Summer sun scorches the road beneath my boots. Tendrils of hot air drift from the baking asphalt to wrap themselves around my ankles, heating the skin beneath my denim.

I’ve always loved this part of town. As I sit astride my bike, positioned on a rise of the road, my heart aches a little knowing what we’re about to do. It feels akin to betraying an old friend.

“You understand why we’ve got to do this, right?” one of my closest friends, and my right-hand man for the afternoon, Tap, asks. 

He tips his head to the left and cups a large hand around his cigarette, matching a flame to the stick of tobacco—the end lights with a crackle of orange.

“I understand why we do it,” I reply, “but not why we have to.”

“It’s all part of Apex’s plan. You fuckin’ questioning the Prez, now?”

I cast a scornful glance his way. “Do I look that stupid?”

Tap laughs, plucking the smoldering cigarette from his lips. “I ain’t answering that.”

“Fuck you.”

We return to our perusal of the landscape as the distant rumble of bikes litters the silence of the suburb. The crisp white facades of the post-colonial houses stand facing each other in defiance, unwavering without a single sign of life.

It’s as though time stands still, preserving the area’s serenity and innocence before it changes forever.

Green oaks line the street, casting shadows on the sidewalk with their overhanging branches. For a moment, I lose myself to the memory of climbing trees just like them as a kid, scratching my knees on the rough barbs where branches had broken in the spring breeze.

My new tattoo itches on my throat, breaking me from a respite into happier times. The ink stains my flesh in a show of what? I don’t know. Sure, the tiger represents a feral power, an ability to live alone despite the choice to stay with like-kind—but the impact it has on those I meet is the type of influence money can’t buy. People cross the road to avoid the young, rough biker with the blatant tattoos. I like that power, that ability to control strangers without the need to lift a single finger. 

I grip the bars of the Harley tight to save from scratching the raw flesh at my neck and draw in a deep breath. A cat wanders onto the road at a leisurely pace; its ears prick at the growing rumble of engines, which steadily morph to a resounding thump as the bikes draw close. The cat flees, hiding in a perfectly manicured garden.

Money on the fact none of these residents know what lies within the belly of their suburb. If I’ve learned anything in my short twenty-four years alive, it’s that people are quick to judge based on appearance alone; however, the truth is often anything but.

A spoked wheel comes into my peripheral, slowing to a stop before a boot slaps the hot roadway to my right. One by one, five more bikes join our position, lining up in order by rank, the same as we’ve always done. I stare past Tap to our Prez, Apex, bringing my gaze left, as he positions his bike a full wheel ahead of everybody else.

I might have sworn an oath to the man, but my allegiance lies with the club. Always will. He just doesn’t know that yet.

“They home?” Apex barks.

Tap nods. “Yeah. Rolled in about twenty minutes ago.”

“Kids?”

“Two.”

My stomach twists, my moral compass is spinning out of control as it tries to find bearing in this fucked up world. I don’t feel right about this, and that unsettles me no end. My gut has never been wrong.

“Like I planned, boys,” Apex growls. “The adults aren’t left breathing, but nobody fuckin’ touches those kids.”

I’d love to say it’s his redeeming feature, that he cares enough to spare the children, but I’d be wrong.

These kids will never step foot inside a high school, never learn the complex equations of algebra, or wonder when in their life they’d need to use such knowledge. Apex has positioned us as the middleman, but fuck working for the devil if the blood of his sins will stain my hands. The kids are destined to be a bartering card for a cartel, a bribe, an incentive to keep a promise. Yet, the man who needs them to play his move in this sick game of chess won’t lose an ounce of sleep over their fate. 

I will.

“What’s the matter, King?” Apex asks, drawing the attention of the pack on me.

“Nothin’.”

“Bullshit.” He spits to the right of his bike, narrowly missing Tap’s boot. “You look like you’ve licked the wrong part of a whore’s back end.”

Fucking crass. One more thing I hate about the asshole: pointless vulgarity to keep up the appearance of his ‘tough’ reputation.

The guy is nothing more than a round-bellied bully trying to deny he slips down the slope to retirement with zilch to his name; no legacy, other than the fake loyalty of a dozen dirty men.

The Fallen Aces formed around a bonfire one fall. An idea, a distraction for a bunch of single men with no real reason to head home at the end of the day. The founders were a bunch of guys who wanted nothing more than to deny their lonely existence, to hang out together for fun.

Fun, I was promised when I swore in.

This shit isn’t fun anymore.

Six men grew to eight, which rapidly escalated to twelve, and now under Apex’s ‘guidance,’ we’re sixty-four strong across four states. Although out of the two dozen patched men in our chapter, there’s only five or so I could trust to have my back, to think for themselves, and to uphold the honor of our charter. The rest of the dirty fuckers are no more than knuckle-dusters, hardheaded monkeys for Apex to use as pawns in a constant game of who has the bigger cock. They’re simply a flex of his muscles, a way for him to convince rival clubs who might step on our turf that he’s the top dog.

He isn’t. He’s just the half-breed mongrel with the biggest teeth.

Apex clears his throat to effectively dismiss me after I refuse to play his game. “I’ve got a fight to watch tonight, boys, so let’s get this fuckin’ done fast, but right. Any of you cunts fuck this up, and I’ll make the ballet lessons your mothers made you take look like fucking heaven.” He swings a fat arm around in a sweeping motion. “Now, fuck off.”

A couple of guys step into gear with a flick of the ankle. They take off down the road at a slow idle, while one by one, the remaining brothers file in behind, with Tap and I riding last. Apex remains at the vantage point, over-seeing us as though he were the fucking king of the castle.

Yeah, right.

The lead boys pull up outside a modest house, complete with the national flag flying from the post over the entrance. Little does the neighborhood realize that the flag is a signal system, indicating when people are home, when there’s company, or when it’s compromised.

Our Sargent at Arms, Curly, kicks his stand out and is the first to dismount. He scopes the place, large hands on his fat hips, while the rest of us back our bikes into the curb for a quick getaway. 

“If it weren’t for your word, Tap, I’d say there’s no fucker home.” Curly squints into the afternoon sun as he assesses the first-floor windows.

“I’d say they’re in the heart of the house,” Tap responds, marching toward the front door.

I hesitate at the sidewalk, observing these burly men advance on an upper-class home. It’s fucking comical if you stop to take it in—we’re here for a hit, and we knock on the damn door, same as a bunch of Guides selling cookies.

“Remember,” Curly says, pointing a finger at the bunch. “Hard and fast. Get in, and get it done before they have time to react.”

“What we fuckin’ around out here for, then?” a brother asks.

Curly gives the guy a knowing smile and takes a step toward us all, away from the front door. Pulling his piece, he unloads four shots into the door catch, blowing the lock apart. So much for a surprise visit. Tap kicks the splintered wood, sending the door wide, and we file in, guns drawn, to search out the targets.

Apex never told us much about the family; just the job is a favor for an ally of ours. Anybody we have to pay off with underhanded jobs like this isn’t an ally in my books, but as nothing more than a patched member, there’s fuck all I can do about it. I’m not even an officer yet, which irritates the fucking hell out of me, but again, with limited say and no voting rights, there’s nothing I can do about it. Nothing I can even say without the risk of discipline.

The bunch of us spread out through the square house, taking rooms two at a time. Tap and Curly branch off through the kitchen, leaving me to walk alone up the central hallway that runs through the house, front to back. My boots make no sound as I advance toward the back door, my ears keen for the slightest sound that gives away where these people hide.

It’s quiet—eerily so.

A door clicks shut to my right, bringing my head around in time to see the business end of a rifle pointed at me from ten feet away, across what appears to be the master bedroom. The man’s hands shake; from fear or withdrawals, I have no idea. Our instructions are to shoot the parents and take their bodies with us as proof for our ally. Yet, I stand and stare. 

The motivation to shoot a person I have no personal grief with has never been within me. I just can’t justify it.

I’m saved the hassle.

A blast sounds behind me, followed by the shrill whistle of a bullet as it cuts its way through the air toward the final destination. Time slows. In the split-second it takes for the round to reach the gun-wielding man’s head, I marvel at the rush of emotions that cross his face: shock, twists into fear, followed by regret, and finally sadness. But amidst it all, he does the worst thing of all—he falters. One twitch of the eye—a brief movement barely perceptible, but there nonetheless. 

He gave away their location.

Curly marches past me to check out his handiwork—as if he needs to check the guy’s dead when half his brain dots the wall behind his former position. Tap stops beside me, two more of the brothers filtering up the hallway to our location.

“Where are the others?”

I glance at my friend, the only guy I know has a heart in this fucked up club, and swallow.

“Show me,” he orders quietly, lowering his gun to a semi-ready position at his side.

I walk past Curly and shove the bed aside, pushing it over top of the dead guy’s body. The timber floor is immaculate, all bar one perfect, three-foot square cut into the boards. 

Tap leans down, shoving his gun into the back of his jeans at the same time. Digging his fingers into the gap in the wood, he levers the panel free.

Whimpers sound below us, sending the acid in my gut haywire.

Curly watches on, gun trained on the emerging hole as the remainder of the crew cram into the bedroom doorway. Tap slides the ‘lid’ aside, cautiously peering into the murkiness. A dim light glows, but it seems positioned underneath the next room. 

A child cries, quickly silenced by what I can only assume is a hand.

“Who’s going first?” Tap asks, nodding to the hole.

“I will,” Jackson, one of our newest brothers, offers. “Doesn’t bother me if they’re ready to blow my head off.” He steps up to the hole, drawing his gun. “Surprise!” the moron leaps in, feet first.

Screams blend with cries, followed by the deafening thunder of gunfire in an enclosed space. We wait with bated breath, Curly’s forehead furrowed as he fixes his gun on the hole. A woman’s bloodied head emerges, accompanied by laughter from Jackson and the agonized whimpers of terrified children.

Tap reaches out to take the lifeless woman under the shoulders and pulls her blood-soaked form onto the floor. “Right, let’s get the fuck out of here.”

“We taking the kids, too?” Jackson asks from under the floor.

“Nah,” Curly answers. “The brief was to leave them here. One of us has to stay behind to wait for the pick-up.”

“What the fuck?” a brother cries out. “Sitting duck for the fuckin’ cops, yeah? Might as well turn ourselves in with a written confession.”

“Don’t be a fuckin’ moron,” Curly snaps, sending the kids under the floorboards into hysterical tears. “Of course, people will know it’s us that did it—our fuckin’ bikes are parked out the front like a motherfuckin’ callin’ card.” He rolls his eyes before adding, “The cops won’t come; they’ve been paid to turn a blind eye.”

“I’ll stay.” Everybody stops their bitching and looks my way.

“Apex wanted Tap here.” 

Tap shrugs his shoulders as if to say it’s no beef to him. 

Curly glances between the two of us and sighs. “Whatever. Jackson, throw that woman over your machine, would ya? Frog, take the guy here.”

The men snap into action, loading up the bodies for delivery to the instigator of this fucking horror show—Carlos Redmond. The man’s an ex-cop turned rising star in the narcotics world, which explains the payroll for situations like this. Fuck knows what would make a man jump from as straight and narrow as a person could get to the crooked son-of-a-bitch he’s rumored to be.

Apparently, he organized a shipment of Cuba’s finest last summer with a new contractor, and only half turned up. Story goes that the port had to be shut down for a day while they cleaned up the mess left after the entire boat crew’s massacre. Yet again, despite the incident making the news, no charges were ever laid.

The guy’s either got some serious fuckin’ issues, or the devil really does walk the earth among us. 

The children whimper beneath our feet as the brothers carry the bodies out to the bikes. The woman is slight enough that Jackson manages to balance her on the back of his Harley, hands tied around the sissy bar, but Frog struggles with the guy. We end up fashioning some contraption out of a couple of our belts that hold the body to Frog’s back as he rides. To anybody passing by, they’d simply be a pair of bikers with a questionable sexual orientation. 

“Stick around for the handover,” Tap instructs, “and don’t say a thing. The guy will be here in around twenty. The kids change hands, and then you head straight back—no fucking around.”

“Yes, Dad,” I tease, flipping him the middle finger. 

He smirks before throttling off after the rest of the bikes and leaving me with my current predicament. The false smile I’d plastered for him fades from my lips when I head back indoors to check out the kids. The place is quiet; all bar my boots as they beat an ominous tempo toward the manhole. 

I hesitate beside it, squatted at the edge with my hands hung between my knees. What am I doing here? When the fuck did this club become so fucking twisted that we willingly trade the lives of children as a favor? How massively fucked in the head is that?

Gathering my wits and summoning my best steely, frightening disposition I can, I drop into the hole. A single light bulb hangs suspended from a bent nail on the floor joist. The dugout crawlspace is dirt underfoot—dusty and dry. My eyes slowly adjust to the dim space as I scan the area, looking for the kids. There’s blood in the dust: some sticky with dirt and some fresh and glistening under the bulb. 

My breath echoes back at me, a short, raspy noise ricocheting off the wood. Where are they? Drag marks lead from the far side of the blood pool toward a sliver of light. Squinting, I mind-map the house above us, trying to figure out where that light comes from. It has to be the back wall, another manhole into the back yard. Shit.

Small stones scratch the heels of my hands, my jeans growing dirty when I crawl into the narrowing space toward the light. The ground slopes upward, toward the floor, and by the time I reach the manhole, I’m squashed right down on my haunches, a few inches from having to drop to my stomach. The hatch is intact, no sign of anything having been through here, and in my haste to reach it, I realize I’ve gone and fucking swiped any trace of where they’d gone; replaced their drag marks in the dirt with my own.

Frowning, I wait. If the kids are in here, they’ll be likely to make a fucking noise sooner rather than later, and I’ve got time... for now. The hot afternoon air seems to hang idle under here, thick and choking. Sweat beads on my forehead, trickling lazily toward my eye as I stay the course, sure they’ll slip up. 

The kids are good—there’s nothing.

What if I assumed wrong? What if the fuckers are out already? They’ll be a mile down the road by now, and then what? I get smoked by the pick-up guy?

Not happening. 

Lifting my T-shirt over my nose, I hold it in place with my left hand, elbow to the ground for stability, and start to wipe the dirt with my right hand. Clouds of dust grow and plume as I stir up the ground until the space is foggy with brown grit, stinging my eyes and getting up my nose despite the cotton covering it. I lift my right hand and wave it through the cloud, dispersing the dust throughout the crawl space. 

Three, two, one...

Coughing. One child coughs, and one cries, probably because they know the jig is up. I wrestle towards the noise, thankful that it’s down the way I’ve come and back where I have more room to move. The scrape of shoes on the dirt before me tells me they try to get away, but they’re kids—they’ll never outrun me.

Besides, they might just want to hear what I have to say.

“Wait,” I plead, wiping the dust from my eyes.

Crying. Always with the crying.

“Vete!”

Great. The task just doubled in difficulty. “I won’t hurt you.”

“Mama!” A young girl hollers. “Mama!”

That, I understand. 

“Mamá se ha ido.” 

The voice is older, but not by much at a guess—a boy. 

I inch forward, my jeans scratching along the dirt floor. I have no idea how long I have before the contact arrives, but the unease in my chest says it won’t be long enough. 

The shadows morph, the outline of a child’s shoulder and leg barely discernable through the remaining dust. “I’m gonna help you up through the hole, okay? But you gotta run real fast after I do.”

“Mantente alejado de mi hermana. No nos toques!”

Fuck. “The hole.” I point over my head once I reach the dugout area. “I lift you.” I make a lifting motion, hoping like fuck I face the kids properly.

Dirt scuffs and the boy shows his face first. He has to be barely ten, all lanky in the limbs and narrow through the body. 

“I help you.” I make the lifting motion again, calculating the likelihood I can catch both and throw them out there before they find their hiding spot again.

The boy’s lips twist, his brow a hard slash while he takes a moment to judge the monster before him. Fuck—my brethren mowed down his parents, his mother right before his eyes, and yet he stands to face me like a man.

I have nothing but respect for this kid. 

“Camila.” The boy holds a hand behind him.

Fuck my days if the girl is barely old enough to talk. She shuffles forward, reaching for her big brother. 

“Este hombre te ayudará a salir,” he says, pointing toward me. “Yo estaré detrás de ti.” He crouches low, and pats his chest. “Déjame abrazarte.”

The dot of a girl crushes into his chest; his arms wrapped tight around her. I take the moment of silence to keen my hearing outside of our space—nothing.

The boy pulls back and then leads his sister over to where I stand. He points to the raven-haired kid and says, “Camila.” His finger then moves to his chest. “Mateo.”

I don’t have time for this, but… “Hello, Mateo.” I extend a hand.

The kid shakes it warily.

“I promise to look after Camila.”

His gaze never leaves me as I reach for his baby sister and hoist her up through the manhole. Her patters sound over our head, and I turn back to Mateo to find the slippery fucker holding a gun.

The fucking thing is too heavy for his grip, the pistol wavering under his strain. 

“Now, that ain’t a good idea.” I raise both palms, unsure if this kid even understands a word I say. “Your sister, Camila.” I point over my head with one hand. “She’s too young to look out for herself.”

He frowns, the gun sagging in his hands. 

“She needs her big brother to keep her safe.” I move one foot forward, testing this kid’s resolve. “You need to get going, kid.”

Same as I fucking do.

He barely protests when I lunge and snatch the gun from his hold. Fucking thing wasn’t even loaded. I shove the useless lump of metal into my waistband, figuring fingerprints on the weapon will make for too many questions later, and hold my hands out for Mateo.

He lifts his arms.

The trust this kid shows me punches me square in the feels. I lift the boy out the hole to join his sister and then hoist myself up after. 

The kids stare at me as though they don’t know what the fuck to make of me in the raw light of day.

“Run!”

Mateo doesn’t need convincing, not when his sister bursts into tears at the volume of my demand. He snatches the kid by the shoulder of her dirty dress and drags her toward the back door. 

I watch them get as far as the boundary and then close the door behind them. After dropping back in the hole, I squeeze my bulky frame back into the narrow gap and thrust the second hatch open from the inside—this has to look legit.

It takes seven minutes for the contact to show up.

It took me five and a half to retrace my steps, knock the dust from my jeans, and gather my shit while I lean against the bike.

He parks the late-model pick-up in the driveway and then stops to light a cigarette before he gets out.

I pace my breaths. 

“Thanks for watching the kids, man.” His dark gaze darts around the street. The conversation is nothing more than for show. “Hope they were good for you.”

“They kept quiet.” I shrug and push off the bike. 

“They in their rooms?”

“Downstairs.” I nod toward the front door. “Let me show you.”

My heart beats painfully fast, my hands hot, throat thick. I guide the man into the house, thinking how if I’d passed him on the street any ordinary day, I wouldn’t have looked twice at the guy in dress slacks and a business shirt.

He looks as though he recently clocked off from his desk job, unlike me.

“They’re down here.”

He frowns at the manhole. I could kiss the sky that I was given a jerk who would rather keep his shirt clean than save some kids’ innocence.

“I’ll pass them up.”

He nods and gives a terse grunt, arms folded while I drop into the manhole. I duck out of view and run a shaky hand over my face. Too fucking risky. I haven’t given a fucking thought to how I’ll explain this to Apex. 

“Motherfucker,” I holler, being sure to make ample scratching noises in the crawlspace. “They found another way out.”

Foreign curse words echo over my head. “Where, man?”

“The back yard. Fuck!” I pop out of the hole to see the guy bolt toward the back door. “How far you think they’ve got?”

He doesn’t answer me. I jog out onto the back lawn to find him already on his goddamn phone.

Mine vibrates almost immediately after.

Apex: What the fuck happened?

How the fuck does he know?

Kids ran off while I waited out front, I text back. 

He spares no time in blowing up the line. “They fuckin’ what?”

“There was another way out of the hole. A hatch to the back.”

“And you sat out the front with your thumb up your ass and let them go?”

“I didn’t know they had another way out, did I?” I holler.

“Bullshit.”

My heart skips a beat.

“Jackson spotted the source of the light when he was down there. Why didn’t you?”

I take a breath, allowing myself a split-second to fact check my memories before I open my fucking mouth. “I didn’t go down, remember?”

“Motherfucker.” Something hits the wall or the floor on his end. “Get Jackson in here!” Apex bellows. “Find the fucking cargo, King.”

He disconnects.

I draw a deep breath and pocket the phone, sorting through scenarios in my head that’ll wash with this sharp-dressed fucker in front of me. I need to develop a plan that looks legitimate but leaves the kids plenty of time to get somewhere safe.

The fucker spares me the trouble.

“God smiles on you today,” he says with a grimace, the phone in his hand pointed at me. “They got picked up two blocks from here.”

I might vomit. At a minimum, I’ll drink myself comatose the second I get back to the clubhouse. “Yeah?”

He nods.

I feel the blood drain from my body when I realize what the boy might tell them. “You sure it was the right kids?”

“Eh, we could be wrong.” His brow twitches, and he smiles, revealing a missing canine. “But a kid is a kid, right?”

This shit can’t continue.

“It had to be these kids,” I growl, pointing toward the house behind me. “What the fuck was the point of all this if any old kid would do?”

The jerk laughs. “Eh, calm down, man.” He raises both hands. “I’m fucking with you; it’s the right kids. Everyone knows what they look like.” He shakes his head and then starts for the house, pausing beside me to rest a hand on my shoulder. “You can go home now, perro.”

Home—back to the clubhouse to face a goddamn grilling.

The distant rumble of the contact’s pickup reaches my ears before I heave a fucking sigh and turn my ass around.

Patching in with the Fallen Aces, Nebraska, promised purpose, family, and a common goal of freedom. So far, all I’ve found is friendship, but even then, it lacks trust. This club isn’t just, it ain’t fair, and it sure as fuck doesn’t respect freedom.

My club would have shut this shit down the second we got word of it. My club would run the goddamn devil from his home and reclaim our land. Equality before the law—it’s our fucking state motto.

There is no law here. Not as long as fuckers like Carlos Redmond are allowed to run their shit, and assholes like Apex help him do it.

I joined the Fallen Aces as a lost man seeking direction in life, and I think I just found it. 

At the head of the fucking table.

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