Mickey Tamerlane counted the money in the greasy wad that had been handed to him and found it wanting.
That was going to be a problem.
He looked to his partner, Duncan Gill, standing beside him and shook his head.
“What’s wrong?” Duncan asked.
“This isn’t enough,” Mickey said, narrowing his eyes as he put the money back on the table.
“No?” the man seated in front of them asked.
“Maybe you can’t count,” jeered another man standing behind Mickey. “Try again.”
“You got cancer or something?” the first man taunted. “Maybe all that chemo is messin’ up your brain.”
“He looks just like a buff Uncle Fester, right?” The jeering one laughed. “Isn’t it crazy?”
The two men were members of the Luchesi family, the criminal organization that ran all of Strassen Springs. Mickey had been hired by them to take out a local politician who was becoming a problem.
That’s what he did.
For the right price, he was a problem solver.
Thanks to several long summers out on his grandfather’s farm outside of the city, Mickey had discovered he had a unique affinity with firearms at a very young age. He’d set up targets along the fences out in the fields and run as fast as he could to see how far he could go and still be able to turn around and hit his marks.
He’d gone clear across the entire farm and never missed.
The summers ended when his grandfather’s health failed, and he had to sell the farm and move in with Mickey and his mother. Mickey had never known his father, and he lost his beloved mother to an unexpected aneurysm before he started high school.
Without her, his world began to unravel quickly.
Years in and out of juvie set him up for an unstable life, and his grandfather persuaded him to find structure in the military. Mickey received incredible training to enhance his already impressive proficiency, but his temper landed him a dishonorable discharge after only two years.
It didn’t take long for the city streets to reclaim him when he couldn’t find a job to pay for food or his grandfather’s medicine. He fell back on the one thing he was good at, taking his first life from over five hundred yards away before his twenty-first birthday.
He was quick, he was quiet, and he had rapidly gained a reputation as being a very dependable problem solver.
Duncan, a fellow delinquent who had also turned to crime to put food on the table, had helped with that. He was the one who found the jobs, arranged the meetings, and made sure everything went smoothly—especially getting paid.
Such a level of service came with a handsome price, and the Luchesi family had the coin to spare. This wasn’t the first time Mickey and Duncan had worked for them, but it was the first time there had been an issue with payment.
As far as Mickey was concerned, it had the potential to be the very last, with the way these bastards were behaving.
“This isn’t enough,” Mickey said again, clenching his teeth. He was being toyed with, and he hated it.
“This isn’t even half,” Duncan chimed in. “This is not acceptable.”
“Aw, come on,” the first man said. His name was Tony Luchesi. “I’m sure we can work something out. Why don’t I see if I can get you guys some coupons for Lucky’s?”
“Yeah,” the other one agreed, laughing nastily. He was Robert or Richard or something, another Luchesi. “Go get lucky at Lucky’s, right?” He snorted, eyeing Mickey. “But then again, I hear you wouldn’t be into that kinda thing.”
“Oh? He’s one of those types,” Tony said, pulling a face. “Soft in his heels?”
Mickey worried he might be in danger of cracking a molar now.
“Now, now.” Duncan smiled nervously. “We don’t really need to talk about that, do we? That has nothing to do with Mickey’s quality work—”
“What’s that other place called?” Robert Possibly Richard asked. “Slick Rick’s? Got those dudes up in cages? Yeah, I think that’d be more your style.”
Ah, there it was.
This was exactly why Mickey hated working with the Luchesis; they were all a bunch of narrow-minded pricks. Mickey made no secret about who and what he liked, and it infuriated him endlessly he was gonna have to stand here and take this abuse if he wanted to get paid.
“I want my money,” Mickey said firmly, not allowing how his temper was boiling over to show. He could sense Duncan silently pleading with him, and he knew he had to stay calm. “Now, please.”
“You want a piece of me, sweet cheeks?” Tony offered, blowing him a kiss and cackling. “Come on. If I let you blow me, can we call it even?”
Oh, that was it.
Mickey grabbed the money from the table and turned to storm out of the little seedy bar. He could hear Tony and that other idiot, whatever his name was, laughing at him as the door slammed behind him.
He’d had enough of the disgusted whispers and underhanded comments, behind his back or to his face. He had been able to ignore the cheap cracks at his hairless appearance and sexuality and let them roll off his back because he always got paid.
Not being paid was a problem, a big one.
And Mickey was very good at solving problems.
“Mickey! Wait!” Duncan had come running after him, waving for him to stop.
Taking a deep breath, Mickey ignored Duncan and tried to center himself as he got behind the wheel. He drove a piece of shit sedan, and it did him no favors to drive angry. He let the rage wash over him and slowly exhaled, finally turning the key.
“Mickey!” Duncan banged on the window. “Hey! Will you stop?”
Mickey rolled it down. “What?”
“You can’t let those assholes get to you! Come back inside so we can finish—”
“No,” Mickey replied shortly. “I’m done with them.” He counted out some of the money, passing it over. “Here’s your cut, partner.”
“Mickey, what the fuck are you going to do?” Duncan demanded. “You’ve got that damn look on your face…”
“I’m going to handle it,” Mickey said. “Stay out of my way… and probably don’t come back to the bar today. Maybe not ever.”
“Mickey, wait! No! You can’t—”
He sped out of the parking lot before Duncan could talk him out of this. He had to be smart because what he was planning to do was very, very stupid.
Mickey lived with his grandfather in a dingy apartment near the Strassen Springs Pork Plant. It was small, filthy, and cheap. It was barely within the city limits and even on good days, the air reeked of death and rotten chemicals.
After parking his car, he headed to his front door. He lived on the second floor, and he quickly ran up the stairs. He processed how much time he had, and he knew this was going to be cutting it close.
It was just a few minutes after four o’clock, and Tony Luchesi’s crappy little bar officially opened for business at six o’clock. Right now, it would only be Tony, Robert, the bartender, plus the two thugs in the back protecting the stash of money they didn’t think Mickey knew about.
He would kill them all, take the money, and burn that shithole to the ground.
Duncan was going to be furious with him, but Duncan could piss right off. He didn’t have to deal with the bigoted bullshit like Mickey did.
“Michael…?” A weak voice called out to him as soon as he stepped into the apartment.
“Yeah, Pops?” Mickey locked the door up behind him, heading into the bedroom to find his grandfather.
The apartment only had one bedroom. Mickey slept on the couch.
“You workin’?” Pops asked, furrowing his thick brows as he struggled to focus. He was propped up in bed by a thick nest of pillows, and he looked so very small.
“Yeah, Pops.” Mickey hovered next to him. “You need somethin’?”
“Soup? I gotta take my meds. Hurtin’.”
“Okay. I’ll make it for you, but then I gotta go back to work.”
Mickey went into their tiny kitchen and opened the barren cabinet to find the soup. It was the cheap dehydrated kind in a styrofoam cup, and he removed the outer packaging to add the water. He put it in the microwave, set the timer, and headed over to the couch.
A large, padlocked trunk served as their coffee table, and he cleared the trash on top of it to open it up.
It was full of guns, ammo, and equipment, and he quickly began to arm himself. He chose two sleek pistols with silencers, a few extra clips of ammo, and a shoulder holster to wear beneath his coat.
He was ready to go by the time the microwave dinged.
Back in the kitchen, he took a fork and stabbed the side of the styrofoam cup to drain out the water. He then poured the noodles sans broth into a small bowl to take to Pops.
The old man wouldn’t eat it any other way.
“Thank you,” Pops said, eagerly accepting his bowl of soup.
“You need anything else?” Mickey glanced around the cramped bedroom. “You got your juice? Your meds?”
“I’m fine. The nurse came by this morning. She said we’re behind on payin’ the bill.”
“I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry about it. I’m expecting a big bonus today.” Mickey paused. “Anything else?”
“I’m all set. Go on.” Pops waved at him. “Don’t be late getting back to the office.”
“Okay, Pops,” Mickey said, well aware they both knew he wasn’t actually going to any office. “See ya later.”
They had never explicitly discussed the nature of Mickey’s work, and Mickey was happy to keep it that way. Pops had never asked where the money came from, and Mickey wouldn’t have told him anyway.
Pops didn’t need to know what kind of man he was. It was better like this.
Mickey drove back to the bar, his breathing calm and steady despite the flow of adrenaline making his skin tingle. He was running through the many violent scenarios ahead of him. He could see them playing through his mind like a reel of film, anticipating all the various ways he would attack.
The door would open, and he would take Tony and Robert first. They wouldn’t see it coming. Two shots in the head each.
Four bullets, leaving twenty-six.
By then the bartender would be up, unloading the shotgun he kept beneath the counter, and Mickey would take him down too.
Two bullets for him, twenty-four left to deal with the men in the back, plus the two extra clips he had with him. That made for a potential total of fifty-four bullets to finish solving the problem, and Mickey wouldn’t even need half that.
Taking a deep breath, he felt a familiar and eerie calm settle over him. It was comforting, letting his mind begin to shut down to focus on a singular task—killing every person inside the bar.
He knew openly attacking the Luchesi family was as good as suicide, but he couldn’t take the abuse for another second. Duncan would have to understand. They could always go to some other city and set up shop again.
That is, if they lived long enough.
When Mickey arrived, he noticed a car parked out front that hadn’t been there before. It was a black El Camino with gray and white flames painted on the sides.
Definitely didn’t belong to anyone he knew.
Mickey reset his mental plans to include ducking behind the bar for cover in case—
At least ten, all rapidly popping off in quick succession.
“The fuck,” Mickey hissed. He pulled his guns from their holsters and busted in through the front door.
Tony and Robert were on the floor dead, and the bartender was trying to crawl away toward the front door, headed right for Mickey.
Two young men were standing over Tony, and they stared Mickey down, guns pointed right at him. One was nicely dressed in a three-piece suit with a fedora and the other, who was roughly the size of a house, was wearing torn jeans and a t-shirt that read ‘Bucky’s All-U-Can-Eat Wings’.
Mickey had a gun pointed at each of them, and he tried to figure out his next move. None of his planning could have prepared him for this. The men he wanted to murder were already dead.
Well, most of them.
He glanced down at the bartender, firing off a quick shot to his head to finish him.
The nicely dressed man started to speak, but the door in the back suddenly swung open.
It was the men guarding the money, and they were armed. Mickey could see their guns about to fire, and the nicely dressed man and his companion tried to turn to defend themselves.
They were too slow.
Mickey was not.
He fired two shots, each landing neatly in the would-be assailants’ heads and dropping them to the floor before they could attack.
The nicely dressed man arched a surprised brow, and he seemed to be thinking something over as he looked back at Mickey.
Mickey took aim at him and his companion, trying to weigh his options. He could kill them, but they’d done him a bit of a favor killing the Luchesi men. That itself was most curious.
He couldn’t think of anyone crazy enough to openly attack members of the most powerful family in the city.
Well, other than himself, of course.
“You’re Mickey Tamerlane,” the man said, finally lowering his gun and motioning for his companion to do the same. “The Shadow.”
Before he could comment on how this man knew who he was, Tony rolled away from his puddle on the floor and groaned loudly.
“Still alive,” the big man grunted. “Tough ol’ bastard.”
“Hey, hey.” Tony dragged himself up to paw at the nicely dressed man’s shoes, gurgling weakly. “Come on, Roddy! Please! Fuckin’ please! We’re like fuckin’ family? Didn’t I look out for you and your little sister?”
The man visibly flinched at the touch, roughly kicking his hands away with a scowl. He then kneeled down to look Tony right in the eye.
“Please, Roddy…?” Tony whimpered.
“Perhaps you should have looked harder,” the man said, eerily calm as he suddenly pressed the barrel of the gun beneath Tony’s chin.
Tony dropped, and the man stood abruptly.
The big guy offered him a stained handkerchief to clean up.
“Damn,” Mickey laughed. “That was cold.”
The man smirked.
That’s when Mickey knew exactly who this well-dressed stranger was. He almost couldn’t believe it, and it sounded insane to even think it.
He was standing in the presence of a mob legend.
Though he wasn’t a made man because he lacked the proper Italian heritage and was rumored to have obscene sexual interests, this man was a notorious murderer and served as a captain to the Luchesi family. It was said he’d been killing for them since he could crawl, and he was a heartless fiend. So feared for his merciless and swift wrath, no one even dared speak his name.
He was only known as Cold.
“You’re Cold,” Mickey whispered in awe.
“Roderick Legrand,” the man said with a tip of his hat. “This is my associate, Julian Price. Jules, say hello.”
“Hey,” the big man grunted.
Mickey’s mind began to race. This didn’t make any sense. Cold worked for the Luchesi family, but he’d just killed some of their own. He didn’t understand what was going on.
“That was quite some shooting,” Cold praised. “You’re very fast. I’m impressed, Mr. Tamerlane.”
“How do you—”
“Know your name?” Cold cocked his head. He was so relaxed for someone who had killed a man moments ago, and the smallest little smile curled his lips. “It’s my job to know everything, Mr. Tamerlane. That includes knowing our city’s blossoming death dealers.”
“Heard you’re a hit man that don’t miss,” Jules said.
“Not yet,” Mickey said warily.
“You also have a reserved table at Legends,” Cold said, “and you’re known to frequent Slick Rick’s.”
“Oh, yeah?” Mickey challenged. “And what’s that to you?”
“Nothing much, except you and I have more in common than you might realize.”
“Sorry. You’re not my type.”
Cold snorted. “My point is that you and I are looked down on by the family for the same reasons. I imagine that’s why you came here looking to kill Tony Luchesi? Perhaps over some disagreement fueled by his ever-so-charming homophobia?”
“So, it’s true.” Mickey ignored the questions. “You’re gay.” He looked at Jules, smirking. “What about you, big boy?”
“Nope,” Jules rumbled. “Sorry to disappoint you.”
“Yeah, it’s a real shame,” Mickey said dryly. “Always wanted to get it on with a Sasquatch.”
Jules actually laughed.
“You two can flirt later,” Cold scolded. “Business first.”
Mickey flinched. “Business?”
“Mr. Tamerlane, I’m wondering if you’d be interested in working for me.” Cold took a seat at the bar, and he waved Jules over.
Jules stepped up behind the counter to serve him, stepping over some blood as he reached for a bottle.
Cold gestured for Mickey to join him.
Mickey hesitated. They weren’t in the best part of the city, so the chances of the cops showing up here were slim, but he never liked hanging around his own handiwork for too long. It was risky. Cold didn’t seem concerned, and Mickey was curious to hear what he had to say.
“If you can afford me.” Mickey sat down, watching Jules pour very carefully. He didn’t know if he could trust these men yet. “I require half now, half when the target is handled.”
“I had a more permanent position in mind.”
“You offering me a job?” Mickey scoffed.
“What I’m offering is a piece of the city.” Cold neatly folded his fingers in his lap.
“How is that?”
“Because it’s going to be mine,” Cold replied.
Mickey couldn’t help laughing.
Cold didn’t seem bothered by Mickey’s reaction. He turned to accept a drink from Jules, taking a small sip while he waited for Mickey to stop laughing.
Jules passed Mickey the other drink, and he took a gulp straight from the bottle. “You shouldn’t be laughin’, kid. Ain’t nothin’ funny.”
“Right.” Mickey took the glass and raised it in a toast. “Because you’re somehow gonna take out the entire Luchesi family and rule Strassen Springs. You, a gay man.”
“Yes,” Cold replied simply.
“Yeah, and with what army?”
“I don’t need one. Brute strength is not how the city will be taken. It requires… patience. Some tact. A plan.”
“You have doubts.”
“What if I told you that taking this bar is just the beginning?”
“This shithole bar was part of your plan?”
“Yes, you see—”
The front door opened, drawing everyone’s attention and their guns.
It was Duncan, eyes wide, letting out a small squeal.
“Oh, Christ,” Duncan whispered as he shrunk back in horror from the carnage. “Mickey… no… what have you done?”
Mickey held up his hand, shaking his head at Cold and Jules. “Don’t shoot him. He’s with me.” He glared at Duncan. “I told you not to come back here.”
“I was gonna try to help! I was, I was gonna try and talk to them!” Duncan cringed miserably. “We’re so fucked.” He finally seemed to notice Cold and Jules. “Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck!”
“Hello, Duncan Gill,” Cold greeted. “I assume you know who I am?”
“You’re Cold. You’re one of the Luchesi captains.” Duncan paled. “I don’t understand… we… why aren’t we dead yet? Why are we alive, exactly?”
“As I was explaining to your partner here, I have some very special plans for the city,” Cold replied. “These plans do not involve the Luchesi family running things. I could use a man like Mr. Tamerlane here, and you as well, if you’re interested.”
“Can you protect us from the Luchesis?”
“I can do much more than that.” Cold smirked. “Join me, and you’ll be able to rule the city with me.”
“Still not sold on that,” Mickey warned.
“Don’t listen to him, Mr. Cold, sir,” Duncan begged. “We’ll do whatever you want. Just protect us, okay? The Luchesis can’t know we did this. We, we had nothing to do with this! Please!”
“On the contrary,” Cold drawled, “my new friend Mr. Tamerlane here is a hero.”
“I am?” Mickey blinked.
“Tony Luchesi was going to steal the money kept here for himself,” Cold explained. “Mr. Tamerlane heard about it and being the loyal man that he is, he called me to let me know so we could take care of it. Our confrontation got out of hand, and we were forced to kill everyone here.”
“That’s, that’s not what happened,” Duncan stammered. “You can’t tell that to the Don. He won’t believe you!”
“Okay, so, you set Tony up for being a thief,” Mickey mused. “He’s already on the family’s shit list for borrowing money ’cause he can’t stay away from the ponies at the track… which, I’m guessing, you already knew.”
“What happens to all the money then?” Mickey pressed.
“It’s the most awful thing,” Cold said with a sigh, glancing over to Jules with a knowing smile. “We were not able to recover all of it because of the fire.”
“Fire? What fuckin’ fire?”
“The one I’m gonna start,” Jules said gleefully.
“We take the money, divide some of it amongst ourselves, and burn the building to the ground,” Cold said. “The Don will be grateful we took care of a thief and appreciate the cash we were able to spare.”
“That’s it? It’s that easy?” Mickey frowned.
“Oh, Mr. Tamerlane, have faith.” Cold chuckled. “The truth is whatever I say it is.” He took another sip from his glass. “I want you to come work for me. I’m sure I will have many uses for your unique talents. In exchange, I will protect you and Mr. Gill, provide you with a handsome salary, and when I take the city from the Luchesis, you will rule alongside me and the others.”
“The others?” Mickey hesitated.
“You know, the rest of us fine gentlemen who don’t like the fuckin’ Luchesis,” Jules said, belching loudly as he set the emptied bottle down on the counter. “It’s a real good deal, kid.”
“Mickey,” Duncan hissed. “Come on. We should take it.” He smiled eagerly at Cold. “We accept, sir. You can totally trust us. We’re so very trustworthy. Thank you.”
“Allow me to raise you up, Mr. Tamerlane,” Cold urged. “You’re worth much more than taking shots at disgruntled union leaders and heckling with human trash over deposits. Pledge yourself to me, and Strassen Springs will be ours.”
“You sound pretty fuckin’ sure,” Mickey said, searching Cold’s face.
“Because I have a plan,” Cold said, his icy eyes meeting Mickey’s, “and I already know what to do.”
“Yeah, and how long is that gonna take, exactly?”
“Have patience,” Cold purred, a small smile playing over his lips. “I promise the spoils will be worth the wait.”
Duncan gave Mickey a pleading look.
Mickey didn’t know if Cold could deliver on what he was selling, but he didn’t have anything to lose. He had already been prepared to burn his ties with the Luchesi family, and here was a man offering him the matches.
Mickey kneeled down, taking Cold’s hand and kissing it chastely. “I’m yours to command, Boss Cold.”
Cold flinched and quickly gestured for him to stand. “I’m not a boss, not yet. Just ‘Cold’ will do for now.”
“What happens now?”
“Now, my dear Gentlemen, we wait. We watch. We bide our time. And when the moment is right?” Cold flashed a chilling smile. “We take Strassen Springs.”