, so he knew how much was in it.
At his side, Ronin, too, simply pushed the sealed envelope forward on the table, out of his way. Near the head of the table, Connor, Trick’s best friend and the club’s SAA, set his envelope aside and sent Trick a quiet smirk. They’d talked about this, what it meant to count your cut at the table. Trick thought it was bad form—at best, he thought it meant you were in it for the money; at worst, it meant that you didn’t trust your leadership. But Connor was the only one he’d ever said such a thing aloud to.
Money was coming in at a regular clip and in substantial quantity, so nobody paid dues out of pocket anymore. Lakota simply took dues out of everybody’s cut. Trick suspected that some of his brothers—some that liked to rifle through their envelopes—had stopped keeping track of how much money was actually going into the pot or moving around the club. The numbers were big. Bigger than ever before in Trick’s experience.
Of course, he hadn’t been wearing a patch during the heyday that most of his brothers remembered. He’d been a Prospect during the demise of the club that most of the Night Horde SoCal had started in.
Trick paid attention to the money. Not because he was greedy, but because it made him nervous, and he’d learned during his military service that things that made him nervous deserved extra attention.
When Lakota sat back down, Hoosier, their President, leaned in and said. “That’s it for…old business. Jesse…you got…something new?”
Hoosier was recently back at the head of the table after months away. He’d been badly hurt in a fire the previous autumn, suffering burns, internal injuries, and head trauma. They’d almost lost him. He was riding a trike now and taking occasional hits off an oxygen tank he dragged around with him, and his speech and memory were still recovering. But he was back, and all the Horde had felt a new ease come over them when he’d returned.
Bart, their VP, had led well in Hoosier’s absence, but he had not wanted the role permanently—not yet, at least. Bart had kept his VP’s seat during meetings, so there had been a literal gap at the table where Hoosier belonged—a gap they had all felt, whether they were at the table or not.
Responding to Hoosier’s question, Jesse leaned forward. “Yeah. Titus is looking to prospect.”
“Which one is Titus?” Demon asked.
Connor answered with an uninterested drawl, “Long hair. Got that shitty mermaid on his arm that looks like a drunk baboon got hold of a Bic pen. Can’t say much more about him made an impression. Not with me, anyhow.”
“We’ve been rolling with one Prospect now for about a year,” Jesse answered. “At the same time, we’ve been expanding our runs and doing more business outside the shop. It’s been a squeeze. And Jerry’s coming up on his year. If he gets his rocker, we’ll be out of Prospects. We need new blood.”
“Do we?” J.R. asked. “You think Jerry’s gonna pass a vote first time? I don’t. The kid’s a moron. And every new body at this table eats into our cut.” J.R. was one who counted his envelope.
Trick didn’t like to start shit at the table—or at all, really, unless it was absolutely necessary—but he was irritated. He’d been getting irritated a lot more often lately. In the past year or so. “You got your hand on about twenty-five K there, brother. And that’s just the first cut this month. How much bank do you need?”
“Don’t give me your commie shit, T. I stand in fire for this cut. I earn it all.”
“We all do, J.R.,” Muse’s voice was quiet but sharp. “More men means less risk.”
“Or more risk,” Trick countered. Despite arguing with J.R., he wasn’t keen on adding to the table, either—but not because of the money. “We have more secrets now. More secrets means more vulnerability. We bring new people in, we need to know they’re solid. If we’re asking ‘who’s Titus,’ then how do we know he’s solid?”
Jesse was shaking his leg so hard that the table rocked—a sure sign he was pissed. “I know him. I’m saying he’s solid.” He turned to Hoosier. “Hooj, I’ve been sitting at a table with you for fifteen years. I’m in charge of keeping up our rep”—Jesse was the Public Relations Officer—“Doesn’t my say count for anything?”
Hoosier pulled on his beard, sitting quietly for a few moments. Trick had noticed that after he took these pauses, his speech was more fluid. “It counts, Jess. But this is a democracy. You make your case, and then we vote. You got more to say about…about…”
When that last pause lasted, Connor supplied, “Titus.”
Though his hand clenched, that was the only sign of Hoosier’s frustration with himself. He nodded at his son and went on, “Titus. There more we should…know?”
Sherlock, the club Intelligence Officer, said, “I ran him. Got a long juvie record—mostly kid shit, but he did two years at Los Pinos for armed robbery. Aged out there.” Trick shifted his attention to Demon, who also had aged out in juvie. But Demon was staring at the table, listening but not reacting. He tended to be quiet in the Keep.
“His adult record is spotty,” Sherlock continued. “Did a couple of years at Lompoc, armed robbery again. The rest of it is petty jail time. No affiliations. Seems like he’s a loner.”
“What’s he do for work?” Muse asked. “Can he work the shop?” The Horde liked to employ all of their men in straight work—if not in the shop, then through their entertainment support business, which provided bikes, technical advisors, and stunt riders for television, film, and commercials.
“He works the warehouse of that plastics factory in Rialto. I don’t know if he’s got any skill with a wrench.”
“Does he even ride?” J.R. sneered.
Jesse nodded and then sighed. “He rides a Ninja.”
The table erupted in laughter. “Jess,” Connor chuckled. “Dude. Then no, he doesn’t ride.”
Jesse sat up straight, as if he were presenting formal evidence. “He can buy a real bike. He’s a solid guy. Steady. He won’t blink at the shit we’ve got to do. I’ve known him a while, since he started hanging around. And I say we need the help. I’ll sponsor him.”
“Thirty-three is old to prospect, isn’t it?” Fargo, one of the newer, younger patches, threw in. Though he was still wet behind the ears, he’d never been reluctant to get involved in Keep discussions. Keanu, the newest, youngest patch, still had the stink of intimidation on him, and he kept quiet, except to vote.
“Nah,” Hoosier answered, shaking his head. “We been…recruiting young…a long time. But there’s something…to be said for…a man with his head on…straight. Been around the…block.”
Bart nodded. “What we do, it’s not boys’ work.”
Trick met Bart’s eyes and held. “I was blowing Taliban heads off before I was twenty years old.”
Bart didn’t blink. “You saying that was boys’ work?”
“I’m saying you don’t start that shit when you’re looking for a second career. You do it young, when you don’t know anything else. Knocking over gas stations for fix money is nothing like what we do. If Titus aged out in Los Pinos and did a couple in Lompoc, what’s he been doing the rest of the years he’s been outside? Why’s a petty crook loner want this life now?”
Bart turned to Sherlock, who looked at Jesse. Jesse sat without answering, giving off a vibe that was defensive and hostile.
“I don’t think we’re ready to put leather on this guy’s back, Jess,” Connor said.
“No,” Hoosier agreed. “We’re not. But let’s…take some time. Get his measure. We’ll…bring him up again. Okay…Jesse?”
Jesse sat abruptly back in his seat. He looked angry—angrier than Trick thought was warranted. “Yeah. Doesn’t matter what I think, anyway.”
Trick was in a mood after that meeting, and Connor’s old lady was off work tonight, so his friend wasn’t sticking around for the party. They were getting married in a few weeks, and Trick had an image of them spending the night filling out place cards or something otherwise ridiculous. J.R. and Jesse were both vibing, and Demon and Muse had their old ladies with them. Hoosier always cashed in early now. It was a shit night, party-wise. The rest of the Horde were in their usual form, but, between the men who had old ladies and Ronin, who’d always left early, parties in general had gotten downright subdued lately.
Maybe they did need new blood.
He sat at the bar with a shot of Jack and studied Titus, who was doing the hangaround thing, carrying drinks around, hefting kegs, basically being a barback while Jerry made drinks. The girls had other obligations than serving drinks tonight.
Titus seemed like an okay guy. He looked like a biker—long hair, full beard, inked arms. His ink was crap, some of it obviously prison ink and the rest of it probably done by a friend who’d bought a machine on eBay. But Trick couldn’t shake his sense of suspicion. What was a guy in his early thirties doing looking for a patch? For one thing, the prospecting period was hard time for any man with a shred of self-respect. Did they want a guy who, halfway into his life, was willing to be treated like that kind of shit?
Trick himself had come to the club a little late—after his service and while he was in college. But the distance for him had been short between his Army life and the club life. He was practiced at doing grunt work, and those few years in the civilian world had told him everything he needed to know about the ways he wasn’t cut out to live in it. He didn’t understand normal people and the way they saw the world. He’d understood military life. Club life was a lot like it. With more pussy.
What was it in Titus that made him an outlaw? A criminal record made a man a criminal. A way of being in the world made a man an outlaw. They were not the same thing.
He finished his second shot and then blew out of the Hall and headed to his bike. He’d keep an eye on the hangaround, but not tonight. Tonight he just wanted to go home and be quiet. And think.
Unlike most of his brothers, Trick didn’t live in Madrone. He didn’t like its cookie-cutter architecture and its upper-middle-class affect. There were a couple of neighborhoods in the city limits that didn’t fit that perfect mold, but he’d needed some distance.
So he had an apartment in a complex on Kendall Drive in San Bernardino. Nothing fancy at all—in fact, a little rundown—but it was quiet enough, and it had a pool and a hot tub, and people left him alone.
He pulled into the gated lot and dismounted at his parking space in the communal carport, which held the prehistoric Mazda pickup he’d had since high school. He walked his custom V-Rod to the front of the space and kicked the stand down.
Stopping at the bank of mailboxes, he checked his slot, then stood there and sorted through, tossing almost everything into the recycle bin nearby. Junk, junk, junk, waste-of-trees, junk. A letter from his pappoús in Santorini, the unsteady handwriting showing both his age and his struggles with English. Pappoús had never embraced digital culture, and didn’t have a computer of any sort. Trick was better at Greek than Pappoús was at English, but the old man liked to “keep all his knives sharpened,” as he said.
Trick zipped the letter—the only thing of worth in his mail—into the same interior kutte pocket that held his envelope from the Keep, and he turned to head down the walk toward the stairs that would lead to his second-floor apartment.
Standing immediately behind him, so close and so small that he almost ran her down, was a little girl. A pretty little thing, about four years old, with long, caramel-brown hair that curled loosely over her shoulders. She wore shorts and a lacy t-shirt, and she cuddled a sock monkey close to her chest.
Assuming she lived close and her mom or dad had simply lost sight of her for a second, he smiled down at her. “Hey, muffin. Is your mom or dad close?”
“Well, good. You have a good night.” When she didn’t move out of his way, he stepped into the scrubby landscaping. “S’cuse me,” he said, and took a step on his way.
“Are you a good people or a bad people?” she asked, and he turned and tilted his head with a smile.
“Miss Chrissy says that people with pictures on their skin are bad people but I need a good people.”
Miss Chrissy sounded like a judgmental bitch, but Trick was more interested in the girl’s word ‘need.’ He stepped closer and crouched to her level. “I think I’m a good people. Why do you need that?”
“Mami was up high and she fell and now she’s sleeping.”
Shit. A low push of adrenaline entered his bloodstream. “Is your daddy home?”
She shook her head. “That’s Papi. Papi has a different house. I’m s’poseda push 9-1-1, but Mami has the phone in her pocket and I can’t get it. I need a good people that won’t hurt because Mami is sleeping and won’t wake up. Do you promise you’re a good people?”
He stood and took the little girl’s hand. “I promise. Where’s your mommy?”
“In our new house. It’s this way.” She led him down the other walkway, still clutching her stuffed monkey.
As they walked, he said, “My name is Trick. What’s yours?”
She stopped and looked up at him. “I’m not s’poseda tell to strangers.”
He smiled. “Your mommy sounds like she takes good care of you.”
“She does but she’s sleeping and she’s not s’poseda be. I don’t like it.”
An apartment door was open about halfway down the walk. Trick wasn’t surprised when the girl led him there and walked inside.
From the look of things, Trick decided that they had just moved in on this very day. There were stacks of boxes everywhere in the main room, and furniture that was bare and precisely set—interesting, old-fashioned furniture. The apartment had the rich smell of floor wax and fresh paint.
“Where’s your mommy, muffin?”
The layout of this apartment was exactly like Trick’s, except the reverse: the front door opened into a living room, which stretched to the right. To the left was a tiny eating area. Off of that was the kitchen, most of which was readily visible from the front door. A hallway led off the living room, at about the middle of the apartment. He knew that there would be a bathroom to the right and then two bedrooms, side-by-side and identical, at the end.
The girl took his hand and led him to the kitchen. A woman with long, dark hair lay sprawled, unconscious, on the floor, the remnants of a broken chair around her.
He picked up the girl and set her aside. “Okay, honey. Okay.” Then he went to the woman and crouched at her side, laying his fingertips on her throat. She was alive, and her pulse was strong. A quick look around the kitchen showed him a plastic caddy full of cleaning supplies, with a white rag hanging over it. He stood and rooted through it. When he found a bottle of ammonia, he splashed some on the rag and then crouched again at the woman’s side.
She roused groggily when he waved the ammonia under her nose. When she opened her eyes and found focus, Trick recognized her. She had gorgeous eyes, so dark they seemed entirely pupil. Then he noticed the tiny mole, what he thought women called a beauty mark, above her mouth. “Juliana?”
She sang karaoke at The Flight Deck sometimes. Though he didn’t generally pay attention to karaoke, he’d noticed her once when Connor had performed as payment on a bet he’d lost, and now he noticed whenever she was there to sing.
She was good—excellent. And he liked her. They’d talked a couple of times, and she had a lively brain. He would’ve pushed for more, but she’d made it clear she wasn’t interested in him. He knew how to take no for an answer, and he knew he was an acquired taste. Even now, without the dreads he’d worn for a decade.
At her name, she started to full awareness and then pushed him away, sitting up in alarm. “What? Who? Lucie! Where’s Lucie! Who the hell?”
“Easy, easy. I’m Trick. From The Deck?”
Just then the girl—Lucie—came into the room. “Mami!”
“I’m okay, Lulu. I’m okay.” Calming down, Juliana tried to stand, and she didn’t fight when Trick took her arms to help her up.
Halfway up, she puked all over him, and her knees gave out. He clutched her close and eased her back to the floor. “You definitely have a concussion. I’m calling 911.”
“No, no,” she gasped, fighting to keep her eyes open. “No. I can’t afford it.”
“You’re really hurt. I’ll pay.”
That brought consciousness back, and she scowled at him. “That’s nuts. No. I just…I need to lie down.”
“Okay. You shouldn’t be alone, though. There somebody I can call to stay with you?”
Her eyes fluttered shut, and she was out again. As he laid her back gently on the floor, he felt a goose egg on the side of her head. Fuck, this was no little knock on the head. He considered calling an ambulance anyway, but she didn’t want it, and he hated foisting shit like that on people. Crouching on the floor of her tiny kitchen, vomit dripping thickly from his kutte, Trick looked around as if he’d find an answer on the bare walls of this apartment.
His eyes met Lucie’s. Hers were wide with worry. “It’s okay, Lulu. She’s gonna be okay.”
“Only Mami and Papi can call me Lulu. You can call me Lucie. Or muffin. I liked that. I like chocolate chip muffins. Mami bakes them sometimes.”
“Okay, muffin. I’m a good people. I’m gonna make sure your mommy’s okay.” He picked up the rag and waved it under Juliana’s nose again. When she roused and focused again, he asked, “Is there somebody I can call for you?”
Her eyes got wet, but she blinked any possible tears away. “No. There’s…nobody’s around tonight. I’m okay, though. I’ll be okay.” She put her hands on his shoulders as if she meant to use him as leverage to stand, and then she realized that she’d puked on him. “Oh God. I’m so sorry.”
“Not a concern right now. Look, I know you don’t know me much—or like me much—but I’m not leaving you here alone with your little girl. You’re hurt. If there’s nobody else, then it’s me. Or an ambulance. Pick your poison.”
Lucie came around and peered between them. “He’s a good people, Mami.”
Looking green around the gills again, Juliana gave her daughter a weak smile. “You think so, mija?”
Lucie nodded, and Juliana looked up at Trick. He didn’t know why he was going so fucking far out of his way for a woman who’d rejected him, but what he wanted right then was for her to trust him—to trust him, a near-stranger, enough to leave him alone with her four-year-old daughter.
He liked that little girl a lot. She was brave and smart, he knew it already.
“Okay,” her mother sighed, looking like she was fading again. “Thank you.”
© 2015 Susan Fanetti