The small, ramshackle bar, sat in the middle of a barren valley no longer on any map, sold watered down drinks to the locals and strangers with the misfortune to stumble through its doors. Scuffed hardwood floors, cheap posters of women holding liquor bottles or selling condoms plastered the walls. Dimly lit by a few overhead lights, the place smelled of cheap booze, unwashed bodies and sex.
“Plata o plomo?” Rudy Rivera, a small-time black bear who actually thought the Colorado Mountains was his turf, rocked on the heels of his shoes demanding an answer.
The collection of voices stopped in mid-sentences. All eyes zeroed in on the lone man sitting at the bar sipping his drink, ignoring the man standing slightly behind him. Bottle empty, Tag Brewer looked at the bartender and waved for another round. Understandably confused, the barkeep hesitated and looked at both men.
“Sir, I can’t,” the bartender said begging with his eyes before stepping away.
“Plata o plomo? Last time I ask this,” Rivera repeated his earlier question in a nasty tone. Pistols drawn, two men moved from the sides of the bar, bracketing the smaller man but solely focused on the silent man at the bar. Three additional men, who had been sitting at tables, quickly stood holding semi-automatics and a pistol. Wisely, the few females fled, their heels clicking across the wood floor before closing the door on their way out. The door screeched on its hinges and then banged closed.
Tag allowed the question to settle in his gut as he peered into the large mirror behind the bar. Rivera’s hand rested on the butt of his gun; his index finger slightly moved back and forth as if caressing an old friend. Dressed in a white cotton button down shirt and chocolate-colored denim jeans with a diamond ring on his pinky, Rivera looked every bit the thug Tag assumed him to be. Every second they stared at each other, Rivera’s jaw tightened and his face reddened.
Tag’s father had been killed by Rivera’s boss, Sanchez, in an undercover drug deal gone bad. The BMP in Montana threatened Tag with imprisonment or worse if he sought retribution on these men, but this wasn’t Montana. In the Colorado mountains, a bear handled his own vengeance with little interference.
“What does that mean?” Tag asked in a deceptively quiet tone even though he understood the words quite well. In the past six months, both shifters and humans had disappeared from this area and were never heard from again thanks to Rivera and his South American connections. The man smelled like evil or shit – both left a rancid taste in the back of Tag’s throat.
“Silver or lead, you choose, coins in your pocket or lead bullets in the head,” Rivera emphasized the latter with a sneer.
Neither option appealed to Tag, although a man could always use extra cash, in this instance, he would pass. In a blurring move, Tag pushed away from the bar, grabbed Rivera by the neck while pulling out his Glock. Five men were dead before they realized he had captured their boss. People always underestimated how fast a grizzly could move, Rivera should’ve known better.
Tag dragged the struggling man forward then used him as a shield when the bartender stood from behind the bar with a rifle and fired.
“Shit, sorry boss!” yelled the bartender, ducking behind the bar again.
Tag picked up the semi-automatic from one of the dead on the floor and shot up the bar, silencing the bartender for good.
Blood poured from Rivera’s wound but Tag knew that was temporary, the black bear would heal unlike the humans who worked for him.
“You are a dead man,” Rivera said through clenched teeth and narrowed eyes. “I will kill you for this. I never forget, never. Your family, your woman, your children, they will never be safe from my retaliation.”
Tag looked down at the ruddy-faced man in his grasp. “You’re right. You’re a shitty piece of work that has killed human and shifters alike. No reason to turn you in to BMP.”
Rivera’s eyes widened then narrowed. “Bear Mountain Patrol? Is that who sent you? I should’ve known.” He paused and met Tag’s gaze in the mirror. “Perhaps we can come to some arrangement.”
Tag smiled as he pulled Rivera’s gun out of its holster, placed the metal to his forehead and pulled the trigger. “Plata o plomo? You get the fucking lead, bitch.” He dropped Rivera’s body, looked at the blood pooling on the floor and stepped back. Jackson’s frowning face, the head of BMP in this area, flashed across his vision. The man made it his personal mission to keep Tag alive when others in BMP would’ve gladly made him disappear permanently. Out of habit, he sent it into the box marked “Who-gives-a-shit?” in the corner of his mind to be dealt with in the next millennia. Right now he had other things to deal with.
The clock was ticking, reinforcements would arrive soon. Although he enjoyed clearing the mountain air of the stench from foul bears like Rivera, the BMP frowned on anyone using their name to frighten or kill other bears. He pulled the chain from one side of the double entry doors then secured both. Next he moved to the bar, opened several bottles of alcohol and poured liberal amounts on and around the men. With his pocket lighter he set the bar towel aflame and used it start a blaze. Soon, fire licked the wood, drank the alcohol and spread in its thirst for more.
Tag looked at the flames for a second. Grizzle, his beast, roared at his signature “Dragon” tactic of burning the evidence.
“Good hunt, we take prey?” Grizzle asked.
“Yes, we found prey, he’s destroyed.” Tag soothed his beast, needing to move quickly. “We need to leave.”
Tag moved to the bathroom in the rear of the club. There was no exit door but that would change soon. “No more hunt, not today. We found our prey, now we leave the fire to burn.”
“Grizzle like fire.”
“No time to play or watch the fire today, Grizzle.” Without much thought, Tag flowed from 6’4” into a towering 8 foot, 550-pound grizzly bear, doubling his normal weight.
Grizzle turned to stare at the fire. The crackle sound excited him. “Fire.”
“Make a hole in the wall, Grizzle,” Tag’s human side spoke with a crisp demand.
When he first shifted at 11, Tag couldn’t understand where his cub came from and how it filled his tall, thin frame. Plus, he wondered where all that hair had come from. And where did it go? His mom said it was a kiss from the angels. Through the years, Tag stopped questioning how or where such a huge animal resided when he was in human form and accepted no one knew how any of this happened. It just worked.
Being dual-natured, there were differences between his appearance and natural-born bears. Tag had better control of his arms and his legs were a little longer which allowed him to fight and run with human maneuverability. His face wasn’t as flat, his hump not as pronounced and his thick claws were four and a half inches, unlike the naturals whose claws grew between three and four. But the ferocity and strength of the grizzly, along with their sensory capabilities transferred in both of his forms.
Grizzle’s head hit the ceiling as he worked fast. The smoke from the front of the club seeped beneath the door. Grizzle pulled the bars in the window, causing them to pop and loosen. It didn’t take much longer for him to enlarge the opening. Using the fire as a distraction, he returned to his human form and exited through the hole. No one was on the back road as he walked away and headed into the safety of the mountains.
Focused on leaving, he missed the BMP patrol car parked in the woods down the road.