Chapter One

“The pain fades, my love,” Therese Casey said as she pressed her hands to Derby Cain Casey’s back. It was the first anniversary of the death of Cain’s father, Dalton, and she had yet to get over the sudden, violent loss.

“Do you really believe that?” Cain turned, put her arms around her mother, and kissed her forehead. “The only thing that’ll make me feel better is ripping the throat out of whoever did this.”

Nothing made the loss more tangible than standing in the marble mausoleum they’d had built for the family in the old cemetery in uptown New Orleans. The place was cold even in the summer, and it focused the permanence of his absence in her life. She was the heir to his title—a job she’d prepared for all her life, and he’d guided and taught her to be successful, but she still had a million questions she hadn’t asked him. That future together had ended abruptly and savagely, and for that, someone was going to pay dearly.

“Right now you need to take care of your family. You can handle the bloodlust when you’re sure.” Therese kissed her fingers before placing them on Dalton’s name. “You’ve got to get Billy under control before he’s beyond our reach.”

“He’s no angrier than I am, so it’s hard to tell him anything.” Her little brother had handled their father’s murder with his fists. Billy had beaten the crap out of every one of their enemies that had crossed his path, but the fighting only seemed to make his anger grow.

“If he gets any madder you’ll have a war on your hands, and we really can’t afford that. Your da never wanted to bother me with the business, but I don’t live with my head in a pot. Now’s the time for level-headedness and a firm hand. Remember his lessons on anger and how it clouds your judgment. It’s time to remind Billy of all those wise things your da taught you and soothe that beast clawing at his heart.”

“So you’re trying to tell me to aim Billy a little?” They walked out into the heat, and the guards glanced around before they moved through the cemetery.

“Your brother’s a hothead with a bad case of shortsightedness.” Therese slipped her hand into the bend of her elbow and leaned against her. “I’m his mother, so you know I’m right.”

“You’re my mother too, so God only knows what you’re saying about me when I’m not around.” She laughed when her mother slapped her arm.

“It’s been a year, and I’m proud of how you’ve handled yourself. The clan’s yours, and every Casey alive and gone is thrilled that this load has landed on these broad shoulders. But you’ve got enough going on without adding to that already impossible burden. Talk to him and lift a little of his fog before something happens to him. I can only take so much loss in this lifetime, and your da’s passing is enough.”

She opened the car door for her mother and kissed her cheek. “I’ll go pick up Marie and meet you at the house later for dinner. I’ll talk to Billy tonight.”

“Don’t let her talk you into too many treats. You’re a soft touch, and your sister’s got your number.”

“One milk shake. I promise.”

Therese kissed her hand and shook her head. They both knew she’d give Marie whatever she asked for. Her little sister really was the soft spot in her otherwise hard demeanor. But her and the family’s survival depended on her staying as unforgiving as she could manage, and that wasn’t a stretch since all she wanted to do was open fire on the world. She didn’t care how much blood ran in the streets. It’d been a year, so her revenge was about as cold as she wanted to let it get before she served it to whoever had killed her da.

“You want to put off the meeting with the Liam brothers?” Merrick Runyon asked. The African American guard who’d been at her side for a couple of years was enjoying her new position as the head of Cain’s security.

“The Liam brothers need us more than we need to do business with them. Da trusted them, but I’ve got something else in mind for now.”

“Are you sure you want to rock the sturdy ocean liner your father built?”

“The future has to be part mine or I won’t make it. Da was the first to say that you only move forward by hacking through the brush yourself. If it’s mine, then the pressure to make it succeed will keep me sharp. Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.”

“I realize that, but just make sure you’re not so sharp you cut yourself off from what works.”

“If I close my eyes I can almost imagine Mum is still here.”

“Way to make a girl feel incredibly unspecial.”

“I love my mother,” she said with a smile.

“No doubt, but maybe I have other ideas that aren’t motherly at all.”

“The last thing you should get is ideas, babe. It’s like one of the bullets that took him from me sliced through my heart.” She pointed back toward her father’s grave and closed her eyes. “Hold out for something better.”

 

v

 

Emma Verde tapped her pen on the blank page of her notebook, too nervous to think of anything to write. The new semester hadn’t started with much good news, but she was hoping to salvage it by meeting with the head of the university’s financial aid.

“Miss Verde,” the elderly woman behind the oak counter said. “Go on in.”

“Thanks, Miss Betty.” Everyone in the office knew her, so if any help was available, they’d give it to her. “Hey, June.” She shook hands with the new and incredibly young dean.

“Hey, Emma.” June flicked her shoulder-length red hair back with what seemed like impatience. “I appreciate you coming in.”

“Please tell me you have good news and all this is a big mistake.” The notice she’d received in the mail had sent her into a mild panic. She was barely surviving with her scholarship and her student job. Losing one or the other meant she’d be forced out because of Tulane’s expensive tuition.

“The manager of the bookstore loves you—don’t think it has anything to do with that.” June pressed her hands together and seemed to try to keep her face impassive. She was failing miserably.

“I’m really losing my job?” She didn’t need to ask the question because the answer seemed plain and done. “Why? How much can the school save getting rid of me?”

“I’ve only got so many slots, Emma, and sometimes life is as unfair as it gets. One of the state senators has a kid starting this year, and he’s getting your spot.”

“Does he even need my job?”

“I might incriminate myself by answering that, so let’s skip it. I also want to make sure you’re okay, so while I don’t want to intrude into your personal life, I have a question for you. Can your parents help out any?”

Emma shook her head while she pressed her hands against her stomach. “No. That won’t be possible.”

“All I need is a few years of tax returns. We can start with a grant. If not, you might qualify for some more student loans in addition to the ones you’ve gotten on your own.”

Her mother Carol’s voice saying that going to school was a waste slammed around in her head. Calling for any kind of help would be admitting defeat. “That’s not going to happen.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” June asked gently, as if knowing there was more to the story.

“No, but thanks. So am I out right away?”

“I got you two weeks, and I’ll do my best to find you something.”

“Thanks, June, and I understand. Sometimes it’s out of your control, but I appreciate your honesty. I like you, so thanks for the couple of weeks.” She packed her bag and tried to keep her smile.

“You’ll be training the senator’s son, so don’t thank me just yet. I feel like an asshole, but I thought it’d be better than nothing.”

“There might be an asshole at work here, but I doubt it’s you.”

She walked outside and dropped her bag to keep from flinging it into the bushes. The urge to get really angry was getting strong, but her buzzing phone made her smile again since she knew who it was. Once a week her best friend from back home called to check on her. The phone was the one extravagance her father had insisted on, in case she needed to call for help and so he could reach her no matter what.

Maddie and her husband Jerry were the only two people who seemed as excited as she was when Tulane offered her the scholarship. Actually, she’d had her choice of three schools, but the city of New Orleans had lured her to Tulane. It was the complete opposite of the small Wisconsin farming town she’d grown up in, and all she’d wanted was to experience the world her mother had tried to keep locked away from her.

“Hey,” she said, sitting on the lawn and turning her face up to the sun.

“What’s wrong?”

“How the hell do you do that?” Maddie was a year older, but they’d been inseparable during high school, and their closeness hadn’t changed much, even after Maddie met Jerry and decided on the life a lot of their friends had chosen.

“You grew up with Carol as a mother, and I grew up knowing that when you sound overly chipper you’re covering up something upsetting. Considering that it happened on an almost daily basis, I got really good at it.”

“You’re a riot.” She wanted to stay positive, but it was hard. She could stay in school without some dead-end job if she gave up eating and living in her crappy apartment. “And I’m unemployed.”

“Honey, I’m so sorry, but if you show up here without a degree, I’ll never forgive you.”

“I’ve got two weeks to find something, so I shouldn’t think the worst, I guess.”

“And if you don’t, you know we’ll be happy to help.”

“I love you, but I want to try to make it on my own. If I don’t, I’m only proving her right,” she said, referring to her mother.

“Emma, Carol gave birth to you because she wanted to. You don’t owe her a lifetime of misery for the favor. She may think that and find plenty of passages in her Bible to prove that to herself, but it’s all bullshit.”

Her mother was the most pious person she knew and used the scriptures in her well-worn Bible to point out everything she was failing at in life. Carol’s biggest disappointment so far had been her choice to come here. Carol probably wouldn’t have wasted high school on her, much less college.

Good Christian women married and hung on every word their husbands and the Lord said. Every Christian woman except Carol, that was, because Emma was sure her father would agree she had no problem stating her opinion.

“I’m not giving in.” She lay back and rested her head on the nice leather bag that had been a gift from her father. “You caught me right after I found out. I liked the bookstore since I got to study as much as I worked.”

“Why not try what you did here when you had a problem to solve?”

She laughed. “I’d need a ride out of town to find a cow pasture, much less a lake.”

“I was thinking more of a walk some place you love. You’ve been there long enough to have found a favorite spot.”

“Thanks, Maddie, and I love you for making me feel better.” She hung up, brushed off her jeans, and said to herself, “She’s right. You’ve got to suck it up and think.”

She headed to her tiny apartment, wanting to forget the report that was due and everything else, at least for the night. Whatever happened next, it would point her toward her future, or at least give her something to talk about in her later years, as her grandmother used to say.

“Good Lord, no need to be so dramatic. All this will lead to is a barista job somewhere, and my memories of it will be hilarious some day when all I have to worry about is grading papers.”


Chapter Two

“I’m not sure how you’re bringing it now, but I’ve got better routes and a better deal,” Jake Kelly said loudly while pacing in front of Cain’s desk. “Word on the street is your father got lazy and just took what someone offered him. Aren’t you tired of getting screwed?”

“Jake, stick to what you’re here for and leave my da out of it,” Cain said, low enough that he had to stop. “We don’t know each other yet, so you should realize I’ve come close to shooting people for saying less about him.” She glanced back at Billy, surprised he’d kept his word to stay quiet. The switchblade he was twirling through his fingers made her think he wasn’t as out of control as her mother thought since it wasn’t sticking out of Jake’s chest.

“No problem, and I apologize.” He held his hands up and sat heavily in one of the empty chairs. “I’m just jacked about this deal, so forget I said anything.”

“Let me think about it.” She looked at Merrick, prompting her to open the office door. “But I’ve got another meeting if you don’t mind.”

“Don’t think too long. I won’t be in town that long, and I have other offers.”

“If I’m holding you back, then feel free to deal with whoever you want.”

Merrick pointed to the door when Jake stood up and took a step toward her desk. Jake seemed to think about it since he stopped and stared before waving the guy he’d brought with him out.

Once the door closed, Billy got off Cain’s credenza where he’d been sitting and put his hands on her shoulders. “Please tell me we’re not doing business with this guy.”

“Not now, brother.” She reached for his hand and looked at him. “Lou,” she said to the big guard that was with her most days.

Lou ran a scanner through the room and pointed to the right side of the doorjamb. “You ready for that meeting, Boss?” Lou asked when he gestured to her desk.

“Billy, you free?” she asked, shaking her head when Billy went over to rip both of the bugs off and smash them under his heel, she guessed.

“Come on. I could use a beer.”

The car her father used sat in the big warehouse, but she pointed to the big Suburban with tinted windows. She liked being higher than the sedans the feds were partial to, so Merrick and Lou got into the front, and Billy joined her in the back.

“Who’s this fucker and where’d you find him?” Billy said, once Merrick gave them a thumbs-up.

“He found me, and we’re going to keep leading him on until I find what I’m looking for.” She glanced out at the port as they drove out.

“What the hell are you looking for? To get screwed?”

She had to laugh at Billy’s ability to get right to the point. “Who comes to the office with good deals and bugs?”

“Are you kidding? You let the feds in to help you out on a deal?”

“Give me a little more credit than that. I’m trying to figure out if anything’s changed since Da died, so I’m playing dumb for now.” She squeezed the side of his neck. “Where were you today? Mum waited for you, and when you were a no-show, she got worried.”

“I can’t stand thinking about him in that box. If I’d been there I might’ve been able to save him.” He tried to pull away from her, but she didn’t let go. “I wasn’t there when he needed me most. I’m nothing but a fuck-up, so it’s hard to face her.”

“Stop blaming yourself. You know Da. He didn’t like hovering, so he would’ve run you off after an hour. None of what happened is your fault, and Mum loves you, so don’t go pushing her away.”

“I know, but I’m sure it was that fat bastard. You give me the word, and I’ll take him out. I’ll do it myself and make sure he sees it coming.” He punched his palm with his fist, making Cain wince. “The coward that killed Da didn’t give him the satisfaction of facing him.”

“Billy, you have to promise me that you’ll hold off until you get my okay. We’ve got to show the other families we’re not going to go back on our word when it comes to our alliances.”

“The others wouldn’t ask permission, Cain. They’d kill that son of a bitch and celebrate afterward.”

“Lou, head to the house,” she said, and sat back to think about the best approach. Her mum was right in that she had to find a way not only to reach Billy, but to defuse him.

“Drop me at the club then. I’m not ready to go home.”

“You’re not going anywhere. I have another meeting, and you’re going to be there.”

“You’re the boss now, so deal with whatever however you want. I need to blow off some steam.” Billy leaned forward and slapped Lou on the back. “Drop me at the corner. I’ll find my way from there.”

“Lou, if you stop at the corner, go ahead and get out with him.”

“I don’t need a sitter, sister. My guys will take care of me.”

“You get out of this fucking car, and both of you are out. You better pray Lou and your guys can take care of you, because you’ll be on your own.”

“Yeah, right.”

“This isn’t the time to test me. You’re my brother, but I’m not going to fight battles from every direction. Especially from some place I shouldn’t have to worry about. You either accept that I’m the boss or get out. I’m not going to argue about it.”

The rest of the ride was quiet, but Billy wasn’t giving in. She wasn’t about to think that, but she was tired of lecturing too. She didn’t want to honor her father with this type of legacy.

Their mother was waiting but Cain discreetly shook her head, so Therese just hugged Billy and stayed outside when they entered the study. She’d invited her father’s brother Jarvis and his only child Muriel.

“Thanks for coming, Uncle Jarvis,” she said embracing him, then Muriel. “It’s time to settle some stuff so we can move forward.”

“What’s to settle? We all know and accept who Da’s heir is, and none of us dispute it. Right?” Billy asked, staring at everyone there as if daring any of them to contradict him, even if he’d done it himself in a way.

“Billy, sit please,” she said. “Today’s the first anniversary of Da’s death, so it’s time to decide how we move forward.”

“What do you have in mind, Cain?” Jarvis asked, his demeanor and gestures, just like his looks, exactly like her father’s.

“You and Da wanted Muriel away from the family business, and I agree, but we need to make one big change. Muriel, you should start establishing your own firm. It’ll give you the distance you need from me, but I still need you close to give counsel.”

“I’d be honored to,” Muriel said.

“Uncle Jarvis, you’ll keep your place at my side as my advisor, like you were for Da. You need to come with me for the long-overdue meeting with the other families.”

“Vincent and Ramon wanted to give you the space to grieve, but they’ll be happy for some normalcy.” Jarvis stood and covered her hands with his. “You’ll never have a moment to doubt me.”

“I know that because I know what family means to you.” She smiled at Jarvis and stood up, ready to finish. “Could you all give Billy and me the room?”

Billy seemed restless once it was the two of them. “So you’re cutting me out?” he asked after a few minutes of silence, and the allure of the bottle on the small table finally won out.

“Put that down, or I’ll shove the decanter and every single matching glass up your ass.” She moved around the desk and sat on the edge. “No one’s taking anything away from you, but we’re not leaving here until we get some stuff straight.”

“If you’re worried about me accepting how things are—don’t. I know what Da wanted.”

“I know that, but I still have two questions for you.”

“What?” He could only keep eye contact for a brief time before he turned and faced the wall.

“What can I do to help you? And what’s it going to take for you to remember who you are?”

“Everything we learned together doesn’t make any sense anymore. Da was the strongest man we both knew, so how did this happen? It’s been a whole fucking year, and I still don’t understand it. If they could get to him, then I don’t know if I can protect you, and you and I both know we’re screwed if something happens to you.”

“Forget about that right now, and think about one important thing.”

“What?” He faced her, and she was glad to see his smile again—not forced or fake, but finally that relaxed expression that set off his handsome face.

“Your name is William Dalton Casey, and Dalton Casey expects you to remember the legacy of your blood. We need to be the strongest bastards in the city, and only then will we bring our heel down and smash every enemy we have.” She put her arms around him, and they both finally came to accept their reality. “You’re the only one who understands what we need to do and why. Neither of us can let him down.”

Billy clung to her and started crying until he was sobbing. Her tears fell silently, but their pain was the same. When he was done, she kissed his cheek and poured two drinks. “To the future, brother. It will always belong to us, and we’ll make Da proud by how we shape it.”

“Damn straight, and you won’t ever have to worry about me again. He taught you to lead, Cain, and he taught me to always have your back. We both learned those lessons well.”

 

v

 

The report on early American poetry was roughed out, so Emma shoved a few bucks into her pocket and headed for the streetcar stop near her studio apartment. She’d made a few friends in town, but everyone was busy with rush week, so she rode down to Canal Street alone.

One of the things she’d done on her first weekend off when she’d moved here was find the Hotel Monteleone. She wanted to stay and teach in New Orleans, and maybe write some, so the Monteleone had some impressive writing ghosts in its past. Hemingway, Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams had written and drunk there, so she enjoyed walking through the Carousel Bar and imagining her future here.

Right now it was a dream, but she wanted to settle either here or somewhere like it. No way did she want to end up in Wisconsin with her mother. She’d miss her father, but she had to get out from under the weight of her mother’s disapproval and judgment.

Barry, the bartender at the Carousel, greeted her when she sat next to one of the windows. “Hey, Emma. School’s only been going on a week. You need a break already?”

“I’m walking and thinking.”

He smiled and poured some ginger ale. “Here, so you look like every other lush in here.”

“Thanks.” She immediately started chewing on the straw. “Know of any coffee shop hiring right now?”

“Try the ones by campus. You don’t need to be going home late at night by yourself from the Quarter.”

“I’ll start my hunt tomorrow, but eventually I’ll have to find some place, even if it’s in the Quarter.”

“Then I’ll keep my eye out.”

She finished her drink and headed toward the river, window-shopping as she walked. The bar a few blocks away made her stop and listen to the loud singing pouring out the open door. Inside, the patrons looked like young attorneys and engineers, but every one of them seemed to know every word of the Irish song the small band was playing. The place was packed and fueled by plenty of beer and whiskey.

“Good God, it’s Monday,” she said as she watched the wait staff work the room. The tips they were pulling in seemed to be triple what she made at the bookstore.

“Sing, drink, or hit the road, missy,” the bartender said.

Glancing at him made her notice the Help Wanted sign. “I’m here about the job,” she said, not thinking about what she was saying.

He wiped his hands on the bar towel and smiled. “Sure you are, little lady. Are you even old enough to be in here?”

“I’m in college, so way old enough, and I’m not kidding.”

“Maybe you should try some other place. The hours here are brutal, and if you’re in school that’ll be a killer. I need someone who’ll show up and keep up.”

“You give me a chance, and I’ll prove that I’ll be good. Come on. I need the job to stay in school.” She stood and stuck her hand over the bar. “I’m Emma.”

He stared at her hand before finally taking it. “Josh,” he said as he shook her hand. “Here.” He gave her a card with his name and number. “Can you be here at four tomorrow afternoon?”

“I’ll be here earlier if you want.”

“Four, and you’re working until ten and not a minute later. That’s my deal, so decide now so I can get back to my pouring.”

“I’ll be here, Josh. No problem.”

“I’ll spend a few hours going over the ropes before it gets like this, and believe me, it’s like this every night of the week. You’ve worked as a waiter before, right?” She smiled as she shook her head. “Of course you haven’t. Okay. Get out of here before I change my mind.”

“Thanks.” She slapped her hands together, happy with her lack of caution. Here was her chance, and she hadn’t even noticed what the name of the place was. The card said Erin Go Braugh. “What’s it mean?” She pointed to it.

“My boss said it expresses allegiance to Ireland, which makes sense. She’s big on loyalty, so don’t make me look bad.”

“No way, and the boss will think I’m the best. Trust me on that.”

 

v

 

Therese had prepared a large meal for everyone, so Cain enjoyed some of her favorite food and the stories they all shared about her father. Her sister Marie sat next to her and laughed when she poured a sip of her beer into her glass. Cain knew it made Marie feel like she was participating equally with everyone else without getting her tipsy.

Once dinner was over, Marie held her hand as they went upstairs. Marie was an adult, but only because of her age. Her mind would never progress past that of a child, which made the world consider her mentally challenged, but Cain only saw the pure and true happiness Marie brought into their lives. Others might’ve also seen Marie as a burden, but no one in the Casey family ever thought that.

“Cain, do you think Da can see us from heaven?” Marie asked, swinging their hands between them.

“Da will always be able to see us. Don’t worry about that.”

Marie’s room had a wall of bookcases full of all the stories she’d read over and over, like the Nancy Drew series. “He’s probably got the biggest wings, huh?”

“Probably so, and I bet he loves flying around keeping an eye on us. I miss him though.” She got Marie’s nightgown and pointed toward the bathroom so she’d remember to brush her teeth.

“I miss him too, but I’m not sad.”

“Why not?” She folded Marie’s clothes as she handed each piece over.

“Father Andy said he’s somewhere nice and he’s happy, so we shouldn’t be sad that he’s gone. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be sad.” She nodded and went into the bathroom with Marie. Once Marie finished, Cain pulled the covers back so her sister could get comfortable. “Does that make me bad that I miss him?”

“You’re the best person I know, so you couldn’t be bad even if you tried real hard. Da’s somewhere nice, but I think he still misses us too.”

“Okay, and Father Andy said we’ll see him again,” Marie said before kissing her cheek.

“Don’t rush that, okay?” She leaned over and tapped the end of Marie’s nose. “We have plenty of time for that.”

“Are you happy, sister?” Marie peered up at her with her usual beautiful smile.

“I’m happy because you love me.” She took Marie’s hand and wished for some of Marie’s outlook on life. In Marie’s mind, no monsters were waiting to hurt you, but she knew better. She also knew one of her jobs was to keep Marie from ever finding out that truth.

“I love you, so you never have to be sad.”

“I know, sweet girl, so get some sleep, and we’ll go for snowballs tomorrow. What’ll it be tonight?”

“Can you read The Secret Garden again?”

She read until Marie fell asleep, then quietly closed her door. Father Andy might’ve convinced Marie that their da was sitting on a cloud somewhere strumming a harp, but Marie’s faith fractured somewhat at night. Ever since Dalton’s murder, Marie couldn’t and wouldn’t go to sleep unless she was holding Cain’s hand and listening to her read.

Therese was waiting at the top of the stairs and held her hand out. “Come on. You can put me to bed too,” she said with a sad-appearing smile.

“We’d all be better off seeing the world like Marie does.” She entered her parents’ bedroom and could swear she could still catch a hint of her da’s cologne.

The cleaning staff did a great job of keeping the place spotless, but they didn’t move his things from his nightstand. The loose change added up to two dollars and sixteen cents, and his old watch still kept time because her mother wound it religiously. The ring he’d worn for most of his life was there as well, and one more piece of her inheritance. After the funeral home had handed over all the stuff in his pockets, she’d brought it back and put it where he used to drop it every night.

“Your way of seeing things is exactly what it needs to be.” Therese poured two small glasses of the sherry she liked. “Sit and talk to me, Derby, and tell me a tale like your da used to.”

“What do you want to know, Mum?” They sat in the semicircle of the picture window that overlooked the big yard. The rose garden her da had planted for Therese was in full bloom and something her mum never tired of enjoying from this view. Her da had even lit it so Therese could see it no matter the time of night.

“When I met your da, I fell for that charm of his, but I made sure he knew I realized he was charming me. That’s what kept him coming back.” Therese laughed and took a sip of her drink. “He knew he had to be on his toes around me because I wasn’t taking any of that bull he fed all those pretty girls he’d been with before. If he wanted me in his life, he had to make promises first, and he had to keep them.”

Cain smiled and thought about all the nights her parents had spent in this spot talking about their day. Her da had always told her those talks while watching her mother’s face enjoying those roses was the best part of his life.

“Someone shot the man I love from a car window like he was a dog, and I want to know why. Dalton was no saint, never pretended to be, but he was a good man. He deserved better than that, and he deserves for that not to go unpunished.”

“Mum, I wish I could tell you the truth and believe in my heart it was. I haven’t been able to figure out who ordered the hit, much less who actually pulled the trigger, but I’ve got my suspicions.”

“Billy keeps telling me this was the work of Giovanni Bracato. What do you think?”

“You know Da would haunt me from the grave for acting without being sure. If I do that, I could put all of you in danger when someone retaliates. Billy believes that, but he’s leaving out one thing. Big Gino loves to brag more than anyone I know, and he’s been silent on this for a year. If he ordered it, that’s a miracle.”

“Okay. Now tell me what you’ve been doing.” Therese took off her shoes and wiggled her toes. She’d always been the prettiest woman Cain knew, and age hadn’t changed her opinion. “It’s been a year and you haven’t changed anything.”

“Billy’s pissed he couldn’t protect him, but I feel the exact same way.”

“Billy’s a good boy, Derby, but he needs something to believe in. You have to give him a reason to let go of his guilt and be proud of himself again.”

“I’m trying, Mum. This is more than killing Da. It’s a message that his family couldn’t protect him.” She took a deep breath. “They not only wanted to kill him, but the rest of us along with him.”

“So the street, our territory, is in danger?”

“Vincent and Ramon have helped us keep the peace, so no.” She sighed and fought off a yawn.

“It’s time to wake up and remember your father.”

“I’d forget my own name before I forgot Da.”

“Then start keeping all your promises and stop just going through the motions. You’re a Casey, my heart, and more importantly, you were his, but only for a time. This is your time now, and you need to remember that the clan is yours now. You need to claim your birthright. We’ll follow you to hell if it comes to that, so stop holding back.”

“Thanks, Mum. Tonight was my first step.” She stood so she could kneel in front of Therese. She enjoyed her mother’s arms around her and her kiss on her forehead.

“I know, and I want your promise that you’ll become twice as powerful as your da.” Therese rubbed her head before letting her up. “Find yourself someone to love while you’re at it. Grandchildren are the new start this family needs.”

“There’s a couple of barrels of oats I haven’t even gotten to, so don’t go clipping my wings yet.”

“Between you and your brother, you’ll fly around the world five times with those wings of yours before you’re through.” Cain laughed as she glanced at the nightstand. “Go ahead and put it on. He’d want it on your finger.”

She picked up the gold ring that was a replica of one that had been in her family for years. “It should be worn, but someone needs it more than I do.”

“Make sure he doesn’t lose it and that you’re a good girl, Derby.”

She laughed and gripped the ring in her fist. “Now that’s something no fed or cop has ever been guilty of saying about me.”

 

v

 

Barney Kyle drove through the Garden District neighborhood, slowing when he was close to the corner of the estate he was interested in. The house still had some lights on, but the yard was lit enough to see the guards roaming around outside through the wrought-iron front fence.

“Are you hoping to spot something?” Special Agent Logan North asked as he studied the scene as well. “The Caseys have been laying low since the old man got killed.”

“I came to this hellhole of a city to take down organized crime. With enough arrests I can go back to DC as the head of my own national division, so don’t be such a simplistic thinker.”

“That’s what’s in the record. Dalton Casey got killed, and the wheels came off the train. The operation will probably implode without our help.”

“So we should just give up and wait it out, huh?”

Logan straightened up and shook his head. “No, sir. Do you have something in mind?”

“We need to talk Annabel Hicks into twenty-four-hour surveillance. The old man’s death can come in handy, and if we can get one, we can get them all.”

“Did you have Benton transferred? I waited for him all last week, and no one will tell me anything.”

Barney pulled over across the street and turned off the ignition. “I asked, and he volunteered for an undercover assignment. Since he’s unavailable, I need a new number two. You interested?”

“Yes, sir. Can you tell me what he’s up to?” Logan asked in a way that telegraphed his ambition.

“It’s on a need-to-know right now. I want you to concentrate on Casey for now. If we can get something on her, the only way out I’ll give her is to flip on Ramon Jatibon and that fucker Vincent Carlotti.”

“You tell me what you need to get that done, sir, and I’m on it.”

He restarted the car after scoping out a few spots that surveillance vehicles could use. “I’ve got a meeting set for tomorrow so we can all be on the same page. I don’t want any screw-ups on this.”

“Not to worry, sir.”

He pulled away and took one quick glance back. “We’re getting ready to come down hard, so we’ll see if Casey is up to the game.”


Chapter Three

“You still want to head out?” Cain asked Billy when she came back downstairs.

“Let’s head to Emerald’s and have a few drinks. I know the owners, so I promise a good time.” He winked as he put his shoes back on.

“You’re a riot, and you need to wear more jewelry.”

“What? You want me to look more like a pimp?” He combed back the thick strand of hair that had fallen over his eyes.

“I think a ring won’t turn you into an asshole, especially this one,” she said, holding up her father’s ring. “I want you to wear it.”

“That’s yours, Derby.” He didn’t often use her given first name, but he seemed to want to make a point. “It’s past time for you to put it on. That’s what Da would’ve wanted.”

“I want you to wear it. I’m his heir because I was born first.”

He topped her by only two inches, but he was bulkier and stronger, so when he put his arms around her, she smiled at his kindness. “No, you’re his heir because he trusted you with the family. He always recited that family motto to remind us of where we came from and how much he loved us.”

“You’re mine, but only for a time,” she said. It was engraved around the ring in Gaelic.

“Well, you’re my sister forever, and you’re my clan leader. I’ll follow wherever you take me. I’ll do that proudly, and I’ll kill anyone to keep you safe or who tries to take what’s rightfully yours.”

She pointed to his finger and he put the ring on. “It’s home again,” she said.

“How about if I wear it until you have a son? Your kid can be the next one to have it.”

“We’ll both be ancient before I have a kid, Billy boy. Come on. Let’s go show the world that the Caseys are still alive.”

A couple of years before, Dalton had given them the money they needed to open the high-end nightclub Emerald’s. It hadn’t taken long for them to pay him back and bring in a good monthly profit.

The club was one of their legitimate businesses and had been so successful Cain had opened a smaller and very different place about a mile away. Between Emerald’s and the Erin Go Braugh, she had two venues to clean the cash inflow from the real family business. They’d built their fortune bootlegging booze and cigarettes, but what good was money if you couldn’t have a good time every so often, her da would say.

Lou pulled up to the door of Emerald’s, and she was glad to see the line of people waiting to get in. A popular place in the French Quarter was worth more than a boatload of gold, so two of them were going to help fuel what she had in mind. It was time to start spending on more than just a good time, but that could wait until the morning.

“Let’s go find some lucky women, Cain.” Billy was already out of the car waiting for her.

“Let’s go, Casanova.”

Merrick and Lou followed them in and stood in the VIP section, where Vinny Carlotti, Vincent’s son, was waiting for them. “The old man sends his condolences. He didn’t forget what day it was,” Vinnie said to both of them.

“Papi sends the same,” Remi Jatibon, Ramon’s daughter, said when she came up from the bar.

“Thanks, guys.” Cain waved a waitress over. “How about we lift a glass of good whiskey to Da.”

Each of them grabbed a glass and said, “Dalton.” It was the first of many that night, but it was a time to celebrate. They were alive, and because they were, they’d beat the shit out of whatever and whoever stood in their way.

“Papi said to come by whenever you want. He might have some answers for you,” Remi said when they stepped into the soundproof office.

“So he found out who it was?”

“Wait for the meeting, Cain. No sense driving yourself crazy until you’ve got all the facts. You need to be careful though.” Remi dropped onto the sofa that faced the double mirror overlooking the dance floor.

These two strong women would take their families forward, but that wasn’t the only thing they had in common. Remi also shared her love of women, but they were too alike to end up together.

“I’ve had my head up my ass since last year, but I’ve tried not to be sloppy. Thanks for picking up the slack. You and your family are good friends.” She sat next to Remi and exhaled. “It’s time to step up and take responsibility for my business.”

“Give yourself a break, and you don’t have to thank us. Your father helped us make it here. We’ll never fully repay that debt.”

“Da considered that debt paid years ago, and you know it. Ramon has been a good friend, and our friendship is even stronger since we grew up together.” She handed Remi a glass. “To the future, and everything that goes with it.” They tapped their glasses together and smiled.

Remi finished her drink and pointed to Billy on the dance floor, surrounded by four women. “Think he needs help?”

“He’s going to run dry by the time he’s thirty.”

“With any luck, we all will. Papi said to enjoy it while it lasts. Once you settle down to only one, all you’ll have left is the memories of nights like this.”

“Let’s go add a few to our memory banks then.”

They laughed and headed out to the club. Billy took two of the girls by the hand and twirled them in their direction. Cain didn’t feel like dancing, but this was as good a thing as any to get her mind on something else.

“Did you invite that asshole?” Billy said right into her ear, then laughed to cover up the serious question. “At the end of the bar.”

Jake Kelly was sitting with his elbows on the bar, drinking and staring at them. “You can’t believe that. He’s like an untrained puppy who’s trying way too hard.”

“You want me to pound some Gaelic into his jaw?” Billy asked, lifting the hand he’d put the ring on.

“Not tonight, so set him up with some drinks and keep him by the bar. I’m not in the mood to deal with business right now.” One of the girls put her hand on her inner thigh and moved closer. “At least not his kind of business.”

“Then let him buy his own damn drinks.”

“Don’t alienate him now, brother. He might not want to play when the time comes. And for what I have planned, he needs to think he’s the smartest guy in the room.”

 

v

 

“So do you think you can remember the nicknames for all the beers we went through? We sell plenty of different kinds of booze, but beer and ale are our bread and butter, so try to concentrate on that for now.” Josh poured Emma a soda and let her ask as many questions as she wanted. Despite his insistence that she get here at four, she’d arrived an hour early to prove to him he hadn’t made a mistake hiring her.

“I think so, but I’m a fast note taker, so I’ll write it all down.”

It was early in the afternoon, but people were still in there drinking, so she did what Josh asked and followed one of the girls around for the next hour. The place felt like it’d seen its share of fun times and parties, and from what she could tell so far, the employees seemed to be a tight-knit group.

“You’re doing good, but remember to hold that tray with both hands until you learn how to navigate the crowd in here,” Josh said when she gave him her order.

“Okay, and the guys over there want to run a tab.” She pointed to the group that had just walked in and pushed three tables together. “Do I need to get a credit card or something?”

“The guy in the nice khakis is Mano Jatibon. He’s a good friend of the owner, so don’t worry about it. Just ask when you’re not sure, but you’ll start to get to know the regulars.”

Josh loaded her up with the ten drinks she’d called out, and she took a deep breath before she picked her tray up. It was heavy, but she smiled as she lifted it and turned to head to the table. She made it two feet before the load shifted off balance and slid into a huge mess on the floor.

“Sorry…sorry.” She held her hands up and threw the tray over the glasses on the floor so no one would get hurt. “If you point me to the mop I’ll take care of this.”

“You sure about the job, Emma?” Josh asked, staring at the puddle of spilt booze.

“I promise I’ll get better, but I really need this job. Please. I’ll try harder.”

“Josh, stop giving her a hard time and put the spills on my tab, along with the glasses,” the man Josh had said was Mano yelled from his table.

“Carry them in two loads, okay?” Josh repoured and sent her off with five beers. “Tell him not to worry about that first set.”

It was the first of her many screw-ups that night, but Josh simply shook his head and kept encouraging her. Like the night before, the crowd was getting thicker, and the room was getting harder to navigate. Once the band arrived it was nearly impossible to get around.

“Emma, pick up for table five.” Josh had explained that everyone had to pitch in when it got this busy. “Try your best to keep it on the tray, okay.”

“Don’t worry, Josh. I think I’ve got the hang of it now. This place’s so crowded it takes a miracle to make it to the tables without spilling something.”

She headed toward the table, and an image of her mother popped into her head for some reason. The thought of her mom finding out she worked in a bar made her want to laugh hysterically. That knowledge would drive the ultra-conservative religious zealot to an early grave.

The funny musings came to an abrupt end when she crashed into someone, tipping her tray up and out. The tall woman was now wearing every drop of ale she’d been carrying.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you.” She used her hands to try to skim some of the liquor off the thick, heavily starched linen shirt, but it was no use. When Josh suddenly appeared at her side, she guessed it was one spill too many.

“Josh, where’d you find this one?”

The woman had the deepest voice she’d ever heard a female have, so she took a chance and looked up.

“I’m sorry, Cain. Emma’s training day hasn’t been working out quite as planned.”

“Emma, huh?”

Emma nodded and held her hand out, even though it was now sticky with ale, but her target took it anyway. “Emma Verde. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She grimaced at how wet her hand was and because of the strong smell of ale.

“Cain Casey, and the pleasure’s all mine.” Cain didn’t let go of her, and everyone walked around them, seeming to be careful not to run into them. “Where are you from?”

“Hayward, Wisconsin.”

Cain’s laugh, like her voice, was a low rumble that seemed to start deep in her chest, and it made Emma’s ears intensely hot.

“Any bars in Hayward?”

“Just a diner, but they only serve beer at night.”

Cain winked at her before glancing over her shoulder at Josh. “Don’t mind me, Josh. I think this hayseed’s a keeper.”

“Thank you,” Emma said, wondering who this was. “I appreciate you not getting mad.”

“Don’t worry about it. This gives me a chance to go home early.” Cain plucked her wet shirt away from her abdomen. “Josh, send a round over on me before I head out, and, Emma, I don’t mean the on me literally.”

Emma and Josh watched Cain head to the table before she said anything. “Who is that?”

“That’s the owner, so remember that’s the boss. You want to take her order over?” He tapped his watch. “Then it’s time for you to head out.”

“I can stay later if you want.”

“We had a deal, so ten o’clock’s your witching hour.”

She made two trips but didn’t have any more accidents in the half hour she had left. Whoever Mano was, he handed over a hundred-dollar tip when she told them it was the end of her shift so she was getting one of the other girls to serve them. The total of her tips amazed her, because even if they were less than this every night, she wouldn’t have to work as many hours as she had been.

“Thanks, Josh.” She waved to get his attention before heading out. “Can I come back tomorrow?”

“You sure this is for you?”

“I’ll be able to afford school and my apartment without getting any deeper into debt, so if you don’t think I’m a total klutz, I’d like to stay.”

“See you tomorrow at the same time. We’ll work on your balance skills.” He handed over a ten. “Is that enough to get you home in a cab?”

“I’ll take the streetcar, so don’t worry about me. Thanks, though.” She accepted her purse and gave him his money back.

“I got it, Josh,” Cain said. “We’ll give you a ride home.”

“I appreciate you guys, but I’ll be okay.”

“You owe me one for bathing me in ale, so no arguing,” Cain said, pointing to the door. “See you, Josh.”

“Night, Boss.”

A big SUV was waiting outside, and an attractive woman opened the back door. “Cain, I thought we could have a drink,” the big guy on the street yelled when he spotted them.

“Jake, I thought you were coming by the office next week? Give me a call, but I don’t have time tonight.” Cain moved so Emma could get into the car.

“I’m starting to get the impression you’re avoiding me like I’m a fucking leper.”

“And you’re making me wonder why I’d want to do business with you. Is talking like this in open spaces a habit of yours?” Cain turned to her and smiled. “Sorry, Emma, but I don’t want to lead this guy to your door. Merrick and Lou will see you home.”

“What about you?” She didn’t know what was going on, but she thought Cain shouldn’t stay behind alone.

“I’ll be fine, and welcome to our little family. Let me know if you need anything.”

“Thanks, and thanks for the ride.”

“Call it an employment benefit.”

“That’ll be a first for me. This sounds like an interesting place to work.”

“That’s one way of putting it. I don’t know about interesting, but I can promise different. See you soon.”

The car pulled away and she glanced back. “That’s a promise you’ve already kept, because tonight has certainly been different.”


Chapter Four

The early class was the most boring on Emma’s schedule, so her mind wandered to her first day of her new job. She’d waited until she was in her apartment to count her tips and was still amazed that it was what she made in a week at the bookstore.

Beatrice Weller leaned over and whispered, “You want to grab a coffee after this?” She’d known Bea since the first day of school, when they’d bonded over their dislike of math. The short, energetic brunette was also on scholarship but had grown up in Chalmette, a smaller town right outside New Orleans.

“It’s the only way I’ll make it through the day.”

The professor had mercy on them and let them go fifteen minutes early. They walked to the student center, catching up on what they’d done during their break.

“Did you go home?” Bea asked, pouring what seemed like a pound of sugar into her cup.

“I spent a month helping my dad around the farm. That was the best part, but it’s like I don’t belong there anymore.” It was hot outside, but the hot coffee and milk tasted good. “I think I lost five pounds walking those fields to get away from my mother.”

“How is the pope?” Bea laughed, having heard all about Carol and reciprocating by sharing stories about her very Catholic mother and grandmother.

“Doing her job, she said, so she’s as disappointed and outraged by me as ever. I doubt she has enough hours in the day to pray for my soul now that it’s rotting by the minute in this den of iniquity.”

“You are a heathen, but so am I. At least we’ll have more fun.” The huge muffin Bea had gotten looked good, and she nodded when Bea offered her half. “When did you get back?”

“My dad gave me the rent money for the summer so I got to explore, beginning in early July. It was fun, but I was ready for classes to start.” They waved to some of their friends passing through but were glad to return to the conversation. “After that, I got notice that I was losing my job.”

“Jeez, I’m sorry, Emma. What are you going to do?”

She laughed, knowing Bea would freak when she told her about her new job. “I was thinking some job like at a coffee shop or something, but I ended up doing something crazy.”

“Wait, let me guess. You’re now a sex operator for one of those 900 numbers?”

“Okay, slightly less crazy than that.” She leaned over and slapped Bea’s arm. “I started working in a bar.”

“Now I know you’re going to hell, but I don’t mean that literally. It’s more like you’re going to be in hell when Saint Carol finds out.”

“You’re crazy if you think I’m admitting that to my mother, but I made as much in one night as I did in a week at the bookstore. If that keeps up, I’ll be set for the semester without a problem.”

“Wow, that’s pretty good. Where’s the gold mine?”

“It’s the Erin Go Braugh in the Quarter.” She dusted her hands of crumbs and couldn’t guess what Bea was thinking when she lost her smile.

“The place Cain Casey owns?” The way Bea asked made her even more curious. Bea didn’t go out enough to know who owned every bar in New Orleans.

“Yeah, that’s the place. I actually met her last night.” The memory of Cain soaking wet made her smile. “I smashed a ton of glasses of ale into her chest, and she was pretty nice about it.”

Bea took her hand and squeezed it. “Please tell me you know who she is.”

“She owns a bar, didn’t fire me for soaking her, and gave me a ride home. Well, her staff gave me a ride home and walked me to the door of the building. That’s my rundown of facts as they happened, Counselor.”

“I’m sure she was all that, but there’s plenty more, so don’t go getting real cozy in that job.” Bea moved closer so she could speak in a much lower tone. “She’s also the head of one of the city’s mob families.”

She laughed loudly and shook her head. “No way that’s true. She was really nice.”

“You’re not from here, so listen to me, and be careful. Maybe you should keep looking and go with your original plan. A coffee-shop job might not be as lucrative, but you’ll be better off.”

“I’m telling you, she’s like a big teddy bear.” A big, really good-looking teddy bear with beautiful blue eyes and a great ass. Cain Casey was the first person that had made her notice something like that.

She’d never had the urge to date in high school and had gone out only a few times here, but that kind of lightning-quick attraction had never happened to her until last night. She didn’t want to admit it, but she wasn’t about to let Bea bad-talk Cain. That didn’t make sense to her either.

“A big teddy bear with a reputation. I’m only saying it because I’m your friend and I don’t want you to get hurt.” Bea let her go and smiled. “That’s my two cents, and now I have to run. I have a meeting with one of my professors about the project he’s assigning.”

“Thanks, and call me. Maybe we can get dinner this week.”

“It’s a date.”

Emma waved and decided to stop at her campus job and give them her notice. She had only two weeks left, but she’d go now if they really didn’t need her. Someone else could train her replacement, because she wasn’t wasting her time. Her boss appeared relieved she didn’t make a big thing about it, so she headed home to finish her homework.

Tomorrow she had a full day of classes, so she read and finished all her assignments to save time. When she was done she decided to read for fun, then took a nap. The story Bea had told her made her think, but she wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to work for Cain.

“Maybe it’s time to take a few chances,” she said as she headed for the shower after she woke up. “Playing by the rules hasn’t taken me very far when it comes to getting what I want.”

 

v

 

Ramon Jatibon had run a casino in Cuba before the revolution and had whisked his young family off the island right as Castro entered Havana to claim victory. He’d arrived in New Orleans with enough cash to rent a house and buy food for a month.

He met Dalton before that month was up, and it had been the beginning of a friendship lasting until Dalton’s death. Dalton’s money had seeded much more than his business, including a bond between the two men and their children. His twins Remi and Mano had grown up with the Casey children, and they were as close as family.

They had no debts between them anymore, but Ramon had helped Cain and Billy keep the peace and what was rightfully theirs at Dalton’s death. Cain knew he would’ve done it without complaint for years if that’s what she needed.

“Cain,” Ramon said when Remi showed her into his office. “It’s good to see you again.” He stood and pulled her into a bear hug, letting her enjoy the scent of good cigars that always seemed to permeate his clothes.

“Thanks, my friend. I finally climbed to the top of the deep hole I got dumped into, so I’m ready for whatever comes next.”

“No matter what you have in mind, you know you’ve got good friends to count on. Dalton was my brother, so you simply have to ask if you need something.”

“It might come to that, but for now I plan to start the hunt for every single person responsible for Da’s murder. I want to strengthen my family’s territory and assure you and your family that the ties between us will be honored.”

She held her hand out. She should’ve made the move before now, but she thought Ramon would forgive the timing. Dalton, as if he wanted to cover all his bases, had tried to guide her in case something happened to him. He’d told her to sit with Ramon and with Vincent if something ever happened to him, so that their friendship would be cemented for the next generation. Not that Dalton doubted that possibility, but he wanted Cain to show his two old friends the respect they were due.

She had grieved so long because he’d even thought of that scenario. Some might’ve considered her father a tyrant, but he’d been a guiding force so strong it had devastated her peace of mind when he suddenly wasn’t there.

Ramon took her hand and nodded. “The future will allow you to avenge your father, and you’ll do that with friends standing with you. We’re beside you, as always.”

“Thanks, Ramon. I have a lot of work ahead, so I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

“Remi mentioned a few things.” He steepled his fingers and glanced at Remi. “I haven’t found anyone in particular taking credit for Dalton, but I have enough money on the street that I’m starting to hear some rumors. Nothing I’ve verified, but at least something’s starting to shake loose.”

“Anything you want to share yet?”

“Give me some more time, but you’ll be my first call when I have something solid. Believe me. Everyone who matters in this town is looking for what you want. Dalton wasn’t only a great father, but a good friend to so many people.”

“Da was one of a kind, for sure,” she said, then pressed her lips together.

“I’d never pretend to take Dalton’s place, but allow me to give you some advice if that’s okay. Once we have the answers we’re looking for, we’ll stand with you to get that job done. Until then, though, you need to be careful, especially with the scum FBI. I’ve heard from a few people that they’ve brought in someone new, who has all of us in his crosshairs.”

“You’re right, and I’m planning a few things that’ll move us forward and flush out the watchers. Between me and you, Da’s death was close to paralyzing. If anyone sees that as weakness, I want to prove them wrong.” Her father had said that at times honesty was the way to go, even if it made you sound weak.

“If something like that happened to Papi, I don’t think a year would be enough. In my opinion, the time you took is a testament of your love and respect for him. He deserved no less because, like Papi, Dalton was a great man. We were both really lucky when it came to our parents.”

“Thanks, Remi, and you’re right. I’m fortunate in so many areas, and I’m grateful I have you on my side.”

“Never forget that,” Ramon said, standing when she did.

“No worries there. Thank you both for seeing me, and I don’t mean to run, but I have another meeting.”

“Need company?” Remi asked.

“Eventually what I’ll need is snake eyes, but let me figure out a few things first.” Snake eyes was the nickname Remi and Mano had on the streets when they got together to solve special problems—the kind of problems that, at times, needed a permanent solution.

Her next planned stop was the Ninth Ward neighborhood and one of the convenience stores that was part of their network. The little mom-and-pop places didn’t seem like much, but they were profitable in their totality and overlooked because they were indeed so small. The FBI always thought people like her only raked in profits from big operations, so places that were the lifeblood of their neighborhoods never hit their radar, it seemed.

“Lou, stop at the office. I want to make sure we don’t have company for the rest of the day.”

“You got it, Boss.”

“Do you want Billy to come with us?” Merrick asked.

“Depends on what he’s up to. I’ll take care of it.” She entered Billy’s office and waved Merrick off. Until she had a solution for the bugs in her office, she’d use Billy’s space and the conference room. “Lou, come in.”

“You need something, Boss?”

“Did you take the new waitress home last night?” Lou’s expression never seemed to change much, but he did crack a bit of a smile when he nodded. “Good. You know where she lives. Get over there and give her a ride to work.”

“That’s not going to scare the hell out of her?”

“Let’s see if it does, but she made me curious as to where she comes from.” The door opened again, and Billy walked in with a jacket on to hide the harness with the two pistols he was partial to. Merrick liked the same kind of rig, and between the two of them, they could take out any threat stupid enough to make a move.

“I’ll give you a call when I’m done,” Lou said as he left.

“What have you been up to?” She sat and ignored the ringing phone.

“I took Mum and Marie back to the cemetery. Hopefully Da forgives me for being a day late.” He sat and fiddled with the ring as if he wasn’t used to it being on his finger yet.

“Thanks for doing that. You made Mum happy, if I have to guess. I went by and saw Ramon and Remi, but we need to get down to the Ninth Ward for a visit.”

He tapped the bottom of his heel as if he was ready to go. “Something up?”

“The guy wouldn’t say on the phone, but someone is muscling into the neighborhood and causing some problems.”

He stood and paced back and forth in front of his desk a few times. “Who would be stupid enough to do that?”

“That’s what I’m going to find out, but I have got a clue. Someone’s trying to squeeze us out. We need to pay attention to anything or anyone new in our life.” She got up and walked over to him. “We need to be stronger than Da. You with me?”

“Come on, Boss. Let’s go hunting.”

 

v

 

Jake Kelly opened the door to his right after putting his pants on. They’d stayed out late the night before, hoping to make at least one deal. One, even if it was small, would line up the big fish, but so far they had nothing.

“Atlanta called,” Bradley Draper said, even before the door closed. “Hey, man, sorry.”

The woman walking out of the bedroom paused before getting her shoes off the floor of the small living room.

“Don’t worry about it. She was leaving. We’re done,” Jake said, heading to the kitchen and the bottle of whiskey already open on the small tile table. “What did Atlanta want?”

“You’re starting a little early, aren’t you?” Bradley said, waving off Jake’s offer to join him.

“It was a late fucking night with nothing to show for it. My head feels like someone’s pounding on it.” He poured another two fingers and downed them in a gulp. “Tell me already.”

“Maxwell said nothing’s happening there either, but he’s ready to go whenever you give him the word. He did say all hell broke loose at the club of one of our biggest buyers. The place will be closed until they can put it back together.”

“Who’s responsible for that?” He washed his face in the sink with cold water, trying to make his head stop hurting. “Does he need anything from us?”

“Nothing we can do but wait until he’s back up and running. As for who did it, none of his people recognized anyone.”

“We need to force Casey to the table then. There isn’t any reason for her not to deal with us, so I don’t get it. After somebody killed the old man, her operation is on life support. Going cheaper for the same thing is the smart move.”

Bradley nodded as he opened the refrigerator and looked inside. “Maybe she’s not as bright as we give her credit for.”

“Keep thinking like that, and you’ll be dead before the month is out.”

“You want me to come back tonight?” the woman asked, using his glass to pour herself a drink.

“Call me later and we’ll set something up.” Jake waited until she was out the door before saying anything else. “Give that black bitch of Casey’s a call and see if she’ll move up our meeting. I want to get going on this.”

“Merrick is harder to get through to than Casey, but I’ll give it a shot.”

“We’re on a deadline, so don’t take no for an answer.”

Bradley lifted his hands and spread them out. “Casey seems to be on her own timeline, but she hasn’t shared that with me yet.”

“If she doesn’t want to play, we might have to give her a shove in our direction.”

The comment made Bradley close the stainless steel doors and sit down. “That’s a bad idea. You’re the boss, but it’s a bad idea.”

“If we end up where we need to be, then who the hell cares?” He stretched, ready for a little sleep before another long day started. “Don’t get bogged down in the shit that could go wrong, and concentrate on your job.”

“That’s what I’m doing, but it’ll be hard to get any work done with a head full of bullets.”

“Casey doesn’t have that kind of personality, so stop making excuses.” Jake leaned over and slapped Bradley’s shoulder. “Man up, and let’s teach this big dyke a lesson for putting us off.”

“Just as long as she doesn’t end up leading the class and cutting our nuts off, sure. I’m all for it.”