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Jimmy Ford’s Son

One

 

 

He’d heard it, even before he got on the plane to the States. Told in mutters and curses and once by a mid-level Russian mobster who’d had too much to drink: ‘Watch out for Jimmy Ford’s son. He runs Boston.’

Eliot always took the comments with a grain of salt. He’d been around bad guys almost half his life—hell, he was a bad guy—what was one more? Still, as his search for the sapphire monkey took him to the India, Turkey and finally, Boston, his curiosity grew.

He was tired of the same old thing. It used to be that once he got a job, he’d feel a sense of excitement and purpose; now, he was just bored. It would be good to go up against someone new and test his metal, as it were. And if the pickings were good and Nathan Ford was everything everyone said, Eliot would make his mark, either for or against Ford, then settle down for a few months because he was starting to get tired of that, too, moving around every few weeks.

So, he wrapped things up and got on a plane. As the flight from Istanbul touched down at Logan, he couldn’t help a shiver of excitement. This was gonna be fun.

***

Well, so much for fun, he thought as he dodged another drunk heading to the john. It was probably his expectations—expectations had a way of sneaking up on one and tripping one up. Or maybe not expectations as such, because he’d trained that emotion out of his heart a long time ago. Maybe it was just plain old disappointment.

Here he’d been expecting something along the lines of an Irish Keyser Söze and what he got was a forty-something that was too fond of whiskey and the TV hanging on the wall above the bar. So, yeah, disappointing.

When he’d entered McRory’s around six, he’d parked himself in the corner table and ordered a beer. The spot was good—the front door was ten steps to the right and he had a clear line of sight to the bar, a rough twenty feet away. He’d ordered a beer from the redheaded waitress and reviewed the lay of the land.

The place was sparse with a mix of old timers and young office types. They were clearly regulars—they’d called hello to each other as they came in and the waitress knew each by name. None, though, had seemed like a world-class criminal. There was a guy in a back booth that had a shady air, but that disappeared as soon as a dark-haired women came in; the guy’s face lit up with a broad smile and he waved to the woman. So, not Nathan Ford.

Maybe the intel was wrong. He’d been told that Ford and his old man had put the three families onto a long boat back to the home country and set up shop in a bar on the south side. Maybe he had the wrong McRory’s? There were two in the city, but the first had looked like something from the eighties, ferns and all.

He was getting restless, thinking that maybe he should head back to the other place when a door to the back room opened and a man ambled out.

He was dark-haired, dressed all in black, about six foot and lean to the point of being thin. He glanced around, then took a seat at the bar. He gestured, a slight movement of one finger but the bartender was already reaching for a bottle of whisky and a glass. The man said something and the bartender grinned.

Eliot leaned back in his chair and looked around. Everyone ignored the new guy, but the air in the bar had altered, had become somehow charged which meant this was Nathan Ford. It was about time.

But—

He didn’t look like a mob boss or a killer or even a thief—he looked like a washed-up office manager.

Eliot sat back and waited for some action, maybe a little mayhem. But even though the place grew crowded and he lost his vantage point, he saw that Ford never moved from his seat and the only time he opened his mouth, was to say something to the bartender. It was like the guy was a statue—even the other customers seemed to treat him that way—they moved around him like he was invisible, never looking at him or speaking to him. Weird.

About eight-thirty, a heavy came in trailed by a blond girl. They made a beeline for Ford and finally, he looked around. He talked to the newcomers for a moment and then the heavy went back the way he’d come and the girl took the stool next to Ford. And hell if that wasn’t more weird because they didn’t speak—Ford returned to the game and the girl stuffed her hands in her pockets and moodily stared at the counter.

At last Eliot called it quits. He was tired of being bumped into by drunks, not to mention being pissed that he’d wasted his time. He’d find dinner and a bed and tomorrow he’d get back to doing what he was supposed to be doing. He got up and tossed a twenty on the table.

As he was leaving, he glanced in the door’s reflection by force of habit, making sure no one was coming up from behind and he thought he saw Ford glance his way. When he turned his head, just a very a small movement, Ford was watching the TV again.

Huh.

***

With a snarl, he lashed out, catching the nearest asshole on the chin, using the momentum and brute force to get clear of the small crowd of three. There. He was free with his back to the open tunnel and now he get to the fun stuff.

He let the bad guys come at him, one by one like they always did, easily laying each out on the concrete floor. Except for the last one—he rushed him, slamming him up against the wall and not coincidentally, the fire extinguisher. The man moaned in pain; Eliot smiled and shoved again. He got out his cell.

It took a minute for the number to click through. “Yes?”

“Why are you sending cut-rate thugs after me?” He gave the bad guy an apologetic glance but the truth was the truth.

“I sent those men to encourage you, not kill you.”

“Try telling them that.”

“My buyer,” Gutman answered, “is getting anxious and you haven’t fulfilled your obligation.”

“Your buyer,” he said with a growl, “has waited two years. He can wait another two days.”

“He could, but he doesn’t want to.” Gutman sighed and Eliot pictured him, sitting in that big office behind that mahogany desk, every hair in place, a snide smile on his face. “But luckily for you, he’s changed his mind. He says that as you’re in Boston, he’d like you to handle another job for him.”

The bad guy’s face was turning red; Eliot eased up, giving him room to breath. “What is it?”

“Family business.”

“Whose family?”

“You don’t need to concern yourself with that, just that there seems to be a new player in town and it’s causing some trouble along the Eastern Seaboard. Things are becoming…” Gutman paused and then finished with a chuckle, “stuck. My buyer would like you to unstick them.”

Eliot shook his head even though Gutman couldn’t see him. “I don’t do that anymore.”

“I know, I know,” Gutman sighed again. “But you won’t have to compromise your newfound morals. I just need you to scare him a little. Convince him.”

Eliot hesitated. It sounded simple but these things never were; there’d be some kind of catch. “How much.”

“Three times what I offered for the monkey.”

Ninety thousand dollars. Not enough that it meant a mob war, but enough to mean that he could be going into a situation. Alone. He hated the bastard, Quinn, but if he were in the neighborhood, he’d call him in as back-up. Still…

“Yeah, all right. Send me the details.”

“I already did.”

He growled and closed the phone. “You know what I gotta do, right?” he said to the bad guy.

The bad guy tightened his lips and nodded.

Eliot punched him, a clean blow to the temple, then let him drop to the ground. As he strode through the tunnel, dodging pipes and trash, he began to plan.

***

He hated warehouse meets. There was always a side door or a catwalk exit or an oddly-placed office that had to be accounted for. Plus, warehouses were generally situated among more warehouses, making the getaway a chancy thing.

This meet was no exception and he arrived thirty minutes early, driving slowly around until he got to the grey steel building that had a big 13 painted on the side. He did a drive-around, then parked next to an abandoned water truck and surveyed the area. It wasn’t as bleak and rundown as some places he’d been, but it wasn’t like he’d want to host a picnic here.

He was still sitting there, waiting, when a sleek black Humvee pulled up to the front entrance. Three men got out, two clearly the help, one the man in charge. They looked around, then went inside. A moment later, a silver Lincoln pulled up from the opposite direction and parked.

It was like a comedy routine, Eliot thought with black humor because just like the other guys, three men got out—two security and one boss—they looked around and then went into the warehouse. He waited until they were all inside, then got out.

He had two options—take his time analyzing the situation or go in swinging.

He didn’t even pause. He was still a little jet-lagged and somehow still angry about the night before, and he wanted this over. When he cleared the threshold, he called out to the men standing in the middle of the empty warehouse, “Which of you is Mark Doyle?”

All six men spun around. All six men pulled their guns. Eliot chuckled and held his hands up. “Come on, guys, I’m not carrying. Which one of you is Doyle?”

One guy stepped forward. He looked a little like the photo Gutman had sent the day before except he was twenty pounds heavier and had lost some hair. “And who wants to know?”

Eliot grinned. Even if he hadn’t had the photo or recognized the accent, it was always funny when someone gave themself up so easily. “Which means you’re Doyle.”

It wasn’t a question and Doyle glared. And took another threatening step forward. “What d’you want?”

“Well,” he shrugged. “I could lie and say I was here to sell you something.” He shifted his weight. “Or, I could tell you I was a friend of a friend of a friend.” He shot a quick glance to the left and right—even though the warehouse was abandoned, there was plenty of crap laying around. That steel pipe, for example, would make a perfect weapon as would the length of rope hanging from a hook.

Doyle sneered. “But?”

He lowered his arms, just a bit. “But, we both know all that would be lies.” Doyle cocked his head and took another step forward and Eliot silently crowed, ‘Just a bit more.’

“So you’re not a friend of a friend of a friend or here to make me the deal of the century—what are you here for?”

“I’m here to tell you that you’ve been a bad boy and keeping all your toys to yourself isn’t nice.” He waited for Doyle to take that last step and he wasn’t disappointed.

Doyle’s grin fell away and his eyes grew cold. “You are, are you?”

“I am.” There was a tense moment, that pause before engagement and he waited almost breathlessly.

Doyle smiled a mean smile and snarled, “Kill him.”

Eliot was ready. He lunged, grabbed Doyle’s wrist and gun, spun him around and dragged him back. And even though he couldn’t see Doyle’s face, he knew he was gasping with surprise. He looked up at the other five—they hadn’t dropped their weapons, but their aim was all over the place, as if they couldn’t decide who to shoot first: Eliot or each other.

“Now,” he whispered into Doyle’s ear, pressing his gun to his ear. “I know you’re making your daddy real happy and you think you’re running the town, but I’m here to tell you you’re not. So, you’ve got two choices. I leave this warehouse with you alive or dead. Which is it gonna be?”

Doyle didn’t answer for a long moment and by the look of his goon’s faces, there was some silent communication going on. Unfortunately for Doyle, his goon weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer and the short one finally spread his arms and said, “You want us to run?”

Doyle tried to jerk out of Eliot’s arms. “No, you idiot! I want you to shoot him!”

The tall one tapped the short one’s arm and the short one nodded. “But boss, if we shoot him, we’ll hit you.”

Doyle groaned, “You’re both fired.”

Eliot snorted. The other three bad guys had been watching avidly but their boss—a short troll of a man—finally spoke up, “So, if we’re done here…?” He smiled at Eliot and even waved.

Doyle struggled again. “Liam, if Dubenich tries to run, shoot him.”

Liam pointed his gun at the other boss, Dubenich, making him call out, “Now, wait a minute! This wasn’t—”

“If I go down, so do you, Victor!” Doyle said. “This is all—”

Doyle and Dubenich started shouting at each other, their voices rising with every breath, each blaming the other for a myriad of problems—including something about clams—until Eliot finally had enough.

He squeezed Doyle’s ribcage and shouted, “Shut. Up!”

Abruptly, they stopped talking and he muttered, “You’re like a pair of five year olds.” He took a breath. “And since you can’t work together, I’m just gonna leave you for the cops.”

Dubenich waved his arms. “On what charge?”

“I’m sure they’ll think of something.”

Doyle took a breath to argue, but Eliot had enough of that, too. He drew his head back and gave Doyle a head butt that sounded like it hurt. Doyle moaned and sagged, not quite unconscious but a hell of a lot less trouble.

Eliot looked up.

Dubenich dropped his gun and raised his arms but his men tried to shoot it out. They were too slow—Eliot shot one in the shoulder and one in the thigh. He turned his gun on Liam and the tall guy only to find that they’d tossed their weapons to the floor and were standing with their arms raised.

“Liam? Be a pal and kick the guns over here,” Eliot said as he moved closer to Dubenich, using Doyle as a shield. Liam kicked both guns over.

Good job. Here…” He shifted Doyle’s gun to his other hand and got a pair of zip cuffs out of his pocket and tossed them to Liam. “Put these on.”

Liam nodded and Eliot watched as he and the tall guy cuffed each other. When they were trussed up, he nodded to the ground and they sat. He appreciated their practicality—if they weren’t so stupid, he’d work with them in the future.

Now for Dubenich and here, he was cautious because he’d recognized Dubenich the moment he spoke even though they’d never met. Small eyed, small souled—the kind of man that would do anything to win. “Get on the ground.” Dubenich dropped. “Now lay on your stomach.” He expected some sort of objection but Dubenich turned over immediately. Still not good enough—Eliot could almost feel him thinking. “Hey, Liam?”

“Yeah?”

“Can you come kick Victor’s gun towards the me?”

Liam got up. “Sure thing.”

Dubenich groaned and muttered into the concrete floor, “Idiots.”

Eliot just smiled and winked at Liam.

***

The rest of the operation was a piece of cake. He tied them all up and left them in the center of the warehouse and called the cops with Doyle’s own phone. He waited, hidden by the big doors, to make sure Dubenich didn’t have anything up his sleeve, but he didn’t move.

When he heard sirens in the distance, he ran for his car, then drove to the far end of the yard, found a likely building and climbed the fire escape to the roof.

He watched as five patrol cars and one unmarked town car pulled up next to the warehouse. He watched as the cops got out and surrounded the warehouse, guns drawn. He watched—with a big smile—as the bad guys were trundled out. Doyle had come to and he and Dubenich were shouting at the top of their voices—too bad Eliot was too far away to hear. They both sounded pretty pissed.

He waited fifteen minutes after the cops left, wanting to make sure that the detectives hadn’t gotten nosy. When he was sure it was clear, he climbed back down the fire escape.

He’d just leaped to the ground, a satisfied smile on his face when he heard a noise. It wasn’t loud, but completely incongruous and it took him a minute to realize what it was: someone was behind him and that someone was clapping slowly.

He turned.

And shit, so much for disappointment and anger because Nathan Ford was standing there, about ten yards away, clapping his hands.

There were several responses Eliot could give, but what came out was a weak, “Do I know you?”

Ford stopped clapping but didn’t drop the wide grin. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and rocked on his heels and didn’t say a word.

Eliot did a quick recon—as far as he could see, they were alone and he wasn’t trapped in any way. Ford stood between him and the car, sure, but that wasn’t a big deal—he could easily get away.

“Hey pal,” he said, making a joke of it. “I wasn’t doing anything. But if this is your building, it’s real nice up there.” Still nothing and he tried again. “S’got a great view, I mean it. You could park a couple chairs up there, have a beer, watch the sunset…” He wound down, one word away from calling the dilapidated warehouse, ‘pretty.’

If anything, Ford’s smile got wider. Finally, when Eliot was just going to rush him, Ford spoke, “You do nice work.”

He hesitated. Based on all his intel, he would’ve thought Ford would have an Irish accent, but no, he sounded as if he were born in Boston. “Work? I haven’t been working. I mean…” He shrugged, taking another shot, this time aiming for embarrassed, painful honesty. “I’ve been out of work a long—”

“However,” Ford said, interrupting Eliot mid-babble, “your emotional control could use some work.” He squinted his eyes and cocked his head. “You have too many words when you’re cornered and not enough when you’re not. You’re fast to anger and I’m guessing that you learned to solve a sticky situation with your fists, but that doesn’t always work, does it?” When Eliot didn’t answer, Ford went on, “Still, you’re about the best hitter I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a lot. What’s your name?”

“George.” The clumsy lie was the best he could do because whatever ‘emotional control’ he’d had was washed away in the face of Ford’s obvious enjoyment. He wasn’t sure what he was feeling most—anger, dismay or a beautiful anticipation of the fight to come.

Ford threw back his head and laughed out loud. “‘George?’” He laughed again. “Seriously? George? I need to add ‘quick-witted’ to your much needed repertoire, Mr. Spencer.”

He opened his mouth, but again, Ford interrupted him.

“Don’t bother lying. I know who you are. I know why you’re in town. Who do you think hired you for this job?”

So, anger—it was anger he was feeling and he gripped the fire escape so hard, the rough metal shredded his palm. He hated being played.

Ford’s expression evened out and his smile faded away. “Don’t be angry. Gutman said you were good but I had to see for myself.”

“And do your dirty work for you?”

Ford shrugged. “A bird in the hand and all that. I figured I might as well mix business with pleasure. Doyle’s been a pain in my ass for a year now.” He shrugged again. “But I have one question for you.”

“What’s that?”

“Why didn’t you kill them? You could have done it so easily, even making it look like a mob hit.”

Eliot hesitated. The one thing he’d learned after he’d started doing what he did was, secrets stayed secret. That made things easier when it was time to move on.

But what was he thinking? The job was done, the money no doubt wired to his account in Berlin—he could give up this one little thing. So, he cleared his throat and muttered, “I don’t do that anymore.”

Ford cocked his head. “You mean wetwork?”

He nodded.

“That’s a shame, but I can work around that.”

He frowned. “Work around what?”

Ford gestured. “Come on. I’m parked near you. Let’s go back to the bar and let me buy you a drink.” When Eliot didn’t move, Ford turned and walked away.

Eliot hesitated again, but what the hell—this was the reason he came to Boston, right?

He followed.

They were almost to the cars when Ford looked over his shoulder and said, “Stay close. We have to go a roundabout way to avoid the cops that will be at the entrance.”

They’d been standing in the shadow of the building but were now in sunlight and Eliot realized that Ford’s eyes were blue and not just a blue, but a deep green blue, like the blue off the Gulf of Mexico or the blue on low burning flame.

He swallowed, reminded himself just who was dealing with, and nodded.

_______________

 

Ford didn’t look up from the racing results when Eliot sat down. “Did you get it?”

He nodded and tossed the small velvet bag on the table. Ford ignored the bag and wrote something on a slip of paper.

Eliot didn’t bother playing games—he’d learned early on that Ford was patient and could out-wait anyone. “Aren’t you going to look at it?”

“No.”

“Because there were three diamonds on the tray. Maybe I got the wrong one.”

At that Ford smiled, but he still didn’t look up. “And maybe you didn’t.”

He hesitated. “Are you really going to sell it?”

“What else would I do with it?”

He shrugged, glanced to the side, then mumbled, “I don’t know. Give it to the girl?”

Ford finally looked up. “Give it to Parker? Why would I do that?”

He scraped his hair back. “I don’t know.” But Ford was staring at him with that serene, arch look that Eliot was very familiar with even though they’d only been working together a month. Finally, he muttered, “She’s your girlfriend, right?”

Ford leaned back and dropped his pen. “No. She’s the daughter of an old friend, that’s all.”

“Okay.”

“She’s twenty-seven.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I don’t screw children.”

“Got it.”

Ford smiled. “You’re angry.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Eliot,” Ford began, then he took a breath. “I was going to have Sam and Frank deliver the package to Gutman, but maybe you’d like to go.”

He stuffed his hands in his pockets, his fingers curling into his palms.  “Why?”

“You could use some time off. You’ve been putting in a lot of hours.”

“Hm-mm.”

“And you’re not used to staying in one place.”

“No.”

“And Gutman is in Paris now. You can treat yourself to a nice restaurant, maybe visit the Louvre.”

“Okay.”

Ford cocked his head, his eyes narrowing, and Eliot knew that look, too, and he steeled himself, remembering Ford’s lessons in manifesting dispassion and calm.

But Ford didn’t ask any more questions, like why Eliot was pissed off. He just murmured, “When you get back, I’ve got a new project that I think you’ll like.”

He nodded, got up and reached for the bag. Before he could take it, Ford leaned forward and placed his hand over Eliot’s, stopping him in his tracks.

“Be careful with Gutman. He’s afraid of you, but he also hates you.”

He nodded, not wanting to test his verbal skills because Ford’s fingers were cool yet burning hot although how that was possible, he had no idea.

Ford watched him a moment more, then sat back, his hand slipping from Eliot’s. “Call me when the job is done.”

He nodded and grabbed the bag, his heart still in his throat.

He left by way of the front door, not wanting to run into Parker or any of the other help—they tended to hang out in the back room and he needed a moment. Because his heart was pounding in his chest and his skin felt like it was on fire. He jogged across the street and down the next block, then slowed down.

It felt good, the night air on his hot face and he stopped at the corner and raised his head. Boston always seemed to be overcast at night and this was no exception. Normally, he didn’t care but tonight he felt as if the low clouds were too low, stealing his breath away. Ford was right. It would be good to get away, even for a few days. He’d do the job, have a couple good meals and maybe figure out why he was staying with a man who confused and puzzled him on a daily basis.

Because Ford wasn’t near the man that legend had it. At least, in the thirty-one days of Eliot’s employment, he hadn’t seen Ford kill or main anyone. He was a know-it-all, yes, and had developed the sarcastic silence to a high art. His crew was good and they stole and lied and conned people out of their possessions, but in Eliot’s book those were fairly mild crimes. It could be that Ford was playing nice for the new guy and time and familiarity would show his true colors. Or maybe it was all just gossip and there was nothing to reveal.

Whatever, it was sort of driving Eliot crazy, the puzzle of Nathan Ford and yeah, it would be good to get some breathing space and distance.

***

When he got back to his temporary apartment, he locked and double-bolted the door, then stripped so he could wash away the day.

He was doing pretty good, keeping his mind carefully blank, when he remembered how it had felt, Ford’s hand on his. He closed his eyes and bowed his head before the hot spray, imagining taking that hand and pulling Ford up or and pushing him down.

He jerked off that way, eyes closed, jaw clenched against any unwanted sounds, mind washed clean of everything but Ford and his smartass mouth and his pretty blue eyes.

***

Paris was a breeze.

He met Gutman in an open square in the Marais district, partly for safety, mostly because he’d heard that a good cafe had opened up nearby and wanted to try the brioche. Gutman was civil but as soon as the diamond and the cash were exchanged, Eliot was on the move, strolling away without making it seem like he was running. He turned the corner and waited, but no one came after him. He got out his phone and dialed a number that shouldn’t be so familiar but was.

“Hey there. Is it done?”

So much for breathing space and distance. Just the sound of Ford’s voice sent Eliot’s pulse racing and he growled, “I wouldn’t be calling if it wasn’t, now would I?”

There was a small moment of silence, and then Ford said mildly, “Just making sure. The money hasn’t shown up yet.”

“It’s probably a computer glitch. I’ll call you back in an hour. If it’s not there, I’ll find Gutman.”

“Okay.”

Neither said anything else and Eliot caught himself just listening to Ford breathe. Like a goddamn fifteen year-old girl and he muttered, “I’ll talk to you later.” He hung up and put the phone away. The thought of something as innocent as brioche seemed strangely unappetizing now, so he found the nearest bar and ordered a whiskey.

***

He called Ford an hour later, determined to be professional and unemotional. But it was a wasted effort because Ford didn’t pick up. After the, ‘I’m unable to take your call. Please leave your name and number and I’ll get right back to you,’ murmured in a sarcastic tone as if Ford had been smirking the entire time he’d recorded the message, Eliot said, “Hey. Just checking in on that thing.” He glanced around—no one was looking at him, no one was eavesdropping and he said, “Are you okay?” He waited a second more, then added a short, “Call me,” and disconnected.

He stayed at the bar another five minutes, his fingers resting on his phone until anger forced his hand. He rose, threw a couple francs on the table, nodded to the barkeep, then left. He was all the way back to his hotel, a modernized building decorated in ridiculous blues and golds when he realized his anger had turned to worry. He got out his phone again, dialed and got the same response. He didn’t leave a message this time, sure that whatever he said would come out wrong. He just hung up, hesitated for a full two seconds, then went to the concierge and told her he was checking out a day early.

***

If the job itself was a breeze, the trip home was not. The flight went smooth, but he spent the entire time brooding. He’d never thought he had a vivid imagination but in the taxi to DeGaulle, he began to visualize the things that could happen to Ford in the space of two hours. By the time they were in the air he was picturing Ford hanging by his thumbs in some dank basement, being tortured with burning cigarettes. By the time they landed, a hellish seven hours later, he was up to dismemberment in a sewer with a dull knife.

It didn’t matter how many times he told himself to calm down, how many times he tried to practice Ford’s mantras—none of it mattered because the only thing that did was probably already dead.

So, fuck breathing space and fuck distance.

***

When the taxi let him off in front of McRory’s, his first instinct was to rush through the front. But it was a Saturday night, the place was packed, and if someone looked at him wrong, he’d break their neck. So he hurried around the side of the building to the alley and went in through the back.

Parker was sitting at the poker table, building a house of cards. She looked up briefly, then went back to what she was doing.

“Where is he?” Eliot muttered.

“Where’s who?”

“Ford, Parker—where’s Ford?

She made a face, a non-verbal ‘duh,’ and jerked her chin towards the ceiling. “Where do you think?”

He didn’t wait because he wasn’t really thinking. Not even to caution himself, ‘slow the fuck down,’ because he’d never been in Ford’s place above the bar even though he knew the alarm code to the main door, the three easiest egress points, and that it was two floors and not one. He tore up the back steps, two at a time, ran down the short hall, punched in the code and was through the door.

He glanced around: kitchen on the left, big open living area on the right and a winding staircase right in front. He cocked his head. He couldn’t see anyone or hear anything and he was starting to realize that he’d overreacted in a big way, but still, he needed to see…

So he climbed the stairs, making his steps light but not—he told himself—like he was sneaking. He just wanted to make sure everything was all right.

He got to the top and came to dead stop because yeah, everything was all right. At least, Ford wasn’t dead. And he wasn’t being tortured or hurt. He was sleeping in a big wide bed, his arm curled around a blond-haired woman.

Eliot growled.

Loud enough for Ford to hear and open his eyes. He blinked and muttered, “Eliot?”

It should make him feel good, hearing the first true surprise in Ford’s voice, knowing that Ford was alive and well, but his anxiety rushed out, replaced by anger, large and bright. “Get her out,” he whispered.

Ford sat up. “What?”

He pointed. “Get her out of here.”

They stared at each other, a freakishly long moment that sizzled and popped until Ford, shockingly, gave in. He turned to the woman and murmured, “Sweetheart? It’s time to go.” She didn’t move and he shook her gently. “You need to go.”

She finally woke up and brushed her hair off her face. “What?”

Ford nodded to Eliot, still standing in the doorway. “I’ve got some business to attend to and you need to leave.” When the woman opened her mouth again, Ford covered her lips with his fingers and said more roughly, “I mean it. You need to go. Now.”

She looked around and saw Eliot. Instead of screaming or complaining, her face grew cold and she nodded.

“Here,” Ford said, reaching to the foot of the bed to get a black silk robe. “Use this.”

She took it then slid out of bed, making a show of drawing on the robe slowly. Eliot watched as he was meant to, wanting to roll his eyes and say, ‘Oh, please,’ but he needed her gone and she looked like the kind to argue any little point. She gathered up her clothes and brushed by him, much too close. He sneered silently; she sneered right back, just as silent, and left, banging the door behind her.

He took a breath. And turned back to Ford.

Who was still sitting up, arms on bent knees watching him, a small smile on his lips.

They’d been here a few times, Ford waiting with that knowing smirk, Eliot on the defensive. But no more. It was time to even things up.

He took a step forward. “I thought you were dead.”

“Well, I’m not.”

He got out his phone, like he needed physical proof to make his point. “I tried to call you six times.”

“Parker wanted to visit a museum and—”

He shook his head and said pleasantly, “Still talking.” Ford raised an eyebrow and shut his mouth. Eliot took another step towards the bed. “See, when you do what we do, you need to stay in contact with each other. One little slip and the job is blown.” He didn’t wait for Ford’s mocking, Like I don’t know that?, adding, “Next time I go out of town, you stay by the phone. If I tell you I’m gonna call you back in an hour, that means I’ll call you back in an hour and you fucking well better answer.” He was all the way to the bed, shins pressed against the hard frame.

Ford opened his mouth, probably to try another sarcastic excuse, but Eliot was ready. He bent over, fists on the mattress and murmured sweetly, pointing the phone like it was a knife, “If you ever do that to me again, I’ll kill you myself. Now…” He straightened up. “Get out of that bed.”

“Why?”

“So you can go take a shower.” And wash her off.

Ford hesitated, then pushed the sheet aside and stood.

It was relatively the same situation as with the girl—Ford stood there, silently saying, ‘Are you looking?’ but it was also completely different and Eliot’s heart was back in his throat and he couldn’t speak if he tried. Ford smirked, brushed by him too close—again just like the girl—and sauntered towards the bathroom.

Eliot waited, sure Ford would turn a look over his shoulder, a parody of seduction, but he just kept going. He even closed the door.

Eliot tightened his lips and dropped the phone. And then stripped, removing his clothing as he followed Ford. He could hear the shower but he didn’t bother knocking and when he went inside, he didn’t bother asking—he just yanked the silver and black shower curtain aside and climbed in.

Ford was facing the water, head tipped towards the stream, palms anchored to the tile.

It should be easy, opening Ford like he’d opened the door, sliding on him and in him like any job where the only objective was to take as quickly as possible and get out the same way. Only…

Only, he wasn’t fond of force and he sure as hell wasn’t a rapist and Ford’s back, thin but muscular and slick with warm water, was somehow an impossible barrier and he couldn’t move.

Finally, when he started to think again, when he was remembering that it was always a bad idea to fuck the boss, Ford turned and looked over his shoulder. He wasn’t frowning and he wasn’t scared—he was smirking, the smartass. “Well?” he said. “We gonna do this?”

Eliot growled and grabbed him by the waist.

He didn’t have any lube and there was no way he was leaving to get some so he did it the easy way, humping Ford’s ass while he reached around so Ford could fuck his hand. It was dirty and hot, but somehow familiar, like he’d always been doing this. He came quickly, his vision darkening for a brief moment. Ford came a minute later, just as silent. He slumped against the tiles and Eliot slumped with him, carefully killing any impulsive tenderness.

They stayed that way until the water cooled. Then they cleaned up and got out.

And suddenly it was awkward; he grabbed a towel, but his hands felt too big, his body too awkward. Generally, when he got this way, anger wasn’t too far behind—he could get dressed and out the door in under a minute.

But Ford, still drying off and heading towards the bedroom, looked over his shoulder and said, “Well?”

He had the same smirk as before and whatever knots were tangling in Eliot’s chest loosened up. He quickly dried off, rubbed the towel over his hair, then hung it on a hook. He went to the bedroom.

Ford was sitting on the bed, still naked. He patted the sheets. “Are you gonna get in or do I have to wash these, too.”

Eliot growled, “No,” then marched over and got under the covers to prove his point.

“Good,” Ford said sweetly. “Because I really don’t want to have to disinfect the whole condo.”

“Ha-ha.”

Ford slid in beside Eliot and turned on his side. “So this is what you’re like when you’re jealous?”

“I wasn’t jealous.”

“No, of course not.”

“I wasn’t.”

Ford reached out and hooked his finger around a strand of Eliot’s hair and tugged. “Okay.”

Ford didn’t believe him—with good reason, Eliot admitted silently. “Who was she?” he asked, trying to change the subject.

“A friend of a friend. They’ve got this crazy idea for setting up something in London. I told her I wasn’t interested. She tried to convince me by screwing me.”

“I hope you wore a rubber.”

Ford’s expression changed. He slowly leaned over Eliot, sliding heavy across his chest, reaching for something on the floor. He showed it to Eliot. It was a couple small flat packages and a tube of slick. “Look, there’s some left.”

“That an invitation?”

“If you’re up to it, it is.”

Eliot rolled his eyes and the pun, grabbed the stuff from Ford and tossed it on the bed. Then he pushed Ford to his back and climbed on top.

It took some time until he was ready, until Ford was ready, fisting the sheets and Eliot’s hair because Eliot wanted to use his mouth first. When Ford tugged too hard and whispered a rough, “Wait—,” Eliot pulled away and turned Ford on his belly.

He fucked Ford, not paying attention to much other than how good it felt, to be doing what he’d wanted to do for thirty-three days now and he came that way, in that same state of elated contentment.

When he was finished, he waited for Ford, helping him along until he was gasping and sighing. Then he pulled out and slid off to lie on his side. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Ford mumbled into the pillow.

“Did I hurt you?”

“No.”

He leaned up on one elbow. There was a mark on Ford’s scapula, a faint arc of red. He let his hand hover over it but didn’t touch. “Are you sure?”

Ford pushed up and turned. “Seriously?”

He frowned. “Seriously, what?”

Ford didn’t say anything for a long moment and then he said, “It was fine. It was better than fine and if you give me thirty minutes, I’ll repay the favor.”

Eliot’s frown faded. “Thirty minutes?”

Ford smiled. “Okay, maybe a couple hours.”

Eliot didn’t smile. Ford’s skin was damp again and if they were any other people, he’d stroke the moisture away. “Are you hungry?”

Ford cocked his head. “Hungry? Yeah, I guess I could eat.”

He got out of bed. “Because I’m starving.”

“I think there’s stuff in the refrigerator.”

“I’ll check it out.” He dressed quickly, too aware of Ford’s curious gaze. “I’ll make enough if you want something.”

He left before Ford could say anything and pounded down the stairs. When he got to the kitchen he gave it a moment, fists on the countertop, wondering why he was so angry. Usually sex relaxed him. Not to the point of stupidity or even to the point of zen where all things became possible and probable. No, it just quieted him, leaving him focused and calm.

But not tonight and he had no idea why that was.

He sighed and began investigating Ford’s kitchen, finding an acceptable variety of food and a less acceptable block of knives. He laid everything out, and began to cook. By the time the celery and stock were simmering in the pan, he’d regained some composure. Enough that he was able to say calmly when Ford finally came down,  wearing the black silk robe, “I’m making pasta.”

Ford sat down at the island. “Sounds good. Where did you get the apron?”

He glanced up, then back down. “It was in that closet.” He nodded to the narrow door next to the stove. “Don’t you know your own kitchen?”

Ford ignored that, instead asking, “Do you need help?”

“No.” And because Ford was actually being polite, he added, “Can I get you something while you wait?”

“Whiskey would be nice.”

You drink too much, he wanted to say but didn’t. “Sure.” He deftly got out the bottle and a glass while Ford watched, a little bemused.

“You’ve made yourself at home,” Ford murmured.

“It’s not hard. You don’t have a whole hell of a lot.” He pushed the glass towards Ford then capped the bottle and went back to slicing mushrooms.

Ford sipped the whiskey. “What would like me to buy?”

“What do you mean?”

“Food. Parker can go to the place around the corner and get you what you need.”

He shook his head. “She can’t do that.”

“Sure she can.”

He finished with the mushrooms and got going on the chicken. “You can’t just send someone, Ford. You have to go yourself.”

“Why?”

He frowned. “So you can pick and choose. Just because an apple’s an apple doesn’t mean it’s a good apple.”

Ford propped his elbows on the counter. “Sounds like you know a lot about cooking.”

Eliot glanced up. Ford’s expression and tone, unlike most times,  wasn’t mocking and his irritation faded away. “No, not a lot. I’ve picked up a few things here and there, but it’s not like I took lessons or anything.”

“Hmm.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

He tightened his lips and finished with the chicken. “If you want to get out the plates, we’ll eat in about ten minutes.” He expected Ford to argue or say, ‘Hmm,’ again, but he just downed the rest of the whisky and said, “Okay.”

***

They ate on the couch, in front of the TV. Eliot wasn’t sure if it was a conscious decision on Ford’s part so they could have sex again or if he really was interested in the Celtics game.

Whatever, by the time he’d finished his meal, he was ready to go for round three. He sat his empty plate and beer bottle on the coffee table. Ford didn’t move or look over and the only time he spoke was to make some comment about how poorly each team was doing. It didn’t help that he also seemed oblivious to the fact that there was only eighteen inches of space between them. Or that every time he moved, his black robe moved too, showing Eliot a little too much of his inner thigh.

By the third quarter he couldn’t stand it anymore. He picked up his plate and bottle and took them to the sink. He rinsed the plate off and called out to Ford, “Do you want anymore?”

When Ford didn’t answer, he turned around. Ford had gotten up and was sitting on the back of the sofa, hands clasped in front of him. “That was delicious.”

“Thank you.”

“Maybe tomorrow you can make it again.”

He sighed. “You can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because you just can’t.” He picked up the apron, hanging it up roughly like it had offended him in some way. “You can’t eat the same dinner two nights in a row. Don’t you know anything?”

Ford smiled. “You have a lot rules, you know that?”

He put his hands on his hips. “It’s not a rule. It’s just what people do.”

“Then you can make something else. How about a steak?”

“Okay.”

“And in the meantime?” Ford patted the sofa with a leer that was so over-the-top that Eliot couldn’t help but smile.

They had sex on the sofa, this time simply body to body with Ford on top. When they were finished and they parted, Eliot tried to roll to his feet, but Ford hung on. Eliot’s first instinct was to jerk away and he waited until it had passed, then curled into Ford, facing the TV. It was awkward at first and found himself wondering how long he’d have to stay that way because post-sex cuddling was something he wasn’t good at.

But he fell asleep that way, Ford’s arm heavy around his waist, the TV still tuned to the game.

***

It was an odd few weeks, he thought later when perspective and time had cleared his head. Days spent on the streets setting up deals and collecting debts balanced by nights spent on the third floor of the bar, having sex with Nathan Ford.

They were good days, he told himself. He wasn’t asking for promises or intentions, satisfied with taking things as they came. But as the weeks drew on and he found himself silently calling Ford by his first name or thinking of the bar as ‘home,’ he began to wonder what the hell he was doing.

Because life with Ford hadn’t provided some mystical entrance into his innermost thoughts. If anything, it somehow made him more opaque and unknowable and there were times when Eliot felt like he was fucking a manikin, or worse, a mirror that reflected only himself.

He didn’t bother asking for more. He’d seen how Ford distanced himself when people got too close. Case in point, the blond woman, Tara. She’d shown up at the bar a few days after the bed incident, inserted herself between Eliot and Ford, then asked about the London job. Ford said he still wasn’t interested and she needed to leave. Startled, she’d tried to press the point; Ford had simply nodded to Frankie. And then he got up and with a tap on Eliot’s shoulder, went to the back room.

Eliot had followed, of course, but he was surprised to find that his main reaction wasn’t gloating, but a strange sympathy. He didn’t like Tara and her job sounded impossibly complicated, but she didn’t deserve such a cold shoulder, right?

He chewed on that, wondering if it was what Ford did to everyone he wasn’t interested in or if it were something else entirely.

He was still pondering it, worrying it over in his mind, the day he got the call, the day everything changed.

***

He gazed around the market. There was no one within fifteen feet, but even so, he lowered his voice. “You sure you don’t want me to go?”

Ford laughed. “No, I don’t want you to go. It’s a piece of cake.”

“At least take Frank. What if this Keller turns on you?”

“He won’t, Eliot. I’ve known him a long time.”

“And you pay him well.”

“Something like that.”

“When are you leaving?”

“In ten or fifteen minutes.”

“Where are you meeting Keller?”

“Out by the airport, and no, I’m not going to tell you where. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ll be fine.” Before Eliot could argue, Ford added, “I’ll see you back at the bar,” and hung up.

He looked down at his phone, rubbing the slick surface. He didn’t like it. Ford was lying about something. Whether it was about Keller or the job itself, he wasn’t sure, but he didn’t like it. And it would drive him crazy, knowing Ford was going into a situation alone.

Decision made, he quickly paid for the mango and green onions, then hurried back to McRory’s to get his car.

***

It was easy picking up Ford’s trail—he disliked the tunnels and the freeways and would use the side streets as much as possible. Sure enough, Eliot spotted Ford’s car four blocks from the bar, heading northeast on Washington.

He spent the next twenty minutes wondering what the place, ‘out by the airport’ would turn out to be; his best guess was some sort of abandoned building or warehouse. But no, after following Ford for another thirty minutes, he found himself in front of blandly benign Hilton, about three miles from the airport.

Which was odd—In all this time, Ford had never once used a hotel as a meeting point. He’d told Eliot that they were confining and the chance of being picked out by a passerby or security camera was too great and it wasn’t worth it. So why the hell was he here, now?

Eliot waited in his car until Ford had entered the building, then followed. By the time he got through the sliding glass doors, Ford was on his way across the lobby. He had a brief moment of panic because he’d forgotten about the elevators, then realized that the lobby was actually a big atrium and the glass-walled elevators ran up the side of the wall. One more minute while he loitered behind a potted plant and watched Ford ride to the third floor, exit and turn left.

He decided on stealth over speed and took the stairs, arriving on the third floor a few minutes later. When he opened the stairwell door, he peered into the hallway and did a quick recon. “Damn,” he swore softly. He’d moved too slowly—the hallway was empty and Ford was nowhere to be seen. Which meant he’d have to creep along the corridors, listening carefully.

He found the elevator bank, then headed left, like Ford had, and began to skulk. There was no way it should have worked, and he was feeling like an idiot when he heard a very familiar voice about three doors down from the elevators.

Locks on hotel room doors had gotten sophisticated, but still, they only worked right if you actually closed the door. He touched the handle; when it turned, he slowly pushed the door open.

He’d been expecting guns or at least knives, all pointed at Ford. But what he got was completely unexpected.

Over by the window stood a man, dark-haired and thin with sharp features. Ford, dressed in a beautiful suit, was leaning against the bathroom doorjamb, hands in pockets. And huddled on the bed sat a man, a women and a young girl. The man and woman were afraid, speaking softly to each other, and the girl was crying. She looked up as Eliot moved into the room, then pressed closer to her mother.

The man saw Eliot at the same time. “Who the hell is he?”

Eliot didn’t have time to answer—Ford whipped around and his eyes narrowed as he muttered, “I told you I was doing this on my own.”

“What’s going on?” He’d recognized the guttural consonants and slurred vowels of the strangers just as he recognized that Ford had been drinking. “Well?”

“Go home, Eliot.”

He took another step inside the room and closed the door. “What the hell are you doing? Are you hurting them?”

“No,” the man said smoothly. “They are not going to be hurt. Well…” He smiled, showing a row of bright white teeth. “They might go to jail for a few years or they may be separated and deported. But they won’t be hurt.” He winked at Ford and a dull ache took up residence in Eliot’s chest.

“No,” he said, because he knew this. Using foreigners to smuggle in goods or drugs. The victims could protest all they wanted, but it never made a difference. They would be incarcerated, even the little girl, until their case could be heard, whenever that was.

He looked at Ford. “And you’re going along with this?” He gestured to the family, to Keller. “You’re okay with sending three innocent people to jail for smuggling? Seriously?”

Ford hesitated, a flicker of something in his eyes, but then he said, “Keller’s right, Eliot. They won’t be hurt. Besides, if they’d done what they were supposed to do, they wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“You’re blaming them for that?”

“Well, yes,” Ford said with a casual shrug.

Fury—Eliot had learned long ago—could produce different effects. It could confuse and make worse a bad situation. Or it could cleanse the spirit and focus the mind. It all depended on individual control and he felt it now, like the rush of alcohol coursing through his veins, making his hands and feet burn. He gestured to the family and muttered, “Ostaviti!”

“Hey!” Keller said, coming forward. “You can’t—”

Eliot lowered his head and moved to the right so he stood between Keller and the bed. “Ostaviti!” he said over his shoulder, hoping he was using the right word.

Apparently he was—he heard the soft sounds of fabric rustling and the family ran from the room. He didn’t watch them leave. He was too busy watching Ford and Keller. When the door closed behind him, he backed up, clearing a path to the door. “Keller? You can leave now or be shipped home. Your choice.”

Keller smiled. “Maybe my men will have something to say about that.”

He glanced behind him and ah, shit. So much for recon. In the threshold stood two men; behind them, being held at gunpoint, was the family.

“You see?” Keller said, “It’s not so simple, is—”

Eliot lunged to the right, sliding across the bed to grab Keller. He slammed Keller’s face into the mirror, then threw him against the far wall even as he twisted to meet Keller’s men.

It was an easy fight, but it wasn’t smooth, made more difficult by the furniture and limited space. He took out one guy easily, the next guy not so much and the third? Well, the third was the hardest and most experienced and he almost had Eliot, armed wrapped around his throat, choking off his oxygen until he gurgled in Eliot’s ear and fell back.

Panting, Eliot turned around. Ford was standing there, suit rumpled and torn, tie half off, hands covered in blood.

Eliot looked down. The third guy was laying prone, a knife handle sticking from his back.

Normally, when the action was over, Eliot would make a stupid joke, something to show that he was unfazed and everything was fine.

But everything wasn’t fine. Poisonous anger was still bubbling through his chest and Ford, for once, was silent. His mask of indifference was gone, as well and his blue eyes were alive with something Eliot could only identify as pain.

“Did he get you?” he muttered, not really wanting to.

“No,” Ford whispered. “Are you okay?”

He tightened his lips and ran his hands over his hair. “What do you think?”

“I—”

Eliot held up his hand. “No. I don’t want to hear it. I’ve got to get those folks back to where they belong. I’ve got to fix this.” He turned towards the door, then stopped. “Nate, were you really going to give that little girl up? Were you really gonna do that?”

Ford didn’t answer and Eliot looked over. Same mute expression, like Ford had just had a blow to the heart and was now only feeling it.

Eliot shook his head. “‘Jimmy Ford’s son,’” he quoted softly. “When did you not learn that there were some lines you do not cross? When did you not learn that there were some people you do not hurt?”

Ford opened his mouth but didn’t speak and Eliot felt something he hadn’t felt in a long, long time. Not hate or disappointment or even resignation—those were everyday friends. No, what he felt was something far worse. “I pity you, Nate.” He shook his head again, sick at heart and stomach. “I mean it, man—I really pity you.”

Ford’s face reddened as his eyes grew wide; he took a step forward but Eliot stopped him again. “No. I need to go. And don’t try to find me. I don’t want to see you for a while.” He didn’t wait for an answer; he left, smoothing his hair, trying to make himself as neat as possible so he wouldn’t freak out the family.

An easy task because they were nowhere to be seen. He took off, down to the lobby. He saw them outside, standing on the sidewalk, looking around, looking lost.

The concierge was watching them; when Eliot approached, she pointed and asked, “Do know them? Are they okay?”

“Yeah,” he said, smiling reassuringly. “They took the wrong bus. I’m gonna take them back to Logan. They’ll be fine.”

“Who are they? Where are they from?”

“Serbia,” he said over his shoulder as he strode through the double doors.

***

The next few hours were a blur of activity. It took him a while to get the family back to the airport. He convinced them to report Keller, but didn’t mention Ford. In that arena, he wasn’t going to help them, but neither was he going to stop them. If they gave the police a good enough description that would lead to an arrest, well, that was Ford’s problem.

He got back to his apartment at nine and immediately packed up his things. There wasn’t much—just some clothes, a few books and a boxful of kitchen utensils that he’d purchased when it had looked like he was gonna stick around for a while.

He half expected Ford to be waiting at the car when he went back down, but there was no one there except an elderly man walking his overweight pug.

He threw his gear in the car and started her up. He got all the way across the river when he realized he didn’t know where to go. He had no friends in Boston, no contacts other than those he’d made through Ford, and those were clearly out.

He ended up at a ratty hotel, just south of Ford’s territory. The streets were more dangerous, but people gave him space and that was the important thing.

He spent the next two weeks living and not thinking, doing everything to stop the spiral of self-recrimination. He’d heard the stories—he knew that Jimmy Ford had trained his son from an early age to rob and steal. He knew that education had been brutal, even by mob standards. So there was no use whining and regretting. He’d thrown his hand in with the wrong man and he needed to get going onto the next stage of his life.

Or, he could go back to an old stage. Moreau would take him back in a heartbeat. Of course, there were several drawbacks with that plan, the main one being that Moreau would want him in his bed as well as by his side and once was enough of that.

He was sitting in the bar down the street from his new place one Saturday night, thinking of other options when someone kicked his chair hard enough to move it a few inches. He twisted around, already snarling, only to have the words clog in his throat.

Parker was standing two feet away, hands stuffed in her ever-present black hoodie. “There you are,” she said.

“Parker?” He craned his head to see if she was alone, and yeah, she was. “What are you doing here?”

“Not doing my job, that’s for damn sure.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I’ve been searching for you for two weeks now when I should be working on the next job.”

“That’s not my problem.”

“Yeah, it is. You need to come back.”

“There’s nothing for me there.”

“I could give a crap what’s there for you. I’m just worried about him.” She jerked her head.

He hesitated, then asked because he couldn’t not, “How is he?”

She shrugged again. “Not falling down drunk on a daily basis put pretty close.”

Eliot frowned and looked at the table. This wasn’t his fault; Nate Ford was a grown man, not a little boy. “You make choices in life and you gotta live by them,” he murmured.

Parker huffed and sat down with a thump. “Look. I don’t know what’s going on between you two and I don’t wanna know. But Nate is like a father to me and he doesn’t deserve this.”

He leaned forward, whispering savagely, “He was gonna frame a little girl for smuggling, Parker. A little girl.

She said nothing for a moment and then she unzipped her hoodie. “You wanna know why I always wear this?” She pulled the hoodie down, exposing her shoulder. The curve of her bicep and part of her shoulder was a shiny cap of scar tissue. It looked like it had been operated on but it was still very conspicuous. “It’s because I got burned when I was a little girl. A man who was after my father thought he could use me as bait only the deal went bad and I got caught in the cross fire, literally. My father died but Nate got me out and took me to the doctor to get me fixed up.”

She covered her arm and zipped up the hoodie. “So I have to be careful not be seen with it ’cause it would identify me in a second, but at least I’m alive. At least Nate got me out.”

It was the most he’d heard Parker speak in the entire time he’d known her, but that still didn’t change anything. “Parker—”

“Look,” she said, poking him in the chest with her finger. “You two have issues, I get it. Nate’s a bastard who drinks too much, I get that, too. But underneath all that is a man trying to be good. Sure he makes mistakes. Sure he falls off the moral wagon once in a while, but what I wanna know is, are you going to help him with that or are you just gonna be another bad memory?”

When he didn’t say anything, she sneered and stood up. “Thought so.”

She was almost to the door when he hissed, “Parker!”

She turned back, one eyebrow raised and it was almost twenty seconds before he was able to say roughly, “Let me get my coat.”

***

Parker let him out at the front and then took off, tires screeching. He waited a moment, trying to remember the speech he’d planned on the way over, but the words weren’t there. It was like they’d just disappeared from his brain and he remembered something Ford had said to him when they first met: ‘You have too many words when you’re cornered and not enough when you’re not.’ A comment that had pissed him off at the time and now felt like the unvarnished truth.

But so what? He may not have Ford’s verbal skills, but he had a lot of other qualities, namely, he wasn’t a coward. So he combed his hair with his fingers and went inside.

The place, normally packed at this time of the night, was completely empty. Except, of course, for the man sitting at the bar.

“We’re closed!” Ford shouted without looking over as he picked up what had to be whiskey.

“So I see.”

Ford paused, the glass at his lips. There was a long tense moment and then he finished his drink and set the glass down with a thud. “So, you’re back.”

It wasn’t a question but he answered anyway. “Yeah.”

“Where’ve you been?”

“Here and there.”

‘Here and there,’” Ford mocked quietly and turned around. “Sounds fun.”

Ford’s eyes were red and his face was puffy, like he’d been sitting in that damn seat for the last two weeks. Eliot had to stop himself from apologizing. “It wasn’t.”

Ford turned back around. “Hmm.”

“Yeah.”

There was another moment and then Ford said, mostly to his shot glass. “Are you staying?”

“I don’t know. It depends.”

“On what?”

“On a lot of things.”

“Name one.”

“Kids. You bring a kid in a job again and I’m done. And I’ll see you’re done, too.”

Ford nodded. “Okay. Name another.”

He wasn’t expecting such easy capitulation and he added more slowly, “If Keller isn’t in jail, I want you to set him up so he’ll be in one by the end of the week.”

“He’s a British citizen but I’ll see what I can do. What else?”

He crossed his arms over his chest, trying to contain the unexpected pain that blossomed under his ribs. “If you disappoint me like that again, I’ll leave and you’ll never see me again.”

Ford was still turned away so it was impossible to see his face, but Eliot could see his jaw work, could see him swallow.

“Are we understood, Ford?”

Ford nodded and whispered, “‘Nate.’”

“What?”

“That’s what you called me back at the hotel. You called me Nate.”

He nodded and the pain lessened to an ache. “Yeah, I did.”

Ford drew a hard breath, then nodded. “Come on.” He got up, grabbed the bottle and headed towards the back room.

Eliot followed.

They went upstairs; Eliot sat on the sofa while Ford got two glasses from the cupboard. He poured the whiskey, then sat next to Eliot. But he didn’t give Eliot a glass—he placed both on the table, very precisely, and said, “Will you stay with me tonight?”

It was a question Eliot wasn’t prepared for. “I can’t. I’ve got a room in this fleabag hotel—my stuff will probably be gone if I don’t get back.”

“Okay.”

“I can stay for a few hours, though. That won’t make a difference.”

Ford touched one of the glasses, pushing it a little to the left. “I can drive you. If you need.”

He took a breath to say no thanks, when he realized what Ford was really saying, that he wasn’t near as drunk as he seemed and he wasn’t going to get drunk. “Yeah, okay. Thanks.”

Ford pushed the glass again, this time to the right. “No problem.” He leaned forward, elbows on knees. “Eliot?”

“Yeah?”

“Did you know my dad was a drunk?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“So was my grandfather. They both died from alcoholism.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Ford took a breath. “Eliot. I’ve got a drinking problem.”

He sighed. “Yeah, Nate, you do.”

“I’m gonna have to do something about it.”

“Yeah, you will.”

Ford clasped his hands. “I tried before but it didn’t take.”

“Maybe you should get a hobby instead of sitting at the bar all day—that might help.”

Ford turned his head and smiled, barely. “Basket weaving?”

Eliot cracked a smile, too. “If you take up basket weaving, I’m gonna call the men in white coats.”

Ford nodded and gave Eliot a smile that was oddly sweet. “I’m counting on that.”

Eliot heard the real meaning behind the bland words and he wanted to say, ‘Yeah, Nate, I’ll be here for you. You may not want me, may not want it, but I’ll be here.’

Ford cleared his throat and said again, “Eliot?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m tired of this life.”

He held his breath. He could take that in a lot of ways but he picked the most optimistic. “You mean you want to go straight?”

Ford nodded. “It used to be fun, running things, but now?” He shrugged. “Not so much.”

The relief was greater than it should be, considering. “What do you have in mind?”

“I don’t know. I’m still thinking about it.”

“I’ll help you with it. Parker will, too.”

Ford looked up. “You will?”

“Of course we will, Nate. What do you think I’ve been doing. What do you think she’s been doing?”

Ford blinked, then sighed deeply, like he was drawing his last breath from the bottom of his lungs. He picked up his glass. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

Ford held the glass to the light, then cocked his head and glanced at Eliot. “What should we drink to?”

Eliot reached for his whiskey and thought a moment. They hadn’t really solved all the things between them. There would still be parts of Ford that puzzled and confused him. Just as, he realized with sudden insight, just as there might be parts of him that puzzled and confused Ford. But whatever,  at least they were here, at least they were gonna try.

So he raised his glass and muttered the only thing that came to mind: “How ’bout we drink to Jimmy Ford’s son?”

 

fin

 

 


 

Two

 

 

He’d heard it, even before he decided that he’d grown tired of Gutman and his demands. Told in whispers and sighs and once by an Irish mobster who’d seen better days: ‘Watch out for Jimmy Ford’s son. He runs Boston.’

Eliot always took the comments with a grain of salt. He’d been around bad guys almost half his life—hell, he was a bad guy—what was one more? Still, as the trail for the so-called Second David grew hot, then cold, then hot again, he found his curiosity growing as well. He was tired of the same old thing. It used to be that once he got a job, he’d feel a sense of excitement and purpose; now, he was just bored. It would be good to go up against someone new and test his metal. And if the pickings were good and Nathan Ford was everything everyone said, he’d hitch his wagon to Ford’s, make a small fortune and then lay low for a few years because he was getting tired of that, too, moving around and it would be good to sit still for a while.

So, he wrapped things up in London and got on a plane. As the flight from Heathrow touched down at Logan, he couldn’t help a shiver of excitement. This was going to be fun.

***

This was so not fun, he thought as he ran from the taxi to the bar, trying to dodge the snow that fell in sheets. He’d been to Boston a handful of times but didn’t remember it being this snowy. It sort of put a damper on his eagerness to meet Ford, pun not intended.

When he got inside, he stamped the snow off his boots and wiped the wet off his hair and looked around.

The bar was full of old timers and young office types. None, though, looked like a world-class criminal. There was a guy in a back booth that had a shady air, but that disappeared as soon as a blond women came in; the guy’s face lit up with a broad smile and he waved to the woman. So, probably not Nathan Ford.

The counter was too crowded so he ended up at a small corner table. The spot was good, though—the front door was ten steps to the right and he had a clear line of sight to the entire bar. He ordered a beer and sat back to wait.

And he waited. And waited, growing more impatient as the patrons came and went. Maybe the intel was wrong. He’d been told that Ford had put the three families onto a long boat back to the home country and set up shop in a southie bar called McRory’s. Maybe he had the wrong place.

About eight, he couldn’t stand it anymore. When the waitress made her pass, he raised a finger and called her over.

“Can I get you something else?” she asked, juggling a full tray so she could tuck her tip money in her apron.

“No, but I’m wondering…” He dropped his voice because this was a delicate thing and could go the wrong way. “I was told Nathan Ford hung out here. Is he…?” He gestured and smiled, hoping both were as charming and reassuring as they were meant to be.

But she didn’t shrink or freak out or anything. She just grinned. “Nate? Oh, he won’t be here tonight. Saturday night he spends  teaching some wanna-bes a few street lessons.”

It was an unexpected response—normally, people didn’t talk about mob bosses so plainly or with such affection. “Where’s that?”

“Reilly,” she said. “You can find him at Reilly, dominating the hell out of those little punks.”

“Where’s Reilly?”

“By the college. Any cabbie can take you out there.”

“Thanks.”

“Sure thing.” She slipped away, back through the crowd.

He glanced around, but no one was watching him, no one was questioning his questions. Interesting.

He got up, threw five bucks on the table and left.

***

He found a taxi a block away and asked the driver to take him to Reilly. She seemed to know what he meant and a half an hour later, they pulled up next to an old-fashioned dome-shaped building. He peered out the window. “This is Reilly?”

“Sure is.”

“Huh.” He’d been expecting a warehouse or at least an abandoned building—an ice rink wasn’t a typical mob hangout. “How much?”

“Twenty.”

He handed over a five and a twenty and muttered, “Thanks.”

“You want me to wait?”

He hesitated. If there was a situation, he’d need an escape route. Of course, if there was a situation, he didn’t want the cabbie to get in the way. “Nah,” he finally said. “I’ll be fine.”

“Suit yourself.”

He got out and the taxi drove away. He stood there for a moment, watching the building. It looked innocent enough—he couldn’t hear any gunfire or screams. But just because the place was quiet didn’t mean anything—he’d done his best work in relative silence.

He assessed the property, doing a quick walk-around, and found two ways in—the front and a maintenance door around the far side. Normally, he’d pick a back door anytime, but it was locked with a fancy keypad alarm. He had skills, but most of them involved the physical, not the digital.

He sighed and returned to the front and tried the door. It opened easily and he went in.

He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting—expectations had a way of tripping him up, so he tried to avoid them. But whatever it was, it sure as hell wasn’t this.

Because the lobby was dark and unoccupied but the rink was not. He hadn’t walked into any mob action—he’d walked into a hockey game. A plain old hockey game comprised of kids no taller than his waist.

He stood there in a kind of shock because he’d assumed, ‘dominating the hell out of those little punks’ was meant figuratively, not literally.

The kids were being run around the rink by a tall guy wearing all black and damn, he was a good skater, slipping in and out in smooth glides and twists. He also seemed to be their coach, shouting things like, “You got it, Frankie, but don’t give up the puck!” and “Sam, you’re still weak on that backhand—use your momentum, remember?”

Eliot watched for a while, more than a little bemused. If anyone had been nearby, he’d ask if this was the Nathan Ford he’d heard so much about. If this was the Nathan Ford that had put terror in the hearts of mobsters and gangs, alike.

Deciding that there was really was no point in waiting around, he went back outside and called a cab. While he waited, standing under the eaves of the building because it had started to snow again, he tried to figure out what he was feeling. It wasn’t anger or surprise or frustration. Or rather, it was a combination of all that topped off by a healthy dose of disappointment. He’d come all this way to meet a world-class criminal and that was what he’d ended up with?

When the taxi came, he climbed in, gave the driver the name of his hotel and sat back. He’d get something to eat and then take it easy. And tomorrow, he’d go back to doing what he was supposed to be doing.

***

Gutman’s instructions were clear: the meet would take place in an alley off Reynolds at eleven in the evening. Eliot was to do the deal and then, if it went well, make an offer for future projects.

He decided to walk. He’d spent the day in the hotel, watching the sports channel and feeling antsy—it would be good to work off the excess energy. And, if the stories about Doyle were true, having the advantage would be a good thing.

He found the alley easily enough and found Doyle, just as easy. But instead of one man there were five. None had looked over when he turned the corner so he ducked back to listen.

He couldn’t hear much—they were talking in normal tones—but what he could hear wasn’t good. There was something about ‘property’ and ‘city council’ and, ‘Father.’ At the word, ‘Father,’ he peered down the alley, and yeah, the guy on far right next to the fire escape didn’t look like a crook. His back was turned, but his black suit was shapeless and—Eliot looked down—he was wearing Hush Puppies.

There were some things you just didn’t do and shaking down a priest was one of them. He smoothed back his hair, put a stupid smile on his face and strode into the alley.

“Hey there! Sorry I’m late, I—” He pretended to look around. He recognized the guy on his left as Doyle. The goons next to him were probably the help. The fourth guy was dressed in a suit; Eliot didn’t recognize him but he recognized ‘sleazy crook’ when he saw it. And then there was the priest—he was early forties, had smooth brown hair and pale eyes. He didn’t look scared, though—he looked pissed.

Eliot gestured, taking in the group. “Is something going on? I was told this was gonna be a one-on-one?”

Doyle stepped forward and held out his hand. “Mr. Spencer, is it?”

Eliot shook his hand and forced a smile. Doyle’s accent was still heavy which would make senses—he’d been in the States less than a year. “The one and only. What’s going on?”

“Nothing. I’m afraid we have two party crashers.” He nodded to the priest and the other suit. “We were to meet in the morning but they were…” He hesitated, then finished with a sneer, “anxious. I was just explaining that I’d meet them tomorrow at City Hall as scheduled.”

“And I was explaining,” the priest spoke up, “that the church isn’t for sale and nothing’s going to make it for sale so you might as well quit trying to force us and bribe us—it’s illegal.”

The suit smiled. “And so is spying, Father. And stalking.”

“I wasn’t stalking. I saw you leave the restaurant and wanted to speak to you.”

“Well, we’ve spoken and now you can leave,” Doyle said. “And we will see you in the morning. At ten.”

But the priest didn’t move. He lowered his head and Eliot knew what was coming next—he glanced at Doyle’s goons. They looked tough but slow—he could handle all four if the priest just stayed on the sidelines.

“Hey, Father?” he said. “How ’bout you take care of your business tomorrow? It’ll keep ‘til then, right?” There was a long, tense moment of silence and then the priest drew a deep breath and nodded.

“Yeah, okay. I’ll be there at ten, but my answer’s still going to be the same.” He gave Eliot a strange look, then left. One of the goons started to follow but Doyle held him back.

“Where d’you think you’re going? I need you here. Grant?” He turned to the suit. “We’re done here.”

“Right,” the suit said. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Make sure you bring the blueprints.”

“I will.”

Doyle waited until they’d left, then said, “Now, Mr. Spencer, I believe you have something for me?”

He didn’t hesitate—he reached in his pocket and brought out a small envelope. “The list is on this drive. My boss says you’ll know what to do with it.” He gave the envelope to Doyle, wishing he’d thought to make a copy of the data. Of course, knowing Gutman as he did, the drive was probably booby-trapped and if he’d made a copy, an alarm would go off. For the first time in a long time, he wished he knew how all that computer hacking crap worked.

Doyle had opened the envelope and the drive slid out. “Liam?” he said, still looking down. “I believe you have something for Mr. Spencer.”

The short goon nodded and went to a dumpster and lifted the lid. He pulled out a black duffle bag and gave it to Eliot.

Eliot took it gingerly. “You hid it in the trash? Seriously?”

Doyle sighed. “Well, I couldn’t have the priest see it, now could I?”

He ignored that and opened the bag. He’d do a more accurate count later, but it seemed all there. He closed the bag. Now was the time he was supposed to give Gutman’s speech about opening up Boston for new opportunities but he found himself saying, “Well,” he patted the bag, “Thanks.”

Doyle frowned. “And that’s it?”

“Pretty much.”

“I understood that this was just a jumping off point.”

“I don’t know anything about that.”

“Okay,” Doyle said, still suspicious. “Do you need a lift to your hotel?”

I’d rather take a walk through a field of scorpions, barefoot. “No, thanks. I’m fine. See you.”

He took off, every sense tuned to the men in the alley, but they made no move to follow. Still, it was best to be prepared. As soon as he got to the street, he turned right and broke into a jog. He turned left at the next corner, ran across the street, dodging traffic and then ducked into the alley. He did that three more times, making a roundabout path to the hotel.

When he got to the block just south of the hotel, he examined the parked cars. They were all empty and so was the sidewalk—no one was watching, no one was waiting for him. He crossed the street and pushed through the hotel’s double doors, still on guard.

The guy at the desk nodded to him as he strode by on the way to the elevators, but didn’t speak and that was fine with Eliot.

He was being paranoid, sure, but some of the overheard conversation was coming back to him. Gutman had said Doyle was a player in Boston and Eliot had assumed that meant the usual stuff—stolen goods, gambling, crap like that. Interfering with institutions like churches and politics were a whole different ball of wax.

When he got to his room, he did a hasty sweep, then locked and bolted the door. He tossed the bag on the bed and went to peer out the window. There was no one on the street, looking up.

He sighed and closed the drapes, then got out his phone. Gutman answered on the first ring. “How did it go.”

“Fine. I’ve got the money. I’ll deposit it in the morning.”

“Don’t forget, it needs to be in my accounts by nine-thirty.”

“It will.”

“And how did the rest go?”

He hesitated. He couldn’t lie—Doyle would contact Gutman at some point in the future and whatever he said now would be a building block for that conversation. “Fine.”

“And?”

“And, there wasn’t time for anything else.”

“Spencer, you were supposed to ask him about his connections to the art world.”

He rubbed his forehead. “Yeah, I know.”

“So, what happened?

“A priest was there, okay? I didn’t ask because Doyle was shaking down a priest when I got there.”

Gutman laughed. “So?”

He knew, of course, that Gutman had few scruples and that included respect for any religion. Still, when he heard Gutman’s chuckle, something inside burned and he snapped, “I’m tired and I gotta get up early. ‘Night.”

He hung up before Gutman had a chance to answer and when the phone immediately rang, he turned it off. Then he sat down on the bed to think.

It was a long time coming, this split. He should have parted ways with Gutman five years ago when he’d done the dagger job, but the money was good and he’d been at loose ends. Much the same as now only he had more connections and his bank account was bigger. Speaking of…

He turned on his phone again and logged into his account. The money was still there, but Gutman was a vindictive bastard—there was no way he wouldn’t make a play for it. So, he quickly transferred everything but a hundred bucks to the account in Berlin.

So, that was done.

He threw the phone on the bed and fell back to look up at the ceiling. For the time being, Gutman didn’t know where he was. He knew Eliot was in Boston, sure, but not the specific hotel. Just as he didn’t know when he was returning. Which meant he had a few days to plan what he was going to do next.

And that was gonna be a problem because he had no idea what he wanted to do next. He never did. He’d always prided himself on his ability to adapt to new situations and to accept when those situations changed and it was time to move on. But the one thing he wasn’t good at was making something out of nothing and it was all Nathan Ford’s fault. If he’d been the man everyone said he was, Eliot would be sussing him out, seeing if he was worth following.

He sighed, pushed to his feet, then got the room service menu to see if it was too late to order a meal.

***

He deposited the money in Gutman’s accounts in the morning. He’d received an odd look for the lady at the second bank, but he gave her a bland smile and she didn’t ask why he was depositing such a large amount.

When he was done and outside, he stood there for a moment, empty bag in his hand, wondering what to do next. He’d purchased an open-ended ticket so he could hop on a plane whenever he liked. But…

He looked at his watch. It was nine-forty. Nine-forty, which meant he still had time to find a gym, get a workout, and be in the air by two. Or maybe find a public ring to hit his way to calm because anxiety was crawling at his gut, making it hard to think.

He looked at his watch again. Nine forty-one. Nineteen until ten and in a heartbeat he was running down the steps of the bank, looking for a taxi.

***

He didn’t make it by ten. Thanks to Boston traffic, by the time they taxi pulled up to City Hall it was twenty after. He threw a couple twenties over the seat before the driver could say anything and got out.

It took him another twenty minutes to go through security and find the room where the hearing was taking place. He slipped in and sat in the far corner behind a guy with a computer.

Luckily, the case was still being heard—on the right sat Grant and some dark-haired kid and on the left sat the priest. The audience was sparse—it didn’t look like there were too many people interested in saving the church and it didn’t look like the councilmen were that interested, either. One was half-asleep, the others were looking down at the papers before them. Finally, a man seated in the very center spoke up and said, “Thank you, Father Paul for bringing this to our attention.”

“For the third time,” the guy in front of Eliot muttered under his breath.

“You can be assured we take your concerns seriously,” the councilman added. “We will hold another hearing at the end of the month. Council adjourned.”

Everyone in the audience stood up and turned to the doors and the kid in front of Eliot chuckled sarcastically. “Council chickened out, you mean.” He hesitated, then looked over his shoulder at Eliot.

Eliot raised an eyebrow, silently saying, ‘What are you looking at, bub?’ and the guy went back to whatever he was doing with his computer.

Probably hacking into the city’s database, but he didn’t care about that. The priest—Father Paul—was coming down the aisle, a frown on his face, and there was no way he wasn’t going to see Eliot, now that the crowd was mostly gone but he bent over, pretending to tie his shoe. Which would work better if he was wearing shoes that had laces, but he was wearing his boots and he just hoped that the priest was too angry to notice.

He wasn’t. He glanced at the computer guy and then saw Eliot. He paused, started to say something, but then just tightened his lips and continued on.

Eliot didn’t straighten up—Grant would be coming soon, and yeah, there he was, too busy talking to the kid to look over. When he was gone, Eliot sighed and sat up. The place was empty; even the computer guy had slipped out although how he’d done that, Eliot didn’t know.

Whatever. It was none of his business, any of it, and it was time to go. He got up, stuffed the empty bag in the trash bin and left.

He found a taxi on Congress and he climbed in. When the driver asked, “Where to, sir?” instead of saying, ‘The Holiday on Center,’ he found himself saying, “Do you know McRory’s?”

***

The bar had just opened when he got there. The same red-haired waitress was moving the upside-down chairs from the tables to the floor when he came in. “Here,” he said before he could stop himself. “Let me help you.” He reached for a chair, but she smiled and waved him away.

“That’s okay. It’s my job. Besides, I’m almost done.” She paused and looked at him harder. “You were here the other night, weren’t you? Looking for Nate?”

“Yeah, I was.” He had his choice of seats but he picked the one in the corner again.

“Did you find him?”

“Yeah. At least, I think so,” he added with a smile meant to be confiding and reassuring.

She smiled again and lifted the last chair. “I told him about you.”

He paused in the middle of sitting down. “You did?”

“Hm-mm. He said he wanted to meet you, too.”

“He did?” That wasn’t good.

“Yep. Said to give him a call if I saw you again.”

He smiled weakly. That was so not good. “Are you? Gonna call him, I mean?”

She winked at him. “Won’t have to; he’s here.” And before Eliot speak or even move, the waitress shouted at the top of her lungs, “Hey, Nate! That guy’s here!”

He started to get up but there wasn’t time. The back door opened and a man came through. “Cora, you don’t have to scream, I’m right here.” He opened his mouth to say something else, probably, ‘Who’s here?’ but then he looked around and saw Eliot.

And just like that, the man’s whole body language changed from relaxed to vigilant. He came forward, winding his way through the unoccupied tables and took a seat across from Eliot.

He didn’t say anything—he didn’t have to because Eliot knew that look—he was being examined and categorized, but that was okay, because he was doing the same thing.

Ford was older than he’d thought; late forties with a few streaks of grey in his messy dark hair and lines around his mouth. He was good looking with almost bland features, the kind of face that wouldn’t stand out in the crowd. His eyes, however, weren’t unremarkable—they were a deep blue that seemed to look right through Eliot and he had to stop himself from shifting in his chair like a kid sent to the principal’s office.

“I heard you were looking for me,” Ford finally said.

Eliot nodded. “Yeah, I was.”

“And you are?”

“Eliot. Eliot Spencer.” He hadn’t meant to give his full name, but whatever—he held out his hand.

Ford took it and they shook, a brief press of skin to skin. And then he cocked his head and asked “Have we met before?”

“Nah. A friend of a friend told me to look you up if I was in Boston.”

“What friend of a friend?”

He smiled, trying for the same smile he’d used on the waitress. “Oh, you know, just a friend.”

Ford’s gaze sharpened, and he leaned his elbows on the table. “Yeah, I know about those kinds of friends. I know that friends can get you in trouble if you don’t watch out.”

“They can?” Eliot said, thinking furiously, scrambling for a way out the trap he’d gotten himself into.

“Yeah.” Ford nodded. “For example, we get a lot of ‘friends’ here in Boston. They come here looking to start new…” He paused, like he was searching for the right word, finally finishing with, “Enterprises.”

“They do?”

“Yeah. And so I have to sit down with them. Like I’m sitting here with you.” Ford waved, indicating the table, the bar. “And I have to explain that Boston is my town. And no one makes a move in my town without me knowing it.”

Eliot smiled weakly. “You don’t say.”

Ford smiled, not weakly. “I do say.”

“Sounds exhausting.”

It wasn’t meant to be a joke, but Ford smiled again, this time an honest, clear smile. It made his eyes crinkle. “It is because people slip through the cracks, but that’s okay—I have my way of fixing things.” He nodded to the back of the bar.

Eliot looked around. The computer guy from the hearing had somehow sneaked in and was hunched over his laptop. “And that means?”

“It means that my friends have less scruples than I; they help me out from time to time.”

If anything, he was more confused than ever. “You don’t say.”

“Yeah, so…” Ford sat back and wiped his hands on the table, like he was wiping away dust. “That’s what I do. Do you understand?”

No. “Yeah.”

“And you’re not going to make trouble?”

“Not if I can help it.”

It was the wrong thing to say and Ford’s expression darkened. He leaned forward again and murmured, “I really hope you and I—”

Whatever he would’ve said was lost as the front door opened and someone came in. “There you are!”

Eliot and Ford looked over at the same time—it was the priest, Father Paul. He recognized Eliot at the same time and he said again, “And there you are.”

Ford sat back, still twisted in his chair. “This is the guy you were telling me about?”

Father Paul nodded. “Yeah, from last night. And this morning.” He dragged a chair from another table and sat down. “He was at the hearing.”

Ford turned back around and stared at Eliot. “He was, was he?”

He hated being talked about like he wasn’t there. “Yeah, I was there. What of it?”

Father Paul frowned. “Nate, you weren’t threatening him were you?”

Ford shrugged. “No, I was just—”

“Doing what you do,” Father Paul interrupted with a sigh. “You can’t do that. I told you he’s not with Doyle or Grant.”

“Which means he’s a freelancer and they’re the worst sort.”

“Hey!” Eliot said indignantly. “You have no idea who I am so stop talking about me like I’m invisible.”

Ford barely glanced at him. “I told you, no one—”

“Nate,” Father Paul interrupted again. “Will you stop that?”

“Stop what? Just because I—”

It was kind of funny, Eliot thought with sudden humor as he sat back and watched them go at it, their voices rising. They were clearly old friends and clearly had issues. They moved on from the topic of crooks to something about the church, using that shorthand that old friends had and he’d just let keep going, but the door had opened again and a man came in.

He was short, covered up by a leather jacket and tats and Eliot didn’t have to ask what he was doing or what he wanted—he knew. He leaned forward just as Father Paul was saying something about, “…which is why you—” and muttered, “Father?” When Father Paul gave him a distracted look, he nodded to the door. “You know him?”

As one, Ford and Father Paul followed Eliot’s gaze. “No,” Father Paul murmured, “I’ve never seen him before in my life.”

The guy smiled a nasty smile. And then he reached behind him and threw the deadbolt.

Eliot had been in this situation enough times to know what was gonna happen next and it was always best to nip these things in the bud. He stood up and removed his jacket. “You take a wrong turn, pal?” The guy’s smile wavered and Eliot gave his own version of a nasty smile. “Maybe you need some directions.”

The guy hesitated and then he nodded shortly. “Maybe.”

“Maybe you’d like to go back the way you came.”

It wasn’t a question and the guy didn’t take it as such. “Maybe I would.”

“And when you get back home, tell whoever sent you that he better send a hell of a lot more than one bad guy next time.”

The guy’s expression grew mean and Eliot could practically hear him thinking, ‘Stay or go?’ but then he unlocked the door and left.

Eliot followed, squeezing by Ford to hurry to the door. The guy was gone, nowhere to be seen. He sighed and turned around. Father Paul and Ford were staring at him. The former was shocked, but the latter—

Ford was staring at Eliot like he’d just seen the second coming or something and Eliot, again, had to stop himself from shifting restlessly. Finally, because no one was speaking, he gestured, saying loudly, “What?”

Ford shook his head. “Nothing. I’ve just never seen anyone terrify another person with a single glance.”

He tightened his lips. “I’m glad I could amuse you.”

Ford shook his head again, and said, this time more softly, “Did you know that guy?”

Before Eliot could answer, Father Paul spoke up. “I have. He drove Grant to the hearing this morning. I saw them together.”

“Hmm,” Ford mused.

“What are you thinking?” Father Paul asked, eyes narrowed.

“I’m thinking of Mathew 7-7. And miracles.”

Father Paul’s frown got deeper. “‘Ask, and it shall be given you?’

Ford nodded, then looked up at Eliot. He smiled.

“What?” Eliot asked again, this time coming closer.

But instead of answering directly, Ford’s smile widened to a grin. “Mr. Spencer, how would you like a job?”

_____________________

 

He shook the snow off his jacket and hung it up. The bar was packed tonight—the storm and cold had driven them indoors like it had for the last couple days. He smoothed his hair back and nodded to Cora. She was taking her turn at the bar—Frankie was sick, which made them short and they were all filling in. Even Eliot had taken a turn, winding through the crowd with a tray full of glasses like he’d been born to it.

He made his way to his table, scanning the room for Nate.

“Hey, man!”

He sighed and looked around. Hardison was making a beeline for him, loaded down with gear, as usual. He sat across from Eliot with a happy smile and opened his laptop. “Nate said you weren’t gonna make it tonight.”

“Grant’s men are in for the night.” He shrugged and asked, “Where is he?”

Hardison was connecting something to something else and he didn’t look up when he muttered, “Who knows.”

He straightened up. “Hardison!” he hissed. “He’s supposed to check in.” Hardison just ignored him, also as usual. He got back on his feet and pushed his way to the bar. Cora was filling up a glass and when saw him, she leaned his way. “Where’s Nate?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. I thought he was upstairs.”

He hesitated, then said, “Can you go check on him? I’ll take your place here.”

She’d finished with the beer and jerked her head, ‘Come closer.’ When he leaned over the bar, she whispered in his ear, “I’ve got a couple high rollers. No way I give up these tips.”

He couldn’t help his small grin because along with good tips, she got a lot of come ons and even a few slaps on the ass. The last time that had happened, he’d kicked the bum out, telling him to learn some manners before he came back. “Got it. I’ll go see if he’s around.”

She nodded, already pouring another beer.

He’d never been upstairs. He hadn’t even known Nate’s place was two stories away until a few weeks ago.

Which was so typical. Nate wasn’t exactly the mysterious silent type, but neither was he forthcoming about anything personal. It was Cora that had told Eliot that Nate’s father had worked with the mob before dying of alcoholism. That the rumors about the three families had been sort of true—Nate had threatened the Donnelly’s and the O’Hare’s until they bowed under public and religious pressure and moved on to greener pastures.

So, yeah, he got it that Nate lived close to the vest, he just found it irritating that he had to get the intel piecemeal. He’d worked for secretive men in the past, Moreau being a good example. But for some reason this situation was different and he didn’t know why. Maybe it was because Nate was a nice guy. He had some bad points, but basically, people liked him. Eliot wasn’t used to working with people that liked each other and maybe he was waiting for the other shoe to fall.

The door was locked but he had the code and he hit it, then opened the door. “Nate?” There was no reply and he looked around.

The condo matched the Nate perfectly. It was minimally and attractively decorated with nice furniture and a few pieces of art here and there. The kitchen was also nice and even though he wanted to investigate the cabinets and drawers, he left it for later because it was kind of weird, being in Nate’s place without Nate around.

When he got upstairs, he called, “Nate,” again, not surprised when no one answered. He hesitated, then went to the bedroom.

It was decorated the same as downstairs—not a lot of furniture, but what there was, was nice. The bed was neatly made and—it took him a minute to realize what he was seeing—there was a cross on the wall above the bed. Huh.

He knew a few religious guys, but none that kept crosses or icons anywhere on view. He went to stand at the foot of the big bed and tried to picture Nate praying. What he got, though, was an image of Nate lying there with arms and legs spread wide.

He flushed and then frowned at the familiar path his thoughts had taken and went back downstairs.

That was happening more and more, the quick flashes of fantasy. Generally, they occurred out of the blue, when he and Nate were together just hanging out. It was disturbing on a couple levels, mostly because he had no idea if Nate felt anything for him. And that sucked big time.

He grimaced and wandered over to the kitchen and opened a drawer. At least the man had a good set of knives. He drew one from the wooden slot and tested it—nice and sharp and—

“You gonna make me dinner?”

He spun around, already barking, “Don’t do that! I could have cut myself. Or you.”

Nate nodded to Eliot’s whole, uncut hand. “But you didn’t.” He was carrying a paper bag.

“But I could’ve.”

“But you—”

“Nate!” Eliot growled, stopping Nate in mid-rebuttal. He put the knife back. “Where were you?”

Nate sat the bag on the counter. “Out.”

“Where?”

“With a friend.” Nate pulled out a couple plastic bags full of vegetables.

He hesitated because it really wasn’t any of his business even though it kind of was. “With who?

Nate put the bags away in the refrigerator and got out two beers. He handed one to Eliot. “A woman I met a few years ago.” He nodded and went to sit on the sofa. “She’s an actress. Well, she tries. And tries,” he added under his breath.

“Does this woman have a name?” He wasn’t jealous; jealousy was for people who had lost control of themself and the situation.

“She does. Her name is Sophie.”

“What does she do?”

Nate smiled and took a sip of beer. “You mean besides act very badly? She’s a thief.”

Eliot almost choked on his beer. Nate had never brought up the fact that he knew that Eliot had done questionable things in the past, but that didn’t mean the subject was closed. “You’re kidding.”

“Nope. I’m trying to get her to see the error of her ways, but…” He took another sip.

“Huh.”

“Yeah, hey…” Nate leaned his elbows on his knees, all humor gone. “The city council is going to rule on the church in two weeks. Paul has been asked to testify again.”

“That’s a good thing, right?”

“It would be good if Doyle and Grant weren’t involved.”

“You think they’ll try something?”

“I know they will.”

“You should call the cops.”

“We tried that. They won’t do anything unless we have proof.”

“Okay. What do you want me to do?”

“Stick close to Paul until the hearing.”

“Including when he’s at church?”

Nate nodded. “They might try to make whatever they’re planning look like an accident and if they can do it in front of the congregation, that might give them the edge they need to get the community to back down.”

“Okay.” Eliot finished his beer and stood up.

“Are you heading out?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Because I’m hungry. I was thinking of going out and getting something to eat.”

“We can eat here.”

“I can’t cook.”

He hesitated. This was a side of him that he rarely showed to relative strangers—it was too personal, too private. But Nate wasn’t a stranger, not completely, and he found himself muttering, “Yeah, but I can.”

***

It was strange, making dinner while Nate watched with obvious bemusement. Several times Eliot wanted to say, ‘What?’ or ‘Stop staring,’ but it was also kind of a turn on, being the focus of Nate’s attention and so he said nothing. Eventually he stopped frowning and began explaining—Nate was curious and wanted to know why that was cut up in strips or this was thrown into the pan at the last minute.

When the pasta was a minute from being perfect, Nate asked to taste the sauce. Eliot scooped some up and held the spoon out. Nate bent his head, hand cupped under Eliot’s to catch any spills, and, shit, that was even hotter. He told himself to calm the fuck down, that dropping the spoon and grabbing Nate instead wasn’t on the agenda, but just the thought made his cheeks and neck burn. Luckily the stove was hot—he’d use that as an excuse in case Nate asked why he was so red. Nate didn’t of course; he said it tasted good and asked if it was almost done.

They ate, not in front of the TV as Eliot had assumed they would, but at the table. Kind of like on a date.

After an initial awkwardness because they’d never done this before, Nate started talking —mostly about hockey and Boston’s chances, but also about the kids he coached. Eliot didn’t say much, unable to coral his thoughts long enough to string sentences together. It was because they were sitting at the table like normal people, doing normal stuff like eating dinner and chatting. It’s what normal people did but Eliot’s life had never been normal and by the time his plate was empty, his sentences had been reduced to single words.

“…but you should see them. A little rough around the edges, sure, but they want to be a team so they’re really trying.”

“Yeah?” Nate was working on the last bite of chicken, cutting it up into smaller pieces and Eliot wondered how it would be, reaching over to take the knife and fork away, to take Nate’s hands and pull him up, around the table and up to that big empty bed…

“I figure by the time I’m through with them, they’ll be ready for review by a scout or at least a local coach.”

“Yeah?” The sheets would be cold but that wouldn’t matter because Eliot wouldn’t care and he was good enough in bed that he’d make Nate not care, too.

“And then I was thinking I could put wings on them so they could fly around the rink. I could call them the Flying Angels instead of just the Angels.

He opened his mouth to say another ‘Yeah,’ then realized what Nate had said. He looked up. “I’m listening,” he growled.

“No, you’re not.”

Instead of getting into another he-said-he-said, he picked up his plate. “You done?”

Nate pushed his plate towards Eliot with a half smile. “I am. That was fantastic.”

He nodded his thanks and went to the sink, pretending to be busy rinsing the plates just to keep his back turned. Not something that was going to work because Nate followed him and leaned against the countertop to see his face.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine”

“Because you seem not all right,” Nate continued, like Eliot hadn’t spoken.

He picked up the sponge and scoured the plate. No sense in running the dishwasher if the plate was already halfway clean. “I’m fine.”

“Eliot.” Nate reached over and touched his hand. “What’s wrong?”

What he wanted to say was, ‘Nothing’s wrong,’ and, ‘Your sleeve is getting wet,’ but what came out was, “You gotta stop touching me, Nate.” He froze as soon as he said it and so did Nate.

“Why?”

He took a breath. “You know why.”

There was a moment, freakishly long but somehow full of a crazy kind of static energy where neither of them moved.

And then he turned.

In the past few weeks when Eliot had thought about sex—or rather, when he’d thought about Nate and sex—he’d never pictured how they’d get from point A to B to C. His fantasies were simple, basically consisting of: kiss Nate, fuck Nate.

But point A was here, staring at him with wide blue eyes and flushed face and he felt as if his feet were rooted to the ground and he couldn’t fucking move—

Nate moved. Very slowly, he reached around Eliot and shut off the water. The sudden silence was almost concussive and Eliot swallowed. Then did it again when Nate’s eyes dropped to his mouth.

It was easy after that; lean to the right and brush Nate’s mouth with his own. Move a little closer, tip his head and press harder.

Nate sighed or maybe gasped and Eliot dropped the sponge in favor of Nate’s belt loops. He pulled so they were hip to hip and slipped his tongue between Nate’s lips.

Nate’s lips were cool, his mouth hot and he tasted of wine and the balsamic vinaigrette Eliot had made. He hummed, thinking foolishly that the dressing tasted better on Nate’s lips than it had on the salad. He laughed.

“What?” Nate whispered into his mouth.

“Nothing.”

“Yeah?”

He smiled, answering by kissing Nate roughly, opening his mouth wide and pushing until Nate was up against the island, caught. So, yeah, point B was fantastic and he could spend all night kissing Nate in the kitchen, but there was a better spot a couple feet away. “Nate?”

“Yeah?”

He took Nate’s hand and stepped back. “Come on.” He nodded to the sofa and tugged. “Come over here.”

But Nate resisted, digging his heels in. “Eliot…”

“Yeah?”

“It’s been a long time for me.” Nate laughed and shook his head. “And I feel like a complete idiot for admitting that, but it’s true.”

Eliot didn’t know what to say. It had been a while for him, too, but so what? “Me, too.”

“Yeah, but…” Nate shook his head again and fell silent. But he didn’t pull away and he didn’t let go of Eliot’s hand.

Eliot took a calming breath. “You’re thinking that we don’t know each other all that well, right?”

Nate glanced up. “That’s part of it.”

“And maybe you’re thinking you can’t trust me?”

Nate frowned. “No, that’s not it at all.”

“Then what is it?” he said, trying to keep impatience from his voice and hands.

Nate shrugged and when he spoke, his words were hesitant, like he was trying them out as he spoke. “It’s just that this is a tough time for me, on the rebound as it were. I don’t want to screw up.”

Eliot nodded, finally understanding even though he was sorta pissed that Nate hadn’t been more forthcoming about Sophie. “I get it.”

Nate cocked his head. “Yeah?”

He nodded. “We’ll take it slow.”

“Okay.”

“And when the time is right, we’ll both know it, okay?”

“Sounds good.”

“Nate?”

“Yeah?”

He tugged on Nate’s hand. “Does the slow down plan include no kissing?

“What do you think?”

***

They ended up on the sofa in front of the TV, watching basketball. Contrary to Eliot’s expectations, they sat about three feet apart and didn’t touch beyond the occasional brush of shoes. He wasn’t sure if Nate was freaking out or if he was truly interested in the game but couldn’t make himself ask.

At half time, he got up to get a glass of water and tripped over Nate’s feet. He swayed, then went down when Nate grabbed his waist. In a minute they were horizontal on the sofa, kissing and kissing.

And that’s all they did, make out like teenagers as the Celtics kicked the Knicks’ collective asses.

__________________

 

Later, when time had given him a new perspective, he’d remember the next three weeks as special. He rented a car and spent his days and evenings shadowing Father Paul, making sure Grant’s men kept their distance. But when Father Paul was safe behind his two deadbolts, he’d go find Nate.

An easy thing to do because Nate had a schedule. On Mondays and Wednesdays he helped out a group of at-risk kids. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he coached hockey. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays were spent at home or down in the bar, serving drinks.

Before things had changed between them, Eliot had asked Nate if he didn’t get tired of always doing for others. Nate had answered him, saying, ‘You have a choice in life—you can sit on the sidelines or you can get in the game and make a difference.’

It had sounded too good to be true—Eliot was used to men not sitting on the sidelines, but their games never helped anyone out but themselves. But now, now he got it and when he could, he helped out. He acted as chauffer when the ancient bus crapped out on the kids. He sponsored a fundraiser by taking on all comers in a spur-of-the-moment darts competition. He even got Hardison to set up a website for one of the shelters so they could take online donations.

But, as good as all that felt, his favorite times were when he was on the rink with Nate and the kids. He’d played some when he was young and it soon came back to him, skimming across the ice, following Nate’s lead, offering advice and encouragement when it was needed.

And that’s where he was the night Nate got the call, the night everything changed.

***

“Sam?” Nate called out, slowly skating after the kids as they moved off the ice. “You gotta practice your backward c-cut, okay?”

Sam raised his stick and waved wearily.

Nate grinned. “Nice work, everyone. You’re looking great.”

“Yeah—great job, guys,” Eliot added. “See you on Tuesday!”

That got a chorus of tired goodbyes and Nate murmured, “I’ll go out and make sure they get on the bus. Don’t go anywhere.”

As if. It had been three days since he’d been alone with Nate—he wasn’t going anywhere. He took off, skating for the far end of the rink where the puck rested. He tapped it this way and that, keeping his mind blank, not letting his imagination run wild because tonight might turn out like any other night and he was getting tired of it, tired of waiting for Nate.

“You should have gone pro.”

He turned. Nate was skating towards him, stick in hand. Earlier, he’d just been coaching, watching and guiding the boys, but now it looked like he wanted to play and Eliot said a silent, ‘Hell, yeah.’

He slapped the puck towards Nate. “I thought about it.”

Nate sent the puck back. “But?”

“But, I decided that the military needed me more,” he answered absently. He didn’t want to talk about himself; he didn’t want to talk period—he wanted to have sex with Nate and if he couldn’t have that, he wanted to play. So he slapped the puck towards Nate again, off at an angle as if he’d made a mistake. Before Nate could reach it, he rushed him, catching the puck first.

Nate laughed out loud. “Really?” he said and they were off, fighting for the puck, pushing and chasing each other around the ice.

It was strangely erotic, grabbing and shoving Nate, being grabbed and shoved in return, all the while laughing and it felt so good, Nate felt so good. Until he twisted at the wrong moment and rammed into Nate backwards. Nate dropped his stick and grabbed him, pulling him in. Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore.

“Nate?” he whispered.

Nate brushed Eliot’s hair off the back of his neck and muttered into his skin, “I don’t want to wait anymore, Eliot.”

Nate was panting from exertion and the warmth of his mouth made Eliot’s knees weak. “Me, neither,” he said around a shiver. “I mean, me too.”

Nate breathed a laugh. “Come on.”

They skated to the entrance, changed from skates to shoes and packed up their gear. Eliot waited at the doors, while Nate got the lights, mind back to that same blank calm, focusing on the way the arena’s roof looked like a ribcage. Even the main support beam looked like a spine and—

The lights went off and he was in darkness and Nate was coming towards him.

It wasn’t a complete blackout and he could see the look in Nate’s eyes when he got closer—seriously intense and something Eliot could only identify as desperate. He dropped his bag, Nate dropped his and they met near a column of concrete.

It was simple, the kind of sex Eliot was long used to—get it done, kill the need, move on to the next thing. But…

But it was also so different.

Nate wasn’t smooth or practiced—he fumbled, his hands everywhere, tangling in Eliot’s hair, then fisting his shirt, like he couldn’t decide where to touch first. When Eliot reached around and slipped a cautious hand under Nate’s sweater, searching for skin, Nate moaned and bit him on the shoulder, too hard, mumbling apologies immediately after. And maybe that was it, because it was a rush, Nate’s feverish response, like he’d been living on a dessert island for years, his right hand his only company.

So, yeah, a rush that became contagious and Eliot forgot calm, forgot everything but the need to get Nate’s sweater pushed up and his pants pushed down. He wanted to drop to his knees and use his mouth, but something said, ‘wait,’ so he settled for slipping his fingers into Nate’s boxers.

“Eliot,” Nate moaned into his ear.

“Yeah?”

“That feels so good.”

He palm Nate’s dick, unable to help a little laugh. “It better.”

“Here…” Nate said, pressing his hand against Eliot’s chest, his meaning clear. “Show me.”

And that was hot, too, unzipping his own jeans, guiding Nate’s hand, curling all ten fingers around his dick and yeah, Nate was right—it felt so fucking good.

They brought each other off that way, in a hurry but not hurried, pressed against the column and against each other. When he came, his vision whited out and he curled into Nate, hoping they wouldn’t fall.

***

They didn’t speak on the way home. They stayed in their own corner of the car, as it were, and—Eliot snuck a glance—they were both smiling.

It had been a long, long time since he felt this relaxed and as they drove over the river, he began to plan.

He’d keep his money where it was—no sense in pulling it all out now. But he’d transfer enough to keep him going for a year or so. He’d always wanted his own restaurant, but that was a pretty big commitment. It would be better to wait, to see what went down. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t find a small place that needed a good chef. In a year or so, he’d start looking at commercial spaces.

They were almost home when Nate’s cell rang. He looked at the display, then answered cheerfully, “Maggie. It’s been a while—how are you?” Whatever she said wasn’t good news and Nate’s smiled faded away. He glanced at Eliot then said, “Where is he?” More silence and then, “Yeah, I got it. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” He hung up. Then threw the phone at the dashboard.

Eliot, caught by surprise, shielded his head, yelling, “What the hell?”

“Paul,” Nate answered grimly. “Paul was attacked.”

***

They arrived at the hospital just as a nurse was leaving. Nate hesitated, then went in. Eliot followed more slowly. Nate hadn’t said anything the entire drive over, but he was furiously angry and it didn’t take a brain surgeon to guess why.

“Paulie?” Nate said softly, leaning over the bed.

Father Paul stirred and looked over. The goons had done a number on him—his left eye was swollen closed and the side of his mouth was black with bruises. “Hey.”

Nate found a chair and sat with a thud. “Oh, Paul. I’m so sorry.”

Father Paul tried to roll his eyes. “This isn’t your fault.”

“Yeah, but I—”

Father Paul pushed himself up. “Hey, idiot, we knew this could happen. knew this could happen. It’s my fault.”

Eliot crossed his arms. “How’d they get you?”

“I had to perform last rites,” Father Paul answered. “I should have called you but it’s been so quiet. I figured they’d given up.”

“Men like that don’t give up,” Nate said softly. “They have the patience of Job.”

“Speaking of,” Father Paul said, reaching out to touch Nate’s arm. “I’m going to have to skip services. Can you fill in for me?”

Nate stilled. Then he shook his head abruptly. “I can’t. You know I can’t.”

“Yes, you can.”

Nate leaned forward. “Paul, I can’t.” He hesitated, shooting a quick glance back at Eliot. “I’ve sinned and I—” He swallowed whatever he was going to say and looked down at his hands. “I can’t.”

Father Paul frowned and looked at Nate and then at Eliot. And then his face cleared and he breathed a hushed, surprised, “Nate.”

“I know.”

“It’s a mortal sin.”

“If you believe in those kinds of things,” Nate muttered under his breath.

Father Paul’s frowned deepened and he leaned sideways. “You still believe. Don’t tell me you don’t. I recognize shame when I see it.”

Nate looked up. “I’m not ashamed.”

“You should be.”

Nate drew a breath to speak but Eliot got there first. He’d been listening, trying to make sense of the conversation, trying to hear what he was hearing. “Wait a minute,” he said, coming forward, jerking Nate’s chair around. “You’re a priest?”

Nate looked up at him, eyes widening with shock. There was complete silence and Eliot could hear the soft beep of a machine, the rush of blood in his own ears and he said it again, “You’re a priest?”

Nate stuttered, “I thought you knew.” He grabbed Eliot’s arm. “Eliot, I thought you knew.”

Eliot shook his head and took a step backwards. It was all coming back to him, comments like, ‘…he’s teaching some wanna-bes a few street lessons,’ and, ‘I’m trying to get her to see the error of her ways.’ Both perfectly innocent comments but he should have known. All that volunteer work that Nate did, his hesitancy about sex, the way he’d been so frantic like he hadn’t had it in years, and fuck, even the cross over the bed—how had he missed that?

He rubbed his hands over his face, smelling the faint traces of sex and he felt sick. He took another step back.

“Eliot?” Nate said softly. “Where are you going?”

“I need to think about this.”

Nate made to get up. Eliot shook his head ‘no.’ “You gotta give me some time, Nate.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“I’ll call you in a few days.”

“Yeah, okay.”

He glanced at the bed. Father Paul was watching him. “You gonna be okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” Father Paul said softly. “The police are looking into it.”

He tightened his lips. Nate should have listened to him in the beginning about calling the cops in. “Yeah, okay.” He turned to the door. But at the threshold his feet wouldn’t work anymore. He looked over his shoulder.

That day. That day he’d first met Nate seemed so long ago, like it had been lived by someone else and he murmured, “Who would have thought it—Jimmy Ford’s son.”

Nate opened his mouth but Eliot shook his head again and left.

***

He went back to his place, mind on autopilot. He showered, then went to bed, but didn’t sleep. He lay on his back, hands folded on his chest, staring at the ceiling.

What a complete fuck up. Here he thought things were going pretty well, that he’d found somewhere—and someone—to call his own. It just went to show that life was never a sure thing and there was always something waiting to knock you down. And he really should have known. The signs were all there and it wasn’t just the sex. Nate didn’t swear a whole lot and he didn’t drink much. He had Hardison, but contrary to what Nate had said the day they’d met, Eliot hadn’t seen Hardison do anything other than fix the cable when it went out.

It had been there, right before his eyes and it wasn’t hindsight. It was acknowledging something that had confused him from the very beginning—that Nate was a good guy. Good guys, in Eliot’s broad experience, lived in a different world, almost were a different race—no wonder he hadn’t recognized that it went deeper.

Well, now he knew. Now he could do something about it. He’d pack his things and get out of town like he’d planned months ago. Nate had paid him well, although where he got the money, Eliot didn’t know. Maybe the Church gave it to him. Maybe they had a fund for priests who hired hit men and hackers to do their dirty work.

He reminded himself that Nate hadn’t hired him as a hitman, just as a bodyguard, but it didn’t make him feel any better.

At eleven his cell rang. He got it out and looked at the number even though he really didn’t have to and yeah, it was Nate. He didn’t answer—he needed time and he wasn’t sure what it would do if he heard Nate’s voice.

He fell asleep around midnight, still holding the phone.

***

The next few days were a blur. He visited Father Paul in the hospital after making sure that Nate wasn’t anywhere nearby. He went to the gym and worked out, then went for a long run in an effort to exhaust himself into a stupor. He got online and checked the flights out of Boston. He knew Eastern Europe like the back of his hand but maybe he’d go somewhere different for a change. Maybe someplace warm. He didn’t purchase a ticket, but that was because, he told himself, he wanted to make sure Father Paul was okay before he left.

He wasn’t very successful about avoiding thoughts of Nate but he tried. He didn’t think about Nate when he got up in the morning. He didn’t think about Nate when he was on his run and he passed an outdoor rink. And he didn’t think about Nate when he went to bed at night.

But when Sunday morning arrived, he sprang out of bed, got dressed and hurried to the car. He was almost to the church when he realized where he was going and he stopped in his tracks, sliding on the new-fallen snow. This was insane. He couldn’t go trotting in there when Nate was up at the alter—he just couldn’t.

But neither could he not go and he found himself merging with the small stream of people making their way up the steps and into the church.

When he got inside, he looked around. The church was small and so was the vestibule. He needed to pick a good place so Nate wouldn’t see him and there was really only one choice. He sat behind a woman with a big purple hat, sliding along the pew until his line of site to the alter was blocked.

The church grew crowded and he occupied himself with people-watching, wondering what sins they’d committed that week. The big guy on the left and two rows down probably cheated on his wife—he kept glancing at his cell every few seconds. The well-dressed woman on his right had a snooty air about her—he bet she was an executive at some big corporation and spent her days ripping off her employer.

Everyone around him had probably committed some kind of sin and now they’d come to church to get a reprieve and a big happy feeling and ten to one they’d go home and sin some more.

He clenched his jaw and was really working up a good steam when movement on his left caught his attention. A man in black had taken a seat a few rows away and even from the back, Eliot recognized him. So much for being sneaky and what the hell was Nate doing in the audience when he should be up front?

He wasn’t going to stick around and find out. With an apologetic whisper, he rose and edged his way down the row, away from Nate. Then he hurried through the vestibule and out the big doors.

He was almost at the bottom of the steps when he heard, “Eliot!”

“Damnit,” he growled and kept going.

“You might as well wait! I’ll just follow you.”

He sighed and stopped under a big tree, then turned. Nate was striding towards him, his breath vaporizing in the air. He was wearing a black suit and white tabbed collar. And apparently it didn’t matter that he was dressed in spiritual clothing—just the sight of him had Eliot’s blood racing and fuck it, he wanted him more than ever.

He sighed and when Nate was within whispering distance, muttered, “What?”

Nate laughed, not happily; he even raised his arms. “What? What?”

“Yeah, what do you want?”

“Eliot—” Nate ran his hands over his head, making his hair stand up in curls. “Where were you?”

“Around.”

“Because I tried to call.”

“Yeah?”

“I even came by your apartment.”

“I haven’t been home much.”

“I know.”

Nate sighed. “Eliot.”

“What?”

“We need to talk.”

“We’re doing fine.”

“No, I mean someplace else.”

“Don’t you have to be in there?” He jabbed his thumb at the church.

“No, Paul insisted on handling services. Besides—” Nate stuffed his hands in his pockets and kicked at the snow.

“‘Besides,’ what?”

Nate looked up, his eyes stark and sad. “Besides, I’m not in a state of grace. I can’t perform the rituals.”

That’s what he’d said at the hospital, so it looked like that piety wasn’t an act.

Nate sighed. “Eliot, I know what you’re thinking but—”

Suddenly, Eliot was incredibly, extremely angry. He turned in a sharp circle, anything to keep the anger in check, then snarled in Nate’s face, “No, you don’t know what I’m thinking, Nate. You don’t know what I’ve been thinking and how it made me feel to find out—” He shut up and shook his head. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I never lied to you,” Nate said softly. “I thought you knew.”

The same words as before but this time he heard them differently and he remembered his thoughts of a few days before, about his own blindness. His anger died and he shifted from foot to foot. “Yeah, I believe you.”

They were both silent for a moment, and then Nate said, “Where do we go from here?”

Eliot hesitated. “I need to know one thing before I see you again: Are you still a priest?”

Nate shook his head. “I was.”

“And you really defrocked yourself or whatever it is?”

“Almost. It’s a long process, but I’ve finally convinced my superiors to accept that I’d lost my calling.”

Nate’s words were straightforward but bleak and Eliot had to stop himself from reaching out—he was still angry and it was too soon. Besides, the snow was falling harder and he was cold. “I’ve gotta get home. I’ll come by the bar tomorrow.” He started walking again.

“Can I drive you?”

“No, I’m set.”

“Eliot—”

But Eliot wasn’t listening. He was looking at the parking lot, scrutinizing the guy standing by the corner of the church. “Nate?”

“I see him. He was the one that came to the bar, isn’t he?”

Eliot took Nate’s arm and hustled him behind an SUV. “Yeah, and if I know his kind, his friends are nearby.”

Sure enough, he’d barely finished speaking when two other men came around the corner. They huddled together, clearly up to no good.

“They wouldn’t interrupt services, would they?” Nate whispered.

“What do you think?”

“I think we need to go stop them.” Nate moved, but Eliot grabbed him again.

“Oh, no you don’t. I’m gonna take care of it. You’re gonna stay here.”

Nate opened his mouth and Eliot shook his head. “Okay,” Nate said. “But don’t do anything stupid. I’m going to call the police.”

“Give me five minutes, then call the cops.”

Nate tightened his lips, like he was wanted to argue. But he didn’t. He just hunched his shoulders and muttered, “Okay.”

The goons had split up and Eliot had to go but he had one last thing to do—he pulled his jacket off and gave it to Nate. “Here. So you don’t freeze to death.”

Nate took it without a word. Eliot nodded and then left his hiding place, striding out into the open.

“Hey!” he yelled. The goons looked around, confused. “That’s right, I’m talking to you!” He stopped in the middle of the parking lot. There were cars on either side, but the space was good—he had plenty of room.

“I remember you.”

He turned around. The guy from the bar was standing about twenty feet away and was holding a baton. Eliot thought about Paul, about what he’d been through and he grinned. “Yeah, I thought you might.”

“You’re the one that’s been watching the priest.”

Behind him, he could hear footsteps but he didn’t turn. “I am.”

The man sneered and came closer. “You didn’t do a good job.”

To the right, out of his sight line, he heard the third set of footsteps. “Neither did you.”

The man’s sneer dropped away and he raised the baton. “That won’t matter none. We’re here to finish it.”

“What about the police?” It was almost time—they were almost within reach and he took a deep breath.

“We’re protected. They can’t do nothing to us.”

He smiled again, mean and nasty, then muttered, “That’s what they all say,” and waited.

It was a second, that moment of zen before a bullet struck or a fist made contact. And then they were on him.

He took the tallest down first. He was slow and tentative and it was easy, using the man’s own long limbs against him. He broke the guy’s wrist and then ribs and threw him to the ground just in time to meet the second guy’s punch. It hurt and drew blood, but the pain cleared his mind and he methodically took the second guy out by simply slugging him the temple.

And that left the first guy, the mean guy. He’d lost some of his nerve and kept glancing down at his fallen friends, but Eliot didn’t count him out—fear was a great motivator and he needed to be careful.

He was proved right a few seconds later. As they circled each other, the guy sheathed his baton and brought out a gun instead.

“Now that?” Eliot said, as obnoxiously as possible. “That’s just cheating.”

“Yeah, but who’s counting?”

Another smartass comment was on his lips when the balance of power shifted and the scene unfolded like a jerky reel from one of those old movies: The guy brought the gun up and aimed. Nate shouted, “Watch out!” The guy turned towards Nate. Eliot leaped. They hit the ground. He grabbed the guy’s skull and slammed his head on the wet asphalt

And then it was over and time resumed. He straightened up and turned to look at Nate. He was holding the gun, pointing it at the bad guy. Even from a distance of eight feet, Eliot could see his hand was shaking. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Then can you put the gun down? Priests aren’t supposed to carry, right?”

Nate looked down at the gun, then up at Eliot. His posture softened and he shook his head. “I’m not a priest.” He held the gun out, awkwardly. Eliot got to his feet and took it.

Eliot wiped blood from his lip. “You call the cops?” Beyond Nate, under the church’s eaves, a small crowd was gathered.

Nate didn’t bother to lie. “The minute you started swinging. They should be here in a few minutes.”

“I guess that talk is gonna have to wait.”

“I guess it will.” Nate glanced at the crowd and then up at the big white cross on the peak of the roof. “Eliot?”

“Yeah?”

“Maybe you should leave before the police get here.”

He hesitated. In the past, he’d done anything to avoid contact with—or notice by—law officials. It was necessary to his line of work. But things had changed. There might be complaints about excessive force but he was willing to take that chance. Besides, there was no way he was leaving Nate to face the cops—and his Catholic conscience—on his own.

So he just shrugged and said quietly, “No. It’s all right. I’ve got nothing to hide.”

Nate took off Eliot’s jacket and gave it to him. “And after?”

He looked down at the ground. “You told me something once that I didn’t understand at the time. You said you were on the rebound.” He peered at Nate. “Remember?”

Nate nodded. “I remember.”

“I think you need time to figure things out—can you do that if I’m around?”

Nate started to answer, then took a breath and muttered, “Maybe.”

“That’s what I thought.” He tugged on his jacket. “I’m not going to go anywhere, but let’s give it a few weeks, okay?”

“Yeah, okay.”

He took a step forward, but stopped—Father Paul was striding over, white and gold robes fluttering. He nodded and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Here comes the cavalry.”

_________________

 

He managed to stay away for two weeks.

He watched from a distance, making sure Father Paul survived the following days, not too worried because the police had finally gotten into the act. He watched from the sidelines of his television as the sale of the St. Nicholas was finally put to rest.

When he wasn’t watching, he did normal things like buy a car and sign a contract for a six-month lease on the apartment. He bought kitchen supplies and food. He worked out—probably a bit too much, but it was always good to stay in shape.

Finally, fourteen days after the fight in the church parking lot, just as he was leaving the gym for the second time that day, he realized two things simultaneously: that his initial anger was gone and that he missed Nate like hell. Without thinking beyond that, he got in his car and headed west.

It had been snowing again, thick heavy flakes that formed piles and ruts of freezing slush. He stopped once and helped a guy get his BMW out of a snow bank, then continued on.

As he turned onto Chestnut he slowed down. The rink’s lot was lit up and with the snowing falling everywhere, it looked kind of like a snow globe, like Christmas had come early. He smiled.

When he got inside, they were just about done with practice, gathered around Nate in a tight group. Eliot hesitated, then went onto the ice. When he got halfway there, Nate looked up. Their eyes met.

Nate stopped what he was saying and took a breath and said softly, “Well, look who’s here.”

The kids turned, some calling out a chorused, “Eliot!”

He nodded. “Hey guys. How’s it going?”

“Nate’s not gonna be a priest anymore,” Sam said. “But he’s still gonna coach us, right?” He turned back to Nate with a worried frown.

“You betcha,” Nate assured them. “That’s not going to change.”

“He’s gonna marry some lady,” said another kid that Eliot vaguely remembered as Will. “That’s what Father Thomas did.”

The lone girl in the group, Tina, scoffed, “No, he’s not, are you Nate?”

The kids starting arguing, talking loudly about marriage and the lady and whether Nate was going to be a dad.

Nate raised his arms and said loudly, “Hey, come on! No fighting, remember?” He lowered his arms and his voice. “No, I’m not going to get married. I just need to do things a little different, that’s all. But none of that,” he bent and put his arms around Sam and Frank, “will matter for you guys ’cause I’m not going anywhere. You’re stuck with me.” He glanced up at Eliot when he spoke and Eliot looked away.

“Now, go get your street shoes on,” Nate added, straightening up. “I called your bus driver. He’s gonna pick you up a half hour early because of the snow.”

There was a universal moan of disappointment, but the kids began to skate towards the entrance.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” Nate called out after them. “You’re looking great!” He watched them go for a moment, then turned to Eliot. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“How’ve you been?”

“Good. You?”

Nate smiled. “Good. Have you eaten yet?”

“Nope.”

“Because I went to the store yesterday and got a bunch of stuff.”

They’d turned to follow the kids and he was able to hide his smile. “I take it by, ‘a bunch of stuff,’ that means you want me to cook?”

Nate skated close and bumped Eliot’s arm with his own. “It’s that or bologna sandwiches.”

“I’ll cook.”

***

The drive was a mess. Eliot lost Nate at the bridge and had to wait an five minutes before traffic got going again. When he arrived at the bar, shaking the snow out of his hair, his mood had soured. Cora was carrying a tray of chips and salsa; he caught her eye, then gestured to the ceiling. She nodded.

He was heading to the back when a shout made him look around. It was Hardison, sitting by a pretty blond girl. He waved Eliot over, saying, “Yo, man. Are you checking up on Nate?”

“Yeah.”

“Then tell him I conquered the hell out of that cell phone of his. He has leave to dump that piece of junk he picked up at Wal-Mart.”

“Got it.”

“And tell him if he goes throwing it at walls again, I won’t be responsible for any missed calls.” Hardison winked.

Eliot frowned, but he just said, “Got it.” He nodded at the girl, then left.

He took the stairs instead of the elevator, not wanting to wait even a few seconds. When he got to the second floor, he looked around and kept going. He knew where Nate would be.

Sure enough, when he got to the bedroom, Nate was coming out of the bathroom, toweling off his hair. He’d just taken a shower and was wearing his sweats and nothing else.

Eliot swallowed and stared at Nate while Nate stared right back at him.

Nate was in good shape. His waist was a little soft and  so was his chest, but his shoulders and arms were defined and Eliot remembered how it had felt, holding him, being held by him.

“Hey,” he said softly, mostly just to say something.

“Hey,” Nate said.

“Hardison is downstairs. He told me he fixed your phone.”

Nate raised an eyebrow and nodded sheepishly. “Yeah, it broke.”

He took a step forward. “Maybe you should stop throwing it.”

Nate nodded again and looked around before saying, “I’ve been in a bad mood.”

“And you’ve got a temper.”

“Sort of.”

He moved closer. “Was it about me? Were you angry at me?”

Nate shook his head abruptly. “No. I was missing you, but I wasn’t angry at you.”

Nate smelled like pear shampoo and cheap soap and Eliot took that last step. “Which means you were angry at yourself.”

“Something like that.”

He could feel the heat of Nate’s body, could see the small drops of water on his shoulders and this was probably too soon, but he couldn’t wait. He reached out and placed his hand on Nate’s waist.

Nate shivered and sighed, “You’re cold.”

Eliot leaned in to kiss him. “You’re not.”

“Come on,” Nate breathed against Eliot’s lips.

“Where are we going?”

“Where do you think?”

Nate pushed him gently but Eliot didn’t move. There was one thing he needed before he was gonna get in that bed. He licked Nate’s lower lip. “Hey?”

“Yeah?”

“Not to be blasphemous, but can you lose the cross?”

***

It was late, almost midnight and he was wide awake. Nate had fallen asleep the minute Eliot had slid off him. He was spread out on the bed, arms out and Eliot tried not to read any symbolism in the pose. Nate had no idea he was stretched out like that. Besides, what they’d done not an  hour ago was the antithesis of any sacrament—who knew an ex-priest would be that wild?

He sighed and that movement, small as it was, woke Nate. He rubbed his face, mumbling, “Hmm?”

“Nothing.” He turned on his side. “Go back to sleep.”

Nate opened his eyes. Then rolled to face Eliot. “Can’t sleep?”

“No.”

“I’ve got some stuff in the bathroom cabinet.” Nate tucked his hands under his head. “S’posed to make you sleep.”

“No, thanks.”

“Don’t like to take sleeping pills?”

“No.”

“I’ve got some wine downstairs. How ’bout that?”

He thought about it—wine was still a sedative but it was better than an artificial drug. He nodded. “Yeah, that sounds good.”

Nate started to get up, but Eliot held him down. “I’ll get it.”

Their clothing had landed somewhere south of the bed and he hunted around until he stepped on something soft. He held whatever it was up to the fugitive light—it was Nate’s sweats.

“So now you’re stealing my clothes?”

“You got that right,” he said over his shoulder as he pulled them on.

“Thief!” Nate called out, not loudly.

He snorted in response and padded to the stairs and then down. When he got to the main floor, he could hear the muted chatter of the bar crowd. No doubt they didn’t want to go home and he pitied any cab drivers tonight.

Nate had a large selection of wine and as Eliot peered at each bottle, he wondered if he’d ever used it in some religious ceremony. Hopefully not—it would just be weird, considering. He finally chose a light red and grabbed two glasses, then turned off the kitchen light.

When he got upstairs, the lamp was on and Nate was sitting up, the sheet across his lap, reading a book. He was wearing his glasses and Eliot told himself that it wasn’t hot, a naked Nate wearing reading glasses. Then he told himself to stop staring and get back in bed before Nate noticed.

He climbed onto the bed and carefully poured the wine. He handed Nate a glass and got a soft, “Thanks,” in return.

Nate took a sip, but instead of drinking his own, Eliot just sat there, gazing at his glass, at the way the liquid slipped along the sides of the glass like red oil.

“What’s wrong?”

He glanced up. Nate was watching him over his glasses. “Nothing.”

Nate put his book on the nightstand. “Eliot.”

He crossed his legs and nodded. “Yeah, okay.” He took his time, trying to find the words to explain. Finally, not knowing how else to say it, he just said slowly, “Is it really a mortal sin? What we did?”

Nate raised an eyebrow as if taken aback. “According to the church it is. And since I was a priest, I sinned doubly.”

He frowned. “Can you do that? Sin doubly?”

“No, I was just kidding.”

“But it was a sin, right?”

Nate reached around and sat his wine glass on the book. “Eliot. What’s this about? I know you’re not religious.”

He leaned forward. “Yeah, but you are, Nate. If you think you’re going to hell, that matters.”

“I’m not going to hell.”

Nate’s instant, quiet response stopped Eliot in mid-freakout. “You’re not?”

“No.” Nate rested his arms on his knees. “I don’t believe I’m going to hell for caring about someone. It’s one of the reasons why I left the church.”

“One of the reasons? What’s another?”

But Nate didn’t answer right away. He clasped his fingers and stared at them as if they were the most fascinating thing in the world. Finally, he said, “Did you know my dad was an alcoholic?”

Eliot hesitated. “Yeah, I knew.”

“He died from it. So did my grandfather.” Nate shook his head. “It gets us, one Ford after another.”

Eliot didn’t have any words so he just nodded.

“When I was in school, I was determined to be everything my father was not. Where he was bad, I wanted to be good. Where he hurt, I wanted to heal.” Nate glanced up. “Do you know what I mean?”

“When he went left, you went right?”

Nate smiled humorlessly. “Exactly. So last year, I was giving confession, listening to a parishioner, and I had an epiphany that made me want to run out of the confessional.”

“You realized you became a priest so you wouldn’t turn out like your dad?”

“Bingo,” Nate said softly. “Not to mention that I realized I’d been feeling that way for a long time only I was too much of a coward to face it.” He shook his head, adding wryly, “That was a fun day.”

Eliot was silent a moment and then he asked, “What did he say to you? The confessing guy?”

Nate glanced up. “I can’t tell you that.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“Sorry.”

Eliot shook his head. “It’s cool.” He wasn’t hurt—even though he’d left the church, there’d be some part of Nate that was a priest.

Nate watched him a moment more, then sighed and stretched out on his side again, leaning on his elbow. “So?”

Eliot looked over. “So?”

Nate reached out and touched his ribs. “Are you disappointed?”

He didn’t understand it at first and then he did.

It would be hard on Nate, this new life. People wouldn’t understand and would probably be pissed that he left the church. There’d be constant doubt and everyone would wonder what drove him away. From Eliot’s point of view that was a big so-the-fuck-what?but he wasn’t Nate.

So he just said lightly, “If I was disappointed, Nate, I wouldn’t be here in this bed with you.”

Nate smiled, a true, honest smile. “You wouldn’t?”

“No. Any man who makes the decision you did is brave. Coward doesn’t enter into it.”

Nate didn’t say anything and Eliot added, “What are you going to do now?”

Nate rolled to his back and looked at the ceiling. “Now? Now I’m going to see about getting a job.”

“Don’t you own this bar?”

Nate looked over. “No, Hardison does. I just rent the rooms.”

He frowned, then shook his head. “One day you’re gonna tell me about that, but…” He tipped his glass again. “What are you gonna do, Nate?”

Nate shrugged. “The same thing I’ve always done. Give aid and comfort to people who need it.”

“You’ll need some help with that.”

“I will.” Nate smiled. “Are you offering?”

He smiled back, mostly to the glass. “I am.”

“Eliot?”

He looked up. “Yeah?”

“Come here.”

He leaned over and they kissed, long and hard. Then Nate pulled away and twisted around to pick up his glass again. “This calls for a toast. What should we drink to?”

Eliot didn’t even have to think. He kissed Nate once more, then raised his glass and murmured, “To Jimmy Ford’s son.”

 

fin.

Note: Even though I used elements from The Miracle Job, the Beantown Bailout Job and The Bottle Job, the entire story takes place in Boston.