Chapter 5 – Motley Band

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The ride to the bar where he was to meet Luke and the others was not that long. A quick jaunt down the six-ten to where it ended in Long Beach and a couple more miles to Seal Beach, a sleepy Southern California beach community known for its surfing. Mike had visited a couple of bars there more than once back in his younger and wilder days. But that had been well over a decade ago. Back before the world changed.

The place could best be described as a hole in the wall, hidden at the back of a strip mall off the main drag. The parking lot around it was filled with Harleys as well as SUVs, trucks, and even a couple of flashy sports cars. It was an eclectic lot, especially since Happy Hour would not begin for at least another hour or so. Mike found a place to park Esther not far from the door. He took off his helmet and stored it in a compartment.

Taking a deep breath of the salty sea air, he steeled himself. He knew from years of experience that alcohol was no solution. He had spent almost a decade after Desert Storm and Billy’s death trying to drown it all in a bottle. If he was not on duty, he could be found in any of a half dozen bars around San Diego.

He had come damned close to losing it all. His drinking and a couple of bar fights had led to mandatory anger management classes and a demotion. He still had the nightmares of holding Billy’s head, red liquid trailing from his nose and mouth, as the sound of him gurgling and drowning in his own blood echoed in his dreams.

The irony was that when he re-enlisted after nine-eleven, he knew he was heading back to that hot, dry desert. He knew that there would be more Billys. He knew that he would lead men to their deaths. Hell, some warped part of him even hoped that it would be him. That the nightmares and the hell that he lived in would end where it had all begun.

But watching the television that morning, he had realized, for the first time, how important the job that he and the other men and women he worked with really was. Knowing that those buildings were full of civilians. Men and women who were not trained for war, who went to work that morning to type letters and trade stocks or a dozen other mundane things. They had expected another day at the office. They had probably even looked out their windows and wished they were in the sunshine instead.

Then the planes hit, and the world changed. Sergeant Michael Thomas O’Malley changed. He became a U.S. Marine. Perhaps, for the first time in the decade since his friend’s death, he was proud of what he did and the uniform he wore. Despite it all, the battles, the deaths, fighting for rich man’s oil more than freedom, he was still proud. Proud of the men and women that he had served beside, like Manny, Tommy, Billy, and thousands more whose names and faces he could never forget.

He slung his leg across his bike and walked to the door. A large black man stood sentry at it. His arms that reminded Mike of saplings were crossed about his chest as he stared Mike up and down.

“You with Luke’s bunch, ain’t you?”

Mike nodded.

“Yeah, well, keep it down back there. Those old guys haven’t started a fight in over a year. Just because they have fresh, young blood, don’t think ya’ll can tonight. Understand, buddy?”

Mike held up his hands in surrender. “I’m not here for any trouble. Just a few beers and conversation.”

“Well, keep it that way. They at their usual booth in the back, past the pool tables.”

“Thanks.”

Mike nodded and stepped inside. He stopped just inside the doors, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim neon lights.

He smiled as the lonesome twang of country music drifted to his ears. Leave it to this lot to find the one bar in all Southern California with country music on its jukebox.

Even with an almost packed room, it only took Mike a moment to locate the group sitting at a table in the back. Just as the man had said. He could see that the tabletop was already littered with a couple of dozen empty beers mugs and shot glasses. If he had thought to drown his troubles in the bottle, he decided then and there that it might be a better idea to go slow and keep a cool head. Watch out for these guys’ backs tonight.

He was headed towards the back when a sultry voice stopped him. “Hey, jarhead, what you having?”

Mike looked over to the woman standing behind the bar. She was probably a couple of years older than he was, but well preserved. Her platinum blonde hair was obviously dyed, and the black t-shirt that read ‘Kay’s’ was stretched taut over D-cup breasts that Mike would bet was compliments of one of Southern California’s best plastic surgeons.

“Just a beer. Whatever you have on tap will be fine,” he replied, walking over to the bar. As he approached, he could see the round curves of her bottom filled in the tight jeans she wore.

“You a new addition to that gang?”

“A temporary one, maybe. I bought my bike from Luke, and then we ran into one another…” his voice faded off.

How did one say at a funeral? Death and dying were never comfortable topics in society, but more so when that death was a young soldier in battle. People just did not want to think about the reality, the real cost of their freedoms and safety.

The woman nodded knowingly. “They only come in here after one of their funerals.” Passing the cold mug across the bar, she placed her neatly manicured hand over his where it rested on the bar. “If the beer don’t drown it, baby, I can think of other ways. Join your buddies. They’ll be closing this place down tonight anyway. Then if you want, you and me can hook up.”

Mike picked up the cold glass and took a long swig of the beer. He looked the woman up and down again. It was certainly not the first time he had been propositioned. Frankly, he admired the woman’s straight forward approach and she damn sure was hot. Hotter than anything he had had in…well, in a long time.

He shook his head and called himself a fool. “Thank you, Ma’am, for the kind offer. It certainly is intriguing, but I think that I’m going to have my hands full with that lot tonight. Perhaps another time.”

The woman shrugged her shoulders, and the t-shirt stretched even tighter across her ample chest. Mike cursed himself again. “The offer stands. I’m Kay, by the way. And yes, I own this shitty place.”

Mike extended his hand, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Kay. I’m Mast…” his voice trailed off. “I’m Mike.”

“Hey, Mike, don’t you be sweet talkin’ my woman, boy,” Luke said as he slapped Mike on the shoulder.

Kay looked at the bear of a man and laughed, “Yeah, right. I have Kim Lee’s number on speed dial. Want me to call her up and tell her that? You know damned good and well that there won’t be no more wives for you, old pal.”

The man’s laughter boomed around the bar. “Aw, sweetie, but an old man can dream, can’t he?”

The woman giggled and nodded her head, “Get your ass back there with the others. I’ll have Stacy clear off the table and bring over another round. But be warned, I’m not having any trouble tonight, Luke. One misstep, and I’m picking up this phone and calling her.”

The man brought his hand to his forehead in a mock salute, “Yes, Ma’am.”

Turning to Mike, he grabbed his hand and pumped it up and down rapidly. “We were beginning to think you weren’t gonna show, buddy.”

“Sorry, as I said, I just had a couple of things to handle back at the Hernandezes. Thanks for inviting me.”

“Hell, like I told you yesterday, us guys got to stick together, you know,” the man’s speech was beginning to slur, and Mike could tell he was already less than steady on his feet. Mike was half glad when he wrapped his arm about his shoulder. It would allow him to guide the man’s bulk more easily back to the table before he fell.

“You any good at pool?” Luke asked as they passed the tables.

“Not really. Wish I had back half the money I lost at the tables.” Mike eased the giant into the booth. He nodded at the two other men remaining at the table.

The white-headed gentleman Mike recognized as the one who had worn the officers’ uniform earlier, but now he wore khakis and a Hawaiian shirt. The other man was the African-American man that was about his age. He nodded to both of them. “Hello.”

“Oh, that’s right. We didn’t have time for formal introductions earlier. Mike, this is Colonel Shaffer, but we just call him Bob. And that is Larry. You guys might have served together in Desert Storm. Me, I’m Nam. Dirty, nasty shit hole of a jungle. The Colonel, well, he’s seen more than the rest of us: Korea, Nam, and Desert Storm. So, you’re among friends, boy.”

Mike nodded at the other men as Larry scooted over to make room for him on the bench. The group fell into casual conversation over beer after beer after beer with more than the occasional shot thrown in for good measure. Luke and Larry got louder and louder as the drinks flowed. They took turns bragging about their women and wives, each trying to best the other.

Until it, all ended in a challenge. The winner would be decided at the pool table. Although both men could barely stand, they stumbled together to the table just a few feet away. They used the pool cues and the table to hold themselves upright as they played, scratching more than their fair share of balls.

Mike chuckled at the spectacle as he lifted his third mug of beer to his lips. He was barely feeling anything, having carefully nursed each drink slowly.

“Things never change, do they, son?” asked the Colonel.

“What do you mean, sir?”

“Those two trying to drink enough to forget it all. Bragging about things that never happened. Trying to be men. All of it just a show to hide the pain.”

Mike stared at the bottom of the glass as he nodded. “I suppose so, sir.”

“You said that boy today was one of yours?”

“Yes, sir, he was.”

“It never gets any easier, son. Being the one to give the orders. The one to lead other men to their deaths. There are times you just wish it could have been you.”

Mike could see the old man’s hands shaking as he lifted his glass. Mike knew it was not the alcohol talking. The mug was the same one that the man had had all night, and it was barely half empty.

“How do you manage, sir? If you don’t mind me asking.”

The man chuckled. “Not so well these last couple of years, my boy.” The colonel paused a moment and drew a small swig before continuing. “It wasn’t so bad before my wife Ethel died. That woman was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“She stood by me from the day we met in college. When I came home from Korea, we had a rough spell. Things just weren’t the same. I had seen too much. And for a while, it looked like we might not make it. But she wouldn’t give up on me, not even when I…”

The man took a long drink this time, almost emptying the glass. Mike swore that he could see tears glistening in the corners of his eyes. He waited patiently.

“She just would not give up on me, no matter what I did. Of course, when Nam came along, we both knew more about what to expect. It doesn’t change how you feel inside, but knowing that those feelings are natural, well, it helps some.” The man lifted his glass and drained the last of it.

“I was probably your commander in Desert Storm. Even though you never saw my face or might not even remember my name, I was the one commanding half of the Marine troops over there. So whatever burdens you bear from those days, don’t. They aren’t yours to carry, Marine. They rest squarely on my shoulders.”

Mike choked on his beer. Billy’s head resting on his lap as blood trickled from the edge of his mouth flashed liked a scene from a movie through his mind. After all these years, over twenty of them, he was sitting across the table from the man who gave the orders. Orders that cost his best friend’s life.

And all he felt was pity. Pity for the weight that the man bore. He had given orders, too, over the years. Orders that cost other good men their lives, men like Manny Hernandez or Tommy Samuels, but he could always justify it. He was just following orders.

And while the man across the table was in his own way just following orders as well, he was the one that had decided strategy. He had called the shots, like a football coach in a championship game. And win or lose, it was his decisions that cost the game. Everyone else was just players on the field.

Mike did not even want to imagine the weight of this man’s burdens. He certainly was not going to add to them by telling him about Billy.

“Yes, sir,” Mike whispered. Trying to change the subject, “Your wife sounds like a remarkable woman.”

“She was. She held it all together. Me. Our children. Hell, my whole command. She was always there. Every time something happened, she was there with a casserole and a hug. I miss her like hell.” He paused and stared at the empty glass, “What about you, son? You married? Got a good woman to shoulder some of the pain?”

Mike shook his head. “No, sir. Afraid the Corps was my mistress for the past twenty-plus years. Not much room in there for a woman. Besides, there ain’t many like your wife left.”

As the words passed his lips, an image flashed through his mind…Esther.

“Yeah, that’s true enough. But they do exist, boy. And here’s the best advice this old man can give you. You look this world over until you find you one. Then you do whatever you have to do to hold onto her because that’s the only peace you will ever find in this world. In the arms of a good woman, a woman who knows your pain and loves you anyway.”

Mike nodded. The Colonel could never know, never understand. This pain, he bore alone. He could never wash the blood of her son from his memory, and as long as it was there, he could never be the man that she deserved.

It was nothing more than one of those stupid Greek tragedies that they had pounded into his head in high school. He smiled at the irony, given that she was an English teacher and probably pounding those same stories into the heads of teenagers somewhere. He raised his glass and drained the last swallow in a toast to her. 

“Can I get you another?” he asked the Colonel.

“No, one is my limit these days. Plumbing is giving out on me. Prostate cancer.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’ve lived longer than I should have. Longer than a lot of good men, we know. Besides, I’m kind of looking forward to it. Seeing Ethel again.” He motioned to the bar, “Ask Kay to call me a taxi, will you? I’m kind of tired and want to call it a night.”

“Yes, sir,” Mike nodded as he headed to the bar.

Luke called out to him as he passed, “Get us a couple more, will you?”

“You sure that is a good idea, my friend?”

“Hell, no. It is a bad one, but so were the last half dozen. I might as well enjoy it while I can cause I know I’m gonna pay for it later.”

Larry laughed, “Yeah, Kim Lee gonna hit you upside that thick head of yours for sure.”

“Yeah, well, at least I got a woman to warm my bed. What you got?”

“I don’t know. If Mike there don’t take Kay up on her offer, who knows I might?”

“Now that would start a fight. You know better than to even look at that girl. Ty will kick your ass all over town. That’s his woman.”

“She ain’t got no rings or strings. She can do what she wants.”

“You keep thinking that, but when was the last time anyone took up that lady’s offer. That SEAL done put his seal on the little lady and Marine or not, I don’t think that is a battle you want to fight, buddy?”

“Yeah, well…” The sound of the men trailed off as Mike approached the bar.

“Excuse me, Ma’am,” he cleared his throat as the woman finished filling up another mug and passed it to the waitress. The place was beginning to empty now that it was almost one in the morning, but there were still three dozen or so men and women scattered at the bar and tables around it.

“I told you, call me Kay. What can I get you, sweetie?” She pushed another mug towards the bouncer who stood at the end of the bar. The man that Mike had met earlier was now glaring at him.

“The Colonel asked if you wouldn’t mind calling him a cab. And could I get another round of beers for me and the others?”

“Yeah, but this is the last one. We closing soon, and I don’t want no trouble with you lot,” said the man.

The woman rolled her eyes. “Don’t mind Ty, Sugar. I’m happy to call a cab for the Colonel. How’s he doing anyway?” She pulled the tap, filling three mugs with frothy beer.

“He says he’s a bit tired.”

“He hasn’t been the same the last couple of years. He’s had cancer for years, but it was such a shock when Miss Ethel passed. By the time the doctors found breast cancer, it was already too late. But that’s how that woman was. Always putting herself last, taking care of the Colonel and everyone else without ever complaining. I sure miss her.”

Mike could hear her voice cracking as she spoke. “You knew his wife?”

Her eyes clouded over, “Yes, the Colonel was my husband’s commander. Tony was killed when his copter went down on a training exercise. Miss Ethel was there, even before the Chaplain, with a hug and a chicken casserole. All us wives knew what those casseroles meant…bad news. But we loved that woman like a mother. I’ll never forget her.”

She smiled through the unshed tears as she passed the beers across the bar to him. “She was there for me so many times. Back then, I was nothing more than a kid myself. Nineteen and a newlywed. I had no idea what the hell I was going to do.”

“My parents wanted me to come home to Texas, but I had fallen in love with the surf and big city lights of Southern California. Miss Ethel helped me get settled, find a job after Tony died, get an apartment, and begin a new life. Over the years, she kept in touch, too. When my boss put this place up for sale, she insisted that the Colonel co-sign the loan. This place is as much theirs as it is mine.”

“They just helped out a little with the financing. You are the one that keeps this place going, sweetheart,” added Ty.

The woman sighed, “Well, it is the baby I never had.”

Mike noticed the shadow that crossed the man’s face and decided now would be a good time to exit. He lifted the mugs. “Thank you, ma’am.”

The woman flashed him a smile, “The other offer still stands, Jarhead.”

“I’m honored, Ma’am, but I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. Nothing personal, it’s just that there is someone else,” he stretched the truth.

“Good for you, Sergeant. An honorable man is a hard thing to find these days.”

“I don’t know, Ma’am. I know quite a few of them. I bet you do, too,” he smiled at Ty.

“You warn Luke that I’m calling Kim Lee after this one. And tell Larry that he can sleep it off in the back room. If you drink that one real slow, I’ll let you pass, though. It’s only your fourth.”

“You keep count on all your customers, Ma’am?”

“Not really. Just on my friends,” she winked before turning back to talk with Ty.

Mike headed back to the table where Luke and Larry had collapsed at last next to the Colonel. “Kay says that she will call your taxi, Colonel. But she said to warn you that she is calling your wife, Luke. And Larry, she said you could sleep this one off in the back.”

Larry lifted his glass high and looked at Luke, “See, I told you the little lady has the hots for me, buddy.”

“You better not say that too loud, or you’ll be sleeping it off in the emergency room when Ty is finished with you.”

The Colonel laughed at them both. “Will you help me to the door, boy?” He turned to Mike.

“It would be my honor, sir.” Mike helped the elderly man from the booth. They stopped at the bar for a moment. Mike left the man with Kay, giving them some privacy while he pretended interest in the jukebox.

“I don’t know whether to knock the shit out of you or thank you,” said a low voice.

“No need for thanks, but I would appreciate it if you didn’t kick my ass. I’m in no mood to decide the age-old battle over who is tougher, SEALs or Marines.”

“We both know the answer to that question, but I’ll let you jarheads keep pretending. It’s the least I can do for you.”

Mike turned and held out his hand. “Mike O’Malley. You must be the Ty I keep hearing about.”

“Tyrone Williams. And you better believe everything those old boys say. I protect what’s mine,” he replied, squeezing Mike’s hand a bit too hard as if to prove his point.

“Yeah, well, a wise man once told me if you find a good woman, you should hold onto her and never let her go. So, if I were you, I’d clarify my position with the little lady. Unless you like watching her make these little offers to guys like me.”

Mike squinted as the man squeezed his hand even harder and stared into his eyes. For a moment, he wondered if he was going to be the one that spent the night in the emergency room. But then the man released his hand and slapped him on the back.

“Damn good advice. I think it is about time I made things a little clearer to the lady.”

“Don’t thank me. Thank the Colonel. It’s his advice.”

“Old man always was a wise son of a bitch. On and off the battlefield.”

“Well, if you will excuse me, I’d better get the old man into his cab.” Mike walked back to the bar. “Are you ready, Colonel?”

The man nodded and wrapped Kay in a hug. “You call me next week so we can get those papers signed, you hear me. I don’t want no trouble when…”

Kay nodded her head. “Thank you, Colonel. You and Miss Ethel were like family to me.”

“You know Ethel thought of you like the daughter she never got off this Marine. She loved you, dear.”

“Yes, sir,” this time, the woman could not hold back the tears as they spilled from her eyes, trailing dark mascara down her cheeks. She swiped at them with the back of her hand, but it only made matters worse, smudging her cheeks and nose as well.

“And sweetie, one more thing. It’s way past time you stopped playing these little games. You aren’t a kid anymore. Tony’s been dead almost twenty-five years now. You have had your fun and played the field.”

The old man looked to where Ty was talking with a middle-aged couple at the door. “But you have a good man now. It’s time you grew up and became the woman Ethel always knew you could be. Nothing would please this old man more than to walk you down the aisle before I go be with her.”

Drawing her back into his arms, he looked her in the eyes. “You promise me you’ll think about it. I know the boy is only a SEAL, but we can forgive him for that one mistake, can’t we?”

Kay joined him in laughter as she slapped the man’s shoulder. “Go home, old man, before your taxi decides to leave without you.”

Mike took the man’s hand and felt him lean more heavily upon him as they walked to the door. A yellow cab was waiting outside, and Mike recognized the driver as the man who had driven him to Luke’s shop just the day before.

“Hello, Colonel. How are you this evening?” asked the man as he opened the door.

“Fine, Ahmed. And how is your boy? Is he doing well at UCLA? Getting good grades and staying out of trouble?”

“Yes, sir.” Ahmed took the Colonel’s hand and helped him into the cab as he nodded at Mike.

Mike watched as the driver closed the door and walked around to the other side of the car. As the cab drove off, he considered just leaving. He was tired. So tired. This day had been long. Too damned long. But he could not go without saying good-bye to Luke. Without making sure that this mysterious Kim Lee had the situation well under control. So, he turned back towards the bar.

As he entered, he noticed that Kay was talking to Ty as she scrubbed down a table near the door. She looked up and smiled weakly as he walked past. He saw that the dark streaks were spreading across her cheeks as more tears brimmed over. But he figured that Ty was more the man to handle the situation. He would only complicate things. Just like he always did.

Luke was lying halfway across the booth and snoring so loudly that it almost drowned out the music. Larry was staring into the bottom of his empty glass.

“You all right?” Mike asked.

“Are we ever?”

Taking a seat next to the man, Mike shrugged his shoulders. “How long have you been out of the Corps?”

“Since right after we came back. I kept having dreams. Nightmares. They said I would wake up the whole barracks screaming. Got to the point that no one wanted to be around me. The docs decided that a medical discharge was best for everyone.”

“Since then?”

“I don’t know. It’s up and down, I suppose. I spent some time in the VA hospital in Long Beach, but there wasn’t much they could do for me. Hell, I lost a couple of years sleeping on the streets.” The man toyed with the rim of the glass, his fingers outlining its edges.

“I was holding up a sign off the freeway. You know the one. Vet needs help, sort of thing. Luke pulled over and started talking. He helped me get off the crack and even gave me a job. Let me sleep at the shop until I could get my own place. Saved my life, I guess.”

“And now?”

“Things can still be tough. I have the dreams sometimes. Wake up sweating, and it takes me a while to remember where I am. But Luke is great. He’s cool if I call in sick for a few days while I get myself back together.” He stared at the glass. “They’re right, you know. We got to stick together. Take care of one another. No one back here understands. No one knows what it is like.”

Mike placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. “That’s what I aim to do, my friend. I bought the bike, so I could do a bit of traveling and check in on some old friends. See if I can help out, the way Luke helped you.”

“You a good man to the Corps.” They both laughed at the joke as they lifted their mugs in salute.

Kay walked over and kicked Luke in the shin. The bear woke and sat up as if coming out of hibernation. “What? I’m here, Kim Lee,” he cried out.

“You damn well better be, because I called her fifteen minutes ago. Unless I miss my guess, we better start hauling your butt towards that door before that banshee comes tearing through my place, screaming and turning over my tables and chairs.”

Motioning to Mike to get on one side of Luke, she went to grab the other, but Ty stepped in. “I got this one, sweetheart. You get that one settled in the back room while the Jarhead and I hand this one over to his true love.”

Kay nodded, “Alright. Larry, can you walk on your own?”

The man saluted, “Yes, Ma’am. As much as I would love to have them arms wrapped around me, I think it is safer if I made it on my own steam.”

“Damn straight it is, buddy,” laughed Ty, as he and Mike used their combined strength to lift the grizzly.

Kay began clearing the table as the men headed towards the door. “Hey, Mike. Come back sometimes. The place ain’t always like this. Just when the boys take it over for one of their wakes. We usually a pretty fun place to hang out.”

“Thank you, Ma’am, but I’ll be heading out in a few days. If I’m ever back in these parts, though.”

“Yeah, bring your lady with you next time.”

Mike nodded as pink stained his cheeks. “Yes, Ma’am.”

They had barely made it out the door when another Harley barreled up to it. The creature driving it defied explanation. With a black helmet shrouding its head and clad in leather from head to toe, it resembled some mythical creature of darkness.

Except for its size. It was minuscule. Even straddling the bike, Mike could tell that it was barely five feet tall and could not weigh even a hundred pounds. Having tried to maneuver such a machine when he was about the same size, he marveled at the creature’s physical strength.

“You good for nothing, crazy old man. What you think you doing? I told you to come straight home this time. But did you listen to Kim Lee? No.”

The creature screeched as it removed the helmet. Hair as black as coal fell about a face that refused to reveal its age. Despite lines about the eyes and mouth, the woman’s features could have been those of the child Mike had first thought she was.

“Kim Lee, baby,” Luke slurred.

“Don’t you Kim Lee me, you sorry excuse for a man.” The woman boxed the giant about his ears.

“I’m sorry, baby. Honest, I am. But I ran into a new friend.” Turning to Mike for help, he pleaded, “This is Master Sergeant O’Malley. The man I told you about yesterday. I just wanted to have a couple of beers with him, sweetie. Talk about the Corps and old times.”

“Old times, nothing, old man. If you want talk to your friends, I tell you bring them home. I cook. They drink and eat. Then sleep it off at the house. Not in this place. Not with that woman. Jezebel.”

Ty stepped forward. “Miss Kim, you know Kay is a good woman. She keeps these guys straight. Just like you do.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. But you know, as well as me, that these two used to…” She kicked Luke in the shin as she continued, “…that my worthless husband used to warm that whore’s bed between wives. Well, no more. I not having you round her no more. You mine now.”

Luke bent forward and brushed a kiss across the hellion’s lips that were still set in a frown. “Aw, baby, don’t be like that. You know me and Kay ain’t nothing but friends now. Besides, sweetheart, I have always been yours. Since that day, I first laid eyes on you, forty years ago, no other woman has ever had this old heart.”

“Gees, man. Have some dignity,” complained Ty, as he and Mike pulled the man towards the SUV that was parked across the lot. Kim Lee followed behind. Mike might not understand a word she was saying, but he knew cursing when he heard it.

Luke leaned into the man. “You take lessons, boys. You got to sweet-talk your way out of these things. Women can’t resist sweet words and good loving. Ty, I know you might have the good loving down with Kay, but it’s them sweet words you gotta do now.”

Reaching the car, Ty shoved Luke against it as he jerked the door open. “I don’t need no god damned advice from you on how to handle Kay. You had your chance, you sorry son of a bitch. I’d kick your ass right now if I didn’t know that Kim Lee was gonna do it for me.”

“Damn right, I am,” Kim Lee added as she pushed her husband into the passenger’s seat and secured the belt about his hulking mass. Turning back to the men, she addressed them. “Ty, thank you. I so sorry. I keep him away as long as I can. I promise.”

“It’s alright, Miss Kim. These guys just need to blow off steam now and then. You know I don’t take it personally. You take care of the old coot.” Her tiny hand seemed to disappear into the maw of Ty’s larger ones.

Kim Lee turned towards Mike. He shrank under the glare as if something in those deep black eyes could see into the souls of men, read their deepest thoughts. And he had way too many to hide.

After a moment, she extended that tiny hand that he noticed was perfectly manicured, with bright red talons. He took it reluctantly and was surprised at the strength of her grip.

“You come to dinner at house Monday night. Call shop. Caleb give you address. Six o’clock. He should be sober by then.”

“Ma’am,” Mike began, but the woman held up her hand.

“No argument. You come.” Turning back to Ty, “You take care of Old Man. Let Larry ride it back to shop when he sober tomorrow.”

“Yes, Ma’am. I’ll lock it up tight inside the bar tonight.”

She handed the man her keys and walked around to the driver’s side. Mike stood in awe as she climbed into the massive vehicle, marveling that she could reach the pedals. The two men stood in silence as she drove off.

Ty was the first to break it, turning to Mike. “You need me to call a cab for you too? I can put your bike in the bar too.”

“I’m alright. I swear.”

“You better be. I ain’t dealing with Kay if anything happens to you, Jarhead.”

“Yeah, I don’t envy you dealing with that one. Period.”

Ty shook his head. “I think the Colonel and Luke might be onto something. I think it is about time I got some things straight with my little man-eater before I gotta kick some nice guy’s ass because he ain’t got your good sense to know when to turn her down politely. Thanks again for that.”

Mike held out his hand, “My pleasure, man.” This time Ty did not feel the need to break his fingers as they shook hands. A small blessing that Mike was extremely grateful for as the tiredness settled into his bones.

It was not the drunken stupor that he had hoped for, but he hoped that the beers would relax him enough that the dreams this night would be of soft skin and thick, dark curls beneath his fingers as he worshiped the thing he could never have.

Straddling his bike, he caressed the hardened steel the same way he longed to touch her namesake. “Esther,” he whispered, as he listened to her engine purr and imagined that soft lilting Southern voice purring his name as he made love to her. Some men were not as lucky as Ty, Luke, and the Colonel. Sometimes all a man had for comfort was his dreams.

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