Author Notes: This is set in the alternate "Dark Angels" universe created by Cattraine in which the Seven are members of a biker gang. "Dark Angels" is a closed adult AU, but nonetheless, I have always had a hankering to write an LB fic using it. Cattraine has graciously allowed me to borrow her biker boys for this one story only, and I sincerely appreciate her indulging my fantasies!
Warning: For anyone who has read the Dark Angels stories, I've "nicened" the guys up a bit from Cattraine's very hard-core vision of them. That said, this is still fairly gritty for a Little Britches story. There's bad language (including the F-word), violence, adult situations, and boys - young and old - behaving badly. They are bad-ass bikers, after all!
Mucho thanks to Marnie for the beta!
Spanish words are translated at the end, using US Southwestern dialect equivalents.
The full moon glinting off wet asphalt, the slap of cool autumn air on his face, the roar of the Harley's big engine in his ears - oh yeah, life didn't get much better than this. Chris Larabee rounded the bend in the road hugging the center line, knowing that to his right was an unguarded drop-off into a two-bit arroyo called Chaco Canyon. He savored the precise balance of man and machine as he leaned into the turn, righting himself gracefully in anticipation of the long stretch of open road... and the freedom to...
What the f....
Chris Larabee's fists closed vice-like around the brakes as a shapeless shadow on four legs appeared suddenly in the darkness ahead of him. At first, he thought it was a deer, and was considering the .45 in his saddle bag and the prospect of fresh venison when reality caught up with him in the next instant and he recognized two distinct facts, first that the four legs belonged to two creatures, not one, and, second that if he came to a dead stop before hitting them, he'd go flying over the handlebars. Instinct took over and he set the bike into a sideways skid, hoping he would not do too much damage to the machine or to himself as together they left the road and mowed through the scrawny weeds on the shoulder.
Buck, Josiah, and Nathan rounded the bend behind him just in time to see him do a complete 180 before he and the bike parted company. In seconds, they had pulled over and were rushing to his side.
Chris pulled himself up and managed to stand. Nothing broken. His leathers had probably taken a beating, but had done their job keeping his hide attached.
Ignoring the concern of his fellow bikers, he ripped a flashlight from his vest and focused its beam on the center of the road. It fell on two pairs of wide eyes, each set in a small, pale face. Kids!
"What the hell!?" he hissed, taking a couple of purposeful strides towards the pair.
The taller of the two stepped protectively in front of the smaller one.
In the distance, a pair of headlights loomed ominously. "Get out of the road!" Larabee commanded, pointing to the ground at his feet for emphasis.
The older boy hesitated a moment, but seeing the oncoming car, he grabbed the smaller boy's hand and edged him carefully off the pavement, his eyes locked on Larabee's the entire time.
Nathan hurried to the two youngsters, followed quickly by Buck and Josiah.
"What the hell are you kids doing out here?" Chris demanded.
"Easy, pard," Buck chided. "Don't be the boogey man."
"You're the boogey man?" the younger boy's voice quavered.
"Hush, JD. Ain't no such thing," the older boy admonished.
"What are you kids doing out here?" Chris repeated his question, his voice calmer this time.
"Nuffin'," the smaller boy answered.
The older boy glared at them defiantly.
Chris trained his flashlight on the pair. Despite the chill and the rain, the younger boy was wearing shorts and a worn pair of flip- flops, although he did have on a long-sleeved flannel shirt. The older boy had jeans and threadbare sneakers with no socks, and wore only a thin t-shirt. He held a grease-stained pizza box tucked protectively under one arm. They were both filthy.
Nathan squatted down so he was eye-level with them. "What'ch'ya got there?" he asked, pointing to the box.
"Peet-sah," the younger boy offered.
Nathan attempted to touch the box but the older boy backed away. "It's ours," he challenged.
There wasn't anywhere nearby where they could have gotten a fresh pizza. Chris suspected the source was one of the trash cans at the closed gas station 100 or so feet up the road. No telling how long it had been there.
"Where do you boys live?" Buck asked. Four Corners wasn't that big a town. Pretty much everyone in it was either known to the Dark Angels or at least looked familiar.
"Over there." The younger boy pointed helpfully at a seedy motel a few yards off the main road. It was the kind of place that rented rooms by the hour, and only changed the sheets between "guests" if you paid extra.
The older boy gently pushed the younger boy's hand down.
The four men exchanged glances. It probably wasn't the best idea to entice small children away from where they were supposed to be, but it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that these kids probably hadn't even been missed by whoever was supposed to be looking out for them, and that they were in need of a decent meal.
"I tell you what," Nathan spoke gently. "You give me that pizza box, and we'll take you for a ride to our friend Inez. She'll feed you proper."
Both boys looked uncertain, but the older one eyed Chris's big, black Harley, still an impressive machine even lying on its side in the dirt.
"Is your bike broke?" he asked Chris.
Chris's smile was almost imperceptible, but he placed a gentle hand on the little boy's shoulder. "Well, I reckon the only way to find out is to ride it," he invited.
"Me, too!" the smaller boy shouted excitedly. "I wanna ride, too!" He looked up at Josiah.
The big man scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Well, I'd like to accommodate our little friend, but..." He pointed to the back of his bike.
JD's eyes widened when he saw the two dead raccoons and an armadillo draped over the rear seat. "Did you shoot them?" he asked.
Josiah looked offended. "Me? Shoot innocent animals? Where is the need in that, when the open highway is a veritable cornucopia of delectable delights?"
Nathan glared at him. "You're a fuckin' psycho, you know that, right?"
Josiah grinned broadly. "If the eyes are clear, it's still fresh."
JD only looked confused.
"Don't pay them no mind," Buck laughed. "I think I got room for a li'l bit like you."
Vin still looked uncertain, but after a few seconds, the prospect of riding the big Harley won out. He handed Nathan the pizza box.
Nathan opened it to discover it contained one stale slice of plain cheese pizza that had a couple of bites taken from it. He tossed it over his shoulder into the weeds.
Josiah hoisted the younger boy onto Buck's bike. "You take it slow," he warned Buck, clapping him on the shoulder. He wished the little guy was wearing jeans and some substantial shoes, but, nothing he could do about that.
Chris picked his bike up and then nodded to the older boy, who carefully ran his hand over the custom leather seat before eagerly climbing on.
"You boys hold on tight," Nathan warned them. "Otherwise, you're gonna end up road kill, understand?"
Both boys nodded.
The bikes roared to life, and pulled back onto the highway. It was only a mile or so to Inez's, but Nathan and Josiah rode point just in case there were any troopers in the area who would question what they were doing with two kids who weren't theirs and weren't wearing helmets to boot. Both could land their asses in jail, which would be nothing new, but inconvenient, nonetheless.
"Wheeeeeeeeeee!" the smaller boy on Buck's bike shouted as they picked up speed. The other boy was silent, but even in the pale moonlight, it was easy to see the small smile on his somber little face.
+ + + + + +
Inez's saloon was not exactly a family establishment, so the four Dark Angels garnered plenty of stares when they ambled in with two shivering little boys.
"Those your new iniciados, Larabee?" teased Rafael Cordoba. His Los Culebras club were regulars at Inez's place, though how they managed to effortlessly elude the border patrols whenever they felt like it was one of life's enduring mysteries, at least to the Dark Angels and Homeland Security.
"Bite my big one, Rafe," Larabee traded the mock insult. He trusted Cordoba not to shoot him. The Mexican laughed and returned to his beer.
Inez had come from behind the bar by this time. "Dios mio!" she exlaimed. "Que paso? Where did these chiquitos come from?" Her voice was a mixture of admonition, concern and amusement.
"Found 'em in the road," Josiah said. "Got something to feed them?"
"Are you boys hungry?" she asked them.
Both of them nodded.
"I bet you'd like some hot chocolate, too," she added, noting that both boys were chilled to the bone.
Buck hoisted his little charge up onto a bar stool, then pulled off his denim jacket and wrapped it around him.
The older boy climbed up on his own. Chris leaned against the bar so he could look the boy in the eye. "What's your name?" he asked him.
"Vin." He pointed to the younger boy. "He's JD."
"Are your parents back at the hotel?" Chris asked. If they were, they were going to be dealing with him later.
Vin shook his head, but offered no further information.
"Our mamas went to heaven," JD explained.
Vin glared at him, but Chris saw hurt as well as anger in his eyes.
"What about your pas?"
"Ain't got one," Vin answered.
"Me neither," JD added.
"Who's with you at the hotel?" Buck wanted to know.
The boys exchanged glances before Vin answered. "Frank an' Macy."
"An' they ain't your folks?" Nathan asked.
Vin shook his head.
"Sounds like this needs some.... lookin' into," Josiah commented casually, but slammed a balled up fist into an open palm. Vin flinched at the sound. The irony was that Josiah truly loved kids, but he often scared them. Hell, he scared most adults.
"Easy, big guy," Chris cautioned.
Inez appeared with two baskets of cheese fries and steaming mugs of Swiss Miss, which Chris suspected she kept in the back for herself. There was a greater chance of an Arizona tsunami than there was of a customer ordering it. "Careful... the cocoa is hot," she warned. "There's some burgers on the way," she assured them. As the boys dove into the fries, she noticed that their hands, like the rest of them, were in need of a good scrubbing. "Un momentito!" She stopped Vin's hand as he reached for a fry. "You boys need to go wash your hands." She looked accusingly at the men.
Buck grabbed JD and tucked him under his arm and reached out a hand to help Vin down. "This way," he motioned to the men's room.
"Don't you leave a mess in there!" Inez shouted after them.
Rafael sidled up next to Chris at the bar. "What's going on with those two kids?" he asked.
Chris motioned for Inez to bring him a beer. "Don't rightly know. They were in the middle of the road over by Conklin's gas station. I think they'd been rootin' in the garbage looking for something to eat."
"Any idea where their folks are?"
Chris shook his head. "Ain't got no folks, I reckon. Somebody's s'posed to be lookin' after them though. Names are Frank and Macy. They're stayin' over at Rolando Chacon's place."
Rafael raised an eyebrow. "La Hotel Cucaracha?" he snorted.
"Yeah... Do me a favor? Call Rolando and see what he knows about them."
Rafael nodded and moved to a darkened corner of the bar before pulling out his cell phone.
Buck returned with the boys who eagerly resumed their meal. In fact, they were shoving the food in so fast that Nathan cautioned them to slow down. "When was the last time you boys ate?" he asked.
The fact that they had to think about it raised Chris's hackles. When Vin's answer was a shrug of his shoulders, he shot a glance at Rafael, who nodded and pointed at his cell phone. Chris couldn't hear the conversation, which he was certain was in Spanish. One reason he had asked Rafael to call was because even though Rolando Chacon was a second-generation American, he was a bigoted asshole who pretended not to understand English.
Inez appeared with a plate of burgers, enough to feed everyone at the bar. She set it down along with a plate of condiments. After receiving a nod from Inez, Vin and JD helped themselves to one. Vin opened his burger to inspect the contents, apparently satisfied that the bun contained only a plain patty. He squeezed a dollop of ketchup in the center, and closed it again. JD was more thorough. He put a squirt of ketchup on one bun and swirled it around with his finger until Buck handed him a knife to spread it. He then flipped it over and applied mustard to the other bun. Flipping it back, he opened it again and begin to add to it from the plate of fixings - cheese, then a ring of onion, then a slice of tomato, then a leaf of lettuce, then three dill pickle slices arranged in a neat triangle.
"Now, that's what I call a burger," Buck laughed as the little boy attempted to fit the sandwich into his mouth.
"Don't see many kids who like onions," Josiah said, approvingly. "I've always been an onion man, myself."
"Because you need something to kill the taste of the road kill skunk," Nathan snorted.
"Spoken as one who does not avail themselves of the bounty of opportunity," Josiah grinned.
"Just don't ever ask me over to your house for dinner. Ever."
Buck decided to change the subject before his appetite was ruined. "Hey, where's Ezra?" The Southerner was supposed to be meeting them there. Of course, he'd be late. He always was. It would be awhile before they reached the point of actually worrying about him.
"He'll be here. Always is," Chris replied, hoping that were true. Ezra Standish moved in dangerous circles, posing as whatever he needed to be in order to infiltrate the assorted scumbags who were stupid enough to try to bring their business to Dark Angel territory. The Dark Angels were the bad element in Four Corners - and they suffered no competition lightly.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra sauntered in some time after 9:00 pm, looking decidedly out of place in his custom tailored black suede jacket, Armani shirt and Ralph Lauren khakis - his idea of "casual." Ezra wore the club leathers only when there was absolutely no chance he'd be spotted. It was too much of a risk.
He sat down at his usual table like he was some kind of frickin' royalty getting ready to hold court. Without being asked, Inez brought him a mojito and a slice of home made apple pie. The combination would have raised a few eyebrows most places, but here, Ezra was free to be as eccentric as he wanted to be.
He thanked her and fished a deck of cards from the inside pocket of his jacket. He dealt himself a hand of solitaire, and pretended to be interested in the game. In fact, he was scoping the bar, making certain he knew everyone there, and that everyone there knew he was a Dark Angel. On this night, there were no odd looks, and no one to question what someone of his obvious taste and breeding was doing in a biker bar.
Instead, it was Ezra who was given pause when he spotted the two small boys at a corner pool table, apparently under the tutelage of two members of Los Culebras. Both children, he noted, appeared to be naturals. The older of the two, a skinny little thing with big eyes and stringy blond hair, had dead-on aim with a cue stick. The younger one, a tiny boy with dark hair flopping down over his eyes, could barely see the top of the pool table, and yet seemed to be calculating each shot, with impressive results. It didn't hurt that the Culebras were letting them win.
Chris, Buck, Nathan and Josiah were huddled at the next table, talking with Los Culebras' leader, Rafael Cordoba. "The names they gave are Franklin Hast and Macy Morgan," Cordoba was explaining. "Rolando says they checked in three or four days ago. Used a bogus credit card, so he had Ray Lovato punch a hole in their car's radiator so they wouldn't go nowhere until they made good. Says they turned up with cash the next day, enough to pay for two weeks."
"What about the kids?"
"Rollie didn't know nothing about no kids... Says he saw them hangin' around the candy machine but he chased them off. He didn't know they were with those two."
"What's their business?" Chris asked. "What are they doin' in town?"
"Rollie says he don't know, don't ask, and don't care, so long as they pay the bill."
Ezra cleared his throat to attract attention. "I may be able to shed some light on that particular circumstance."
Chris nodded at him to continue.
"Word is that Hector Urioste Marquez de Merced is asking around about a pair of miscreants who burned him on a deal a week ago."
"Hummer?" Chris frowned. Merced was well-known by his acronymic nickname as a dealer in just about anything that was immoral, illegal and indecent. The Dark Angels had run him out of their turf before.
"The one and only," Ezra replied. "I spotted his ride at Gloria Potter's place on the way here." In keeping with his nickname, Merced drove a black Hummer distinguished by its matte finish and custom headlights that looked like glowing skulls.
"What's that got to do with this Franky and Macy?" Buck asked, knowing Ezra was a fast study and had been listening to their conversation.
"He's looking for two men traveling with two little boys." He nodded towards Vin and JD. "Or am I incorrect in surmising that those two are not Los Culebras initiates?"
Ezra's news troubled Chris. At some point, they were going to have to take the boys back to the people who were responsible for them, but the more he learned about this Frank and Macy, the less comfortable he was with that idea. He knew the others were probably thinking the same thing. He decided to find out for himself what was going on.
"Vin! JD!" he called to the two little boys. He motioned them over and pointed to the Southerner. "Ezra here is going to give you a ride home, now."
Vin looked crestfallen. JD was less subtle. "I don't wanna go back there!" he whined.
"It's late. You can't stay here," Chris said, in a tone that let both boys know he wasn't going to argue.
Ezra gazed at the two urchins, clearly perturbed. The last thing he wanted in his Jag was a pair of smelly kids, but he knew he had no choice. The temperature had dropped about 20 degrees in the past couple of hours, and the boys were not dressed for the bikes.
"Shall we go, gentlemen?" he made an ushering motion towards the door.
The boys' spirits rose abruptly when they saw Ezra's car. "Wow! Cool!" Vin said, running a sticky hand over the layered epoxy finish.
Ezra winced, but to his credit, indulged the boy.
"I wanna ride in the front!" JD proclaimed.
Surprisingly, Vin didn't argue with the younger boy, but instead told him, "Okay, but don't kick the dashboard. And don't touch nothin'!" With this, Vin rose several notches in Ezra´s eyes.
+ + + + + + +
The four Dark Angels followed the Jag at a discreet distance. Rafael had provided the room number at the Western Sky Motel. It had once been a fairly decent place, until Interstate 10 had bypassed Four Corners and taken the tourist traffic with it. Now, it was just three dilapidated buildings surrounding a parking lot where most of the asphalt had long since been replaced with weeds. The last time it had seen a coat of paint, Ronald Reagan was the president.
The two boys climbed out of the Jag reluctantly as Chris pulled his bike to stop. Ezra remained in the car. The less he was seen by strangers, the better, because he might be needed somewhere down the line.
Positioning himself behind the two boys, Chris banged on the door to room number 11. He could hear the TV blaring inside, and the vehicle Ray Lovato had disabled was parked near the door. Someone was in the room. When no one answered, Chris banged on the door, harder this time.
A "guest" in one of the adjoining rooms opened the door. "Hey, you wanna hold the noise down? Some people are... oh... hey, Larabee."
Chris eyed Judge Orin Travis up and down. He was dressed in what looked like a rubber pirate suit. The Judge looked back at him sheepishly. "Uh... this isn't what it looks like... uh... I was just..."
"Your business is your own, Judge," Chris said bluntly. "And so is mine."
Travis took the hint, and quickly closed the door, but not before Ezra managed to snap a picture with his cell phone. For good measure, he got one of the judge's car, too.
Chris banged on the door a third time.
Finally it opened. A pale, skeletal man with greasy, black hair poked his head out, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. "Whadya want?" he slurred.
"Do these boys belong to you?" Chris asked.
The man stared stupidly with heavy-lidded eyes as if trying to decide on an answer. "Where'd you find them brats?" he asked finally, grabbing JD roughly and pushing him inside. He then grabbed Vin by the arm and lowered his face so he was eye-level with the boy. "I thought I told you I didn't want no trouble?" Without warning, he cuffed Vin hard on the side of the head, and then attempted to close the door as if Chris wasn't even standing there.
That was two mistakes.
Chris shoved the door open and pushed his way into the room. "Are you Frank or Macy?" he asked, his voice full of menace.
"What's it to you?" the man replied. He obviously had no clue who he was dealing with. Chris looked around the room. It was littered with beer cans and reeked of stale tobacco. There were no ashtrays, but cigarette butts were everywhere. There was a razor blade and a rolled dollar bill on the dresser, along with a faint white powdery residue. The only hint there had ever been any food in the room was an empty Doritos bag crumpled on the floor.
On the bed - either dead or passed out drunk - was a woman clad only in a bra and a pair of panties. Her arms and torso were covered in tattoos. Her hair was short-cropped and her body stocky and shapeless. It wasn't a stretch to see how she could have been mistaken for a man.
"Get out of here," the man protested. "You got no right..."
Chris grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him up on his tiptoes. "I can do whatever I like," Chris hissed. "This is my town. Remember that."
Without waiting for a reply, he shoved the man aside. "You okay?" he asked Vin.
The little boy nodded.
"He's Frank," JD offered, and pointed to the inert form on the bed. "That's Macy."
"Shut the fuck up!" Frank barked, and made a move for the little boy, his hand raised.
An instant later, that same hand was behind his back, his arm twisted painfully. "Sit down, Frank," Chris hissed. "We're gonna have a little talk."
He shoved the man onto a chair. "Who the hell are you?" Frank asked.
"I'm asking the questions," Chris said. "What are these boys to you?"
Frank laughed. "You mean, besides a meal ticket? Not a damn thing."
Chris bristled, but remained in control. "What are they doin' with you?"
"Older one is my step-cousin's brat. He got his ass killed over in Iraq. Don't know about the other one. My step-cousin's wife was lookin' after the two of them 'til she up an' died six months ago. No other kin claimed them, and the state pays $520 a month, so I took 'em in. Said the other one was my kin, too," he laughed. "Dumb fuck social worker didn't even check. I got no clue who the hell he even is, an' I still get $520 bucks. Not a bad deal."
If the boys had not been standing there, Frank would have been five minutes away from a long stretch in intensive care.
"When was the last time you bought them some food?" Chris asked.
Frank took a drag on his cigarette. "I'm a busy man. I got things to do," he replied evasively. "That's' Macy's job, to look after them," he snorted. "When she ain't stoned."
Macy looked like a beached whale. Chris doubted she possessed much in the way of maternal instincts. She was sprawled across the bed, and there was only one bed in the room. "Where do the boys sleep?" Chris asked.
Frank shrugged. "In the car... the floor... wherever. Who cares?"
That did it. Chris yanked Frank out of his chair and slammed him against the wall so hard the sheetrock cracked. "You're too stupid to even guess how bad you've fucked up coming to this town," he hissed, then pointed a finger between Frank's eyes. "I got my eye on you."
Frank held up his hands in surrender. "No trouble, mister. We'll be out of your hair as soon as this thing we got goes down."
Chris let him go, and he laughed nervously and attempted to ruffle Vin's hair, but the boy backed away. "Kids... what can you do, you know?"
"A lot more than you're doing," Chris said flatly. "I'm comin' back tomorrow."
Frank looked like he was about to protest, but then thought better of it.
Chris turned around and looked directly at Vin. He couldn't tell what the child was thinking. His face was impassive, but his blue eyes looked right into his soul. "I'll be seein' ya around, kid," he promised the boy.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah, Nathan and Buck all knew better than to question their leader when he emerged from the motel room with steam coming out of his ears. He climbed onto his bike and kick-started it viciously. They filed out of the parking lot with Ezra following in his Jag.
Back at Inez's, Larabee paced restlessly while the other four played a half-hearted game of poker. He'd told them what he'd seen at the motel, and it didn't sit well with any of them. They all liked kids - hell, Nathan was expecting a couple of his own with his woman Rain. But all of them knew it was different for Chris, seeing those two little boys. Chris had been a father, and Vin must have reminded him of his own son, with his blond hair and big, blue eyes. Adam had been younger, though - just about JD's age.
Adam and Chris's wife, Sarah, had been gunned down in cold blood. Sarah had tried to get away from her attackers - her Harley Sportster was found in a mangled heap 100 yards from her body. She's lost control of it on a turn going almost a hundred miles an hour. Adam had been riding with her, his helmet still draped over the handle bars. Chris knew Sarah never would have put Adam on the bike without a helmet, and never would have been riding at that speed, unless she was trying to get away from something. Someone had chased her, shot her in the leg, and then left the two of them by the side of the road to die. The official cause of Sarah's death was multiple impact trauma due to a motorcycle accident, although the coroner had explained that the bullet had severed her femoral artery. She would have likely bled out in minutes, anyway. Adam had died from a shattered skull and broken neck. The helmet probably would not have saved him, but at least they would have been able to open his casket at his funeral.
Their murders had been unsolved. Even rival gangs had distanced themselves from the crime by putting out word of the murder and denouncing the death of a woman and a kid. Clubs for miles around had donated to a fund that would pay out a $100,000 reward for information leading to the killer, but no clues had ever been found, not by the biker clubs or the police.
"So, what are we going to do about it?" Buck asked him finally.
Chris raked a hand through his hair. "I don't know... It just don't seem right to leave them kids with those... " he couldn't even think of a word.
"I say we just take 'em," Josiah said. He always had the direct solution, even if it wasn't always the most practical one.
Ezra shook his head. "May I remind you that kidnapping is a crime?... Not that that has ever deterred any of you."
"Well, I meant what I said. I'm goin' back there tomorrow when I can think straight," Chris said.
"They'll be long gone by then," Nathan said.
"No... they got some kind of deal they are waiting on," Chris said. "I suspect it's drugs, although since they burned Hummer, they may just be laying low for awhile."
"What was that all about, anyway?" Buck asked.
"Don't know, but I got Rafael asking around. I think I'll give him a call. Tell him we need to know if they look like they're movin' out."
"What are you thinking, Chris?" Nathan asked him.
Chris shook his head. "Hell, I don't know... Ezra, what would happen to them kids if Frank and Macy were to... disappear?"
Ezra held up his hands. "Oh, no... I categorically refuse to embroil myself in homicidal subterfuge...."
"I ain't talkin' about killing them..."
"Yes, you are," Buck said.
Chris sighed. "Okay, so maybe the thought has crossed my mind. But, let's just say that they were to up and leave and not take those kids with them?"
"Hypothetically speaking," Ezra began, "that would be abandonment. They'd become wards of the state."
Chris rubbed his chin thoughtfully, before announcing, "I have an idea."
+ + + + + + +
It had taken Ezra just over an hour to forge the documentation identifying him as a representative of the CYFD. No one doubted he could pull off the act, although dressing the part was a bigger problem. Ezra didn't own the kind of clothing that could be had on a social worker's salary. Chris managed to dig out the pair of black Dockers and polo shirt he'd worn to Mary's sister's wedding. The fit wasn't perfect, but, as Ezra noted, off-the-rack rarely was. To complete the image, the Jag was parked behind the saloon and replaced with Inez's Saturn. Adding a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and a clipboard was Ezra's own idea. It wasn't like it was going to be that hard to convince Frank and Macy that someone had reported them for neglecting the two boys in their care.
Buck would stay close by as backup, while the others watched from the perimeter of the motel parking lot, although, truth be told, none of them had exactly thought the operation through. Once they had arrived, they realized they didn't even have a plan for what they were actually going to do about the situation. Threatening Frank and Macy was first on the list, letting them know that anywhere they went they were going to be under the watchful eye of some club, somewhere, who either owed the Dark Angels or who would just be too happy to teach them a thing or two about their responsibilities.
Each of them had toyed with the idea of simply taking Vin and JD, but had come to the conclusion that wasn't practical. Josiah lived in an abandoned church, where the only electricity came from a well-concealed line tapping off a neighboring business. He often brought his autistic sister, Hannah, home for week-ends, and wasn't sure how she would react to two strangers in the place. His guess was not well. Chris and Buck rented one-bedroom apartments above Gloria Potter's tattoo studio. They were adequate for their needs, but didn't have room for active kids. Nathan's woman, Rain, was 5 months pregnant with twins - the couple was already stressing out over the prospect of becoming parents to their own kids. While Ezra pretended to be appalled by the very idea of children, the fact was, he had the room, and the money - but his "business" often took him away for long periods of time. There was Nettie Wells, the old battleaxe who owned the local bike shop... she was raising a grand niece who was about the boys' age. And Gloria Potter, who had two kids in high school and was flexible in the hours she worked. The Dark Angels owed both women money, though, so they'd have to be careful how they approached the subject, if it came to that.
Ultimately, they'd have to think of something, but the details would come later. Right now, their business was with Frank and Macy.
Pulling up to the Western Sky, they saw they already had a problem. The black matte Hummer with the skull headlights was parked in front of the motel room.
"That can't be good," Buck voiced what they were all thinking. They knew Merced's men would be staked out watching his back, although, the Dark Angels had no quarrel with him personally, so long as he didn't try to conduct business on their turf. Nevertheless, guns were deftly slipped from saddlebags and under clothing. They wouldn't use them unless they absolutely had to, not with kids in the way, but it didn't hurt to be prepared.
Ezra stepped out of the Saturn appearing oblivious to his surroundings, making a show of jotting notes on his clipboard. He was transmitting to the others via a bluetooth. They would hear whatever he heard.
The door to the room was ajar, so instead of knocking, he stepped to one side and pretended to take furious notes as he eavesdropped. Merced was in the room - Ezra could see him. He couldn't see Frank or Macy, and, he couldn't see the boys. He'd have to wait until he was sure where they were before he made any kind of move.
"You can get more than ten thousand for them each across the border," Frank said.
"What's wrong with you, essa?" Merced scoffed. "You and your fat puta there owe me money and it's money I want, not a couple of little gringo mocosos."
Frank laughed nervously. "You ain't seein' the big picture, here, my friend..."
"I ain't your friend," Merced said bluntly.
"Okay... okay... but, let's look at this from a... business standpoint. The older boy... he's just seven. And with that blond hair and them sweet blue eyes... hell, do you know what some perv would pay for that? And the little one, he's five, but he could pass for three... practically a baby, and with that pale skin o' his..."
There was a loud crash from inside the room. Ezra decided it was time to make his play.
He tapped on the unclosed door an instant before it was ripped open and Merced charged out like a bull, running into him. "Who the fuck are you?" he demanded of the southerner.
Ezra smiled genially and produced his credentials. "Everett Slade, Child Youth and Family Department."
Merced pointed into the motel room while grabbing Ezra roughly and shoving him inside. "Those cabrones make me puke," he spat. "The kids are in the bathroom."
Frank was sprawled on the floor, rubbing his jaw as his nose gushed blood. Macy looked a lot like a bewildered cow as she tried to comfort him without spilling the beer in her hand.
"We ain't done!" Merced shouted at them, then stormed off to his Hummer.
Buck stopped him as he reached for the door. "What do you think you're doing here?" he asked him. They had warned him to keep his business out of Four Corners.
Merced pointed at the hotel room. "Those jotos owe me money."
Buck wasn't sure, but if he had to guess, Merced was upset over more than the cash.
"Looks like someone rattled your cage," Buck said, making a point to lean on the Hummer.
Merced didn't even notice the gesture. He pointed again at the hotel room. "Those culos puercos tried to give me kids to pay off their debt!" He kicked one of his studded tires. "Kids!"
Buck raised an eyebrow at that. "I never thought you to be the... sentimental type," he mocked.
Merced turned on him. "I got kids of my own, asshole. Business is business, but familia... that's different. You don't sell your fucking kids."
Buck shrugged. He supposed Merced was in the same category as Mafia godfathers who sent their kids to the best Catholic schools. Who they were on the street and who they were at home were as different as Jekyll and Hyde.
Merced's true colors seeped through, though, when he added, "People don't cross me, comprende?" he threatened.
Buck raised his arms. "Hey, what you want to do with those two is your business. But, if it comes back and slaps us on the ass in any way, there ain't gonna be no place you can hide.... comprende?"
Merced stared at him belligerently, then got into his Hummer and slammed the door hard enough to shake the chrome off the hubcaps. "Hijos de putas," he muttered, before starting the vehicle and pulling out almost before Buck was able to get out of his way.
Ezra emerged from the hotel room with Vin and JD in tow, and Macy hot on his heels, the can of beer still in her hand.
"You can't do this!" she protested. "We got rights. Them younguns belong to us. We got papers..."
"My dear lady... and I use the term loosely... You have clearly abrogated your responsibilities with regard to these children. Be thankful I don't have you arrested."
"Arrested?! What for? We ain't done nothin'! What about our money? We need those checks... How're we supposed to eat?" the woman babbled.
"Might I suggest cannibalism?" Ezra replied.
He had just opened the car door so the boys could climb inside when Macy flung the beer can at him. It missed him and slammed against JD's skull with a sickening thud.
At first, the little boy was too shocked to even cry, but then he let out a piteous wail as blood streamed down the side of his face.
Buck reacted on instinct. In his entire life, he had never once hit a woman, so he was as surprised as anyone when he planted his fist in the middle of Macy's face.
Chris, Josiah and Nathan were all there in an instant. Nathan grabbed the first aid kit he carried on his bike and hurried to JD, while Chris and Josiah stormed the motel room with Buck. They ignored Macy's sobs as she nursed her broken nose. Frank was still sprawled on the floor where Merced had left him. His nose was broken, too.
Popping a cap into their pea-sized brains was tempting, but, none of them wanted the boys to see something like that. Instead, Josiah and Buck followed Chris's lead as he grabbed a pair of tattered suitcases off the bureau and began to throw everything that wasn't clearly garbage into them.
"Hey... wad da fuck yo doon?" Frank slurred.
"You're being evicted," Chris told him.
"We paid fo da room," Macy's voice was equally nasal. A noseful of blood did that.
"Tough." Chris tossed the suitcases out the door. They searched the bathroom for anything that might belong to the boys and found only a dirty, blue sweatshirt with the words 'Springfield Montessori School' on it. "Check the car," he told Buck.
Josiah grabbed both Frank and Macy and hauled them out of the room.
Buck tried the car doors, but they were locked. "Keys," he held his hand out to Frank.
The man, now clearly showing some respect, fumbled in his pocket, but wasn't fast enough.
Josiah's mighty fist punched through the driver's side window and he reached in to unlock the doors and pop the trunk.
In the car's glove compartment, they found a stained Tyvek envelop that contained the boys´ birth certificates and Medicaid ID cards, as well as some legal documents. Chris tucked it into his vest. Other than that, there were no toys, no games, no stuffed animals, just a handful of filthy kids' clothes that wouldn't have filled half a grocery bag. "Leave it," Chris said.
By this time, Frank had produced the keys. Chris snatched them from his hand, opened the gas tank, and dropped them inside. They'd have to walk or hitchhike to wherever they went next. With luck, a big, black Hummer would find them. "Hit the road," he told Frank, pointing to the highway. "Take Bambi there with you. If you ever come back here alive, you won't leave that way."
+ + + + + + +
Nathan's first aid kit had what he needed to repair the gash in JD's scalp - hell, he had enough stuff in there to perform major surgery, which he had been called upon to do a couple of times. The man did sutures as good as any doctor, so JD was spared the trauma of going to the ER, while the rest of them were spared a lengthy explanation and police intervention. After the patch job, they took the boys to Inez's again, because, to no one's surprise, they hadn't eaten since the night before.
Inez fussed appropriately over JD's "boo-boo" and then sat the two of them down with some fried chicken, mac-and-cheese, and sliced apples with peanut butter.
The five men took a table nearby and Inez brought them a round of beer.
"Now what?" Buck finally broke the silence.
Somehow, everyone's glance drifted to Ezra. The southerner shook his head. "Don't look at me... I'll take them and get them some clothes, but I will be spending the next two to four weeks getting in good with the Mayans," he referred to a troublesome Mexican gang. "It wouldn't be safe."
"Well, they ain't going back into the system," Buck said, glancing over at the two boys. Vin was using a napkin to gently wipe chicken grease off of JD's face. They'd made short work of the food. "All they got's each other. They'll get split up and won't have nothin'. Wouldn't be right."
The others agreed, even Ezra. But Chris said, "I reckon they should have some say in the matter...." He whistled loudly and got the boys' attention. "Come on over here!" he called to them.
Far from being apprehensive, both boys were out of their chairs in an instant, eager for the attention.
"Buck... what say you take JD over there..." he nodded to an empty table.
"Huh? ME?" Buck asked nervously.
"I want to talk to Vin," Chris said, making eye contact with the boy. Then he turned to JD, "You try not to scare old Buck, now, hear?" He winked and the little boy giggled.
"C'mon, little britches," Buck sighed, taking JD's hand.
"Can we go ride your motorcycle?" JD asked.
"You ain't got a helmet," Buck said. "You shouldn't be ridin' without one."
"But, last night...."
Buck swooped down and picked the little boy up. "Last night was extenuatin' circumstances."
"What's that mean?"
"That's lawyer talk for sayin' you can break the law sometimes. But, it's illegal to ride without a helmet. You'll go to jail."
"They don't put little kids in jail," JD laughed.
"Oh yeah, they do. They got a special jail just for little boys who don't wear helmets when they ride motorcycles."
"You're lyin'," JD said.
"He's got you pegged already," Josiah called after them.
"Tell you what," Buck said, "I bet Inez has some ice cream hidin' in the back somewhere. What say we go take a look?"
As they pushed through the doors into the bar's kitchen, Chris turned his attention to Vin. They'd sent the boys to wash up before eating, and with his face clean, Chris realized that what he'd thought was dirt was actually a bruise on the side of Vin's face. He touched it gently and the boy flinched.
"What happened?" he asked.
Vin shrugged. "Frank told me to wash some of his clothes in the sink. I told him to go fuck hisself."
Chris was sipping his beer and choked on it. "Did you now?"
Chris set his beer down. "Well, first thing you gotta learn, son, is that usin' certain words is likely to get you in trouble... And that word is the big enchilada of trouble, so it might be a good idea if you don't use it until you're... twelve. Understand?"
"Still, weren't no call for him to hit you. But, don't worry, he ain't gonna do it again."
Vin looked at him, a mixture of awe and gratitude in his eyes. "I know."
Impulsively, Chris pulled the little boy close, his arm around the small shoulders. "Vin, what happened to your ma? And to JD's ma?"
Vin's lip quivered the slightest bit, but he quickly composed himself. "JD's mama got shot. She died."
"Shot? Who shot her?"
Vin shrugged. "Soldiers. She was in the war, like my pa."
"JD's ma was in the Army?"
"Yeah. My ma was takin' care of him 'til she came back, 'cept then she got killed, so my ma said JD could stay with us forever 'cause she was his gardener."
The men exchanged puzzled looks for a moment, but then Ezra said, "You mean 'guardian'?"
Vin nodded. "Yeah, that."
"What about your ma?"
"She got ammonia. She had to go to the hospital and she said she'd be okay, but she wasn't." He sniffed and angrily wiped a tear away.
Chris pulled him up into his lap, fully prepared for the boy to resist, or even bolt. He didn't though. He nodded at the others. "Give Vin and me a minute, here," he said. Josiah, Nathan and Ezra took the hint and headed for one of the pool tables.
"It's okay to miss her," Chris whispered in Vin's ear, and then drew him to his chest, stroking his dirty, matted hair.
After a few moments, he lifted Vin's face to look him in the eye. "You wanna stay with us?" he asked him.
"You don't have to," Chris explained. "The foster care people... they can find you a nice family with a house and yard and stuff."
Vin thought that over for a moment. "They probl'y don't got any motorcycles, though," he said solemnly.
"Nope, prob'ly not...," Chris agreed. "Vin... you gotta know, I ain't a nice guy. I can be a real sonofa... a real jerk. Sometimes I get pissed off and say an' do things I'm sorry for later. Sometimes, I can be downright scary."
Vin continued to maintain eye contact with him - something very few adults did. "I ain't scared of you," he said. There was no challenge in his voice, just a simple statement of fact. And it was then that Chris knew... he and this little boy understood each other, on a level most people wouldn't begin to comprehend.
He gently cupped the back of Vin's head. "I'll never hurt you," he promised. "And I ain't never gonna let anyone else hurt you, either."
"I know," Vin said softly. "But, JD has to stay, too."
Chris nodded. "Yeah, he does."
+ + + + + + +
"Are you out of your mind!?" Orin Travis exclaimed. "You guys have been nothing but a pain in my ass since day one and now you expect me to grant you custody of a couple of kids?"
Chris glared at him. "Yep."
"Think again," Travis scoffed.
Chris whipped out his cell phone and held it up so the judge could see the pictures Ezra had taken at the Western Sky, which Ezra had sent him after digitally enhancing them to show every detail. "I think the little woman.... what's her name? Evie? Might be interested in where you spend your free time."
Travis glared back at him, unfortunately nowhere near as horrified as Chris had expected him to be. He pushed his glasses up his nose. "Who do you think I was there with?"
Buck literally grimaced. "You were at the Western Sky with your wife?"
"It's a long story...." Travis sighed.
"That's just wrong," Buck cut him off.
"What Evie and I do as consenting adults is none of your business...."
"Oh.... I don't know...." Chris interjected. "I imagine some of the nice ladies at the Four Corners Country Club might still find this... interesting...." He folded his cell phone and shoved it in his pocket.
"You wouldn't...." Travis threatened.
"In a heartbeat," Chris promised.
"You're a son of a bitch, Larabee."
Buck stepped in with his usual good-natured diplomacy. "Aw, c'mon now, Judge. You know how them younguns were living. They can't be any worse off with us."
"If you send them into the system, they'll be separated," Josiah pointed out. "And there's no guarantee they'll be looked after properly."
Travis looked up from behind his glasses. "Oh, and you," he waved a finger at the assembled Dark Angels, "are ideal parents."
Chris stepped forward, not enough to be threatening, but enough to let Travis know he wasn't backing down. "Where would they be better off? Gone and out of the way, or right here where you can make sure they are okay?"
Travis was still not moved. "Do you know how many kids are in the foster care system in this state?"
"Two thousand, four hundred and thirteen," Ezra replied.
It was a rhetorical question, and Travis wasn't expecting an answer. "Well.... yes... whatever. As much as I would like to, I can't save them all."
"We ain't askin' you to save them all," Chris leaned forward and put his palms on Travis' desk. "Just two." He patted his cell phone for emphasis. "It's either that, or you and Evie get your own page on MySpace."
"You bastard," Travis sighed. He fumbled through a desk drawer, coming up with a piece of paper that he handed to Ezra. "Here's a list of the documentation you'll need... and I don't want to know which ones you have to forge."
"Why, Judge Travis, you wound me," Ezra said.
"Hmmmph. Yeah, right." He turned to Chris and Buck, who would have actual custody of the boys. "I want those kids in school," he said. "And I don't want to see them shooting pool at Inez's in the middle of the night."
"Except on the weekends," Buck grinned.
Travis glared at them all. "Get out of my office before I come to my senses."
+ + + + + + +
Chris snuffed out his cheroot before entering Tattoo Blue, Gloria Potter's studio. Not only did she keep the place surgically clean, since she had quit smoking 10 years ago, she kept a razor-sharp spring-loaded stiletto handy so that anyone who entered with a lit cigarette soon found himself smoking a stub.
Her house was attached to the studio, which shared the same lot with Four Corner's Aguilera Harley. The bike shop's original owner, Pete Wells, had left the place to his wife Nettie when he'd ridden on to glory some 20 years before. Nettie was older than dirt, but no one knew bikes like she did, and, anyone who messed with her would face the wrath of no less than a half dozen biker clubs.
Nettie and Gloria had been looking after the boys until Gloria could evict the trailer trash who were renting a double wide that she owned so Chris and Buck could move in. The place was a quarter mile from Four Corners Elementary school, where the boys had been enrolled even before Judge Travis's warning. There had never been any question that they were staying, with or without the Judge's help.
As far as anyone could determine, Vin had been pulled out of school in the middle of first grade, so he'd be repeating that year. It was no big deal, since he was on the small side for his age, so blended in easily with the younger kids. JD had never been to school, but he already knew how to read at a third grade level. He'd been placed in kindergarten despite his abilities, but Ezra was already making plans to send him to Harvard. It never hurt to have a good lawyer in your pocket.
The house sat on a nice big dirt lot where the boys could ride the KTM 50 SX bikes Ezra had ordered for them. He'd really had no choice in the matter - Nettie Wells' niece, Casey, was already racing bikes, even though she was a couple of months younger than JD. The boys had their reputations to maintain, after all.
"BUCK!" JD came charging at them when he saw them. "Look what Gloria made for me!" JD jumped up and down. He was wearing a new leather motorcycle vest almost identical to the ones the club wore. Ezra had wasted no time in outfitting the boys with clothes that were probably way more expensive than they needed to be, but Buck just hadn't been able to resist the pint-sized leathers in the catalog Nettie had shown him. JD turned around to reveal the Dark Angels logo Gloria had hand-painted on the back of the vest. He raised his little fists in triumph. "I'm COOL!" he said.
Buck picked him up and tweaked his nose, then tugged on the vest. "That will let everyone know they better not mess with you."
"Gloria maked me a tattoo, too. See?" He pulled up the sleeve of his t-shirt to reveal a cherub on a motorcycle, its halo slightly askew, drawn in art markers. "It's not real, though. You have to stick pins in your skin for a real one. She said I'm too little. But when I'm big, I'm gonna get lots of them!"
"Where's Vin?" Chris asked Gloria.
"He's helping Nettie out in the shop," she replied. "Casey's bike chain broke... she says his small hands are perfect for fixing those little bikes."
As soon as she'd spoken, the shop's door opened and Vin walked in. He was wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt and black Timberlands that looked enough like biker boots to pass muster. The others had joked that the boy wanted to be a miniature version of Chris. Truth be told, Chris wasn't the least bit unhappy about that.
The boy's hands were covered in grime. "I hear you been helpin' Nettie out," Chris said.
Vin nodded. "She's showin' me how to fix motorcycles."
Chris nodded. "That'll come in handy when you have your own."
Vin's eyes lit up and he flashed a smile - something that they were seeing more of each day.
"Ready to go home?" Chris asked.
Vin nodded and stood on tiptoes to grab his helmet and jacket from the coat rack beside the door. Buck put JD down and made sure his helmet was securely fastened.
As the two men left the studio with the boys in tow, Orin Travis watched from the parking lot across the street. It had been a moment of insanity, giving those two little guys to that SOB Larabee and that scoundrel Buck Wilmington. They had a house to sleep in, but "home" was probably going to be the rear seat of a Harley-Davidson. What had he been thinking?
But, as he watched the two small boys climb onto the enormous bikes, tucked in close behind two men who would die before letting them come to harm, and saw the looks of pure elation on their faces as the powerful engines roared to life beneath them, he understood. It wasn't four walls that made a home, and Vin and JD had found a place to belong that suited them just fine.
Next week - Taking Anne Home by LaraMee
Spanish translations (more or less - some things just don't translate exactly):