There were eyes on me as I hopped out of the car. I could feel them burning into me as I hurried towards the Penthill Community Center.
The Madden gang. They were the ones watching me.
About eight of them sat on motorcycles in the deserted parking lot of Jensen’s Grill across the street. The parking lot was probably deserted because of them. I didn’t know anyone who would voluntarily want to be in the same vicinity as the Madden gang. Anyone who did was, in all honesty, downright insane.
There were only three things I knew about the Madden gang. The gang had begun with three brothers, but had over twenty members in it now. Secondly, they were rivals with the Allbrook motorcycle gang. And, finally, I knew that they absolutely terrified me.
They were intimidating, muscular figures covered in tattoos and piercings, notorious for drinking, dealing drugs, and were responsible for most of the violence that occurred in the small town of Penthill. Thankfully, I lived in Statlen, which was a good half hour’s drive to Penthill, so we rarely saw them around.
Still, when I did venture to Penthill to volunteer in the soup kitchen two afternoons after school, I always kept an eye out for the Madden gang. I’d been coming to Penthill for about a month now and hadn’t run into them.
The sound of an engine throttling startled me and I stumbled forwards and fell onto the pavement. A roar of laughter erupted and, straightening myself up, I glanced across the street to find that the boys of the Madden gang were laughing. At me.
My face went hot and I knew that it was as red as a beetroot right now. Why had I let something so trivial scare me? I really had to get my act together. I couldn’t have a mental breakdown every time I heard a motorcycle being revved or saw the Madden gang.
Feeling beyond embarrassed, I tried to collect myself as I continued down the street to where the community center stood. I’d never been happier to see the rundown place in my life.
As I pushed open the glass door and entered the building, I could distinctly hear the boys still laughing. I’d never been more relieved to be out of the street.
Penthill Community Center was a dilapidating building that was used for numerous purposes. Town meetings and elections were often held here, but every Monday and Friday afternoon at 5 pm it became a soup kitchen for the local homeless.
I’d started volunteering here a month ago after my brother, Nathan, had seen an ad posted on a noticeboard at his college. I’d been a volunteer at the Statlen animal shelter for a while, but I’d wanted to do more for the community, so I’d signed up here.
“Hey, Estella!” Michelle said from behind the service desk. Michelle was in her late-twenties with beautiful red hair that flowed halfway down her back and had a smile that could brighten up your entire day. Michelle was the one who ran the volunteer program and managed everything. She was great at what she did.
“Hi,” I said as I walked up to where she was sorting through some paperwork. “You’ve started early today.”
Michelle shrugged and shot me a forlorn look. “We lost two volunteers in a week so I’m trying to reassign tasks. I have to work something out until we can get someone to manage the substance abuse group.”
The woman was a machine. If she wasn’t helping out in the kitchen, she was doing paperwork. If she wasn’t doing paperwork, she was running one of the self-help groups.
As well as feeding the homeless, after dinner we split them into smaller groups to help them with their personal problems. Some of them were alcoholics, gamblers or addicted to drugs. The older volunteers would take a group and talk to them about their options and how to work towards getting off the streets. I didn’t manage a group, but I liked to stick around and absorb what everyone had to say.
“That sucks,” I said with a frown. “Hopefully we’ll find people to fill in.”
Michelle didn’t look hopeful. “No one wants to work in Penthill for free with that Madden gang lurking around.”
My cheeks went hot from the fresh memory of being laughed at by them. “Yeah, speaking of them, they’re right across the street.”
Michelle’s expression darkened. “I know. I saw them on my way in. I hope they don’t scare away our clients.”
“Are they really as bad as everyone says they are?”
Michelle shook her head. “No, they’re worse. They steal, they vandalize, and they beat people up to the point of being unrecognizable. If you’ve ever heard a story about the Madden gang, multiply it by ten because those boys are just about the worst thing around these parts.”
I frowned. “If I ever run into one of them, I’d like to give them a piece of my mind…”
“If you ever run into one of them, I suggest you run in the opposite direction if you value your life.”
I sighed. Michelle was right. You didn’t poke an angry bull in the eye; you ran away from it screaming. “Why don’t the police do anything about them?”
Michelle shrugged. “Too scared, I guess. I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of one of those boys. There isn’t a law, or a bone, they won’t break.”
Her words sent a chill down my spine, and I felt cold all over. All this morbid talk about the Madden gang was bringing down the mood. I really wanted to be done with this conversation.
“Is everyone else here yet?” I asked, changing the topic.
Michelle went back to sorting through her papers. “They’re prepping for dinner.”
“Okay, I better go help out,” I said, bringing a smile to my face.
Michelle nodded absently and I left her to do her paperwork. As I headed towards the kitchen to help with dinner, I was looking forward to losing myself in my work and forgetting all about the Madden gang.
Those boys were the stuff nightmares were made of.
My brother was running late.
Nine out of ten times I loved Nathan, but tonight was not one of those nights. He was supposed to be here thirty minutes ago, but he’d texted me to say that he’d been late leaving his girlfriend’s house after dinner.
Everyone was gone and I was left standing in the cold outside the community center. The weather in winter was unpredictable. We’d wake up with cool mornings that would end with freezing nights. I was foolishly dressed in baggy jeans and a t-shirt made from a flimsy material that seemed to absorb the cool air.
“Estella Markson, you are a silly, silly girl,” I said to myself in a British accent as my teeth chattered.
Don’t ask me why I spoke to myself in a British accent. The habit had started when I’d been little and my mother and I had watched British comedies together. Mom and I had begun imitating the actors and it had sort of just stuck with me. British accents made simple words sound so much better.
“Estella Markson, do you always talk to yourself?”
The voice came out of nowhere and I jumped back, glancing from side to side. The streetlights were on the other side of the road, so this side of the street was full of shadows. From my right, a solid figure detached itself from the wall and began walking towards me.
It was a boy. Well a man, I guess. He looked like he was a few years older than me. He was dressed in fitted black jeans and a black leather jacket. My senses were on high alert and I didn’t take my eyes off him.
As he came closer and the dim light fell on him, I noticed that he had longish brown hair that was slicked back. A strand or two fell onto his face like they’d been artfully placed that way. And, wow, that face. It was chiseled and taut with full lips and a cleft on the chin.
The guy was downright hot and he’d heard me talking to myself. Could I be any more embarrassing? Still, hot guys could be muggers or rapists and I wasn’t going to let my guard down just because he had a pretty face.
“Um…uh…I.” I glanced around, hoping to see someone around, but there was no one walking the streets. It was just me and the guy.
“What are you doing out here all by yourself, Stelle?”
Stelle. The hot guy had just called me Stelle. He had just spoken to me and a normal person would say something back, but obviously I wasn’t capable of being normal for one second.
“Oh…I’m…uh…waiting for someone.” I was still feeling threatened. Maybe he was a distraction and he had an accomplice who would grab me from behind. I darted a glance over my shoulder, but the streets were still empty.
He cocked a brow. “Your boyfriend?”
I deserved a medal for how stupid I was acting. Now the hot, possibly dangerous, guy thought I was a complete psycho and that I had a boyfriend. “No, no, my brother.” Then, for good measure, I added, “He’s a decorated police officer.”
The guy leaned against the wall of the community center and pulled a cigarette out of his pocket. He lit it up, inhaled, and blew out a cloud of smoke before turning back to me. “Is that so?”
I nodded, scrunching up my nose at the horrible smell of the cigarette. “Yep, and he has a gun and a Taser.”
“Fascinating.” The guy regarded me with his dark eyes and then smirked. “Your brother’s not really a police officer, is he?”
My heartbeat accelerated from my lie being caught out. I shook my head, my body trembling from the biting cold. “N-no. He’s a student at Statlen University.”
His eyes sparkled. “Let me tell you something, darlin’. If you’re in this part of Penthill this late at night by yourself, don’t lie to a guy you don’t know and then admit that you were lying. At least follow through with the ‘my brother’s a police officer’ story.”
I gulped. He was right. I was stupid for coming up with the lie and even more stupid for admitting that I’d lied in the first place.
“Just because my brother’s not a police officer, doesn’t mean that he still won’t kick your ass if you try anything funny.”
The guy held up a hand in defense, an amused smile lingering on his lips. “I’m not gonna lay a hand on you unless you tell me to, Stelle.”
There he went calling me Stelle again like he’d known me for years. And I still had no idea who he was. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Vincent,” he said simply, taking a puff of his cigarette again.
I narrowed my eyes as the cigarette smoke drifted into my face. “Well, Vincent, if you’re going to continue talking to me then you need to put that thing out.”
Vincent’s eyebrows shot up and he regarded me with this look on his face, like he couldn’t quite figure me out. Finally, he sighed and flicked the cigarette onto the pavement and put it out with the sole of his boot.
He turned back to me, looking thoroughly annoyed. “So, Stelle, is there anything else I can change about myself to accommodate you better during this five minute conversation?”
Taken aback by his tone, I shook my head. Seriously, where was my brother when I needed him? There was nothing stopping this guy from kidnapping me except for a vague threat about my no-show brother.
“N-no, it’s f-fine. I j-just…” I trailed off, my teeth still chattering. I wasn’t too sure if my teeth were chattering in fear or from the cold.
Vincent sighed. “Oh, for God’s sake. Here!” He began pulling off his leather jacket and I started shaking my head, not wanting to annoy him further.
“I’m not c-cold…Y-you’re not trying to get me to let my guard down and then kidnap me, are you? Because my family has no money to pay for a ransom…”
I was hypnotized by how dark his eyes were, as he swung the jacket over my shoulders and slipped both my arms through each sleeve. Shivers ran up my arms as his hand brushed my skin.
A slow grin spread across Vincent’s face that both excited and terrified me. He leaned in closer and my eyes snapped to those full lips of his. “I think I should be the one fearing for my safety. You were just talking to yourself in a British accent a few minutes ago.”
Heat spread from my neck to my face and then back again. Feeling mortified, I lowered my gaze onto his neck. There was a squiggle on it. I squinted at it, trying to figure out what the marking was. Giving up, I let my eyes wander to his bare arms.
I stopped breathing.
Oh my God. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Layer upon layer of tattoos were inked on his arm—both arms, in fact—intertwined with one another, some images, some words. I’d never seen someone with that many tattoos in my life. Why would someone want to get so many? What purpose did they serve?
And that’s when my eyes shot back to his neck and the squiggle that was on it. The squiggle wasn’t a squiggle at all. It was a tattoo in a medieval looking style that said “M”.
The realization hit me like a ton of bricks.
The purpose of the tattoos was to instill fear and intimidate others, that was why he had them. The ‘M’ wasn’t some random squiggle or letter. It had a purpose too. It defined who he was, what he was known for.
He was in the Madden gang.