Chapter One



“HOW LONG are we going to sit here? Exactly?”

We were only half an hour into the stakeout, and Bobby was already shifting in the passenger seat of my Range Rover. I don’t know how the hell he’d been a patrol cop before he made detective. Sharing a car with him was a pain in the ass, especially since he kept fucking with the CD changer.

“I’m going to break your fingers if you touch that again.” It was a casual threat. Certainly one I couldn’t follow through on, because really, Bobby could crush my skull with one hand, but it sounded good. He gave me a sidelong glance, ripened with a healthy shot of skepticism, but he stopped fucking with the CD.

“How the hell do you listen to something you can’t even understand? It’s all in Korean. You don’t even speak Korean, and I don’t think you can say swallowing Jae’s cock makes you fluent. If that were the case, I’d speak all kinds of shit.”

“It’s music. And I can pick stuff up out of it. Now shut up. Here comes the guy.” I nodded to the man toddling out of a nearby apartment building. “Let’s see if he takes the bait.”

My latest case was an insurance fraud. They came over my desk every once in a while and made for a nice change of pace from hunting down mistresses and cheating wives. Most of the time, if an insurance company suspects someone of defrauding them for untold millions, they usually were right. Something had to be hinky for an investigation, since most people had countless doctors backing up their claims with some hard evidence, but every once in a while, someone in the company has a feeling someone somewhere was lying.

And sometimes that led to me sitting in a car while my office manager, Claudia, stood at the back end of a rented SUV waiting for a particular someone to help her unload a flat-screen television.

“Betcha fifty he isn’t going to do it.” Bobby slurped at his wheatgrass-banana smoothie. I’d kept to coffee. The idea of drinking a piece of lawn at ten in the morning turned my stomach.

“We’re only offering him fifty to move the television,” I replied back.

“So you really won’t be out anything, then.”

“The fifty to him would be covered by the insurance company. Losing a bet to you won’t be. And trust me, if anyone’s going to convince a guy to move a television set, it’ll be Claudia.”

It really was the perfect setup. The guy in question was a fifty-year-old man living off of Vermont in one of the many older brick apartment buildings riddling the area. Luckily for me, next door to his place was a thrift store. After a bit of sniffing around, I’d found the store did a brisk business in electronics and other sketchily acquired items. A large black woman driving up in a new SUV to unload a flat screen wouldn’t really cause a lot of eyebrow lifting, even if the neighborhood ran to second-hand stores, rent-to-own furniture shops, and check-cashing places.

The area we were in sat up against Koreatown and the 101, a hodgepodge of ghetto and leech-centric businesses. Wealth here was displayed in possessions, and the streets were clogged with people, an odd thing in Los Angeles, where most rode in cars. Here, public transportation depots were packed, and the sidewalks were dotted with fresh fruit carts, where a couple of bucks would get you a juicy sweet treat loaded with chili mix for spice. Every few hundred feet, a makeshift clothing sale happened on a wall or chain-link fence, prices scribbled out on pieces of paper or cardboard taped across the front, and faded stuffed animals in plastic bags were clipped to strings by wooden clothespins while someone in a Mercedes parked in a nearby driveway, the gleaming machine at total odds with the run-down, cracked paint of the 1950s apartment buildings with drooping old palm trees, their trunks heavy with untrimmed dead fronds.

In a few hours, the sun would start eating away at the cool left over from the night, and an unbearable heat would eat its way across the nearly solid concrete and asphalt mass we were surrounded by. Claudia, on the other hand, was still as cool as a cucumber as she looked dramatically around, as if disturbed she didn’t have someone to do her bidding.

Since she was a matriarch of eight sons and God knew how many grandchildren, I didn’t imagine she had to wear that look very often.

“There we go. There’s our guy.” I nodded to the man we’d been hired to tail. He’d grown curious about the goings-on of the SUV and our finely dressed Claudia.

“She looks like she’s ready for church or something,” Bobby commented under his breath. “What’s with the hat?”

“It’s a nice hat.” I rather liked it. Pillbox, I think it was called, and it was perched jauntily over her newly cut bob. After coming back to work, Claudia was determined to push herself into different situations, declaring it was past time for her to start taking chances. The new haircut flattered her round face, and she sometimes shoved hair extensions through it so it turned into Shirley Temple ringlets. I still wasn’t as sure about the long, oddly painted nails she’d been experimenting with, but one never argued with a woman with talons on her fingers.

“Who the hell wears a hat?” Bobby snorted.

That was ironic, considering he currently had a baseball cap turned about on his own head. I didn’t point out said irony.

“Come on, just take the money and help the nice lady out.” I had my camera ready. It was something Jae insisted I use. An older model he’d passed on to me after an upgrade of his equipment—the third upgrade in the six months since he’d been shot. I didn’t care. I’d pay for any fucking thing he wanted to make him happy. And he’d bloomed, healing through his art while I forced myself to let him take those steps without me coddling him.

Hardest fucking thing I’d ever done in my life, but I knew he needed love, not cotton batting.

And every smile he’d given me since he’d opened his eyes following the shooting told me I’d done the right thing.

Jae’s old camera did everything for me, sometimes scarily so. I swore the autofocus read my brain through my eyeball and pinpointed exactly what I wanted to take a picture of. In this case, the rather beefy older man gone to seed and wearing what looked like green velour pajamas.

We couldn’t hear what was being said. There’d been some discussion about an earpiece being used, but there was really no way to hide it, and Claudia flat out refused being wired. I actually was relieved about that since the thought of her stripping down to her bra and me wrestling a piece of threaded audio equipment through places I didn’t even want to see, much less touch, was a nightmare I didn’t want haunting me after a night of pepperoni pizza.

“And there he goes, sniffing around.” Bobby grinned.

The man smoothed down his grizzly hair. He looked worse now than he did in his employee picture. Apparently not having to work anymore meant he ate and slept in his clothes and didn’t bother changing in between burrito spills. Even from across the street, his nose glowed red from too much booze, and his indoor-pale skin was sallow and yellowed in spots. Jaundice of some sort looked to be setting in, and I was less worried about him taking the money than I was about him keeling over from hefting up the twenty-pound television.

Shuffling faster and leering at my office manager, he not only was taking the bait thrown out to him, he was interested in the caster too. I couldn’t see Claudia’s reaction, not with her back to us, but I’d gathered she wasn’t particularly enthralled by his smirk. I recognized the squaring of her shoulders and the telltale head tilt of a woman about to unleash her fury and might at her intended victim.

But it never came. Instead, she placed a hand on his shoulder and gestured toward the open SUV. Since we were parked behind it, I had a clear shot of the television and the trunk. I’d need proof of Mr. Velour Pajamas’s ability to lift the electronics out of the car and across the sidewalk to the thrift store’s door. His doctor claimed our mark couldn’t stretch his arms above his head, much less shuffle across a warehouse floor to put a package on a conveyor belt. Falling off of a dangerous two-step ladder had done him in, and there was no way he’d be able to contribute to society in the way he’d done before.

Which appeared to be a piece-of-shit opinion, because the man practically did jumping jacks when Claudia held up the fifty dollars for him to see and motioned to the television, obviously pleading for help.

I was counting on a man’s total inability to see women for what they really were. In Claudia’s case, there was no way in hell she’d ask anyone for help. If anything, I’d have had to call out for shock troops to hold her down while I pried the television out of her clenched hands, if she really wanted it moved. Despite taking a gunshot in the line of duty, she carried on as she’d done before, full speed ahead and taking no prisoners.

But most men didn’t see the strength in a woman. Instead, they looked for the frailties, hoping to exploit those weaknesses to get in their good graces. It was a physical and psychological thing, I’d surmised. An instinct developed after eons of trying to ingratiate themselves as excellent breeding potential. Luckily, in my case, being gay tended to sublimate that instinct, but still, it was there, and I found myself almost opening the door to go help Claudia with the damned television.

“Don’t do it,” Bobby warned me off. “I know you. Get off your damned white horse and let her do it. She wants to do this. We needed someone who looked like they might need help. He wouldn’t buy it if it were me or you. Claudia’s fine.”

“He’s right up in her face.” Pointing it out seemed stupid, but I didn’t like how Mr. Velour was sliding up to the woman I’d come to think of as my surrogate mother.

“She can take care of herself.” He was right to sound unconcerned, but then while he was fond of Claudia, she wasn’t really his. Not like she was mine.

And it stung to be reminded of my tendency to charge in full bore. It was a flaw I couldn’t seem to shake. In this case, it would have blown the stakeout.

“Fucking hell,” I muttered darkly. It was all I could do. Mutter while I watched some greasy fraud chat up a woman he wasn’t good enough to breathe on much less talk to.

I was too disgruntled by my helplessness to really comprehend what was going on. I could have put it down to the fact that I was so focused on waiting for Mr. Velour to grab the television that I didn’t really understand what was happening until it was too late.

And by too late I meant when Bobby uttered the one sentence I thought I’d never hear in my lifetime.

“Did that fucker just grab Claudia’s ass?”

And that’s kind of how the Vermont Street miniriot was started.

I was out of the Rover before I could take another breath. To be honest, I didn’t even realize I’d left the car until I had my hands around the guy’s throat and was throwing him away from Claudia. Unfortunately, I either underestimated the man’s weight or the workout program Bobby had me on since Jae’s shooting six months ago kicked in muscle groups I didn’t know I had, because Mr. Velour went flying.

Right through the thrift-store window.

A broken window in most areas usually did not engender the response this one did. I wasn’t sure if it was because there was already a large television sitting in open view while being loaded in or out of a car, but something chummed the waters, and people poured out of every crevice in the neighborhood, swarming the sidewalk and nearly burying my target.

And apparently all of them were looking to relieve the thrift store of its vast array of electronics, prominently displayed in its formerly intact glass picture window.

Mr. Velour shook off the hit and seemingly was torn between helping himself to an iPad or coming back out of the window to kick my ass. The ass-kicking idea must have won him over because he was up on his feet and shaking the glass out of his hair before I blinked. Probably driven by his need to show off for my office manager, he came at me with a roar and hit me in the stomach. Claudia’s admirer flung his arms around my waist then plowed me down into the sidewalk.

From there, I couldn’t really keep track of what was going on behind me. I had a small peek of Claudia’s fire-engine-red purse delivering Justice and All Hell to several bodies around me, but mostly my face stung from where I’d scraped it across the rough cement, and I was busy pummeling the hell out of Mr. Velour.

For all that he flew before, he certainly was heavy enough to keep me pinned down. Sitting across my thighs, he reared up and roundhoused me with a left hook. I had a brief moment where I thought, Aha, so the fucker can twist around, and the doctor lied. Then my nose filled with blood, and I had other matters to attend to.

Matters like trying to breathe and getting a smelly wildebeest off of my lap so I could kick his ass.

His torso gave in waves when I hit him, a very different feeling from the hard smack of my fist against Bobby’s body in the ring. When I got out of this mess, I was going to take Bobby to task for making me fight only fit men. What I clearly needed was instruction on how to get past the wobbly Jell-O bits of flesh and fat to make an impact, because Mr. Velour wasn’t feeling a damned thing.

Then he exhaled, and I was left to wonder if his inability to feel pain had less to do with his absorptive body mass and more with the smell of Mad Dog 40 on his breath.

That was also when I realized Mr. Velour not only wasn’t wearing underwear, but he had a hole in the inseam of his pajamas.

Which apparently his cock was able to slip out of and take its own peek at what was going on.

And it definitely wasn’t going back in.

Not that Mr. Velour noticed—or cared. I, on the other hand, was about three feet away from a mouthful of green-linted pocket weasel that looked like it could have used a good scrubbing.

Apparently the primal lizard part of my brain kicked in, because when Mr. Velour shuffled his way up my chest, bringing his fuzzy peek-a-boo cock closer to my lips, my body found enough incentive to toss him off far enough for me to get to my feet.

The cement scraped my hands as I scrambled up, and I was upright for only about three seconds before someone barreled into me, sending me down again.

Sometime between the purse massacre and the appearance of Velour-scented Happy Dick, a mob broke out, and the sidewalk was clogged with people, most of them struggling to help themselves to the thrift store’s merchandise. A few feet away, safely barricaded behind a rack of old, thumbed-through books, a young Hispanic man screamed profanities at the crowd, alternating between street Spanish and English, as he gave the store’s address to someone on the other end of the cell phone he held up to his face.

A punch to the back of my head caught my attention, and I turned to retaliate only to find myself staring down an elderly woman with a limpid Chihuahua hanging over her left arm. Her right one was free, and it quickly coiled back and her tiny little fist ratcheted out and caught me squarely in the nuts. Despite the thickness of my jeans and my manly ability to withstand pain, I went down with a howl, cupping my injured stones in an attempt to keep them from being kicked by the people running past me.

“Boy! Cole! Get your ass off the ground and get over here!” a familiar husky voice growled through the rhubarb-mumble of the crowd, and I recognized Claudia yelling at me. A common occurrence, usually done in the sanctity of my office, but in this case, I wasn’t going to be a beggar. Using her cajoling as a beacon of safety, I crawled as best I could through the mill to reach the still-open door of the SUV.

Unfortunately, Mr. Velour apparently had the same idea, but probably not for the same reasons.

Out of the corner of my eye—the one not swelling up—I spotted Velour Pajamas barreling his way to the rescue of the one woman who probably did not want him as her knight and savior. If I’d taken a poll of the crowd, I probably could have found others who shared Claudia’s opinion, but she was the only one who counted.

With his flaccid cock dangling from the rent in his pajama bottoms, Mr. Velour bounced over to my buxom office manager in some vain attempt to rescue her from the riot, or possibly he thought the violence would incite her passions and let him get access to some hardcore nookie, but either way, he was sadly mistaken.

Claudia took one look at him with his danglies prancing about in front of him and hauled herself up to clothesline him across the throat.

Smart on her part, really, because his face was greasy, and I already knew hitting his body was like punching out an under-filled beanbag with about as much effect. The strong-arm slice on his throat, however, did the trick, and he stumbled back, going beet red from the lack of air.

I’d have worried she killed him, but I didn’t really give a shit. He wasn’t worth the money the insurance company was paying out to us, and my nuts were already traumatized into submission from the old woman, who was now stuffing DVDs down the front of her housecoat.

The shivering dog looked on with its gimlet eyes watering from the exposure to sunlight and seemed to take great delight in nipping at anyone who got too close to its owner as she ransacked the thrift store.

I could no longer see or hear the young man working the store, and some small part of my brain hoped he’d found sanctuary some place other than the restroom. With his luck, he probably wasn’t even supposed to be working that day and really just wanted to play street hockey or something innocuous instead of being ground zero at a sidewalk riot.

Sirens began to overwhelm the noise of the crowd by the time I got two feet closer to Claudia. It was hard going on my hands and knees, but I wasn’t going to risk standing up. At the sound of the familiar whoop-whoop of our siblings-in-blue, the crowd suddenly grew wings, and all manner of items suddenly began to rain down on the sidewalk. A pressure cooker, an old-style contraption with a weight on top, nearly struck my head and broke open. Some enterprising soul had stuffed it with porn mags, and they burst as if they’d been held back in an overstuffed piñata. Within moments of hitting the hard curb, the magazines were off and flying, a veritable ticker-tape parade of oiled, glistening boobs and waxed-clean labias.

As if the feminine bits weren’t enough of a turnoff, some asshat in the past decided body hair was a bad thing, and now every woman primped and airbrushed onto a skin mag looked like a plastic doll. It was one thing to like women. A lot of men I knew did. But it was quite another thing to have them look like Santa’s wet dream.

That probably pissed me off as much as Mr. Velour’s wang almost plopping itself into my mouth for a morning hello.

I’d almost reached Claudia when a pair of hands decided to help me up. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t my mostly friend Bobby. Instead, a hefty gorilla of a man wearing Los Angeles’s blues casually dragged my sorry ass up off the ground and into the air, seemingly not minding gravity or my muscle mass and weight.

I blinked around the blood coming from my right eye and found myself staring down what looked like all of the city’s SWAT teams, with a few casual patrols tossed in for good effect. Bobby was nowhere to be seen, but it was hard to tell with the amount of bodies being handcuffed and led to squad cars. A paddy wagon nearby already seemed to be sporting a few occupants, including my prime target of the day, Mr. Velour and his raging cock of fury.

The old woman and her Chihuahua were gone, but that was how the world was. The ancient and cunning would always sacrifice those around them to survive. I’m sure the woman learned that lesson from her spastic, trembling dog.

A very brave policeman wrested Claudia up against the side of the rented SUV and was trying to cuff her. I blinked again, and the world shifted around me. I tasted the SUV’s steel and paint.

“You have the right to remain silent….” That was all I heard through the mumble of the officer next to me straining to contain an enraged Claudia, and then a thump of a body hitting the car next to me turned out to be Bobby with a cut across his cheek and his lower lip swelling up like a balloon. He’d gained his own cop, a cuter one than the thug tightening the cuffs painfully over my wrists in some sort of BDSM exercise.

“So your boyfriend….” Bobby gasped as his arms were twisted higher up his back, and I heard the rattle of steel bracelets coming out of the cop’s Batman belt. “Think he’s got enough bail for the three of us?”