I woke to the sound of my phone ringing. I’d been having a strangely lucid dream about paddling around a swimming pool filled with Grand Marnier with my childhood best friend while Mr. Rogers read us a Stephen King novel. The dream unraveled as I glanced at my bedside clock. It was nine in the morning. At least I’d gotten a few good hours of sleep.
I didn’t recognize the number on my phone, but it was local, and knowing Dr. Perez might be calling today, I answered. “Hello?”
“Krista? This is Dr. Perez.”
I clutched the phone to my ear and scooted up in bed. “Hi. Yeah, it’s me.”
“I got your grandmother’s results back. You were right. Someone’s been tampering with her medication.”
Part of me had been holding out hope that this was all some big misunderstanding, but with those words, my last hope went up in flames. This would get ugly, whether Magnolia launched an internal investigation or The Kings caught the person. Hopefully Magnolia sniffed them out, because at least they’d deal with it legally. If the bikers got there first, God help the poor soul. I had a feeling they’d want to make a memorable example out of anyone who disobeyed their orders.
“Krista?” Dr. Perez asked.
“I’m still here. Sorry. Just processing.”
“I understand,” she said. “I, um, did want to talk to you about something else.”
I sighed. “There was pot in her bloodwork, wasn’t there?”
“I’ll talk to Gran about it,” I told her. With all the meds Gran was on, she couldn’t just be tossing THC into the mixture. It was a drug, and like all drugs, it had side effects and the potential to interact with her legitimate prescriptions in a bad way.
“Thank you,” Dr. Perez said. “Are you coming in to see her today?”
“I plan to, yes.”
“Can you bring Jakob with you again? I want to talk to management about this, and it would be good if you two were there to explain where your suspicions came from.”
“I’ll call him and see if he’s available.”
“Thank you. I’d really appreciate having you two there.”
She sounded nervous. My thoughts circled back around to what Jakob said about her potential involvement. I didn’t think she was in on it. From the slight tremor in her voice, she might have been afraid, which made me think that I was right about her having suspicions that something was going on at Magnolia.
“Are you okay, Dr. Perez?” I asked.
The sound of a harsh exhale came over the line. “I’m all right, thank you. Just a little shaken up.”
“You’ve known something was wrong, haven’t you?” I asked.
“I can’t discuss that right now,” she said, voice low like she was worried about being overheard. “Please call me back on this number after you speak to Jakob, and we can set up a time to meet.”
We said goodbye and hung up. I immediately dialed Jakob.
He picked up after the third ring, voice rough like he’d just woken up. “Hello?”
“It’s Krista,” I said. “Dr. Perez called. You were right. Someone’s been stealing meds.”
Three hours later, I sat in my idling car in the parking lot of Magnolia Hills. I was going to visit with Gran at noon like we’d planned, and then Jakob and I had a meeting with Dr. Perez at one.
The familiar bellow of a motorcycle reached my ears, distant at first, like a storm brewing over the horizon, but then it roared closer, so loud that I wanted to plug my ears. I’d been waiting for Jakob, expecting his single, matte black bike to roll into the parking lot. Instead, ten motorcycles barreled through the entrance, one after the other. I sank low in my seat, hoping this was just a coincidence, and they were driving by the nursing home for some other reason, but then I caught sight of Jakob, dead center in the pack, and I knew that this was his doing.
The bikes circled my car and parked around me, forming a perimeter. My teeth rattled in my skull. The sound of so many idling engines must be shaking the windows of the nearby building. No doubt the residents were getting up from their seats to come have a look at what all the fuss was about, and they were all about to get an eyeful of the hardened criminals surrounding my car. They might wonder why The Kings were here, but the message the bikers sent with this little stunt wasn’t for them. It was for the drug dealer in their midst, who would look out those windows and understand that I was now considered King property, and if they fucked with me, they fucked with The Kings.
Unsure of how I felt about that, I turned my car off and climbed out.
Jakob kicked down the stand of his bike and swung off it, coming to meet me. He stopped a few feet away, head turning a little, gaze going past me. His shoulders stiffened a fraction, just enough for my trained eyes to take note of the movement, and he heaved in a breath. He was looking at my car door, and I knew, I knew he was thinking about our kiss last night. Because I was thinking about it too.
I shook my head to clear it and nodded toward the motorcycles behind him. “Subtle.”
He had his shades on, but from the way his brows drew together, I knew he was scowling. “What?”
I raised my voice over the roar. “Subtle!”
He turned a little and made a slashing gesture, and the engines around us cut off one after another. As they died, he faced me. “I’m not trying to be subtle.”
No shit, Sherlock. I eyed the other bikers. “They can’t come in.”
“I know,” he said. “But they’re going to sit their happy asses out here while we talk with management and look mean.”
“Fine,” I said. “Are you ready?”
He strolled over to a large black man wearing a sleeveless leather vest. The man flipped up the visor of his helmet, and I recognized Rob, the same man who’d given Jakob his still-healing shiner from the other night. The two of them exchanged words for a few minutes. There didn’t seem to be any lingering resentment between them as they talked. Rob nodded one last time, and Jakob came prowling back to me, his long legs eating up the pavement.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said.
“Try not to insult anyone,” I told him as we made our way inside.
He let out a low grunt. “You’re one to talk.”
Ugh. Had I really been ready to throw myself at him last night?
Like yesterday, the bullshit started the second we stepped inside. Today, it wasn’t Hank who barred our way, but a younger, more heavily muscled white man I’d never seen before. If he were ever cast as a movie extra, the character name that scrolled through the credits would read, “Blond meathead.” He looked like a man with more muscles than brains.
“He can’t come in here,” he said, jerking his chin toward Jakob.
“I think there’s been a miscommunication.” I took a step toward him but froze when his hand dropped to his gun. What the hell? “Dr. Perez should have called down to have him cleared ahead of time.”
“Stay right there,” he ordered, lifting a two-way radio from his belt. The radio crackled to life, and he spoke into it. “There’s a young woman here with a King. Says he’s been cleared.”
Static sparked over the line, but the response came through crystal clear, an immediate, “Negative.”
How’d they even have time to check?
The guard put the radio back in place and stared at me. “He’s not getting in here.”
“Let me just call Dr. Perez,” I said.
He seemed trigger-happy, so I gestured to my purse. He nodded, and I reached in, slowly, and pulled my phone out.
The line rang for several moments before going to voicemail. I left a message. “Hi. It’s Krista Evans. The guard downstairs won’t let Jakob in, and it seems like he was never cleared.” I hung up and turned toward the guard again. “She wanted him to come in and speak to management with me about my grandmother.”
The guard crossed his arms over his chest. At least his hand wasn’t on his gun anymore. “Until she calls down here and tells me that herself, he’s not getting in.”
Jakob tugged on my arm and pulled me back outside. “Do you know that guy?”
I shook my head. “I’ve never seen him before.”
He stared past my shoulder through the front door. No doubt the guard was just on the other side, glaring right back at him. “I don’t like this.”
“Me neither,” I said.
“Where the fuck is the good doctor?”
“I don’t know. Let me call her again.”
Just like the first time, it went to voicemail. I didn’t bother leaving another message.
I dropped my phone back in my handbag and faced Jakob, knowing he wasn’t going to like what I was about to say. “Stay out here, and let me see if I can find anything out.”
“You’re not going in there alone,” he said.
I bristled. “Reminder: you’re not the boss of me.”
His jaw flexed, and his nostrils flared like he was pissed, but he seemed to realize he couldn’t bully me and dropped the tone of command from his voice. “I don’t think it’s smart for you to go in there alone right now. This is sketchy as fuck.”
“I’m not going to argue with you about that, but my grandmother is in there, and if something sketchy is going on, she’s more vulnerable than anyone. For all we know, she’s completely forgotten our discussion from yesterday and doesn’t even know she needs to be careful.”
“Fine,” he bit out. “But you call me the second something feels like it’s off.”
I let out an exasperated breath. “What are you going to do, storm the gates?”
His eyes darkened ominously. “Yes.”
“Someone could get hurt, Jakob.”
He stepped closer. “Then you better pray that nothing happens to you inside.”
I didn’t know whether I should be pissed or touched by this level of concern for my welfare. As it stood, I was too worried about Gran to decide.
Without another word, I turned on my heel and went back in.
The new guard detached himself from the wall and followed after me as if he thought I posed a danger to the residents. I figured people would treat me differently after I told them I was dating a King, but I hadn’t anticipated this extreme response, and it grated on me.
I finally found a familiar face behind the front desk. Annie was working it again. Her gaze flashed to the guard and then to me, and the look in her eyes almost brought me up short. She didn’t like this guy for some reason, or she distrusted him. It was clear from the way she studiously ignored him as I approached, her eyes boring into mine as if she was trying to warn me.
What the hell was going on inside this place today?
I stepped up to the desk. “I’m here to see my gran.”
Annie nodded and passed me a sign-in sheet, uncharacteristically quiet.
“Have you seen Dr. Perez?” I asked, picking a pen up.
“Not for a few hours. Want me to call her office?”
“Please,” I said. I finished signing in and waited while she dialed.
“Hi,” she said a moment later. “This is Annie downstairs. Is Dr. Perez in?” She frowned in response to whatever the person on the other end of the line was saying. “When did she leave?” Her gaze shifted to me. “Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Okay, thanks.” She hung up.
“She’s not here?” I said.
Annie shook her head. “She took her lunch break early and hasn’t come back from it.”
I glanced at a nearby wall clock. Thanks to my delayed entry, it was now 12:15. “What time did she leave?”
“Ten,” she said.
My stomach knotted with unease. “Does she usually take long lunches?”
“Forty-five minutes, tops,” Annie said.
The guard stepped up beside me. “That’s enough questions. You’re holding up the line.”
I looked behind us to see an older couple waiting. As I turned back toward Annie, I glanced at the guard’s chest, where his nametag should have been. He wasn’t wearing one. The unease in my stomach turned to dread.
I thanked Annie before turning to walk toward the wide bank of elevators set into the far wall. The guard crowded into one with me, and I had a sinking suspicion that something bad was about to happen.
After four years of near-constant deployments to war zones, I’d learned to trust my gut, and right now, my instincts were screaming that this man posed a threat to me. Between the immediate response over the walkie-talkie, the lack of a name tape, and the way he’d hustled me away from reception when I started asking questions about Dr. Perez, I was dead sure there was more going on at Magnolia than just a single, shady employee.
“Why are you following me up?” I asked the guard, proud that my voice was steady. My pulse pounded in my ears, and adrenaline coursed through my veins, readying me for the fight my body thought was coming.
“I’m making sure you don’t cause any trouble,” he said. “I heard about the unrest your boy toy caused yesterday, and I’m not as soft as Hank. Just because you got a pretty face, it doesn’t mean I’m going to fall for your bullshit.”
“Who’s going to guard the front door in your absence?” I asked. I did not want him in here with me. “My boy toy can just wander in now.”
He nodded his head to the right. I looked through the still-open elevator doors and saw two other men in guard uniforms stalking toward the front of the building to take over for him. I didn’t recognize them either. Warning sirens blared inside of me. I was friendly by nature, and I asked a lot of questions. Not only could I have told you every person who worked the security detail at Magnolia, but I could tell you who among them was married and which ones didn’t like their in-laws. One new security guard, I could buy. But three? Just after finding out something illegal might be going on here? And with Dr. Perez suddenly MIA? Nope. That was too many coincidences for comfort.
The last fly on this shit sandwich was that the guards’ uniforms didn’t fit them right. Every other guard I’d spoken with in the past had theirs tailored to form. The smaller of the two men heading toward the lobby shifted, his too-tight camel-colored shirtsleeve rising just enough to reveal a dark slash on his arm. I honed in on it, frowning. It was the bottom edge of a tattoo. I couldn’t see much of it, just enough to register that it was square. Almost like a…like a playing card.
His sleeve shifted again, inching up, and I sucked in a breath. A little “J” peeked out from the bottom right corner.
Fuck. This was so much worse than I could have imagined.
The Kings’ biggest rivals, The Jokers, heavily featured playing cards in their club. The gang’s emblem was one, with the quintessential joker standing out in bas relief in the center of it. The guard had a Joker tattoo. I wanted to be wrong. I wanted it to be anything but what it was, but I’d seen one of these tattoos before, and it was seared into my memory.
The elevator doors started to close. Jakob said some of The Jokers had family members in residence at Magnolia. Had those bikers seen an opening while visiting them? A way to sneak drugs into Kearny through the nursing home and make The Kings look weak?
Even though a large part of me was desperate to get out of the elevator, I stayed where I was. I had to get to Gran. There was something seriously wrong going on here, and I’d be damned if she got caught up in it. This guard was hell-bent on sticking with me, and if I got out, he’d just climb into another elevator with me or follow me up the stairs, and any delay might give someone else time to reach Gran before I did.
I slid to the corner as the doors shut, putting space between me and the “guard”. My heart pounded against my ribcage. I was trapped in a tiny enclosed space with a man who not only thought that Jakob was my boyfriend but who might also be in a rival gang. I’d heard all sorts of terrible stories about the violence committed against friends and family members of The Kings as payback or a warning, and as he turned toward me, I worried I was about to be next.
“Jakob Larson, huh?” he said.
I hadn’t said Jakob’s full name in front of him, yet he knew it. Shit, I really didn’t want to be right about this.
“What about him?” I asked.
“Just wondering what you see in the guy.”
I shrugged. Maybe if I made it seem like nothing was going on between us, I wouldn’t register as important enough to hurt or harass. “Who said I see anything in the guy?”
The guard looked at me, grinning. “You called him your boyfriend.”
I held his gaze. “That was only to get him in here.”
The smile fled from his face, replaced by a cold, flat expression that raised the hair on the back of my neck. “So you were lying?”
I dropped all pretenses and let my own crazy shine through. I’d faced down a Russian surface-to-air-missile and lived to tell the tale. I’d spent four years of my life flying with the best, raining down death and destruction from the mother fucking sky. One asshole in an elevator was nothing to me.
“I was lying,” I said.
We moved at the same time. I slid left as he shot forward, and instead of taking his fist to the face, I stepped clear of it. He hadn’t been expecting it, and before he could stop himself, he rammed his knuckles straight into the unforgiving steel wall of the elevator.
The thing about training in hand-to-hand combat every day for years on end is that you get good at reading people. This guy might have been big, but he wasn’t as well-trained as I was. I realized that right before he lunged at me, when he dropped his right shoulder, projecting his punch.
I hadn’t been lying to Jakob earlier. I was a vicious fighter. Most of the time, I kept my temper on a tight leash, but when someone tried to hurt me, I let it run wild, and all those months of pent-up rage usually came roaring out.
The man howled when his fist hit the wall, the sound of his pain echoing around us in the closed space. I slipped past him into the hole that opened up in his wake. I had a split second to make a decision before he recovered. By default, a big, meaty bastard like him could take a punch better than most. If he saw the blow coming and flexed just before it hit, there was little hope of doing any real damage to him. All that muscle would act as a shock absorber. I had to hit him where he had the least amount of padding. His joints. His face. Places where skin slicked over bone with very little muscle or cartilage in between. Those were my best bets if I wanted to get out of here unscathed.
I braced myself on my right leg, thanking God when it held, and kicked out at him with my left. Hard. My foot took him in the back of the knee. His leg folded forward, and thanks to the unexpected shift, he crumpled sideways toward the wall. He caught himself on the handrail and tried to pull himself up, but I hammered a kick to his ribs. He rocked toward me, trying to shield them from another blow on instinct. It was an amateur move, proof that he wasn’t used to this kind of no-holds-barred fight. I stepped up and kneed him in the face, picturing my leg driving through his skull, so that I hit with as much force as I could muster. I felt bone crunch on impact, and when he toppled backward, blood spurted from his ruined nose.
He bounced off the floor, dazed, and didn’t get up. Barely five seconds had passed since he first swung at me. I was still fast.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Jakob.
Overhead, a bell dinged, and the doors slid open. There were metal detectors downstairs, so I hadn’t brought my gun inside with me. No fucking way was I leaving this guy his weapon so he could shoot me in the back when he regained consciousness. I freed it from his holster before stepping over him. The gun went into my purse, my phone came out of it, and I took off toward Gran’s room at a run. Pain burst through my bad leg from hip to ankle, but I ignored it.
I called Jakob as the hallway flew past me.
“What happened?” he barked.
“That guard just attacked me in the elevator.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”
“Why do you sound like you’re dying then?”
Ouch. Guess I was more out of shape than I thought. “I’m running to Gran’s room. Dr. Perez isn’t here. She went for lunch early and hasn’t been heard from.”
A door opened up ahead. I slowed to a walk as an elderly couple emerged from it. I heard another door open behind me. A second later, a woman screamed. They’d found the guard.
“What’s happening?” Jakob demanded.
I kept to a stately saunter and smiled at the couple as I passed them, pretending I hadn’t heard the scream. As soon as they were gone, I picked up speed again. “Sorry, just passed someone. Jakob, I think I saw a Joker tattoo on another guard’s arm.”
He swore. “Get ready. We’re coming in to get you.”
“Be careful. They’re armed.”
“So are we,” he said. The line went dead.
I made it to Gran’s room and knocked on the door.
“It’s open!” she called.
I nearly had an aneurysm. Her door was unlocked. Anyone could have come in here and –
Stop it, I urged myself. Now wasn’t the time to freak out about the what-ifs.
I rushed inside and locked the door behind me. Remembering Jakob’s move from the other night, I grabbed one of Gran’s kitchen chairs and tried to wedge it beneath the doorknob. It wasn’t as easy as it looked, and it took me three tries before I had the thing braced in tight.
“Well, this is some greeting,” Gran said.
I strode over to her and pulled her into a hard hug. Thank God she was okay.
Her gaze dropped to my leg as we pulled apart. “Uh, sweetie, you have blood on your jeans.”
“It isn’t mine.”
She sighed. “It never is. Who’d you get into it with this time? Amy again?”
I frowned. Amy? Oh, hell, she was talking about Amy Smith – the girl who went after me one day on the bus. That was back in middle school.
I stared at Gran, looking for the telltale faraway look in her eyes that meant today was a bad day. Sure enough, she gazed past me as if listening to a tune only she could hear.
“Hey, Gran. How would you like to stay with me for a day or two?”
She smiled. “That sounds lovely. As long as it isn’t an inconvenience.”
I led her into her bedroom, and together we quickly packed an overnight bag. I found her meds in the kitchen and shoved them in my purse. We could grab anything I forgot at the store in town. No way in hell was I leaving her here another day. There’d be hell to pay for what I did to that guard – if he really was a guard – but if he was a gang member, which I was willing to bet good money he was, I’d just painted a nuclear-sized target on my back.
Where was Dr. Perez? Had she said the wrong thing to the wrong person, and they’d silenced her? Or had she been in on it after all, and that phone call asking Jakob to come with me was nothing but a lure?
“Are you going to tell me why you felt the need to creatively reinforce my door?” Gran asked.
“We think some bad men may be in the building,” I told her. No sense in lying.
She frowned. “Who’s we?”
“Me and a man named Jakob Larson. I’ll introduce you to him in a few minutes.”
I moved back to the door, my ears straining for the sound of gunfire. The Kings had superior numbers. I’d been annoyed when Jakob arrived with the calvary, but now I was thankful for it. Hopefully the men downstairs would see that the odds were stacked against them and decide against putting up a fight.
“I met Jakob yesterday,” Gran said.
I whipped around. “You remember Jakob?”
“Of course I remember Jakob. Hard to forget that handsome bastard.”
I frowned. If she wasn’t having a bad day, then what was with the glassy look in her eyes?
I stepped toward her and took a deep breath through my nose.
She put her hands up and stepped back. “What are you doing?”
The earthy, herbal stink of pot hit my nose. “Gran! You’re not supposed to be smoking dope!”
“It’s for my glaucoma,” she said.
“You don’t have glaucoma.”
She dropped her hands and sent me a flat look. “Then it’s for the headaches my overbearing granddaughter gives me.”
I deflated. “I’m sorry. I just worry about you so much.”
She patted me on the arm. “I know you do, sweetie, but you have to let me have a little bit of fun once in a while.”
I decided that now wasn’t the time to point out the fact that her drug test told me just how much fun she’d been having lately.
My phone rang in my purse, and I scooped it out and answered. It was Jakob.
“We’re walking up the hall now,” he said. “Get ready to open the door.”
I pulled the chair free from the knob. “I didn’t hear any gunshots.”
“They took one look at us and bailed.”
“Did you recognize them?” I asked.
“No, but one of the guys with me did. You were right. They’re Jokers.”
Fuck. “Do you think they took Dr. Perez?”
“We’ll look into it,” he said. “What the hell did you do to that guard?”
“Who? Defenseless old me?” I asked, dropping an entire cup of honey into my voice.
“Cut the shit,” he said. “I already apologized.”
Ugh. He was right. I was keyed-up and taking it out on him. “You did. Sorry. I kicked him very hard several times and then kneed him in the face.”
“He didn’t get a hit off first?”
“Good,” he said.
Heaven help me, he sounded proud.
A second later, there was a knock on the door. I glanced through the peephole to double-check that it was Jakob before pulling it open. We stood there, facing each other for an awkward moment. I was not going to hug him.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Hello again, Jakob,” Gran said, coming up behind me. “Oh, you brought friends.”
I swung the door wide, revealing the small, leather-clad army behind him. Men and women crowded together in the hallway. Several were open carrying military-grade weapons. No wonder The Jokers had taken off.
“Ready to go?” Jakob asked.
I nodded. “Gran’s going to come stay with me.”
“You can’t go back to your place,” he said.
I sighed. I should have seen this coming. If The Jokers had Dr. Perez, or if she was working with them, they’d know by now that I was the reason The Kings were busting up their little operation. I’d heard through the grapevine that The Kings had safehouses they used for situations like this, and if the intractable look on Jakob’s face was anything to go by, I was about to spend some time inside one.
“Fine,” I said.
I went to grab Gran’s bag, but Rob stepped in and hefted it up.
“I got it,” he said with a wink. He had one of those deep, purring baritones that rolled right through you when he spoke.
Gran perked up when she heard it. “Ooh, isn’t that a voice.”
He tipped his head toward her. “Ma’am.”
“Thank you for such chivalry,” she said, extending her hand. “I’m Izzy.”
My grandmother, the flirtatious prom queen.
“Can we please get going now?” I asked after they shook. “The cops have to be on their way.”
Miraculously, we made it out of there before any flashing lights arrived.
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.