An excerpt the fifth book in the Dangerous Ground series
One minute everything was fine. The next minute the job was going south. Fast.
The limousine with Dragomirov hurtled toward the mouth of the alley where Taylor waited. Not unprepared -- Taylor was never unprepared -- but unsuspecting. Taylor would be occupied watching for threats to Dragomirov. It would not occur to him that Dragomirov was now a threat to him.
So Will reacted, he responded to the threat to Taylor. That’s what partners did, right? Even as Will dropped down onto the top of the limousine, he was mentally justifying his decision to Taylor -- justifying it because before he ever hit the roof, he knew he had made a mistake.
Problem Number One: There was nothing to hang onto. Had the car windows been rolled down…maybe. But the windows were not rolled down, and Will began to slide. The instant the limo braked or turned the corner, he was going to go flying -- at thirty-plus miles an hour. Problem Number Two: Problem Number One was moot, because even if Will didn’t go flying, which he would do any minute now, he had no way of stopping the vehicle. And Problem Number Three: If he did survive, MacAllister was going to kill him.
The rush of garbage-scented air blasted against his face, blurring his vision. The alley was nicer than some alleys in Los Angeles, meaning there were no bums to run over. Orange and green and purple graffiti bled into a long smear of chain link fence topped by coils of barbed wire, old brick walls and metal roll up doors. A couple of phone poles with sagging lines flew by, interspersed with several dumpsters. The alley opening -- and the busy cross street beyond -- was coming up fast. With only seconds to spare, Will wrapped his arms around his head and rolled, launching himself at a fast-approaching blue dumpster.
There was a sickening moment of flying through thin -- very thin -- air, and then he crash-landed on a mountain of cardboard boxes and black and white garbage bags.
It wasn’t like the movies. Will landed hard and heavily, the bags giving way, the boxes not so much. It hurt. It hurt a lot. But without the boxes and bags, he’d probably have been killed. He reflected on that for a stunned second or two while he listened to the screech of tires fading into the distance, the pound of approaching footsteps.
“Brandt?” Taylor splashed through a puddle and skidded to a stop. He sounded winded, though the entire alleyway was only a block long. “Will?”
Will opened his eyes as Taylor bent over him. Taylor’s eyes were black in his white face, his jaw set. Ready for the worst.
“Right here,” Will said.
Life came back to Taylor’s face. “Oh, you bastard. Don’t do that to me!” He expelled a long, shaken breath, and began to check Will over with swift, anxious hands. “What the hell was that supposed to be?”
Will gave a weak laugh and raised his head. “Everything still attached?”
“Shut up. Don’t move.”
“I’m fine.” Will waved him off. “I’m fine! Oww!” Yeah, fine was possibly overstating the situation. But he was alive and, miraculously, he seemed to be in one piece. One black and blue piece, probably. “Shit.” Painfully, he crawled out of the stinking, slimy nest of garbage. Taylor moved to help him, removing a shoebox that had gotten stuck on Will’s elbow. Will climbed -- and it did feel like a climb -- to his feet.
“Jesus Christ, Brandt. You want to explain to me what you thought you were doing?” Taylor, sounding much more like his normal ornery self, punched him in the shoulder, and Will toppled back into the trash bags.
“Goddamn it,” Will said slowly and with feeling.
“Sorry,” Taylor muttered, hauling him out of the garbage bags once more. He brushed eggshells off Will’s shoulder. “But what just happened? Explain to me. Why would you act like somebody in a goddamned movie?”
Will shook his head.
“Dragomirov tears out of here like a bat out of hell. With you on the roof of his car. His asshole driver nearly runs me over --”
“We’ve been laid off.”
“Fired. Without the severance package, I’m guessing.” Will brushed orange peelings and what looked like -- and pray to God was -- raspberry jelly from the front of his leather jacket. The seat of his Levi’s felt soaked with something he hoped wasn’t caustic. Or toxic.
Taylor looked stunned. “What are you talking about? After ten days? What the hell happened?”
It was a fair question. Will was trying to figure that one out himself. “Gretchen Hart is what happened.”
“Gretchen Hart. New Mexico. Two years ago?” Will prodded. “You remember Victor and Victoria?”
Taylor blinked. “Yeah, but…are you telling me…? What are you telling me?”
“Gretchen Hart apparently now works for Glukhov. She walked into that meeting, recognized me, and gave Dragomirov her version of what happened in New Mexico.”
“Which was what?”
“Pretty close to the truth,” Will admitted.
Taylor opened his mouth but couldn’t seem to find the words. Will knew the feeling. He said wearily, “As predicted, Dragomirov doesn’t like feds. A lot. Even ex-feds. So we’re off the case. I guess he thought we were trying to set him up in some kind of sting operation.”
“What sting? We’re doing low level security work. Mall cops could have handled this gig.”
“I never said Dragomirov was a genius.”
Taylor was silent. Then he said, “How the hell would that bitch recognize you?”
Will shook his head.
Taylor’s face screwed up in anger. “Fuck!” He turned and kicked a white and blue, half-deflated child’s ball that had rolled out of the pile of trash bags. The ball shot to the left, bounced off a green brick wall and landed on the pitted pavement with a flat, angry smack.
Will said nothing. What could he say? Taylor had not wanted to take this job in the first place. But they had needed the money and Will had talked him into it. End result: they had put in ten days working a bodyguard detail for a guy who, though maybe not a crook, was certainly a scumball -- and they would not be getting paid for the privilege.
He opened his mouth to apologize, but no. He was already on defense over the Paris thing; not smart to further weaken his position. Anyway, he wasn’t going to apologize for being a realist. They were not in a position to pick and choose clients. How was he supposed to have known their arch-nemesis would show up? He hadn’t realized they had an arch-nemesis until he’d watched Gretchen Hart freeze in recognition and then morph into the Borg Queen.
Taylor turned back to face him, fists planted on his narrow hips, eyes glinting the same shade as a Mojave Green. “Fuckin’ A. What now?”
“Find a new client, I guess. Shower. Sleep.” They were short on sleep these days. It wasn’t helping.
Taylor bit back whatever he started to say. This unusual restraint was almost worse than hearing him voice his feelings.
“Look,” Will said. “I couldn’t predict this. Nobody could predict this. We’re independent contractors now, and sometimes things are going to go wrong.”
“Does that mean sometimes they’re going to go right?” Taylor inquired. “Because so far…not so much.”
Now it was Will’s turn to hold his tongue. He said shortly, “We’re done here, let’s grab our gear and get the hell out of Dodge.”
* * * * *
“I’m going to talk to Richard,” Taylor said, breaking the silence of their drive back to Ventura.
Will shifted painfully in the passenger seat. His tailbone felt bruised. Along with his ego. “About?”
Taylor didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. “Richard” was Richard Lamprell, owner of Geo-Gulf Oil and Taylor’s stepdad. Taylor’s parents had divorced when he was in junior high, and his mother had remarried a multimillionaire. A fact which always seemed to make Taylor uncomfortable, and never more so than when Richard had offered to lend them the start-up capital for their security consulting business after they’d left the DSS.
Taylor had turned the offer down flat. Knowing his feelings on the subject, Will hated that Taylor was now having to rethink his position. He hated that his own initial reaction was relief. Anyway, it was only his initial reaction because he did not want them beholden to anyone, even family.
“No. We’re okay. We’ll work it out,” he said.
Taylor’s hands whitened on the steering wheel. “No, we’re not okay, Brandt. We’re taking jobs we don’t want to take because we can’t pay our bills -- and then we can’t pay our bills anyway. We’re not okay.”
“Throwing money at a problem is not a solution.”
“It sure as shit is, if the problem is you don’t have enough money.”
“I don’t want to be in hock to Richard. Nothing against Richard. I don’t want to owe anybody. I don’t want to be obligated.”
Taylor gave a short laugh. He glanced away from the shifting parking lot that doubled as the 101 Freeway. “Really? Because we’re already sixty grand worth of obligated to our mutual credit card companies. At twenty percent interest. Unless you plan on cashing out our retirement funds next, we’re out of resources. Which means we’re out of options.”
“MacAllister. Taylor --”
“We could try and get our old jobs back, I guess,” Taylor added tersely. “It won’t be Paris, of course, given that you already turned that posting down for both of us.”
There it was again. Fucking Paris. Right on schedule.
“Christ. Enough with Paris.” Will couldn’t help the edge in his voice. In fact, he didn’t want to help it. He was tired, in pain, and sick of feeling guilty over a decision he had made with the best possible intentions.
“I guess so,” Taylor said. “I guess you had enough. I didn’t get a choice.”
“Did you want that posting?” Will snapped. “Because if you did, if you do, I will talk to Alice Stone myself. I will move heaven and earth to get you your job and that goddamned posting back.”
“Not the point, Brandt,” Taylor said coolly. “The point is, you didn’t give me a say. You didn’t tell me Stone wanted to offer a posting, that maybe we could have worked together in France. You --”
Will broke in, “Are you telling me you would have made a different choice?”
“I don’t know.”
“The hell.” Will stared at Taylor’s profile for a long moment before turning to scowl out the side window. Office buildings and restaurants and billboards and busy side streets slid past while he tried to deal with that.
“Not about us. Obviously.” Taylor’s voice softened briefly. “But you hustled me into this freelance gig, and we don’t have the assets or the contacts or the experience.”
Will started to protest, but Taylor cut across. “We’re experienced field agents, sure. We’re not experienced business owners. We’re not even experienced office managers. We’re sinking. We rushed into this and we did it for all the wrong reasons.”
What Taylor meant was, Will had rushed him into it for the wrong reasons. Not true. Not fair. Not even close.
“I did it because I wanted us to start our life together. Our real life together. I wanted us to have control of our future. Of our fate.”
“You did it because…” Taylor didn’t finish the thought. But, again, he didn’t have to. They could usually read each other’s minds.
Will let it go. If he answered Taylor now, it would not go well. They were both tired and frustrated and, yes, worried. He put his head back and let Taylor take his aggressions out on the other drivers crowding into the sluggish river of metal and glass.
He didn’t sleep, but maybe he did doze because the next time he opened his eyes they were pulling into Taylor’s driveway and the security gate was rolling shut behind them.
Actually, it was Will’s driveway too. He’d been living with Taylor in this small beach community since his return from Paris last summer. The house, an original Craftsman bungalow they had been restoring in their free time -- back when they still had free time -- was large and comfortable. The street was quiet and felt secluded; old but lovingly maintained homes beneath venerable shade trees.
“I’d burn those jeans if I were you,” was Taylor’s only comment as they went into the house.
In the bathroom, Will examined himself in the long mirror over the sink counter. His torso and the back of his thighs were mottled with bruises and contusions. His hands were scraped, his left knee swelling.
He turned the shower on full blast, cranked the heat to just short of scalding, and stepped under the stinging spray. After a few minutes, and a lot of soap and water, he was both cleaner and calmer.
True, things were not going strictly according to plan. Maybe they needed to adjust their plans. Or maybe it was their expectations they needed to adjust? It was a tough time to start a business, naturally there would be challenges, a few setbacks. Regardless of what Taylor thought, or didn’t think, they did have the experience and the qualifications to make a success of this business. They just needed to give it time.
Will turned off the water, toweled down, and shaved. He dressed in a pair of soft jeans and an even softer gray T-shirt that read: To err is human, to forgive divine. Neither of which is Marine Corps policy.
He found Taylor in the kitchen drinking coffee and reading American COP. He must have used the guest bathroom because he had showered too, and had changed into faded jeans and an olive T-shirt that made his eyes look greener than ever. He needed a haircut and a shave, but he was still the best looking guy Will knew. Even if Will did want to strangle him sometimes.
The smell of coffee and toast warmed the kitchen. The washer was rumbling peaceably in the laundry room. Riley lay on the rug in front of the stove. He thumped his tail in welcome. Taylor glanced up, offered a crooked smile, tossed the magazine aside. “Coffee?”
Something eased inside Will. He’d been mentally arguing with Taylor all the time he’d been in the shower, but the residue of frustration and irritation drained away. They were home. They were whole. They were together. That had to count for a lot.
Will shook his head to the coffee. He was still wired from ten days worth of endless cups of lousy coffee. He was looking forward to eventually sleeping.
He sat down at the table across from Taylor. Taylor gazed back at him steadily.
“I was thinking. Since the job is a bust, maybe I’ll drive up north and see Grant while he’s home on leave.” Will’s kid brother had dropped out of college to join the marines. Grant was currently home in Oregon on a ten days leave. Will had wanted to make the trek north, but the protection detail had come up. Now Will’s dance card was suddenly empty, so why not take advantage?
Will took a deep breath, expelled it, and said, “If you want to talk to Richard, go ahead. It’s up to you.”
“I don’t want to.” Taylor sounded tired too, and more conciliatory. “I don’t think we have a lot of choice here, Will. We’ve sunk just about everything we have into this venture. We can’t pull out without losing it all, but to make a success of it, we’d need to invest more. We need money. We need the right equipment. We need an assistant. Hell, we need an office.”
“I don’t agree. We don’t need an office. We don’t need an assistant.”
“Will.” Taylor stopped. He ran both hands through his damp hair, clearly trying to restrain himself, which put Will’s temper on edge again. “You’re the one who said it. If we want to attract the kind of clients we originally talked about, high-end clients -- if we want to run a global security consulting business -- we’ve got to look the part. We’ve got to seem like we could handle that kind of job. An answering machine and a website aren’t going to cut it.”
Developing the kind of image Taylor was talking about wasn’t going to be in their budget, with or without a loan from the folks. They’d need Richard’s help just to get out from under their credit cards. Will was willing to take that hit to his ego because it was Taylor’s credit score at risk too.
When the hell had they turned into guys who worried about their credit scores?
“Look. Here’s how I see it. We can make due without an office or support staff. At least for a while. Till we’re on our feet. But you’re the one who has to ask for the cash. You’re the one who thinks we’re not going to make it.”
Taylor opened his mouth to protest, but that was the truth and they both knew it.
“So it’s up to you,” Will concluded. “You figure out how much you can bear to be into Richard for, and I’ll go along with your decision.”
Taylor thought it over and then nodded. “Okay. Fair enough.”
Probably. Will absently rubbed his freshly shaved jaw. “Your mom and Richard are in Bahrain now. Does that mean you’re planning to fly out to talk to them?”
“Well, there’s this newfangled invention called the telephone. I thought maybe I’d give that a try first.”
Will smiled reluctantly. “If you think you can make the case for that size loan long distance.”
“I think Richard will give us the money.”
“Okay.” Was it that simple? Maybe it was. Lamprell seemed pretty generous with his family, and unlike his siblings, Taylor had never asked his multimillionaire stepdaddy for anything. Maybe he’d racked up some credits for being the fiscally sound stepkid. Maybe no business plans or pie charts of the economic trends within the security industry would be needed.
The ancient washer jogged into its spin cycle filling the silence between them. Taylor said slowly, “That doesn’t mean I have to go to Oregon with you. If you want to head home on your own, that’s okay. I’ve got plenty to keep me busy here.”
It was tempting. God, it was tempting. With everything going on between them -- the unexpected tensions of learning to live together at the same time they were trying to get this business off the ground, the blow up after Taylor had discovered that RSO Stone would have offered him a posting in Paris if Will hadn’t informed her they were resigning… Yes, it was very tempting to snatch an opportunity to get away, to put a little space between himself and Taylor who was riding his ass relentlessly -- and not in a good way -- to give himself some breathing room. Just a very little space for a very little time.
Because as much as Will loved Taylor, as much as he hated the thought of being separated from him for even a day, yes, he could use a break. Needed a break maybe.
Especially given the situation at home. Home in Oregon, not home in Ventura. Home in Oregon, Will’s sexual orientation was not widely known. In fact, nobody knew except for his father. Yeah, that had been an awkward conversation -- not that you could exactly call the gruff assertion that he was not ever going to be “settling down,” exactly a conversation. He wasn’t even sure his brother knew he was gay. And sure as hell nobody knew about Taylor.
And Will would have been happy to keep it that way. Which would be impossible if Taylor chose to ride shotgun on this trip.
He looked at Taylor. Taylor looked back at him. He was smiling faintly, a complicated sort of smile. There was complete understanding there, and a little friendly mockery, and something else.
What was that emotion lurking in the back of Taylor’s gaze?
Will stared, and he felt a funny dip in his chest. His heart sank.
That look in Taylor’s eyes... was that the beginning of disappointment? Maybe... disillusion?
No, he could take Taylor chewing on his last nerve from now to eternity before he could take one second of Taylor feeling disappointed or disillusioned with him.
“What? Are you serious? Hell, yeah, I want you to come!” Will said it with such conviction, he almost believed it himself.
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.