ASBJORN GLANCED at Sean, who was sitting on the sofa, watching the newscast with wide, anxious eyes. Sean seemed to have blocked out everything around him—the warm wood tones of Danish décor, the neutral colors of the furniture, the red-and-white embroidery on the wall. He could have been on a different planet from the look of him. Asbjorn took in the tension in Sean’s frame as the guttural syllables of his mother tongue felt foreign after the many years of his absence and in the rapid-fire rendition of the talking head on the screen. His other senses stretched in the throes of his effort. The sounds of Asbjorn’s family moving in the background broke through the patter of the newscast. The waft of cinnamon in the air overwhelmed him all at once, and the fumes of hot glogg were dizzying with fruit and caraway and alcohol. The sap of his mother’s Christmas tree wove through it all, throwing Asbjorn into a maelstrom of overload. He stood behind the sofa, his hand gripping its back and his knees bent as the ground threatened to sway beneath him like the deck of a ship used to, years ago. He focused on what the reporter had to say.
“What is it, Asbjorn?” Sean asked from below him. He tilted his head up, blond hair falling back like strands of honey, and his throat stretched out, exposed and vulnerable as he tried to meet Asbjorn’s eyes.
The segment ended, yet the deck beneath his feet continued to sway, harkening to his long-gone Navy days.
“Asbjorn? Did I see ‘Walpole, Massachusetts, USA’ on Danish TV?”
Sean’s voice brought him back to the here and now, and the ground steadied under Asbjorn’s feet. Yet Sean was still looking up at him, cheeks flushed from alcohol and the winter-pale skin of his throat stretched over his corded muscles and Adam’s apple.
Vulnerable once again.
Asbjorn tightened his jaw as a shiver passed through his body like a wave of Baltic air, icy and threatening. He walked around to where Sean shared the sofa with Asbjorn’s sister and sat heavily next to him, making the cushion sag under his weight. He reached for the remote and turned the TV off.
The expletive broke the sonic void left in the wake of the newscast, and Asbjorn met the concern in Sean’s eyes.
“The sonovabitch broke out of jail.” Asbjorn choked back his temper and forced his voice to come out in an even tone and pitch, as though he’d been the dispassionate news reporter.
“Frank Pettel!” Sean’s voice was raspy and incredulous.
“Yeah. Only a week after you got him busted! They call it the ‘Christmas Jail Break’ at Walpole. Our buddy Frank Pettel was apparently one of several men who escaped.”
“Fuck.” The word slipped past Sean’s inner regulator and his lips, and as they looked at one another, Asbjorn saw color drain from his face.
Asbjorn felt for Sean with his whole heart. The assault. The weeks of hard work. The terror of being stalked. The meticulous care with which he recorded every telephone call, the action-packed arrest—it must have all come back to him. It was hardly possible for Sean’s hard work—their hard work—to be undone so soon, so fast.
“Let me get on the Internet and find out what happened.” Asbjorn strode to the home office, where their sofa bed was still pulled out with its covers neatly made.
“Asbjorn!” Helga Jenssen called after him, her words reverberating through the small house. “You better have a good reason for getting online on Christmas. You’re disrupting Christmas Peace.”
Asbjorn turned to her, his Danish soft and serious. “It’s not I who disrupts the Christmas Peace, Mom. There was an incident before we left—a dangerous criminal attacked Sean and he worked hard to put him in jail. The man broke free. I need to find out what happened.”
“Now?” Asbjorn saw her frown.
“Now. This might be a matter of life and death.”
Helga met her son’s piercing blue gaze, nodded, and went upstairs to join her husband in the bedroom. Once there, Asbjorn figured she’d pull out her laptop, activate her Wi-Fi connection, and snoop. Just like always, he knew his mother would try to find every single thing about Sean. He was, after all, the controversial—and male—object of Asbjorn’s affection.
Asbjorn scanned Boston-area news websites with a deepening frown. Both videos and print news reported the sensational, Hollywood-style “Christmas Jail Break.” Although they provided a lot of local color, they failed to deliver on useful details.
The infamous organized crime figure “Mad Dawg” Hatalsky was arrested along with most of his lieutenants on a multitude of charges, including human trafficking, being the head pimp of New England, money laundering, jury manipulation, and tax evasion. It is reported that Mr. Hatalsky’s Ukrainian-based organization has failed to wrest control of the drug trade from the traditional local purveyors. According to our source, who shall remain anonymous, the snitch who gave them up was loosely associated with a Jamaican gang in Mr. Hatalsky’s area of operation, which has traditionally controlled the drug trade up and down the coast of New England. A local construction company owner volunteered that both the local businessmen, who were forced to pay protection money, and Mr. Hatalsky’s competitors “resented the intrusion of some ruthless, ex-KGB Eastern European upstart with no regard for the way business had always been done in these parts and whose sense of fair play and rules differed so much from their norm.”
Asbjorn raised his eyebrows. They left MIT for their winter break before all these stories broke, and this big picture was new to him. A gang war was a situation to avoid, except he doubted they would have a choice in the matter. Asbjorn was well aware that every metropolitan area had its share of underworld figures, but he had never thought his and Sean’s effort to bring one wrongdoer to justice would bring them to their vicinity. He felt his skin tingle in nervous anticipation as he clicked on a related news link.
The Jamaican snitch was supposed to negotiate a deal with Mad Dawg Hatalsky, leading him into a well-planned trap. The informant agreed to testify in court in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Immunity was his “get out of jail free card” for his promised testimony, along with alleged financial compensation by the Jamaican elements…. The informant was gunned down in the middle of the street only an hour after the crime lord made his escape from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ correction facility in Walpole. His escape was aided by Frank Pettel, who was allegedly held on an unrelated charge.
Asbjorn would have laughed at the ridiculous tale had the story not been so personal. He frowned as he glanced through the doorway at Sean’s motionless form. He knew he’d do anything to spare Sean being stalked again, having to strap on a Kevlar vest again, having to testify again. It had just about killed Asbjorn the last time around, when he was unable to substantively help Sean in Frank Pettel’s capture. His Navy experience, his covert ops background, his high karate ranking – all that had been useless as Asbjorn had to sit on the sidelines, with his role having been limited to moral support, bodyguard, and unwanted advice.
He forced his face into a smooth and neutral expression of innocence. He and Sean had almost broken up in a battle of wills, poised on a knife’s edge where one side signified Sean’s safety and the other his independence. Asbjorn didn’t relish having to balance on the same blade again.
SEAN THOUGHT he had done everything right. He’d called the police. He’d cooperated. He’d recorded almost every call, coaxing and recording an oral testimony and confession out of Frank Pettel. He had gone out in the middle of the night to lure the perp into the hands of the police, protected by a Kevlar vest, a can of pepper spray, and his somewhat flimsy courage. He remembered that night, how the shadows of tree branches drew crazed patterns on the glistening snow. He remembered hoping Frank Pettel wouldn’t aim for his head.
He had had resolve.
He had done everything right and it had been all for naught.
Sean’s head spun as probability equations kept popping up in his mind. The odds of a rapist going after his accuser once his jail term was served were only 3 percent. That wasn’t so bad. He could’ve lived with that. But how about a steaming mad, angry convict? A violent man who swore bloody revenge? A guy who busted out of jail by force? The odds of Frank Pettel going after him were, what, 70 percent? One hundred percent?
Could he live with that?
Cold fear gripped his gut, the sort of fear that paralyzed thought and stilled breathing.
He would have to do it all over again, except this time around Frank Pettel would know about his martial arts skills. Sean used to think he was so invincible and cool, floating on a cloud of ki and maintaining his moral ground of nonaggression. His students called him sensei, and he taught them what he used to think were self-defense skills. Yet those skills had failed him that night.
He thought back to his defeat—door crashing, glass spilling, the attacker’s weight pinning him to his bed—and bile rose up his throat. He swallowed the bitter taste and took a sip of glogg, sweet and heady, hoping to chase it all away. Sean had lost the battle, and he had thought the war was won—weeks, months of having been stalked and pursued, luring the sociopath into a web spun of lies and covert police protection—except the war was far from over. The storm turned toward him again, its howling winds bitter and stronger than ever. What had been a trivial game of bait—meeting his attacker under the cover of darkness, hoping beyond hope the cops were there and watching in the solitude of that frozen night—had suddenly become a deadly game of cat and mouse. A game he didn’t know how to play, a game he’d have to improvise. Just like before, people couldn’t guard him day and night. Even though he wanted to, Asbjorn couldn’t keep him under lock and key.
Sean closed his eyes. An image of a fist exploded in his mind and an echo of the bruising blow made itself known through forceful memory.
All by himself.
“WHAT DO you mean, you don’t know how they did it?” Asbjorn glared at his friend, Detective Mark Falwell, through the Skype connection on the screen. The image jerked in uneven movements as the video data made its way across the ocean, then back again. Mark’s blond hair gleamed white on the monitor, reflecting the lighting of his cluttered home office.
“They don’t tell us the details, Asbjorn. This is their mess now. We caught the guy, the jail was supposed to keep him in, and they fucked it all up. I dunno what to tell ya.” Mark looked over his shoulder. “Hey… they’ll be serving Christmas dinner in five minutes or so. I’ll have to go. But keep me posted. How’s Sean taking it?”
“No shit,” Mark said with a nod. “Listen… think about staying in Europe a bit longer, okay? We have the perp’s contact info, and now he’s associated himself with the Hatalsky organization. I think we may have more of a handle on tracking him. Their outfit is still functioning. That’s good. It makes them easier to follow.”
“Good? You say it’s good, and you ask us to stay, man?”
Mark’s image jerked on the screen as he threw his hands up in the air. “Sorry, dude, but we’re stretched so thin, I don’t know how we could put a protection detail on Sean right now. These cutbacks fucking suck.”
“Yeah… I’ve also read about the shooting.”
Asbjorn thought he saw Mark’s jaw work a bit, but it was hard to tell. “It’s just a setback,” Mark proclaimed. “Now we have them on more charges. Now we can pursue them as fugitives. Every bounty hunter in the state is jumping up and down for joy.”
“Oh yeah? What’s the bounty?” Asbjorn said.
“There are several—from three states now. I’ll e-mail it to you. Listen, Lisa’s calling. Gotta go. Hey, Merry Christmas, despite all this shit. Say hi to Sean for me, okay?”
Lisa’s voice echoed in the background, and there was no mistaking her irritation.
Mark grinned. “My girlfriend’s summoning me. Later, dude.”
The connection was severed. Asbjorn had to regroup his thoughts, because he had a hard time visualizing the bossy, knife-throwing Lisa and the acerbic Mark together. He wondered how much longer Mark would last under Lisa’s iron-shod heel. The image made him smile.
And the bounty. That was something to consider. The money would come in handy. He’d research fugitive apprehension agent requirements tomorrow.
SEAN FELT a weight settle next to him and an arm snake around his shoulders, pulling him in.
He blinked. It took a while before he refocused on the room around him and looked at the clock. It was so eerie, to space out like that. He’d been sitting absolutely still for over two hours.
“Come to bed, Sean.” Asbjorn. The voice was soothing and familiar.
Sean shook his head. Going to bed meant turning the light off, and turning the light off would invite the old boogeyman to invade his mind again.
He didn’t want to feel like that—invaded.
“I won’t be able to sleep.”
“I’ll fuck you senseless, then.”
Sean turned to face Asbjorn for the first time in hours, taking his features in again. “I’ll get sore.”
“I’ll kiss it all better, then.”
Sean forced a smile, but when Asbjorn’s large warm hands began to knead the stiff muscles of his neck, his worries were washed away by a wave of warmth and lassitude, and he felt his smile soften into something more genuine. He felt safe, slouching against the expanse of Asbjorn’s chest. Safe—at least for now. He would maintain the illusion of safety while they were here, in Europe, far away from Frank Pettel and his cold threats and dark promises of a replay of a violent sexual assault, followed by a not-so-swift death.
He dipped his head forward and let Asbjorn’s long fingers sift through his hair from behind. It had soothed him weeks ago, when he felt like he had a target painted between his shoulder blades, and it soothed him now. He was aware that he closed his eyes. He knew he snuggled into the crook under Asbjorn’s arm. He was exactly where he wanted to be. As he inhaled the familiar warm smell of Asbjorn’s skin and his aftershave, he allowed himself to feel safe and free and exhausted. The light glowed through his closed eyelids, exactly the way he liked it, keeping the bad things away.
The sound of footfalls alerted Sean to the presence of someone behind him. He jerked his head in alarm and tried to sit up.
“Shh…. It’s just Ole, most likely raiding the kitchen for a snack,” Asbjorn whispered. Asbjorn’s stepbrother rummaged in the kitchen for a short while, and then he emerged with a glass of milk and a plate of cookies.
Sean closed his eyes again. The click of the light switch broke the silence of the night—Ole was most likely turning off the light Asbjorn had left on for him in the living room. Sean gritted his teeth as the warm light of the incandescent bulbs left his eyelids. Then he felt Asbjorn stir and prop himself against the arm of the sofa. He relaxed, listening. They spoke Danish. Even though the words had seemed familiar and almost English on a printed page only yesterday, now they dissolved into a string of gibberish, floating in the air, impossible to grasp. Yet he strained his ears and his mind anyway, hopeful for a snippet he could understand. He’d take any hint that would inform him of Asbjorn’s doings.
ASBJORN MEASURED his stepbrother with tired eyes. He noted the broadened shoulders, the European restraint. “No, things are not okay,” he answered in a whisper. “I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
Ole nodded and turned to leave.
He stopped and spun, as though happy and proud to be even addressed. Acknowledged.
“Ole, would you toss a blanket over us and dim the kitchen lights? Yeah, great. Thanks. No, don’t turn the lights all the way off.” Asbjorn gave Ole a grin.
“See you at breakfast, yeah? You’re waking up early, right?”
“Doubt it. This game is awesome.”
As Ole considered Asbjorn’s expression, Asbjorn knew that his grin didn’t reach all the way to his eyes. Sean had said they could be as cold as arctic ice, and Asbjorn knew they were the same as the infamous glacial glare of his mother on a bad day. That stare was now mingled with the explosive Lund anger. His late father’s heritage. An incredible amount of anger, lying in wait and biding its time.
“Let me know… let me know if you need anything, will you, Bjorn?”
He forced his eyes to soften. “I will, Ole. Thanks.”
ULRIKA CRACKED the kitchen window open to let in the cool, fresh Baltic air. Weekend mornings were hers to dominate the kitchen and cook her experiments, to learn without the overbearing advice of her stepmother. She’d make crepes with lingonberries for her stepbrother and his boyfriend. She smiled. Lingonberries were nigh impossible to get in America, and she bought a package of frozen ones just yesterday. She would make it special for Asbjorn and Sean.
Due to the amount of food in the house over the holidays, Ulrika and Helga were forced to use the garden bench outside the kitchen door to hold frozen items. It was cold enough outside, and with the masonry wall surrounding the garden, dogs couldn’t get into the food. Ulrika slipped out of her house shoes and took a few, ginger steps in the snow. Her bare feet sank into the white cushion, and she sighed with satisfaction, relishing the refreshing tingle of cold against her skin. She was careful not to slip as the snow grew slick under her soles, and she made quick work of retrieving her ingredients. Arms full, she came inside through the wide open door. As she was setting her ingredients down, a fresh gust of Baltic air danced in a sudden eddy and swooshed with glee as it roared through the garden and into the kitchen, slamming the door shut.
SEAN HOVERED on the edge of wakefulness, just barely noticing the activity two rooms away. His mind’s eye was still dark when, out of nowhere, he heard a sharp crack as though a door was kicked wide open. The wooden panel, helped by the salt-laden wind, slammed into the wooden frame with a sharp and violent crack.
So familiar. So alarming.
The specter of Frank Pettel appeared in his twilight dream. His door was kicked open, the intricate wooden frame yielding to the impact of a heavy boot. Glass panes bursting, falling, shards tinkling with a surreal sound of a deadly garden wind chime. A heavy weight landed on his chest. He screamed.
“SEAN!” ASBJORN woke at the sound of Sean’s voice, shrill and laden with pure terror. The quick, sharp sound of a world being tilted sideways. His ears registered the slamming kitchen door, but his mind saw glass spilling in the moonlight, its pattern a surreal kaleidoscope and its sound a tinkling wind-chime of destruction.
“Sean!” He squeezed the other man around his chest, comforting, soothing. A loose elbow hit his cheek with a resounding crack, and a fist landed on his nose with a painful crunch. Asbjorn threw his hands up to his face as he let go of Sean completely, only to see him spring to his feet. Sean’s brown eyes were wild and unseeing.
“Sean, it’s just a dream!” He sprung off the sofa and went after him.
Asbjorn’s peripheral vision took in their audience: Ulrika stood rock-still in her cooking apron at the end of the wet footprints her bare feet left on the wooden floors. Out of the corner of his eyes, he picked up the smooth glide of Ole sliding down the banister. Asbjorn glanced at him—Sean’s scream had yanked Ole right out of bed, as evidenced by his stepbrother’s wild hair and red-rimmed eyes that squinted against the light of the day. His mother and Olaf stood at the top of the staircase.
“What is it, Asbjorn?” his mother asked.
“A bad dream.”
“Bjorn, your nose is bleeding.” Olaf ran down the stairs and handed his stepson a clean handkerchief.
Asbjorn nodded his thanks and pressed it against his nose with his right hand while his left snaked around Sean’s waist. “Wake up, sunshine. Wake up. Everything’s all right.”
ADRENALINE COURSED through Sean’s veins as he struggled against the strong arm around his waist.
Now he knew.
There was no stopping him. He had to fight, fight all the way before his adrenaline ran out on him.
His elbow found a target and his opponent let out a loud whoosh.
“Sean. Wake up, Sean.”
He struggled some more.
“It’s just a dream, sunshine.”
A familiar voice fought through the sound of blood roaring in his ears.
“It’s me. Asbjorn.”
Asbjorn. Calm blue eyes, like a sky on a summer’s day.
HE EMERGED from the clutches of the evil phantom like a diver who held his breath for too long. As though his body was breaking the freezing water’s surface from beneath, he was brought forth into the world of flesh and blood with a sudden gasp. Breathing hard, he shook his head and looked around. A strong arm still held his waist from behind.
“Sean. You’re all right, Sean. I’m with you, sunshine.”
Asbjorn’s voice hummed in his ear, English and smooth and hypnotic, and Sean turned in his arms to embrace him back. He hid his face in Asbjorn’s woolen thermal shirt. The adrenaline subsided and his knees felt weak. He leaned in.
He sank onto the sofa next to Asbjorn.
“Here, Sean, have some water.” Helga handed him a glass, and he could barely force himself to meet her eyes. A tide of warmth rose up his neck to his ears, and he just knew he was painted crimson with sheer embarrassment. He grabbed the small glass, but that only gave away how badly his hands were shaking. Water sloshed over the lip of the glass, straight into his lap. A larger hand steadied his.
“Breathe, Sean. Ground and center.”
Ground and center.
Asbjorn might have said the words, but Sean had lived by them long before they met. They had resonated in his mind for so many years. His memory brought forth Burrows-sensei’s calm gray eyes, and he could almost hear his smooth, soothing voice. He took a deep breath and tried to make it sink past his diaphragm, down to the pit of his belly, but failed. His breath insisted on staying shallow. The adrenaline surge was still there and his body wasn’t ready to relax.
Ground and center.
He visualized a ball of spinning energy right below his navel. It was too big and way too untidy, like an overblown beach ball, reaching outside his body in untidy and confused tendrils.
“Now cut its size in half.”
Burrows-sensei’s voice was in his mind again as he shrank his out-of-control one-point to the size of a large cantaloupe.
“Now cut its size in half.”
The cool, melodious voice spanned years, miles, and continents. Sean’s one-point became the size of an orange. His hands steadied around the cool glass of water, and his chest and belly expanded with the next breath.
“Cut it in half.”
A bouncy ball.
A dry bean.
A grain of rice.
A poppy seed.
His one-point whirled fast, its power concentrated and focused and small. He felt his body grow heavy and light at the same time, substantial and attached to the world. Centered. Grounded. Now the air could enter his lungs with long leisurely draws, the weight of it sinking all the way to the pit of his belly. Now he was able to relax and think. Spent air left his body in an extended, controlled exhale, and he visualized his breath rush forward in a stream of ki, crossing this room and the next, exiting the house and the garden and the neighborhood, shooting past Copenhagen and across the Baltic, where it mingled with the frigid Northern air.
For the first time in months, he felt as though he truly owned the space around him. He turned to Asbjorn, the glass of water in his hand still untouched. His gaze glanced over Asbjorn’s bloody nose. “Sorry ’bout that.”
Asbjorn shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”
Sean nodded and moved past the superficial injury to the critical problem that would face him in less than a week. “We need to spar later, Asbjorn. I need to be ready for this asshole.”
JETS OF hot water pummeled Sean’s shoulders, and the citrusy top notes of his shampoo helped him cleanse the night away. Gone were the horrors, rinsed down the drain with swirling specks of foam. Banished was the darkness of that night, so many weeks ago, when his world was turned upside down. He shut the hot water off, waking his synapses with a cold rinse. This cold was nothing like the icy fear of that other night or the flashback of only one hour ago. It cut through his hair, icing his scalp and waking his shoulders with elemental insistence. It cleansed him and scoured him. Its icy breath readied him for whatever might come next. The reality of his situation did not change, but his outlook was now fresh and clean. He needed information—and he needed it while they were still in Denmark. His coping strategy would be formulated here, on his luxurious Christmas break vacation. He laughed at the irony of it all and was startled when the sound of his voice bounced off the tiled walls.
When he returned to Boston—and he would return, on time for classes—he would be ready. He’d have to be.
Brunch was becoming a fashionable concept in Europe, and Asbjorn’s family was only too happy to adopt it. The food was still settling in their stomachs when Sean and Asbjorn sat next to each other at the family computer. They retrieved their mail, erased a ton of pre-Christmas advertisements, and logged in to a local Boston news station’s website.
“Oooh. Look, Sean, here’s news on the big bust Mark wasn’t allowed to talk about.” They scanned the article, extracting information on the fly. Asbjorn took written notes. “Looks like they nabbed some organized crime figure and his key people. No wonder Mark was so strung out.”
Sean scrolled down to another feature, and Asbjorn looked up, poised with pen in hand.
“Look, Sean, you’re in the news.”
Sean peered at the screen. He felt his stomach flip at the familiar, eerie image. He remembered that night. There he was, with his hoodie on, in the shadows of the student housing building near MIT, affectionately known as “the Pile.” The photo had been acquired without his knowledge during the false fire alarm at the Pile, and even though he could barely recognize his face in the rainbow glare of emergency vehicle lights, he could tell the shoulders and general stature were all him.
As he read the words that spoke of his effort to help the police capture Frank Pettel, he felt the floor grow a bit unsteady, as though he was tethered in outer space, unable to find purchase under his feet. He took a calming breath to center himself and focused on the content of the article again. The prey he had helped capture was a sexual predator wanted in the states of Louisiana and Florida, and there was a reward for his capture.
“Lovely. This sort of exposure is exactly what I wanted to avoid,” Sean said with a frown. He gripped the computer mouse a little harder to still the tremor in his hand. “All this information floating out there will make it easier for him come after me. There is no doubt in my mind that he will, you know. He said he would, if I went to the police.”
“You did the right thing.” Asbjorn kissed the hair above his ear.
“Yeah, but… I can’t believe the fucking press. I thought Mark was saying all this was confidential!”
“We’ll find out what happened. Let’s see what else is out there.” Asbjorn’s tone, calm and steady, told Sean they were back to business of catching Frank Pettel. They had to get a move on, too, because neither one of them wanted the manhunt to interfere with their classes. A workload at MIT was famous for its grueling intensity, and this was hardly the time to fall apart. Sean took another deep breath, moved onto the next link, and read on and on. The numerous articles and videos only reiterated what they already knew, though. Their hours of research amounted to one single, disheartening fact: Sean’s identity and location in Boston had been divulged by a local TV station.
“I’ll have to do it all over again,” Sean said, proud that his voice remained steady.
“You’re not alone, sunshine. And even if you were, you’d kick his ass. You already did once.”
“Bullshit, Asbjorn. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“You’d have managed.”
Sean leaned closer, close enough to feel Asbjorn’s warmth and smell the coffee on his breath. He drew strength from this rock of a man. He was steady in any emergency. Sean never forgot that Asbjorn served in the navy and was accustomed to giving orders as well as taking them. His real-world experience made him seem like a steady, well-armed ship making its way through the choppy seas, and Sean felt like the California surfer boy he truly was, riding in his wake.