God damn that Austin Conrad!” Tillman yelled, and flung the phone across the room
Sunny ducked as it flew past his head and struck the wall behind him, exploding into a dozen pieces and knocking a framed Easyriders magazine cover off the wall. Glass shattered as the frame struck the floor of the clubhouse.
“What the fuck, Boss? It’s me! You coulda took an eye out!” Sunny reached down, picked up the broken picture frame, and placed it on the meeting table.
Tillman’s eyes were full of rage but focused on something a hundred miles away. Sunny was a tough man, but that look on the boss’s face always gave him the chills. He looked like he was trying to bore a hole in the cinder block wall with his eyes, his lids twitching but unblinking. When Tillman had that look, things could blow up in a heartbeat. And when that happened, you didn’t want to be anywhere near ground zero.
The Rattlers’ clubhouse occupied a nondescript building on the back lot of Simpson’s Ready-Mix, in the industrial outskirts of Riverside. It was flanked on one side by a large metal maintenance building, and on the other by a row of broken down cement trucks awaiting repairs. The front half of the clubhouse consisted of a dimly lit social area with a bar and a few stools, pool table, dart boards and a small stage. Sunny and Tillman were in the meeting room, which was down a hall at the back of the building along with a couple of flop rooms, a shitter and shower, storage room and a small kitchen. The rest of the building was empty at this hour of the morning.
“Boss?” Sunny asked, trying not to sound too pushy.
After a moment Tillman’s gaze swam back into the room. His eyes swept left, then right, and finally landed on the broken picture frame sitting on the table. He picked it up and studied the magazine cover within it, the features on his unshaven face softening just a little. He cleared away a few broken shards of glass, then sank into his chair at the head of the table.
“Wayne and I built this bike,” he said in a somewhat milder tone, placing the broken frame back onto the table.
Sunny breathed a sigh of relief, as the worst of the storm seemed to have passed…for now. He reached over and picked up the frame to look at the magazine cover. It showed a sparkling chopper parked on a desert highway, with a voluptuous, bikini-clad Latina draped over it. “Austin’s old man?”
“Yeah,” Tillman said. “Fucking Wayne…” He shook his head slightly as his voice trailed off. After a moment he sighed, then continued. “Neither of us knew what the hell we were doing. We’d never built a bike before. But we had this old hardtail frame layin’ around, and we got a wild hair one day. So we bolted it to the top of a workbench in Wayne’s garage and just went at it.”
“What’s that got to do with Austin and the shit that just went down out in Amboy, Boss? We got time for a trip down memory lane?”
Tillman looked up, his eyes beginning to smolder once again. Sunny shrank slightly as Tillman said, still in a somewhat calm voice, but now laced with venom, “Shut. The fuck. Up.”
Sunny took one of the seats along the table.
After a moment, Tillman continued. “Austin was only a kid at the time. But his old man and I were just coming up in the MC. Both of us thought we needed to do something—something big—to establish some cred. I mean, what kind of hard core biker rode around on a store-bought bike?”
Tillman’s fingers grazed the surface of the photo, testing the sharp edges of the broken glass. “Wayne had that old FLH that he’d been tinkerin’ on, and I had some shit-box, I can’t even remember what it was. But I remember that I had to wrench on it constantly just to keep the damn thing running. So we started working on this chopper.”
Sunny stayed quiet. Maybe the old man would get to some sort of point soon. He knew there was shit to do, not the least of which was mopping up that mess out in Amboy he’d overheard Tillman talking to Austin about on the phone. And of course, Austin himself was a loose end that needed to be clipped, for good this time. But Tillman had the floor, so all Sunny could do was sit back and let him spill.
“We’d drool over the fancy bikes in that rag every month, and thought we could build something worthy of some ink. We had all kinds of crazy ideas. Twisted wrought-iron, huge-ass chrome sissy bar, ape hangers, whole nine yards. Problem was neither of us had a clue what we were doing and figured we’d just fuck it up if we tried to get into too much heavy fabrication. So we settled on raking the forks a few extra degrees, bought a fancy springer front-end for it, and built that rat’s nest of exhaust pipes you see there in the photo. We had to use Earl over in Rubidoux for that because neither of us could weld for shit. But we fucked with that thing for about six months before we finally called it good enough. Then we tore it down to paint.”
Sunny was staring at the bike on the magazine cover, sitting in the twisted picture frame under broken glass. He could almost see a younger Tillman and Wayne Conrad fussing over that bike as they were building it.
Tillman stood up and walked to the cabinet at the back of the meeting room. He pulled a bottle of 12-year Glenfiddich from a shelf and dropped a few cubes of ice into a rocks glass. “Scotch?”
Sunny shook his head, so Tillman poured himself a drink, walked back to his chair and sat. He savored a sip before continuing.
“The bike itself was nothing special, but we scraped together enough lettuce to have ol’ Sloan give it what we thought would be an epic paint job. Huge metal flake had gone out of style back in the 70’s. By the mid-80’s only hillbillies were painting their bass boats like that. But we had this bright idea to bring it back. Retro before retro was cool. So that’s what we did. And I’ll be damned if that ain’t what got it onto that cover.”
Sunny was growing impatient. “I get it, Boss! It was a ‘teachable moment.’ Life lessons and all that shit. You did something big and got some props, and everyone finally took you seriously—it’s a beautiful story.” Sunny stood up, his eyes wide, as if to say can we go now?
Tillman leaned forward, staring Sunny in the face. “You don’t fucking listen. That’s always been your problem. Now sit the fuck down.”
Tillman took another sip of Scotch, set the glass down on the table, and leaned back in his chair. “That bike didn’t do shit for us. It was a fluke we even made it on the cover of that fucking rag. Everyone just laughed and called it the ‘glitter bike.’ It didn’t buy us shit for cred. We were fools to think it would.” Tillman looked up, his eyes fixed on Sunny.
“But we were naive, so it took us a while to figure out the joke was on us. We took that piece of shit to Laughlin that year to show it off. We had to take turns riding it, it was so god-damn uncomfortable. We’d swap between it and Wayne’s FLH whenever we’d stop for gas or a piss. Like idiots, we thought we might get some pats on the back for it over there at the River Run. But we were wrong. Everyone just laughed at it there too, even our own brothers.” Tillman mocked the last word with air quotes.
“It was just a big fucking joke. We tried to laugh along with them. I could tell Wayne was just waving it all off. It slid off his back like water off a duck. But not me. I’d laugh it off to their faces, but inside I was boiling.”
Tillman drained the rest of his scotch, and jiggled the glass to make the ice clink against the sides. He thought a moment, staring at the glass, before continuing.
“After a few days of eatin’ shit, we finally headed for home. Wayne was just like Austin is now, always wanting to take those fucking back roads. So we were somewhere out in the middle of butt-fuck Egypt, I don’t remember where, exactly. Maybe out on Rice Road or something, when that piece of shit glitter bike starts giving us fits, coughin’ and fartin’, acting like it had a fuel line clog or something. I was riding it at the time, so I pulled over. There were only three of us: me and Wayne and some prospect on a Sportster. But everybody with half a brain had taken the freeway. Anyhow I was hunkered down next to the glitter bike with my head poked into the carburetor, when these two Satan’s Bastards rode up next to us. At first I figured they were just stopping to see if we were OK. There’d never been any beef between the Rattlers and the Bastards. At least not back then.
“But when they came to a stop, they weren’t asking what was wrong. They were laughing, and pointing at the glitter bike.”
Sunny was now listening intently. Tillman’s voice had dropped an octave, but the bitterness in it had ratcheted up a notch.
“I stood up from the bike and turned toward them. Pulled out my shitty little Lorcin .380 and shot one of them in the face. Put a hole right between that shit-eatin’ grin and his fucking nose. Dropped him like a sack of rocks. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Sunny was still.
“The other one went for his knife, but Wayne had stepped up behind him and put him in a choke hold. He was yellin’ ‘what the fuck Tillman?’ But like a good brother he had the guy trussed up tight. So I pulled out my own knife and gutted the Bastard like a hog in a slaughterhouse.”
Sunny’s eyes were wide. Tillman was staring down at the photo in the broken frame.
Tillman laughed, a quiet little sound that made Sunny’s skin crawl. “Wayne and the prospect were shitting bricks. Hollerin’ ‘why’d you do it?’ and ‘what are we gonna do now?’ Whining like a couple of bitches. I looked ‘em both in the eye and told ‘em we weren’t gonna do nothin’ but leave ‘em to the vultures. We dragged them and their bikes off the road, out into the desert a little bit. But we knew they’d be found. I wanted them to be found.”
Tillman looked up from the picture. “And that got us some cred. Well, me anyhow. The pigs never figured out who wasted those two Bastards out there. Probably didn’t really care, to tell the truth. But the Rattlers knew, the ones what mattered, anyhow. And they looked at me differently after that, now that they knew what I was made of.”
He set the broken picture frame back down on the table, looked up at Sunny and said, “Some of ‘em were proud. The rest were scared.” Tillman leaned forward. “Which one are you? Sunny?”
Sunny held his gaze a moment, swallowed, then said “Proud.” It was a lie.
Tillman leaned back in his chair, studying the face of his Sergeant-at-arms. “Good,” he said, finally. “Now find me another phone, I need to call up to Barstow.”
Sunny stepped out of the room, where the air seemed sweeter, and headed down the hallway to the store room to fetch another phone. He thought again about Austin, and what he and Tillman just learned about what had happened out in Amboy.
They weren’t quite sure how Austin had found out about the Fallbrook operation, but he had indeed figured things out, quit the club and headed out of town. It was “Dice” and his crew from the Barstow chapter who had caught up to him out in Amboy. Austin had left three of them dead, and Dice royally fucked up. Then the son of a bitch had the balls to call up Tillman and order him to have the bodies cleaned up. The boss must have thought it prudent to do so, regardless of where the order had come from. They couldn’t risk the heat that a ghost-town full of dead bikers would bring down on the club, not at such a delicate time.
Sunny returned with the new phone and tossed it to Tillman, who dialed a number and was soon verbally sparring with the Barstow chapter president.
“I don’t give a shit what you got going on, get the fuck out there and clean that mess up!” Tillman yelled into the phone, white knuckles threatening to crush it in his grip. Sunny made a mental note that he’d need to go out and buy a few more phones.
“Yeah…that’s right,” Tillman said, nodding, holding the phone to his ear. As he spoke he looked over at Sunny with a can you believe this shit? look. Sunny shrugged. Tillman continued, “And bring this Dice motherfucker to me. I wanna talk to him personally.”
Sunny could hear the tinny sound of the Barstow prez’s voice coming through the handset, but he couldn’t make out the words. Tillman must have been getting through to him though, as he’d finally calmed down some. “You’re god damned right,” Tillman said into the phone. “Yeah…I’ll take care of that. Just clean that mess up and bring Dice down here. Don’t fuck with him, don’t quiz him or take anything from him. If you do, I’ll know. That won’t be good. And leave your other guys behind, just you and Dice. We got some Club shit to talk about.”
More tinny garble from the other end of the line.
“Yeah…OK…I’ll expect you here before noon. With Dice!” Tillman clicked off.
He looked over at Sunny. “Jesus Christ, can you believe that guy?”
“Well, he is the president of the mother chapter’” Sunny said. “He kinda has rank.” He knew it was a mistake as soon as the words left his mouth.
“Rank? Just because their shitty little chapter out in the sticks just happened to charter first? Don’t be naive. That’s ancient history. All of that ‘Barstow Originals’ bullshit is just for show anyhow. We’ve got twice their numbers, and most of them are soft. Don’t ever question me about who runs the Rattlers.”
Sunny shrank a little lower into his seat. “OK OK…alright. They ain’t shit, I get it. So what now? They’re cleaning up Amboy for us, but what are we gonna do about Austin? Sounds like he’s gonna lay low?”
“Its bullshit. He’ll be coming after me. After us. You don’t know him like I do. He won’t just leave this shit alone. All that god-damned righteous bullshit they filled him with in the Army. Its why I knew we needed to keep the Fallbrook thing off of his radar. I knew he’d go sideways if he found out about that. We probably should have just taken him out before he knew anything was up.”
“Why didn’t we?”
Tillman’s mouth hung open a moment. “Didn’t you hear what he just did up in Amboy? The guy’s a fucking machine. You don’t just ‘take out’ a guy like that. He’s got eyes in the back of his head! He’s killed more men than the rest of us put together. He’s a fucking Green Beret for Christ’s sake! The rest of us, for all of our bluster and bullshit, we’re all just pretenders by comparison. Austin’s the real deal.”
“You should have set me on him. No offense, Boss, but I ain’t no pretender. I’ve been in some shit, too.”
Tillman looked him over. Leon “Sunny” Sunderland had moved up in the Rattlers quickly. He’d never been in the service, but he grew up on some of the meaner streets of Southern California’s Inland Empire. He was an experienced cage fighter. He’d wrestled in high school, and trained for a few mixed martial arts matches out at the Indian casino before getting popped for armed robbery and doing a stretch in Chino. He was the best Tillman had seen in hand-to-hand combat, and he was skilled with weapons too. He was an efficient killer; Tillman had seen his handiwork.
“None taken,” Tillman said, “but you better check yourself, son. Even at his age, Austin’s on a different level. Just ask Dice when he gets here.”
Sunny wasn’t so impressed. He knew Austin. Yeah, he had a rep. He’d seen the world and done some things. But the old guy was going gray and getting thick around the middle. But Sunny didn’t press the issue. “So what do we do about him?”
“We have to hit him, simple as that. He knows too much. He can take us down. You, me, the whole enchilada. But we gotta be smart about it. You come at that guy head-on, you’ll wind up in a hole in the desert.”
Tillman poured himself another Scotch and sat back in his chair. “Go on and get a couple hours of shut-eye. We’ll figure out what to do about Austin after we finish up with Dice later this morning.”