Relaying directions to the south of the city and back to the acreage with the Quonset, the two men rode silently. James Cartwright, his eyes focused on the road, occasionally stole glances at his captor. Maybe the fuss about the fishing guide had some merit, he thought. In his mind, he chastised himself for underestimating the man’s abilities and until he had a chance to escape he had to suffer from his mistake.
Brand sat stoically, nursing the pain radiating throughout his beaten and battered body. His eyes tilted in the direction of the brooding Manager. The two men, each wary of the other's reputation, traveled uneasy on the journey across the city.
The clock in the pickup read four thirty a.m. The adrenaline that built during the evening and powered Brand’s quest quickly began fading. He struggled to keep his eyes open, and his mind focused on the man driving the vehicle.
Quarter after five, the two pulled off the highway and drove the last few minutes on the gravel road, past the bush line and into the yard housing the Quonset. Brand told Cartwright to stop. He waited. Past heavy eyelids he watched as the rifle-toting guards materialized from around the building, space lit up by the truck's headlights.
“Turn off the truck and hand me the keys.” Brand commanded. “If you step out of this truck the men you see are more than likely going to shoot you and I can’t allow that to happen quite yet.” He said as he climbed out of the passenger side, his hands held high in the air. He waited for Roy’s men to approach.
Little Abe, the same biker who had approached Brand the last time he showed up at the Quonset, moved cautiously toward Cartwright’s truck, his automatic rifle held with both hands covering the unknown vehicle. Noticing Brand, he lowered the gun.
“Jesus…you keep showing up like this you are going to get yourself shot.”
“Yeah…I know…next time I’ll call ahead.” Brand dropped his arms and walked around the truck yanking open the driver’s door. He grabbed the back of Cartwright’s collar and pulled the leader of the rival Warrior’s out into the open.
At the sight of the Manager, Little Abe raised his gun back up. “What the hell?” He exclaimed. “Why would you bring an asshole like that here? What’s going on?” Abe took a step back, his gun covering Brand and the rival biker.
“Whoa. Slow down cowboy.” Brand tightened his grip on Cartwright’s collar and led the man toward the big metal building. “I needed someplace to have a private conversation. I'll need somebody to watch over this fine gentleman until I have more time to deal with him.”
The bikers guarding the building looked at each other. Angry words floated across the yard.
“Because of this asshole, a lot of our friends are in the hospital. His Warriors have hunted our men and destroyed businesses, so what makes you think that we won’t kill the man.” One of the guards asked.
“Some nerve.” Another angry voice cut through the night air. “Who do you think you are? Waltz in here like you own the place and think we’ll be happy entertain this bugger! Not fucking likely!”
“I don’t know man.” Anger coloured little Abe's face as he separated from the other men. “Letting you take the truck was one thing…but this is going too far.”
Brand yanked on Cartwright’s collar. He ignored the protests dragging the Warrior’s leader toward the door of the Quonset, the disgruntled bikers begrudgingly moving out of his path.
“I highly doubt his asshole has enough authority to call the shots." Brand defended his actions. "I don’t think he had much say in organizing the attacks. A small potato like him, he does what the Colombians tell him to do, I suspect.” Brand said over his shoulder.
“They wouldn’t trust this coward any more than you do.”
Inside the building, Brand marched his captive to a post in the centre of the room. He glanced around spotting a length of chain lying to the side.
“Pass me that and a lock.” He pointed. Brand handed the Manager an end of the chain. “Hold this and keep your arms by your sides,” he instructed. Brand let the links slide through his hands as he walked circles. The chain tightened as he wound it from the Mangers waist up to the man's shoulders. Tugging at the metal rope, he fed the pin of a lock between two links snapping the chain shut.
He paused a moment eyeing his work then, looked around at the bikers. Brand read the disgust and hatred on their faces.
“Go back to what you were doing. No one lays a finger on this man.” Brand turned, nodded to Little Abe and motioned toward the office. A couple of bikers followed the two.
“I hope you know what you’re doing. You’re not making friends fast around here.” Little Abe commented. “What’s next?”
One of the straggling bikers piped up. “What in the hell happened to your face?” The man asked. “Looks like you went a few rounds with the bumper of a truck.”
Brand let a tired smile move his lips. “Worst part is that the damn truck fought back. Any coffee around this place.” He asked digging his pack of smokes free. After the long night, he felt his muscles relax. Pain and fatigue seeped into his conscious as tension drained away. He accepted the coffee, enjoying the effects of the cigarette.
The ringing of his phone interrupted his short respite. He glanced at the time and then the phone number before answering, a few minutes after six. The number he didn’t recognize.
A soft female voice filtered into his ear.
“Is this Mr. Coldstream?” The woman asked tentatively.
“Yeah. Who’s this?”
“My parents said you visited the store the other day asking about a phone.”
“You’re parents…what store?” Brand’s overtired mind wrestled to make sense of the caller’s words.
“I’m sorry.” The female apologized. “My name is Yen Lee. My parents own Lee’s Groceries in Montgomery. They told me you came to the store asking about Dave Halperson and a phone that was missing.”
Her words cut through the fog in Brand’s brain. He sat up. The weariness weighing down his body was all but forgotten.
“Yeah…yes, I was.” He responded suddenly alert. “Do you know anything about Dave or the phone?”
The girl hesitated. In a barely audible voice, she answered.
“Dave was special to me. A few days before he died, he came to me and begged me to hide the phone. He wouldn’t tell me why. Said I would be safer not knowing." Brand waited. The young lady choked back a tear. "That was the last time I talked to him." She continued. "I hid it away and honestly; I had forgotten about it until you walked into the store and talked to my parents."
“Where are you now?” Brand asked. He had the keys to Cartwright’s truck in his hand and was crossing the floor as he talked.
“The same place you met my parents. We live on the second floor. We have an apartment above the store.”
“I’m on my way. A friend's life depends on it.” He was about to end the call. “You haven’t told anyone else about this phone, have you?” He had to ask.
“No. As I said, I'd forgotten about it until now.”
At the Quonset door, he stopped and called out to Abe. “I need Cartwright alive.” He said pointing to the Warrior tied to the post. “Something important has come up. I'll be back as fast as possible.” As an afterthought, he added. “Promise me you'll keep your guys from killing him." Brand left without hearing Little Abe's response.
Traffic into the city had increased significantly by the time Brand picked up the four-lane highway north into town. Rush hour was well under way. He impatiently tapped the steering wheel as he sat in the truck crawling along with northbound commuters on their way into the city for work.
Forty-five minutes later he pulled into the strip mall. Closed signs greeted him, businesses yet to open for the workday. A hand full of vehicles sat scattered randomly in the lot. Owners and employees, early to work preparing for the new day mixed with cars abandoned after a night of too many drinks at the corner pub.
Brand wedged the truck into a stall a store down from the grocery store. The lights inside the building were off, the door locked, a neon sign read closed. Under the red bulbs a sign displaying the hours of operation.
He stood gazing up at the front of the building. Brand lit a cigarette. Standing on the pavement, he pulled the phone from his pocket. Swiping through the array of screens, he stopped on the call log and hit redial. The number from Lee’s daughter’s recent call front and center on the list. Before the call connected, a moving curtain on the second floor grabbed his attention. A small face framed by straight black hair peered down at him. Her head backlit by the apartment lights.
Brand raised his phone in greeting and shrugged. The woman raised her hand to her ear.
"Are you Dave's friend," she asked.
Brand nodded his head. "Yes," he replied.
"Give me a minute," she said.
Brand crossed the sidewalk closer to the store's entrance. Muffled footsteps grew louder as they approached the door. The sound of sliding metal as the door locks were released before the glass and steel frame opened a crack.
“Mr. Coldstream.” The same face from the second-floor window enquired. Brand pocketed his phone and took a step stopping close to the opening.
“Yes.” He acknowledged. “Brand. You can call me Brand.” He said and smiled, with what he hoped was a reassuring gesture. “Nice to meet you.” He faltered, thoughts of young Dave ran through his mind. Sad that he never knew Dave had a girlfriend and embarrassed to meet the girl under these circumstances. His mood darkened. Some friend he had been.
Brand followed the girl to the back of the crowded convenience store. A back room stuffed with boxed grocery items, trays of goods and a hollowed out space containing an overburdened desk. Yen Lee looked up into Brand's face. Spent teardrops glistened at the edge of her eyes. Her words came out sadly.
"Dave mentioned your name often." Yen Lee started. "He enjoyed the fishing and the friendship." Lee turned her face away. In a shaky, tear-filled voice she told Brand about her relationship with Dave. The young woman's story drifted at times. She smiled at the couple’s happy memories and then talked quieter, choking back the pain of her loss.
Brand felt the fatigue return, swamping his body. He pushed against the lack of sleep and politely listened. The rage over the young guides death fuelling the familiar anger he had been holding at bay for the past several days.
"I am sorry to burden you, Mr. Coldstream," she apologized. Yen Lee squeezed past Brand in the tight confines. She slid a stack of boxes aside revealing wooden shelves. Standing on her toes, she stretched and reached a hand, her fingers exploring at the back of a rack.
Yen Lee twisted and dropped back to flat feet. She faced Brand. Her fingers wrapped tightly around a device as big as her hand. She raised the phone in his direction.
"I hope this helps you," she said.
Brand nodded. "It will. Believe me."
Palming the phone, he held the power button. A warning and a red line told of the lack of battery power. He hid his disappointment. The answer to so many questions nestled in his palm but unable to access them. The need to recharge the battery before he could comb through the stored videos and his chance to review the pictures that cost one friend his life and another held by the Cartel.
"Maybe one day we can meet for a coffee and share happier memories of Dave." He suggested.
Brand stuck the phone in his pocket and thanked the young lady. He wound through the crowded grocery aisles and into the morning sunshine.
One hand on the truck's door handle, his phone rang again. He thought about ignoring the ringing nuisance. He was dead tired and still had lots of work to do before he had a chance to rest. On the third ring, he accepted the call. Susan was on the other end.
“Can you pick me up?” She pleaded. “Detective O’Brien hadn't returned home since your call last night, and I’m afraid being here alone.”
Rubbing his face, Brand stood beside the truck mulling over her request. She was probably safe enough at the detective’s house.
“Fine.” He said. “I’m not that far away. See you in a few.” He hung up and climbed into the truck. The Quonset where he drove Cartwright would also be safe enough, he figured. Roy's men guarded the place continuously. They may be able to keep an eye on her as well, he supposed.
Back in the yard surrounding the Quonset, Brand went through the now-familiar routine of waiting for the guards to do their thing. He was in no mood for these games any longer, but he wouldn’t blame the bikers for being cautious. Not after the war that was being waged by the Warriors over the last few days.
Men appeared at the edge of the bushes. A lone biker, gun held chest high and aimed at the cab of the truck, left his post and warily moved forward.
Recognizing Brand, the guard signalled to the other men watching the property. The man nodded and waved Brand through. The truck rolled the last several feet before Brand pressed the selector in park and removed the key.
Stepping out of the truck, Brand forced his sagging eyelids open. His legs unsteady, his body faltering from equal amounts of fatigue and spent adrenaline, waited by the nose of the truck for Susan to climb from the cab. He motioned Susan ahead as the two walked past armed men.
Crossing the threshold into the metal building, Susan pulled up short at the sight of the Warrior leader chained to a post in the middle of the building. Her hesitation was slight. She recovered quickly and continued further inside. Brand noticed her pause and chalked it up to jitters then put it out of his mind.
"There's possibly a pot of brewed coffee in the office," he pointed her toward the open door. "I'll be along in a minute." Brand strayed to the center of the building. The day's activities transformed the building. The squeal of air wrenches and compressors rattled. The smell of auto paint tainted the air as men climbed among a variety of vehicles in different stages of repair. Fenders and various auto parts littered the floors. The tone in the Quonset muted. The men were murmuring amongst themselves.
"The boys treating you all right?" Brand stopped, facing the Manager. Cartwright glowered back. He studied the biker's face. Red rimmed eyes half concealed behind drooping eyelids. The man struggled against the chains holding him upright against the post.
"You look tired," Brand commented. "Me too. You might as well grab a few winks. We can talk later." Brand was operating on little sleep and knew that if he didn’t find a place to lie down soon, he’d hit a wall of fatigue and be rendered useless.
Walking out of the office, steaming mug of coffee in hand, Brand tracked down Little Abe. “Is there a place I can crash? Somewhere out of the way to grab a few hours of sleep?”
Little Abe pointed to the second level.
"Second room on the right has a couch. I'll make sure you're not disturbed," Abe promised.
The roar of bike engines entered his subconscious bleeding into his troubled dreams. He was on a bike being chased by a band of demons. The demons morphed into the Colombians…then the scene switched to his friends chasing down the highway after him.
The nightmare jumped from the highway to alleys filled with rot, buildings crumbling all around. A wall of brick stopped Brand's escape. Behind Brand, his friends gestured at him accusatorily, their heads replaced by white skulls as flames burned in place of their eyes….
He sat up, his eyes snapping open, the bizarre images disappearing but the rattle of bike engines remained loud, seeping into the building, slowly rising to the still room in the loft he had sought refuge in a short while ago.
Brand's hands rose to his head. A headache drummed his brain while pain and throbbing wracked his weary body.
Outside the massive metal structure, a loud resonating roar vibrated the building. Shaking the cobwebs of sleep away, Brand swung his feet to the floor and stretched before leaving the couch and walking to a small window in the loft. He stood to the side of the window; his fingers peeling the dusty curtain aside.
Gazing outside, he peered down into the yard searching for the source of the noise that had woken him from his dreams. An army of motorbikes filled the gravel lot outside. The loud mufflers of the bikes unable to restrict the throaty rattle thrown off by the powerful engines. The array of bikers wearing different patches and colours.
Brand's heart skipped a beat. None of the biker's in his view carried Wolves colours. The lingering wisps of sleep quickly left his mind. With a clearer head, he scanned the patches below, the names not easily readable, but not Warriors. The clubs he and Little Abe called the previous day.
He dug in his pocket for his phone to check on the time. He pulled two out. In his tired state, he had forgotten to charge the phone Yen Lee had given him. Turning his attention back to his phone, he hit the button and swore, early afternoon already.
Outside the window, dust from the gravel lot settled. Brand's heart skipped half a beat. His breath quickened. The dissipating cloud of dust revealed hundreds of riders straddling motorbikes. His eyes roamed over the yard.
The riders wore leather vests and jackets adorned with unfamiliar gang colours and patches. Brand studied the group. None of the badges resembled the Wolves but in the same breath, not Warrior colours either. The arrivals filled the space between the trees rimming the lot and the building. Noises rose from the lower floor seeping into the loft. Loud, excited talking. The combined sound of many footsteps crossing the concrete floor.
Remaining by the window, he watched as Little Abe and a group of Wolves walked into his sight from somewhere near the Quonset. The Wolves men spread apart, crossing the short distance from the building to challenge the rival bikers.
To Brand's tired eyes, the meeting outside the window was tension filled. His hand went to his side searching for a gun. Were these new riders part of the Warriors and did they discover the location of the Quonset or...no, he realized. The new arrivals would not have ridden in peacefully. Instead, they would have shot their way into the yard with guns ablaze, if they were from the Warriors.
Still, he hung by the window watching the proceedings. The gathering outside seemed friendly enough, and the men who rode into the yard were obviously the bikers Roy had been recruiting.
Brand left the room and climbed the stairs. He spotted Susan walking from the center of the room back toward the office.
“I’m not sure what to do with you?” Brand confessed to James Cartwright as he crossed the floor. “I can’t imagine that my threats or even a good beating would convince you to tell me what I want to know.” He continued as he walked a circle around the Manager. Cartwright followed Brand's movements. The Warrior sagged against the chains holding him in a standing position. "And frankly. I'm too tired to care.
I will tell you what I am prepared to do though.” He stopped in front of Cartwright locking eyes with the man. “I need to know where your Colombian buddies are holding my friend. Tell me, and I will guarantee that the Wolves will not touch you."
He stopped and listened the sound of the thundering of barely restrained motorcycle engines rapped out of exhaust pipes and filtered into the massive room. That roar you hear is the cavalry arriving. You and your Latin friends are in for a little push back.” Brand walked to the office, dragged a chair back and sat in front of the Warrior’s Manager.
He remained silent letting the other man consider his options.
“I’ll give you another minute, after that I am walking outside and the men in the yard can do with you as they wish. I think those men will probably enjoy the chance to question you after watching what your men did to their friends.”
James Cartwright returned Brand stare. The defiant expression on the Manager's face changing as he imagined the horror awaiting him beyond the buildings metal walls. Brand watched Cartwright struggle. Loyalty to his men and the Colombians or the prospect of a short future, one he presumably would like to avoid.
The warrior biker broke his silence.
“Sure, what the hell. I’m tired of the Cartel boys and their shit anyways. You can guarantee me that these guys aren’t going to cut me to pieces or leave me lying in a ditch with a bullet in the brain?"
“I can persuade them to let you live if you cooperate.”
“The shooting of Thundercloud was never my idea," Cartwright confessed. "That slime ball, Rojas. He wanted to repay you for the stolen drugs and the destruction of our warehouse.”
“Ya, ya whatever. Where’s my friend, the old fishing guide? Where can I find him?”
“That I can’t help you with, but I can tell you that Rojas and his men occupy the top floor of the casino. It's where they operate from.” Cartwright struggled with his dilemma. “They could be holding your friend there; I rarely set foot on that floor.”