The taxi took Taya from the train station where the boss had dropped her off, through suburban streets and busy roads until the houses started to thin out. The yards grew bigger, as did the disrepair and piles of junk. Cars seemed to get older as well, as though the newer models were confined to the higher density areas.
Abruptly, the taxi pulled off the main thoroughfare and into a road that didn't appear to be signposted. Taya couldn't see any houses nearby, and empty paddocks and rundown fencing ran either side of an unsealed road. A few hundred meters along, she saw a corrugated iron fence and knew they’d reached the compound that served as The Devils clubhouse.
"You sure this is where you want to be, love?" The taxi driver was giving her a look that was equal parts concern and crazy.
“Yep, this is it.”
"This is as far as I go, love. The address is down there." He pointed towards the gray fence.
"Why can't you drop me off there?" Taya wasn't relishing the idea of walking in the blazing sun. It was early December and the Australian summer was in full swing.
"Don't want anyone writing my license plate down or asking me questions. Bad things happen around here. Lots of bad people." The driver was looking around, as if expecting someone to jump out. "I don't know why you want to come here. Nice girl like you. There's nothing here for you but trouble."
Taya frowned and pulled the twenty dollars Silver had given her from her pocket. She had no handbag or purse. She was wearing denim cut-off shorts, a black singlet top and a green cotton shirt unbuttoned over the top. Sunglasses held her shoulder length brown hair off her face. She was grateful she'd opted for the red converse sneakers rather than the slides she'd been offered.
"Keep the change," she handed him the cash.
"You sure I can't take you back to the station, love? No charge."
Taya glanced at the dashboard clock and saw it was just after three o'clock; two hours since they'd been told Alex Riley was missing. "No, thank you."
She pushed open the door and stepped out of the taxi. The vehicle reversed and disappeared behind a cloud of dust.
Ignoring the insistent thump of her heart and slow roil of acid in her belly, Taya started reciting the details of her cover story in her head as she began to walk towards the compound. The sun was high in the cloudless sky and sweat was already trickling down her back. There was no footpath and the poorly maintained fence barely separated the road from the paddocks. All had a sad, abandoned feel to them.
The traffic from the main road was a distant hum. Occasionally, a bird squawked its annoyance at the heat and lack of trees, breaking up the sound of her footsteps as they crunched along the uneven surface.
Drawing closer, Taya could see the top of a roof towards the back of the compound. It appeared to be made of the same corrugated iron as the fence. An older style air conditioning unit sat on top of the roof, to the right. Taya could just make out a gate facing the road, with something painted in red and black on the front. Of course, she knew the layout of the compound from drone photos, and what each building was used for from Gallen’s briefing, but seeing it in all its harsh reality was another thing entirely.
A rumbling from behind made her glance back. Two motorbikes were approaching; their riders hidden behind helmets and matching bandanas across their faces. As the bikes roared past, Taya stepped back, unbalanced by the sudden speed and explosion of noise and dust. The riders seemed oblivious to her.
At the gate of the compound, the bikes slowed and one sat idling, the rider looking back in Taya's direction. He raised his hand to someone inside the compound and then headed back towards her. Taya halted in her tracks.
Here we go.
The bike came to a stop in front of her. The rider pulled down the bandana and took off his sunglasses, revealing eyes full of suspicion. She focused on the ugly scar that ran down the length of his face, starting above his left eye.
"Who are you?" His tone was hard.
"Um. I'm Chloe." Her stomach turned as nerves raced through her body. She used it to channel a feeling of helplessness. She wouldn't get another chance to make this first impression.
"What do you want?"
"I'm looking for JD,” she all but whispered.
Taya nodded and pretended to look around nervously.
She swallowed hard. “I need his help."
The bikie looked her up and down, his glare as sharp as a steel blade. He spat on the ground, then replaced his sunglasses and bandana. "Get on."
Taya forced her legs to move. She climbed on behind him and hoped he was taking her into the compound and not off to one of the more desolate paddocks to do god knows what.
He nudged the bike forward, lifting his feet onto the foot pegs. She gripped the seat beneath her, unsure where to put her hands. She’d never ridden on the back of a motorbike before. Without warning, he floored the engine and Taya instinctively wrapped her arms around his waist to avoid being thrown off, her heart galloping over the roar of the bike.
Moments later, they were pulling up outside The Devils’ clubhouse. As soon as the engine was cut, Taya slipped off the back onto jelly legs, grateful for solid ground.
"Whatcha found, Ray?"
An older man with dyed black hair and a handlebar mustache stood at the door of the clubhouse. He wore a black t-shirt tucked into black jeans, his cut over the top. A big silver Devils belt buckle broke up the black. His eyes were bloodshot but still managed to send a warning chill down Taya's back. This was Zep, the club president, and person she needed to get onside for this assignment to succeed.
"She's looking for JD. Reckons she needs his help."
“That right?” Zep looked her over and offered a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Why don't you come in out of the heat."
He stood aside to let Taya pass. The air conditioner was working overtime and managed to take the edge off the stifling heat. The windows were closed, covered with shutters Taya knew were designed to keep out bullets more than thieves. They also kept a little of the heat and most of the light out.
As her eyes adjusted, she noticed about seven men inside, all focused on her. None of them were Gallen. This was not a good start.
"What do you want with JD?"
Zep was directly behind her. In her search for Gallen, she hadn't heard him move close. Way to pay attention to your surroundings, McGovern.
She turned around to face the president. “I met JD a couple of weeks ago… and, um…”
Her words were tumbling over each other. She’d been expecting Gallen to be there, to take the lead. Now it was all on her.
The bikies watched her. No one spoke.
She cleared her throat and looked around, relieved to see no one seemed ready to leap at her. "I was hoping he could help me."
"You need someone taken out?" said Ray
Taya jumped at his sudden interjection. "What? No. I just..." She lowered her gaze to the tiled floor. "I need to get my stuff back."
"Back from where?" asked Zep.
"My boyfriend - ex-boyfriend," she corrected herself. "He kicked me out and kept everything. My phone, my clothes, my money."
Silence thundered around her. Her cover story felt insignificant in light of what The Devils were known for - drugs and murder. An involuntary shiver raced across her shoulders.
"What's your name, sweetheart?"
She looked up at Zep. "Chloe. Chloe Brown."
"I'm Zep, you've met Ray." He gestured at the bikie who gave her a ride. "I see your dilemma, Chloe. Your ex is being a prick and you want JD to sort him out for you."
Zep stepped closer and stale body odour and cigarette smoke followed him.
"Problem is, JD's not here."
"Oh..." It seemed like he believed her but was going to kick her out anyway. She couldn’t let that happen. She gave Zep a tentative smile. "Would it be okay if I waited here for him?"
He shook his head. "It's not a good day to be hanging around."
"Um, but..." she stumbled over her words again, forcing tears to form behind her eyes. "I don't have anywhere else to go."
Zep and Ray exchanged a glance. Taya looked around, spying the bar Gallen had briefed her on. "I could help out while I waited. Pour drinks…” She waved at the bar.
He didn’t look convinced.
Her eyes fixed on the piles of empty beer bottles and other rubbish around the room. "I could clean up?"
"Place could use a tidy up," agreed a voice from behind.
Zep sighed as if he couldn’t be bothered to give her any more energy. "You can stay. But keep out of our way."
Taya released the breath she'd been holding. She was in.
Author of author of gut-churning Viking romance and romantic suspense that always includes good sex and a happily ever after - eventually.