“Bagger wore the Reapers’ patch for ten years and always brought it honor. When he left for his last deployment, he gave his colors to me to keep safe. He’s Freebird chapter now and he doesn’t need his patches anymore. It’s time to send them back to him. We won’t forget. Reapers forever, forever Reapers.”
A lot of the guys, including Horse, echoed his words like a mantra. Then everyone grew silent and the opening strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird started playing. Picnic stepped forward, holding up Bagger’s cut for all of us to see. He’d almost reached the fire when Cookie cried out.
“Wait!” she said, pulling away from Maggs. “Wait for me. Mine’s going with his. They belong together.”
I watched as she shrugged out of her “Property of Bagger, Reapers MC” vest and draped it over Bagger’s cut.
“They go together,” she said again, voice breaking. Picnic shook his head and Maggs came up to her, taking her arm.
“You’ll want it,” she said. “You aren’t thinking straight tonight. Bagger would want you to keep it.”
“It belongs with his,” Cookie replied, her voice fierce. She and Picnic stared each other down for a minute as the song played, then he jerked his head once in acquiescence. Cookie sighed in relief and let Maggs pull her away, unsteady on her feet again, as if she’d used up all her energy on this final chore. The song soared around us as Picnic threw the two sets of patched leathers into the fire. All around me I heard women sniffling. Men blinked quickly, their eyes suspiciously moist. All too soon the song ended and the leather cuts were lost in the flame.
It was official. Bagger had left the Reapers behind.
I stood in the bathroom off the game room an hour later, fiddling with my hair and wishing I could leave. Horse needed space and wanted to be with his brothers. The women were friendly but I didn’t know most of them and I didn’t want to intrude on their grief. The toilet flushed behind me and Cookie stepped out of the stall.
“Hey,” I said, not sure what to say. I didn’t want to ask her how she felt or offer some empty platitude.
“Hey,” she murmured, washing her hands. She looked in the mirror and then glanced at the door. She took a deep breath and touched my arm.
“I need to get out of here,” she said, her voice matter-of-fact. “Can you take me home? Everyone’s drunk and I can’t find anyone to drive me. Are you sober? You look sober.”
“Yeah,” I said, startled. “You really want to leave? Everyone’s here for you—”
“No, I need to go right now,” she said, shaking her head with unnatural composure. “I’m holding on by a thread and if I have to listen to his name or any more stories I’m going to fall apart and I don’t want an audience. Not only that, they all say I shouldn’t be alone tonight and probably won’t let me leave. That’s not working for me. I’m not going to do anything stupid, but I can’t handle listening to a party when all I can think about is my husband lying cold and dead in the ground a mile from my house. Will you take me home?”
There was only one answer to a statement like that.
“Let me get my purse. I’ll meet you out front.”
I ran upstairs and grabbed my things, trying to decide whether I should tell Horse. The Jacks were out, I knew that. But Horse needed his mourning time and I didn’t want to take it away from him. Maybe I could find a prospect to go with us. Painter stood outside with a few other guys, but when I went up and asked him to drive home with me and Cookie, he said he needed to check with Picnic. Cookie paced nervously by my car and I could see her starting to visibly fall apart. What if Picnic didn’t want her to leave? Then Max walked around the corner and I made a snap decision.
“Are you sober?” I asked him. He stopped, obviously startled.
“Um, yeah, I am,” he replied. “Wanted to be alert if the Jacks showed up. Why?”
“Cookie needs to go home and I’m taking her,” I said, putting my cards on the table. “I asked Painter to ride with us but he said he had to check with Picnic first, and Picnic might not let her leave. We have to get out of here now. Will you come with us?”
“Sure,” he said, and we all got into the car, Cookie taking the backseat. During the drive my phone started ringing, Horse and Picnic both, so I let it go to voicemail. I’d deal with the fallout after I got Cookie home. None of us spoke on the way to her house and when we pulled up, she paused only long enough to thank us before heading inside.
“You think she’ll be safe?” I asked Max. “I mean, from the Jacks?”
“They won’t bother her,” he replied. “Not a war widow, not with this many guys in town. They go after her, even their own support clubs could turn on them. She’s untouchable. You aren’t though. We should get back.”
My phone rang and I grabbed it, wanting to reassure Horse.
“Hey, babe, I’m sorry—”
“Marie, it’s Jeff.”
I stilled, eyes darting toward Max.
“Um, yeah,” I replied, keeping my tone friendly and casual. “Just a sec.”
I stepped out of the car and closed the door, strolling a few feet down the street in front so Max could see me without hearing me.
“What are you doing calling me?” I demanded. “You were supposed to email. What if someone else had answered? It’s after midnight, what if I’d been in bed with Horse?”
“You’re not,” Jeff replied. “I know there’s a wake at the armory. Are you there?”
“No, I had to give someone a ride home,” I said quickly. “How did you find out about the wake?”
“I know everything they do,” he said. “I’ve got things all set up now, it’s time for us to go. I want you to meet me out at Horse’s place. I’m in the barn.”
“What? How is that even possible?”
“I don’t have time for this,” he said sharply. “You need to get your ass out here so we can go. We’ll talk while we drive.”
“I’m not alone. Max is with me.”
“Lose him,” Jeff snapped.
“I don’t think I can,” I replied. “They’re worried about the Jacks. He isn’t going to just hop out of the car. Jeff, you need to know I’m not going with you. I’m with Horse and I’m going to stay with him.”