- 1 -
The driver of a blue Ford Taurus watched his target go into a bar on the south side of the street. He parked opposite the entrance, got out and locked the door with customary caution. Standing just inside the bar, he casually scanned the crowds until he saw his quarry, a man of about five-eleven and perhaps a hundred and seventy pounds. Nothing about him was exceptional but the sum of his parts was very easy on the eye. He was a gay man in a gay bar and yet he showed no sign of being on the make. His manner was friendly but not lecherous and many of the staff and patrons were clearly known to him.
It was unfortunate that the man had to die. The man following him had no particular wish to kill him - indeed, had circumstances been different, he might have enjoyed that smooth skin and sharply styled black hair. But the death of Agent David Morle was the first element in an elaborate scheme, concocted over several years and now finally being put into action. Morle was merely an appetizer. In fact, it was likely that his death would go unmourned by the man whose attention it was designed eventually to attract. That didn't matter, since there would be many courses in the banquet.
When Morle made to leave the bar a couple of hours later, his pursuer pre-empted his move. People felt secure in the routines of their daily lives, little knowing that routine could be the most dangerous thing of all. Most Tuesday nights, Morle met an old friend at this bar for a few drinks and tonight had been no exception. The friend had once been a lover but that was long past. When they'd caught up on life, Morle would walk home, not drunk but conscientious about driving while under the influence. His route took him through a rundown industrial area where most of the units stood empty. It wasn't dangerous, just deserted. At least, it wasn't usually dangerous but tonight his brisk strides marked the seconds to the end of his life.
The stolen sedan passed unnoticed and headed for a predetermined slot beside one of the disused units. Crashed and burned-out wrecks dotted around the area identified it as a Mecca for joyriders; a hit and run would attract little attention. The driver waited, window half-open, listening for the sound of footsteps. When they came, he watched Morle walk down the center of the street, a trim silhouette in the dim glow of the sparse streetlights.
The vehicle moved forward quietly, proceeding steadily until it was fifty yards or so behind the man who now walked along the edge of the pavement in the absence of a sidewalk. Then, tires squealing and engine roaring, it accelerated directly at the figure. With no cover in sight, man stood no chance against machine.
A ton of metal hit flesh at fifty miles an hour. The broken body bounced across the hood, over the roof, only to land like a rag doll on the asphalt. The driver pulled up, walked calmly back and checked that life had expired. He slipped a piece of paper into the corpse's jacket pocket and returned to the sedan.
The murder weapon sped away to be abandoned anonymously on the waterfront two miles distant. An empty whiskey bottle in the footwell added a final justification for the accident.
- 2 -
A couple of weeks later, on the eleventh floor of the Denver Federal Office Building, a young ATF agent by the name of Vin Tanner was on his mid-morning break. He poured coffee from the pot on the warmer, took the last cookie from the jar beside it and flopped into a tired vinyl-covered armchair. After swilling the bitter liquid around his mouth for a few seconds, he swallowed and then stuffed the cookie in whole. His guilt at emptying the cookie jar without refilling it yet again was eased by the soggy staleness of the loot. Flicking back a lock of shoulder-length chestnut hair, he reached lazily over to the magazines strewn across the low table at his side.
'Read it read it read it ,' he mumbled.
Fact was, he wasn't much of a reader - it came too hard to be a pleasure - and his idea of reading a magazine owed more to a careful scrutiny of the pictures than anything else. Only when a picture intrigued him did he bother to decipher the story that went with it.
At the bottom of the stack was the crumpled department bulletin that their computer whizzkid printed off the Intranet for them each week. Vin's smoky blue eyes came to rest on it disdainfully. Still, the choice was that or the half-typed report on his terminal, the reason for his impromptu coffee-break in the first place. He picked up the flimsy journal and began to leaf through it. As always, it was a picture that caught his attention. A familiar face stared up at him from a small photograph at the bottom of a column. Cool gray eyes, black hair slicked back, olive skin flawless but for a narrow scar down one cheek.
Dave, you ol' son-of-a-bitch. Got yourself another promotion, huh? Brown-nosing again.
The thoughts ran through Vin's mind as clearly as words and, for a moment, he wasn't sure whether he'd spoken them aloud. As a child, he'd often moved his lips while struggling to read and it was a habit that resurfaced from time to time when he wasn't thinking about it. He didn't usually hold conversations with himself though.
Now he switched his attention to the story above the photograph. As he read it, he felt his chest tighten into a knot of paralyzed muscle. He read the words again, slower, just to be sure.
Shit happens. But not to Dave Morle. Not in Vin's experience.
He went to toss the bulletin back onto the table, then changed his mind. He carefully tore the article out, folded it and slipped it inside his wallet. It was more than five years since he'd last seen Dave but they still dropped each other a card at Christmas. Vin would never forget his first lover - not the first man he'd had sex with, not by a very wide margin, but the first who'd been a friend and confidant as well as a damn good screw.
He wandered back to his desk in the deserted office and stared at the screen of his terminal. The words of the unfinished report blurred as his thoughts returned to Dave. They'd been assigned to each other when Vin first started in the Dallas PD. Dave had a couple of years on him and showed him the ropes. He was one of those guys everyone liked - good at everything but not so good he pissed you off, helpful without interfering, friendly without prying. Vin realized within the first month that he was falling for Dave in a big way and spent the next wondering whether to request a new partner. Once he accepted his need to spend his days with Dave, even if that meant watching him flirt with the endless stream of women that latched onto him, Vin knew he had it bad.
Then came the Halloween party. Two of the dispatchers were moving out of a run-down place they'd been renting. Their landlord had been a dickhead throughout the lease, not only refusing to make even basic repairs but adding his unwanted attentions as the icing on the cake. When he refused to return their down-payment, despite the place being in better repair than when they took it on, the girls decided to throw a moving-out party and trash it good. They invited practically the whole section and had a full turnout from the single contingent. Vin hadn't planned on going but they seemed so disappointed that he relented.
Back then he was not one for crowds and spent a couple of hours propping up walls and doorways, watching people dance and try to shout over the music. He talked some but mostly just hung around. Across the room, Dave was entertaining three girls Vin didn't know. They were giggling fit to bust, their merriment thanks in part to Dave's inexhaustible repertoire of jokes and in part to the cheap sparkling wine they were pouring down their throats by the glass. One of them leaned close to whisper in Dave's ear, making him laugh heartily.
Deciding he'd had enough, Vin headed outside to cool off. There were a couple of grubby plastic recliners on the rough grass that passed for a lawn. He sat on the edge of one for a while, telling himself that he was going to ask for that transfer on Monday morning. He didn't want to become the kind of guy who wastes his life pining over someone he's never going to get. Monday morning, he promised himself under his breath.
That didn't get him over his immediate problem, which he hadn't drunk enough to drown. He glanced around the yard in the half-light and, seeing the gap between the tumbledown garage and untrimmed hedge, slipped out of sight. After undoing his pants and freeing his cock, he closed his eyes and pictured Dave. He saw the man not as he was indoors at that moment, fashionably dressed and surrounded by women, but in the white T-shirt and faded jeans he'd worn when they went bowling the previous weekend. Vin had spent two hours studying Dave's ass, racking up a pitiful loss that he blamed on the double-shift they'd pulled the previous day. Now he examined those curves and angles again, the memory as sharp as if the man stood in front of him. He was just starting to enjoy himself when a twig snapped behind him. He jerked around guiltily, cracking an elbow into the wall and sending a sharp pain stabbing through his forearm, while his cock stood proud.
There was a soft laugh and Dave's voice asked, 'Need a hand with anything?'
Before Vin could say a word, Dave's mouth was on his mouth and Dave's hand had replaced his own. Cool as you like, he finished the job. Not that it took long - Vin had been wanting it so badly that his body was like a runaway train. He had no hope of holding back, reciprocating or even of standing up without Dave's support.
They hadn't bothered to go inside again. They set out for Dave's place on foot, hoping to hail a cab on the way. That plan lasted about ten minutes. When no cabs materialized, they got distracted by a little park opposite a cluster of houses. Temporarily sated, they embarked on their journey again, only to find a convenient alley. They eventually made it to Dave's bed about three-thirty in the morning, exhausted but elated.
A sad smile came to Vin's lips as he remembered the months he'd been with Dave. They spent their days working together, deadly serious about the job, and their nights fucking each other's brains out. It had been one of the best times of his life. The thrill never waned. They parted when their careers diverged, both feeling too young to compromise, but their last night together was as hot as the first. Vin had been told by numerous lovers that he was one of the best they'd had and he knew he owed a lot of his expertise and sensitivity to Dave.
Strangely enough, Dave had ended up with the ATF too, down in Dallas. But now he was dead. Dave, who'd always been so full of life and who'd had so much to live for. Vin bit his lip.
- 3 -
A week before Vin learned of Dave's death, the second murder had been a gift. Striking the man off the list could not have been easier if the victim had offered to plan it himself. The killer had only to follow him into the mountains and tip the balance of nature. He sat in a Lincoln Navigator and watched his prey prepare to climb a modest rockface. This time, he felt no sexual interest in the figure before him. On the contrary, he believed he was doing the world a favor by ridding it of the travesty that barely qualified as a human being. He grimaced as he watched squared-off fingers checking kit and grotesque muscles rippling sickeningly as they shrugged into equipment. The man was half-ape.
The tan SUV wound up the twisting mountain road, speed low and engine purring softly. It pulled up close to the cliff-top, on the edge of the road where it would leave no tracks. The driver got out, opened the back door and grappled a sizeable boulder out of the footwell and over to the ledge. He looked down cautiously and then settled to wait for the climber to come into view.
It was an easy climb and the sportsman was an expert. Still, he chose to practice his art unfettered by companions or safety harnesses. Accidents happened and one was just about to.
The killer looked down again, spotting movement far below. He watched for a while, gauging the figure's progress, and then made himself comfortable. It would be an hour or so before he had a clear shot with his missile. He had two more rocks in the vehicle but did not expect to need them. Towards the top of the climb, there was only one route between two overhangs. The climber's head would be in the open, impossible to miss.
Time passed slowly. The watcher occupied himself with fantasies about his true victim's suffering when he discovered the carnage he'd brought down on men who'd once meant something to him. It was unfortunate the man had no emotional depth. With no lifelong love to take, revenge had to be exacted in quantity not quality. Still, even a man like him must have some feelings, if only guilt at being the cause of a man's death. And not just one man - ten would die. The debt would be repaid tenfold and even that would not be payment in full.
The sound of a small stone tumbling downwards pulled the killer back into the present. He moved into position and watched the close-cropped head of brown hair draw nearer. Judging his moment perfectly, he held out the boulder and let it fall.
The climber could not have known what hit him. The rock cracked his skull and sent him plummeting into space. A few seconds passed before his stocky body split into bloody pulp on impact.
The murderer fetched a pine branch from the Navigator and used it to obliterate his footsteps to and from the ledge. He drove back down to the base of the cliff, keeping the vehicle on the road again, and inspected the corpse. Satisfied, he leaned down and put a piece of paper in a pocket.
The SUV rolled slowly back onto the road and resumed its journey into the mountains. Its driver felt nothing for the life he had just ended, or for the life in a nearby city that his action had torn apart. He thought only of a man hundreds of miles away, for whom retribution had just reached twenty per cent.
- 4 -
Two days after reading the staff bulletin on his coffee break, Vin slid his key into the second dead bolt on the door to his apartment, twisted it gently to the right, jiggling it slightly to free the sticky tumblers that jammed solid if they weren't tickled just right. He pushed inside, clasping his mail in the key hand, a pair of takeout containers in the other and using his chin to flip the lightswitch. Kicking the door shut behind him, he dropped his burdens on the table in front of the TV, stabbed the remote and then fetched a beer, plate and fork from the kitchen.
He chuckled to think what Ezra Standish, the gourmet on his team, would say about the glutinous mess that reluctantly slithered from the larger of the two Styrofoam containers onto his plate. It claimed to be sweet and sour pork but the local Chinese had not been the same since it changed hands a couple of months before and Vin preferred not to dwell on the actual ingredients that might have found their way into his dinner. Ignoring his nose's protests, he opened the smaller container and, finding recognizable plain rice, sprinkled its contents over the top of the more offensive main course.
While his jaw worked on the tasteless meat, Vin fanned out his mail. There was the usual selection of bills and sales pitches but one cream envelope caught his eye. His name was written in a small, precise and familiar hand. The return address in Austin confirmed what he already knew. He wiped his greasy fingertips on his jeans and opened the letter curiously.
Vin felt as if his life was running on replay when he read the short note for a second time and then choked up the food in his mouth and spat it back onto his plate.
I wish I knew an easy way to say this. Bud had an accident last week. You know how he liked to go off by himself once in a while. He was rockclimbing and must have slipped. The rescue team found him two days later. The doctors say he was dead as soon as he hit the ground. It wasn't a hard climb but I guess there's always a chance of something going wrong, even with a guy like Bud. I'm sorry I didn't phone before the funeral but I haven't been doing so well. I'll call when I can. You don't need me to tell you what you meant to him.
Vin sat in shock, the TV flickering unseen before his glazed eyes. Inside his head, he saw Bud Yates as he had when they first met. Their sections were taking part in a softball tournament. Vin would have been playing if he hadn't gashed his forearm a few days earlier. As it was, he watched from the sidelines, fascinated by the way Bud's sleeveless T-shirt bulged over a tangle of foreshortened muscles. Each time he came to bat, he cracked the ball with phenomenal power.
Boulder Boy. Vin cast round in his mind, wondering where the thought came from, and finally landed on Marvel's Fantastic Four: the Thing - boy destined to live as a monster. He could barely take his eyes off the man.
Why? He wasn't even close to Vin's sort. Vin liked his men lithe, graceful and, he was a little ashamed to admit even to himself, handsome. Bud was none of those things. Everything about him was short and broad, forceful and awkward. Still, Vin's body was responding to him. The next thought that crossed his mind unbidden quickly doused his ardor. Fuck the freak. What was that about? He couldn't imagine why the words had come into his head and he despised himself for them. He was about to leave when the final whistle blew.
Bud was laughing with a teammate, wiping his dripping face on a towel, when his gaze met Vin's. Vin had learned the hard way how difficult it could be to gauge a friend's interest: familiarity and fondness sometimes generated mixed messages that it was all too easy to misread. It was simpler with a stranger. He knew in an instant that Bud would be interested, both in sex with a man and in sex with Vin. He also knew that the man had no self-confidence and wouldn't make the first move. He was in two minds himself. It wasn't that he didn't date coworkers - there'd been several after Dave - but he usually picked ones he knew he could rely on. He was wary about starting an affair in the workplace that could give him trouble later.
Vin almost let it go, then flicked his eyes casually at the decrepit yellow pickup he was driving back then. Bud gave the slightest nod, then followed his friends inside to get cleaned up. Vin made his own farewells and settled himself in the driver's seat to wait. He watched in the rearview mirror while men gradually emerged from the building and dispersed, on foot and in cars, alone and in groups. Ten minutes passed before Bud reappeared and walked slowly over. Once in the passenger seat, he looked across at Vin, uncertainty in his shy hazel eyes. He clearly didn't get picked up by attractive men every day of the week.
There was an awkward pause while Vin tried to figure out exactly what he was doing. Was he asking the guy out or looking for a fuck? Before he'd come up with an answer, Bud leaned over, undid Vin's pants and started sucking. So much for shy
There was nothing wrong with the guy's technique. He took Vin there in no time but, even as he climaxed, Vin felt a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Apart from his palm on the man's back, he'd not even touched the body that had intrigued him so much during the game. This wasn't what he'd wanted. He reached across, intending to reciprocate by hand or mouth, but Bud opened the door with a half-hearted excuse about being late.
As soon as he let him go, Vin regretted it. He had no idea what was going on in the man's mind but he knew sadness when he saw it. The next day he made short work of finding out who Bud was and where he worked. He broke his own rule when he picked up the phone to call: a man who doesn't tell you his name, doesn't want to be called. 'Fuck that,' he muttered, 'Rules're made t'be broken.'
They met for a drink at OffCenter, a quiet gay bar Vin frequented. He hoped Bud would feel more relaxed there but the next hour or so proved his hope false. Vin had no idea why the man should be so jumpy when they'd already passed first base and now sat in a friendly environment where no one would even notice, much less care, what they did. Their conversation was hardly scintillating but he sensed that there was a kind man buried somewhere under the nerves that bristled so visibly. Frustrated by lack of progress, he tossed payment onto the table and led Bud outside. If quick relief was the only thing on offer, he wasn't above taking it.
He'd parked in the darkest corner of the lot, figuring things might well go this way. He pushed Bud against the side of the truck and reached round to unfasten his pants. Bud hastily took over, not objecting to the plan but not welcoming Vin's help. Vin shrugged, unzipped his fly, unwrapped a lubricated condom and rolled it quickly over his semi-erect cock. All this confusion didn't exactly put a man in the mood. He wasn't much of a one for rough and ready, preferring a more leisured approach to his pleasure, but resigned himself to hasty preparation of Bud's ass and quick completion.
To Vin's surprise, Bud welcomed the touch of his spit-moistened fingers and moaned softly while he stroked himself. Confused, Vin stimulated him, happy to make this more than a few animal thrusts if the man would just let him. He probed gently, rhythmically, until he was sure Bud was ready and then slipped easily into the welcoming channel. Wanting to make things good for his partner, Vin reached around to substitute his own hand for Bud's. Grasping where he expected the man's cock to be, he felt nothing but air.
The man in his arms went rigid, his ass tight on Vin's cock and his thick torso solid with knotted muscle. When Vin's hand finally found flesh, it was an odd mound of distorted tissue and vein, not a hard shaft ready to be pumped. He slipped out of Bud's ass and turned him around, firmly overpowering his glum resistance. He opened the door of the pickup and, in the dim glow of the interior light, saw the twisted outline of a cock barely four inches long but more than half that across. Bud's miserable expression said it all, as he waited for the ridicule or rejection he expected to follow.
Even as he sat with Nigel's letter in hand, years later, Vin recalled every thought that went through his head that night: shock, revulsion, curiosity, pity and others too muddled to separate. He was grateful that his own looks attracted the kind of men who aroused him and that he could drop his pants without worrying they'd turn and run - or worse. He kissed Bud, took him home and, secure behind locked doors, made love to him tenderly.
Later Bud told Vin that it was down to the veins and capillaries in the erectile tissue. He'd been to doctors, who mostly thought they might be able to make some improvement but said that the procedure wasn't without risks. Bud figured he might as well have it half-working as not working at all. Vin could understand that. He wouldn't be keen on having his dick sliced open and it wasn't as if it really mattered. Bud pissed and came just like any other man. He could even penetrate Vin, so long as Vin was good and ready for it.
Bud was, as Vin had thought, just about the kindest man on earth and Vin relaxed into the luxury of a selfless caring he'd rarely experienced. He still had discreet sex with men who caught his eye but he never allowed that to hurt Bud or encroach on the shared part of their lives.
When Bud's apartment was flooded by the ditzy redhead on the floor above, he moved in with Vin while it was dried out and remodeled. Somehow he never got round to moving out again. They'd been sharing Vin's bed for about five months when Nigel arrived in their lives. They were drinking in a bar when he came to their table, handing out leaflets for a new bookstore. Vin barely noticed the weedy intellectual until he looked at Bud and felt the crackle between the two men. Neither of them even saw his knowing appraisal.
Bud said nothing. Vin knew he would spend the next month or so agonizing over whether to make a move, how to tell Vin and what would happen when his deformity was exposed. So Vin had swung by the bookshop, picked up the kid and brought him home. He took them both to bed, amused by how horny the sight of Nigel fucking him made Bud, who lay with the sheets across his stomach, casually concealed. When Nigel turned the covers down, he made the same doubletake as Vin had in the parking lot, then closed in on the man he clearly still wanted. Vin went for a leak, got dressed and left them to it. He doubted they even noticed he'd gone.
And they had stayed together. Every six months or so they went on an exotic vacation to some far-flung corner of the planet and every time Vin got a postcard. At the bottom of the first two, below Bud's careless scrawl, neat print said 'Thanks, Vin.' Not thanks for giving Bud up but thanks for taking care of him until Nigel found him. Later, the print said 'Regards' and eventually 'Love'. Vin hardly knew Nigel and yet they were connected by their love for Bud.
He felt the sting of tears in his eyes, as he thought of that ugly body smashed at the bottom of a cliff face and that beautiful spirit flying far from those it had touched so deeply.
- 5 -
Nearly a week after the killer sent the climber to meet his maker, he tracked new prey. One of the challenges presented by his scheme was the speed with which to act and the subtlety of his clues. The deaths must be linked and reported for their message to reach its intended recipient. Without that, they had no purpose. They must not be connected too soon or understood too fast. If they were, full payment might never be made.
Now he watched a prominent citizen in an unexpectedly vulnerable position. Herbert Coppell had only recently assumed police-community liaison responsibilities for the rough neighborhood that he now walked with a confident stride. With characteristic independence, but questionable wisdom, he was dressed in the clothes of the street, spying on the pondlife whose activities he would soon seek to curtail by diplomacy and carefully judged incentives.
In fact, Coppell would not ordinarily have been in danger. His experience in making such evaluations showed in his total mastery of the art of blending in and not drawing attention. The people he passed, and studied so carefully, took no notice of him. Any other night, he would have completed his survey and returned safely to his bed in a far better part of town.
The killer examined his target as thoroughly as the man studied the street, seeing a young George Clooney, back in his ER days. Even the appealing Agent Morle paled by comparison with this new standard. His breath-taking good looks made the grotesque climber's role in the unfolding drama still more unfathomable. But there would be no time for the killer to enjoy the beautiful body to which his own was now responding. That thought pulled him up sharp. There would be none of that anyway. His work was not to be labeled as the sick fantasy of a sex offender. That wasn't what this was about. Still, he couldn't suppress the tide of envy rising within him.
It was forty minutes before the right circumstances came together. An elderly but well-dressed woman walked towards Coppell on an adjacent street, destined to pass him at the corner. The streetlighting was poor, even if anyone was looking out of one of the windows above, and there was no one near enough to get in the way. The woman was a perfect target for a mugging, probably carrying cash and almost certainly unarmed. It didn't matter how often some of these old folk were told, they still went around as if they lived in Bedford Falls. The killer set his trajectory to intercept her just before the street corner. Coppell would come within sight just as the mugging took place and, dutiful public servant that he was, he would try to intervene.
An ordinary mugger, startled in the course of plying his trade, would have stood little chance against Coppell's strength and reflexes, honed in the pursuit of his twin passions of kendo and karate. His assassin knew that and licked his lips apprehensively at executing this stage of his plan. In his favor was the fact that he was prepared, poised to shoot rather than engrossed in liberating an aging leather purse from its equally decrepit owner.
The killer stepped silently out of the shadows and slipped an arm around the woman's neck. He held a long-bladed knife in his gloved hand. 'One move,' he hissed in her ear.
She froze, silent and yielding. She wanted only for him to take the purse and spare her life.
He waited, listening to the approaching footsteps and timing his response. As soon as Coppell came into view, the killer shot him with the gun in his left hand. He made no effort to shoot straight, wanting to leave a bloody mess, the work of an amateur. Coppell's life ended at some point between the third and fourth shots. The supposed mugger forced the woman closer to the fallen body, as though her rescuer had tried to intervene on her behalf, then smashed the gun over her head, once, twice and then a third time to be sure. He dropped her body and the weapon as if in confusion, leaned down to pick up her purse and casually slipped something into Coppell's pocket. Then he faded into the night.
It was the sort of neighborhood where no one would see or hear anything. The elderly woman probably wouldn't recover and, if she did, she probably wouldn't bring her memory with her. Even then, the face she'd barely glimpsed bore little resemblance to the man underneath the disguise.
- 6 -
Vin sat dejectedly in a bar on the south side of the city. It was a straight place - the last thing he was looking for was sex - and he'd chosen the district because it was miles from both his apartment and the office. He'd never been to, or heard of, the bar and his sole objective was to drown his sorrows without running into anyone he knew. The deaths of first Dave and then Bud had brought on a deep-seated sadness that he just couldn't shift. How the hell you could miss someone you hadn't seen for years was beyond him but somehow he did.
He had just switched to whiskey after five beers when his chest tightened as it had in the break room. Another familiar image caught his eye, this time on the TV over the bar. Any other time, he'd've felt only mild curiosity at the latest of Herb Coppell's high profile community liaison schemes but now he was afraid to listen to the story that went with the picture. Never a coward, he resolutely gestured to the barman to turn up the volume.
killed while attempting to prevent the mugging of an elderly woman. The intended victim was seriously injured and has been unconscious since the attacks. Hopes of obtaining information from her are now fading
The report went on to speculate whether Coppell's death could have been orchestrated by disruptive elements in the district, to which he was newly assigned.
Vin's fellow drinkers faded out of focus and he wondered for a moment if he was going to faint. He was thankful to stay conscious and upright but, try as he might, he could not pull himself back into the real world. Just lately, reality was somewhere he didn't much like being. Now he drifted back to somewhere even worse.
He stood on the second-floor landing of a house, the beat of a chaotic party pounding through him. He was in a crescent of half a dozen men, watching two others hard at it with no concern for the attention they'd attracted. Erection straining against denim, Vin saw the man beside him step closer and then drop to his knees. He made no move, not inviting what followed but not resisting it either. Lips closed over his throbbing flesh, while his gaze remained fixed on the pole in the hole in front of him. He unconsciously rested a hand on the rail behind him to support his weight as the strength left his thighs. Seconds later, he exploded inside the hot mouth. The guy stood up, grinned and left. That was all Vin could remember, a grin without a face, like the Cheshire Cat. He'd zipped up and gone downstairs.
An hour or so later, Herb Coppell drove him home. He pulled up at the curb, instead of parking in the lot behind Vin's building. Vin frowned, wondering what went on. Maybe Herb was tired and wanted to go home to his own bed. It had been quite a party. No, that wasn't it. Somehow Vin knew that Herb had seen what happened on the landing but he still went ahead and asked what was up.
Herb's voice was sad when he said quietly, 'I saw, Vin.'
'It was just a suck - I didn't even get the guy's name.'
'Is that supposed to make me feel better? You gave your word.'
Vin bristled, ready to make an argument out of it, but then saw the pain and disappointment etched on Herb's face. He stared out of the side window, feeling like a piece of excrement about to be wiped from Herb's shoe. Had he thought the promise didn't cover a blow job? No, Herb had been perfectly clear how he felt. He hadn't asked for lifelong commitment, only that Vin would finish with him before moving on to someone else.
Vin had made the promise because, at that moment in time, he wanted more than anything in the world to fuck Herb Coppell, who was - without doubt - the most drop-dead gorgeous man he'd ever seen. And now he'd broken it because he was turned on by two guys screwing and someone had reached for his dick. He hadn't had the decency to do it behind Herb's back or even out of his sight.
Herb's voice roused him from his thoughts. 'It doesn't make any difference, Vin. Whether that doesn't matter to you or I don't matter to you.' He held out his hand. 'No hard feelings.'
Vin shook the hand and got unsteadily out of the car. It had taken him weeks to get past the guilt he felt. The worst thing about the days that followed was that he still couldn't remember the face that went with the grin. All he saw when he thought of that night was the betrayal in Herb's eyes, the pain that he had put there because he hadn't cared how his actions affected someone else.
In the years since - apart from the lies he told for the job - he'd never broken his word or knowingly helped anyone else break theirs. Never keen on married men, he now struck them firmly off his list. His regret at failing Herb faded but never entirely disappeared. It was still there now, even with Herb himself gone.
Vin's brain reeled in confusion. Three old lovers dead in a couple of weeks? How could that be? He pushed his glass towards the barman, then motioned for the bottle the man held. Suddenly, he just wanted to escape the nightmare and eradicate the faces that floated on the tide of alcohol now swilling around inside his head.
- 7 -
Hours after Herb Coppell breathed his last, a young detective leaned back at his desk and debated whether to irritate his partner still further by reiterating a point he'd already made twice. Thad Emerson was only just out of uniform and anxious to please the seasoned sergeant to whom he'd been assigned. He was equally anxious to do a good job. As far as he could see at that moment, the two ambitions were mutually exclusive.
When he could contain the words no longer, he tried again. 'I still don't see why a man'd carry an old newspaper clipping about himself.'
'What the fuck's got into you, kid? The guy wasn't exactly popular on the street and goin' explorin' by himself wasn't exactly a smart idea.' Bob Hemmings knew there was no way they'd be able to drop the case as fast as he'd like to - the victim was one of their own - but he had no time for politicians, inside or outside the force, and he wouldn't be putting himself out over it. 'Shift ended an hour ago and I got a home to go to.'
Thad stayed put, chewing on the pen that made a poor substitute for the cigarettes he quit three weeks before, pondering. The presence of the clipping wasn't the only thing that bothered him. If it was so important to Coppell, why would it be loose in his pocket? How long would it last like that? He rapped on the keyboard in front of him and reviewed the report they'd filed. There was no mention of the clipping. His partner's intransigence suddenly annoyed him and he typed in the missing detail.
He thought some more and then launched a search for unlawful killings involving a newspaper clipping. He wasn't surprised to draw a blank. Lots of cops filed incomplete reports as Hemmings had done. Add to that the fact that the search tool wasn't that clever at substituting possible alternatives. He pondered what he'd typed.
While he tried to think of another word for newspaper clippings, a thought crossed his mind. A death during the commission of a different crime was an accident of sorts. He broadened his search to include accidental deaths under any circumstances. It took longer this time. The department network was notoriously slow and, although there were fewer users during the nightshift, the maintenance and backups scheduled then made it worse than ever. When the screen refreshed, two unexpected hits made Thad clamp his teeth on the pen, shattering the brittle plastic barrel. He spat shards across the office and turned back to the screen.
Morle, David Patrick
Yates, Buddy James
The names were linked to the reports of the men's deaths. Thad read them both twice, heart racing with the thrill of discovery. He sat back and stared wide-eyed at the second report. Three law enforcement officers dead in two weeks, all with newspaper clippings about themselves on their persons.
Detective Thaddeus Emerson was about to get noticed.
- 8 -
Back in the Federal Office Building, a senior agent called Chris Larabee was snarling at an incomprehensible report from the youngest member of his team when his phone rang. Either the junior agent would have to learn to write at idiot-level or Chris would have to get up-to-date with new technology. Most of the time, he had no idea what the kid was talking about. He picked up the phone, thankful for the intervention of old technology.
On the line was the Assistant Director's personal assistant, a professional but friendly woman in her thirties. Olivia had been working for Orin Travis for a couple of months. She was recently divorced and Chris had caught her eyeing him furtively several times. He hadn't decided what he was going to do about that but he got a perverse pleasure from the fact that her interest in him had frustrated his friend Buck's plans for her. She was too good for Buck anyway. When he heard that thought, he wondered if it was time to make a move.
He wasn't sure why he hadn't done so. Perhaps because the last time he tried, the memory of his late wife still loomed too large. He dated Travis's daughter-in-law, Mary, for a few months. Widowed like himself, her quiet, sympathetic company helped him cope with the cruel cocktail of grief and guilt. She was still a valued friend but they'd never moved beyond that. Although she was a stunning woman, he was the perfect gentleman and did no more than kiss her. For whatever reason, she hadn't lit his fuse. The life in his pants now was a tantalizing reminder that Olivia most certainly did.
Her businesslike tone snapped him to attention. Travis wanted to see him immediately. The department was full of superiors barking orders at their subordinates just because they could but Travis wasn't one of them. If he wanted to see Chris immediately, it was because the reason couldn't wait. Chris was more than happy to push the kid's epic to one side and head for the elevator. While one hand shoved back the gel-darkened blond hair that fell forward into his sharp green eyes despite his best efforts to stick it in place, the other stabbed the call button with characteristic ferocity.
When he reached the Conference Room, he found it more than half-full. Most of the agents in the building of his level and above were already there. He leaned against the wall next to Pete Wiggins from Section F. They weren't exactly friends but Chris had a good deal of respect for the older man.
'What's this all about?' he asked under his breath.
Wiggins' rumpled suit shrugged, seemingly independently of the out-of-shape body inside it. 'Far as I can see, no one knows. All hauled in on short ' He stopped speaking when Travis came in through a door by the projection screen.
The room fell silent. All the agents present were equally curious, unused to being called in together with no indication of the reason. Travis cleared his throat and glanced towards Chris's end of the room. Chris turned to see Olivia's shapely figure behind him, her attention fixed on a laptop connected to the overhead projector, a small smile playing on his lips. Travis was even less up-to-date with the gadgets than he was, though whether he couldn't operate them or chose not to try was debatable. Chris could see himself winding up just as cantankerous and manipulative, though he doubted he'd have a PA as fuckable as Olivia to endure his quirks.
'Good morning, gentlemen ladies.'
There were only two female faces in the sea of team leaders. The department worried about that from time to time. Chris hated discrimination of any sort but he knew the skew was more complex than that. A lot of men quit or transferred because they wanted a private life. The poor work-life balance seemed to appeal even less to women, who often veered off into a specialization they found more rewarding. He could understand why they might. If he'd known the price that the job would exact from him, he might have made a different choice.
Travis scanned them thoughtfully, then began his briefing. As always, his delivery was clear and concise. Senior officers in law enforcement departments across the country were receiving the same information. Three officers dead in the past two weeks, all found with newspaper clippings about themselves on their person. The circumstances seemed accidental, or at least incidental, but the clippings were compelling evidence to the contrary. The first deaths were in Texas, Dallas and Austin, but the last was in Kansas City. Travis profiled each victim in turn, while Olivia displayed photographs and maps on the projection screen.
A full scale investigation was underway. Clearly there was little to be done until they had more information. All they could do was to watch for anything suspicious. Until they knew different, every law enforcement office in the country would be on alert. No one was to talk to the media. The face-to-face briefings were an attempt to minimize the number of memos and e-mails flying around.
Travis did not ask for questions at the end of his briefing. Clearly he was relaying what he'd been told and that was all they'd get for now. His audience speculated for a while but soon returned to their work. There must be tens of thousands of law enforcement officers across the country; this risk was miniscule next to the dangers their agents faced every day of the week.
But Chris found himself unable to shake off the news as easily as his colleagues. One of his team had been behaving oddly for a few days and now he wondered if that was a coincidence. The man came from Texas. Was that a coincidence too? Chris didn't believe in coincidences. He didn't believe in spying on his men either but he had a bad feeling about the deaths. He'd get the oldest member of his team to do some digging. The aging hippy was as thorough and trustworthy as men came; no one would hear from him about the deaths or Chris's suspicions. If there was no connection, Chris would be glad to hear it. If there was a connection, the sooner he knew the better.
- 9 -
Meanwhile, the end of another man's life drew nigh, this time in the state of Colorado. His death promised to be a challenge, not in the same way as killing Coppell - where there was a real risk that victim might emerge as victor - but still a plan that flirted with failure. It relied on seducing Kieran Ross and persuading him to throw away his own life. What if Ross wasn't interested? The assassin chided himself for the unproductive doubt. Ross was dedicated to thrills and nothing else came close in his priorities. He screwed old and young, ugly and handsome, just so long as they wanted to play his games. But, this time, he would not be setting the rules.
The killer had thought long and hard about the bait. What kick could there be that Ross had not already sampled? Then he hit on the answer. It came from a movie he'd seen, about inducing altered states through sensory deprivation. How would it feel to spend hours in an isolation tank, then have a barrier removed and screw a fellow subject? The more he thought about it, the more sure he was that Ross would bite.
Bizarre as it was, the plan was a doozie. The killer impressed himself with his performance as an independent researcher conducting serious experiments but intrigued by the sexual possibilities of his laboratory. Ross's appetites were notorious and so
The killer could see Ross's interest building as he outlined the private experiment he hoped to conduct. His work had shown how heightened subjects' sensory perceptions became and he was fascinated by the explosion of tactile sensitivity that would follow hours of isolation - the orgasm to end all orgasms.
So was Ross.
They went back to a warehouse rented for the purpose and the killer demonstrated how the equipment worked with the pride he imagined an independent researcher might feel in his ground-breaking work. His audience was a man who worked only to fund his sex-life and rarely read beyond the funnies so he was unlikely to notice implausibilities anyway. Satisfied with the impressive automated controls and safety systems, Ross flashed a broad white grin.
'Let's do it, Doc.'
Those words had sealed his fate. He stripped without ceremony and climbed into the tank that they were to share, separated by a partition that would lift automatically after eight hours had passed. The killer connected the tubes and wires designed to maintain and monitor bodily functions during the experiment. He'd practiced the procedures several times and conducted them very credibly. He closed the cover above his subject. It rested on the surface of the fluid, enclosing a cube of liquid with no space for air.
Unknown to Ross in his womb-like tomb, the counterfeit research scientist never entered the other compartment. Instead, he silently drew a bolt across the cover and flipped a switch. A concealed pump began to substitute warmed river water for the tank fluid. Allowing thirty minutes to be sure the whole volume had been replaced, he flipped a second switch. The oxygen supply stopped.
The killer waited a full quarter of an hour before lifting the cover and switching on the tank lights. Ross's lifeless form hung in the water, the mask ripped from its face and the wires and tubes torn from its body. The gelled electrodes had left no mark on his skin. There might be some slight damage where he'd wrenched out the tubes but it would take a keen eye looking for the right thing to spot them. The plan had been overly elaborate but all the more satisfying for that.
Minutes later, a corpse slid silently into the black water of Cherry Creek, where it was caught by the current and later deposited on a gravel beach a half-mile or so downstream. Now dressed, its pocket contained a stiff piece of card.
The killer wiped down everything he had touched and then locked the warehouse and threw the keys after Ross. There was nothing to tie him to the place or the equipment. In the final analysis, none of that mattered. Retribution now stood at forty percent. When he had exacted his price of ten lives, when he had taken the last in front of the man he sought to destroy, he would go to join his own lost love. Then, perhaps, Tanner would understand what grief was.
- 10 -
'Coming for a drink, Vin?'
Like the other members of Team 7, Buck Wilmington had noted Vin's escalating alcohol consumption and figured that, if they couldn't stop him drinking, the least they could do was watch over him while he did it. He'd done that for Chris more times than he could remember in the three years since Chris's wife, along with their son, died in a bombing aimed at him. Chris was Buck's oldest friend but Vin had become pretty important too.
Chris had been a hellraiser when they were young so it had come as no surprise to Buck when he turned to the bottle for comfort in his sorrow. Vin rarely drank more than a beer or two so his recent hangovers had been noted all round. The first time, they dutifully taunted him about it, thinking he'd been out celebrating. Before the day was out, they knew he was down in a big way. They hadn't pried but they'd dropped the bullshit.
'Ain't much company at the moment.' Vin knew that was an understatement if ever there was one. His moods were starting to rival Chris's legendary tempers. He'd been trying to pull himself together but failing miserably.
Buck hesitated, not usually one to push a point but not one to leave a friend in trouble either. He looked down at the smaller man, two pairs of deep blue eyes locking for a few seconds. 'C'mon, Vin. Just a quick one.'
Vin almost voiced his lewd interpretation of that before biting back the words. The last thing he needed right now was to get wasted with Buck and tell him what was getting him down. 'Naw. I'll be off home, turn in early.'
Buck studied him closely, swallowed the lie and said, 'You do that. Get some sleep.'
Vin left the office soon after but had no intention of going back to his apartment. The last thing he wanted was to be alone with his thoughts. He swung his Jeep out onto the street and headed for the loudest club he knew, oblivious to the fact that it was too early for the clubs to have taken off. When he got there, the cavernous space was less than a quarter full and the music was still quiet enough to let a man talk or think. He took a stool at the bar and set out to obliterate his misery as quickly as he could.
An hour later, finally cocooned by crowds and noise, he was nursing a bottle of whiskey at a corner table when a tall man approached. Smiling eyes evaluated him and then glanced at the padded bench seat for permission to join him. Vin hesitated, took in the dead straight raven hair and eyes so deep brown they seemed black, then nodded. The tan leather of the man's skin and proud arch of his nose confirmed his Native American heritage. Vin refilled his own glass and pushed it toward the man, who shook his head and then reached for what he wanted. His mouth closed over Vin's lips and his tongue flickered over Vin's teeth.
Vin did not object when the man unzipped his jeans and began to roll his foreskin tantalizingly up and down his shaft. He was about to return the favor when a sudden dread wrenched at his gut. What if he fucked the man now and he dropped dead in a few days? The vague guilt that had been gnawing at him grew sharper teeth. That really would be his fault. He shoved the man away in blind panic and stumbled to his feet, pushing his way through the crowd while still trying to yank his zipper past his confused cock. He didn't look back to see the bewilderment cross the now haughty features of the man he'd rejected.
As he reached the door, Vin barged full into someone. Looking up, he thought it was the man he'd just left but then realized it was another man of similar lineage. Something about him was familiar and Vin saw the same sense of recognition flash through the sharp eyes looking down on him. The other man was sober and had the edge on Vin's blurred reactions.
'Vin?' he said tentatively, then with more certainty, 'Vin Tanner.'
Vin nodded without thinking. He wasn't usually inclined to admit his identity until he knew who he was talking to but just lately he was doing a lot of things he didn't usually do.
'Phil Harper,' the man offered.
The name meant nothing to Vin.
'About four years ago. On the bridge?'
Vin had him now. It wasn't the kind of encounter where you worried about names. He'd been too fucking scared to care what the guy's name was. His eyes dropped unbidden from face to crotch. He might have forgotten the name but not the unending shaft that seemed ready to pass right through his body and out through his mouth.
'You heard about Kieran?'
This time, Vin felt only leaden resignation while he waited to hear what had befallen Kieran Ross.
Seeing Vin did not know, Phil's deep voice softened. 'They found his body in the Creek yesterday. Suicide, so they say.' The knowing look in those dark eyes said that Phil did not believe it was suicide.
Neither did Vin. He tried to nod, failed to speak and then headed out past the man. He was beyond caring what people thought of him but assumed right now they'd just take him for drunk. Given the amount he'd gone through, he supposed he was but he didn't feel it. Just wretched and desperate to wake up from an ordeal that simply could not be happening for real.
Kieran Ross was not the kind of man who committed suicide. He'd never cared about anything enough to kill himself over it. He was a good-time boy if ever there was one. Any other time, Vin would simply have assumed it was a stunt gone wrong. The way Kieran lived, there'd never been much chance he'd die of natural causes.
But four men in sixteen days? Maybe Vin should go to the investigating officers. What would he tell them? He hadn't even seen the men in years. How could anyone know that he'd been involved with all of them? Besides, he'd been involved with a good many others too. Why just these men? They'd all meant a lot to him, their presence in his life leaving him changed in some way, but how the hell could anyone else know that?
Vin climbed into his Jeep and started the engine. Drunk-driving. Another thing he didn't usually do. With the over-cautiousness typical of the inebriated, he pulled slowly into the flow of traffic and headed north for the South Platte River. He fought to keep his attention on the road, while his mind filled with memories of the madman he'd hooked up with when he first came to Colorado. Kieran was like a light in the darkness, made you feel alive just to stand near him, and spent most of his time doing his damnedest to get you killed.
It started harmlessly enough, sex in public, savoring the risk of getting caught, but every time it had to be a little more. Screw that guy for me, Vin. Do it in the street, Vin. It's too safe here - these guys don't care anyhow - let's do it somewhere straight. Vin had never had sex like it. More often than not, he came during the run up to Kieran's little scenarios and was on his third or fourth hit by the finale.
Vin pulled into a parking bay down by the river and stared up at the bridge. The black lattice of steelwork stood out clearly against the moonlit sky, just as it had four years earlier. In keeping with the visions that were becoming increasingly vivid, Vin saw three figures climbing far above. Himself, Phil and Kieran. He rolled down the window. Now the air was still and warm but then a brisk northeasterly breeze had chilled them to the bone. The smell of the river was the same, a pungent mix of dirty water, birdshit and leaked oil.
Ever since Kieran saw a program on the TV about Native Americans working the steel because they had no fear of heights, he'd been itching to fuck one up there. Then they met Phil and Vin resigned himself to it. He wasn't afraid of heights but only a lunatic wouldn't be scared trying to fuck a man on a nine-inch girder a hundred feet up. Kieran was that lunatic.
He'd been right though - the bridge was just about the most intense rush Vin had ever experienced.
It was also the last time Vin played the game. He was in no hurry to die. He was also in no hurry to get caught doing any of the increasingly bizarre things Kieran dreamed up. When he called it a day, his lover laughed and said he was getting old. For once, Vin hadn't risen to the bait. He didn't want to lose his job or his self-respect over a kick. He wanted to have time to get old.
A hollow laugh struggled past the lump in Vin's throat as he remembered Kieran pissing down into the river far below, flying high and not giving a fuck about anything. Suicide was out of the question.
Vin rested his head on his hands on the top of the steering wheel. Kieran hadn't had time to get old and Vin suspected somehow, in a way he did not yet understand, he was to blame. The suspicion clawed at his heart.
- 11 -
Josiah Sanchez was in the middle of one of his mid-morning exercises when the phone buried under paperwork on his desk rang, a single low tone repeated every three seconds or so. The exercises were designed to ease the aches and pains that he found an increasingly tiresome aspect of getting older. Most irritating were the sharp stabs in his forearms, which he knew had more to do with the amount of time the modern law enforcement officer spent at a keyboard than his advancing years. One of the secretaries on the eighth floor shared that misery, far worse than Josiah's mild symptoms, and they traded complaints from time to time. She was twenty-five, far too young to suffer the crippling affliction that her condition became at its worst. It was difficult to find a desk job that didn't involved the dreaded mouse and keyboard these days but, thankfully, she was about to be retrained as a dispatcher, a role that should involve less sustained typing.
The big man shoved a stack of files to one side and picked up the call.
'Got a minute, Josiah?'
It was Chris's voice. Their team leader had a highly expressive vocal range. It ran from monosyllabic growls to raging tirades, from mocking humor to soft requests. Today, the voice was in request mode. That could mean mellow after the night before. Or I've-got-a-shit-job-and-thought-of-you. Something in its tone implied the latter.
Josiah ambled over to Chris's office, willing but unhurried. He glanced at the man inside for the door-open door-closed look. Door-closed. Shit-job-and-thought-of-you. Pulling it shut, he sat down.
'Josiah. Everything okay with you?'
Josiah nodded. Definitely the shit-job scenario.
'You notice anything with Vin lately?'
Josiah studied him for a few seconds before reluctantly nodding again. 'He's been drinking a lot the past few nights, not looking too good in the morning.' He paused. A manager, of course, had a right to expect his staff to perform. In Chris's case, Josiah didn't doubt there'd be concern for a team member's well-being too. But any man was entitled to the odd crap week. Josiah didn't see Chris complaining about a couple of hangovers or worrying about a grown man who could take care of himself and then some. 'Why?'
'Just been upstairs for a briefing.'
It was never a good sign when Chris was oblique. He was the most direct man Josiah had ever known. He clearly didn't want to give voice to whatever was worrying him. Josiah waited.
'This is absolutely confidential, Josiah. I've got no right telling you so you know what to do if you wanna get my ass kicked.' He gave a grim smile. 'They got three dead cops with a common thread, across three departments and two states.'
Josiah waited again, wondering what that had to do with Vin.
'One of the states was Texas.'
That was pretty thin to start wondering about a man they'd worked with for most of a year. If things were different, Josiah would wonder about his boss's motives but he knew the strength of the bond of friendship that had grown between the two men over that time. He also knew Chris, and he could see the unease in him now. He kept his voice free of emotion when he asked, 'You think Vin's got something to do with that?'
'No. I think maybe he knew one of them. But I don't know he had nothing to do with it. Right now, I want more information before I let on I know anything. I want you to dig, Josiah, find the connections if there are any. Tell me what's going on before I ask for his version.' Josiah's pen was poised over his notepad so Chris gave out the names. 'Morle, M-O-R-L-E, David Patrick. Dallas. Hit and run. Yates, Buddy James. Austin. Rockclimbing fall. Coppell, Herbert George. Kansas City. Shot during a mugging.'
Josiah wrote the details down. He'd expected murders, with a detectable pattern, not a seemingly random selection of deaths. He made no comment. The files would tell him why they'd been linked. 'Anything else?'
'I'll be waiting for you to tell me.'
Josiah left the office more purposefully than he'd arrived. He glanced at his desk in the corner of the open plan area. He liked his spot on the fringes there, tucked between his potted plants, but even it seemed uncomfortably exposed now. Not wanting anyone to find him spying on a friend, he headed into the corridor towards the elevator. He had everything he needed in the psych analysis suite and no one would disturb him there.
By the end of the day, Josiah knew that Vin served in the same department or building at some time with all of the dead men. Four o'clock saw him back in Chris's office reluctantly reporting his findings. He summed up with, 'I don't know if he's involved or just affected, Chris. The drinking ties in with grief well enough. I haven't seen anything else.'
'Haven't you?' Chris's voice was at its most controlled. 'He looks jittery to me.'
Josiah couldn't argue. He'd seen Vin several times during the day and their friend was on edge. A man upset by the accidental death of an old friend might be low maudlin nostalgic might be a lot of things but not usually jittery. 'We could confront him,' he pointed out.
It was clear from Chris's expression that he hated what he was about to say but, realistically, he had no choice. 'We need to watch him, Josiah. I want to know what he's doing before he knows we're interested. Until this hits the press, he's got no reason to think anyone's looking.' He exhaled heavily. 'I'll get some men put on him. Meanwhile, Josiah, you keep digging. If there's something to find, I want us to be the ones to find it.'
There would be no cover-up - if Vin was guilty, he'd find no hiding place in Team 7 - but Josiah knew that Chris Larabee wasn't one to hear what his men had been doing from someone else.
- 12 -
It was nearly seven the next evening when Josiah sat making work at his desk. Vin was still in his chair, head propped on his hand, doing nothing much as he had been for most of the day. With Chris's blessing, Josiah had extended his research assignment to keeping an eye on Vin. It served a secondary purpose of alleviating any suspicions Vin might have about their lack of action. If he thought they weren't monitoring his erratic behavior, he'd soon hit onto the fact that they'd arranged for someone else to do it.
Another half-hour passed before Vin said in an alien monotone, 'Come f'r a drink, Josiah?'
Josiah breathed a silent sigh of relief. 'Sure, Vin.' He went over to the coat-rack and shrugged on a lightweight jacket. Summer was just around the corner but the evenings could still be a touch chill. That or his blood was getting thin. He noted that Vin wore only a T-shirt above his customary faded jeans.
Seeing Vin's air of distraction, Josiah led the way to a small bar close to the office. They didn't use it much, and then only at lunchtime, but they were unlikely to meet anyone they knew and he thought that was for the best. He ordered beers and ushered Vin into a corner booth. There was no one within twenty feet but there were enough patrons beyond to create a buzz of conversation that would mask whatever Vin might want to discuss.
They barely spoke for the first half-hour. Vin shredded a napkin, dropping the debris into the beer he clearly didn't intend to drink. Finally he looked up, giving Josiah a chance to study his face closely. His skin was not just pale but a sickly shade of parchment. His eyes were bloodshot and black smudges marred the skin underneath them. Josiah recognized the hallmarks of too much booze and not enough of anything else.
'Wanted t'ask you 'bout God.'
When Vin's words came, they were a surprise to Josiah. Whatever else was keeping Vin awake at night, Josiah hadn't expected it to be a theological crisis.
'Ain't a one f'church. Couldn't think o' no one else who'd know 'bout it.'
Josiah didn't feel he knew much about it himself these days but he did know about providing psychological support to the traumatized and Vin definitely looked like he qualified. 'I'll help if I can.'
There was another long pause before Vin spoke, low and more to his beer than to Josiah. 'S'pose, just s'pose, a man did something evil - real evil - you think maybe God'd punish him on earth, 'steada waitin' on Judgement Day? Ain't there stuff in the Bible 'bout visitin' evil on his sons and his sons' sons?'
A heavy weight settled somewhere inside Josiah's chest. His findings and Vin's behavior had been making him increasingly uneasy. The turn of the conversation only added to his misgivings. 'Yes, there are passages of that kind. Although I think perhaps modern theologians would interpret them in a less literal sense than clergymen might have in the past.'
Vin kept his gaze fixed on his glass. 'Y'mean they wouldn't be angels or demons or somethin'? Maybe it'd be a man doin' it but on God's orders?'
Josiah closed his eyes for a moment, trying to find a solid anchor for his thoughts. Vin's words were all too similar to a serial killer's reasoning. Josiah vacillated, knowing that many murderers went undetected by those closest to them but still unable to accept that Vin would slaughter men for some perceived wrongdoing committed by someone else. 'Sometimes people think so,' he said non-committally.
'You believe it?'
Josiah wanted to keep Vin talking without contributing to his delusions. 'I think sometimes people find it hard to separate what they want to hear from what God's telling them.'
'Wouldn't know. He ain't never said nothin' t'me.'
His words reassured Josiah. Perhaps Vin was simply trying to rationalize the statistically implausible deaths. When faced with events that seemed impervious to logic, the sanest of men might look for sense wherever he could find it. On the other hand, taking the most pessimistic view, if Vin was suffering from a multiple personality disorder, he might not have heard the voice anyway.
'No, I've never heard a voice in the conventional sense either,' Josiah said thoughtfully. 'Sometimes I've felt compelled to take a certain course of action. To me, it was God's will but perhaps it was just my subconscious.'
Vin looked up with interest. 'What sort of action?'
'Nothing dramatic. Choice of job, request for a transfer, going - or not going - somewhere, that sort of thing.'
'How 'bout somethin' you wouldn't normally do. Would you do it 'cause you thought it was God's will?'
'Something I thought was wrong?'
'Probably not. I'd think I'd got my wires crossed. I don't believe God orders men to break his commandments.'
'Some o' these killers do though, don't they? God told me to gun down my entire family.'
Josiah met Vin's eye again and read his open expression. He was as sure as he could be that Vin was not faking his bewilderment. He was either talking about someone else or about a part of himself that was closed to his conscious mind. It would take a skilled psychiatrist a lot more time than Josiah had to determine which.
On his way home after talking around the subject for another hour with no more clarity, Josiah hosted a full scale debate inside his head. One voice screamed that he had to tell Chris: Vin might be a danger to anyone, himself included. The other voice argued just as passionately that Vin had spoken as a friend and, however it sounded, he was not a murderer.
The argument went on far into the night, with Josiah finally resolving to keep the conversation to himself for the time being but to redouble his efforts to get to the bottom of it. He had called to check the tails on Vin were in place and remained undetected. What more could he do? He should have warned them to be close, prepared for Vin to kill and ready to stop him - not just clear up afterwards - but he couldn't bring himself to do that.
- 13 -
Tired in a way he'd never been before, Vin shut the door of his apartment behind him and leaned on it for a few seconds, eyes shut and head spinning. He'd done more drinking than sleeping for a week. Even when he finally stretched out in bed, sleep evaded him for hours and brought nightmares with it when it finally arrived. His lovers asked him why they'd been killed, what he'd done to bring death to them. He kept telling them that he didn't know but they gave him no peace. Worst of all was Herb's reproachful stare.
Vin dropped onto the edge of the sofa and buried his head in his hands, rubbing his gritty eyes and wanting nothing more than to surrender to the tears that could have so easily flowed. He leaned back for a second to pull his wallet out of his front pants pocket. Not wearing a jacket, he'd stuffed it down there as protection against the neighborhood's lighter fingered residents and now it was crushing his tackle. He tossed it onto the table, where it fell open. A tattered clipping in the front credit card slot caught his eye. He retrieved and flattened it. It was the article he'd torn out of the bulletin at work, the report of Dave's death that launched his descent into hell. Vin stared at the photograph, feeling the loss anew. A tear spilled onto his right cheek.
Wiping the salt moisture from his skin, Vin knelt down in front of the chest of drawers on which his television sat. He wasn't ashamed of the tear - four dead friends was justification enough - but he was afraid of it. He knew how precarious his balance was. He'd come home after leaving Josiah, rather than going drinking again, because he knew his mind couldn't take much more. If he gave in to the grief, he might not be able to regain control. He rummaged in the bottom drawer of the chest, absently at first and then with more determination. Frustration mounting, he yanked the wooden box from its runners and emptied it fiercely onto the floor.
He shoved the contents from side to side a dozen times before accepting the obvious. It wasn't there. He whirled around his apartment, sweeping shelves clear and upending drawers all over the place. Eventually, he sat in the wreckage and faced the fact that his scrapbook was missing. More than a foot square and three inches thick, luxuriously bound in faux leather, there was nowhere left that it could possibly be. Vin was suddenly freezing cold, understanding what it meant to feel footsteps on your grave.
The scrapbook was how someone knew what those men meant to him. Not only were all four fondly recorded there but they featured in the order in which they had died.
Feeling his gut lurch, Vin hauled himself hurriedly to his feet and staggered to the bathroom. He barely reached the john before throwing up violently. His stomach spasmed over and over until nothing but bile remained. He sank slowly to his knees, flushing the vomit away as he did so, then stared into the bowl while he ran the treasured pages of his past through his mind. Another half-dozen men might die. The last the last would be an even more intolerable blow than the losses to date. He had to find a way to stop it.
- 14 -
Only a few miles away, in the fourth-floor corridor of an apartment block on the south side of the city, the killer was poised to make his next move. He'd admired the building from the outside and then watched as residents came and went through the foyer. It was a polite and friendly community of people in the caring professions, not rich but comfortable. His next target was a college professor, a man on a decent salary but who spent a hefty slice of it on activities and programs for those less fortunate than himself. His death was inevitable but no less regrettable for that. The man about to take his life had never killed before he drove the Taurus into Agent Morle but he wasn't about to stop now. Even so, it was easier to kill cops and a worthless pleasure-seeker than a man who had done only good in his thirty-two years of life.
The killer broke in through the service entrance at the back of the building after midnight, when all was quiet. The security on the building was average but his housebreaking skills surpassed that by a long way. He now stood at the door of 411, sensitively exploring the dead bolt. He teased the tumblers into place one by one. It took him seven minutes to pick all three locks; good quality as they were, they were no obstacle to an expert.
Once inside, he moved stealthily through the rooms until, through a half-closed door, he saw the professor sleeping peacefully. His name was Raymond Bibolini and the killer's thorough surveillance had revealed that he was usually in the company of his live-in partner, a researcher called Trevor Bailey. He was alone tonight because Bailey was at a conference in Chicago. A carelessly crushed tube of lube and a dildo discarded on the floor testified that Bibolini was missing his lover and hadn't looked to the nearest bathhouse to fill the void.
The killer examined a photograph lying loose on the bedside table. It featured an attractive sandy-haired man with freckles and a mischievous grin. The professor had clearly taken the picture while his lover was inside him and the tip of his own cock appeared at the bottom of the shot, peeping from the other man's fist.
Yes, it was really a great shame that this man had to die. Still, there was no reason that he had to suffer. Pulling an evil-looking blade from his pocket, the killer unsheathed it and took position close to Bibolini's head. The man was facing towards the center of the bed and his assailant aligned himself carefully before grasping his loose curls and drawing the blade across his throat.
The victim's eyes and mouth opened simultaneously but no sound came from the severed vocal chords. Blood flooded the sheets and soaked into the mattress. Consciousness fled quickly, followed closely by life itself.
The killer put a piece of paper beside the photograph on the bedside table, weighed it down with the lube, and then conducted a thorough search of the apartment, going through every drawer and taking the few items of value the two men possessed. The theft was purely for effect and the stolen items would soon follow Ross's corpse into the river. In fact, the position of Bibolini's body would not support a scenario in which he'd woken and tried to tackle the thief. There was no point in moving it because forensics would make short work of interpreting the blood on the bed.
What did it matter? Plenty of thieves killed when it wasn't necessary. A junkie stealing for his next fix wouldn't be thinking straight anyhow but a junkie wouldn't have been able to pick the locks. Hearing his own thoughts, the killer knew he'd been careless. He reassured himself that, halfway through his hitlist, he didn't need to worry. The time was passing when he wanted the deaths to be taken for anything other than assassinations.
After a final check that the scene was as convincing as he could make it, the killer let himself out. As he closed the door, the telephone rang. The recorded message was still playing as he moved away.
- 15 -
Vin had no idea how long he sat on the bathroom floor before he mustered the strength to act on his sickening discovery. After making a strong coffee in the kitchen, he settled himself on the couch in the living room and systematically called every number he had for Ezra Standish, leaving messages at the man's townhouse and on his mobile, message service and voicemail. There was a dull ache in his chest, a physical manifestation of the anguish he felt. Desperate to reach Ezra, he had no way of doing so quickly or reliably.
Unknown to the rest of Team 7, Vin and Ezra had been lovers since a month or so after Vin joined the team. It would have been sooner but for the fact that they hadn't met until he'd already been on board for three weeks. Vin had sometimes known gay men for months before he discovered their shared inclination but, more often, clues in their body language gave them away. It ranged from the overtly camp type in whom Vin had no interest to an almost imperceptible combination of gaze and gesture that went unnoticed except by another gay man.
He and Ezra met in Chris's office, at a briefing on which Vin tried vainly to concentrate and of which he now had no memory at all. One look at Ezra's clear skin, lustrous mahogany hair and startling jade eyes and Vin was hooked. He struggled with his lust for a week, knowing he was a fool to risk fucking his new assignment along with the elegant Mr Standish.
In the end, it was Ezra who invited him for a drink. Vin had expected to be taken someplace where they could get it out of their systems and move on. Of course, he soon discovered that wasn't how Ezra operated. They ate an excellent meal in a quiet restaurant, the venue chosen, Vin later realized, to put him at ease rather than to meet Ezra's more exacting standards.
When they reached the coffee stage, Ezra studied Vin's face carefully and then explained his position. He would do nothing to jeopardize his place in the first team of which he'd truly felt a part. He was also unmoved by the possibility of a quick fuck, pointing out that he got more of those than he needed in the course of his undercover work. Finally, he stared into his empty cup and deliberated over his last point.
Vin remembered the admission word-for-word.
'Before taking this any further, you should also be aware that I am not indifferent to the charms of the fairer sex. I have found that can sometimes be a source of friction.'
His words pulled Vin up sharp. He, too, had found that could sometimes be a source of friction. Ugly memories surfaced and he gave no answer.
'I see you have some experience in that area. Perhaps we should resign ourselves to keeping our relationship on a professional basis.'
It was then that Vin knew he wanted more than a quick fuck too. He could have left, gone to a bar and picked up another handsome face to take Ezra's place, but something inside him, his heart he supposed, was not content to leave it there. He had never discussed the game plan up front with someone like this, being a man of action not words, but knew that somehow he had to try to meet Ezra halfway.
'I got no problem with what you are, Ezra.' He paused significantly. 'Just so long as you understand what I am.'
He'd seen the insight in those remarkable eyes and known that the slight nod was a promise from a man whose word, when given to a friend, was his bond.
Ezra's tone was lighter when he added, 'You have no doubt heard about my mother by now. She is unaware of the extent of my interests and I have found it convenient to allow that situation to persist. I should be grateful if you would assist me in that.'
At the time, the request hadn't bothered Vin. He wasn't getting married and had no interest in being taken home to meet the family. Later on, as they found themselves drawn deeper, part of him wanted a more public role in Ezra's life. It looked as if he would soon have that in a far less agreeable way than he'd glimpsed in his occasional imaginings on the theme but, so long as he got Ezra back alive, he was past caring. That thought brought him back to the present with a jolt.
Ezra was notorious for his unpredictability when under cover. Chris had torn him off a strip at least a dozen times for missing messages and failing to call in. He got away with it because he was good, about the best there was in fact. He wasn't deliberately obstructive - far from it, as the success of his assignments meant everything to him - he simply couldn't change how he worked. The only way he could put on another man's skin as he did was to immerse himself totally. He couldn't always surface for a routine report or promised check-in.
One of the million or so things Vin liked about being with Ezra was that they both knew, really knew, what the job meant. Vin understood that Ezra couldn't talk dirty in his ear one minute and turn back to his target the next. It lifted his spirits to recall his shock at just how dirty such a refined man could talk - when they were apart for more mundane reasons, Ezra gave the best phone sex he'd ever had - but his cheer was shortlived. It was a perfect relationship that suited their independent spirits but now that independence might cost Ezra's life.
Finally, when Vin at last accepted that there was no more he could do for Ezra, he returned to thinking about the scrapbook. It had been a source of comfort to him, an anchor in his life, for twenty-four years. Now someone, for reasons unknown, had turned it into a weapon against him.
The pain in Vin's chest sharpened when he realized that his concern for Ezra had blinded him to the real and immediate danger facing the next man in the book. There was no delay in his response this time. He picked up the phone and punched a number that he still knew by heart. The answerphone played back an achingly familiar voice. Vin's reply was terse, urgency clear in every syllable.
'Ray. Vin. Pick up if you're there. It's important.'
Vin waited for perhaps fifteen seconds, then left a message asking Ray to call, repeating that it was important. There was no need to say more. Ray would've picked up if he was there. He'd call back when he got the message. If he got the message.
- 16 -
The next morning, Josiah closed Chris's office door softly behind him. Only two of the team were in the open plan area, their black paramedic, Nathan Jackson, and their junior agent, JD Dunne. Josiah didn't want anyone, even them, to hear what he had to say. Nathan had already asked about the investigation Josiah was clearly doing for Chris but backed off immediately when Josiah's manner indicated it was sensitive.
The big man pulled up a chair with a sigh and sat facing Chris. He didn't like what he was having to do and preferred to discuss it as quietly as possible. 'Got a problem, Chris.' The expression on the man facing him said clearly that he thought they had a very large problem. 'Fourth death, right here in Denver, apparent suicide, body found in the river.' He paused before revealing the clincher. 'Old baseball program in his pocket.'
Chris frowned. It wasn't a newspaper clipping but
Josiah shrugged. 'Not a clipping as such but why would a man carry a four-year-old program?'
Chris nodded. It was too close a match to ignore. 'Another lawman?'
'Not this time. Kieran Ross. Bit of a drifter by all accounts. Doesn't seem to have held a job for more than a few months, never in law enforcement as far as we can tell.' Josiah mulled over the latest news from the investigators he now seemed to be coordinating unofficially. 'May have another connection though.' Chris raised an eyebrow. 'We think all the men were gay.'
'You think ?' The edge in Chris's voice told Josiah that he wanted facts.
Josiah rested a hand on the stack of files in front of him on Chris's desk, knowing their contents by heart and carrying them more as psychological support than for reference. 'Morle's a definite, a string of fairly long-term relationships, subtle but known to his friends.' Aiming to give Chris as full a picture as possible, he added, 'Man had a lot of friends - hard to see why anyone'd want to kill him.'
He moved the top file to the bottom of the stack before continuing. 'Yates lived with a bookstore clerk, Nigel Benson, for years. Both introverted but Yates seems to have been popular in a quiet way. Dispatcher on his section told me he was the sweetest man she ever met. When I asked if she knew whether he was gay, she told me in no uncertain terms that his private life was none of my goddamned business.'
Josiah smiled at the protectiveness he'd heard in the middle-aged woman's voice, then rearranged his files again. 'Coppell. He's our unknown. Rumors but no evidence as yet. Nothing to link him to a man but nothing to link him to a woman either. Ambitious guy, Chris. He might keep it out of sight to help his career along.'
'And Ross?' Chris prompted.
'Ross.' Josiah couldn't stop the smile from spreading over his face. Investigating Kieran Ross had been an education. 'Gay in a highly promiscuous way. In point of fact, promiscuous doesn't cover it. We're talking sensation-seeker. Public group sex, preferably in risky settings. It seems he established his reputation with a threesome up on the north bridge a few years back and things have got wilder since. The original suggestion of suicide has been tentatively revised to accidental death because all the associates interviewed - and that man had a lot of associates - say there's no way he was suicidal and that it was sure to be a stunt gone wrong.'
Chris was a way behind Josiah. 'What's so odd about a threesome on the bridge. It's pretty much deserted after the commuters have cleared out.'
'Not on the bridge, Chris, on the bridge. Up on the girders. They're only about nine inches wide and rumor has it they were right up top.'
'Jesus. Haven't these guys got anything better to do with themselves?'
'Chasing the ultimate high. The man was going to kill himself sooner or later, but that only makes it easier for someone to stage an accident or apparent suicide.'
'Any sexual element in the killings?' Chris asked.
Josiah had already been down that route.
'Morle and Yates were cremated after routine autopsies, before the deaths were linked. Doctors wouldn't have looked specifically under the circumstances but they'd have noticed forcible entry or obvious semen. Nothing.' He exhaled heavily. 'No anal evidence on Coppell. Ross had been penetrated in the hours before his death - seems like you'd be hard put to catch him when he hadn't - lubricant no semen.' He gave Chris a tired smile. 'Either consensual or a very thoughtful rapist. Of course, there's no way of knowing what the killer might have been doing without leaving traces.'
There was a long pause while Chris processed the new information. 'What about Vin? What's your angle on how he's acting? What's your gut say?'
Josiah had dreaded the inevitable questions about Vin. He didn't like what his gut was saying, and wouldn't have repeated it if he could avoid it, but men were dying and his choices were limited. He kept his tone matter-of-fact to try to make his task easier. 'He's still drinking heavily, not eating enough and barely sleeping if the look of him's anything to go '
The buzz of Chris's phone interrupted him. Chris picked it up, barked his surname and then handed the receiver to Josiah. The voice at the other end was precise and methodical. 'Jones from the eighth precinct here. We got a body with a magazine clipping. Orders are to talk to you.'
Josiah made careful notes as he listened to the circumstances of Ray Bibolini's death, then checked his watch. 'I'll be there as soon as I can. Say around twelve?' He nodded, then asked, 'One more thing, Jones. Do you know if Bibolini was gay?' He replaced the receiver and looked at Chris. 'Ray Bibolini, history professor, killed during a burglary, magazine clipping by the body.' He paused. 'Gay.'
'Reckon you can bet on Coppell then,' Chris groaned. He was ever more uneasy about where this was taking them. 'And Vin? Where's your money there?'
Josiah had already given a good deal of thought to what he knew of Vin's personal life and how he read the man from their interactions since he joined their team nearly a year before. 'Well,' he began slowly, 'I'm not sure.' He was uncomfortable admitting that he had not delved deeply into Vin's background, hoping it would not be necessary.
Chris gave a grim smile. 'Don't beat yourself up, Josiah. I shoulda pushed this harder and sooner but I didn't wanna spy on him either. For what it's worth, I'm betting on him being gay but not a serial killer.'
Seeing his boss's cards on the table made Josiah feel easier. 'I'm with you on gay. If he was open about it, I'd figure he knew some of these guys and he's upset about the deaths. Who wouldn't be? But he hasn't been open with us and, if he's not comfortable with his sexuality, that could open a can of worms.'
'Divine punishment or some shit like that?'
Now Chris's words agitated, rather than reassured, Josiah. He gritted his teeth and related the essence of the conversation he'd with Vin the previous evening.
'Why the fuck didn't you call me last night?' The camaraderie was gone and fury took its place.
Josiah made no attempt to duck the blame. He knew he should have called and that he'd let his friendship for Vin stand in the way of his obligation to the department. That error of judgement might have got a man killed.
Chris did not wait for an answer. He stabbed the buttons on his phone then, while it rang, demanded, 'When and where was Bibolini killed?'
'Between twelve and three, in his apartment on East 9th Avenue.'
It took nearly a quarter of an hour to find out from the surveillance records where Vin had been at that time, since the night shift had gone off duty. As Chris hung up, Josiah read the relief on his face. 'They're positive he was at his own place from ten-nineteen last night through to eight-forty-one this morning. He's on his way in.'
The two men waited for their heartbeats to steady. They'd never really believed Vin capable of murder but were desperate for evidence to back up their faith. Of course, the surveillance report proved only that he hadn't committed the act in person, not that he was innocent of any involvement.
'So,' Chris said softly. 'I think it's time we talked to Vin.'
- 17 -
Vin parked his Jeep and walked purposefully into the ATF building. He wasn't looking forward to the meeting he now knew he had to have with Chris. When Ray did not return his call, he accepted that he needed help to trace and protect the men in the book. It wasn't an easy decision. He had so little real information and the investigation he was about to kick off would inevitably open to the world a colorful personal life which, against the odds, he'd managed to keep fairly private.
He pondered his team's reactions to his recent behavior, which he could see for himself was way out of character. At first, they'd tried to occupy him but later they'd hung back. Putting two and two together, he realized that an investigation was already in progress. How much did Chris know? The fact that he hadn't been questioned made Vin even more uneasy. They'd probably been tailing him. Maybe that was for the best. He'd done nothing apart from drink and feel sorry for himself; surveillance would only confirm that.
When he reached Team 7's area, he went directly to Chris's office, with only a passing nod to JD and Nathan. Through the half-open blind, he saw Josiah was inside with Chris. He tapped on the door.
'Yeah?' Chris's voice was irritated, not a good omen for what Vin had to say.
Vin opened the door and said softly, 'Need t'talk t'you, Chris.'
Vin did so but eyed Josiah uneasily.
'Close the door.' Chris gave him a hard look, then added, 'Josiah's staying.'
Josiah pushed his chair toward Vin and pulled another forward for himself.
'S'private, Chris.' Vin stood, watching as his boss weighed his plea.
'You haven't got too many secrets from Josiah right now, Vin. He's been a good friend to you,' he looked at Josiah and growled, 'Better than he should have, but now it's time for some facts.'
So, they had been digging and they knew something. Vin shut the door, pulled a crumpled sheet of paper from his pocket and threw it onto the desk. On it were six names, with phone numbers and addresses. The last was Ezra's.
Chris studied it for a second, passed it to Josiah, then asked, 'Well?'
'They're at risk. You gotta get them protected.' Vin's voice caught. 'You gotta pull Ezra out.'
'You know how much work is tied up in Ezra's operation. I'll need more than your say-so on this.' He leaned back and held Vin's eye with the fierce green glare that so few could withstand.
Vin met it resolutely. 'Just get him out, Chris. Get him the fuck out.'
'That's not good enough, Vin.' Chris considered the first name on the list and then played his hand. 'We've got five men dead '
Vin's world lurched again. 'Five?' he mouthed. He felt his knees give way and would have missed the chair if Josiah hadn't grabbed his arm.
Hard as it was to do, Chris kept the pressure on. 'You're too late for Bibolini, Vin. That for our benefit? Seems like you been keeping us in the dark.'
Vin felt the blackness closing in on him. His last thought before he passed out was that he was the one in the dark. His life had never been as dark as it was right now.
When he came to, Josiah lifted a plastic cup to his lips. Vin sipped the water and tried to pull himself together. He'd never fainted before. But he'd never had a serial killer stalking his loved ones before. And he'd never abused his system the way he'd abused it over the past few days.
Chris was talking on the phone but Vin couldn't distinguish one word from another. He drifted off, too tired to think, desperate not to think of Ray Bibolini. Not Ray, please God, not Ray. Even as Vin was trying to reach Ezra, blinded by his panic, the next man on the list had lost his life. He might as well have killed Ray himself. Why hadn't he called Chris as soon as he missed the scrapbook? The team might have traced Ray in time. Vin had denied him that chance.
Ray had been the first partner with whom Vin had sustained a committed relationship. Great company and awesome in bed, Ray was everything he wanted. With a sex drive to rival Vin's, he welcomed experimentation, although his methods were saner than Kieran's. Their favorite night out was to pick up a guy or two, often another couple, and share their fun. It was perfect for Vin, wanting excitement without disloyalty as he did. And it was exciting - breathtakingly, mind-blowingly exciting. Watching a couple fuck his lover from both ends was just about the hottest thing Vin had ever seen. He'd understood then how Bud had felt when he saw Nigel with him. Vin had watched countless men having sex but seeing someone you loved taken to ecstasy by another man brought an intense new emotional element to what had always been a strictly physical experience for him.
But it wasn't just the sex, fantastic as that was. Ray opened a new world to Vin: nineteenth century America. At school, hindered by his reading difficulties, Vin hated history. He dreaded the long hours poring over dry texts, trying to glean enough from the pictures to scrape through the tests. In Ray, Vin found the kind of teacher he wished he'd had then: passionate and inspirational. Building on Vin's love of westerns, Ray introduced him to the people and places of the frontier. One of the high points of Vin's life was the vacation they spent following part of the Oregon trail on horseback.
In the end, it was the job that came between them. Ray wanted someone there, in mind and body, at the end of his day. Vin was working antisocial hours half the time and, even when he was home, he was often shattered or wound up so tight he had nothing to offer. Still more destructive was the anxiety Ray endured when Vin was on a tough case. Vin saw the strain in his lover's eyes when he rolled in late, relief at his safe return and dread of what the next day would bring. Eventually, inevitably, Ray faced up to the fact that Vin wasn't the man for him.
There was no sharp rift. It happened gradually after Ray took a liking to one of their third wheels. The man slowly replaced Vin and one night Vin said a quiet goodbye and packed up the stuff he kept at Ray's place. He wasn't bitter. He'd had a choice when he saw the writing on the wall: he could change his job or lose Ray. His decision, no one else's.
Over the years since, several relationships ran the same course. Vin knew it wasn't unusual. Most of his colleagues were single, divorced or on their way to divorce because of the job. In his experience, gay men were a lot more forgiving than wives were about a lover on the side but went through much the same agony over playing distant second fiddle to a dangerous and demanding job. Dating men in law enforcement was easier in a way but usually meant he saw even less of them because they were both working stupid hours.
But now it was Ray, not Vin, who was dead. What were the odds against that? The odds against five deaths all linked to one man happening by chance must be astronomic. Vin knew it was impossible and that there was something else he should be telling Chris about but he couldn't remember what it was.
He struggled to regain control, to understand what Chris and Josiah were doing. Perhaps his shock had convinced them of his innocence and the other men would be protected. Perhaps it had merely convinced them he was insane and even now they were arranging his incarceration. What did it matter? Five precious men were dead, Bud and Ray among them. All the time he'd thought he was looking out for Bud, he'd unwittingly been signing the man's death warrant. Only Ezra could be a more bitter blow.
Somewhere in the background, he heard Chris talking to Nathan. 'Take him home, stay with him and make sure he gets some sleep.' Sleep? Right at that moment, Vin would've liked to go to sleep and never wake up.
- 18 -
Instead, it was another man who would go to sleep and never wake up.
The killer had been unsettled by the need to murder Ray Bibolini. In another life, he might have become close to the history professor who was so touchingly faithful to his absent partner. He was pleased to find his next target far more deserving of the fate that awaited him.
Even as Agent Tanner was being chauffeured home by Agent Jackson, his nemesis watched Melvin Trant from a park bench. If there was one thing that the killer hated, it was drugs. If there was one thing that might have driven him to murder under normal circumstances, it was the people who sold drugs to children.
Trant was such a person.
The killer did not know that Trant had not always been the sniffling bundle of twitches he saw now. Had he known, he would not have cared. He despised those who took drugs and loathed the spiral of depravity on which it so easily launched them.
In fact, it was a girlfriend who introduced Trant to the soaring self-confidence a couple of lines could instill. Within six months, he'd gone from a hit or two at the weekend to a dozen lines a day. The snowy temptress had to be paid for and, just as he needed it most, Trant's earnings as a realtor plummeted. People didn't care for being shown around their future home by a man who couldn't stop shuffling his feet, flicking back his hair and sniffing back ever-present dewdrops from his nose. They were even less impressed when he disappeared into their future bathroom and emerged with still more pronounced sinus problems.
Trant was a whisker away from losing his job when the loss of his life saved his employer the trouble.
He passed a trashcan in the shadow of a vast bank of rhododendrons. Only someone watching closely could have seen the slim paper packet he dropped into the open-topped receptacle. It was the third time the killer had observed the ritual and now he waited for the thin man he'd seen on his previous reconnaissance missions to retrieve the package. He would use the nearby public toilets and then drop a smaller package into the can.
Forty minutes later, two pairs of eyes watched the thin man complete his routine. Trant tossed the coffee he'd bought from the kiosk on the far side of the children's play area, crushed the cardboard cup and threw it to the ground. He began his return journey at a brisk, jumpy walk. It was a wonder he was still walking free when his body language would have told even the least experienced police officer that he was guilty of something.
The killer timed his move precisely, strolling casually towards the play area when Trant had closed about half the distance. He was about twenty paces from the bin when Trant passed behind the rhododendrons. He had thirty-five seconds to swap the small packet in his pocket for the one in the trashcan. He made the deadline with eight seconds to spare, continuing smoothly on his way until the shrubs screened him from view. From their protection, he watched Trant glance furtively around, retrieve the stash and head for the toilet block. As always, he'd exhausted his personal supply before the next shipment was due and was now aching for a snort. In fact, a sizeable proportion of his coke supplies went straight up his own nose. Schoolkids preferred E.
It was mid-afternoon and the park was quiet. The killer maintained his vigil for ten minutes before following. As he passed through the doorway, the stench made him gag. Inside, barely an inch of wall was free of graffiti. Most spectacular was an Amazonian warrior in sci-fi armor emblazoned over one wall, her menacing stare fixed on a fantastic reptilian creature rampant across the other. One of the handbasins lay in two pieces in the piss-tainted water that flooded the floor.
Thanks to the vandals, the only thing holding the door of the one occupied stall closed was a limp foot. The killer pushed the feces-smeared door with his rolled newspaper to examine the slumped figure. A crimson river flowed down its shirt front, carrying with it darker blobs of mucus and nasal tissue. The powder with which he'd laced his delivery was used in etching printed circuit boards but it was equally effective in reshaping the human nose and throat, leaving little for their owner to breathe with.
With a grimace, he pushed a slip of paper into a jacket pocket and then let the door fall shut. He walked away across the park, looking purposeful but relaxed. Not only had retribution now reached sixty percent but a few children might also be saved, at least for a while.
- 19 -
Chris's voice was at its most abrupt when he snatched his phone. He didn't like the way things were going and wondered what the crisis would leave in its wave. He was not a politician, had little time for the department's PR men and rarely thought about image, his own or the ATF's. But, in Vin's plight, he recognized a very real threat to public confidence. The sharpshooter's private life could easily become an issue, threatening his career and their operations.
'Story's broken, Chris.' Josiah's voice. 'Midday news. Somebody leaked it.'
So, they had even less time to get things straight than he'd thought.
'What they got?'
'Serial killer, law enforcement officers, midwest.'
'No.' Josiah hesitated. 'Nothing to bring it close to home. Yet.'
Chris sat staring through the half-closed blind on the glass wall of his office for several minutes after hanging up. Josiah was working the Bibolini scene and Vin was in Nathan's capable hands. Ezra maybe Ezra was well out of it on the Dean case how would a killer find him when he was working deep cover already? Vin wanted him out but that was the panic talking. His Ezra was best off staying put.
That just left Buck and JD out in the Team 7 office. They'd been killing time all morning. Chris had seen their observation of the comings and goings in his office. Up to now, he'd been doing the need-to-know bit. The news story had put an end to that.
Too idle to go to his door, he picked up the phone again and punched in Buck's extension.
'Get in here, you two.'
The words were unnecessarily brusque but that was Chris's way. His team knew half a brief before he gave it from the changes in his tone and manner. The two men were in front of him in seconds.
'Gonna tell us what's going on at long last?' Buck's voice was easy and his posture languid. Only the keen blue eyes declared that he knew the news was hard for Chris to give and would be hard for them to hear.
Chris gave them a summary, long on information and short on delicacy. There was a brief silence while they digested it. Chris read Buck's tacit discomfort and JD's stunned disbelief. He wasn't surprised when it was the kid who spoke, his words laced with veiled subtexts.
'Vin worked with these guys?'
That wasn't what JD wanted to know and Chris knew it.
'Some of 'em.'
The next silence was longer. Finally Buck spoke. His response was a relief to Chris.
'What d'you need from us?'
They'd all be taking this one step at a time.
'Start digging. I don't know what we're looking for but we better find it. We got at least four more men at risk.' He paused, wondered whether to mention the last name on the list, then decided against it. 'Maybe Vin can help in a few hours but you saw how he was '
Both agents nodded. They had seen. Without another word, they headed for their desks.
- 20 -
Nathan guided Vin across the parking lot to the aging Explorer he drove. He liked having plenty of space for his gear, whether it was the medical paraphernalia he'd accumulated to become the best paramedic in the department or the books and CDs that burdened down his weekends away with Rain. She teased him that they were the only couple she knew where the guy took three times as much stuff as the girl. He was a man who never liked to be caught unprepared, short of the one thing he needed for the situation in hand.
Now his cargo was small, the light frame of their sharpshooter, but none the less precious for that. Nathan knew that Chris was worried for their friend, that the suspicion he'd glimpsed in their leader and even in Josiah had been displaced by whatever Vin had told them behind closed doors, leaving only concern for the exhausted man who dropped heavily into the passenger seat. Chris's briefing had been short. Men known to Vin had been killed. Nathan didn't need to be told that the suspicion was that Vin was the murderer. Now, presumably, the anxiety was that he was the cause.
One thing was missing from the briefing: the nature of Vin's relationship to the dead men. Chris had not said if they were friends, family or colleagues. Nathan knew why he had not done so and suspected that his boss's realization had followed the same pattern as his own, not a revelation but rather a slow unveiling of something known but left unacknowledged. Nathan wasn't sure why he had never tried to broach the subject. Undoubtedly it was partly because it was none of his business. If Vin didn't want to tell them
But had Vin not wanted to tell them?
Nathan reflected on that. A man who wanted to hide his sexuality would surely put on some kind of front. There weren't too many fit, active twentysomethings with no religious convictions who chose to live celibately. Yet he had never known Vin to date, or even to show sexual interest in, a woman. He shunned Buck's efforts to set him up - not that Nathan blamed him for that - and stayed silent when they ribbed JD about Casey. As with so many things in life, it wasn't one big thing but rather a host of tiny signs that gradually convinced Nathan that Vin was gay. Even as he thought that it didn't matter to him, he knew at some level it did. It made him feel awkward and threatened the camaraderie they shared.
A gentle snore disturbed his thoughts. He smiled to see Vin already asleep but the smile faded when he saw the frown line between Vin's eyebrows. Even in sleep, his worries were with him. Nathan studied the face, its strength and honesty, only to find himself questioning that honesty. He'd trusted Vin implicitly from the earliest days of their friendship. Now he found the man was not what he seemed.
Nathan wondered how important sexuality was. Did it define who a man was? It made no difference to him if, at the end of a long day, Vin lay beside a man while he lay alongside Rain. But Nathan wasn't naïve and he knew the differences might run a lot deeper than that. If Vin had a regular partner and wasn't trying to hide his preferences, why did they know nothing about the man? Was Vin afraid to tell them? On the one hand, you could never predict people's reactions but their team was something else. Did Vin doubt them over this?
If Vin's lifestyle was more extreme, was Nathan ready for that? Would he be able to continue without letting it affect their friendship? The truth was that he simply didn't know. Perhaps Vin was right to doubt them. He was still going in the same mental circles when he reached Vin's apartment block, parked and gently roused his friend. At the door, he took the keys from Vin's fumbling fingers and struggled with the locks. When he finally pushed the door open, he drew a sharp breath at the wreckage inside and grabbed Vin's elbow in alarm.
In an indistinct mumble, Vin tried to joke. 'The maid quit.' His reaction told Nathan that the mess was not evidence of a break-in but that was all.
Ten minutes later, Nathan had coaxed Vin into stretching out on the bed and made a hot chocolate for him and a coffee for himself. He practically had to pour the sticky liquid down Vin's throat but knew that the man needed both sugar and fluids to keep his body going. The combined grief, exhaustion and shock had taken a heavy toll and he was becoming unresponsive. Nathan put the half-empty mug to one side and settled him more comfortably, plumping a pillow under his head and finding a spare blanket to cover him.
When he was satisfied that Vin was resting peacefully, Nathan went through to the living room and assessed the devastation. Clearly Vin had left the place in the state in which they'd found it. Nathan had been in the small apartment several times and it had always been fairly neat, far from obsessive but nothing like this. He began the slow process of restoring order, trying to put things back where he guessed they belonged and stacking broken items on a counter in the kitchen. Drawers upended and cupboards swept of their contents said Vin had been looking for something, terrified it was missing, but Nathan had no way of knowing what it might be.
He'd been busy for three-quarters of an hour, and cleared most of the debris, when he heard Vin stir. Pushing the bedroom door open wider, he saw Vin tossing from side to side, muttering weakly. Nathan sat on the edge of the bed, hoping his friend would settle again but instead watching his distress grow. Most of the words were denials of various sorts: he didn't know, he hadn't done it, he would never do it. Between the denials were names. Nathan picked out a Herb and a Kieran; Dave and Ray featured a lot, Bud even more so. But the name Vin repeated most, and which Nathan heard with shock, was Ezra.
Surely Chris would have said. Wouldn't he? If their most enigmatic team member were dead, he surely would have said.
- 21 -
Vin woke slowly, his head pounding and his mind groggy. He was surprised at first to find himself lying on top of the covers in his own bedroom, a spare blanket tucked around him. It was a few seconds before he remembered Nathan bringing him home and force-feeding him hot chocolate. The thick drapes shrouded the room in darkness. Wondering how long he'd slept, he checked the alarm clock. The display showed 8:13 pm.
Shit. The whole day gone and he'd done nothing when he should have been looking for Ezra. He swung his legs round and lurched unsteadily into the living room.
Nathan sprang to his feet. 'How you doin'?'
'Fine. I'm not the one in trouble. We should be helping the others.'
'You wasn't in no shape to help anyone. They'll handle it.'
'I'm goin' in.'
'Chris said '
'Chris said make sure I got some sleep. I got it.' Vin squared up to the man now trying to block his path. 'Don't make me '
He was cut off by the phone. Seeing Nathan's attention was split by its insistent tone, Vin's first thought was to make a break while his friend was off-balance. His second was that the call might be news from Chris. The third was a faint hope it might be Ezra.' He reached the table in two strides and snatched up the receiver. 'Yeah.'
'Good evening, Agent Tanner. We speak at last.'
Vin sank weakly onto the couch, all color draining from his face. Nathan immediately went through to the bedroom and picked up the extension.
'Mr Tanner?' The voice prompted politely.
'Who is this?'
'I thought you might have worked that out by now. Do you still not know what this is about?'
Vin had recovered some of his wits, only to find them swamped by his rising fury. 'All I know is that some fuckin' lunatic is killing good men for no fuckin' reason.'
'On the contrary. I have an excellent reason.'
'Who the hell are you?' Vin heard the desperation in his own voice. He wasn't controlling the situation. He was allowing himself to be controlled.
There was a short pause, as if the caller was deliberating whether or not to reveal his identity.
Michael Graves? Vin repeated the name in his head. Michael Graves. Graves Graves
send you two faggots to your graves, you sick fucks
'Shit.' The word escaped before Vin could stop it.
The voice on the phone swelled in satisfaction. 'So now you understand.'
Vin said nothing, his mind filling with memories. Twenty-three years old, temporarily assigned to robbery while his regular partner was in hospital. Even then, he'd been one hell of a shot so the team put him at back, covering them when they closed in. His bullet found its mark precisely, disabling without causing real damage. A sick feeling crept over Vin as he remembered that day. He had done nothing wrong, playing every step by the book. He wasn't to blame for what happened but it'd taken him months to accept that. Whatever he told himself, the man was still dead. He wasn't exactly innocent but he'd done nothing to warrant an early death.
'I needed you to understand,' the voice intoned softly. 'To go through what you put me through. But then I saw the life you lead and I knew there was no one I could take to hurt you as you hurt me. It was only when I inspected your possessions that I found the touching record of your most prized conquests. Then it came to me: ten men, ten deaths for Brad's death. Then perhaps you would feel some part of what I felt.'
'Ten?' Vin repeated hoarsely.
'That was the plan. Unfortunately, your colleagues were rather quicker to make connections than I predicted. It was always going to be difficult to judge and a young detective in Kansas City was more alert than a rookie on the nightshift has a right to be. I see from this evening's news that the police are now on the case.'
Hence the call. Having slept the day away, Vin hadn't known the story had broken.
'So, after reaching only number six, I have had to forego my schedule and move forward.'
Vin was having difficulty moving forward, let alone keeping up. 'Six?'
'This is frustratingly reminiscent of holding a conversation with a parrot. Yes, six. Mr Melvin Trant expired this afternoon. But I wouldn't waste too much time in grief for his passing. You have a far more pressing concern.'
The anger coursing through Vin freed him to speak. 'What concern? What the hell-'
'I'm afraid you must excuse me now. Mr Standish is awaiting my return, even as we speak.'
The line went dead.
Nathan appeared at the bedroom door in an instant, then stared helplessly at Vin. His face was a mixture of horror at what he'd heard and confusion at why someone should hate Vin so much.
Vin had no wish to explain that more than once. Heading for the bathroom, he growled, 'Call Chris. Tell him we're coming in.'
Vin said nothing while Nathan drove them back to the office. Just as he'd begun to climb out of the pit into which the bereavements had thrown him came news of another death, this one even more arbitrary than the rest. It was true that Mel Trant was recorded in Vin's scrapbook but his place there was a reminder of a painful lesson, not a mark of enduring affection. Now Mel had been killed to spite a man who wouldn't even miss him. Still, although Vin remembered him with no fondness, he hadn't wished him dead.
In a way, Vin had been a victim of his weakness for a handsome face. Mel had looks in spades and Vin let that influence his decision to keep seeing the man long after he should have finished with him. Like Ezra, Mel was bisexual. It was the first time Vin had dated, rather than merely fucked, a man like him. The experience left him so wary that he steered clear until he met Ezra and then, uncharacteristically, extracted that promise from Ezra before getting involved. He never wanted to be put through what Mel had put him through again.
Mel wanted to watch him with a woman but Vin had never fucked one and had no interest in doing so. Mel turned the classic retort on him: how do you know till you try? Vin hadn't realized how facile the question was until then. He'd never been aroused by a woman in his life, having known since before puberty what he was and not needing to prove it to himself or to anyone else. It wasn't that he was hung up about women: he liked them a lot and many of his best friends over the years had been female. If anything, that only made him more reluctant to toy with their feelings.
Vin's objections did nothing to lessen Mel's yearning and eventually he let the hints grind him down. Against his better judgement, he agreed to a threesome with the brassy blonde Mel had been seeing for a few weeks. Mel screwing her didn't bother Vin; he often screwed other men on the side himself and made no distinction. He hoped one day to find another Ray Bibolini, with whom such pleasures could be a shared delight, but he was content to go with the flow until then. But Mel's scheme infused him with a deep sense of dread.
He rationalized the capitulation by telling himself that he'd had sex with a lot of men who meant nothing to him and this would be no different. He was capable of strong emotional attachments but they were independent of his sexual interest. He had sex with people he didn't care about and he cared about people he didn't have sex with. Only rarely did the two things go together and there was no automatic connection in his mind. One thing of which he had no experience, and the humiliation of which he was about to discover, was trying to perform with someone for whom he felt no attraction of any kind.
The session was every bit as bad as Vin had feared. The only way he could get hard was to fantasize about a man and he was so annoyed with Mel that thinking about him was marginal. He lost his erection if he looked at the woman, Stella, or let himself think about what he was thrusting into. Even now, he could see her bored expression while he tried to fuck her. Eventually, she said scornfully, 'You could try my ass if it'd help.'
Vin rolled off her, dressed and left without a word. He should never have gone back, and didn't intend to, but Mel called him after a few days and papered over the cracks. Vin wasn't sure if he knew then that he was lying to himself because he wanted more of what Mel did so well or if he honestly thought the man could change.
For a while, things were okay. Stella was gone and Mel stopped hinting. They did a few threes and fours with other men and Vin hoped that would be enough. Then, by invitation, he stopped by Mel's place after work, only to find a pretty young woman by the name of Maxine with him. Vin guessed from the deep color in her cheeks that she knew how things stood and had agreed to one of Mel's requests. He'd been furious at them, feeling used and ready to storm out. God alone knew what stopped him. He was past caring about Mel's charms but something made him opt for fucking them both stupid instead of beating a dignified retreat.
Guilt boiled up inside Vin when he remembered that night. He'd never fucked anyone in anger before, or since, but the force of emotion had kept him hard when there wasn't an ounce of love or lust in his body. He closed his eyes in the present even as he remembered opening them in the past. He saw again the girl's brimming tears - her shame at agreeing to participate, her horror at having a gay man do little better than rape her and her humiliation at knowing she repulsed him.
He stopped immediately, withdrew and kissed her on the cheek. Without looking at Mel, he dressed and softly offered to take Maxine home. The tears were rolling silently down her face by then and she shook her head, trying to say she would call a cab. He passed her clothes to her and waited anyway. Mel disappeared into the bathroom, presumably deciding discretion was the better part of valor in the fiasco he'd initiated. Vin escorted Maxine to his car and drove her across town. He never saw or spoke to Mel again.
Vin thought about Maxine now as he often had, wondering whether she'd managed to get past it and hoping he hadn't ruined her life or even just her love-life. He felt no shame over the sex itself. Like most men, he could walk away and leave that behind. But his profound regret at forcing himself into her, when her only crime had been to give in to Mel as he himself had, still festered. Vin suspected she had thought she loved Mel and he knew she hadn't realized what she was letting herself in for. He could claim neither of those defenses.
When his guilt blossomed into anger again, it was hard to care about the end of Mel's life. If Herb Coppell had taught Vin not to mess with other people's feelings, it was Mel Trant who taught him not to let other people mess with his.
- 22 -
Chris sat on the edge of Josiah's desk, reading the just-completed report on his liaison with Detective Jones on the Bibolini murder. He gazed at the photograph of the corpse and then lifted it up to find one that had been taken in life. Another exceptionally handsome man. Chris studied the even features and piercing gaze.
Josiah had been watching Chris's appraisal. 'He sure can pick them. We could be going through the books of a modeling agency.'
Josiah nodded. 'Except Yates.'
His voice was hollow. He'd been deeply affected by the crime scene in Bibolini's apartment. The investigation already showed the man did not deserve to die. The photograph on the bedside table provoked predictable ribaldry from the officers in attendance, with obligatory rudeness about faggots from men keen to make sure everyone knew they were straight, but all Josiah saw was poignant evidence of a man's final hours spent missing a lover he could not have known he would never see again. Past experience told him that the image would be slow to fade from his mind.
Buck and JD waited in silence. All four men looked towards the door when they heard the elevator bell. Seconds later, Nathan and Vin arrived. Vin looked marginally better than he had earlier, clearly benefiting from the sleep, but he was highly agitated. He strode over.
'I know what this is about, Chris. Michael Graves. Thief back in Texas, the old-fashioned sort, like Raffles or whatever. Real smart, plans you never saw the like of, hauls to set a man up for ten lifetimes. Never any violence. I was with the team that busted him 'bout six years ago. They'd been on the case for years an' it was only luck in the end they got his name off a con lookin' to deal. Tore the place apart - only found one thing an' he coulda bought it off someone anyhow. He'da walked if it hadn't gone bad.' Vin paused to recall the bust. 'His boyfriend was there, guy called Brad Turner. It got nasty, he tried to protect Graves, I had to take him out to save one of our own. I only winged him but he fell from the third story. Dead on impact.'
The team looked at him in stunned silence. All this in retribution for an accidental killing in the line of duty?
Chris digested that slowly. 'So this is payback time? He's trying to take from you what you took from him ?'
Vin nodded. 'It was a fuckin' mess, Chris. Should never have happened.' He cleared his throat. 'Wasn't my team. Temporary assignment to a bunch of morons homophobic morons. They were so busy playin' their games with Graves, they let Turner snatch a sidearm. One minute, we're arresting unarmed thieves who'd never hurt no one, the next we've lost control and one of 'em's ready to take one of us out. Truth is, I thought twice about stopping him. I wouldn'ta given a shit if he'd killed the bastards. But I I did my job ' His tone left no doubt that he'd often doubted the wisdom of that and now knew he'd made the wrong decision. 'Graves grabbed the gun an' it went off in the struggle. One dead cop. He musta jus' got out.'
It still didn't add up. Five men for one? Chris cleared his throat. 'Why so many? How far back do they go?'
'Eight years or so. I they he's hitting the ones that mattered.'
Chris looked at the list on the desk beside him. 'So this isn't all of them? There could be more?'
Vin met his eye grimly. 'All of 'em'd keep him kinda busy.'
The team's stares told Chris he was not alone in knowing nothing of this side of Vin's life. Buck, yes. Vin, no. He was disappointed to find himself struggling not to be judgmental. He'd put up with Buck's antics for years - for Chrissake, he'd joined in for long enough - and told himself fiercely that what Vin did was no different. Disgusted by his own instinctive reaction, he wondered how this would affect the unit that had worked so effectively together until now.
He knew Josiah and JD would be fine, both totally accepting of personal choices so long as no one got hurt. He wasn't so sure about Nathan, in whose face he now read a similar conflict to his own. Born into a family dogged by ill-health, culminating in his father's death from tuberculosis, Nathan was one of the few people Chris had met who truly understood loss and the fear it left of being hurt again. Sometimes it could make you resent other people who seemed to coast through life immune from deep feelings, good or bad.
As for Buck, it went without saying that promiscuity wasn't an issue for the old dog but Chris knew he was homophobic. It wasn't his fault: a childhood spent in the company of the rednecks who watched his mother's exotic dances with one hand on a beer and the other in their laps wasn't a recipe for tolerance. His mother did well to teach him respect for women but she'd been blissfully ignorant of some of the other lessons he was learning. Over the years, Chris had watched with quiet admiration as his friend struggled to shake the prejudice, knowing the revulsion was as deep-seated as an arachnophobe's dread of a spider in the bath.
In a carefully controlled tone, Chris asked Vin, 'How can you be sure then?'
He knew immediately that Vin was uncomfortable answering the question. The man's body language declared his embarrassment, even though he'd already admitted fucking half the gay population of the midwest.
Vin fixed his eyes on his feet and spoke in a low monotone. 'I keep a scrapbook. Started it when I was a kid, to remember stuff.' He coughed. 'It's missing. I only found out last night. I was gonna tell you when I came in but what with Ray I forgot.'
What with Ray Yes, Chris had pushed him into collapse. He'd picked the wrong time to pile on the pressure. If he'd have played it different, Vin might have been in better shape.
'They died in the same order as they're in my scrapbook.'
'Shit. And that's where the clippings came from?' When Vin nodded, Chris finally faced up to the last name. 'Ezra?'
'Yeah, Ezra.' The hopelessness on Vin's face was pitiful. 'Once the story hit the news, Graves cut to the chase. He'd already taken Trant out and now he says he's got Ezra.'
That broke the spell. Chris began barking out assignments and the team burst into action. Even if Graves was lying and didn't have Ezra yet, their teammate was in deep and they had no way to contact him fast. Realistically, they were probably already too late.
Once everyone was in motion, Chris went over to Vin. Their failure to protect another victim appalled him and he had nothing to offer but an apology. 'I'm sorry about Trant. We got protection on the others but we were still trying to locate him. He moved away from the address you had a couple of years back.'
He saw Vin take in his misery at their inadequate measures, hesitate and then opt for his customary honesty. 'The scrapbook was for important stuff, Chris. It wasn't all good. I been lucky some great guys in my life ' A pause. 'Trant wasn't one of them. He was there as a reminder to think before I fuck.' He went on hastily, 'I'm not saying he deserved it but well don't lose sleep.'
Chris studied his friend. There was so much they didn't know about him and yet somehow, at the same time, he was still the man they'd all thought they knew. His devastation at Bibolini's death had been clear to anyone with eyes and his mixed emotions about the latest victim were just as genuine.
- 23 -
In a smart club in the city center, Ezra accepted a martini from his target, a man named Joseph Sands. He was relieved his companion was finally back in town. Finding work with the Dean Corporation as a security consultant under the name of Charles Kenyon had been well within Ezra's capabilities but becoming more deeply involved with its shadier operations required personal contacts. His extensive research, supplemented by contributions from Josiah and JD, had identified Sands as a possible fast-track to the inside.
Joseph Sands was a good-looking man, well over six feet tall and in excellent shape for one approaching middleage. Most striking of all were his distinctive copper-tinged hair and amber eyes, the latter set in silky-smooth milky-white skin. He was susceptible to a handsome face, an asset with which Ezra was fortunately blessed. However, even Ezra needed time with a man to seduce him and that had proved elusive with Sands. His schedule was chaotic and he'd been out of the city for half of six weeks for which Ezra had known him. The call earlier that evening had lifted Ezra's flagging spirits and now he was on sparkling form. Seeing his hard work poised to reap dividends was one of the highlights of his professional life.
One of the things Ezra liked most about Team 7 was that its members respected his talents. He knew they all had a fair idea of the range of tactics he used to achieved results but they, like him, believed that stemming the ever-increasing tide of illegal weapons and explosives in particular was worth the sacrifices they were required to make. If Ezra sometimes gave services of a type they would not themselves, they passed no comment. It was more than just restraint: they knew why he did what he did and admired him for it. He'd never found that respect before.
Sands shifted closer on the seat beside Ezra and caressed his knee under the table. The club was a chic and essentially straight place so their embraces had to be discreet, which suited them both. Ezra responded by brushing Sands' erection through his slacks. He half-closed his eyes, as if enjoying the contact.
Indeed, he was enjoying it because he was thinking about Vin. If it was the sharpshooter beside him, his hand would be on coarse denim not finely blended silk and linen. Ezra was happy to use thoughts of his lover to aid in his role-play but knew his recent fantasies went beyond that. The quiet self-contained Texan had got under his skin in a way that no one had before. The bond between them did not affect his ability or willingness to seduce his targets but he sometimes worried that Vin's name would come to his lips unbidden in sex or sleep. Not that it mattered - his contacts didn't expect him to be in love with them - but it signaled his diminished self-control. His feelings about that were still unresolved. In the past, he would have resented it and probably terminated the relationship to regain the upper hand. Now he was unsure. He certainly wasn't in a hurry to lose the spectacular sex, easy company and immense kindness that characterized his time with Vin.
Reluctantly, Ezra relegated Vin to 'later' in his mental filing cabinet and focussed his attention on Sands. The man's hand had moved from his knee to his crotch and Ezra sensed that he was ready to move things along. He looked into the unusual eyes that made his target's gaze so arresting and smiled.
'Do you think perhaps we might go somewhere a little more private?'
By way of answer, the man stood, his jacket folded across his arm to conceal his hard-on, and led the way through the crowds. Ezra followed, not averse to the prospect of imminent physical release but wondering how many more times there'd have to be before it began to pay off.
- 24 -
Buck watched his apprentice at work, glad that in one area the kid's prowess far exceeded his own. If the solution was to be found in a computer somewhere, JD would find it. His stubby fingers flew over the keyboard as he hammered through database after database, following Michael Graves through half a dozen identities.
As images chased each other across JD's screen, Buck's thoughts wandered back to the day Vin joined their team. All they knew was that Chris was signing up some young hotshot from Texas, an ex-US Marshal, to replace their sharpshooter, a guy called Don they never really got to know before he was killed in a pileup on the freeway. Buck expected some cocky loudmouth who needed to be taken down a peg or two, someone a lot like himself ten or fifteen years earlier.
Instead, Vin appeared in scuffed leather jacket, faded jeans and black T-shirt. He said little, listened a lot and looked more. After an hour, they thought Chris had picked well. After they saw Vin shoot, they knew it.
In the time since, only the colors of the T-shirts changed. Thorough and dependable, Vin soon carved a niche for himself, as if he'd always been one of them. Buck never, even for a second, suspected he was gay and now looked back for the signs he'd surely missed. He saw none of the things that normally made him suspicious.
No excessive grooming: Vin was hardly ever out of denim and his hair hung to the shoulder, untouched but for the occasional trim. He was as clean as the next man but no more so. He often wore a day or two's stubble and was sometimes to be found in the restroom of a morning, hastily washing and pulling on a fresh T-shirt, presumably after staying out all night. More than that, he showed no sign of narcissistic tendencies of any kind. He was fit and strong but what muscle he carried came from sport and was useful in the life he led; his was not a physique crafted for cosmetic effect.
No mincing or giggling: Buck couldn't begin to imagine Vin doing either. His stride was almost as determined as Chris's, just a bit lighter without the weight of fifteen extra, sometimes hard, years. His voice was soft and low, but not feminine in any way. His language would be right at home in a dockyard.
No eyeing guys up: Buck had pissed, changed and showered alongside Vin more times than he now cared to count. He'd never noticed anything although, of course, he hadn't been looking. He hadn't even given it a second thought when Vin evaded all attempts to set him up with girls in the department or friends of friends.
In fact, Vin's restroom wash-and-change sessions, combined with his looks, convinced Buck that his social life was most likely pretty hot already. Buck's gut now recoiled at the thought of those all-nighters being with men. He tried to push those sort of thoughts back into the depths where he kept them buried them after reluctantly accepting they would never leave him. It was many years since he'd called a gay man a faggot, quite a few since he'd even thought it, but feelings proved more resistant to change than vocabulary. He didn't know why the idea of what men like Vin did bothered him so much but he couldn't change the fact that it did. When he thought about it, he felt physical nausea as real as motion sickness or food poisoning. Well, Buck, he told himself, you know the answer to that - don't think about it. It's none of your goddamned business anyhow.
Snapping back to the present, he joined JD in watching a screen download, slowed by fancy graphics so that the text was revealed a line at a time. Four names then a pause then a fifth. Joseph Sands.
'Shit.' Buck and JD chimed the word in unison. Then Buck shouted, 'Chris! Nathan, get Vin!'
Joseph Sands: the man through whom Ezra was attempting to infiltrate Thomas Dean's gun running operation. It was clear that he was also the man who intended to kill him and who had now moved forward the moment when that execution would occur. Graves had not even needed to seek him out. Ezra had gone willingly, if unwittingly, to his death.
Buck cursed himself for thinking of his friend as dead. He liked Ezra, had ever since they first met. He knew the man kept secrets, not making much of a friend by some folks' standards, but their mutual respect went way beyond just working together. Buck had long since guessed that some of those secrets would make him a mite uncomfortable. He wasn't sorry that Ezra felt no need to discuss what he was not ready to hear and the fact that the man dated women too made it easy to ignore the other side of his life. Now everything would change but Buck no longer cared. He dreaded having to cope with Ezra and Vin being together - wondering if he would lose his lunch every time they touched - but, just then, all that mattered was having the chance to find out.
Vin hurried back into the office at that moment, still buckling his belt from where Nathan had found him in the john. Snatching the photograph as soon as it emerged from the printer, Buck shoved it at him impatiently.
Vin took less than a second to confirm their suspicions. 'Yeah, it's Graves. Fuck.' His frustration was clear. 'Shit, I knew what Ezra was doing but I never saw Sands.'
Buck felt Vin's pain at his failure to anticipate this bizarre turn of events. 'You couldn't know. You couldn't've seen any of this coming, Vin. Jesus, an accidental killing six years ago no one could have seen this coming.'
JD was typing furiously again, pulling together everything they knew about Sands and organizing it into parcels they could follow up in pairs. All they could do was hit every place Sands was known to frequent, hoping to pick up a lead somewhere.
- 25 -
Driving fast but safe, Chris made deceptively good progress between their destinations. Waiting at a red light, he looked across at Vin. He studied the strong, sad profile and then asked softly, 'Apart from Trant, these men meant a lot to you?' The light changed and he moved off smoothly, watching Vin out of the corner of his eye as the man struggled with the question.
After perhaps half a minute, Vin wiped the back of his hand across his nose and nodded. In a hoarse whisper, he said, 'Yeah. But Bud '
Chris felt his friend's pain at the deaths and the almost unbearable burden of guilt he carried. For some reason, a disproportionate share of those emotions were connected to the second victim. Chris thought of the dead men's photographs. He hadn't seen Trant but, of the others, four could have been in the movies but the man for whom Vin grieved so deeply did not even make ordinary - he was ugly, no other word for it. Whatever had bound Vin to him must have been on the inside and Chris's heart ached for his loss. Graves would pay.
They drove in silence for a while, until Chris caught Vin staring at him. 'What?'
'You don't seem surprised. I mean, 'bout me not the rest.'
Didn't he? Chris thought about that. No, he wasn't. Not that Vin seemed gay, whatever that meant, but he was a good-looking man and Chris had never seen him with a woman. And he wasn't blind. 'Never seen you look at a woman, Vin. But I've seen you eye up a piece of ass. Only once but you seemed pretty laid-back about it. Felt like you stopped 'cause you were with me, not 'cause it bothered you.'
He was pleased to see that bring a shadow of a smile to Vin's strained features.
'No, it don't bother me. I been banging like a barn door since I was fifteen. It bother you?'
Chris returned to his deliberations. Sometime he felt his age and this was one of the things he knew JD handled better than he did. Mind you, so did Josiah. It was more of a generational thing. Chris was too young to buy into the idealism of the sixties and too old to buy into the cynicism of the nineties. His middle-class upbringing told him standards mattered but the problem came in deciding what the standards were.
When he spoke, it was with a diffidence he rarely displayed. 'I don't think so. But I'm not sorry I didn't know.'
'Wouldn't you have took me on the team?' Vin's surprise was evident.
'Didn't mean that. Wouldn't have made any difference - you were the best man for the job. I just I'm not sure we'd be the friends we are if I'd known. I'd have worried if I was doing right by you, if I was treating you different. Wouldn't have been comfortable so I wouldn't have spent time with you fucking pathetic really '
'Nope. Jus' honest. I ain't had too many friends as good as you, Chris. Maybe I ain't looked hard enough at why that is. I'm usually pretty open, depending on the people - could be I'm too open, expect too much.'
Chris didn't believe that. If people like him couldn't deal with it, it was their problem and not Vin's. 'It's not expecting too much. It shouldn't matter.'
'Yeah, but then we live in the real world, don't we? Anyhow, could be it was a good thing I got snagged up with Ezra afore I was ready to tell you fellas.' He paused before adding, 'Things're more complicated for him.'
Complicated. That was a good word for Ezra. He wasn't a man who made his colleagues feel comfortable. He certainly wasn't one to bare his soul needlessly. Chris said only, 'I've seen him with women, though not recently now I think on it.'
'Yeah, he's bi. So it's easy for him to let people see what he wants 'em to see. That's what he does with Maude. That's why it's tricky.'
Chris reflected on that. It summed Ezra up. He could be friendly, in fact he could be kind in the extreme, but he always kept people at a distance. Letting them see only what he wanted them to see, just as Vin had said.
'Y'knew 'bout Ezra anyhow, didn't you?'
Chris stalled. 'What makes you say that?'
Vin gave a slight shrug. 'Ezra's the best there is when it comes to getting in close. Course, there's a lotta ways t'do that but sex is good. Seems to me you ain't been too surprised he can win guys over like he can.'
Chris felt his cheeks burn. He doubted the color was visible but it was as close to a blush as he was likely to get. He had suspected that Ezra was versatile, in the broadest sense, and he hadn't shied away from making use of it. A surprising number of their targets were willing to take what Ezra was willing to offer. Chris didn't like to dwell on what that made him. 'Yeah, I figured he probably I don't like playing it that way. Shit, Vin, you know I don't like deep cover much at all. Too dirty, too dangerous '
'S'okay, Chris. He's okay with it. I'm okay with it. It's what he does and, like I say, he's the best there is.'
Chris couldn't begin to understand what it was like for men like Vin and Ezra to be together how they were. Sarah had never got used to the hours or the risks. She'd never have been able to deal with him having sex with other women, and men, for information and contacts. He'd been content with that. In fact, he'd liked it. He hadn't slept with another woman for more than a year after her death and he still felt a sense of disloyalty when he did it now. She wouldn't have wanted him to feel that way but he couldn't help it.
But it wasn't just on her side. He would never have let another man touch her under any circumstances. He often fantasized about other women touching her but, in reality, he probably couldn't have stood that either. Not that he'd always been possessive: he'd had plenty of casual relationships, not to mention threesomes and foursomes, but he didn't want that with Sarah. Thinking about it now, he realized that his need to have her to himself was one of the things that convinced him that she was the woman he wanted to marry. How could Vin be okay with what Ezra did? And yet he knew the man well enough to know that he meant what he said. Just because love meant fidelity to Chris didn't mean it had to work that way for others.
Finally, he spoke again, feeling dumb as soon as he did so. 'It's serious with you two?' It was none of his business and they probably didn't even think like that. 'I mean, I know it's different with you guys, different world, but '
Vin's easy look told him to relax. 'Yeah. Kinda crept up on me, truth be told, but I passed the point where I'd sooner it was Ezra than anyone else a while back. Not exactly until death do us part and forsaking all others but, yeah, serious.'
'I'd never have guessed. He you '
'Don't look like we belong?'
Chris grinned and shook his head.
'Lotta men and women don't look like they belong t'me but they seem t'get along jus' fine.'
It was a fair point. Chris expected Vin to be with someone similar to himself but how many straight couples were that much alike? Sarah had certainly been nothing like him. Thank God for that - how long would he last, living with himself? What was it people said? 'Vive la difference.'
'Long live the difference - or something like that.'
'Yeah, I ain't s'much in love with myself I wanna look in the mirror all the time.' His face tightened as he returned to Ezra's plight. 'I can't lose him like this, Chris.'
Vin's words wrenched Chris back to his own past losses. Just as the job had torn his life apart, now it was doing the same to his friend. Just as he lived in guilt and regret at his decision to use Sarah's stationwagon on that fateful day, Vin would suffer for the decision to do his job regardless of the circumstances.
'You won't, Vin. Not if the rest of us have anything to do with it. Graves isn't going to hurry his grand finale. Time's on our side.' He hoped he spoke the truth, that time wouldn't make a mockery of his reassuring words.
- 26 -
Buck gunned the engine and took the south ramp onto the freeway at almost reckless speed. JD shuffled the sheaf of sheets in his hand until their next port of call was on the top of the stack and then sat staring out of the side window with a fixed frown on his face.
'Spill it, kid.'
'What're you so pissed about?'
JD scowled again but gave no answer. He was angry but wasn't sure why. What did he have to be pissed about? Vin coulda said. He thought the words but didn't utter them aloud.
'Think Vin shoulda told us?'
Buck was on the nail as usual. JD still didn't reply. He'd long known that his friends believed in minding their own business and would probably think he should be minding his right now.
'You trusted him but he didn't trust you?'
Finally JD nodded. 'I thought we were friends but I guess I thought wrong.'
'Vin is your friend, probably one of the best you'll find. He'da told us if we needed to know. He'da probably told us anyhow if he hadn't been caught up with Ezra.'
The remark puzzled JD. Being caught up with one of their number seemed to make it more their business, not less. 'What makes you say that?'
''Cause Ezra goes both ways and Maude don't know that. One you start telling people about stuff like this, it's hard to control where it stops.'
'You knew about Ezra before?' Buck nodded. 'How?'
''Cause I got eyes.'
'You knew about Vin?'
'Nope. I was wearing my don't-seem-gay blinders with Vin.' He grinned sideways at JD. 'Man likes to think he can spot 'em. Don't sit easy knowing a man like Vin's that way, that maybe they look just like anyone else.'
JD had no problem at all with Vin's sexuality and knowing that his friends might have to battle with their own reactions to the news boosted his confidence a little. 'That worries you?'
'Not as much as it did.' There were traces of shame, overlaid with perhaps some sense of achievement, when he added, 'Nowhere near as much as it did but I'm not as easy with it as you are.'
With no recollection of ever having discussed it, JD wondered how Buck could know his views.
'Remember that club we went to in Chicago? When we went to the john?'
It took JD a minute or two to recall the trip, eight months or so earlier. He was even slower bringing the club to mind but then he got it: they'd waited for ages to get in. He'd followed Buck to the john because his bladder was aching, ignoring jibes from two of the Chicago guys that only girls went to the restroom together. He pictured the dimly lit corridor out back and the couple whose clinch they disturbed. The two men thought they'd separated before being seen and headed for the john. JD had given it no thought, followed them in and taken a urinal two slots along from one of them as he would with any man. Buck faltered and then took up position on the other side of JD.
Buck laughed softly as he saw JD place the memory. 'I'da turned back if you hadn't been there. I'da definitely used a stall.'
Just for once, JD felt more mature than one of his teammates. He suffered no illusions that every gay man was out to grab a sight of his cock or a piece of his ass. Matter of fact, so long as they kept their hands to themselves, he was flattered to be appreciated.
Buck was earnest when he spoke again. 'Tell Vin how you feel when you get a chance, JD. He'd rather know the truth than think you got a problem with the other stuff.'
Any sense of superiority faded from JD when the oblique reference to Vin's lifestyle brought home just how difficult recent revelations had been for his closest friend. Buck wasn't a bigot and JD was certain he'd done his damnedest to shed his narrow-mindedness. Now his friends' relationship confronted him with his failure.
- 27 -
Nathan followed a few yards behind as Josiah strode across the parking lot. They'd just checked out a third gay bar, fighting their way through the crowds to show Sands' picture around. What they'd glimpsed under tables and seen full-on in corridors hadn't helped his mood at all. He took the wheel and, barely giving Josiah time to get in and close his door, pulled sharply out of the lot and onto the street.
In his peripheral vision, Nathan saw Josiah reach calmly for his seat-belt and then study him for a few seconds before speaking. 'Problem?'
'These places ' Nathan stopped. He couldn't go on without making the kind of prejudicial statement he hated hearing about race or color. It wasn't that he was any happier about discrimination based on sex or sexuality, but genuine outrage at standards of behavior was that the same? He could almost understand people's irritation at the politically-correct age in which they lived when he realized that, according to his own standards - no one else's - he wasn't entitled to feel what he most definitely was feeling. Josiah's smile only fueled his annoyance. 'You really think that's right? I'd've thought you of all people '
There was a pause. Nathan waited. Josiah usually thought pretty carefully before he offered his opinions.
'We've checked out places like this together before, Nate. Don't recall it getting to you then.'
That was true. How much easier it was to be tolerant of strangers doing things in places you could avoid. How much harder when a friend brought those same things into your life.
Josiah continued with customary perspicacity. 'Vin's the same man he was last week. Nothing's changed.'
'Maybe. Or maybe I didn't know him then and I don't know him now.'
'I think we know all we need to know.' Josiah took a roll of peppermints from his pocket, put one in his mouth and passed one to Nathan. 'I've thought about it a lot over the past couple of days. I don't recall Vin lying to us. He just hasn't offered and we haven't asked.'
'But six men dead, four more still on the list ' It wasn't those ten men that bothered Nathan: ten in eight years wasn't excessive. Having started, he figured he might as well go on. 'And they're just the ones that mattered from the book. You heard what he said. All of 'em'd keep him kinda busy. You saw how he looked. How many has he been through? Does he like in that place ?'
'I'd have to say that's none of our business, friend.'
Nathan's mind was still a jumble of conflicting thoughts and doubts. 'How many women you been with in the past eight years, Josiah?' Even as he spoke the words, he wanted to bite them back. He talked more openly to Josiah than anyone other than his girlfriend, Rain, but asking a man how many lovers he'd had was out of line. 'Don't answer that. It was a rhetorical question.'
There was no change in Josiah's demeanor when he went ahead and answered the question anyway. 'Three but I'm fifty-two, not twenty-nine.'
Nathan gave him a tense smile. Sometimes he forgot what a fantastic friend Josiah was but it was never too long before he had a reminder. 'I've had nine,' he said quietly. 'And that includes the casual ones.'
'Do you think you would have had nine if women were throwing themselves at you?' Josiah gave a sideways grin, pale blue eyes twinkling. 'No offense. But what if you could walk into a bar, have a woman and walk out, knowing she was as happy with that as you were? No lies, no saying you love her, no promising to call later?'
Nathan shrugged. How could he know? It wasn't that he had trouble pulling when he'd a mind to but for him sex went with love, or at least deep friendship, and anyway there were always plenty of other calls on his time. His mood was lighter when he asked, 'You ain't getting all nostalgic for the days of free love, are you?'
The taunt brought a soft laugh. 'Always was a one for true not free myself. Last of the romantics.' He sobered. 'But we're all different, Nate. You know that. Buck must've been through some women in the past eight years.'
'Can't say I'm too keen on that either. But I've known what Buck was like from the day I met him. I thought Vin was better.'
'I'd be careful judging a man for loving too much in a world where it's in short supply.'
Nathan thought about that all the way to their next stop. Josiah wasn't suggesting that what went on in the clubs was love. He was saying there were far worse things for a man to be doing than having consensual sex, however many times he did it and however many men he did it with. As always, he was right. Somehow Nathan would deal with his feelings. Vin had become too good a friend to let a difference in outlook damage their relationship.
- 28 -
Sands drove for half a mile and then turned west. Ezra soon guessed their destination: an elegant and discreet hostelry that served a discerning clientele, a survivor of Denver's silver-strike days. The premises had, of course, changed over the years but the quality of service endured. Ezra took particular pleasure in its exquisite antique furnishings. It was the kind of establishment he might have chosen and it underlined the growing rapport between Sands and himself. He was responding to the man as a lover, not as a target, and that troubled him for two reasons.
Firstly, allowing his heart, or his libido, to determine his plans for an operation put it, and himself, at risk.
Secondly, and more puzzling, he felt he was betraying Vin which was absurd. He'd given no promise so how could he break it? He knew Vin had sex with other men, not usually when he was available but sometimes even then. Perhaps more to the point, he knew Vin didn't expect him to forego pleasures elsewhere. Vin was content for him to enjoy them in private, more so to hear about them and still more so to watch them.
Ezra had yet to understand that fully. He wasn't particularly concerned about physical fidelity. It was one of the first casualties of his job and what he did to progress a case had nothing to do with what he shared with Vin. But Vin had sex with those men for fun and Ezra struggled to accept that didn't mean he was dissatisfied with what he got from his lover. By rights, it should have been he who strayed, since Vin was most definitely not equipped to fulfill all his fantasies, but he suppressed those urges. The only sex he'd had with a woman in more than six months - and that was on an operation anyway - was inside his head, with a little help from his video library.
Not that Vin asked for such abstinence: his only stipulation was the unspoken agreement that he would not perform in that arena. Ezra sometimes wondered what had happened to bring that firm exception in an otherwise unfettered sex-life but he hadn't asked. All he knew was that, in Vin's place, he would feel inadequate knowing that he could not fulfill all of his lover's desires and so he was faithful, emotionally at least, to a man who did not need that reassurance while Vin saw other men regardless.
No, that was untrue: not regardless. Vin had slowed up a lot in the time they'd been together. When Ezra was around, he preferred to share his guests and subtly maneuvered them to fit in with his lover's inclinations when they did so. Ezra noticed another thing that struck him as odd. If Vin saw that he disliked a man, he wouldn't hit on him however much he wanted to do so. They were strange foibles, probably laughable to someone else, but Ezra understood that they were measures of Vin's depth of feeling for him.
Ezra would never have seen himself enduring such a state of affairs, except that endurance did not enter into it. Apart from his self-doubts, and they'd been with him since long before Vin came into his life, he'd never been happier. He knew Vin loved him, although he never said so, and that the way he conducted his personal life was simply the only way he'd ever known. He hoped one day that Vin might shun the others but it had to be because he truly wanted to do so, not because his lover demanded it.
'Is this acceptable?' Sands' mellifluous voice was filled with concern.
Ezra hastily thought himself back inside Charles Kenyon's skin. This daydreaming on the job had to stop. It could all too easily cost him his life. They were out front of the hotel and a well-groomed valet in a burgundy jacket waited to park the Mercedes.
'Indeed. Your taste, as always, is impeccable.'
'You've stayed here before?'
Ezra used the hotel for work every month or two. The staff did not know who he was but were generously recompensed for adapting to his changing identities. Sometimes he might be a high-profile public figure and others an anonymous guest passing unheeded. His standing order was for the latter.
The suite they entered a few minutes later was one of the best in the hotel. Ezra had only once used a room of such opulence, when he was posing as a wealthy Austrian socialite. Even now, the memory evoked a flutter of anxiety. Ezra was fluent in several languages but German was not one of his favorites. Fate then decreed that another newcomer to the circle was a German-speaking Swiss. There had been a few awkward moments, which Ezra deflected successfully only on the strength of regional variations. The Swiss looked puzzled once or twice but fortunately that did not mature into suspicion.
After hanging up his jacket, Ezra went through to the bathroom, closing but not locking the door. He made it a rule to be as open as possible with his targets, doing nothing out of place for the role he was playing. A man like Sands would expect him to want privacy but not secrecy. One reason Ezra disliked regular check-ins was that they increased the need to do out-of-character things at inconvenient times. Now he was using the bathroom because he needed to, not as a cover for anything. He lifted the toilet seat and peed away over a hundred dollars worth of wine. He smiled as he pressed the lever to flush; he knew someone who'd be outraged by such premium-priced piss.
Moving over to the basin, he washed his hands, face and groin, then cleaned his teeth with the complimentary brush and paste. Despite having showered only hours before, he preferred to be scrupulously clean when seducing strangers. Better still if they exercised the same consideration. Only with Vin did he relish earthier sensations; he would never enjoy dirty but he did like Vin smelling of man, not of soap and deodorant. He combed his hair, straightened his attire and returned to his task.
When Sands took his place in the bathroom, the ATF agent stood by the window and watched the late-night slowdown in the street outside. His mind was as peaceful as the parking lot. His efforts were finally paying off and the end of the operation drew a fraction closer. He would not be sorry to return to his team or his lover. This assignment had followed the previous one too quickly and he was due for a break, easier duties for a while with some vacation time thrown in.
Hearing the bathroom door open behind him, Ezra turned to find Sands freshened up like himself. He went over, his walk a perfect balance of grace and eagerness, slipped his arms around Sands' neck and pressed his lips passionately onto the wide, firm mouth. Sometimes seduction could be a challenge, with a target who wasn't really interested and who did not interest him, but this was not one of those times. Ezra's arousal was immediate, as was Sands' response - at least his bodily response. Ezra was plenty close enough to feel the man's erection and yet he also felt the man draw away.
With another, more reassuring kiss, he smiled. 'Is there a problem?'
Sands held his eye, amber joined with jade. 'Not at all. It's simply that I have certain interests which I thought a man of your imagination might be willing to indulge.'
Ezra said nothing but, with a tilt of an eyebrow, invited Sands to continue.
Sands opened the briefcase he'd put on a sideboard. Ezra noted the cords and cuffs inside with amusement. How many times had he bound and been bound in the line of duty? He'd lost count. Some lawmen liked such games but any thrill he might once have felt had long since been exhausted. It was a relief to find Vin had no interest in controlling or being controlled. The thought of anyone trying to control Vin brought a smile that Ezra barely managed to suppress.
'There's absolutely no obligation to proceed if you would rather not.'
His tone made it clear who would be doing the controlling. By way of answer, Ezra removed his tie and began to unbutton his shirt. He wasn't carrying his Walther P99 but unstrapped the Model 85 from his ankle with a smile. 'One can't be too careful these days.'
He half-expected Sands to help undress him but the man only watched. He stripped seductively but without an exaggerated striptease. Sands' eyes followed his every move, his pants tented over his erection. Ezra was about to remove his scarlet briefs when the watcher gestured for him to leave them on and lie on the bed.
Ezra obeyed, prepared to do nothing but what he was told for the next hour or more. He had no sexual reservations about the scenario or his ability to perform in it, although he naturally recognized the degree of risk involved in allowing a known felon to restrain and abuse him. The contents of the case suggested that Sands' was interested more in control than pain, for which Ezra was grateful. The man tied his wrists and ankles to the antique brass bedstead. No doubt the style of furnishings was a deliberate choice. The leather thongs were soft, causing no real discomfort, although Sands pulled them tightly so that Ezra's body was spread-eagled with no scope for movement.
Sands stood over him, studying his body, a hand in his pocket and the movement of his fingers on his swollen flesh clear through the closely woven fabric. Ezra was ready for whatever came, his own penis straining against his briefs, a damp patch spreading from the bulbous outline of its head. As he gazed at Sands' trim figure in its exquisite Armani wrapper, he felt a ripple of excitement. This might be fun. Perhaps Vin was right to sample all the fruits on offer. Of course, Vin was always careful when he did so. Sometimes Ezra didn't have that luxury and this might be one of those times. Games like this didn't leave him much control over how he played - he could only hope Sands had the sense to worry for himself. If Ezra read him right, he was a man who believed in calculated risks, not stupid chances, but only time would tell.
- 29 -
Nathan and Josiah arrived back at the office last. Nathan glanced at Vin, taking in how bone-tired his friend was and the brittle energy overlaying that fatigue now they were able to act at last. When Vin's eyes met his, they held their usual kindly intelligence.
The surprise he felt at seeing Vin the same as always told Nathan how deeply the revelations had shocked him. He'd wondered if he knew Vin at all, if there was such a large part of the man's life closed to his friends. It was as if he'd got to know a character in a play and only now discovered that everyone around him was acting. Well, not everyone but two of the six men who'd become like family to him.
Vin held his gaze, clearly understanding some of what he felt, telegraphing that nothing had changed for him. Nathan wanted to look away but forced himself to confront the situation. He walked over as casually as he could and took a seat on the desk beside Vin, consciously gauging where he would normally sit and trying not to distance himself or overcompensate for his discomfort.
When he looked at Vin again, now only a couple of feet away, he saw the true depth of the pain in his eyes and the guilt underpinning it. Nathan would never understand how a man could feel anything for an endless string of casual lovers but he no longer doubted that Vin did care, at least for those ten that mattered. He'd have to be inhuman not to care about what he had inadvertently brought down on six of them.
Nathan reached out to rest his left hand on Vin's right shoulder and leaned an inch or two nearer. 'Try not to worry, Vin. We'll find him. Somehow, we will find him.'
Vin covered Nathan's hand with his own. He didn't try to speak, letting those eloquent eyes express his thanks for their support. Nathan felt a stab of guilt of his own, ashamed of the criticisms he had thought and voiced, sure that Vin had sensed them and grateful that he'd chosen to ignore them.
- 30 -
With his captive securely bound to the bed, Graves pulled up a stylish armchair and made himself comfortable. Folding one leg so the ankle rested on his other knee, he cradled a large leather-bound album and studied Ezra closely. The man was well nigh perfect. His skin was unblemished, not just on his face but over his entire body. Almost completely free from hair, there was a sculptural quality in his torso's clearly defined but unexaggerated musculature. Even his one flaw - a repaired tooth - was capped in gold, adding an alluring glint to his smile.
The serene jade eyes watched back: intelligent, attentive, curious, unafraid. Graves couldn't see it but, beneath the controlled calm, he knew there was a will of iron. He opened the scrapbook, considering the agenda that remained hidden from the ATF agent who still thought he had a job to do. As Joseph Sands, Graves had indeed become an important cog in the Dean Corporation but that was merely a means to an end. Many years had passed since he needed money and, since Brad's death, it held no interest at all. No, Joseph Sands was born solely to deliver retribution to Vincent Tanner.
Now retribution would stop at seventy percent - lamentable but possibly adequate.
Graves opened the album at a well thumbed page more than two-thirds of the way through. It had been well thumbed before he stole the album and had become more so since. He examined a photograph of Standish with Tanner. He'd been lost in thought for several minutes when he caught Ezra's eye on him, the curiosity now more pronounced but still suppressed.
Graves understood why Standish didn't ask what he wanted to know. Assigned the submissive role in their sex play, he would do nothing to challenge his target. He waited to be commanded. Graves scowled. He had no interest in feigned power games. When he played, it was for far higher stakes. When he loved, it was absolute. As perfect as Standish's body might be, Graves had no interest in sampling it.
He returned his attention to the photograph. The two men were pictured in front of a fast-flowing river with a heavily wooded slope beyond. They wore colorful walking jackets and stood against a jagged rocky outcrop. A light breeze lifted a few locks of Tanner's long hair clear of his shoulder. He leaned on the rock and Standish leaned on him. They seemed to be alone, probably using the camera on timed shutter release. Standish had twisted to look at Tanner. Their eyes met on the level and they were smiling, frozen in a transitional moment between shared humor and smoldering attraction. The chemistry was palpable.
Graves wondered fleetingly if he'd underestimated Standish's role in Tanner's life. Perhaps he could inflict the body blow he'd dreamed of with his captive's death. Then his contempt resurfaced and he knew that the man was one in a very long line of Tanner conquests. He felt cheated that his adversary's superficiality prevented him from experiencing shattering, devastating, numbing loss.
- 31 -
Vin stood behind JD while he sailed through system after system, looking for a clue to revive their search. Around the office, the others skimmed files and talked into phones, desperate to break the deadlock. Vin jangled the loose change in his pocket, too agitated to contribute much to their efforts, trying to keep his long-since exhausted brain on the problem, running through his past for anything that might help. Six men dead because of him. Maybe seven. Thank Christ the others were safe now. But Ezra
JD looked up at him sympathetically, then glanced at the hand kneading the coins. Vin realized that his restlessness wasn't helping the kid's concentration and stilled his fingers.
'You couldn'ta known, Vin. Graves made 'em look like unconnected accidents so you wouldn't catch on too fast. It not like you even knew he'd been released or that he was out for revenge.'
Vin looked at his young friend with fresh respect. Like the others, JD was there for him, no questions asked. Perhaps it was time for Vin to ask the questions. He'd sensed JD's unease with him and was surprised by it, knowing the kid wasn't homophobic. He tentatively sought to explore it. 'You okay with all this?'
JD met his eye frankly. 'I wish you'd told us, Vin. I feel like you didn't trust us.'
Vin was relieved to hear the reason. He was sorry to have disappointed JD but glad not to be disappointed by him. Right now, he needed what was left of his life to be what he'd thought it to be.
'Buck thinks it was because of Ezra, otherwise you'da said.'
Surprised by Buck's perceptiveness, Vin nodded. 'Yeah. We had our reasons but it wasn't nothing to do with you fellas.' He considered how to emphasize that reassurance. 'I knew it was all the same to you, JD.'
'Really?' JD's satisfaction at that was obvious.
'Yeah. Not too many like you. Musta had a liberal upbringing.'
The kid's grin was a mile wide. 'Told you once how my Mom was a cleaner back in Boston, didn't I?'
Vin nodded again. He'd been impressed to hear in JD's voice his pride at how hard his mother had worked to raise him, rather than shame at her menial occupation.
'Didn't tell you what she cleaned, did I? A flashy sauna.' The grin endured when he added, 'And you know what I mean by that.'
The remark sparked off some vivid memories for Vin. He'd never thought about who got to clean up afterwards. His expression made JD laugh.
'The money was good. Mom used to say she cleaned up after my old man for nothing before he cut loose so why not get paid for it. And at least the guys there weren't always trying it on with her.' Talking of his mother clearly moved him. 'I used to go in with her sometimes in school vacations. They were nice guys. Course, she never let me in there when it was open.'
JD was, as Vin had known, one of a rare breed who grasped what his lifestyle entailed and was totally unfazed by it. In truth, straight men were sometimes almost as much of a mystery to Vin as he was to them. They surely had the same drives as he did and yet, by and large, they seemed to get by with astonishingly limited sex lives. He'd known few gay men of JD's age who'd be faithful to a boyfriend the way the kid was to his girlfriend, Casey. There had been a time Vin when would have seen him as naïve, or under the thumb, but he knew JD too well. He was loyal to Casey because he wanted to be: because he loved her and, for him, that was what love meant.
Vin had never had a relationship on those terms and, apart from Herb, no one had asked him to. He and Dave were pretty wrapped up in each other but they still got laid at clubs and parties; it made them horny not jealous. He and Ray only ever fucked other men together, so that was faithfulness of a sort, but it wasn't what JD gave to Casey. Vin hadn't passed up other opportunities as a point of principle; he just found it a hell of a lot more exciting to share them with Ray.
As for Ezra, well, as always, things were more complicated. Vin took relief where he could get it when Ezra was unavailable, as he was a lot, but he suspected Ezra rarely did so except as part of the job. They occasionally invited other men to join them but, as much as Vin enjoyed it, he knew it was difficult for Ezra. Beneath the self-assured persona lay deep emotional insecurities; Ezra oscillated between obvious sexual excitement and concealed personal anxiety. He liked to watch Vin enter another man but became uneasy when another man entered Vin. He worried if he detected any tenderness between them, never sure of his value to Vin.
In a strange way, Ezra's doubts made Vin more certain than ever. Used to drifting into easy relationships with confident men who offered the thrills he sought without making any claims on him, he sometimes found being with Ezra an uphill struggle. He wouldn't have bothered if the payoff hadn't been worth it. Not since Bud had he felt so cherished - and never by someone who turned him on the way Ezra did. So, he moderated his behavior, carefully balancing his own needs with Ezra's. But, still, he was not physically faithful.
Although he'd never discussed anything so personal with JD, Vin had watched plenty of girls come on to the kid. He could see for himself that some of them were beautiful, and he could tell from Buck's response that they pushed at least one straight man's buttons, but JD was always the same: kind, friendly and firmly unavailable. He didn't go without - many mornings spent yawning into black coffees gave birth to a standing joke on the team that Casey was a bit of a man-eater - he just didn't seem to need it with anyone else.
Seeing the gulf between the world in which he'd always lived and the one JD inhabited only increased Vin's admiration for the genuine tolerance the junior agent exhibited. He'd had some close straight male friends over time but, as he admitted to Chris, not as many as he would have liked. He now felt optimistic that he'd still be calling these five men friends at the end of this nightmare and that was just about his only comforting thought since it began.
Vin watched as JD continued his keyboard-bashing. After a few minutes, he pulled up a chair and cast his mind adrift. Perhaps his subconscious would throw up something that his desperate efforts to think had so far failed to do. He returned to that first date with Ezra, after they'd reached their unspoken agreement. Ezra had driven them back to his townhouse in his XJS.
Closing his eyes in the Team 7 office, Vin looked up again at the elegant residence in a smart crescent of identical properties. The garage door opened automatically and the Jag came to a gentle halt inside. Its sinuous lines and purring exhaust note enhanced the imagery that its name suggested. He followed Ezra through a door from the garage into the house.
On a week's acquaintance, Vin had little idea what to expect of Ezra. Okay, so the cultured manner made an impression but a man reputed to be the best undercover agent in the department could appear to be anything he chose. It was soon clear that his sophistication was more than skin-deep. Everything was carefully selected and exquisitely displayed. Vin was no connoisseur but he wasn't a fool either. The paintings hanging sparingly on the wall were prints but he knew they hadn't come from a department store. Even to his untrained eye, they were competent. No, more than that - they were evocative. He studied a brilliantly colored mass of repetitive geometric shapes while Ezra poured drinks, moving at first closer and then further away.
'Do you like it?'
The soft voice spoke close to his ear. He nodded, taking the glass from the hand reaching around him. 'Puts me in mind of a carnival.'
'Indeed, although the artist is European and the title is Summer Fête. A triumph in the art of screen-printing.' A hand rested on Vin's shoulder. 'I thought you might appreciate my modest collection.'
'Yeah? People usually think I'm dumb.' That wasn't exactly true. Colleagues and criminals alike soon found out how swiftly his mind worked in some ways. But those weren't the ways measured in examinations.
'Fools often confuse education with intelligence. As for discernment a man with your visual acuity was born to appreciate art.'
The hand kneaded Vin's shoulder gently as it steered him upstairs and its owner followed him into a pristine bedroom. Over the king-sized bed, with its glossy covering of ivory silk, hung another, much larger, print. Vin looked through it, letting the shapes dance before his eyes. Smiling as he perceived the artist's vision, he leaned against Ezra and felt his arousal. Somehow, within the seemingly abstract pattern, two men made love.
Made love. Those were the words that came into Vin's mind, the emotion as clear to him as the act. He knew what he felt when he made love and that was what he saw deep inside the print. He also knew, if he was straight, he would see a man and woman making love. Stripped of irrelevancies, only the truth of the lovers' experience remained.
When Ezra's arms encircled his waist, Vin reached to put his untouched drink on a shelf and pressed himself into the embrace. A hour or two earlier, he'd realized they were not discussing quick relief. Now he knew they were embarking on a very different journey from the one he'd envisaged. He turned in Ezra's arms and looked into his eyes, no longer cool but smoldering.
Their lovemaking was a slow, sensual experience. Ezra's tender hands explored every inch of Vin's body, delaying the moment when he entered it and then rocking gently, brushing lightly against the sensitive spot inside, building Vin's ecstasy to an almost unbearable pitch, leaving him torn between his need for release and his desire for the connection to last for ever.
When the explosion of sensation came, it signaled not the breaking of the link but its substantiation.
Nothing had been quite the same since and, suddenly, Vin was sure Ezra was alive. He would know if the connection had been severed. He would feel it.
- 32 -
Vin's gut was right. Ezra was still alive. In point of fact, he was still unaware that his life was in danger or at least in any more danger than usual. At that moment, he was watching Sands leaf through the album, returning over and over to one page in particular. From his position on the bed, Ezra could not see the contents of the album. He assumed it contained pictures related to the game they'd embarked on. Perhaps Sands had difficulty becoming aroused and the images were to help him. Perhaps his tastes were more violent than Ezra had anticipated and he enjoyed the fear on his subjects' faces when they understood what was to come.
Ezra's expression did not change. His remarkable self-control had paid dividends throughout his life, from cheating at cards to speculating on the stock market, from enforcing the law to breaking it. Unafraid of physical pain, his anxieties lay in a quite different direction: rejection, desertion, abandonment. Some nights he woke in a cold sweat, terrified that he'd lost Vin - sometimes to death, sometimes to another man - but he never felt that same terror for his own safety.
Now he watched in silence, wondering when his companion would explain the rules of the game. His erection had subsided with Sands' interest in him. He half-expected a reprimand for that, bringing back one hellish session when a target demanded he stay hard for hours at a time and beat him if he softened. If Sands had such inclinations, there was no sign of them as yet.
'Have you seen this, Mr Standish?' Sands thumbed the pages. 'It is a most revealing account of a life.'
Ezra was caught off-guard by the use of his real name. Ordinarily he would have countered with a smooth response but his companion's casual tone and nonchalant manner told him that would be futile.
'Oh, I must apologize for my little deception. I'm afraid I have known your identity since before we met.' He smiled. 'Now you have put yourself at my disposal, introductions are in order. My name is Michael Graves.'
Ezra processed the new information, wondering why Sands was operating under an assumed name and how that meshed with his assignment. Their pre-cover checks had been thorough: the man must be exceptionally adept at falsifying records.
'Don't strain that extraordinary brain of yours, Ezra. May I call you Ezra? My interest in the Dean Corporation ended the moment you accepted my invitation tonight.' He gestured at Ezra's bonds. 'You need not be alarmed. I have no interest in inflicting pain for its own sake or in any other services you might see fit to offer in the line of duty, tempting though they might be.' He unfolded the comforter he'd taken off the bed earlier and covered Ezra to the waist.
Still trailing behind his companion's thinking, Ezra tried to understand what was happening. If the man didn't want to obtain information, inflict suffering or have sex of any kind, what did he want?
'Retribution,' Graves offered helpfully. 'You are here to help me serve justice on Agent Vincent Tanner. I know you are more than colleagues. Your involvement will make you a suitable final payment.'
Final payment. Ezra felt a chill at the turn of phrase. Final in the sense of the end of a series? Final in the sense of the end of his life? He looked at the book again. 'What is that?'
'A scrapbook.' He turned back to the flyleaf and read the childish scrawl there. 'Stuf for Mom - quaintly misspelled. I would say Tanner must have been very young when he wrote those words but, given his difficulties with basic skills such as reading and writing, it could have been last week.'
Ezra bridled at the criticism of his lover. His dyslexia was the one thing that made Vin defensive and Ezra hated seeing a man like himself, intellectually gifted and educationally privileged, mock him for it. There was a time he might have done the same but now it emphasized the gulf between him and Graves, and between him and the man he once was.
'I can't help wondering whether Mrs Tanner would approve of some of the things her boy gets up to. His faith in her tolerance is really quite touching,' Graves mused, as if to himself. 'You probably know the early part: popular, academically weak, athletically gifted.' He looked up, casually but with a glint in his eye. 'You may be less familiar with the later part, your predecessors.'
Vin had never discussed his past. Neither of them had. Ezra's innate curiosity stirred again but he said nothing.
'It's been a great asset to me, leading me directly to the men whose deaths would hurt Tanner most. Unfortunate as it is that his tomcatting precludes a blow of the magnitude he inflicted on me, I believe I may have made up in quantity what was not available in quality.'
Ezra felt that chill again, more frigid this time, as he grasped the enormity of what they were discussing. 'How how many?'
'Nine in here, apart from you, though I would think the total is well in excess of ten times that number, perhaps closer to a hundred times. Tanner does savor the sins of the flesh. You don't need me to tell you that. It's not as if that has stopped since your entanglement.'
'You've killed nine men?'
'No, sadly circumstances overtook me and I had to stop at six.'
Six men dead? Dead because they'd meant something to Vin. 'Am I ?'
'Are you in here?' Graves raised the book. 'Oh, yes. Not only is yours the last section, it is also the longest.' He held it out so that Ezra could see the photograph he'd been studying. 'A good likeness. Of you both.'
Ezra remembered the picture immediately. He'd arranged the weekend secretly as a birthday surprise for Vin. He knew Vin would enjoy roughing it with only the most basic facilities, totally alone and miles from anywhere. Vin did love it but, more than the trip, he loved that Ezra had done it for him not expecting to enjoy it himself.
The revelation had been that Ezra loved it too. The scenery was breathtaking and the exercise invigorating but the main thing was that, for the first time, he had Vin entirely to himself. Both men lived with a foot in two worlds, Ezra's weight in the straight one and Vin's in the gay one. Each world brought its own pressures, although Ezra knew they were more of his making than Vin's. In the straight world, he worried what people saw and guessed. In the gay world, he worried who Vin was with and what he was doing.
In the mountains, he worried about nothing. He saw Vin in his element: fit, skilful and knowledgeable. In most ways, they were equal partners in their relationship, with unique roles in their team and similar approaches to planning and executing operations, but - just occasionally - Vin seemed to feel disadvantaged by Ezra's background and education. Ezra didn't feel superior but he was aware that Vin sometimes felt inferior.
The weekend revealed a new side to Vin, in an environment about which he knew far more than Ezra. Every time he gave one of his soft warnings about a hazard or offered a strong hand to help his lover over an obstacle, Ezra felt a pang of admiration and excitement. He remembered how Vin had laughed at their poor progress, thanks to Ezra's semi-permanent state of arousal. It was Ezra who insisted on taking the photograph and Vin who teased him about any excuse to get out of more walking. They held the pose just long enough for the shutter to release and then ripped each other's clothes off again, for the third time that morning.
Dying here, now, meant that Ezra would never see Vin again. The knowledge was hard to bear but he always prepared for that before a major operation. It had initially amused Vin, then spooked him and finally touched him, when Ezra went through his pre-cover ritual. They would dine out quietly, talk and relax, then go home and make love tenderly. When they separated, there were no flowery words - just a loving kiss. Their last parting had been no different. Ezra's throat caught when he recalled Vin's customary farewell.
Come back t'me, Ez.
Ezra's focus slowly shifted. There was no assignment anymore - there never had been - only a strong chance that he would not leave the hotel suite alive. All he could do was to try to stay alive hour by hour. Perhaps the others knew, somehow, perhaps they would come. He must give them time. His nostalgia gave way to the determination Graves had suspected but been unable to detect.
Graves sensed his change in mood but misread it. 'You must regret the day you set eyes on Tanner.'
Must he? Perhaps he should but he didn't.
'Come now. This man is going to cost you your life. You can't tell me you don't resent that.'
'If anyone takes my life, it will be you not him.'
'Your death will be on his hands. I kill only because he killed.'
'Vin would not kill without good reason.'
'It's remarkable how his endowments make intelligent men like yourself leave their brains at the bedroom door.'
Foolishly, Ezra let the cheap shot provoke him and snapped his response. 'That has nothing to do with it.' He heard the protectiveness in his own voice.
'Ah,' Graves studied him with unnerving directness. 'You love him. I wish your feelings had been reciprocated. One death might then have been sufficient atonement.' Taking a .38 from a compartment concealed in the base of the briefcase, he began to screw a silencer onto the barrel. 'Just as a matter of interest, how much pain would you have endured in the line of duty?'
Ezra did not reply. Perhaps by permitting himself to become too focused on his own objectives, he'd allowed Graves to gain the upper hand. Thinking back, he could still see no clue that might have alerted him. His opponent in this game was as skilled a player as he was but had the advantage of knowing all the cards.
'I see you are as dedicated to your duty as you are to Tanner. Your devotion is admirable, although it's a pity you chose the object of your affections so unwisely. While your attachment to him appears genuine, he simply ruts like an animal. You are one of a considerable host.'
Ezra weighed up the man's motives. He wanted vengeance but was frustrated that no loss he could inflict on Vin would match his own pain. Ezra knew that belief was false. Vin's suffering would be acute and enduring. 'You are mistaken. Mr Tanner's heart is as well developed as his libido. He is capable of loving many people, not merely those with whom he has, as you so eloquently put it, rutted.'
'I can see why'd you tell yourself that. It'd be hard to face the truth.' Graves ran a finger absent-mindedly along the barrel of the gun in his right hand. 'For years, I thought Tanner killed Brad because we were gay. I thought he'd have exercised more caution had it been a wife at my side. Imagine my disbelief when I began my investigations. It took some time for me to understand that he holds no one in any regard. Brad was just another of his unfortunate victims.'
Ezra had been thinking rapidly while he listened and now embarked on a risky stratagem. 'And what of your victims? If Mr Tanner will be unaffected by their deaths, what have you achieved but to murder innocent men, who had perhaps already been hurt by their association with him? Why should you heap more suffering on them and those who care for them?'
Confusion crossed Graves' face, only to be chased away by anger. He swiped the butt of the gun across Ezra's temple, sending him spiraling into unconsciousness.
- 33 -
'Fuck it!' JD's voice pulled Vin back to the present. The unusually colorful expletive testified to the junior agent's frustration. He rarely went beyond 'shit' under normal circumstances, a reflection more of his easy-going personality than an aversion to profanity. The exclamation drew attention from around the office and brought Buck to his cohort's side.
'No dice, kid?'
'Zilch. Nada. Fuck-'
'We get the picture. Got anything left to try?'
There was a few seconds of silence before JD looked regretfully at Vin and admitted, 'Not that I can think of.'
Buck followed his gaze to the tired Texan who was rubbing his eyes wearily. 'There must be something, Vin. Something Ezra said, maybe, someplace he likes, maybe he'd go '
When Vin looked up, there was a helplessness in his expression that none of them had seen before. 'Don't you think I'da said if I knew, Buck? Hell, Graves'll be callin' the shots anyhow. What makes you think Ezra's got any say in what's goin' on?'
'Hey!' The edge in Buck's voice demanded Vin snap out of his stupor. 'I don't know what's going on any more than you do but I'm sure as hell not going to sit here and do nothing about it. If you can think of somewhere - anywhere - else we can look, I'll look.' He glanced around the office. 'We'll all look.'
Chris came to Buck's side and backed him up in a softer tone. 'We don't know when Graves dropped the Sands act, Vin. Maybe Ezra'd already taken him someplace. We've done the places we know about. Hell, we even checked Ezra's townhouse just in case, but if you can come up with anywhere else '
Chastened by their concern, Buck's uncharacteristic snappiness and Chris's equally atypical gentleness, Vin nodded, sat straighter in his chair and thought. He worked systematically forward from that first date, trying to recall every moment he'd shared with Ezra, every conversation they'd had.
He passed through the weekend Ezra had thought about only minutes before, remembering the photograph he'd gazed at so often when Ezra was beyond his reach, remembering how he'd pressed Ezra against that rock and pushed deep inside him until he could force their bodies no closer. His thrusts rubbed his lover's cock over the slick emerald lichen and then smeared its milky yield into the velvety covering. Through his fatigue and misery, his loins stirred at the memory and then his heart lurched at the prospect of living the rest of his life without feeling that intimacy again.
He shoved the longings and dreads to one side, then glimpsed a ray of hope. Thinking of that trip reminded him of birthdays, prompting him to recall his own efforts to celebrate Ezra's. He had the whole thing planned: an opening at one of Ezra's favorite galleries, dinner, a play at the Performing Arts Complex and a lavish night at the best hotel money could buy. He was shocked to discover just how much of his money would be buying it but the recommendation came from a good friend in accounts. Sally worked only because she liked to be busy. Seven years of blissful marriage to a wealthy businessman meant she had no need of the money. Apart from Ezra, she was the only person Vin knew in a position to suggest the kind of place he wanted to take his lover.
When he pulled up outside the hotel after the theatre, he was embarrassed by his battered Jeep in a sea of expensive transports. A team of valets flew to and fro but even so there was a delay in processing the flow of vehicles. In front of him sat a Cadillac Catera that looked as if it had left the showroom that day. He glanced in the rearview mirror: sixty thousand dollars worth of Lexus sport coupe behind. When he was just about through worrying about letting the side down, he caught the faint frown on Ezra's face.
'No good?' he asked, his disappointment audible.
'On the contrary, one of the best establishments in Denver.'
'I ' Ezra twisted in his seat to face him and took his hand. 'I come here for work. I I'd rather not be here with you.'
Vin recalled how he'd snatched his hand away, assuming Ezra was ashamed of him in spite of his efforts. Then passing headlights had illuminated those striking green eyes and he'd seen Ezra's awkwardness at what he did for the job and his need to keep what he did with his lover separate from it. Vin kissed him and asked softly, 'Wanna go home then?'
Ezra returned the kiss and leaned over so that his lips were close to Vin's ear. 'I heard of a place out on I-70.'
Vin grinned. There probably weren't too many gay men in Denver who hadn't heard of the motel out on I-70. It never ceased to amaze Vin how a man as bold as Ezra was in most ways could be so diffident about sampling some delights. Many times they'd gone to places together that he'd clearly wanted to investigate before but been too apprehensive to try alone. Vin swung the Jeep out of the queue and headed for US-6. While he got his kicks out of company, whether it was third and fourth men or watching and being watched, Ezra liked toys, novelties and settings - and, what the birthday boy wanted, the birthday boy was going to get.
Vin jolted into life and looked up at Buck. Ezra would never take Sands to the motel they'd visited together but 'The Marlboro. Only place I can think of.'
Josiah was on the phone almost before Vin finished speaking but soon hung up in disappointment. 'No Standish, Kenyon, Graves or Sands.'
Chris grasped at their fleeting optimism. 'You're right, Vin. I've seen that place on Ezra's expenses. Let's get over there anyhow.
- 34 -
When Ezra woke, it was to the cool touch of a damp face-cloth on his temple.
'My apologies. That was brutal of me.'
Ezra heard the sincere regret in the man's voice. If things had been different, they could have been friends. Yes, he was sorry they had not met under different circumstances but now he considered his plight.
Bondage was a good choice on Graves' part. Ezra'd never had it go wrong before but now realized just how vulnerable he was. With nothing concealed after stripping to his underwear, his options were seriously limited. He could shout for help but Graves would put a stop to that in seconds and the sound penetration in these vast suites was minimal.
He regretted visiting the bathroom earlier, as now he couldn't even feign a need for that. On the other hand, he'd eaten a five-course dinner and only urinated since. His dependable digestion wouldn't demand defecation until eight-thirty the next morning but Graves wasn't to know that. Ezra doubted he'd want to supervise a captive lying in his own filth. Yes, he'd try to keep Graves talking for another hour and then ask to visit the bathroom. It was a long-shot but the best he could come up with at present.
He looked at Graves, whose attention was now on an earlier section of the scrapbook. Ezra wanted to know more about the murders but knew better than to ask directly. Instead he instigated a different line of inquiry, one to which he suspected Graves would be more receptive.
'You said nine others before me?'
There was a flash of gratification on Graves' face before his civilized mask settled back into place.
'Yes, nine. Going back to when Tanner started with the Dallas PD. It's only natural that you should be curious.' He turned back several pages and then held up the book so that Ezra could see a photograph of a trim figure astride a red Ducati 851. 'David Morle.'
Ezra studied the man in the picture. The body could have been Vin's: slim, fit, clad in faded jeans and plain T-shirt. The head was sharper, with neatly styled black hair, finer features and close-shaven jaw. The gray eyes held exactly the same mix of intelligence and humor. Ezra could see why the man had gone down as a first love, a friend and soul-mate as well as a very handsome lay. He found himself wondering what had come between them but then realized the man was only in his early twenties - young for any man to settle down, let alone a gay one.
Ezra was still reflecting on Morle when Graves turned forward a couple of pages. 'Well, Morle is no more, the result of an unfortunate hit-and-run incident, but perhaps you can shed some light on this one. Buddy Yates.' When Graves held up the book for a second time, Ezra saw a photograph of two men, arms linked, wearing suits with roses in their buttonholes. Figures in the background reinforced the impression that they were probably at a wedding. One man was tall and thin, with wire-framed spectacles resting on a bony nose. The other was short and stocky, with close-cropped brown hair like the fur of a mink. 'The short one,' Graves explained, his tone a blend of contempt and confusion. 'And, believe me, he was even more grotesque in the flesh. The only man I have ever encountered whose appearance was improved by a four-hundred foot drop.'
Again, Ezra studied the picture. The man was ugly, and his body had certainly not been designed to show a suit to advantage, but Ezra saw two things in the spaniel eyes: great kindness and great love for the man on his arm. He wondered not why Vin had cared for someone so malformed but rather what his relationship to this man had been. One didn't normally keep a picture of a lover with a predecessor or replacement. The question must have shown in his expression because Graves responded.
'Nigel Benson, Tanner's replacement. It is somewhat strange I'll concede but Tanner and Yates were cohabiting when Benson arrived on the scene.' They could have been roommates for all Ezra knew. 'One bedroom, one bed,' Graves offered helpfully. The man's research was certainly scrupulous.
Ezra was not surprised Vin had been involved with Yates. He knew how easily his lover's head was turned by a handsome face but he also knew a lot more about him. He'd broken a finger backing Vin up in a club against ludicrous odds when Vin objected to a bunch of guys picking on a kid with a cleft palate and hare lip. He was just as likely to get in trouble over the softness in his chest as the hardness in his pants. Ezra could imagine Vin's devastation at the news of what Graves had done to his old flame. He left Graves to do the talking.
'I see you are as confused as I. In any event, Tanner more than compensated with his next selection.' When he raised the album again, George Clooney stared back at Ezra from a magazine clipping. Graves saw him look twice. 'No, not the movie star. Meet Herbert Coppell, another law enforcement officer like the others, and yourself.' He adjusted the angle of the book so that they could both see Herb's perfect countenance. 'A short-lived liaison, perhaps due to irreconcilable differences. Coppell was a discreet and loyal man, qualities noticeable by their absence in Tanner's character. You and Coppell might have made a more compatible couple, your professional activities notwithstanding.'
Ezra heard the traces of lust and envy in Graves' calculated nonchalance. He'd been tempted by Coppell.
'How did ' Ezra feigned hesitance, encouraging Graves to keep talking.
'How did he die? Shot while attempting to prevent a mugging. I believe he would have liked to go that way, lauded by the department and the community he sought to serve.' The words could have been a cruel joke but Ezra knew they were not. The deaths had been carefully planned, partly to pass unnoticed until Graves was ready for them to be linked but also to suit the victims.
Graves moved on. 'You may possibly have heard of the next one. Kieran Ross?' Ezra had not and, at his blank look, Graves held up the book. Another good-looking twentysomething stared up from the page, this time naked with the back of a man's head obscuring his penis. The flash illumination and anonymous body parts at the edges of the picture suggested it had been taken at a club or party. 'A very well known figure in the gay community here in Denver. It seems as if everyone has a tale to tell about him. You know, he and Tanner once copulated with a Native American up on the girders of the north bridge - anything for a thrill. An easy man to kill an escapade too far '
Again Ezra wasn't surprised that Vin would have sampled what such a figure offered, although he was intrigued why the man should have been selected for the scrapbook. Obviously he'd done more than turn Vin on. Graves clearly hoped to disillusion Ezra about his lover but all that he was achieving was to confirm what Ezra already knew: that Vin was a complex man who did all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons.
He was beginning to realize how attuned he and his captor had become and found more evidence for that in Graves' irritation at his lack of response. There was spite in the man's voice when he said, 'Try this one then. Professor Raymond Bibolini.' The photograph showed Vin on a bay gelding, another man on a gray beside him. Both wore cowboy hats, Vin's a low-brimmed style that suited him perfectly and sent Ezra's pulse racing. He felt a stab of jealousy as he examined the couple. It was the first photograph to show Vin with one of the men, clearly enjoying each other's company. Vin's expression was familiar: he loved Bibolini. Ezra struggled to suppress emotions he did not want Graves to read and was relieved to see his captor lost in thought.
'The professor was a fine man. I he didn't suffer.' The regret in Graves' voice was evident. He turned the page hurriedly, uncomfortable with what he'd done to an undeserving victim. 'And, unfortunately, that brings us up-to-date with a lowlife by the name of Melvin Trant, a drug pusher who met with an apposite end early this afternoon.'
That was the first news to shock Ezra. Vin loathed drugs for what they did to the poor and weak. He drank lightly, didn't smoke and never touched anything else. Ezra occasionally dabbled in a little mild chemical stimulation but he kept that out of the part of his life he shared with Vin. Perhaps the drugs came after Vin's relationship with Trant, or perhaps they'd been the reason it ended. One thing Ezra knew for sure was that the man had not been dealing, at least as far as Vin had known, when they were together.
So, nine other men in the album, six dead, three spared. Now his death was to be the final blow. Another ironic killing, an undercover agent outwitted by his undercover target. The humiliation was almost as bad as the threat of death. Perhaps worse than either was the fear of how the murders had affected Vin and whether the last would be the final straw. Ezra shied away from an image of the man he loved more than he'd ever loved anyone broken by this vendetta, hiding in the bottle or shut away for his own safety, swallowing pills out of small paper cups. Ezra had seen what the unjust loss of loved ones had done to their leader, how Chris had fought to hold on to his humanity through the bitterness, and his only comfort was that Chris would be there to help Vin try to do the same.
- 35 -
So far at least, Vin was nowhere near the breaking point. Tired and desperate perhaps but still on the case. He was in the passenger seat of Chris's Ram, with Buck driving JD, Josiah and Nathan in a department sedan an inch or so off the Dodge's rear fender.
Chris's low growl was a fragment of normality. 'Get the fuck off my tail, Wilmington. You dent this, it's coming out of your paycheck.'
Buck's driving was notoriously erratic, with a string of fender-benders to his credit, mostly thanks to passing tits or ass catching his eye at inopportune moments. Paradoxically, the safest time to be near him was when the shit hit the fan, as that was about the only time he was likely to have his attention a hundred percent on the task in hand. Of course, the Ford would be lucky to scrape the paint underneath the Ram's hefty fender.
They pulled into the parking lot of the Marlboro, stopped in the restricted zone out front and flashed their badges at an officious doorman who appeared out of thin air within half a second.
Chris strode over to the reception desk, Vin in his wake. It was past midnight and the lobby was deserted. The nightclerk was making work with a stack of forms. He was a well-groomed man in his mid-thirties.
Chris didn't wait for him to finish, showed his badge again and then dropped photographs of Ezra and Graves in front of him. 'Seen either of these two tonight?' He was relieved when the guy didn't fuck around but studied the images closely.
The two words the clerk had spoken came in a soft, submissive voice. Ten to one he was gay. Chris was about as open-minded as fortysomething middle-class white males came and usually paid no attention to such trivia, beyond filing it with the physical description his mind instantly stored of everyone he ever came in contact with. The descriptions stayed with him a few days, then dissolved unless something triggered their transferal to long-term memory. Now he wondered just how many of the guys he knew were gay. Two in his team, the man they were pursuing, the man in front of him now - they were all over the place once you started looking.
The clerk took perhaps five seconds to make his assessment. 'No. They haven't checked in since I came on at ten pm. I haven't taken a break yet so I would have seen them. The restaurant is closed but they could be in the bar.' He nodded towards double doors to his right and Chris motioned for Buck and JD to check that out. 'You might ask Thomas, the doorman,' the clerk continued. 'His shift began at eight o'clock.'
Chris nodded his thanks and threw down a couple of crumpled bills. More often than not, his incentives involved his knuckles but a citizen giving willing assistance was welcome at any time and especially when one of his men's lives was at stake.
The bar and doorman yielded no more success and the agents regrouped in the parking lot. They stood in silence, all out of ideas. Their deliberations were interrupted by a few bars of the Hawaii 5-0 theme, repeated after a couple of seconds. Josiah rummaged for the mobile that JD had jokingly reprogrammed to give a foretaste of his older colleague's impending vacation in the islands.
He listened intently, leaning on the hood of the Ram to make hurried notes. He prompted the caller with a few questions and then signed off.
'They got Trant's body.' He immediately glanced his apology to Vin for the brusque professional report but Vin shrugged for him to continue. They'd put out an alert as soon as Vin reported Graves' call to Chris but a body could be hard to find in a city the size of Denver, if it was even in Denver. 'Public toilet in Cheeseman Park. Looks like he inhaled a substance that wasn't coke. Bit of a mess.'
Chris considered that. What help was the body to them now? They were interested in the next victim, not the last.
'Could be something here, Chris,' Josiah went on. 'We've got a clipping but it's not about Trant. It's about Denver in the 1870s.' He held up his notebook and raised an eyebrow. Chris nodded. They certainly needed some help from somewhere. Josiah read a couple of hundred words about the growth of the city following silver strikes in the area.
Chris frowned at Vin. 'That outta your scrapbook too?'
Vin shook his head.
Chris thought, then nodded for Josiah to read it again. He shut his eyes and let his mind dissect every sentence. His eyes remained closed after Josiah's deep voice stopped. The frown creasing his forehead and the toe tapping a staccato rhythm on the asphalt told his team he was trying to retrieve an obstinate memory.
'The Dashwood!' Satisfaction filled the words. 'It's the Hillington now. On Ezra's expenses. Let's go.'
Vin was right behind him and the others piled hurriedly after them. This time they weren't guessing. Graves wanted to be found and they had no choice but to play his game.
- 36 -
Graves closed the scrapbook and dropped it onto a Colonial sideboard that would have been more at home in New England than Colorado. He seemed lost in thought and Ezra wondered whether to try to catch him unprepared or wait for him to appear more receptive. Ordinarily he would have held no hope of getting his bonds removed but Graves was no ordinary criminal.
Ezra cleared his throat discreetly, catching Graves' attention. 'I find myself in need of the facilities,' he glanced towards the bathroom. 'I suppose it would be out of the question '
'You used them when we arrived.'
Ezra adopted a suitably delicate expression. 'It was a generous meal. Sadly, I have been suffering from a slight gastric disturbance recently.'
Graves frowned, clearly convinced that Ezra was lying and seeking an opportunity to escape. The attempt must have seemed crude but then Ezra's hand was poor. 'You can wait. I'm surprised it's taken your friends as long as this to find us. They should be here soon.'
Now it was Ezra who frowned. 'You want them to find us?'
'Of course.' Graves looked as if that should be self-evident.
'Why don't you kill me now and leave while you can?' It was the last question Ezra would normally ask, inviting his own death, but Graves was a man who made careful plans which he then executed methodically. If he was going to kill now, he would have done so. If he wanted to wait, he would do so.
'Because I want Tanner to know that you were alive until he arrived and think that you might have lived if he'd acted differently, to see you die and re-live that moment over and over for the rest of his days.'
Ezra processed that disclosure. He would not die before his friends arrived. There was a chance they would be able to save him. Perhaps things were not quite so bleak as he had thought. At that moment, his stomach growled obligingly. Seizing the opportunity, he broke wind, loud and wet. A convincing stench reached his nostrils within seconds.
With a mortified expression, he hastily apologized, 'Forgive me. My digestion has been plaguing me for days, since I unwisely consumed a hamburger at one of McKenzie's favorite eateries.' McKenzie was one of Dean's underlings and a slob of the first order. Ezra would never eat anywhere frequented by someone like him but it seemed plausible that he might have done so if pressed.
As Ezra expected, Graves' face betrayed his disgust at sharing a suite with a diarrhea-soaked prisoner. After a brief moment of indecision, he fetched a knife from the bottom compartment of the briefcase, rested the curved blade on Ezra's throat and then drew it threateningly through the outer layers of skin with a light rocking motion.
He stood back to survey the blood oozing from the three shallow cuts left by the keen edge. 'Don't even consider provoking me.' With the gun pointing unerringly between Ezra's eyes, he threw back the comforter and sliced through the leather straps. Keeping a safe distance, he waved Ezra into the bathroom. 'Leave the door open.'
Ezra limped across the room, his limbs deadened by the tight bonds and an hour of total immobility. He wished real criminals were as stupid as they always were on TV. Yes, Graves was a victim of his own delicacy but, apart from that, he left little to chance. Too far away to bring down now, he'd obviously been planning ahead earlier since there was nothing in the bathroom that could possibly aid his captive in a bid for freedom.
Settled on the toilet, Ezra concentrated for the present on a degree of bodily control that stretched even his resources. He wanted Graves to be reassured that the call of nature was genuine and that he was drained by it. He evacuated his bowels noisily, noting with satisfaction that Graves moved to one side. His shoulder was still visible and he would see Ezra as soon as he moved from the toilet but he balked at watching him on it. Fortunately a lunch of spinach cannelloni fueled a bout of wind that gave an impression more substantial than reality. Ezra wiped, stood, and then bent double over the bowl and inhaled deeply. That immediately achieved the intended result and he threw up a fair proportion of the meal he'd savored so delicately only hours before.
Any doubts had probably abandoned Graves now. Ezra flushed the toilet, washed his hands, rinsed out his mouth and then splashed his face as if feeling faint. He came casually back through the door, dabbing his face with a towel, eyes apparently covered but leaving gaps enough to glimpse the man who was still covering him with the gun. He'd stalled as long as he dared but his limbs were still heavy and unresponsive. Without that, he'd have felt confident tackling even an armed man but, as it was, the odds were stacked badly against him.
He timed his tackle perfectly, catching Graves just as he turned to cover him from behind, but his movements were clumsy and he fumbled the gun. He landed a punch in Graves' gut and then thumped the back of his neck with his interlocked hands. For a moment, it looked as if that would be enough as Graves' knees seemed to give but then he brought one of them up sharply into Ezra's groin. The impact caught one testicle squarely and pain exploded through Ezra's brain, squeezing tears from his eyes. Doubled over, he had no doubt that the tender sphere was ruptured. Two soft thuds barely penetrated his dazed mind, as hotspots of pain flowered on each thigh. On the brink of losing consciousness, he felt a hand shove him roughly towards the bed. All he saw was a blur of shape and movement as leather tightened fiercely onto raw wrists and ankles.
Fuck. Ezra heard the word in Vin's quiet voice. He'd blown his chance and he wouldn't get another. Fuck.
- 37 -
The six ATF agents replayed their interrogations more cautiously at the Hillington. The clerk was more obstructive, or more discreet if you looked at it from a customer's perspective, but the doorman had been on since six and was open to financial inducements. Armed with his confirmation that their friend was at the hotel, although he didn't recognize Graves' picture, Vin twisted the clerk's arm literally but inconspicuously.
'All right,' the man admitted angrily, rubbing the arm Vin released. 'They're in suite eight, twentieth floor.'
Vin had sized up the building from the outside, as he always did when working. 'That suite got a balcony?'
The clerk nodded.
'Suite either side empty?'
The clerk nodded again and tossed him a cardkey. 'Nine.'
Chris had been watching with a grim smile. 'We'll take a spare for eight while we're at it.'
The clerk threw another card across the desk.
'You call up ' The menace in Vin's tone left no doubt that the clerk would seriously regret any effort to warn the men in suite eight.
Minutes later, they stood in the corridor outside suite eight, listening carefully. Not surprisingly, they heard nothing. They went into nine and investigated outside. There was a good six-foot gap between adjoining balconies but that bothered none of them.
'Buck, JD,' Chris instructed. 'The rest of you with me.'
'I'll take the balcony, Chris.' Vin found Chris studying him. Ordinarily he'd have been assigned to the outside but Chris was worried that he was too tired, too involved, to depend on.
'You up to the jump?' Chris eyed the drop beneath them significantly.
'Ain't nothin',' Vin assured him.
'Okay. Have it your way.'
JD jumped first, young muscles propelling him easily over the gap to land silently with a couple of feet to spare. Buck followed, age making him less agile but length of leg compensating. His landing was heavier but good enough. Vin stood on the ledge for a second, slight giddiness warning that he wasn't in good shape. Any other time, he'd've done better than JD but now he barely made the far ledge. He dropped from it onto the terrace, grinned back at Chris's angry glare and patted the hand that JD had rested on his arm.
Buck took out a small self-adhesive explosive charge and pressed it onto the glass of the French door. They had Nathan to thank for bringing that, prepared as always. The trio looked back at their leader, who signaled two minutes and led Josiah and Nathan back through suite nine.
- 38 -
When Ezra regained the ability to think clearly, the blurred shape to his left proved to be Graves. He had torn Ezra's shirt into strips and used it to bandage his thighs. He was in the process of securing the end of the second dressing. When he looked up, there was more sorrow than anger in his expression.
'That was foolish, Ezra. A clumsy effort and unworthy of you.'
Ezra tried to shrug but found no slack to do so in the bonds that now stretched his frame. 'Needs must when the devil drives. You surely knew that I would be compelled to make the attempt.'
Graves replaced the comforter over Ezra's prone form and smiled. 'Of course. I cannot blame you for that but I regret the pain you forced me to inflict. I I did not choose the roles we are now enacting and and it has proved more difficult than I anticipated, now that we have become acquainted.'
So, Graves felt the same affinity as Ezra himself had noted before he understood the parts they were playing. Knowing there would be no more opportunities to escape, that he depended entirely on the actions of his friends, Ezra forced himself to relax. He counted his injuries. The bruised temple still throbbed from where Graves had swiped it with the gun butt. The left testicle ached but it was bruised and not ruptured as Ezra had feared. The thigh muscles burned. Ezra knew from the blood he'd seen soaking through the makeshift dressing that Graves had shot him once in each leg. The two thuds he'd barely heard were the silenced shots of the .38. The relatively small caliber and the slowing action of the silencer meant that the bullets had embedded themselves in the flesh rather than passing through.
One injury inflicted in angry confusion, three to thwart escape. Graves clearly was not motivated by inflicting physical pain for the sake of it. His plan centred on emotional pain for one man - Vin. What had driven him to such a cruel hunger for vengeance? With nothing left to lose, Ezra asked softly, 'Why are you doing this, Michael?'
Graves looked up at the use of his first name, smiled sadly and sighed.
'I was a thief. One of the best: over a hundred million dollars and no one even got close to me. Then one day they came oafish Texan lawmen not really knowing what they were looking for. Unluckily for me, one person talking carelessly and another wanting to do a deal came together. They found one thing, an emerald-set gold elephant. Brad liked it so much I let him keep it. Foolish but we all have our weak spots. It came from a job eight years earlier but they wouldn't even have been able to prove handling. I could have bought it anywhere.'
He paused, eyes closed, recalling that fateful day.
'A dozen of them tore my home apart, looking for evidence. Brad and I waited. We knew they couldn't prove anything. We would have passed it over to our lawyers and walked free.' He paused again, regretting what should have been.
'And Vin was one of them?' Ezra prompted.
Graves nodded. 'They got frustrated when it was all for nothing, started pushing Brad and me around, trying to make us talk. It was crude in total violation of our rights. That was when they became personal, calling us fags - and worse - threatening to push me off the balcony, by accident.'
Ezra knew where the account was going. Like any predominantly male organization, the police had a running battle with homophobia. He'd found it convenient himself to allow the acceptable face of his sex-life to divert attention from his other tastes. He'd been surprised to find Vin's life largely free of the taint of prejudice. There seemed to be something in his unquestionable masculinity that precluded gossip and even dissipated unease when his preferences were known. Perhaps he was simply fortunate to have a mindset that discounted small-minded people from the opinions that mattered to him. Combine that with a better-than-average ability to look after himself, and a lot of friends with similar talents, perhaps he just didn't make an easy target.
'We weren't even armed but, when they began to punch me, Brad managed to snatch one of their guns and tried to warn them off.'
Ezra was still puzzled by Vin's role in events. 'Did Vin participate in any of this?'
Graves stiffened, sensing the implied criticism of his mission. 'He didn't stop it.' The phrase seemed inadequate to justify the reprisals. 'He was outside covering them. He he shot Brad.'
Ezra got the picture, a team losing control of a bust through their own stupidity and Vin left to deal with their mistakes. 'He shot to kill?'
'His shot killed Brad. That's all that matters.'
Ezra guessed the truth. 'It was Brad who went over the balcony?'
Graves' silence was eloquent. Ezra shifted the focus. 'You said they couldn't prove anything. What did you serve time for?'
'I killed one of the bastards. I picked up the gun after Brad dropped it. I wanted to kill Tanner then, but they tried to take the weapon and it went off. Eight years for murder two. I served five.'
'That seems light.'
'It was practically self-defense.'
Ezra guessed that someone's account had squared with the defense's. He suspected he knew whose. He felt pity for the dead man, pity for his lover. Graves had been the best in his business, as Ezra tried to be in his own. Never convinced of the importance of scrupulous honesty, Ezra admired the consummate skill with which his captor had operated. Even in his misguided quest for vengeance, he had demonstrated imagination, flair and the ability to see his schemes through from inception to completion.
- 39 -
At Chris's signal, Team 7 moved as one. Up on the balcony, Vin and JD covered their faces while Buck detonated the explosive charge stuck to the French doors of the bedroom. Even as the safety glass broke into thousands of tiny cubes, the three men sprang forward. Their trained eyes swept the bedroom, taking in the deserted living area to their right and the half-open door of the bathroom to their left. Directly in front of them stood Graves, gun in hand, its barrel trained unwaveringly on the figure bound to the bed. Ezra himself appeared well, only one bruise visible on his temple and his body delicately covered with a comforter.
As the agents intended, Graves' attention was focused on them. Not one of them so much as glanced towards the entrance of the suite, needing only a split-second's delay before he reacted. They got it. Chris, Josiah and Nathan fanned out behind him. There was an instant of silence before Chris spoke.
Graves started but did not look around. Instead he fixed his eyes on Ezra.
'Or what? You'll kill me?'
His voice mocked them. He doubted they would shoot first. Even if they did, they had no guarantee that his final convulsions would not seal Ezra's fate.
Vin watched the man who had torn his life apart. Not a monster, just the same man he'd seen cornered six years before. Older and more desperate but still the same man. Vin's SIG 229 pointed at the floor beside him. Part of him wanted to blast the man into pieces, part of him said he'd be no better than his victim, killing in anger and vengeance. Then he looked at Ezra and knew he couldn't let him die. But one wrong move and he might do just that. Yet again, a wrong decision could cost the life of a man he loved. For the first time in his life, he had no idea what to do and so he did nothing.
Graves' finger closed slowly on the trigger. Fingers on the triggers of five guns trained on him were just a hair's breadth behind. On the brink of delivering his final blow, the masterstroke that would leave Vin re-living the death of his lover day after day, the killer faltered. Vin read him easily. Dealing death anonymously to men designated as targets was one thing; to kill a man he'd held for hours, and treated well if Ezra's condition was anything to go by, was another. Vin watched Graves give a slight shake of his head and turn the gun on him. The team could have shot him then, between targets, but still they would not open fire first.
Vin looked down the barrel. Six men dead were because of him. It was right that he should die. He was ready for Graves to kill him. Then his team would kill the killer. It would be over and Ezra would be alive. In Graves' face, Vin saw his own indecision mirrored. There was the desire for revenge, to kill the man he held responsible for his lover's death, but alongside it the belief that a quick death was too easy.
The blood pounded through Vin's temples. He found himself counting the pulses. He'd reached eight when Chris repeated his order to Graves to drop his weapon.
Suddenly the confusion cleared from Graves' face and he dropped his aim. When he began to squeeze the trigger, the barrel of his gun pointed directly at Vin's groin. Perhaps he would survive, perhaps he wouldn't. Any life left to him would be scarcely worth living.
The room erupted in gunfire, the unsilenced reports of the ATF weapons filling the confined space to leave ears ringing. A second later, silence. Stillness.
Five men straightened slowly and looked around.
Vin remained motionless. He felt no pain. Perhaps that was just the shock. He had no idea what it felt like to have your balls blown clean off. He looked down cautiously. He heard his own sigh of relief when he saw his jeans unmarked. God alone knew how Graves could have missed but he had.
All eyes turned on Graves. His body had slumped into the armchair behind him, five crimson stains spreading across his torso until their borders merged into a single lake of blood. Through his last bubbling breath, he spoke to Ezra. ' going to Brad things gone differently think he'd've followed you?'
For a few seconds, they all looked on in silence. Nathan stepped forward to check him, then shook his head. Finally Ezra answered the dead man's question in a sad whisper. 'No. And I wouldn't have wanted him to.'
Josiah knelt to inspect Graves' gun, then looked up in surprise. 'Safety's on. You're one lucky man, Vin.'
Vin nodded weakly, then went to Ezra's side and began to loosen his bonds. He tried to make light of the situation but his voice was cracking with emotion. 'How the hell'd he get you like this? What the fuck were you thinkin'?'
Ezra gave him a thin smile. 'Who am I to turn down a little bondage in the line of duty? Unfortunately, Graves chose not to divulge his true agenda until I was in the position in which you find me now.' He looked into Vin's eyes, knowing there was no need to put his question into words.
'Yeah, they know.' Vin spoke aloud to clear the air, as he unwound cords from chafed wrists and ankles, trying not to cause any more pain than Ezra had already suffered. He wanted to hold him close but doubted that his friends were ready to see it or that Ezra was ready for it to be seen. Instead, he helped Ezra to sit, supporting his weight to ease the strain on stiff muscles, just as he would for any colleague in similar straits. Only the hand he rested fleetingly on Ezra's knee before letting Nathan take his place hinted that they were more than friends.
Ezra rubbed his wrists, trying to hurry the blood back into his cold hands, while Nathan inspected the livid bruise on his temple. 'I don't believe there's much you can do for me there but these may require professional attention.' Ezra pushed back the sheet to reveal the wounds in his thighs.
Vin started, shocked first by the unseen injuries and then by the fact that they had been dressed. 'What the ? He shoot you then patch you up?'
Ezra grimaced when Nathan examined the dressings, then smiled up at Vin. 'I fear I gave my captor little choice but to shoot me, since I felt compelled to try to exploit my only opportunity to escape. Under the circumstances, his conduct was most considerate.'
Vin shook his head, with a little half-laugh. Thank God Ezra was okay. He was one of a kind, irreplaceable. Maybe they did make an odd couple but all he cared about was that they still made a couple at all. The sight of the wounds made him realize just how fortunate he'd been. Graves must have flipped the safety on his .38 after he shot Ezra. It was a good habit to get into but you had to remember to take it off again.
Nathan left the dressings in place. 'Looks like the bleeding's stopped, Ezra. Might as well let 'em set you to rights in hospital. Seems like you got off pretty light.'
Vin saw Ezra was poised to speak but then changed his mind. Guessing that a bond had developed between captor and captive, Vin appreciated the sensitivity that prevented his lover from alluding to any such empathy. There was a recognized behavioral pattern arising from the power dynamics inherent in hostage situations, the Stockholm Syndrome, but Vin knew Ezra had not simply been captivated by a man wielding control over him.
In the weeks following the bust in which Brad Turner lost his life, Vin followed the investigation and saw what kind of man Graves was. Like Ezra, Graves was well-educated, urbane and sophisticated. He'd never been violent before the bust so its mishandling must surely take some of the blame for what he'd done since. There was no reason to lose control of the situation, no reason for Turner to die, and now six men had paid dearly.
Vin heaved a deep sigh. He believed a man was responsible for his actions, so he would never let Graves off the hook for what he'd done, but he would never shake off the suspicion that he could have done something differently himself either. Behind closed doors, he'd given probably the only honest version of events from the cops' side. It must have tallied with what the defense claimed because Graves only got eight years for killing a cop. He must have served less than six. So, Vin's actions had contributed to the original tragedy and then his honesty had released the man to kill again.
They waited in silence for the emergency vehicles.
After a while, Vin cleared his throat. 'What you gonna put in the report, Chris?'
All eyes turned on Chris. He looked first at Vin and then Ezra.
Vin pushed his point. 'This ain't gonna do no good to no one, least of all me and Ezra.'
'What about the investigations of the other deaths?' Chris spoke low, wanting to help, and willing to risk his job, but knowing what Vin asked was wrong. If the case involved Joe Public, they'd just tell him to live with it.
'Tell 'em it was some weirdo revenge thing but Ezra couldn't make no sense of it. He coulda been some wacko thinkin' he was an avengin' angel or somethin'.' Vin heard his own words coulda been some wacko. Did that mean he didn't think Graves was a wacko? He couldn't forgive but he couldn't condemn either. He pushed the doubts away. 'They got the clippin's to tie it all together. Y'don't need to give 'em no more'an that.'
Seven men stared at the scrapbook, lying on the table where Graves had left it.
'You sure you want that?'
'Couldn't look at it the same again anyhow.' Vin looked around his friends. 'After Mom died, I had what I guess they call bereavement counseling now. Real nice woman helped me through it, Mrs Clark. She gave me the book, said whenever things happened I'da wanted to tell Mom about t'put 'em in there. Got to be a habit an' I never stopped.' He groaned. 'I never thought it'd get six men killed.' After a long pause, he said, 'Burn it.'
Finally, Chris nodded.
Vin knew Chris would do as he asked, because he cared and because he agreed. How could it help Bud and Ray's partners to know the twisted reasoning behind their losses? How could it help families and friends, who might not even know about a loved one's sexuality and could only suffer from the revelations? It'd be different if Graves had escaped but he was dead and his warped scheme for vengeance might as well die with him.
Perhaps, just perhaps, if he'd gone after the officers on that bust - the men whose attitudes had cost Bradley Turner his life - it would be worth braving the publicity to show what institutional homophobia could do. As it was, media attention focused on Michael Graves' misdirected obsession and Vin Tanner's licentious love-life would do no good at all to the gay community.
The wail of sirens launched a frenetic couple of hours, which passed in a whirl of statements for the team and treatments for Ezra. Vin waited for him in a seemingly endless series of bleak corridors. He was dead on his feet by the time the patient was safely settled in a private room, in which Vin was eventually allowed to remain when the nurse realized that the only way she'd shift him was to call security.
Vin sat close to the bed, afraid to let the sleeping man out of his sight after all they'd been through. Still gripping Ezra's hand tightly, he was soon asleep himself. He didn't stir again until Ezra's movements woke him in the small hours of the morning. The anxiety that sleep had temporarily displaced flooded back into Vin.
'Okay? Need anything?'
Vin held Ezra's hand to his face, feeling undeserving of such love. 'You'da been better off without me. That fuckin' scrapbook. If I '
'I can't speak for the others,' Ezra said softly, 'But I wouldn't give up being in there for anything, not even if you'd been too late yesterday.'
'You gotta be kidding.'
'No. I had plenty of time to think about it. I never once wished I hadn't met you, hadn't been involved with you or meant less to you. All I kept thinking was that at least I'd mattered to you. He wouldn't have won. Even if I'd died, he still wouldn't have won.'
Vin kicked off his sneakers and lay down on top of the covers next to Ezra, careful not to jar his legs. Since they became lovers, he'd often envied Ezra's ability to express himself. He found it hard to translate his own feelings into words and, even when he did so, was loath to give voice to them. It wasn't a big deficit: one fact underlined by recent events was that he'd shared his life with some wonderful men, who'd left him richer in many ways. He knew the importance of valuing people and being valued by them. He just found it difficult to say so.
Of course, when they were together, he had no need to say anything. His touch was every bit as expressive as Ezra's words and he now set about proving that. He was always gentle because he knew that was how Ezra liked it but now his lips were even more delicate than usual. He kissed the throat, careful to avoid the nicks left by the knife with which Graves had threatened to cut it. He worked his way over Ezra's chin, now freshly shaved. He unbuttoned the silk pajama jacket and kissed the flat stomach, following the faint line of hair from navel to waistband. The suggestiveness of those few red-brown strands, the way they hinted at pleasures hidden beyond, stirred passions deep inside Vin, moving him on from giving loving reassurance to longing for full intimacy.
He returned to Ezra's face, kissing his lips lightly, enjoying their dry warmth before teasing them apart to encounter the wet heat within. Kissing was one of Ezra's greatest talents. His repertoire extended from chaste to scorching, refined to exploratory - in the medical sense. Vin had never had a tongue quite as far down his throat as Ezra managed to get his. He was reassured when Ezra started exploring. He'd wondered how things would be between them, still reeling from his own losses and having seen how close Ezra had come to death because of him. Part of him said he should be in mourning but another part felt a compelling need to affirm their own survival.
When Ezra pulled away, Vin was apprehensive about meeting his eyes but saw the usual mocking humor there, albeit shadowed by fatigue. 'I am a patient in this institution. I haven't yet been cleared for action.'
'Y'don't hardly have t'move,' Vin assured him.
'I wouldn't like to have to explain any residues.'
'Don't have to be none o' them.'
'And what if one of the pretty young things assigned to attend to my every need should interrupt us?'
'I c'n wedge the door,' Vin offered hopefully. 'Pull the drapes?'
When Ezra kissed him again, his tongue at least seemed to have been cleared for action. Vin got up as carefully as he'd laid down, then used a thick magazine to wedge the lock-free door in the closed position and pulled the drapes across the bottom of the bed for good measure. There was a viewing window in the door and he wasn't in the mood for giving a free show. He sauntered back, unfastening his jeans and dropping them casually to the floor. He sent his briefs tumbling after them and returned to Ezra's side.
A surge of well-being pulsed through Vin as Ezra's hand took the weight of his hard, eager length. It was wrong that he was alive when so many were dead but it would also be wrong not to be thankful for that. Now they would celebrate. Later he would grieve.
Vin climbed cautiously onto the bed, a knee on either side of Ezra's head, and settled on all fours so that his mouth was ready to service Ezra's sturdy shaft. Unbuttoning the pajama bottoms and slipping them down Ezra's legs, the sheer fabric sliding easily over the bandaged thighs, he took a moment to caress the rigid flesh he'd doubted to see again in life. He touched the tip of his tongue to the slit, dipping it inside for an instant and then running it around the edge of the head. The tiny stipples in the otherwise smooth skin there tickled his sensitive taste buds. Below him, Ezra mirrored every move.
When Vin's tongue traced the thick vein down Ezra's shaft and to his root, Ezra's tongue followed the same path. When Vin carried on towards Ezra's hole, he tucked his behind downwards so that Ezra could do the same for him without having to strain his tired body. He licked and probed the puckered flesh, gasping as each movement of his tongue sent a matching sensation rippling through his own ring. He felt his cock weeping onto Ezra and returned his mouth to Ezra's slit, harvesting the droplets forming there.
Vin's heart swelled with his relief that, in the midst of so much horror, Ezra at least had been spared. He slipped his mouth over the man's cock and cupped a hand around his firm balls. Ezra breathed in sharply.
Vin pulled away. 'What's up?'
'Some slight bruising. You'll have to be gentle with me.'
Ezra's tone made it clear he wanted to continue despite the pain. Vin caressed the testicles, feeling a swelling on the left and shifting his attentions to the right. He used the first two fingers of his other hand to penetrate Ezra's ass. Feeling the same all-embracing contact from his lover, he opened his throat and took Ezra's full length.
They moved rhythmically, long practice enabling them to function as a single organism. Suppressing the urge to thrust to completion, each let the tight sheath of the other's throat take them to the peak of pleasure. When they made love this way, they always came together, not through a conscious effort but through the seamless bond between their bodies. Vin felt the gentle flick of Ezra's cock as his own twitched its release. The cum trickled down his throat, way beyond his taste buds and detectable only by its warm viscosity.
They separated just long enough for Vin to retrieve his pants and restore the room to order. He returned to Ezra's side, pressing his body as close as he could. Ezra ran his fingers through Vin's hair in a comfortingly familiar gesture. Vin never tired of feeling those nimble fingers anywhere on his body but especially in his hair. Ezra's breath warmed the top of his head when he said, 'I fear I may never become accustomed to how brazen you can be when indulging your carnal urges.'
'You ain't seen nothin' yet. This whole thing's sure stirred up some memories.'
'I believe I got the general idea from the tales with which Graves insisted on regaling me. I regret to inform you that I have no intention of climbing any bridges in the near future.'
Vin sobered when he thought of Kieran but then quoted him. 'Been there, done it.' In truth, he now had no appetite for experimentation and wondered if he ever would again. He wanted Ezra to himself, safe and close. They faced hard times, trying to regain the confidence to risk their own or other people's lives for the job.
After a few minutes, he raised the one thing that was still worrying him. He and Ezra had sometimes spoken casually of the possibility of discovery but had not speculated on individual reactions. 'You reckon the others'll be okay now they know? I mean, Chris an' me already talked an' I guess I know JD and Josiah're '
Ezra's voice was drowsy. 'And Nathan will disapprove of your track record, just as he does Buck's. You mean will Mr Wilmington himself come round?' He didn't wait for a reply. 'His feelings are profound and genuine but I am confident he will find a way to curb them, as he always has before.'
Vin sighed. Maybe Chris was right that it shouldn't matter but the fact was that, all too often, it did. If Buck had been an ignorant bigot, Vin wouldn't give a shit what he thought but being a source of disgust to someone he liked and respected wasn't a good feeling.
Ezra's arm tightened round him. 'He'll handle it. We mean as much to him as he does to us, jams.'
The nickname brought a smile to Vin's lips, as he knew Ezra intended. Vin didn't go in for sweet-talk but Ezra rarely used his proper name when they were in loving mood. Most of the endearments were somewhat crude but 'jams' dated back to their first row. Exasperated by Ezra's indecision over the destination for a weekend away, Vin finally threw a stack of guidebooks at him and said he should have known better than to hook up with someone who couldn't even decide whether to fuck men or women. An irate Ezra discarded a cool retort in favor of calling him a narrow-minded jam fag. It failed as an insult because Vin had no idea what it meant, coming from another time and place as it did, but the sight of his normally articulate lover reduced to name-calling sent him into fits of laughter. Ezra's attempts to shut him up soon degenerated into a fuck on the floor, as their few arguments usually did, and 'jams' stuck. Vin didn't care: he was indeed a homosexual with no other sexual interests, although he drew the line at 'narrow-minded'.
He sighed again, hoping Ezra was right, as he usually was when it came to reading people. Remembering Buck's anguish and determination in their search, he felt more optimistic.
- 40 -
The next morning, Buck trailed behind the others as they walked along the corridor towards Ezra's hospital room. Committed to the search for their friend and the subsequent rescue, he'd wasted no time on agonizing over his future misery. Only when the crisis was over, did his doubts resurface. He coped the same way as always, by going out and getting laid. It was barely a distraction the previous evening and no help at all now. He wrestled with his dread, trying to rationalize it. He didn't seriously expect to find Vin in Ezra's hospital bed. Even if he was, why did it threaten him? Two women together made him horny but two men made him sick.
Wishing he hadn't come, he wondered why he hadn't made some excuse. Even as he thought that, some of the anxiety suddenly made sense. He was afraid that he couldn't deal with this. Teams like theirs had to work at every level. If he couldn't be depended on to work with two of the others, he'd have to move on. He felt a stab of resentment that their behavior might mean he had to leave but stamped on it immediately. If anyone left, it would be because he couldn't mind his own business, not because of someone else's choice of partner.
On top of it all, he felt alone. The others clearly intended to carry on as if nothing had changed, putting him on the outside. He'd been staring at the floor as he walked and almost passed Ezra's room without knowing he'd arrived. He looked through the viewing panel in the door, which had fallen shut behind his friends. They stood just inside. The thought of what might make even them stop in their tracks, and the symbolism of the closed door between them and himself, brought his feelings to the boil.
Leaning against the far wall of the corridor, he was about to surrender to the urge to walk out when the door opened and JD's head appeared. The kid studied him for a moment, eyes appealing to his friend to join them. Buck stood, motionless, balancing his need to stay in the team with his need to escape. Eventually, after a long hesitation, he went inside.
The others had stopped because they were disturbing the patient, not because they were interrupting anything. Ezra was sleeping soundly, Vin's face buried against his shoulder. The pose was intimate but innocent. Vin was fully dressed, his sneaker-clad feet firmly on the floor in the best Hollywood tradition.
Buck moved forward slowly, forcing himself to look at Vin's fingers interwoven with Ezra's, stubbled cheek pressed against close-shaven chin. He felt the familiar churning in his gut and gritted his teeth. The two men were his friends and, if they were more than that to each other, it was none of his business. How many times had he repeated that mantra to himself over the past twelve hours?
He saw Chris's smile, confirmation that he'd accepted the situation. Of course, as their team leader, he'd be a fool to disrupt the best team in the department if he could help it. The others were relaxed, as he expected them to be. Buck suspected Nathan balked at the numbers - there was no reason Vin should get off lighter than he did when it came to disapproval there - but that was all. He still doubted he could follow their lead.
Ezra stirred, opened his eyes and met Buck's gaze for a few seconds. The unspoken understanding between them was unchanged and Buck found no blame there for the emotions he fought. Ezra stroked Vin's cheek, making him sigh and then wake. When Vin reached for a kiss, Ezra glanced towards their friends.
Vin lazily sat up in his chair, not repeating his request but not hurrying to hide it either. He'd been through hell, and would surely revisit it regularly for a long time to come, but he still had Ezra and his joy at that state of affairs was written in every contour of his face.
Buck looked at the two of them, wondering why they couldn't screw women like any other man, wondering why it mattered to him who they screwed anyhow. He knew his tension was affecting the whole group, that his response was holding the others back from forcing an acceptance he couldn't give.
Then JD broke the stalemate. He wandered over and sat on the edge of the bed. 'Looking good, Ezra. Vin always said you could talk a man to death and I'd say you just about proved it yesterday.'
Ezra nodded but he looked surprisingly sad for a man who'd narrowly escaped death. 'I regret that past events should have driven a man to such desperate measures. Graves was misguided but I feel for his suffering.'
Vin looked across sharply. 'His suffering? What about ? Fuck, Ezra, those guys were ' He shied away from putting into words what the dead men had been, both to him and in their own right.
It was the raw emotion Buck glimpsed in Vin then that got him through the visit. While seeing the dead men as personal losses - as if someone had slaughtered the women who'd meant most to him over the years - didn't eradicate his physical revulsion, it gave him a new focus. He knew he had to concentrate on what Ezra and Vin meant to each other and not what they did to each other.
He cleared his throat, forced a smile and sat at the foot of the bed on the far side from JD. Not trusting himself to speak, he handed Ezra the newspaper he'd brought. The simple gesture sliced through the ice like an ax.
There were smiles all round when Ezra turned his attention to playing the host, ever debonair, graciously accepting the gifts piled onto them by Mary, Rain and Casey. He waved away their concern as if he was merely in the hospital for routine checks.
'I assure you I am quite well, gentlemen, thanks to your timely intervention. My injuries are negligible, particularly ' He glanced tenderly at Vin before continuing, 'Particularly in the light of other losses. I owe my life to being part of such a remarkable team.' He paused to study Chris. 'Are we still a part of that team?'
There was no hesitation from Chris. 'Only matters to me if it affects the work. So long as we all feel we can rely on each other.' If there was a trace of doubt in his voice, it was over the views of his men and not himself.
Buck looked around the team and saw that only his feelings were still in doubt. He knew Vin was as important to Chris as Ezra was to him. If Chris could live with this, somehow he would too. The fixed smile broadened into something closer to his usual grin. He sensed JD's relief first, then saw it reflected in the others' faces. They all knew how hard this was for him and they all needed him to deal with it.
There was no one on whom he'd rather stake his life than them.
In the end, nothing else counted.
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