~ Chapter One ~
Rick’s ex-wife had often told him that he had some sweet moves, and he used all of them now to impress his audience. With a swagger that said he owned every inch of ground under his boots, Rick strutted across the nighttime city street to the Diesel Den. His leather jeans fit without a wrinkle, hugging his every nook and cranny, displaying his well-packed crotch in a blatant invitation to sin. A leather vest bared his broad, golden-furred chest, sculpted abs, and flat belly. With one pierced ear and a carefully chosen bandanna hanging from his hip pocket, Rick was a walking mating call for a particular breed of male.
The exact species, in fact, that inhabited the Diesel Den. The bar near the Greyhound station was a notorious hangout for the leather crowd, men who liked their sex with a rougher edge, who spoke of their love lives in code: B/D, S&M, Dom/Sub, etc. Rick knew he would find what he sought here and, wielding attitude like a sword and shield, he sauntered through the door as if the bouncer didn’t exist. Only lost tourists stopped in foyers to gawk; Rick kept moving as if he walked in here every night at the same time. He took in the scene without being obvious about it: a long bar to his left, open space directly in front of him, and a smaller bar in the back right corner with a scattering of tables around a minuscule dance floor.
Rick glanced to his left as he headed for the front bar and spotted the short hallway that led to the restrooms. He saw a public phone and two doors marked Men and He-Men that preceded a larger door with an exit sign glowing red above it. Having memorized the topography and possible emergency exits, Rick signaled the bartender. The shaven-headed man brought Rick’s beer and accepted his money without any drama. Taking a long swallow from the bottle, Rick turned his back on the bar and leaned against it. Now he had a perfect view of the place, and it didn’t take long to spot his quarry. This was definitely the man Rick wanted, but the prey wasn’t alone.
Rick stole surreptitious looks at the two bruisers flanking his target. Heavy musculature embellished with tattoos strained the fabric of their plain white T-shirts and well-worn Levis. Their hair was cut close to the scalp and their piercings would have set off a metal detector even without the handguns carried openly in shoulder holsters. Deciding the pair was no more intimidating than your average brace of attack-trained Rottweilers, Rick pushed away from the bar and paraded across the floor. Stopping in front of the back booth, he finished his beer in one long swallow and set the bottle on the table. The two large men got to their feet and loomed over Rick.
In contrast to the bodyguards, the man that remained seated wore a charcoal suit over a crisp white shirt and striped tie that would have made him presentable in the House of Lords. Like royalty granting an audience, the sharp-dressed guy deigned to look at the intruder and the illusion of urbanity was shattered. He might be wearing Savile Row’s finest, but no trappings, no matter how elegant or well tailored could disguise the powerful frame of a street brawler. Rick gazed calmly back and let the man study him. He wasn’t vain, but he’d been told that he was handsome often enough that he finally believed it. The gel-spiked hair wasn’t his normal style and he rarely wore an earring these days, but he had dressed to attract the notice of a certain type of man. So far, it seemed to be working just fine.
Gareth Carey, known as “Hairy Carey” behind his back, stared at Rick in cold appraisal. At any moment, he could have the trespasser thrown out onto the street, but the brash golden stud intrigued him enough to stay his hand for now. His chilly eyes flicked toward his soldiers, Levere and Epiphano, in a subtle signal. Aside from sheer muscle mass and unchecked aggression, what set Gareth’s men apart was their sexual orientation. The self-styled crime lord preferred to hire only gay men. It wasn’t because he was gay; he still wasn’t quite sure which category he fit into, but he believed homosexuals were less easy to tempt into disloyalty. He was probably fooling himself, but it brought him some badly needed peace of mind.
“What are you looking for, mate?” Gareth’s British-accented voice was as smooth and rich as hot fudge. “Lost your top?”
Rick’s easy smile betrayed none of his nervousness. “You like to get right to the bottom of things, don’t you?”
“Cheeky,” Gareth said without a smile. “But you’re stalling, Blondie.”
It was at about this point that Rick had planned to piss Gareth off and make hamburger out of his bodyguards, thus proving Rick’s worthiness to replace one of them. He noted the relative positions of the thugs, his muscles tensing in preparation for a fight, but before he could crudely suggest that Levere and Epiphano’s duties included bending over for their boss, he was interrupted. The most beautiful man Rick had ever seen stormed up to the table and slid into the booth next to Gareth. Gareth pulled the pouting newcomer closer with an arm around his shoulders, but his gaze never left Rick.
“Maybe it’s not a good time to talk business,” Rick said, as Gareth’s big hand settled on the newcomer’s midsection.
A good two inches of fawn skin showed between the hem of the young man’s tight red T-shirt and slim-cut black pants. Gareth’s fingers spread across the dimpled belly button, the beginning of a dark treasure trail and a tribal style tattoo that led the eye downward. Rick quickly dragged his gaze back up to meet Gareth’s and the other man’s lips drew back in something that looked like a grin. Rick saw it for what it really was: an alpha male baring his fangs at a rival, establishing his territory. Rick smiled back in his best aw-shucks manner.
“Sorry if I was staring,” he said. “But, shit, that’s the prettiest guy I’ve ever seen.”
“Billy,” Gareth prompted. “That was a compliment.”
“I hate Eddie Vane,” Billy said loudly.
Gareth’s eyebrows rose at the non sequitur. “What has our bartender done to earn your wrath, my red angel?”
“He won’t serve me. He says I’ve had enough to drink for tonight.”
Rick agreed with the bartender. Billy had definitely had enough to drink. The kid’s big dark eyes were slow to focus and his posture had the boneless quality peculiar to career drunks and drowsing felines.
“I think Eddie Vane is right, tiger kitten,” Gareth said. “Why don’t you take a break?”
“Of course, Eddie Vane is right,” Billy said, sitting up straight. “Eddie Vane is never wrong. That’s not the point. Don’t you get it? He refused to serve me and I’m with you. Everyone knows I’m with you; you made such a point of it. Is a light coming on in your brain yet?”
Gareth’s gaze flicked up to his bodyguards again. “By refusing to serve you, Eddie Vane is disrespecting me. Is that your point, my damaged doll?”
“Well…duh,” the young man responded. “Are you going to kill him?”
“I’m not really sure Eddie deserves to die,” Gareth said. “Suppose I have him fired?”
“Fine,” Billy said. “Whatever. If that’s what your pride is worth, by all means have him fired.”
“Baby,” Gareth said reasonably. “You love Eddie Vane.”
Billy sighed dramatically. “Again, you’re missing the point.”
Gareth gestured to Levere. “Tell Eddie he’s fired. Give him the usual bonus and get Paul to come up front and tend bar. And for fuck’s sake, get Billy a drink.”
Levere moved off after shooting a final glare at Rick, and Billy appeared to notice the stranger for the first time.
“Who’s this guy?”
“Rick Miller,” Rick said. “I’m looking for work.”
“Is that so? What do you do?”
“I keep bad things from happening to naughty little boys.”
Billy turned to Gareth. “I like him. You should hire him.”
“So you’d say he’s got good qualifications, would you?” Gareth asked.
Billy gave Rick a hot-eyed look from under his unruly bangs. “He’s the shit,” the young man said.
“Well, Rick,” Gareth said. “If you’re willing to pass an audition and a background check, I would say your prospects are good. I like your references.”
“You shouldn’t try to be clever, Gareth,” Billy remarked. “It doesn’t suit you.”
“Lambie,” Gareth said, taking Billy’s chin in his hand. “Let’s not get personal.”
Billy sobered before Rick’s eyes, and fastened his earnest gaze on Gareth.
“Sorry, Gareth. That was thoughtless of me,” Billy said contritely.
“You’ve got fire, Billy,” Gareth said. “And I love it, but I don’t like getting my whiskers singed in public.”
“Public?” Billy laughed, pulling away. “Rick’s practically family.”
Gareth caught the young man’s wrist as Billy slid out of the booth. “Where are you going, my bar butterfly?”
Billy laughed again and shook a finger in Gareth’s face. “I promised this dance to someone else,” he said.
Gareth let Billy go and watched the lithe figure sway onto the dance floor. Rick was careful to be looking elsewhere when Gareth’s attention returned to him.
“Rick,” Gareth said. “Do you know where I live?”
“Of course I do. I’ve planned this meeting for weeks,” Rick said truthfully.
“I thought as much. You get points for balls. Be at my house tomorrow at eleven. We’ll have breakfast, and talk, and then you can show me what you’ve got.”
“Breakfast at eleven?”
“Call it brunch if you like, but Billy doesn’t like to wake up early, and I like to do the waking, if you know what I mean.”
“Can’t say as I do, Mr. Carey,” Rick answered. “Maybe someday I’ll have the pleasure.”
Gareth scowled. “Billy may like your cheek, but I don’t. And don’t call me Mr. Carey; call me Gareth.”
“Gareth,” Rick repeated. “Got it. I’ll see you tomorrow, Gareth.”
“Stay and enjoy yourself,” Gareth offered. “You’ll never pay for another drink in here.”
“Or you’ll fire the bartender,” Rick couldn’t help saying.
Gareth sat back, laying his arms along the top of the booth. “In a couple of days, Eddie Vane will be behind the bar again and Billy will pretend it never happened. Meanwhile, I’ve had to shell out a five-hundred-dollar bribe so my best bartender can enjoy some unexpected days off and my boyfriend will be sweet to me.”
“Is it worth it?” Rick asked curiously, as Levere returned.
Gareth considered for a moment. “Yeah. It is.”
Rick nodded. “Fair enough. I’ll say good night, then; I’ll need my rest for tomorrow.”
Rick walked out of the Den without looking back at the booth. He caught a glimpse of Billy dancing with another supple young thing almost as pretty as he was. Rick ignored the hot pulse of lust that turned his deprived loins to lava. Nothing could come of it, and anyway, it was just two young men dancing. Just two beautiful, graceful, obviously aroused young men sliding and bumping against each other to the driving beat. Rick resolutely pushed the enticing image from his head and stepped out the door. He’d reached the end of the block when he noticed the car following him. Turning down the next side street, he slowed his pace. The car that was tailing drew alongside and stopped and the passenger door swung open. Rick got in.
“Howdy, partner,” Officer Frederick “Rick” Miles said, as he buckled his seat belt. “Care to congratulate a man who’s about to be employed?”
Rick’s partner squealed and then turned it into an awkward cough. “That’s fantastic, hermano. I never doubted you, of course. In fact, I defended you to…”
“Save it, Gracie,” Rick said. “Once Marcial vouches for us, we’re in up to our knees.”
Sergeant Graciela Cruz grinned at her partner in unbridled glee. “I can’t believe you knew High-Tone Marcial when he was in juvie, but it sure comes in handy now. Tonio must owe you big to do you this kind of favor. If his fellow dealers found out, ay, eso chingado; he’d be pretty fucked, hombre.”
“Then we’ll make sure they don’t find out. Anyway, Tonio wouldn’t mind if Carey went away on a more or less permanent basis.”
“No es mierda! We’ll show that Limey cabron he can’t just set up shop on our side of the Atlantic. We’ll take him down proper. Then they’ll stop laughing at us.”
“They laugh at us?” Rick asked with exaggerated innocence. “Who?”
“Stop playin’ with me, Miles,” Graciela said. “The whole precinct laughs at us. A Latina and a homo? Are you kidding? They call us Beanie and Weenie.”
“I really don’t see how that could be construed as offensive, Officer Cruz,” Rick began, before she put a hand over his mouth.
“Just tell me how it went,” she said. “Man, I still can’t believe you waltzed in there without a wire and only me for backup.”
“We’ve discussed all that, Gracie. We need to keep this simple, and it’s over now anyway.”
“No way, hombre,” Graciela said. “It’s just starting. So is Hairy Carey as sexy close up as he is through a long lens?”
“He’s sexy as all hell,” Rick said. “And mean as a snake.”
“Yummy,” Graciela said. “My favorite flavor. But go on.”
“Everything went almost exactly the way you thought it would,” Rick said. “It was a good plan, Gracie.”
“Thank you,” she took an awkward bow from behind the steering wheel.
“There was just one thing we hadn’t counted on. Somehow we missed the fact that Mr. Gareth Carey already has a boyfriend.”
Rick shook his head. “I met him. He ruined my pitch, and then told Carey to hire me.”
“I’m crapping you negative, chica,” Rick said. “That’s how it went down. This is going to work; the angels are on our side this time. We’ll find out when the next shipment is due and we’ll catch Carey red-handed.”
“And then we call the DEA,” Graciela said.
“You got that right,” Rick said, high-fiving her. “Then and only then do we call the Feds. They had their chance at this asshole in New York; now it’s our turn.”
“The nerve of this tea-suckin’, left-side drivin’, metric-system usin’ Monty comin’ over here with his big stiff upper lip tryin’ to muscle in on our local purveyors of recreational pharmaceuticals. What’s the world comin’ to, esai?” Graciela said.
“You and me, Gracie,” Rick said. “We’ll make a better world, one scumbag at a time.”
“You got that right,” Graciela drawled in imitation of Rick’s laid back California accent. “Let’s go get a beer. Whatta ya say? Cervezas frio at your favorite cop bar?”
“Sure. Just let me change before we hit the Ten Forty-Two,” Rick said.
Graciela snorted. “You’re taking all the fun out of it, pendejo.”