TEASER: Calm & Storm, The Night Horde SoCal Book Six (series conclusion)

I hope you’re enjoying Rest & Trust. Things are heating up for the Horde, and they’re going to come to a boil in the last book. Calm & Storm is Ronin’s story. It will release on 27 October 2015 (which is not a Saturday, and I’ll explain the reason for that when I do the cover reveal and preorder in a few weeks).

As a teaser for Calm & Storm, I’m offering the first chapter. If you haven’t read Rest & Trust yet, there are some spoilers for it here, so I suggest waiting to read this. The opening focuses significantly on the club (hence the spoilers), but the female lead of the story, Lorraine, makes an appearance here.

Okay, then. Enjoy!

Chapter One of Calm & Storm:

CHAPTER ONE

A man who wielded a gun had given his power over to the weapon.

Ronin preferred a blade, an extension of his own body, his own power. There was less room—and less opportunity—for error. To fight with a blade was to become intimate with one’s opponent. To be a part of the moment and to feel the transaction of energy and force.

A man who wielded a blade kept his power and knew its impact. Felt it in his own body and took charge of that force.

Ronin was adept at firearms; he’d been infantry in the early days of ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom,’ and he’d grown up hunting with both bow and rifle. But he had learned—and understood—the myriad dangers inherent in separating the thing that killed from the man who aimed it.

Now, unless he had no other choice, he fought with blades. On a day like today, when he and his Horde brothers had been ambushed on their way back from a hand-off, he fought with only short blades, the ten-inch tantōs he kept strapped to his thighs.

His brothers didn’t understand how he could feel sufficiently armed with only those blades. They didn’t understand that a man with his hand on a trigger had given over not only his power but his faith to the tiny projectile that would leave the thing in his hands.

Most men wielding guns believed in guns like some men believed in a god. And that made them vulnerable.

None of these thoughts were in Ronin’s head as he rolled under an enemy’s aim and rose to his feet, close enough to the man to embrace him.

Or to sink a tantō into his chest, upward from his solar plexus and into his heart. The man’s brown eyes widened, and the Mossberg 930 fell heavily from his hands. Ronin kicked it away as he pulled the blade from the man’s chest.

His mind empty of everything but the moment, when he heard Connor yell, “Roe!” he instinctively dropped to a deep crouch and spun toward the SAA’s voice, just as a bullet hit the van about three feet over him—where his chest had been a half-second before.

That bullet wouldn’t have killed him, but it would have neutralized him for several minutes at least. He was wearing a vest; it slowed him down and affected his mobility, but not enough to tip the scales away from the precaution. If he were fighting men with martial arts training, that would have been one thing, but the men they fought had put all of their power and faith into the firearms in their hands. Their reflexes were slow, and their accuracy went to hell the moment motion—theirs or their target’s—entered the equation.

Undertrained and overarmed. That described every enemy soldier since this war had gone hot, and it explained why the Horde were yet whole and unvanquished.

Ronin charged the man who’d fired at him, ducking his aim and striking down on his wrist with a tantō. The blade, viciously sharp, sank deep, into the bone, and Ronin pulled it clear, allowing his momentum to spin him fully around and sinking his other blade low into the man’s abdomen. He pulled upward, feeling the steel slice through his enemy’s inner workings.

The wielder of a blade felt the full impact on his target. It was impossible to be innocent of the damage one caused. Ronin felt each death he caused, felt it in his own body.

As the man fell, the world around Ronin went quiet. He wiped his blades on the jean-clad legs of his last target and slid them into their sheaths. Tonight, at home, he would clean them carefully.

“Call out!” Connor yelled, and the other men on this run called their names. Even Ronin, within eyeshot of Connor, called, so that those out of sight would know. They were in deep woods, and the sightlines were poor.

Besides Connor and Ronin, there were three other Horde to account for.

“Ronin!” Nearest to Connor, Ronin called out first.

“Muse!”

“Fargo!”

Silence. Connor met Ronin’s eyes, and they both looked out into the trees. Connor yelled, “Diaz! Call out!”

“Yeah,” a voice came, sounding weak and wet, from the brush. “I’m hit.”

They raced into the brush, all four men converging, and found Diaz against a redwood, holding his neck. His dark olive skin had already gone an ashy shade, and his hands were washed red with flowing blood. About six feet away was the body of another of Emilio Zapata’s disposable men.

Diaz made a sound like a rough laugh. “Got the fucker. But I think he got me, too.”

Connor was on his knees at Diaz’s side. “No way, brother. You’re too mean to die. Let me see.” He pulled Diaz’s hands away, and blood pumped more freely. Connor looked up and met Muse’s eyes, and Muse knelt at Diaz’s other side.

Ronin knew what was being silently said; he could see for himself. The bullet had hit about two inches above Diaz’s vest. His carotid was severed. They were in the woods, almost a mile off any kind of real road, fifty miles from any kind of medical help.

Diaz was already dead. He simply hadn’t given in to it yet.

He grabbed Connor’s hand. “It’s cool, bruh. Just get word to Ingrid for me, okay? Just let her know.” Ingrid was Diaz’s ex-wife. They’d broken up ugly almost two years before.

“Jesus fuck, man. No!” Connor pushed hard with both hands on Diaz’s neck, but it was too late. As soon as the bullet had passed through his neck, out here in the woods, Diaz’s fate had been sealed.

“Let her know. Con, please.” His voice had weakened to something less than a whisper.

Connor didn’t let up the pressure on their brother’s neck, but he nodded. “Yeah, man. Of course.”

With that, Antonio Diaz closed his eyes and died.

Connor stayed where he was even after fresh blood no longer pushed through his fingers. Finally, Muse put his hand over Connor’s. “He’s gone, brother.”

Surging to his feet, Connor turned and leapt over Diaz’s body, going right for Fargo. He grabbed the young patch by his neck and threw him to the ground. “You shithead! You did this! You stupid fucking maggot! What the fuck were you thinking!” He punctuated every question with a blow of his massive, be-ringed fist into Fargo’s head until Ronin and Muse finally pulled him away.

Ronin let Connor go, leaving him to Muse, and went to Fargo. The kid was fucked up, but he was able to stand. Whether he’d be able to ride, they’d have to sort out later. They had more pressing problems.

“I’m sorry!” Fargo wept through his swelling, broken face. “I’m so fucking sorry!”

From his seat on the ground, where Muse had tackled him, Connor said, “Sorry doesn’t do shit, does it?”

It was Fargo’s fault. They’d handed off a truck to the Eureka charter of the Brazen Bulls and were on their way home. Everything had been uneventful—which was more exception than rule these days—and they’d been riding southward in loose formation, Fargo pulling up the rear.

A lone biker had pulled onto the road behind them and run Fargo onto the shoulder, nearly into the rocky cliff face, unseating him. Then the rider had turned and ridden back the way he’d come.

Fargo had remounted and hied off after him, and the other four Horde, all of them seeing the bright neon sign over the scene that flashed ‘TRAP,’ hadn’t been able to call him back.

Never leave a man behind. They’d gone after him, knowing that they were riding into trouble. That they had been expecting the ambush they got was the only reason there weren’t five dead Horde instead of one.

Fargo shouldn’t have been on this run at all. He was a good brother—he was thoughtful and smart under normal circumstances—but he was young, and he had trouble managing the adrenaline that came with their work these days. But Demon was home with his family, recently increased by a one-week-old baby boy.

This particular run had been the site of a lot of trouble over the past months, and they manned a large crew for it now. Clearly, Ronin thought, they’d have been better running a smaller crew of four experienced men.

But Fargo wasn’t going to get experience if all they ever asked him to do was watch the women.

“I’m so fucking sorry,” Fargo moaned again, still weeping.

“Shut the fuck up.” Connor stood. “We gotta clean up this goddamn mess. And we need to get Diaz and his bike home.”

Muse got out his phone. “I’ll call the Bulls, ask ‘em to send down their truck.”

Nodding, Connor turned to Fargo. “Quit your sniveling, you piece of shit. Get to fucking work.”

He stormed off. Ronin watched as Connor stomped to the widest redwood. Sensing what the SAA was about to do, Ronin headed in that direction.

Connor yelled—a furious, agonized roar—and punched the tree. Again and again he punched. Ronin walked up behind him and put his hands on Connor’s shoulders.

“Connor.”

Ronin had been watching Connor for the past several months. Something was wrong; he could sense that truth, but he couldn’t see anything out of place, except the change in the SAA. Even that, though, was a change in demeanor rather than behavior. His votes were the same, predictably in line with his father, their President. His leadership on runs was the same. But he was angry. Connor was not a man normally motivated by anger.

Ronin had learned a long time ago that anger had no value. It was a cancer, and the things people thought would kill it—revenge, retribution, ‘justice’—nourished it instead. The only cure for anger was excision. Cut it out, discard it, leave it behind. Anger didn’t give a man power. It sapped it from him.

When Ronin’s hands landed on his shoulders, Connor stopped attacking the tree. He dropped to a squat and put his hands—still coated in Diaz’s blood and now his own, too—over his head.

“Jesus fuck, Roe. It’s all going to shit.”

Ronin thought that was true. He’d earned his first patch long ago, in the Spokane charter of their old club. He’d moved to Southern California when Hoosier had invited him to join the Night Horde and assured him that their new club would be strictly straight work.

And it had been, at first.

Not even four years later, they’d teamed with another drug cartel. Now, five years after that, they were up to their elbows in blood again. It wasn’t the same; he trusted his leadership now more than he had in the club before. But it wasn’t different, either. Same fights, same enemies, same war, same blood. Same death.

Ronin was a loyal man. When he loved, he loved for life. He loved his club, his brothers, so—although he had not wanted it, had not voted for it—he had gone side by side with them into this morass.

But he was tired.

He put his hand on Connor’s shoulder again. “Connor. Let’s tend to our brother.”

~oOo~

The men sat quietly around the table. Both Demon and Sherlock had welcomed newborn sons into their lives within the past week, but the club’s celebration had been cut short.

Hoosier stared at his rings. “Ingrid isn’t coming back. She doesn’t want any part of his funeral, or anything from him or us.”

“Fucking bitch,” J.R. snarled.

“No use burning energy in that direction, J.R. We all know they had a rocky road. I say we’re better off not needing to worry about taking care of her. Diaz gets a full burial. We’ll have people in from across the country. It’ll take a couple of weeks to get it all together. Charlie Davis is taking care of him until we’re ready.”

“I’m so sorry,” Fargo muttered. His face was a mottled, swollen mess, but only his nose was broken.

“Son,” Hoosier sighed. “You’ve said that enough. The words don’t mean shit anymore. You learn from your mistake, you keep that brain in gear every second you’re on a job, and you don’t fucking let it happen again. We got no room for mistakes in this life. Mistakes get people killed. You throw those damn words on the table again, and a beatdown will be the least of your problems.”

Fargo nodded and dropped his head.

“That goes for everyone at this table. Look on every job like it’s life or death. Could well be. Vests on, guards up, weapons at the ready. We are fighting a war, brothers.”

“We need to fill in the table, Hooj,” Bart said. “We’ve lost two men in the last year. It’s time to vote on Nate.”

Demon, Nate’s sponsor, objected to that. “Hold up. We said he had to graduate high school first.”

“He’s twenty years old, Deme,” Connor cut in. “And he graduates next month. You think he’ll bail on that if we give him his rocker early?”

“I think he’s not twenty-one for a few months, and I think we told him he had to graduate high school first.” Demon’s cheeks had started to flush; he felt strongly on the point and was working up a rage.

“We need him, Deme. These are hard times. I think we’d all agree he’d be a good addition to the table.” Hoosier paused, but no one contradicted him, not even Demon. “But you’re his sponsor. If you’re not bringing him up for a vote, then we won’t vote him.”

“I want him at least to graduate first, before we throw him in the fire.”

“Fair enough. We’ll hold off. But let’s talk about adding a Prospect or two. We’ve been knocking around the idea of giving Stuff leather. Anybody else?”

Muse nodded. “I’d like to throw Terry’s name in, too. We’ve been leaning on them both to watch the women. I’d like to give them a nod for that, let them show us something more.”

“Good call,” Hoosier agreed. “Anybody else?”

When no one else offered a name, Hoosier called votes for each; both passed unanimously. J.R. agreed to sponsor Stuff, and Muse took on Terry.

They were adding men to their ranks, at least potentially. Ronin hoped they were more than bodies to be buried at a later date.

Before Hoosier closed the meeting, he said, “Brothers, we have to keep steady. Diaz dropped his bike on the freeway. That’s the story. We pay handsomely to make sure our story is the one that gets told. We fight our fights, but we keep the picture pretty. That means keep your straight jobs going. We lose the pretty picture we put out up front, and our troubles get a lot worse a lot quick.” He turned to his son. “So maintain.”

Connor stood and left the Keep before his father closed the meeting. Everyone at the table watched him go.

Again, Ronin wondered what they were all missing.

He kept his thoughts to himself, however, as he almost always did. Hoosier was right: words got empty quickly—words of apology or any other. Ronin kept his own counsel, and he saved his words for when they were strong enough to carry meaning.

~oOo~

For his ‘straight’ job, Ronin was a Hollywood stunt rider. As a young man, he’d been an adrenaline junkie with a mile-wide aggressive streak. He’d grown up on dirt bikes and had turned that skill into motocross and extreme racing by the time he was sixteen. From then through his twenties, he was racing on the weekends and doing underground fights almost every night. On the weekdays, he was doing his time in the woods, like just about every other guy in Myrtlevale, their little Oregon logging town.

Fighting in the Middle East had given him control of his aggression and the adrenaline habit, and after he’d come back from Iraq, he’d honed his ‘bigger, faster, higher’ urge into a great deal more finesse and skill with a bike. Still, until he’d moved to L.A., most of his stunt work had been for expositions: state fairs, intermission entertainment at local NASCAR, that sort of thing—nothing that really paid.

He’d fallen into work as a dues-paying member of the Stuntmen’s Association because he’d been working with Muse, hauling bikes to a set, and J.R., doing stunts that day, had put the stunt coordinator on him. The guy had tried Ronin out, and now he had work as regular as he wanted it.

Most gigs were low key—riding past the camera, maybe at speed, nothing more. But often enough, he got work on an action project or a thriller, something that let him do real stunt work.

The action film set he was on a few days after Diaz was killed was in downtown L.A. As movies often did, this production had shut down several blocks. Ronin, dressed head to toe in black leather over full stunt pads, stood on the sidewalk with the coordinator and examined the setup for the day’s stunt: jumping a sport bike over two parked cars.

Mick, the stunt coordinator, showed him a blocking sketch. “You’ll ride in from the right, max speed, then hit the ramp, here. Roger asked if you can drop the bike when you land, and spin out of left frame.”

“Drop out of a jump?” The director of this film had more big ideas than would fit into his little head.

“Yeah. I know. The producers are here today with a couple of studio big shots, and Roger’s getting yappy. You know bikes, Roe. Better than me. I’ll face off with him over it if it’s too much. But I’ll be doing it in front of a live studio audience.”

“Short notice.” A stunt like that took planning. Changing it up last minute was how people got hurt.

“Yeah, sorry. You got the gear?” Mick nodded at Ronin’s stunt bag, sitting on the concrete at their feet. He’d need body armor to land a drop like that. The pads he was wearing wouldn’t be enough. But he carried everything with him on every job.

“Yeah.” Ronin walked over to the ramp. It was the kind they used these days that the post-production team could easily erase from the film. It was supposed to be safer, because it could be less subtle than a ramp they had to camouflage, but Ronin found them ungainly and difficult.

He studied the ramp and its placement, then walked off the whole stunt area. He went back and took the blocking sketch from Mick’s hands and studied that.

“I need the ramp nine inches back and six to the left. And the cars three inches lower. Then I can land the drop. That fence needs to go.” He pointed to a black wrought-iron fence at the back.

Mick noted Ronin’s changes. “Okay. I’ll take this to Roger. It’ll take some time. Callback after lunch.”

Ronin nodded and opened his stunt jacket. While he stripped the pads off his arms, he smelled lunch wafting from the craft services tent, set up in a green space at the end of the block. In only a black beater on top but still wearing the protective leather pants and heavy boots, he packed up his bag, set it aside with the rest of the stunt gear, and headed over to find something to eat.

The spread here was much more elaborate than he was used to. It was a big-budget picture, with a couple of above-the-title stars, so the food would of course have been delicious and pleasingly presented, but still, the offerings today were worthy of a royal wedding feast. There were reserved tables, with linens, even. Ronin figured that was due to the set’s esteemed guests.

He didn’t care much; he’d take good food where it came. So he headed to the buffet spread and started a plate. Not too much; he didn’t want his stomach lying heavily on him when he was called up for the stunt. So he stuck to fruits, salad, and a couple of sections of some kind of tortilla wrap thing.

He was headed to the drinks bar when, behind him, someone called out, “Eddie?”

Adrenaline took a sudden nip at his heart. But no—no one had called him Eddie in twenty years or more. Not since his mother had died. Certainly no one in SoCal knew him as Eddie. So whoever it was behind him wasn’t talking to him. Without turning around, he continued on his way to the drinks.

“Eddie Drago?”

Whoever it was, she wanted him.

And he knew who it was—no use lying to himself. He’d recognized her voice at once.

Edmund ‘Ronin’ Drago was a loyal man. When he loved, he loved for life.

©2015 Susan Fanetti