Bayou Rouge, Louisiana was a six hour ride from Houston, an hour outside of New Orleans and home of a once well-known bar called the Bon Temps that was now known as trouble personified.
Bat Kelly had seen—and caused—enough trouble to recognize the calling card.
He arrived at the bar’s door just before midnight on a Friday, looked up at the burnt-out neon sign that hung crookedly above the doorway and thought about all the places he’d been before this bar, this town, this type of life. They all strung together in one big blur.
“Owner’s been burned before and badly,” Dominick, the man who’d always managed to find Bat enough work to keep money in his pockets, had warned him hours earlier. “Place is a mess. Owner said they’ve lost two coolers in the past months who’d been paid upfront, so you’ll only get half the money on arrival, half if you finish the job. There’s a bonus offered if you finish early.”
“It won’t be a problem,” he’d told Dominick as he set out from his last job in Texas on his Harley.
It never was. For the past six years, Bat had built himself a reputation up the East Coast as one of the better Coolers in the business. A crazier, willing to do anything one, which put his demand at a premium.
The scar that ran from just below the outer corner of his left eye toward the curve of his mouth proved the extremes to which his job pushed him, a reminder of an unfortunate incident involving an empty tequila bottle and a customer who refused to leave the bar.
Still, that scar, and the war-wounds along his body, didn’t stop the women from throwing themselves at him. For a while he’d considered that the biggest benefit of the job. Lately, it had grown old, and he’d begun to realize that growing up wasn’t nearly as much fun as running wild.
From where he stood, he could hear the music begin to play inside – jukebox, rather than live band and still, the crowd began to cheer.
It was always the same sounds. Always the same.
Bat could still hear Big Red explaining the job to him, all those years ago. Bat had just turned twenty-two, was fresh out of the military after spending four years as a Marine sniper, on his belly in any and all godforsaken jungles the military needed him to be in—and going nowhere fast with his particular skill set, except maybe jail. He’d gotten tired of following orders.
The cooler’s in charge of everything, dig? The bouncers, bartenders, the entire tone of the bar. Keep a cool head and stay in control. That is, if you can get control in the first place.
Big Red died three years ago in a nasty barroom brawl over in Chattanooga. Bat had been called in a week later to continue Big Red’s work by cleaning up a bar that had been on its way to closing. He’d almost refused, but did it in his friend’s honor and used the money to give Big Red a proper burial. Once Bat had taken care of the local riffraff, business turned right around.
Not, of course, without significant risk to his own life, which was why the money was always so good. And he’d never planned on living very long anyhow. Probably what made him such a success. Either way, it left him unable to be caught in any one place by any one person for long, which was the way he wanted it.
“It’s the nature of the job, sugar,” he’d say, gazing soulfully into Gina or Jenny or whatever-the-fuck her name was this month or week or night and she would nod back in understanding, because somehow he always managed to pick a woman who expected to be left.
Made him feel more like shit than if they’d just hauled off and slugged him.
Good thing he had pain management perfected. The freedom of town-to-town and the open road kept him sane, especially because he no longer had his friend to turn to. A man who was the closest thing to a father Bat had ever had.
It was why he still carried the letter Big Red had written to him, just weeks before he’d been killed. Kept it, but didn’t plan on listening to the instructions—the one that told him to find a good woman to love before it was too late.
He was dead certain he wasn’t going to find that woman here.
He yanked the door of the Bon Temps open, stood, one foot in and one foot out and surveyed the scene. The mix of smoky seduction—part danger and part sex, and that element of the unexpected when the lights dimmed and the music got louder always got his blood humming, aroused him like a woman’s touch.
“You coming inside all the way, baby? I’ll let you buy me a drink.” The woman who motioned to him from one of the tables near the door had already had a few too many.
“I’m sure you will,” he said, and maybe last month he would’ve taken her up on that offer, but not now. Instead, his eyes went to another woman – slim, tall with a tray tucked under her right arm. Most of the eyes in the bar had turned to survey him, something he was used to, but not hers. She remained focused on her own thoughts. She leaned, elbow on the corner of the bar, surveying the scene with a serious face, but her body betrayed her by swaying to the music.
He moved closer to the bar to get a better look and ordered a beer. The crowd was picking up steam fast – there were women climbing up to dance on tables and men who were ready to fight over them. And all of this was his problem now.
He leaned on the old bar, with its cracked wood that hadn’t seen loving care in a long while and took a long swig from the bottle before glancing at the woman with the tray again. She was still moving to the music, watching the women on the tables and he wondered if she’d ever allowed herself to lose that much control.
She was pretty in a very regal, too good for him way, with neat blond hair pulled back into a short, low ponytail and startlingly dark brown eyes, the color of a cool, sweet glass of coca cola on a damned hot day.
His first urge was to pick her up and get her out of there, but he’d been around long enough to know that if she was working here it was for one of two reasons—either she liked the attention or she needed the money badly.
An argument between two guys in the far corner of the bar pulled his attention reluctantly. Their voices were loud, but no one could really hear them well over the jukebox, the drunken bragging, the tinkling giggles of the women and no, this scene never changed, north or south, from state to state and county to county. The mating dance was still the same, even in a run down old place like this where the patrons tipped the scales more on the wrong side of the law than the right one.
Midnight was both the witching and mating hour whenever alcohol was involved. He’d forgotten how badly the heat affected things around here, forgotten how easily it made his blood boil and his body ease until he was loose and languid enough to do some table dancing of his own.
The pretty blond woman moved to a table near the men – began to pick up empty bottles and balance them on her tray. He found himself taking a step in her general direction as the men grew louder, glass shattered in the form of beer bottles knocked off a tabletop and everyone quieted to watch the fight.
Things could – and usually did, go downhill fast, from good times to bad times in seconds – it took as little as one punch or the flash of a knife and it was all over. With the music fueling the backdrop, the men began swinging and threatening to involve others in their brawl.
And somehow, the pretty blond woman thought she could break up the fight all by herself. She stepped nearly in between the men, tray up to protect herself and she was yelling something – probably, stop or please stop and she was going to get herself knocked out, at the very least.
He saw the flash of the knife’s blade before anyone else, was over between the two men in seconds, cracked the wrist of the man who held the knife and broke the blade. But the entire thing had gone to shit – and so Bat took the blond woman by the waist, picked her up and set her down on the bar.
“Get behind it and stay down,” he growled in her ear. She smelled sweet, like gardenias, and fuck that he’d notice that now.
He watched the bouncers rush to the rescue and took a step back in that general direction. The two guys who, until this point had been spending the better part of their might mixing with the crowd instead of working it did their best to try to stop the fast growing melee. Until one of them decided it was a good idea to pick up one of the fighting men and hurl him toward the plate glass window at the front of the bar.