One

KURO KNEW they weren’t going to make it.

He just couldn’t tell that to the kids he’d pulled out of a squalid shack not more than an hour before.

In his line of business, an hour was a lifetime. Stuck in a bullet-ridden van with eight screaming kids, an hour became being stuck on the edge of a black hole waiting an eternity to be sucked into nothingness.

Dawn was a ghost on the horizon when he’d started the van up. Now it was slipping over the edge, swirls of pink and gold light chasing away the night sky. Only a few hours ago he’d crawled on his belly under what felt like a mile of barbed wire, intent on reaching the ramshackle shed his handler was certain held the ambassador’s young daughter. Holly was wrong. It was a rare moment in life when Holly was wrong, but when she was, it was usually bad news for Kuro.

He’d been expecting to find a frightened ten-year-old girl and her kidnapper. Instead he’d punched through the front door to discover eight children shackled to cots and iron rings set into the floor, their dirty young faces streaked with tears and worn out from dehydration. It was clear they were all well-off. Their clothes were filthy but finely made, designer labels paired with expensive shoes. Or at least those who still had shoes. Some of the kids sported welts and dark mottles from being hit. The youngest of them was three or four—having little experience with kids, Kuro had to guess—but his round, pink-cheeked face was bruised, and one dark brown eye was nearly swollen shut.

It’d taken him nearly fifteen minutes to calm them down and another half an hour to free them all. Weak with hunger and frightened half to death, they followed him in a shambling mass of filthy flesh and mewling, unable to keep silent through their mad dash to the nearby barn where he’d stashed the van he’d stolen from a bakery down the road. A delivery transport wouldn’t have been out of place in either the bucolic countryside where the children had been stashed or the bustling streets of London where Kuro needed to drop off his original target. A bakery would have very early-morning deliveries, rambling through the motorways toward the shops it serviced. The van would have been the perfect cover if only one of the children hadn’t started screaming.

But then, Kuro supposed he would have started screaming his head off when he was six if he’d spotted the man who thrashed him within an inch of his life scrambling across the dew-wet fields and spraying the ground with machine-gun fire in an attempt to stop their escape.

That was over an hour ago, and since then, they’d rammed a jeep, had their windows shot out, nearly rolled over, and dislodged a man who’d jumped from a Rover to cling to the van’s driver-side door and put several bullets into Kuro’s right side.

He hit the city streets with a vengeance, hoping he could lose the remaining Rover, but his gamble on the early hour traffic being thickened by people commuting in hit a serious snag once Kuro found the roads mostly empty. It was too close to dawn, and London hadn’t quite shaken off its weekend.

A heavy lorry turned out to be his undoing. Well, that and the little boy screaming in his ear. The kid spoke Farsi, one of the languages Kuro was spotty in at best, and nothing he said or did seemed to calm the boy down. The other kids alternated, some yelling, then babbling for their parents or crying while the eldest girl sat stiffly behind him, holding the barely-not-toddler in her lap, her arms clenched tight enough around his tiny body to cause more bruises. The screaming boy didn’t seem to even take a breath, his wailing reverberating in the small, confined space of the van’s front compartment.

Either way, the kid couldn’t or wouldn’t listen to Kuro telling him to sit down, and the lorry punching out of a back alley nearly killed them all.

They were so close. Only a half a mile away from the embassy and the van went up on two wheels, its tires smoking when they hit the curb. They hit something sharp, maybe even bending the rim, because a tire blew, rocking the van askew and then drawing up sparks when it landed back onto the street. The jolt rattled Kuro’s teeth, and for one blessed instant, all the children were silent, either from shock or fear, but whatever the reason, Kuro relished the quiet. Spotting the truck in the van’s remaining sideview mirror, he braced himself for a long, drawn-out fight where he’d not only fail to deliver the young girl back to her parents but also get seven other children killed in the process.

And probably himself too.

His shoulder was soaked with blood, and a dizziness tugged at the back of his brain. The road wavered in front of him, and no matter how much he coaxed and cursed the van forward, it lagged, its chewed-up rim and shredded tire barely able to push the heavy vehicle forward. For all he knew, there was nothing left of the rim and he was dragging the van along on its rotor, digging grooves into one of London’s oldest streets.

Sirens were going off, the distinctive wah-wah of a British copper’s car, but Kuro knew he couldn’t stop. Not now. Not when the truck loomed up behind them and he could see the wild-eyed stare of its driver caught in the van’s side mirror. There wasn’t enough sun to glint poetically off of the mean-looking muzzle poking out of the truck’s passenger-side window, but Kuro recognized a promise of hot-leaded death when he saw it. They weren’t going to make it to the front entrance. Not at the speed they were limping along and certainly not if the men chasing them had anything to say about it.

A block away from the embassy, Kuro hit the emergency beacon on his watch. The speaker set into its band flared green, alerting him he had less than ten seconds to transmit before the line was locked down to prevent any security breach. The wailing had begun again, then a brief burst of gunfire broke through over that, the van’s windshield blowing out from a heavy blast coming from behind them. Something hot creased his left shoulder and he sucked in a breath, mentally steeling himself for even more pain.

“Coming in hot with the package,” he screamed into the band, hoping someone could hear him over the caterwauling and chaos surrounding him. “US embassy. London. Again, coming in hot. White van.”

He didn’t know if anyone heard him. There’d never been a time when he’d activated the channel in the past, and for all he knew, he was yelling at an unmanned station where some low-level clerk wandered off for a cup of tea not moments before. It didn’t matter. He was going to break through one of the gates and hope for the best. Either they’d all die on the road being shot to hell and gone by the men who’d kidnapped the kids or the embassy’s security would blow them out of the water for breaching its walls. Either way, it was his only chance of getting the kids someplace safe.

“Get down on the floor!” Kuro screamed over his shoulder. “Flat. Now!”

There wasn’t time to spare. And he sure as hell couldn’t look over his shoulder to see if anyone was listening to his orders. There was some rustling and more screaming, but this time it sounded like the older girl was pulling the others down, yelling at them to be quiet. The yelling boy was out of Kuro’s ear, but the high-pitched mewling hadn’t stopped. It was coming from the van’s floor this time, muffled by the bench seats, and Kuro sent a silent prayer to whichever god was listening that the van’s heavy floor and sides would protect the kids from the embassy’s massive firepower.

Another turn and Kuro could see the embassy’s gates. The van was barely lurching forward, but he gunned it, the engine giving everything it had. A big boom hit them from behind and the van rocked forward, nearly pushing them onto the curb. Fighting the wheel strained Kuro’s right shoulder and it began bleeding again, something he’d not thought possible. Blood dripped down his arm, running off his elbow and dribbling down the inside of the van’s door. A splatter of red painted the windshield, and his fingers shook despite his firm grip on the steering wheel. He was losing too much blood way too fast, but with the embassy in sight, there would be no giving in to the pain.

Especially since the gates were slowly opening and a pair of heavily armored men were stepping out onto the street.

“Hold on,” he yelled at the children behind him. “We’re going to go in.”

The gates weren’t fully open, but Kuro wasn’t willing to put on the brakes. The truck slammed into them again, fishtailing the van to the right, and it took everything he had left in him to straighten it back up. The men in front of him lowered their weapons and shouted at him, their faces going red in the sticky London morning heat. Cars were flying past them on the other side of the road, long sleek black sedans pouring out of some other driveway, but Kuro kept his focus on the partially open gates ahead of him.

A moment later, they were through the cramped opening, the reinforced gate ripped into the van’s bullet-weakened sides. The sound of metal tearing was nearly as torturous as the boy’s screaming, but it was a keening pitch Kuro welcomed. Someone close by was shooting, but he didn’t think the gunfire was aimed at them. Or at least he hoped not. The van lurched to a stop, caught on something, or perhaps someone closed the gate on it, but either way it wasn’t moving another inch.

Forcing the door open with his blown-through shoulder, Kuro shoved his way out of the van, then threw open the sliding door. Its hinges refused to cooperate, and he wrestled with it as bullets whizzed around in the air. One mighty heave and it finally cracked apart, leaving a space open for the children to escape.

This time, they didn’t need to be told what to do. Ducking down, they scrambled out, and Kuro grabbed the little boy in the ten-year-old’s arms, hefting the three-year-old up and cradling him against his chest. Turning, he followed his band of weary rescues, ducking his head down to protect the crying child in his arms as he ran straight into a herd of hungry photographers, their cameras flashing a barrage of blinding lights from the relative safety of a reinforced barricade.

Someone grabbed at his arm and Kuro elbowed them, savagely fighting whoever it was trying to tear the little boy from his grip. Then reason took over what was left of his mind. The weight of the boy left him, and Kuro stumbled one final time, going down on his left knee, unable to take another step. His right shoulder hit the ground, and he fought to free the Glock he’d tucked against his left hip, wondering if there was another bullet in it, laughing at the irony of making it through the gates only to kill himself with his own gun by falling on it.

The ground was cold, too cold for Kuro’s liking, but that no longer mattered either. It was warmer than his flesh, which seemed to be quaking and seizing up around his bones. A pair of alligator-skin red heels floated into his line of sight and Kuro blinked, a swirl of sidewalk grit peppering his face. A long shadow stretched over him, and the delicate flutter of fingers across his cheek made him flinch, but nothing was as cold and chilling as Holly’s familiar cut-glass accented words digging into his brain.

“Well then, Jenkins, it appears as if you’ve just burned your own identity. There won’t be a newspaper left in this world that won’t have your beautiful face plastered all over it. Quite a feat. Saving a van full of stolen children held hostage by a terrorist organization. Pity about the photogs covering the garden opening, but that’s how our lives go,” she murmured, stroking his temples while someone he couldn’t see shouted for help. “Welcome to civilian life, dear. Hope you have a backup plan ready for your retirement or else you’re going to be bored out of your mind.”

 

 

TWO IN the morning was a horrible time to be awake and on the streets in Los Angeles, especially when winter had a firm grip on the city’s balls, squeezing hard enough to make its jutting skyscrapers whimper from the cold. The damp in the air scraped any warmth from Trey’s face, arms, and legs, peeling away the layers of heat he’d worked up in his moving limbs, but he kept pushing on, losing himself in the shadows edging into the watery pools of light coming from the avenue’s gauntlet of streetlamps.

His lungs were screaming from the razor-bite chill filling them with each heaving breath. A tickle of pain was beginning to form in the center of his knees and a stabbing ache crept along his ribs, ratcheting spurts of agony across his right side. His feet hurt, and a twinge sparked up from his left ankle, coursing a bright sharp line of tingling nerves up his calf.

A sane man would have stopped running miles ago, succumbing to the fatigue in his bones, but Trey couldn’t. If he stopped running, his demons would catch up with him and he’d have to deal with all the poor choices and disastrous mistakes he’d made since he let loose his first scream after the doctor slapped the afterbirth off of his pallid, blood-caked body.

He was also a little more than a mile and a half away from home, and even if his sneakers were beginning to rub against the sides of his feet, Trey couldn’t stop. Not now while he was in the worst tangle of streets in Koreatown’s sometimes dark underbelly.

Most of the businesses along Sixth Street were closed, and MacArthur Park was empty of anyone with any good in their hearts. Trey could make out shadowy silhouettes moving about near a picnic bench, their bodies taut with tension as he jogged by. The slap of his sneakers on the sidewalk missed a beat when Trey took a long stride to avoid a crack in the cement, and the break in the snapping rhythm seemed to agitate the lurkers, and they moved together, closing in around one end of the table.

Trey left them behind in a rush of sprinting legs, thankful for the tall chain-link fence surrounding that end of the park.

It was probably nothing. A group of teenagers bored out of their minds and gathering in the park to catch a smoke. Perhaps even a bunch of kitchen workers from one of the nearby restaurants having a quick beer under the stars before heading home after a long shift. Just the ordinary gathering of some people hugging the shadows in the wee morning hours of a dimly lit park.

Trey ran faster.

Outrunning trouble was something he’d thought he was good at. It took a headlong crash into the darkest points of his life to realize no one could really outrun their own demons. Demons just piggybacked onto their victims, sucking out their dreams and hopes until they became bloated ticks made fat from a daily diet of ego and hubris. Their burgeoning weight slowed Trey down, making him stumble on the sharp remains of the shining yellow brick road he’d once laid down to follow. He’d taken a hammer to the glass house he’d constructed, scattering its corpse in his path. He’d bled out every last bit of his life on those sparkling, arrogant-whetted shards, wondering how he’d sliced up his feet and why he was hunched over, unable to take another step forward because of the pressing burden on his back.

The thirst at the back of his throat ached less. His knuckles hurt from clenching his hands into fists, but it was the only way Trey knew to keep them from shaking. As stupid as it was to be running through the rank, shadow-clotted sidewalks of Los Angeles’s tangled streets, it would have been nearly suicide if he hadn’t tugged on his sneakers and pounded his knees into throbbing knots.

So long as he didn’t put a whiskey bottle to his mouth, Trey was willing to put up with any kind of pain his body dished out.

Best thing about running before the sun was even a whisper on the horizon was that no one recognized him. Being honest with himself meant Trey admitting very few people connected him with the cherubic-faced, smart-mouthed little kid he’d been on Down the Tracks. No, it was the insane drug-fueled rages and widely photographed tantrums most remembered him for. There were too many to count. His downward spiral from prepubescent Emmy-award-winning actor to has-been took years, but Trey’d been too wasted to notice the time and his sanity slipping away. Until the morning he woke up strapped down to a hospital bed with his stomach feeling like it’d been turned inside out, Trey thought his life was going great. Everything was at his fingertips. Hot, willing men, any drug he could think of asking for, and a never-ending supply of parties to get drunk at.

The crash had been hard. He was still recovering from it. Probably always would be recovering from having to pick up the pieces of himself off the ground and put a new Trey Bishop back together.

Even if it meant running himself to death in the wee hours of a Los Angeles morning.

The end of his nighttime jog was near. Trey could taste it along the slimy stickiness on his gums. He was three blocks away from the 1920s house his father turned into vacation apartments, a rambling old place with a separate guest quarters Trey moved into after his collapse. He’d make it home in time to get a hot shower out of the water heater before the main house sucked it all down, and maybe even fall into bed for a few hours.

“Okay, ramen shop. Almost there,” Trey panted out through his teeth. “Still, what the fuck is a ramen shop doing in K-Town?”

His stomach growled, probably recalling his dinner consisted of a granola bar and a Diet Coke at five in the afternoon. The ramen place didn’t have a name, or at least not one Trey remembered. It sat twelve people, although there was a table at the back of the long, tight space for employees. More than a few times, he’d wandered in and the shop’s smoking-hot owner nodded his head to the back table, silently giving Trey permission to sit there and have lunch. He’d never spoken to the man, but his arresting Asian European features, silky black hair, and stormy blue eyes were the reason Trey stopped by in the first place. The food put in front of him was delicious enough to bring him back, but mostly it was the sight of the silent, trim-hipped, tall man behind the counter as he pulled together ramen bowls that had Trey eating there more than twice a week.

He ducked into the sliver of a break between the buildings, intending to cut across the small parking lot behind the alleyway beyond. It would shorten his run by ten minutes, ten long minutes of torture and darkness he wanted to leave behind him in a cloud of dust. Problem was, there weren’t many clouds of dust to be had in Koreatown at three-something in the morning.

Trey had to be satisfied with sprinting past a sour-smelling dumpster, startling something with scrabbling claws as it fed on the trash in the deep rectangular receptacle. Halfway across the parking lot, he plunged into a well of shadows, then headed to the street on the other side, cutting through a narrow pass between another set of buildings. Avoiding a pile of smelly cabbage leaves dumped on the walk, he sidestepped quickly, dodging a puddle before unceremoniously slamming into the open back door of an old van parked on the street.

And apparently startled a pair of scowling brawny men loading something heavy into the back of it. Trey couldn’t figure out what they were holding, but his eyes were watering, and somehow he’d smacked his nose hard enough to make it bleed. Too thick around the middle to be a carpet but long enough to need two men to carry it, whatever it was bundled up in the thick sheets of frosted white plastic curved down in the middle when the men stopped moving. The van’s door swung in, striking a thickly muscled giant across the side, and he turned, scowling at Trey from under an impressive pair of bristly black eyebrows. At first Trey thought both were bald, but the one at the other end shuffled his feet and the streetlights teased out the burr of his closely cropped crew cut, its short strands nearly translucent against his pale skin.

“Hey, watch where the fuck you’re going!” Black Eyebrows barked, his shoulders bulging around the thin straps of his grimy white tank top. He struggled to maintain his grip on what he was hefting, trying to push the van’s swinging door back with a nudge of his shoulder.

“You’re going to—” The blond wavered, unable to catch the slithering mass shifting between them. Unlike his partner, he wore a heavy windbreaker, and it flared open when he moved, giving Trey a very good look at the gun holster strapped under his arm. “Fuck.”

Everything happened too quickly for Trey to follow, or at least that’s what it seemed like. One moment he was backing away quickly from the van and its two menacing companions. Then in his next breath, the long package they were carrying dropped, the sheets unfurling as they grabbed at its ends, battling gravity and bad luck along the way.

The men lost, and they stood there, mouths gaped open and hands full of plastic sheet ends, while a paunchy gray-skinned man plopped out onto the street and rolled across the asphalt to rest against the curb at Trey’s feet.

It was amazing how much energy Trey found in his legs at that moment. Apparently, nothing motivated a man quite like having a corpse run over his toes, then discovering two guns being pulled on him by the two thugs trying to move said dead man’s body.

He knew the man was dead. No one could have survived a hole that big in the middle of his chest, and what was worse, Trey knew he’d seen that man before. Many times before. But none of that would matter if the two men trying to dispose of the body caught up with him. He’d be nothing more than another bundle wrapped up in plastic, yet another failed child star who’d gone missing in the middle of the night.

The alley behind him was his only avenue of escape, but it led to the small parking lot he’d crossed just minutes before. If he could make it across the lot and between the other buildings, he had a good chance of losing them along the main road. There were enough alcoves and oddly shaped buildings to hide a man, or push came to shove, he’d be hit by a passing bus and the driver would be forced to stop. Either way, he wouldn’t be dead of a gunshot wound to the back of his head.

Providing he could make it across the lot in time.

The first shot he heard nearly broke his stride. It was louder than he’d ever imagined a gun would sound. Even on the set of Down the Tracks, the sound effects were added in later, more to ensure no one on the set handled a weapon with anything loaded into it. Even blanks were dangerous, or so he’d been told. Either way, the boom caught him unawares and he stumbled, catching his balance before he tumbled onto the broken-apart asphalt.

The next shot was closer. Mind-numbingly closer. It hit the ground near his feet, kicking up sharp black nodules into his shin. Suddenly the shadows didn’t seem dark enough, cloudy enough to hide him, and Trey could have sworn he felt the heat of a gun being aimed at the spot between his shoulder blades.

He got into the alleyway just as a dark form emerged from one of the doors.

“Get down,” a deep, melodic voice ordered. “Behind the bin.”

The voice tickled at parts of Trey’s psyche, parts he’d long thought were dead. It tickled other parts too. It was wrong to drop to the stinking, filthy ground with a hard-on but not impossible. But then any arousal that sensual flow of voice invoked fled the scene as soon as Trey got a good look at the menacing piece of steel in the man’s hand. Long legs stepped over him, straddling Trey’s hips. The darkness in the tight alley grew, enveloping Trey, and he pressed his cheek to the ground, ignoring the rank stench of a puddle near his face and the stickiness of something under his chin.

There was a silence in the man’s stance Trey could feel down to his bones. Sneaking a glance upward didn’t do him any good. All he saw were a pair of powerful shins in blue jeans on either side of his body and long stretches of muscular arms lifting up to aim the small cannon the man held in his hands.

This time, the boom was massive, shattering any sense left in Trey’s mind. His ears were ringing when another blast went off and the smell of gunpowder filled his nostrils, the heat of the weapon’s fire smoking the air. Trey closed his eyes, flinching in the tinny quiet left behind after the man’s second shot. He hurt, more from flattening himself against the ground than anything else, but as he lay there, Trey took inventory of his body, noting the throbs and pains along his joints and exposed skin.

It seemed like forever before those long gorgeous legs stepped away and one sneakered foot nudged Trey’s shoulder.

“They’re gone.” The man purred when he spoke, a delightfully rolling undertone to his words. Trey couldn’t place it as an accent. He’d gone to more voice coaches than he could count when he was younger, anything to hone his craft, or so his mother said then. He’d known better. She’d slept with every coach and tutor he had, and none of them sounded like the man crouching down next to him. “You hurt?”

“No,” he admitted, slowly sitting up. “Just my pride.”

“They would have hurt much more than that if they’d gotten ahold of you.” The man’s voice was stronger, layered with a bemusement bordering on mocking. He tilted his head, and Trey got his first good look at the man who’d saved his life.

It wasn’t fair to be saved by the object of one’s wet dreams. It was even more unfair to be helped up off the ground while wearing a pair of shorts that had seen better days and a T-shirt torn in places from being snagged on uneven surfaces.

Up close the damned man was even sexier, more dangerous, but Trey imagined that the gun he easily held in his hand probably had something to do with that impression. He was beautiful, sleek and sinewy with long legs and a trim waist, jeans slung low across his hips, his shirt riding up a bit, showing Trey a peek of his golden-brown skin. His lashes were long enough to throw shadows across his face, even in the sparse light, but there was enough of a glow from the street to flicker across the amber speckles in the man’s tilted-up green eyes.

Still, the gun made Trey pause, and he sat up, more confused than ever.

“You’re the ramen shop guy,” he gulped out, swallowing hard when the man’s sexy mouth curved into a sardonic smile. “What the hell are you doing with a gun? At three in the morning?”

 

“Really?” He gestured toward the parking lot Trey sprinted across, chased by a hail of bullets and deadly thugs. “I think the question you should be asking right now is why the hell don’t you have one? Get up off the ground. I’m going to go inside and call the cops.”