Leather. Tattoos. Wine. Whiskey. Music. Women.
I left a world filled with those things ten years ago, and did so tattooed, fucked in the head, and with a vow to never return. And yet here I am, behind the bar of one of New York City’s dive bars, AC/DC’s Back in Black blasting through the speakers, handing a dude with long hair, tats, and more eyeliner on than the blonde chick with him, a beer. He grabs the bottle, tips me a whole two-fucking-dollars, turns and leaves. His chick however, does not. She lingers a few beats, casts me a glance with her bedroom eyes, the kind filled with an invitation that says: Get me naked in the back room right now. As far as I’m concerned, any chick banging a dude with eyeliner isn’t getting a piece of this.
I motion her onward. She glowers and turns away, attaching her arm to that of eyeliner dude’s, leaving me with only one question: How the fuck a chick who gets off on that guy, gets off on me? I mean yeah, sure, I’m inked, and my blond hair is on the long side, but those are holdovers from deep cover special ops. And the only damn make-up I wear is the kind I’ve kissed off some hot chick’s mouth right before I kiss her everywhere beyond as well.
I toss the money into the tip jar for whatever poor soul that ain’t me who needs two bucks to help them survive New York City. I’m not that guy, literally or figuratively, nor am I a victim or a fool, all of which I can thank the hard lessons this shitty lifestyle taught me. Though at the moment it’s not quite as shitty, considering one of the staff’s female members is dancing on top of the bar a little to my right, in shorts that barely cover her fine ass. But then, a fine ass is not why I’m here, any more than the music. I’m here to give a mother and father the justice they deserve over a daughter gone too soon, along with three other look-a-like young women, all dead after visiting this bar. All dead after doing some cocktail of a drug that no one else seems to be dying from.
Motivation to give the parents peace, and end what appears to be a series of murders, are the only reasons I let my boss talk me into this hellhole in the first place. I scan the dimly lit area, surveying the bars left and right that frame the warehouse-style room, both with neon blue skulls over the top that match the one behind me. In between them are double doors that lead to the stage and seating, which are shut now, set to open next weekend, as they do once a month, and for the first time since the last murder.
Two young guys stop in front of the bar, snickering as they order drinks with dirty names, amused in a way I hope like hell I was never amused by such things. I pour the mixtures and slide glasses in front of them. “Two buttery nipples,” I say, leaning forward, to shout over the music, and add, “Come back when you have the real thing and the drinks are on me.”
They curse at me and this time I don’t even get two dollars for a tip. In a highly appropriate moment, the music shifts to Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and now I actually am amused. I bark out laughter, while my gaze catches on the entryway to the lower level of the two-level building, and my target, the guy my team at Walker Security believes is the guy we’re after, walks in the door. “Ju-Ju,” he calls himself, a nickname for drug dealer in his mind, and in mine: Stupid fucking idiot, and perhaps, a killer. In which case, I’d like to nickname him “Dead,” but the law says I’ll just have to call him “Arrested,” instead. In times like these, I miss those Green Beret days, when I dealt with shitheads like him in jungles, deserts, and dark caves, and was even ordered to do so.
Ju-Ju gives me a two-finger wave, his one-tat sleeve accented with black jeans and a white t-shirt not so unlike what I’m wearing. I chose my get-up to blend with the crowd and I’d bet my new BMW that the same applies to him. He’s stupid, but he’s not dumb, and anyone who doesn’t understand that stupid is a mentality, and dumb is just plain dumb, is lucky. They haven’t met someone like Ju-Ju. I have, too many times.
I pour him what I already know to be his usual: Whiskey Sour, a short pour, and plenty of lemon. It would be a simple drink if not for the high-end whiskey he favors, combined with the short pour that tells me he needs a level head and he won’t waste an expensive whiskey. That level head he maintains is about that stupid business of selling drugs. He motions to the women with him to sit down on a love seat, and heads in my direction.
I serve a customer, and by the time I’m done, he’s standing in front of me, slapping a hundred on the bar. “For you,” he says, shoving the bill in my direction before sipping his drink, and doing so a little too properly to match his spiky black hair and tattooed-up neck. This isn’t where he’s from. It’s where he burrows.
I grab the bill and shove it into the tip jar. He frowns. “That’s for you.”
“Community tip jar,” I say.
“No one else is on duty.”
“New guy is starting tonight.”
He leans closer. “Let’s talk after the bar closes. Meet me.”
“Sorry, man. Unless you get a whole lot prettier, which is doubtful, you aren’t my type.”
He laughs. “You’re a funny man. I’m going help you make some cash. Take a break before the club closes. We’ll talk.” He motions behind me. “Bring something the girls will like.” He slides another hundred on the bar. “The extra is a gift, not a tip. Keep it.” He walks away.
And the father of Lily Waters might just get the justice the police haven’t delivered. The man deserves that justice, and then some. His kid was eighteen and on her way to Yale when she died, poisoned on a night friends say she just wanted to watch a band play at a similar club. Which was the same story for every girl now dead and buried, all with the same drug in their systems, laced with poison. A drug that I’ve determined that only Ju-Ju sells, and since he’s favoring this club now, I’m favoring this club now.
Aiming to satisfy his women where I doubt he can, I make two chocolate martinis in between filling three orders before I deliver the drinks to Ju-Ju and his “girls.” I don’t look at them. I barely look at him. I’m hard to get like that. I turn away from them, which is when I find Riley, the grumpy old ex-rocker who runs this place, standing behind my bar with some new dancer chick next to him. She’s brunette, with long hair, a slender frame, and big breasts. I’m guessing I’ll round the bar to find short shorts, and an ass that will make me stand at attention. Hey. I deserve it. I’ve just broken through with Ju-Ju.
I close the distance between me and them, and join the duo on the other side of the counter. As soon as I’m there, I’m filling an order. The minute it’s done, Riley points to the woman. “Train Sierra. I got shit to do.” He leaves me with the woman, who is not wearing short shorts, but faded, snug jeans that are almost as cock-worthy, despite the absence of naked skin.
I’m about to question her uniform choice when the music cuts out, a sign that the crowd is about to be allowed into the auditorium, where a dance floor is set up on weekend nights. A big portion of the bar traffic will soon move there, at least temporarily, offering a breather and a chance to monitor Ju-Ju with more ease. The dancer currently on top of the bar jumps down and heads in that direction, where she will take the stage with several others, or so I’m told, and entertain the crowd before the band starts playing. I give the new woman a once over, and decide she really is ten shades of hotness, and fuck me, my kind of hotness, which is why I happily dole out my advice and “training.”
“You’ll get better tips with your ass hanging out,” I say.
“Then you’d better go change and hop the hell on top of the bar,” she says, her voice a raspy, southern sexiness that has my cock saluting. “The music is bound to start again soon,” she adds, “and I can’t wait for the show—the one you’ll be putting on—while I watch.”
My lips curve. “My shows are private.”
“So are mine.”
I arch a brow. “Isn’t that going to make it hard for you to do your job?”
“You seem to be doing just fine without your ass hanging out.”
“Some asses just look good no matter what they’re covered in,” I comment dryly.
Now she arches a brow. “Are you saying mine doesn’t?”
“Turn around and I’ll give you my expert opinion.”
“Challenge accepted,” I say, surprising myself by how damn much I mean those words. I want this woman, and since I don’t do relationships, it doesn’t even matter that she’s of this world. I won’t be part of it for long.
“You enjoy defeat,” she replies. “I get it. Some people are like that.”
“Hey!” someone shouts as a rush of people swarm the bar. “Over here!”
“Hang tight, sweetheart,” I say to my new trainee, who I might just school in more than her wardrobe. “We really do need to address the fact that you’re wearing too many clothes.” I rotate to the bar to be bombarded with another half-dozen demands, which tell me the side bars are closed to push traffic. It’s a strategy meant to keep people near the dance floor where they stay thirsty and drink more. A rush of even more customers has me looking left to discover that the new dancer chick is filling orders, and is clearly not the new dancer chick, but my new bartender.
She’s also now standing next to me, reaching across me to jab an olive with a toothpick, pausing to look at me. “I can handle this rush if you want to climb on top and perform.” Anger lights her eyes, and hey, I get it. She’s pissed at my assumption that she’s the entertainment. I deserve her wrath, but holy fuck, bring it on and let me kiss it all better. “Private shows only, remember?”
“Chicken,” she laughs, but doesn’t wait for a reply as she moves down the bar and drops that olive in a martini she hands to a woman.
I reluctantly give my attention to my next customer instead of her, plowing through three orders before a familiar, pretty brunette, a look-a-like to the four victims, steps in front of me. “White Russian,” she says, playing the undercover role of patron for the third night in a row, when she’s really one of Walker’s own, and a badass ex-FBI agent to boot. “Make it weak like you,” she adds.
“You’re starting to tell lame jokes like Blake,” I say. Blake being both her husband and one of the founding brothers of Walker Security. “Poor you and me,” I add.
“If I sounded like Blake,” she replies, “I’d say make it fucking weak like you.”
“That’s more like it,” I say, considering Blake is one fuck-happy motherfucker, pouring her drink sans the booze.
I slide her drink across the bar. She tosses down cash and picks up the glass, testing the pure cream for flavor before smacking her lips together. “Nothing like a virgin Russian to get a girl hot,” she murmurs, before amending with, “a fucking virgin Russian. Let’s hope it’s our lucky night.” And with that, she turns away and heads in Ju-Ju’s general direction, hoping tonight is the night that she gets his attention rather than some other sweet young thing that can’t protect herself.
Keeping an eye on her and Ju-Ju, I fill another order while she sits down at a table alone and crosses her bare legs, exposed in a short skirt. Almost instantly, several men circle her and holy hell, I don’t know how Blake stays sane in these situations. He’s outside in a van watching, torturing himself right this very minute, which is a good thing since a rush of people encase the bar waiting for service.
I glance left to check on Sierra and find some big bald dude reaching over the bar and grabbing her hair. “Fuck,” I murmur, launching myself that direction as Sierra proves she’s not an easy victim by slamming a steel mixing pitcher against the jerk’s head. He cocks his arm to punch her and I am there in time to catch his hand. “Let her go,” I demand, but my grip has already delivered the desired effect. He releases her hair, and at the same moment Big Bruno, the bouncer who favors this side of the bar, grabs him from behind, pulling him away from us. My hands go to Sierra’s shoulders, turning her to face me. “You okay?”
Her chin is on her chest. “Yes,” she breathes out. “Yes. Fine.” But she doesn’t look at me.
“I’m fine,” she insists, but when her gaze lifts for just a moment, there is vulnerability in her pale blue stare, a hint of a past trauma that she quickly blinks away while firming her chin and adding, “Thank you for grabbing that bastard. I mean that. Sincerely. However, you’re still the asshole who assumed I was a dancer because I have boobs and a better ass than you.” And with that bravado clearly meant to hide the vulnerability she dared to show me, she steps firmly backward and twists out of my reach. Sierra immediately attends to another customer but I watch her, ignoring the shouts in my direction, trying to figure out why I can’t look away from her. I mean, yeah, sure. She has secret, heavy baggage of some sort, but then, so do most people. The difference between them and her is that I usually don’t ask questions unless the person has become my duty. It’s safer that way.
Obviously, she’s not my duty, but I have this gut feeling that despite her obvious ability to protect herself, she’d be better off if she were. I ignored a feeling like this once and someone died. Since I learned my lesson, I don’t ignore feelings like this. Ever. Which means that Sierra just inherited her own personal protector. I have a feeling I might be taking a lashing when she finds out. But my gut also tells me that I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it.