Death didn’t break for a holiday weekend. Sometimes the body count actually increased.

So when a crowd formed in the vicinity of one of the Independence Day floats, I wasn’t surprised. In fact, as I jogged toward the disturbance to see if there was anything I could do to help, I was already coming up with a list of possible reasons for the crowd: some sort of dispute had broken out; someone had passed out from heat exhaustion due to the ridiculously high temperature; or, quite possibly, someone had choked on a hot dog.

When I recognized the siren as that of an approaching ambulance and not a police car, I worried the ruckus was the result of one of the latter options. I slowed. I knew the emergency medical techs wouldn’t need the little assistance I could provide.

But I was curious, and not just due to simple human nature. I had seen among the crowd several members of “Samael’s Army,” one of Central Kentucky’s motorcycle clubs, or MCs, as they called themselves. In the Bureau, we called them OMGs—outlaw motorcycle gangs. I was very familiar with the group, as in the two months since being reinstated as special agent for the FBI, I’d spent quite a bit of time studying the local OMGs and their illicit activities. Named for the archangel of death according to Jewish lore, Samael’s Army lived up to the ancient moniker. Everywhere they had gone during the past sixty years, they had developed a reputation for encouraging the sins of men and wreaking havoc. Today, however, they were pretending to be contributing members of Midland, Kentucky, just ordinary folks participating in the small-town holiday parade.

I wove my way through the crowd until I saw two EMTs bent over a female body. Her pale, skinny legs lay still on the dirty blacktop. She was unresponsive, and though one of the EMTs blocked her upper body from my view, it was clear that she had thrown up, and that her body had released her urine and waste. Her right sleeve had slid up, revealing bruises and scarring from her wrist to her elbow joint. And I knew. This girl had overdosed.

Not the best start to a long Fourth of July weekend.

~~~~~

Erica Marshall, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Louisville division, had been vague on the phone, but if she was resorting to calling me, it must be bad. Before I could meet with her, though, I had a quick errand to run: delivering soda to Carrie Anne and Marti’s snow cone stand.

In actuality, the stand was a Midland Historical Society booth that they had dressed up to double as a snow cone stand. The way Carrie Anne saw it, kids would want snow cones, and that would give her a shot at soliciting donations from parents for much-needed upkeep of the town’s historic structures.

Carrie Anne and Marti, the mother-daughter duo who ran the Julep Hill Inn and Café, were pretty much the welcoming committee, the hospitality committee, and the bereavement committee for the small town of Midland. They also ran the neighborhood watch and kept the gossip mill honest each and every morning when the town gathered at the café for breakfast and/or coffee. And Carrie Anne took it upon herself to keep everyone informed of their responsibility to help keep the town’s historic structures standing.

Carrie Anne and Marti were also my friends. They had taken me in when I arrived in Kentucky the previous spring in an attempt to protect the governor of Kentucky from a bioterrorist, and were then gracious enough to forgive me when that turned into a major shit storm. So today, when they asked me to help with the Fourth of July festivities, I of course said yes.

It was nearing eleven a.m. as I carried a couple of cases of soda past celebrating families and hawkers selling merchandise, and it was already a soupy scorcher of a day, the kind where your sunglasses fog up the moment you walk outside: ninety degrees and eighty percent humidity, with a promise of afternoon thundershowers. Down the street, I could see floats and herds of people lining up for the parade. Several members of Samael’s Army sat on their Harley-Davidsons, revving their throttles to an obnoxious level. Children ran around in red, white, and blue clothes, their cheeks decorated with festive face paint. The air smelled of funnel cakes and deep-fried Twinkies. The entire town had gathered for a day of patriotic festivities.

“Girl,” Marti sang as I approached. “What are you doing in those blue jeans? It’s like a sauna out here.”

I set the sodas on a table and glanced down at my attire. “I wasn’t in the mood to wear my navy slacks and blazer?”

“Shit!” Her blond hair was tied into a messy bun on top of her head. She wore a weather-appropriate thin-strapped tank and short shorts, and even so, perspiration dotted her forehead and nose. “You’re bugging out on me.”

“I have to go in,” I confirmed, staring down at my white T-shirt and boot-cut jeans. Over the white tee, I wore an open, short-sleeved blouse that covered the Glock at my waist. The jeans hid the Sig strapped to my ankle.

Marti started transferring the sodas into the white coolers tucked under the tables. “And I guess you have no idea how long you’ll be?”

“No, but I’ll hurry back if I can.”

The truth was, I was looking forward to getting out into the field. Since I’d been working in the FBI’s Lexington satellite office, I’d been assigned nothing but analyst work—and my six weeks of research into outlaw motorcycle gangs hadn’t amounted to anything other than speculation into possible gun trafficking. Besides, every ounce of information I’d processed had been turned over to Special Agent Marshall, and she’d pretty much ignored me and my emails since I’d started.

Hell, I didn’t even have a partner—for the simple reason that there was no one to partner me with. I was the only agent assigned to the Lexington office. The other two field agents had been transferred out a month ago. But what bothered me most was that with every case the FBI had investigated in Kentucky these last two months—including two major ones in the Central Kentucky area—I had been passed over on the assignment in favor of agents out of the Louisville office. It was clear to me that I was on some sort of unspecified probation, blackballed without explanation or justification.

That was, until the phone call I’d received fifteen minutes ago. Special Agent Marshall had called and asked me to meet her at a hospital in Lexington, twenty minutes away. She said I was needed for my expertise with organized crime, drug trafficking, and OMGs. Frankly, I was surprised that Special Agent Marshall thought I had any expertise—other than surfing the internet. I wasn’t certain she’d even bothered to read any of my intelligence reports.

It didn’t escape my notice that I was being called in on something OMG-related only minutes after witnessing a drug overdose in front of members of an OMG. That was one hell of a coincidence—if I believed in coincidences. Which I didn’t.

“You’re going to miss the parade.” Marti’s bottom lip stuck out in a pout, but then slid into an easy grin.

“I’m sure I’ll survive without it,” I laughed. “Hopefully I’ll be back in time for the cookout.”

“You’d better be. Mom has gone overboard.”

“When does she not?” I asked.

“True.” Marti nodded behind me. “Speak of the devil…”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with this stupid thing,” Carrie Anne said behind me.

I turned to discover she was speaking to Declan O’Roark, who followed her closely as they approached the booth. Instead of his normal sleek business attire, he was wearing a vintage U2 T-shirt and cargo shorts. Two small children—one dark-haired and freckled, the other blond with a suntan most Californians would envy—trailed behind them.

Carrie Anne started banging a metal spoon against the side of a machine sitting on a table beside the booth. “If I don’t get it working real soon, these two munchkins and their friends are going to lose all faith in my ability to create the best snow cones in the South.” She rubbed the head of the blond-haired child, and he ducked out of her reach. Turning back to Declan, she pleaded, “Please help me.”

Declan, a man who could have purchased a million snow cone machines out of the current balance of his checking account, took the spoon out of Carrie Anne’s hand. “Beating the poor machine is not going to help. Why don’t you go…” His smooth, Irish-accented voice trailed off when his eyes found mine. He set the spoon aside and stalked toward me. Smiling, he took my hips as he continued speaking to Carrie Anne. “Why don’t you get your toolbox while I speak to this lovely lady. I’ll make sure you have ice for snow cones within the hour.”

I returned his playful grin, though I was sure my smile was more skeptical. He started to pull me close, but then held me at arm’s length. “Special Agent Fairfax,” he said warily and looked down. “You were in a sundress an hour ago.”

“I’ve been called in.”

His cheeks fell slightly. “I suppose I can save you a nitrate-sicle,” he said, making fun of the hot dogs traditionally served on July fourth.

“I have no idea how long I’ll be. I’m fairly certain the SAC wants to bring me in simply to ruin my holiday weekend plans.” But I secretly hoped I was getting assigned to an actual case.

He moved in closer, not stopping when Marti cleared her throat behind him. When his hand slid to the small of my back and pressed my body closer, I leaned my forehead against his and smiled. “There are children around,” I said.

He kissed me quickly on the lips, then let me go. “Don’t be long. Or I will come looking for you.”

Behind Declan, Carrie Anne set down her toolbox, then sighed. She lifted the metal spoon.

I kissed him again, then backed away. “You’d better help her before she destroys that poor machine.” I threw Declan a low wave, then turned to find my car.

As I was walking away, several motorcycles drove past. Most riders wore black leather vests and red bandanas around their heads or arms. One of the men—a young twenty-something with arms covered in tattoos—saluted me as he passed. I turned and walked backwards while I studied the silver wings that covered the backs of their vests, blood dripping from the left wings—and once more I reminded myself that I didn’t believe in coincidences.

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