You Got the Wrong Guy

 

BURTON DIDN’T like the meet.

He didn’t like the timing, he didn’t like the place, and he didn’t like the way Jason Constance, his handler, was fidgeting with the manila envelope in his hands.

None of it spoke of good things to come.

“I hate fuckin’ Denny’s,” Burton snapped, scowling. He had a degree in computer science and had graduated from Officer Candidate School fifth in a class of two hundred. But the only person he talked to that he liked and knew as a friend had been fighting in alleyways when he should have been taking his SATs, and Burton sounded more like Ace Atchison and his boyfriend, Sonny, every goddamned day.

“Well, they’re disappearing for a reason,” Constance muttered, toying with the envelope again. “Look—”

“What in the hell is wrong?” Burton didn’t believe in fiddlefucking around.

Constance sighed and ran his hand through tightly curled hair that pulled back from a widow’s peak. “I don’t like this,” he said. “I don’t like this assignment. I don’t like that they specifically asked for my division. I don’t like the asshole this request came from. I’m putting it out there. I don’t fucking like this. You have the right to say no here. And if you say yes, and this doesn’t look kosher in any fucking way, you have the right to bug out and leave the target pristine, you understand?”

Burton blinked.

He was a military assassin.

He worked primarily on American soil, although he’d been overseas enough to get pulled for some gigs in the Middle East. Mostly he took care of people who couldn’t be legally identified as terrorists—but who had the stacks of guns and the agenda and the covert acts of violence that actually made them terrorists.

A surprising number of his targets had blond hair and blue eyes and had done some heinous fucking shit.

Burton didn’t see innocent a lot. And he certainly hadn’t seen a target that had tempted him to neglect his duty.

Burton palmed the back of his shaved head with a hand the color of burnished dark oak and reached out for the folder.

“At least let me see the op,” he muttered.

Constance handed him the envelope and darted his eyes back and forth like a fucking spy, when the first thing you learned in black ops training was how not to act like a fucking spy. Burton’s curiosity—a thing he thought had been yanked out of his chest along with his conscience—surfaced unexpectedly.

What had Constance spooked?

He opened the folder and blinked.

“This kid?” he asked, staring at the photos.

The kid had an unshorn abundance of curly black hair. It hung around his ears, was being constantly pushed out of his eyes—a full three-quarters of the pictures showed the kid fucking with his hair. It didn’t look like a fashion statement; it just looked like the kid forgot it was there.

The rest of his face was sort of pretty—narrow chin, narrow cheekbones, tiny blade of a nose. He had eyes a man could drown in.

Burton blinked and tried to slow-breathe that thought away. He hadn’t had a feeling like that since he told his girlfriend back home he was breaking up with her.

The breakup had hurt—they’d been friends since grade school—but not as much as becoming the man he knew he’d become while he was bedding his pretty high school sweetheart and lying his ass off.

But this kid’s eyes—big, brown, luminous in a pale face…. Burton had to swallow. He usually took care of those urges with a girl for a night, but he’d known they were in there for men as well.

He just kept those to himself.

“There is….” Constance made a frustrated sound and took a long swig of his dank coffee. “There is nothing in that kid’s jacket that looks like he should be in that fucking jacket.”

Burton scanned the details and had to agree.

He saw a lot of half-finished classes and trips to the dance floors. A lot of pretty bedmates, but no man in particular. And a lot of jobs he’d lost for being late or for forgetting something important or for general flakiness. He’s a nice kid, one employer had stated, but he’s as reliable as a rabbit.

Criminals who ended up on the wrong end of Burton’s scope were often very reliable. “Oh, he killed people on a regular basis? But he punched the clock every day and ate lunch with my wife!” That was who Burton was assigned to.

X-blowing disco bunnies?

Not so much.

“Hinky,” Burton muttered, looking Constance in the eyes.

“I’ll say this one more time,” Jason Constance told him, the lines around his mouth seeming particularly deep and bitter today. “If this kid doesn’t smell right, walk away.”

“Who asked you to off this kid?” Burton asked.

“Some fucking commander from a naval base in Las Vegas—”

“Las Vegas?”

“Man, that place is so far off the grid it makes us look like a billboard in Burbank. I’m not sure which favor he pulled to get access to our division, but—”

“This was the kid he pulled the favor for.” Burton’s chest turned icy.

“Yeah.”

“I hate being used as a tool.”

“So do I.”

“I’ll scope out the sitch. If this kid’s bad—”

“Do what you have to.”

“If not—” Burton didn’t sign on to shoot the innocent.

“Walk away.”

Burton studied the pictures again—this one a long-distance shot of the kid waking up in a pile of happy naked limbs, looking around him like he was surprised to be there.

“Ernie James Caulfield,” Burton murmured, reading from the jacket. “Boy, who did you screw?”

 

 

One Month Later

 

GAH! ALBUQUERQUE sucked in July! The day’s temperature had been 113 fucking degrees, and in the city all that heat just sat and baked into the juicy asphalt and the stoic brick and adobe. Yeah, sure, most places had air-conditioning on the inside, but Burton was on a rooftop, covered with a tarp and trying not to hallucinate about Fallujah.

Fallujah had been bad. He’d been with his first Marine unit then, and the guys were the best. Well trained, smart as hell, they goddamned had your back if they had their next breath. But bad intel was bad intel, and when you found yourself facing a preschool through the scope of your gun, that intel was as bad as it got.

One spooked kid, a new recruit, hadn’t held his wad. They’d been told the place was full of chemical weapons, and everybody had their fucking phobias.

Burton would have taken any assignment after that—any goddamned one—to not have to look at another dead four-year-old and know he’d been part of the team responsible.

His CO knew that. So his next assignment had been the guy leaking them the bad intel.

It had been a shot much like this one—covert, from a building rooftop, down into a crowd. Burton hadn’t hesitated. One kill shot, no collateral damage.

It had all felt so neat and simple then.

This was not neat and simple.

Tracking Ernie Caulfield hadn’t been a cakewalk so much as it had been a walk through cake. The kid was working at a bakery at the moment, and he’d get home at ten in the morning, sleep through the hottest part of the day, get up at eight, eat sunbeams and rainbows for all Burton could see, and go dance at his favorite club—appropriately called the Flower Child.

He’d dance his heart out for hours. Fucking hours. Yeah, he’d take a tab of X—Burton could see that—but he wasn’t an addict. Burton had camped out in opium dens. He knew what addicts looked like getting their fixes.

That was not the look on his face by a long shot.

Ernie took that tab—always handed to him by a sweet little girl who worked at the Flower Child wearing a tie-dyed dress—with the expression of someone who suffered from chronic headaches downing their first Motrin of the day. Like the X was soothing him, keeping the pain from making him crazy.

So Burton had sat watch from the building top for three days, sighting Ernie through a sniper’s scope, trying to figure out what this kid’s deal was.

He seemed to do okay at the baker’s. Burton had gone in for a donut on the first day, and Ernie had been happily involved in the back, probably mixing up dough for all Burton could tell.

The bell had tinkled, and he’d called up, “Don’t worry, Max—he’s good.”

“Thanks, Ernie. Gets tetchy at 4:00 a.m.…”

“Yeah—don’t worry about this one. And tell him the crullers are about ten minutes from done, so if he can have a cup of coffee, it’ll be fine.”

Burton had blinked, but Max—paunchy, grizzled, fiftyish—didn’t even look up. “How many crullers would you like, sir?”

“Are they good?” he asked, because that had been a really specific guess and he was a little bit unnerved.

“Donuts fresh out of the fryer. How bad could they be?”

Well, yeah. “Three,” he answered promptly. Sugar and water—it was all a growing boy needed in this temperature. “And cream for the coffee.”

He hadn’t seen Ernie that morning—the kid had stayed back and baked or whatever. But the crullers had been delicious, and the coffee beat Starbucks by a mile.

But Burton had scoped him out that night across from his apartment, when he’d gotten up, opened the window, and let in stray cats from all over the neighborhood and fed them. He’d shooed them out on his way out the front door as he headed for the club, and Burton had trailed him in the shadows. The kid didn’t… move like other people moved.

He swayed; he wandered.

Burton had watched him disappear into alleyways and then pull himself back, looking surprised to find himself in that part of town. The walk was four blocks, and it took him half an hour. Burton was a breath away from grabbing the kid by the back of the neck and steering him toward the club.

And now Burton was up on the roof across from the club, watching as Ernie windmilled his arms harmlessly in a mash of bodies bopping to a song Burton had never heard before.

Just watching them made him feel old, but watching Ernie—that made Burton feel whole other things as well.

“Okay, little hamster boy,” Burton murmured, watching the boy’s gyrations. “Why do you do this every night? I am highly curious.”

But Burton wasn’t the only one.

From his vantage point, Burton saw two distinctly disturbing things.

One was God’s gift to all gay and bi boys, who had latched on to Ernie’s back and was dancing with him with way too much familiarity. Burton couldn’t look at the guy without growling, because even if Ernie returned his interest, it was damned hard to tell when the boy was as wasted as he appeared to be.

No, Smarmy Dance Kid shoving his hand down the front of Ernie’s pants was not even acknowledged, and Burton was a heartbeat away from going down there, grabbing the kid by the ear, and hauling him away from the fucking club, just because somebody should, dammit!

The other thing was potentially much more dangerous than Smarmy Dance Kid.

“Who are those guys?” he asked himself. They were trained. That was the first thing he could tell. One had point, the other had follow-up, and the one in the middle was scoping out all the angles. They also moved their lips, indicating earpieces and military-esque technology. Burton could spot their weapons—the obvious ones—tucked into shoulder holsters and hidden by sport coats, and he got a lot of bitter satisfaction out of how easy they were to make and how much they must have been suffering in all that gear.

They ranged themselves throughout the club, moving from the bar to the corners and back again but generally forming a net around Burton’s very own sweet-eyed stoner boy.

It made Burton twitchy.

A part of him very dryly noted that how dare they stalk the guy he was supposed to kill—but most of him had given it up from the moment he’d scoped out Max’s Pastries and Coffee.

If this kid was a threat to national security, Lee Burton was President of the United States and a Russian traitor to boot.

“Seriously,” he mumbled. “Who are those fuckin’ guys?”

He studied them again, but when he went to check on their position relative to Ernie, he’d disappeared.

“Fuck!”

The logical thing to do was to remain up top. The club didn’t have a back entrance, but it did have a side entrance that led to an alleyway and the outdoor-access restrooms. Logic—Burton’s friend since his first A in math—dictated that he stay up top on that building and scope out the goings-on with the full weight of his very expensive government-issue personally modified sniper’s rifle at his beck and call.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, Burton relied on that part of his brain. It functioned very well, thank you, and he credited it for keeping him alive in some very hairy shit.

But the one percent of his brain that stayed friends with guys who knew him in the military that nobody knew he knew—that part of his brain was the one running the show.

Burton charged down the fire escape of the old brick warehouse at full speed, the heat forgotten in his need to be on the ground, in that alleyway before Smarmy Dance Guy got Ernie into the dark and shadows where military ops guys could do worse things.

By the time Burton got down the stairs, the sounds coming from the shadows were both intimate and nonconsensual—and the three gorillas with guns were nowhere to be seen.

“Mm… no. No. Not you. You’re not good—”

“C’mon, club boy—you put out for everybody. You’re legendary—”

“Who’re you? You’re not good. Don’t touch me. It feels like bugs when you touch me!”

The scream came from the pit of the boy’s stomach, but the next sound made Burton sick to his.

A crunch, a scuffle, and a low moan of mortal pain, and Burton could not run fast enough. His heart started beating in two more breaths when Ernie’s voice—a low, dreamy tenor—echoed out of the alleyway.

“Stop touching me with bugs!”

Jesus, kid, what did you take?

Burton crashed into the alleyway, pistol drawn and laser sight active, while his eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness.

Club Kid was down in a crumpled pile in the corner of the alley. His body was twitching, but Burton thought maybe that wouldn’t last long. Ernie stood panting in the center of the three operatives, crouched, jeans sliding down his hips and his hands out in front of him in a classic martial arts pose. Burton would have found it laughable, like a little kid faking karate, but two of the assailants were bleeding and one was cradling his arm.

The kid had bought himself some time with the element of surprise, but there were two laser lights dotting him, one in center mass and one on his head.

Burton took out the headshot shooter first and the center-mass guy next, through the head, both of them, and had the gun aimed at the guy who couldn’t draw before the bodies hit the floor.

“Corduroy Company,” the man barked. “I’m going for my ID.”

“So I’m not supposed to shoot you because you’re a merc?” Burton asked, undeterred. “That club bunny with the mushed brain didn’t get to pull his stupidity card. What are you doing here?”

“Man, you should know! We got hired by the US military—this here’s a high-priority target!”

“When’d the contract come through?” Burton asked.

“Two days ago—apparently the guy assigned to the kid didn’t follow through.”

“The guy assigned to the target thought the job was hinky and wasn’t taking a life without asking any goddamned questions,” Burton snapped, feeling grumpy. Two kills defending this kid? Three if you counted the club bunny with his nose through his brain, but Burton had no way of knowing if that had been the Corduroy mercenaries or the kid himself. “And look what you made me do.”

Mr. Corduroy Company rolled his eyes. “We take orders, soldier—I don’t know how you get to have a conscience.”

Burton felt his brain and his chest go cold. He was going to have to kill this guy method-like, without any more talk, because there was no reasoning with him.

“Wait,” Ernie said, holding up his hand. He practically wafted to where the mercenary stood.

“You broke my fucking wrist,” Merc snarled.

“You’re a bad man,” the boy told him, eyes wide. Gently he laid his hand on the merc’s wrist through his jacket, then shuddered and dropped his hand. “Bad through and through,” he told Burton with a shrug. His shoulders drooped dejectedly, and he moved to Burton’s other side.

He was well out of the line of fire when Burton dropped the final Corduroy mercenary, his silencer loud in the late-night air.

 

 

“WHERE ARE we going, Cruller?” the boy asked five minutes later.

Burton wasn’t taking the easy route—he’d left his sniper rifle bolted to the top of the building, prints and all. First things first, and the first thing was to force the kid up the fire escape in front of him in a minute and a half so Burton could disassemble the rifle and they could beat a hasty retreat through the inside of the building.

“What’d you call me? And move your ass before I kick you up there myself!”

“It’s five stories,” the kid said mildly. “Nobody heard. That’s why the dance club is out here in the warehouse district.”

Burton growled and glared balefully at the kid’s back, wondering if sheer irritation would make him move any faster. “So noted. Now what did you call me?”

“Cruller. It’s your donut. The kind with the glaze but not the flavor,” he recited dutifully.

“You didn’t even see me that day,” Burton muttered, breathing a sigh of relief when they finally broke through to the roof.

“Yes, but you’re very definitely good. It radiates. That is a big gun. What are you going to do with that big gun? Why didn’t you just pick off the bug-touching guys with that? I was scared, you know. They were going to kill me.”

“They disappeared,” Burton muttered, getting on his knees and using the air drill to unbolt the base of the gun. “I couldn’t see them to shoot. And they were going to kill you—you’re lucky to still be alive.”

“Mm.” The kid nodded and then sat down bonelessly, like a cat flopping on a carpet, and closed his eyes while Burton worked.

“Did you take out Mr. Date-Raping Octopus Hands?” Burton asked into the silence, because the question was making him crazy.

“No,” Ernie said sadly. “He would have left after I yelled. He was bad, but… there’s bad that can be fixed and there’s those guys you killed. He could have been fixed. Those other guys are just bugs.”

Burton shuddered and clamped the case shut. “Fair enough. C’mon, Ernie, you and me need to get out of this bug-ridden town before those fuckers get you.”

“Who’s going to feed my cats?” Ernie asked—but he was following Burton without question, which was nice.

“How about half of Albuquerque?” Burton was taking the steps two at a time, and he wished fervently that Ernie could keep up with him. “That was every stray cat in the residential district!”

Ernie let out a laugh that should have been on a playground. “But I know all their names!” he said plaintively.

“I’ll make arrangements,” Burton told him, mind already going to the phone calls he’d have to make to take care of the matter.

“Really? Okay, Cruller—you are a good guy!”

“Burton.” Cruller could haunt a guy through four branches of the military. Burton had seen it happen.

“Cruller,” the boy said, the stubbornness a surprise when the tone was so amiable.

“Get a move on,” Burton snapped. “I got transport three blocks down, but we don’t know how many more Corduroys we’ve got on our tail.”

“Mm….” Ernie seemed to shut down then, his eyes going to half-mast, his body doing what Burton asked, but not at triple time. Finally they were in Burton’s white Tahoe, heading west.

“Ernie!” Burton snapped, and Ernie’s eyes popped open.

“Yessir.”

“Keep awake!”

“I was. You said you didn’t know how many Corduroys were there. Two. There were two more in one of the apartments we passed. They were getting upset.” He sighed sadly. “Do you think they’ll miss their friends?”

“Yes,” Burton said, thinking about the four bodies in the alleyway. “I think all of them are going to be missed, which is why we need to be in California in less than six hours.”

“What’s in California?” Ernie asked.

“Haven, I hope.”

“Mm… that’s nice. We need to stay in a hotel first, though.”

Burton did a double take before gluing his eyes back on the road.

“I’m sorry?”

“You need to call your boss, and then you need to call your friends, and you need to get to know me.”

“Why in the world would I want to do that?” Burton snarled.

“I don’t know—you’re the one who’s screaming with need.”

“I’m screaming with frustration is what I’m doing—”

“Well, that too. It’s okay, Cruller. A crappy hotel will be fine. But at ten o’clock I need to sleep, so maybe find something soon.”

Burton could see the sun flirting with the horizon in his rearview mirror. “Damn—where did that time go? It’s almost six in the morning!”

“It was five when the killing started,” Ernie said sadly. “I don’t want to think about it. Tell me when you find the hotel.”

And then he closed his eyes and checked out. Just… checked out. No amount of calling his name made him open his eyes, and no attempts at conversation stirred him.

Burton screamed, long and satisfyingly, after five minutes of trying to get his attention, and still the kid didn’t even interrupt his breathing.

“God,” Burton muttered to himself. “My God. What am I going to tell my boss?”

And that got the kid’s attention. “You’re going to tell him you walked away, Cruller. Because if you didn’t, the Corduroy people will be after you too.”

Burton blinked and checked on him again.

He hadn’t even opened his eyes.

Jesus.

Fucking Jesus.

Who was this kid?