“I’ll start you at fifteen dollars an hour.”

My eyes popped wide. Uh, okay, that was a plus.

“Your schedule will be Tuesdays to Saturdays from four to twelve,” she continued. “Cooper covers the bar on Sundays and Mondays … though I may call you in if he’s out for the day and you’re available.”

I pursed my lips. Four to twelve worked perfectly with my college schedule. Another plus.

“You can eat whatever you’d like while you’re on shift and non-alcoholic drinks are free. As long as you keep it reasonable, you can have a few other drinks too.”

Okay, now she was seriously tempting me. Great pay, great hours, and free food. “Will it be a problem if I’m, er, extra firm with difficult people when—”

“Oh, not at all,” Clara said happily as though my question had been a hearty, “Ay, I’ll take the job!” She dug into her pocket and pulled out a folded stack of bills. “Here’s your pay for tonight. Can you work tomorrow? Sundays aren’t normally your shift, but Cooper is sick and it’ll be a quiet night for you to learn your way around and get more comfortable.”

“Um.” I blinked rapidly. “That sounds … good?”

“Wonderful! Can you come at three thirty? We can do up your paperwork so you’ll be ready to go at four. And we can discuss your membership application then, if that’s something you’re interested in.” She beamed and pulled me into an unexpected hug. “Welcome to the Crow and Hammer, Tori!”

I was still shell-shocked when she dashed off. I’d been prepared to walk out and never return. But … I had the job? And I was getting paid fifteen freaking bucks an hour?

Tilting my head back, I squinted at the huge hammer hanging above the bar. My confused elation twisted into a prickling sensation that crept down my spine.

Just what had I gotten myself into?

Chapter Five

I sat at the peninsula in Justin’s kitchen and eyed the neat stacks of bills laid out on the counter. The early afternoon sun streamed through the windows, warming my back. I pushed my loose curls, still damp from the shower, over my shoulders.

Lips pursed, I methodically counted the money for the third time.

By my best guess, Clara had paid me for a full eight-hour shift even though I’d worked less than six hours. And the rest … I hadn’t stopped to count the tips Aaron, Kai, and Ezra had collected for me until I’d gotten home. If I’d realized how much had been in that wad of cash, I’d have been a lot nicer to Aaron.

Almost four hundred dollars. Four. Hundred. Dollars. They must have approached every single person in the pub and gotten them to cough up five or ten bucks. Times fifty people.

I bit my lower lip. Collecting tips had been Ezra’s idea, but he seemed too quiet and soft-spoken for the job of getting money out of people. But Aaron and Kai … those two had likely done all the cajoling—or bullying.

Pushing away from the counter, I returned to the sofa and pulled my laptop onto my legs. The browser was still open to my earlier search. According to the internet, the Crow and Hammer had been in business for over fifty years, but its online presence was limited to a few restaurant review sites with no actual reviews, and one business listing.

No internet presence meant no desire to attract new customers. Clara had called it their “safe place” and mentioned something about a membership. I still couldn’t figure out what would attract such an eclectic mix of people from all ages and walks of life to the same club, but maybe it was an invitation-only sort of deal. That would explain why they hadn’t even bothered with a Facebook page.

But what if it was an illegal organization hiding behind a pub front? A criminal gang … with elderly members, businesswomen, girls my age, hot guys, goth cooks, and bubbly AGMs who gave new employees welcoming hugs.

Something didn’t add up, but the big question wasn’t what the Crow and Hammer really was.

The question was whether I wanted to work there.

My gaze slid to the pretty piles of money. I was still staring greedily when the front bolt turned and Justin limped inside, shoulders bowed and his police uniform smudged with dirt.

“Justin!” I tossed my laptop onto the sofa and ran down the hall. “Are you okay? What happened?”

“I’m fine,” he assured me. “Tackled a guy, but I fell the wrong way and ended up in a ditch. All for nothing, too.”

“All for nothing?” I ushered him down the hall to the kitchen where he sat on a stool. “But you caught the guy, didn’t you?”

“I did, but I couldn’t complete the arrest. All I could do was confiscate the cash he was carrying—thousands of dollars conned out of unsuspecting people. Filthy scam artist.”

As he talked, I filled the kettle and plugged it in. For reasons I would never comprehend, Justin liked a cup of tea after a bad day. Me, I’d rather stomp around and shout at people until I felt better. Maybe he and I had gone into the wrong careers.

“I don’t get it. You had him. Why couldn’t you arrest him?”

Justin hesitated, then muttered, “Stupid politics, I guess. It was out of my hands.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“I think so too.” He tapped a finger on the counter. “Tori, I’ve got to ask. What’s with the cash?”

I got out a mug, ignoring my stacks of money. “Rent payment.”

“Is this all from that shift you picked up last night? Looks like you got good tips.”

“Really good tips.” I poured hot water over the teabag and slid the mug to him. “They offered me a full-time position. Tuesday to Saturday, four to midnight.”

He didn’t congratulate me, instead picking up the twenties from Clara and fanning them out. “Judging from your texts while you were on break, I got the impression it wasn’t going well.”

“Me neither, but … I guess they want someone who’s tougher? The clients are assholes, but”—I nodded at the money—“they tip well.”

“What’s this place called again? Where is it?”

I described my night, glossing over the weirder details because, I mean, how did I explain the motto chanting at the meeting?

“That’s a rough area. It’s not safe, especially for a woman by herself.” He set the cash down. “And no offense, but it doesn’t make sense that they’d hire you if you were throwing drinks and insulting people.”

“Yeah, I agree it’s weird, but maybe they’re really desperate.” I sat beside him. “It’s a job, right? And I really need it. I can work there for now, and keep applying for something better.”

“It’s not worth the risk. I can help you out until you find a new job—a safe one. Who knows if this place will stiff you—or worse?”

“I can handle it.” I wasn’t letting Justin take care of me. He was already sharing his apartment. “It’ll only be for a couple weeks.”

“You can’t walk home at midnight, not there.”

“There’s a bus stop a block away.” When he gave me a hard look, I grumbled, “I’ll take a cab home.” That would eat into my earnings.

“It isn’t worth it. Let that job go and keep searching.” He pulled the money into a single pile and slid it toward me. “Hang on to this. I’ll cover rent this month.”

“No.” I pushed it back toward him. “If I’m going to live here, I’m going to pay my fair share.”

He narrowed his eyes and I glared back. Angrily gulping the rest of his tea, he stood. “Why won’t you ever let me help you, Tori?”

Not waiting for a response, he headed into his bedroom. I watched him close the door, ignoring a trickle of guilt. I was keeping things even between us as best I could—paying rent, cleaning, keeping all my stuff confined to boxes.

I scooped up the money and stuffed it into Justin’s mail organizer. Despite my terrible employment track record, I hadn’t missed a rent payment yet and I wasn’t going to. Even if that meant a stint as a bartender at the mysterious Crow and Hammer.

Let’s hope the place was as law-abiding as Clara claimed, because if not … ruining Justin’s career on top of mine would just be the icing on this year’s craptastic cake.

The walk from Justin’s apartment to the Crow and Hammer took just over thirty minutes. This time, I wore sensible shoes with capris pants and a sleeveless emerald blouse. My red curls were tamed into a ponytail, my bangs swept to one side where they would hopefully stay. I was ready for another shift from hell.

If I was honest, the jittery anticipation pooling in my stomach was definitely more positive than negative. With an energetic bounce in my step, I inhaled the cool breeze, smelling of rain to come. I had a job, my wage had taken a huge jump, and management let me yell at customers. I really couldn’t complain.

The bright colors and busy sidewalks of Gastown transformed into the barred windows and boarded-up doors of the Downtown Eastside, and within a few blocks, I was turning down a nondescript street. I stopped in front of a black door with peeling paint and faded lettering. Back again.

When I reached for the door, sickening repulsion swept away my excitement. Like yesterday, I had the overwhelming urge to run in the opposite direction. Teeth gritted, I shoved through the door.