There’s nothing like a midnight ride to rid my mind of the images that haunt me. There’s nothing like the blur of city lights to make me feel like I’m headed somewhere rather than going nowhere.
For over a decade, I’ve counted on my bike to ground me, and she’s never let me down. Even now, discharged from the Marines and stripped of any sense of direction or stability, my head is clear. My heart, if not light, is far less burdened.
I know that will change as soon as I’m standing on solid ground. But for now, I relish the rush that comes with feeling unfettered and free.
My sole headlight shines against the blacktop, the revving machine between my legs roaring with excitement that we’ve found our way home. Finally, I slow to a crawl as the tires beneath me crush against a gravel parking lot.
My eyes pass over Nailed Garage. Still the same after all these years, but empty and abandoned in the deep hours of the night. Far removed from the towering skyscrapers of the city, the building is cloaked in a haunting white moonlight. In the distance, I swear I can hear the howling of a wolf, but I know I’m not that insane.
Still, I hear cries in the memories that suddenly envelope me.
I remember the exact day my friends and I bought this garage and made it our own. We were brothers, born from different bloodlines, but bonded together in ways that not many people ever are.
I remember the day I bought my first house. It was only because of the brotherhood, and our tireless efforts, that I was able to finance my own little slice of heaven.
A slice of heaven that never quite lived up to its potential before I joined the Marines.
In the military, I found my purpose. It was never easy, but I did my job with pride, and I did it the best I could, and then it was all over in the blink of an eye.
Now I’m back, and even though part of me dreads seeing firsthand just how much things have changed, I can’t help but feel hopeful. My friend, Street, is out of prison and back in the relative safety of our brotherhood. Even though he’d been pissed to learn what Slate, Jericho, and Davis had done to ensure his early release, word is he’s found himself a good woman. That right there is a damn good example of a fresh start, and I’m hoping to get my own.
I steady one foot against the gravel and prepare myself for takeoff, glance at the garage for a moment longer, and then move on. Disappearing into the thick of the night, heading to a house that for all my dreams and expectations has never really felt like a home.
* * *
Nobody would expect a guy like me to own property in a neighborhood such as West Hallifax. It’s not the wealthiest area in this damned city, but it’s certainly no slum.
I pass familiar houses, which look the same as the last time I saw them three years ago. The same neutral paint colors, and the same perfectly landscaped front yards. It’s a private Utopia on the outskirts of a sprawling city, at least that’s how I feel until I turn the corner and spot the fancy black car in my driveway—a fucking Benz.
Instantly, I know it’s King. I want to turn my bike around and haul ass. I want to run, just like I always want to do when confronted by my past. But I can’t. I won’t. Mostly because it won’t do any good. But also because it’s what a sane person would do—run—and I’m not sane. Not anymore. After seeing the shit I’ve seen, sanity is like caviar. It’s expensive as hell, and I have too many bills to pay to afford therapy. I pull my bike to the curb and shut off the engine, then stride up to the car.
My heart thumps in my chest as a car door opens. A pair of well-shined shoes land against the asphalt, and then King rises to his feet, straightening out the lines in his black suit. It’s well past midnight, but he’s wearing dark shades.
“Axel,” he says with syrupy enthusiasm. “I heard you were back in town.”
“Did you?” I push my tongue against my cheek, annoyed and angry that he’s the first person I see upon returning home. “And I care why?”
He cracks a knowing, familiar wide grin. “Now, now. Is that any way to greet…” he removes his shades, “the King?”
“Still calling yourself that?”
“It’s my name, after all.”
“No.” I shake my head. “Your name is Harvey Prince.”
He waves off my disdain with a polite smile. “To you boys, I’ve always been King and I always will be.”
“Fine. What the hell are you doing here, King?”
His pleasant expression slips a little. He snaps his fingers, and the three other doors of his fancy Benz are thrown open. Out come three men, tall and muscular. They close in until I’m surrounded.
When I laugh, King frowns.
“Really?” I question and point to the nearest of the Three Stooges. “You need backup to talk to me now? You’re getting soft in your old age, King.”
His expression contorts and his fists clench, but when one of his men moves forward, he shakes his head, freezing the guy in his tracks. King bows his head and chuckles. “I had hoped the Marines would curb your authority issues, but obviously not. Now that you’re back, I need you for a job.”
I squint, as if the guy’s gone mad, and truthfully, he must be off his fucking rocker to think I’ll ever work for him again. I’m not a thirteen-year-old orphan reeling from everything I’d lost anymore. “I’m working at the garage. And I may be back, but I’m living my life the way I have for the past ten years—out of your grip.”
He leans in close. “Perhaps you haven’t heard what I did for Street.”
“Oh, I heard. And I heard you roped Slate, Davis, and Jericho back into your world of bullshit, but you obviously know I wasn’t involved in the deal.”
“True. Doesn’t mean you’ve escaped my ‘grip’ as you call it. Because you know as well as I do whatever your friends are involved in naturally extends to you. And that will always be your choice, Axel. No one else’s.”
I clench my jaw because he’s right. King’s power over me has always been a result of his power over the five of us—Street, Slate, Jericho, Davis, and me. I understand why the others indebted themselves to King again to get Street out of prison. The thought of my friend serving any time, let alone his original ten-year sentence, makes me nauseous. Still, we’d spent so much of our lives trying to escape King’s grasp, and if I had been here, I would have tried to find another way. As Jericho’s told me a million times, though, there was no other way.
“Just say what you need to say and then leave.”
“I need an enforcer at one of my clubs. The customers and maybe even the staff at Sugar Bare don’t seem to be getting the message that the girls are to be treated with care. I know how you, in particular, are sensitive to such an issue.”
“Fuck you,” I snap.
He doesn’t take to that too kindly, gently shaking his head with contempt. He doesn’t even have to say anything to his henchmen, they know their jobs.
But they obviously don’t know me.
The one to my right raises his arm to grab me, and within seconds, I have him on the ground grunting from pain as I twist his arm behind his back and brace my foot on his neck.
“No,” King snaps to hold off his other men. Then he sighs. “Sorry about that, Axel. Sometimes my men—these men, anyway—are a little too eager to serve me. Let him up.”
Say please: it’s on the tip of my tongue. But I’ve been gone three years. I have no idea how far King is willing to go to establish his authority over me again. I have a gun in the bag strapped to my bike, but I’m not carrying, and I have no idea whether King or his men are. With a final yank, I let King’s man go.
King’s man slowly gets to his feet.
“It’s of course up to you,” King says. “If you have no interest in helping the girls at Sugar Bare, then perhaps I’ve been worrying about nothing. If you change your mind, just show up. The manager, Walt, will know who you are.” He pushes his shades back over his eyes. And then he crawls back into his expensive car, his goons in tow, not taking their eyes off me until they’re safe behind tinted windows.
I watch the four of them pull away. As soon as they’re gone, I’m reminded how satisfying silence can truly be, yet peace continues to elude me. It has my whole life. King knows that, and he knows why, and he knows I’ll stop by his damn club, if only to check things out.
Ever since I left Thornbridge, I’ve told myself the only power I’ll ever give King over me again is power I’m willing to surrender. He’s sucked me in once again. We both know why he came to me for this particular assignment. I’m the best possible man for the job because I care how women in general, and women who work the pole specifically, are treated. I probably care too much. It’s my Achilles’ heel.
It’s the reason no matter how many miles I ride on my bike, I’ll never be truly free.
My past won’t let me go. I’ll carry its burden on my back for the rest of my damn life.
And that’s exactly what I deserve.