When Dylan Russell unintentionally kills his ex-lover, Tommy, he knows he’s in trouble. Then he meets a man named Mars Marsden who offers him a solution — join the covert organization C21. An outfit made up of good men and women who ended up on the wrong side of the law, C21 now gives these people a chance to track and punish those criminals to whom the law doesn’t seem to apply. Dylan should fit right in.After meeting Mars’ handler, Dylan learns Tommy was an arms trafficker. Somewhat reluctantly, he agrees to go undercover to help bring down the rest of Tommy’s gang. After this dangerous induction into his new life, Dylan is sent for training.But Dylan is a marked man. Not only are the police looking for him, but when one of Tommy’s old colleagues discovers where Dylan is being trained, things get interesting. Can he and Mars survive the jobs they’re sent on? And, more importantly, can their purely sexual relationship deepen into something more before the work they do tears them apart?
The man took something from his jacket pocket, sliding it across the table to Dylan. One look and Dylan knew he was in trouble. The problem was, from whom. “How did you get this?” he asked once he could speak again.
Rather than answering the question, the man said, “Why don’t we go for a ride.”
Taking a deep breath, Dylan replied as if he really meant it, “Not until I know who I’m riding with.” He knew he’d go with him, even if the man didn’t reply, but he had to put up some sort of front, despite how terrified he was.
“My name is Garret Marsden.” He almost smiled as he added, “My friends call me Mars. I work for C21.”
“Never heard of it.”
“We keep a low profile.” Marsden stood, giving a nod toward the back exit to the bar. “If you would, please.”
Dylan looked up at him. “Why the hell should I trust you.”
Marsden chortled. “You probably shouldn’t, but given the photo—and I do have duplicates—you might want to at least hear me out.”
“Damn it to hell-and-gone, I’m fucking sick and tired of people trying to blackmail me into doing things.”
Resting his hands on the table, Marsden stated, “That’s why you killed Mr. Samson.”
Given that the photo in question showed him kneeling over Tommy, blood evident on the floor, Dylan couldn’t deny what Marsden had said. With a sigh, he got up as well and followed Marsden out of the bar into the alley behind it. When they passed the bar’s dumpster, Mars said, “Give me your phone.”
“Because the cops can use it to find you.”
“Seriously?” When Mars nodded, Dylan didn’t hesitate to hand it to him. Mars crushed it under his boot then tossed the pieces in the dumpster.
There was a half-full parking lot directly across the alley. Marsden led Dylan to…
“What the hell is that?”
“A 2000 Harley Softtail,” Marsden replied proudly.
Dylan slowly walked around it, shaking his head, before looking at Marsden. “You expect me to ride on this…thing? Is it even safe?”
“Never ridden before?”
“I value my life,” Dylan muttered, although he had to admit the idea didn’t scare him as much as might have. Maybe because I’ve got more to worry about than whether I’ll survive until we get wherever he’s taking me. And, strangely enough, I don’t think it’s to the closest police station. God help me if I’m wrong. Well, God help me no matter what.
“Hop on,” Marsden said, breaking into Dylan’s musings. He was already straddling the seat, so tentatively Dylan climbed on behind him and Marsden started the cycle. “You might want to hold on,” Marsden suggested, “and when I lean, you lean the same way even if it seems counterintuitive to you.”
“Hold on to what?”
Dylan could see Marsden rolling his eyes in one of the mirrors as he replied, “Onto me. And put this on.” He handed Dylan a helmet.
“What about you?”
“I only have one. Put the damned thing on, if you would.”
Dylan did. Then they began moving. At first Marsden drove slowly. Dylan had the feeling it was so he could become used to being on the cycle—especially when Marsden went around corners. By the third one, he began to speed up. Dylan clung to him as if his life depended on it, trying to get the hang of leaning into the turns. Finally, to his relief, they were on the highway.
Dylan wasn’t certain how much time passed as they sped along, other than the fact it was long enough he was beginning to relax and enjoy the ride. It was…exhilarating was the best word he could think of. At least until Marsden slowed enough to make a turn which took them onto a two-lane road leading between high canyon walls. It climbed steeply as it curved deeper and deeper into the mountains—the only light coming from the motorcycle’s headlights.
Just as Dylan began to fear Marsden intended to kill him and dispose of his body in some mineshaft—a foolish fear he was certain, but one he couldn’t dispel—Marsden made another turn. They were now on a narrower road. Pine trees towered along both sides, making Dylan feel as if they were going through a tunnel. Then—out of nowhere it seemed as they made one more turn—a cabin appeared. It looked as if it hadn’t been used in years—gray boards, a roof with missing shingles, the porch steps crooked and the railing fallen to ruin on one side. Even the shutters over some of the windows looked as if they might crash to the ground in a strong breeze.
Marsden pulled around behind the cabin, parked and got off, waiting for Dylan to join him. “You okay?” he asked when Dylan clambered off and then had to grab the bike until his legs stopped shaking.
“Yeah. Mostly. Where the hell are we?”
“In the mountains,” Marsden replied, grinning. “Not to worry, the cabin is better on the inside. Come on.”
“Definitely better,” Dylan said when they were inside. Much to Dylan’s surprise, there had to be a security system, since Marsden disarmed an alarm box by the front door after turning on the lights.
There was one large room. A comfortable looking sofa and two overstuffed armchairs faced a stone fireplace, a rustic dining table and four chairs taking up part of the other side of the room with a small kitchen area behind them.
“Have a seat,” Marsden told Dylan. “Do you want a beer? Or coffee?”
“I’d rather have an explanation about why you brought me here,” Dylan replied tersely.
“You’ll get it.”
Dylan spun around to see an older man coming into the room from a doorway next to the kitchen.
“Please do as Mars asked.” The man pointed to the sofa.
Dylan was tempted to say, “Why should I?” but being outnumbered two to one, he sat.
The man introduced himself as Alastair Holme, Mars’ immediate superior, as he sat in one of the armchairs. “I’ll take coffee, Mars.” He looked inquiringly at Dylan.
“Coffee, please,” Dylan muttered. “And—”
“And explanation.” Alastair nodded. “All in good time.” He tapped his fingers together, studying Dylan. “You are in trouble, to put it mildly. I just heard from one of my contacts on the police force. They’ve issued a warrant for your arrest. They have probable cause to believe you murdered Thomas Samson.”
Dylan sucked in a dismayed breath. “Why?”
Alastair smiled dryly. “The police aren’t as dumb as you seem to think. They found your fingerprints at the crime scene, as well as other trace evidence.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. We used to be…in a relationship. I could have visited him. It would explain the prints.”
“True, but they also found a witness who saw you depositing a trash bag in a dumpster not far from Samson’s home around the time of the murder. Interestingly enough, it contained items from his house. One’s, I’m presuming, you took in an effort to make it look as if a burglary had taken place during which Samson was killed.”
Mars came over, handing Dylan and Alastair cups of coffee. “Do you need cream or sugar?” he asked Dylan.
“No, thanks.” Dylan set the cup on the side table between the sofa and the Alastair’s chair then looked at Alastair. “So the police are searching for me. Why are you and Marsden involved?”
“Did Mars tell you who we are?”
“I did,” Mars put in. “And Dylan, you can call me Mars.”
“So suddenly I’m a friend?” Dylan said sourly.
Mars shrugged. “I’m possibly the only one you have at this point, other than Alistair.”
That brought Dylan back to reality. “Why am I here?”
Alastair replied, “Let me preface everything by saying this: C21 is a covert group that goes after criminals who are considered untouchable for one reason or another. Mr. Samson was one of those we were after.”
“You’re shitting me!”
Ignoring Dylan’s outburst, Alistair continued. “As part of our trying to get evidence about him, we installed cameras at his house. It’s the reason we have the photo, taken from one of the videos, of you killing him. Before you say it was on impulse and nothing more, I agree. I’ve watched the videos. However, impulse or not, you reacted swiftly and efficiently when he grabbed your arms. I was impressed.”
For a second, all Dylan could think about was the fact Alistair must have seen more than just the killing, and he blushed.
Alastair looked amused, saying, “I’ve seen worse things than two men having sex. Putting that aside, I mean it when I say I was impressed. You killed him and then, quite competently went about trying to cover your tracks, as if it was second nature to you.”
“I was terrified.”
“I’m sure you were. A lesser man would have gathered up his clothes and run. You…didn’t.”
Dylan leaned back, staring off into space. “Why were you after him?”
“How well did you know him? I mean beside the obvious fact the two of you were lovers for a while?”
“He worked as a sales representative for IE Global, an import/export company.”
“You knew this for a fact?”
Dylan lifted a shoulder. “I never visited him there, but it’s what he told me and I had no reason to disbelieve him.”
“All right. What else?”
Grimacing, Dylan replied, “He was very controlling. It’s the reason I walked out. He had to be the boss, to know everything I did, where I went and who I knew.”
“Emotionally abusive,” Mars said quietly from where he was standing, one elbow on the fireplace mantle.
“I suppose,” Dylan agreed. “While we were together, he lived in an upscale condo and had money to burn.”
Alistair glanced at Mars, getting a nod in return, then said to Dylan, “He was part of IE Global, but not as one of their sales representatives. He was the owner of record. While on the surface they are exactly what they seem, behind the scenes he and his three partners deal in arms trafficking.”
Dylan looked at him in shock. “You have got to be kidding. Tommy?
“Yes. His real name was Tommaso Sansone.”
“No. He was an independent, although he had some Mafia contacts. He also had friends in high places who managed to keep him from facing charges for what he was doing. That’s where we came into the picture.”
“If it hadn’t been for his bad luck in meeting you,” Mars said with a dry smile, “we’d still be trying to gather enough evidence to either stop him and his cohorts or, if necessary, eliminate him.”
“Saved you the trouble, in his case at least, didn’t I?” Dylan replied sardonically. Then what Mars had said hit him. “That’s what you do? Kill people?”
Alistair nodded. “When the situation warrants.”
“So, what does all of this have to do with me? Why did you bring me here, rather than letting the police find and arrest me?”
“Ask Mars. It was his idea.”
Mars came over to sit at the other end of the sofa. “I think you have potential.”
“For what?” And then Dylan got it. “Oh, hell, no. I’m not a killer.”
Mars laughed. “I think the police would debate the point, but putting that aside, you seem to be a very clever man who has managed to use what’s at hand, be it in trying to cover up Samson’s murder, or using a room at the hotel to your advantage without anyone there discovering the fact. Somehow you convince the men you take up there not to let anyone know what’s going on. That, to me, says you’re good at persuading people to do what you want them to.”
“It’s in their own interests,” Dylan protested, ignoring for the moment the fact that they probably thought he was prostituting himself, which he wasn’t. He just liked good sex and plenty of it, when the opportunity arose. “Safe sex and all that, without taking a chance their wives or employers will find out.”
“Exactly what I’m saying.” Mars smiled slightly. “You’re glib enough to handle all the contingencies. On top of which, you have what it takes to have moved up at the hotel to assistant-manager, and probably, when your boss retired, you’d have taken over for him.”
“You’ve done your homework,” Dylan muttered. “And all in less than three days.”
“It’s part and parcel of what we do,” Alastair told him. “Without knowing everything possible about the people we go after, we wouldn’t stand a chance of stopping them.”
Dylan got up, going to look out the front window. He couldn’t see anything, as dark as it was, but he could almost feel the trees towering over the cabin. The way the trouble I’m in is towering over me. What do I do now? If Alastair is telling the truth, the police are looking for me. I can’t go home, or to work. He smiled sourly. It’s not as if I can prove I’m innocent, because I’m not. He felt one of the men put a hand on his shoulder and turned to see Mars looking at him with compassion.
“You’ll be staying here, at least until we figure out what to do about you.”
“There’s room enough?”
“Guess you didn’t really look at the place when we drove up. This room is about a third of the cabin. We have three bedrooms and a decent sized bathroom on this floor.”
“‘We’? Are you and Alastair…?”
Mars grinned. “Nope. He’s my boss, or handler, if you will. Nothing more. C21 owns the cabin and several acres around it. He’s here because of you. Landed at the airport late this morning, after I got in touch with him. Told me to pick you up, then drove up here.”
‘Shared pain is lessened,shared joy is increased, thus do we refute entropy.’ Spider Robinson