BEING MOB muscle was probably not a lot of people’s idea of being safe and sound, but for me, it was grounding. There’s comfort in knowing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing at any given moment. It’s what I loved about being in the Marines, the lack of questions. Being on Grigor’s payroll was similar. I knew what to do when I got up, where to go, who to check in with, and that I was to follow up with Grigor if I found any issues.
What started out as me standing in the background, listening, watching, changed over the past eighteen months to me leading. Grigor grew to trust me to get things done without him having to be there with me or me having to check in with him. I was not a guy who needed to be micromanaged, and he appreciated that. Since he traveled almost exclusively with Doran Loncar, who was in charge of his protection, that left me, Pravi, Marko, and Luka Novak to do the things Grigor preferred not to dirty his hands with.
For instance, Grigor didn’t want to talk to the drug pushers. He had no interest in meeting them, handing out the product, or making sure that what was sold and the money that came in balanced. Marko wasn’t terribly patient with that either. I’d been surprised that there was a Russian in Grigor’s inner circle, once I figured out that everyone else was Serbian, and it turned out that Marko was just as amazed by my inclusion.
“How did you start working for Grigor?” I asked Marko one day, drunk enough that I was brave and sober enough to process the answer.
“Grigor and my old boss, they wanted to do business, but there was no trust.”
“So they switched us, me for him. I would protect Grigor; Grigor’s man Todor, he would protect Bohdan.”
He leaned forward on the table, looking at me, and I realized he was sloshed too. “Todor, he was no good, and Bohdan died choking on own blood.”
“What’d you do?”
“I gut Todor and killed man who came after Grigor in the night.”
“Did whoever took over for Bohdan want you back?”
He lifted his brows to indicate the yes. “But already, my loyalty was for Grigor. If I went back—with new boss there, I start at bottom.”
I blinked. “How come ‘yes’ is the same in Serbian and Russian?”
He stared at me.
“That’s weird, right?”
He tipped his head back and forth like, maybe.
“We’re bonding, am I right?”
The look I got told me the jury was still out, but that was okay. We were the two odd ducks, the two everyone else gave the side-eye to when they first met us, which, of course, made us closer. He was the one I ended up taking with me whenever I went to talk to club owners, another thing Grigor didn’t like to do.
Collecting protection money on a large scale was something Grigor approved of. Nothing small, no mom-and-pop gas stations, no diners, no quaint little bed and breakfasts. Big dance clubs, lounges, restaurants, and anyone who owned a string of something like car dealerships, food trucks, check-cashing places were fair game. He liked funds rolling in, but again, going to those places, showing his face, was not his bag.
Not that I blamed him. As the head of the Serbian mob in Las Vegas, making deals with drug cartel kingpins was more glamorous than collecting money from pimps, running down leads from guys who stole guns or product from us, or killing people. With me in charge of those efforts, Grigor drew further and further away from anything remotely criminal. And while no one was stupid enough to think that Grigor Jankovic was completely on the up-and-up, he couldn’t be directly tied to anything particularly illegal… at least on paper. The dirt had to be excavated, and since no one could get a warrant to do any digging, he looked really good from the outside.
He made huge real estate deals to buy and sell hotels as well as investments in startups, casinos he had his fingers in, and the stock market. He built a wing in the local children’s hospital that he got to do the ribbon cutting for when it opened. He donated a shit-ton of money to the symphony and got his own private box, and he really enjoyed flipping mansions. Not big houses, but actual mansions that sold in the millions. When he took over a strip mall that turned into an urban renewal project, he couldn’t be seen in public with me and the others anymore. Only his lawyer, his accountant, and Doran were allowed in photographs with him. The rest of us were a little too shady.
When he was invited to a fundraiser for the mayor, I thought Marko was going to choke on his laughter.
“What?” Pravi asked.
“Is so—” Marko looked at me, gesturing with his fingers, searching for the word in English. “How do you say—against what is right?”
Pravi nodded. “He doesn’t do his own killing.”
“That’s what we’re for,” I told him.
On his way out the following night, before he left in the limousine in his Armani tuxedo with his socialite tobacco heiress girlfriend on his arm, he stopped and passed me a box. I got a pat on the cheek, and then he was gone.
Inside, there was a nickel-plated Armscor Rock Island Armory M1911A1 with pearl grips. It was gorgeous, and just like the one he carried. I was very touched.
“Is pussy gun,” Marko said at dinner later that night after we’d made our runs. Luka Novak, who had joined the crew right before me, still lived at home with his mother, and when we dropped him off—or tried to—she always made sure we had a little something to eat before we went home.
At the moment, she was bustling around the table, having made goulash that smelled like heaven, cheese rolls, and Salcici—sort of a puffed pastry filled with jam—for dessert.
“She’s cooking too much for us,” I told Luka, smiling up at Mrs. Novak as she stopped behind me, put her hands on my face, and then pressed a kiss to my cheek.
“What about my nice nephew, Ceaton. He asked after you last Friday after Mass.”
I whimpered and looked at Luka, who pretended to be very interested in his roll.
“Oh, Ma, the cheese in here is so good.”
She was delighted and flitted off to get him a couple more.
“You should have never told anyone you were gay,” Pravi stated. “It was a mistake. Now all the mothers who have a son who doesn’t want to get married to a woman have their sights set on you.”
“Was mistake,” Marko agreed.
“At least they’re trying to get me laid,” I chimed in. “That’s nice.”
“They’re trying to get you married,” Pravi said, enlightening me. “Which is not so nice.”
The issue was, besides the occasional blind date, I wasn’t seeing anyone at all. There wasn’t time. Much like the other guys, if I had an itch, if the lack of sex went so long that I thought I was going to die, then I’d find some guy willing and able to help me out. I got the occasional fuck, but what I did couldn’t actually be classified as one-night stands because they never took that long.
I’d hooked up with men in bathrooms, in the backseat of cars, in alleys, and very rarely, in their apartments. It made no sense to follow someone all the way home and be leaving fifteen, twenty minutes later. It could have lasted longer, but I just wanted to get off and go. Kissing was a lost art with me; I had no interest, it took so much time. Fucking was about fast and dirty and hot and done.
I tried to want more from people, but no one held my interest at all. I never stopped dead in my tracks, overwhelmed by another person’s beauty or allure. I noticed men, but no one made my whole body go still in anticipation of the next words out of their mouth. I’d never stood transfixed in another person’s glow.
Not that I didn’t want to find a man who made me look at him twice. I had dreams of finding the one, the guy who would care as much about my mind as he did about my body. I had the whole lazy Sunday morning fantasy going on, where making love and talking were spread out through the entire day.
But my reality was guys hanging upside down on meat hooks while Marko carved pieces out of them so their boss or their friends didn’t fuck with Grigor. We had to intimidate and enforce, collect and distribute; it was a full-time job that did not leave a lot of time for dating. What I realized, however, was that despite all that, I was still a romantic at heart. And while it was difficult, surrounded by death, by the solitary existence I led outside of work, I still took every corner wondering if this was the turn that would lead me to the one.
It wouldn’t be easy, with the company I kept.
“You should not be married,” Marko said, interrupting my thoughts. “To leave someone behind to bury you is not kind.”
I shot him what I hoped was a pained look.
He scowled quickly. “Is true.”
“Wouldn’t it be worth it to find love?”
“For who?” He arched an eyebrow at me.
“And is it fair to drag a nice person into this life of guns and death?” Pravi posed. “I say no.”
Both fair points.
Marko tipped his head at the new gun in my holster. “You should not carry that. People will try and take it from you for no good reason. A man who carries that kind of gun has small dick.”
I smiled at him. “Grigor carries the same gun, asshole.”
He shrugged and leaned sideways, lifting a gun from his ankle holster and passing it to me. It was a Sig Sauer P226. “Take this.”
“I don’t need a new gun, M,” I assured him. “I have the one I got originally, and now I have one that’s really fancy.”
“Is too fancy,” he declared, using my word, enunciating it and making it sound stupid. “And this one I give you, I have Osprey silencer that fits it. You need this.”
I glanced over at Pravi, whose mouth was hanging open, and then at Luka, whose eyes were huge and round. I understood why. Marko didn’t hand out firearms to just anyone.
Leaning sideways, I bumped against him and was surprised when he didn’t let me straighten up instantly, instead curling his hand around my cheek and pressing me to his shoulder for a second. I had no idea he was capable of any sort of warmth at all, so really, I was as shocked as the others.
I told Grigor when I saw him the next afternoon how much I loved the gun but that carrying it would bring attention, even under my coat, and that wasn’t a good idea. The idea was to be forgettable, not memorable in any way.
“So the gun is too pretty?”
He squinted at me. “It’s the same gun I carry.”
“You seldom carry a gun anymore.”
“And when you are strapped, I’m thinking you carry this one to be memorable. Am I right?” I asked, hoping it would make sense to him. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings over the fact that I wasn’t going to use his gift, but Marko was right. It was too flashy for me.
His nod, along with the smirk, made me laugh.
“You are not as easy to forget as you think,” he assured me. “You’re a handsome man, Ceaton Mercer. All the women ask after you.”
“You’re lucky you’re gay, or I’d have to get rid of you.”
“No man wants to be in competition with his own, and I have enough problems already with Pravi.”
He was right about that. Pravi gave new meaning to the words “smooth operator.” The charm that oozed off that man was lethal. A few times there had been a woman on Grigor’s arm who had watched Pravi with the eyes of a huntress. And even as I thought about the ridiculousness of the conversation, I saw how flat Grigor’s stare had become as he gazed off into the distance.
He didn’t like being second in any area of his life, and that included being the best-looking of us. I hadn’t really considered the idea that his ego would extend to something so small and petty.
“Yeah, but you like your women classy,” I commented, going with the pretext that we were just shooting the shit and that this wasn’t, possibly, a life-and-death discussion for Pravi. “And your boy likes them easy.”
It took a moment, but my words sank in, and he turned and grinned at me. “Yes, that’s true. Pravi has a definite type.”
I snorted out a laugh. “And it ain’t the same as yours. Can you imagine Brooke Collingsworth looking twice at Pravi?”
She was Grigor’s latest socialite, her father worth a cool billion.
“No,” he replied smugly, “she would not.”
I shrugged. “So who cares.”
He nodded and gestured for me to sit with him.
I was about to do as he asked when the door opened and Jaja came rushing into the living room and over to Grigor. She grabbed his hand and told him that something was wrong with Sonya.
Normally Sonya, Jaja’s youngest daughter, called Grigor every Sunday while he was hungover and watching soccer. They had been raised together, and he thought of her as more of a sister than a cousin. Because it was his veg day and the one day a week she didn’t have classes or have to work, always, without fail, they spoke at some time between one and four. Now he looked at the time and saw that it was only three, so he told her not to worry.
“No,” she insisted, her grip on his hand tightening. “A mother knows. I know.”
He stared at his aunt for a moment and then turned to me. “Go check on Sonya.”
“Going now,” I agreed, getting on my phone and calling Pravi. “I’ll call when we get there,” I said to Grigor before I walked out the door.
Luka, Marko, Pravi, and I were on a plane for Boston two hours later.