A Precarious Lead

by Amy J. Markstahler


"A Precarious Lead" by Amy J. Markstahler Ryan McDowell and Austin Bradshaw dream of playing baseball in college and they’re good enough to have offers from the likes of LSU. But when the two best friends lose their parents in a triple hit-and-run motorcycle accident, they have little or no choice but to drop their dreams and go live with Skratch, Ryan’s uncle.

Jimmie Santoro, aka Skratch, is also notorious for being the President of the outlaw motorcycle club, Asylum Brotherhood, the same club who’s suspected in the homicides of their parents. Devastated, the boys walk away from everything they love and move into the MC clubhouse full of bikers. As Ryan becomes suspicious of Skratch’s involvement in the accident, he turns to his girlfriend Cappi, whose dad is the Assistant State’s Attorney and is also indicting the case. When Ryan and Cappi dive deeper into his parent’s past, they find that his and Austin’s dad weren’t the men they’d claimed to be.

Can they escape the sins of their fathers, all while, finding the person responsible for killing their parents?


 

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Excerpt

Chapter One

Ryan

I’d never imagined what my mom would look like dead. Who does at seventeen years old? I stood beside her, looking down at her lifeless face. Thick, brown hair spilled out around her head, framing her smooth, sun-kissed skin. She really was beautiful. I searched her delicate features, memorizing, committing her to one final memory, all while trying to ignore the sheet that covered the rest of her body. Her insistence to always wear a helmet had proven to be an ineffective defense. When I’d walked in the room, I’d caught a glimpse of her contorted shape underneath the white linen sheet. Yet, staring down at her I felt like I wasn’t seeing my mom, but rather an artificial being, a mannequin or wax figure. Numb inside, one solitary tear fell on my cheek, the intense pain willing itself into irrational notions that this was all a dream.

I gave the coroner a slight nod. He pulled the sheet back over her head. I wanted to see Mom first, say a prayer (which I still hadn’t done), hoping it would prepare me for the next blow. I slowly turned to my left. Dad lay beside her on another gurney also covered in a gleaming white linen sheet. The room smelled of alcohol and bleach, stinging the inside of my nose. My heart started to race, sweat beading on my forehead, and my palms were cold and clammy.

The coroner appeared at the other side of the table. The balding, plump man stood more than a foot shorter than me. He looked up at me, deep-set eyes, dark and serious. I couldn’t bear his reproachful stare. I had to see both of my parents. His warnings meant nothing. Waiting in silence, stubborn as the sign I’d been born under, the old man’s tension and apprehension would only drag the ordeal out longer.

When I’d arrived at the hospital, the staff, including the coroner, said I shouldn’t see them until they were transferred to the funeral home. I wasn’t one to take the word “no” for an answer, especially under such circumstances, and since no one would listen to me, I threw the coffeepot across the waiting room. Luckily, it was empty, and it only bounced off the wall, hitting the floor with a clunk of the plastic handle. Then, one of the orderlies thought he could strong-arm me into the chair. Whatever. I’d been training and playing baseball all spring. I answered that guy’s idea with a left hook to his eye.

Bikers from the Asylum Brotherhood were already showing up in groups of three and four, big burly men sobbing on each other’s shoulders. The waiting room droned with sniffles and coughs, along with an occasional moan or sob. My outburst at the staff instantly triggered a protective circle of men behind me who proudly wore their Asylum Brotherhood MC colors along with clenched fists. The coroner relented at the threat of a brawl, because yet three more of their members had been killed on motorcycles. Not just two, but three. Jack Bradshaw, the father of my best friend, Austin. The best friend of my father’s. Austin and I were screwed.

One thing was for sure, the coroner had met this group many times, and they weren’t to be confronted when their souls were stripped raw by their loss. Jack and my parents were loved by all the people standing behind me. I locked my eyes on the doctor, determined not to budge. Finally, he let out an irritated humph sound, and agreed to take me to the morgue.

“Ryan,” the coroner spoke. I stood stone-cold still, moving only my eyes to meet his. “He doesn’t look as peaceful as your mother does. Are. You. Sure?” He emphasized each word.

I nodded my head once. I’m their only child. The son of Steven McDowell. I will be the one who speaks on behalf of my father. I repeated the words over and over in my head.

The coroner let out a sigh, and with hands trembling, he slowly pulled the sheet to Dad’s chin.

My lungs collapsed inward like something had sucked all of the oxygen out of the room in an instant. Another glance at what used to be my father made my stomach revolt. A gagging dry heave pushed up into my throat and I coughed violently toward the floor.

The coroner snapped the sheet back over Dad’s head, darted around the table, and caught me as I fell to my knees.

I’d been a fool. They were right. “God, I can never unsee that!” I howled in anguish.

Dad’s face was mauled, unrecognizable, slashed, and torn. The hospital staff warned me; I didn’t listen. I wouldn’t listen to anyone. I was so stupid stubborn and now I’d pay for it for the rest of my life with the horrific memory. Why don’t I ever listen?

The coroner rubbed my back in a distant yet consoling way. I sensed this wasn’t typically one of his jobs. It was the middle of the night and there was a crime scene to investigate—he had to be there. On top of that, I was sure the sounds that welled up and out from somewhere deep inside of me, a place I’d never visited before, made it that much more awkward for a man who worked with the dead.

After the blurred moments in time, I finally stood to my feet and let the coroner lead me into his office. He helped me to sit down in the chair by the door, then bowed his round head toward me and quietly asked, “Is there someone I can call?” No doubt he was ready to pass this aspect of death to a family member so he could move on with his work.

I inhaled a quivering breath. “My uncle,” I exhaled out the words.

“The guy they call Skratch?”

I nodded. Unfortunately.

“Let me call the nurse to have him come down.” He started to walk away, hesitated, and then he turned back to me. “We’ll find the person who did this to them. I promise.”

I looked up at the man. The empathetic lines around his shadowed eyes made my heart ache even more. “I’m sorry I’ve been such a pain in the ass. You were right.”

“No worries.” The coroner placed a hand on my shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze before he walked out of the unlit office.

I laid my head back on the chair and let the tears stream down my cheeks. Who would do this to them? Who could live with themselves, murdering three innocent people, driving off like they’d hit a deer, leaving them for dead mangled in motorcycle wreckage on the side of a country road? I wondered how long they’d all laid there before someone found them. Was it instant? Did they suffer? My throat clenched at the thought and I whimpered out loud.

Dad and Mom had left with Jack before the last stop on the poker run and were headed home. Dad wouldn’t have let them ride if they were drunk, not that he would’ve ever taken that chance, or Jack for that matter. But Skratch knew something more. I’d sensed it when he walked in the waiting room before I left with the coroner. Skratch’s face was blank with no remorse. Then the club members gathered around him like a flock of sheep gather to their shepherd. But the way he looked at me through his narrowed Italian eyes sent a shiver through my bones.

Skratch. He was the last person in the world I wanted to see. My mother’s brother, Jimmie Santoro, was 6’5”, broad, dark-eyed, and had a temper that flared like a match. They’d called him Skratch ever since he’d gotten into a fight that left him with a long scar down the left side of his face. It didn’t kill his sharp featured look though; it actually complemented the whole persona he tried to convey. He wore his black hair long, pulled into a low ponytail, and kept his goatee thick and grown out to his chest. He always wore his “colors”—the vest that proclaimed his loyalty to the Asylum Brotherhood—displaying a patch on the upper left shoulder embroidered with the title, President.

Skratch wasn’t a lowlife though. For the most part, he was respected in Attica, the owner of the bar and grill, The Wild Turkey Saloon. His respect had been earned because he kept the one-percenter club under close reign, and he also served the best fried chicken dinner in the Wabash River area. Food always fooled the masses.

I didn’t mind that Dad was a member of the Brotherhood. What I did mind was that Skratch thought everyone should obey his orders at all times, club member or not. Dad missed many of my baseball games because of some stupid club meeting or some “run” they had to make. Dad was a badass and the club loved him. Elected Sergeant at Arms, no matter where there was a gathering, he had to be the sober muscle who stopped any trouble if the threat should arise. But as much as those men needed him, I needed him more. Hatred for the club rose inside of me. Hatred for their selfish ways, for their overbearing control, for the godawful stories I’d heard, for them stealing my parents and Jack. I’d never be like them and I’d never forgive them, even if they claimed to mourn alongside two sons without parents. 

In the distance, I heard the elevator ding and the swoosh of the doors opening. The sound brought me out of the dark abyss of tears and memories. My body stilled at the ominous echoes. Each footstep of Skratch’s heavy boots resonated down the hall like a mallet hitting the judge’s bench. This was it. My only option. I had to go with Skratch or live in a house that I couldn’t pay for and be an adult at seventeen. I wasn’t ready.

My heart skipped a beat. Cappi. I’d lose Cappi, too. I loved her. I hadn’t told her yet, but I knew it for sure now. Taking her around Skratch and the club—there was no way. Her dad was the assistant state’s attorney. She wouldn’t want to be near criminals her dad had prosecuted. She was too intelligent and talented to stoop that low. And what about my chance to go to LSU…it was all planned out, the scholarships were agreed upon and set in stone. I’d graduate in May of ‘94 and start training next summer. Then, I’d be coached by the best, I’d earn my way to the minor leagues, and one day I’d get the call...

I gasped, leaned forward, and watched my tears plunge to my Dr. Martens boots. Moisture splashed on the dusty, black leather as I listened to each footfall from Skratch’s approach boom down the hallway like a tympany. One step at a time, he moved closer and my future moved further and further away. It was all lost. I couldn’t recover from this in time to fulfill all of my requirements. I couldn’t step on the ball field now. Not without Mom in the stands. I couldn’t bear the thought. All I wanted to do was die along with them.

Mom’s bright smile flashed in my mind, her loving, deep brown eyes as she said, “Good morning.” Then Dad’s. The way he’d bump knuckles or ruffle my hair when he passed me in the hallway. His job as a union concrete foreman made for hard days, working in the sun, tanning his fair Irish skin. I ached inside for them, the pain so acute and piercing. My life was ruined. I’d lost everything I loved—my support—the people who loved me more than anything in the world.

The footsteps resounded like deafening explosions behind me, then stopped. I could feel his massive presence. I could smell leather and Marlboros, and a hint of whiskey. I slowly sat upright and let my eyes focus. The room was a blur of watery tears and black shadows. I turned and looked over my shoulder to see a mass of darkness blocking the light in the doorway. Skratch loomed so large only an ironic halo of light showed around his foreboding head and shoulders.

“You satisfied?” he asked as he pulled on his goatee, a common sign of disapproval. “I told you, you didn’t want to see them. I’ve been there too many times. It never gets out of your head. Now, come on, we got people waiting for us.”

Leave it to Skratch to worry about all of the other people.

“What about Jack?” I asked as we walked toward the elevator. “Where’s Austin?”

“He’s waiting for you. Upstairs. I told you, we have people who need you.”

“Is Austin okay?”

Austin’s mom had died two years earlier of cancer. I wasn’t sure how he could handle going through it all over again, and this time it was completely unexpected. Austin was my best friend, my third basemen since little league, and our families had been inseparable for most of our lives. Jack had been like another dad to me, and mine to Austin. I had to wonder if he was as stupid as I was and demanded to see Jack. I doubted it. Austin wasn’t as stubborn as me.

“You two need to come with me,” Skratch said. “I’ll take care of you.”

I stopped in the middle of the low-lit hallway. Skratch turned around then took two steps toward me. Our eyes locked. Blue set on brown, his dark Italian stare didn’t scare me. The day had hit too hard to be scared of him. I’d gladly take a beating just to feel something other than the throbbing hole in my gut.

“Like you did your sister?” I shouted. “My mother?”

Skratch took a step toward me, our noses inches apart. I felt the sharp jab of his pointer finger on my chest. I pushed into it. His breath blew hot on my face, Jack Daniels wafting in the air. I wanted to step back, but knew if I did, he’d forever have the upper hand on me. I pulled my shoulders straighter and held my breath. The finger shoved deeper into my breastbone. Then he pushed off me and stepped back with a gleam in his bloodshot eyes that I couldn’t read. He rubbed the scar on his cheek and said, “You’re in a lot of pain right now.” His cigarette-scarred voice was low and flat. “Let’s go upstairs so you can be with Austin.”

I stood my ground without a sound. Skratch pivoted and headed toward the elevator.

I don’t want this! I screamed in my head. Why? Why do I have to go with him? Why isn’t he devastated? His sister’s dead in the other room, blue and lifeless. Where are his tears?

The first person I saw when the elevator doors opened was Austin. We wrapped our arms around each other in an unabashed embrace. His lanky arms squeezed me so tight, I felt his entire body tremble against mine. I pulled back and grabbed his shoulders.

“Are you okay, man?” I asked in a dry, husky voice, tears streaming down my face.

His crystal-blue eyes were red and swollen. Golden-streaked, brown curls fell around his tan baby face. “Fuck no.” He sniffled. “How ‘bout you?”

“We just stepped into hell,” I said, sobbing like a little boy.

Austin nodded and we locked into another embrace.

 

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