Monday, January 14, 2013

EXCERPT: Something New Under the Sun

Title: Something New Under the Sun
(the sequel to A Chip In His Shoulder)
Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Formats: ebook, paperback


Chapter 1
Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Beep-beep.
The noise needled my ears. Dragged me out of a sound sleep.
Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Beep-beep.
Whoever was behind waking my ass up was going to—
Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Beep-beep.
Clarity jolted me awake. My palm computer’s alarm. The reminder to log into my remote file server. My last resort against my dad.
Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Beep-beep.
“All right, all right.” I leaned over the side of the bed and fumbled through my clothes. Found the computer. Switched off the alarm.
Much better.
Computer in hand, I dropped back onto the pillows beside Liam, who was still out cold. Jackass. I yawned as I rubbed my burning eyes with my thumb and forefinger. The stinging refused to quit, though, thanks to the shit that passed for air in the Gutter.
Still squinting, I picked up the computer again. The signal down here was sketchy at best, but enough to let me access my remote file server. I’d set it up to require logins every twenty-four hours or it would release all the damning documents about my father and his ilk to the media. Or, I thought as my finger hovered over the login button, I could let it lapse now. Release the information and let Dad fall instead of giving him another twenty-four-hour reprieve.
Twenty-four hours. Lucky him. It had been less than that since I’d been waiting to die in my penthouse. Surviving? That had been unexpected. Waking up naked in a cramped Gutter apartment next to my ex-lover assassin? Yeah. That came out of the fucking blue.
But in spite of my father’s best efforts, here I was, and now all I had to do was let my login lapse to make his life hell.
No. No, not yet. This was an emergency backup that would ruin my father’s reputation, but might not land his ass in prison where it belonged. A card to be played when all other options were exhausted. This would only damage him. I wanted him destroyed.
“Here’s another twenty-four hours of safety, asshole.” I pressed the button with more force than necessary. “Enjoy it.”
And now what? Fuck if I knew.
Not sleeping, that was for sure. I exited the login screen and opened one of the local news sites. I swore the device groaned with the effort of streaming information with the shitty Gutter signal. Eventually, though, the page came up. The headline was no surprise, but it still sent cold water through my veins:
Cybernetix Heir Kidnapped at Gunpoint, May Be Working with Captor
Okay, so Liam didn’t technically kidnap me, but otherwise, they had us pegged.
Below the headline, Three Sky Police Dead. Reward Offered for Information, Capture.
I chewed the inside of my cheek. Knowing Dad, that reward was substantial, and it applied to capturing Liam or me. There was probably a “dead or alive” attached to it too. And since dead men didn’t talk, “dead” likely paid more than “alive.”
I skimmed the article on the small screen.
. . . anti-mod terrorist Daniel Harding, son of Cybernetix tycoon Richard Harding, was kidnapped . . .
. . . evaded SWAT with gunfire and a bomb threat . . .
. . . unnamed captor shot multiple times . . .
. . . pair may be working together . . .
. . . substantial rewards offered . . . .
I swore under my breath and put the palm computer aside. My stomach wound itself into knots. The whole goddamned police force, not to mention Dad’s private security, was probably on the lookout for us. The minute we show our faces, we’re fucked.
Unless Liam had some sort of plan. Any kind of plan.
I glanced at him and considered waking him up, but decided against it. Only a few things sucked more than dealing with a woken-up Liam. Better to let him come around on his own.
I couldn’t help smiling as I watched him sleep. The sheet only covered him from the waist down, leaving his flawless torso exposed. He hadn’t aged at all in the five years since he’d disappeared into the Gutter the night it all went to shit. Thanks to the vampire self-healing and the thousands of nanobots in his body, there wasn’t a mark on him. No scars from life as a prostitute, a thief, and an assassin. No discoloration in the smooth skin of his abs to show where two bullets had nearly killed him last night. Probably not even a bruise to acknowledge where I’d dug my fingers into his hips just hours ago. A new cybernetic mod made of titanium and black silicone formed a crescent around his left eye before extending into his sandy blond hair, but otherwise, he was the same Liam he’d always been.
I, on the other hand, had plenty of mementos. My eyes and throat burned from the pollution, and pain like I’d never experienced had carved itself into places I’d never known existed. Rope burns and strained muscles from rappelling down the elevator shaft. Bruises on my knees and arms from the novice errors that had seen me bumping into beams and supports. A dull ache from the crude surgery Liam had performed to get the proximity enforcer chip out of my shoulder; he’d sealed the wound as only a vampire could, but the tissue hadn’t completely forgiven the invasive, anesthetic-free procedure. Whatever wasn’t sore from escaping my apartment ached because Liam and I, in spite of being exhausted, had spent half the day fooling around just to make sure we were still alive. Fuck, but I was a hot mess.
I sat up carefully and swung my legs over the side of the bed. The water-stained plywood floor chilled my bare feet, and creaked as much as my joints did when I reached for the pair of jeans Liam had loaned me. Then I went into the bathroom to take a leak and throw some cold water on my face.
I shuffled back into the main room. Liam’s apartment was sparse and neat, but still had that yellowed look that seemed to permeate every inch of the Gutter. Bare drywall, a single bulb dangling from the middle of the ceiling. Definitely not the chrome-and-glass world in which I’d spent my entire life. Just being here drove home my new reality more than anything else: there was no going back.
Liam stirred. I sat on the edge of the bed, and he put a hand on my thigh. I rested my hand on top of his.
“Morning,” he said, then did a double take and squinted up at me. “Wow. You look like hell.”
“And fuck you, too, jackass.” I glared at him. “I don’t look that bad.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Dude, all you’re missing is a black eye and a split—”
“The same look could be arranged for you.”
“Okay, okay, you don’t look that bad.”
A tired grin played at his lips. Then the amusement faded in favor of a frown. “I bruised the shit out of your neck, though, didn’t I?”
I touched the spot just above my collarbone, sucking in a hiss of breath when my fingertips found the tender, slightly swollen flesh. “It’s not that bad.”
“No, but it’s—”
“It was either let you feed or let you bleed to death.” I looked him in the eye as I lowered my hand. “I’ll take a bruise over you being dead.”
He swallowed. His gaze drifted to the bite mark, but then he shook himself. “So did you get some sleep?”
“Didn’t have much choice,” I said. “You wore me out.”
He smiled halfheartedly. “Good. Because that’s probably the last decent sleep you’re going to have for a while.”
“I believe it. So what now?”
“We bring your dad down. Take down the whole fucking Sky if we have to.” He sat up, laying the sheet over his lap. “Question is, where do we start?”
“I was hoping you already had that figured out.”
Liam gave a dry laugh, which didn’t settle my nerves at all. “Not quite, I’m afraid.”
I scratched the back of my neck. “Well, if we present the information we have to the Sky Council, we can bring Dad down for murder and blow open the corruption in the cybernetics companies. Draw enough attention to the exploitation in the Gutter, and they’ll have to do something.”
Liam shook his head. “No way in hell the Sky Council will ever listen to us.” He idly slid his hand from my thigh to the underside of my knee. “We’d never even make it past security. We’re fugitives now.”
The news article’s headline flashed through my mind. “More like terrorists. Which is why we need to get all the evidence we have in front of the Sky Council as quickly as possible. Before Dad catches up to us or has time to do damage control.”
“Which is where things get tricky. I don’t suppose you have too many friends left on high, do you?”
“Do cyberterrorists count?”
He scowled. “Not if we want to get in front of the Sky Council.” Liam watched his finger trace a wrinkle in my jeans. Some unspoken thought darkened his expression.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Liam drew in a deep breath, apparently oblivious to the taste of the air, and lifted his gaze to meet mine. “Say we get your father charged with the murders and your attempted murder.” He inclined his head. “What’s the common thread?”
“The common thread?” I eyed him. “Besides my father paying you—” The penny dropped. I held Liam’s gaze. “Oh. Fuck.”
I closed my eyes and exhaled.
“I want to bring your father and his company down as much as you do,” he said, “but last night wasn’t the first time I’ve done a hit for your father or any other cybernetics tycoon. We go after him for those murders, I go down right alongside him.”
I swallowed.
He squeezed my leg. “Daniel, I did what I did because I was desperate. I know that doesn’t make any of it right, but just take me at my word here: when you’re offered a contract for a hit, you don’t turn it down or you wind up with a contract on your own head.”
I hadn’t given much thought to how things worked in blood transactions, but it made sense. A man who knew about a contract but didn’t take it was a liability, and as someone who’d been deemed a liability by my father and his corporate empire, I was hard-pressed to begrudge Liam the things he’d done to survive.
But that wouldn’t help me take my father down, a mission that had bordered on an obsession for the last few years. I couldn’t stomach the idea of him spending the rest of his life in anything less than the hellish world within the walls of a maximum security pen. He deserved nothing better.
“So if I can’t fuck him over for murder,” I said, “then what?”
“We get him where it really hurts,” Liam said. “In his wallet. Specifically, his company’s wallet. I think the only shot we have here is working with someone who has the clout to get the Sky Council’s attention. Which means we need to find and make nice with someone who has that clout.”
“Who do you have in mind?”
I waited for the punch line. When it didn’t come, I said, “You’re serious.”
Liam shrugged. “You said yourself they’re hemorrhaging money into cybernetics companies for research and development.”
“Yeah. And?”
“And, if we can prove to them that they’re paying for R&D that isn’t happening, and funding a mod that Cybernetix is keeping up its sleeve, they’ll have the motivation to investigate and take them down.”
“But Cybernetix has covered its tracks a dozen times over. These are people capable of covering up the murder of someone as far up the chain as they are, Liam. We have no concrete proof that the mod exists, and the minute Dad smells a leak, he’ll make all the evidence disappear.”
His gaze shifted toward me. “Then we get the proof before he has a chance to cover it up.”
I eyed him. Oh, goddammit, I knew that look, and I barely kept myself from groaning. “You have an idea, don’t you?”
“Sort of.”
I fidgeted on the edge of the bed. “What do you have in mind?”
“We get into Cybernetix and take the UV mod prototype.”
“Liam, are you fucking insane?
A grin played at his lips. “Do you even need to bother asking?”
“Okay, no.” I exhaled. “But your insanity doesn’t negate the fact that what you’re suggesting is on the absolutely-out-of-your-fucking-mind end of the batshittery spectrum.”
Liam shrugged. “Got any better ideas?”
He cocked his head. “All right. Let’s hear it.”
“We—” I wracked my brain. “We could . . .”
He lifted his eyebrows expectantly, the corner of his mouth twitching.
“Okay, fine. No. I don’t.” I tapped my fingers on the back of my arm. “So we go into Cybernetix and get the mod.”
“And once we prove it works, we’ll have his company’s balls in a vise.”
“Prove . . . prove it works? But how do—” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Why do I get the feeling you’re really suggesting we install this thing into you?”
“You’d be right.”
“So we put this mod into you. Then what? Have you go running out into the sun in front of some random vampires?”
“Well, not random ones.”
“You already have some in—” I stopped. “Oh, no. No. Liam, you can’t be serious.”
He shrugged. “Seems like a good idea to me.”
“Your parents,” I said. “You’re going to show your face to the same people who put you in the damned Gutter.”
“When they find out they’re being fucked by the cybernetics companies,” he said, “somehow I don’t think my parents will give two shits who I’ve slept with. That said, I guarantee the window of time between getting my father’s attention and being thrown out will be very short, which is why I want to have the mod already installed in my system so I can show him it works.”
I ran my hand through my hair and sighed. “I guess we don’t have much choice, do we?”
“Not really. But first things first. If we’re going up to the Sky, then we’re going to need to doctor our appearances a bit. Our faces are probably plastered all over the Sky and Gutter by now.”
Eyeing him, I said, “I’m assuming this is going to be more complicated than putting on a pair of glasses and a fake mustache.”
Liam chuckled. “Yeah. Just a little.”
Chapter 2
After I’d endured an hour of a chemical that I was sure was going to eat through my scalp, Liam was satisfied the job was done. He had me rinse my hair, and then I looked in the dingy bathroom mirror to check out his handiwork.
So much for the dark-rooted blond look I’d so painstakingly maintained. Now my hair was ink black, walking the razor-fine line between appearing natural and screaming fake. I abandoned my customary spikes and smoothed my hair to the side, parting it so it looked meticulously arranged.
I swallowed hard as I met my reflection’s eyes. With this uniformly dark, conformist hairstyle, the only thing that set me apart from my father or half brothers was the plain, gray shirt and faded jeans. Well, and the mess of bruises.
My skin crawled. The longer I stared at this new me, the faster my heart beat. If anyone down here figured out who I was, I’d be fucked, and no amount of altered hair or nondescript clothing made me feel remotely inconspicuous. Even dressed as a Gutter rat, I was still a Harding. What if footage from the surveillance cameras of my apartment building had made it this far? What if my reputation as an economic terrorist had preceded me? What if anyone so much as caught a scent on me that didn’t gel with the Gutter?
“Done admiring yourself, beauty queen?”
I turned around as Liam came into the bathroom, and I pulled in a breath. His sandy blond hair was more of a reddish brown now, bordering on bronze. False lenses darkened his blue eyes to a deep brown, and the mod on his left temple had disappeared. No, that wasn’t right. It was still there, but covered, pushing up the layer of false skin to create the appearance of a crescent-shaped scar.
He glanced past me at the mirror, running his fingers over the edges of the false skin. Then he shifted his attention to me. He looked me up and down, pausing to adjust a few strands of my hair before he grinned. “You know, I like the half blond look, but this?” The grin broadened. “This suits you nicely.”
“Yeah, right.” I faced my reflection again. “This will never work.”
He put a hand on the small of my back. “Of course it will. You don’t look like you belong in the Sky anymore, do you?”
“I don’t look like I belong in the Gutter, either.” I glared at the mirror. “Fuck. I look like myfather.
He scrutinized my appearance for a moment. “No, you don’t. Not as much as you think.” Before I could say anything else, he leaned in and kissed me. “You look fine. And no one will recognize you, which is the important part.”
“We’ll see.” I ran my fingertips across the false skin over his mod. “You covered it up.”
“Visible mods are a liability down here.” He looked past me and eyed the mirror again, finger-combing his hair over the uncovered part of the mod. “You can’t walk half a block without getting mugged, but mods are an open invitation for someone to stick a knife between your ribs with no obligation to clean out your wallet.”
“Oh. Great.” Fuck, I really was in a different world.
Liam finished smoothing his hair over the mod, and then stepped away from the mirror with a muttered, “All right, let’s go.”
Wearing a borrowed duster, I followed Liam out of his apartment and into a hallway lit by a buzzing half- burned-out bulb. As he locked the door behind us, he said over his shoulder, “I know you don’t like the idea, but this is going to get dangerous. You need—”
“No mods.”
“I’m not getting modified.” I waved the idea away. “It’s out of the question.”
Liam shoved his keys into his pocket. “You want to see this to the end? You do what you have to do to stay alive.”
“I understand that, but I want to stay human.
Liam’s eyes narrowed; mine flicked toward the camouflaged mod on his temple.
“That’s not what I meant,” I said. “You know it isn’t.”
He set his jaw and brushed past me down the hall. “Let’s go.”
“Liam, I didn’t—”
“I know what you meant.”
Mouthing a silent string of profanity, I started after him. “Goddammit, you can’t honestly expect me to let go of my issues with mods overnight.”
He spun around and stabbed a finger into my chest. “I can, and I do. Don’t think for a second your pretty little principles are going to keep you alive anymore. People want youdead, Daniel.”
“Yes, I know they do,” I said through my teeth.
“Which means you get to make hard choices and sacrifices, just like—”
“Don’t fucking talk to me about making sacrifices.” I batted his hand away and stepped closer until our faces were nearly touching. “Just because I’m not a fan of mods, don’t you dare stand there and assume I haven’t had to sacrifice anything. You know nothing about how much I’ve sacrificed the last few years.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ve made sacrifices,” he growled. “Wasting away in luxury—”
Liam caught my fist before I even realized I’d thrown the punch. He didn’t blink, didn’t break eye contact, just kept on looking right at me as his fingers dug into the back of my hand. “You done?”
“Don’t you dare lecture me about sacrifices, you son of a bitch. You have no idea.”
His lips pulled back over clenched teeth, revealing the edges of his unnaturally sharp canines. “Enlighten me.”
I jerked my hand free from his grip, but the sudden ache in my throat stopped the words from coming. I managed to snarl, “Fuck you,” and then shoved past him and kept walking.
Tried to, anyway. I only made it two steps before Liam grabbed my arm.
“Daniel.” His voice was much gentler than his grasp. “I’m sorry. I really am just trying to keep us both alive.”
“I know. But look, don’t just assume things about me. My life isn’t what it was five years ago.”
“Then what . . .”
Holding his gaze, I swallowed hard. The truth was right there on the tip of my tongue, itching to be told, but anyone could be listening. The fewer people who knew my secret, the safer we all were.
“Daniel?” Liam loosened his grip on my arm. “What is—”
“We don’t have time for this now. Let’s just go.” The question lingered in his eyes, and I added a whispered, “Please, Liam.”
He was quiet for a moment, then nodded, and we kept walking.
In silence, we stepped outside.
The pollution was more intense out here. The foul taste on my tongue and the sick sweetness in my nose dragged bile up my throat. One breath had me coughing hard enough to double me over. Hard enough I was sure I was going to puke. I braced myself against the building until the worst had passed, and stayed that way as the world spun around me.
Liam’s hand materialized on the back of my neck. “You all right?”
Jaw clenched, I drew in a cautious breath. The air stung the back of my throat, but I didn’t cough quite so violently this time. Though my stomach didn’t exactly settle, the danger of getting sick was—I hoped—gone.
I straightened up and squinted against the noxious air as I buried my face in my collar. “Is it always like this down here?”
He nodded. “You’ll get used to it.”
“I’m sure.” I rubbed my burning eyes and muttered, “And how do you fucking see?”
“You’ll get used to that too. Come on.” He tugged at my arm, and I let him lead me while my eyes slowly adapted to the pollution.
The legends about the Gutter didn’t do it justice. Maybe it had to be breathed to be believed. Or maybe this kind of polluted, poverty-stricken place simply didn’t translate to low-res photos and bootlegged videos. Thick haze obscured upper floor windows and shrouded streetlamps in greenish yellow halos. A downdraft from above blew into the back of my collar and kicked trash and debris around on the streets and sidewalks.
The atmosphere made my skin crawl, but it was the glassy-eyed bleakness of the people that gave me chills. Workers shuffled in and out of factories, the ones in the oncoming shift as lethargic as the ones on their way out. People regarded each other—and us—with shifty eyes, everyone hunched and guarded.
All sorts of coughing—from throat-clearing to the kind of hacking reminiscent of end-stage tuberculosis—filled the background like an improvised band with no sense of rhythm. Much as I tried to muffle it, I added my own out-of-sync contribution to the perpetual lung clearing.
The only one who didn’t was Liam. I envied his effortless breathing. Probably the result of a mod of some sort. That or being a vampire. Same thing, really.
People walked around an animated altercation like the fight was a lamppost or a park bench. I didn’t see anyone glance at the passed-out drunk, the rat lapping at a pool of vomit beside him, or the mangy cat perched on top of a trash can. No one seemed to notice the man with his pants around his ankles fucking a barely dressed woman against the graffiti-covered bricks. I couldn’t decide if the woman looked bored, wasted, or both.
How did a world like this exist so close to the Sky? The sleek glass landscape to which I was accustomed was mere meters above that opaque, seemingly impenetrable haze hanging over the decaying streets and buildings.
“I can’t believe people live down here,” I said into my collar.
Liam’s gaze slid toward me. “You think they would if they had a choice?”
“Don’t fucking start, all right? This is the first time I’ve seen this all firsthand.”
“Point taken. Well, this is it.” He gestured around. “It doesn’t get any prettier down here.”
I said nothing, just tried to take it all in. If our task of bringing down the cybernetics companies was daunting in the light of Liam’s apartment, it was herculean out here in the wilds of the Gutter. All the white-collar espionage and cloak-and-dagger games we played in the Sky, stealing and swapping information and little pieces of technology, suddenly seemed as effective as chasing away the cat and hoping it didn’t come back for the rat five minutes later.
“We’ve got one stop to make,” he said after a while. “And then I say we head up to the Sky and contact some of your people.” He glanced at me. “You sure they’ll help us?”
“At this point, the anti-mod movement needs all the help it can get. Now that they know Dad’s willing to kill me?” I whistled and nodded. “Ooh, yeah. They’ll help.”
“Even if that means working with a cyborg vampire who tried to kill you?”
“Beggars can’t be anti-mod snobs.”
“Speaking of which . . .” That damned eyebrow arched. “Daniel, you need some mods.”
I closed my eyes and groaned. “We’ve been over this.”
“We have, and I still think you’re being an idiot.”
“I’m touched.”
“Look, I’m not asking you to replace bones or organs, for fuck’s sake. Nanobots. Nothing more.”
“Nothing more?” I laughed. “Yeah, okay. Sign me right up.”
He stopped and glared at me, the stark light from an overhead streetlamp picking out all the tiny contours of his covered mod. “They’re not that big of a deal. They’re invisible, and they saved my ass more than once last night.”
“No.” I put up my hand. “Maybe yours have saved your ass, but the only mod I’ve had so far almost killed me.”
“That was an entirely different kind of mod.” He shifted impatiently. “Think about it. In the parking garage last night, what if you had taken those two bullets instead of me? You’d bedead.
My stomach lurched at the memory of Liam covered in his own blood.
He touched my hand and his voice softened. “Look at the world you’re living in now.” He gestured at everything around us. “Just walking down the street is dangerous here. And what we’re involved in? This is bigger than the hacking and computer shit you’re used to. We’re not just playing corporate espionage anymore.” He stroked the side of my wrist with his thumb, the light intensifying his artificially darkened eyes to the point I was almost compelled to draw away, especially as he added, “This is war, Daniel.”
And what good am I to my side if I agree to become my own enemy?
Lowering his voice, Liam said, “Your father wants you dead. I guarantee before this is over, there will be bullets flying and shit exploding, and if you want to survive to the end, you have got to get modified.”
I shifted my gaze away from him. I couldn’t tell if the sick feeling in my gut was from the air I’d breathed or what Liam had said.
He reached for my hand, and waited until I looked at him to speak. “Please. Twenty-four hours ago, yes, I was ready to kill you myself, but now . . .” He lowered his gaze, watching his thumb rub the side of my hand. After a moment, he met my eyes. “I don’t want to lose you again.”
I gritted my teeth, alternately looking straight ahead and glancing down at our hands. “You are such a sap, you know that?”
He laughed quietly. “Maybe I am. I’m serious, though. I know you hate mods, and quite honestly, I don’t blame you. But if it means the difference between life and death, will you please consider getting nanobots?” He paused. “They can be removed, you know. They’re not a permanent mod.”
I eyed him for a long moment, trying to come up with an argument for not getting nanobots in light of our situation. And I couldn’t come up with a damned thing.
“Fine. Nanobots. Nothing more.”
Thank you.” He squeezed my hand. “Now let’s get the fuck out of here.”

EXCERPT: Quid Pro Quo (with Aleksandr Voinov)

Title: Quid Pro Quo
Authors: L. A. Witt & Aleksandr Voinov
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Formats: ebook, paperback


“Feast or famine in this place, isn’t it?” Tristan sighed heavily. He wore his boredom as if he wondered how dare the universe not entertain him, and lounged as much as anyone could on a barstool. He was like a cat in that respect. He could stretch and bend to get comfortable—at least, Jared assumed he was comfortable—anywhere he damn well pleased. Right now, his arm seemed like the only solid piece of his body, his elbow on the bar and his hand against his face, holding up his head as the rest of him poured over the edge of the bar, onto the seat, and down the stool leg to where the toe of his boot touched the floor.
Jared wasn’t quite so comfortable. It was hard to relax when the wallet in the back pocket of his tight leather trousers was getting close to empty. Looking out at Market Garden’s mostly vacant lounge, where each of the few potential johns were already under the spells of at least one or two other rentboys, he said, “Does it get like this a lot in December?” It had been for two weeks. Almost three now.
Tristan shrugged. “Sometimes. Economy and all that.” He sighed again and waved his hand. “Apparently people think it’s a good idea to buy food before renting a cock or an arse for the evening.”
Jared would’ve laughed at the comment—so very typically Tristan—but it was hard to find the humour when he was in possession of a cock and an arse that desperately needed renting. After all, he needed to buy food. Never mind Christmas presents. And probably a new fridge.
“Relax.” Tristan smoothed a few long strands of ink-black hair out of his own face. “Payday’s coming up for most of them. They’ll be back.”
Question is, will they be back before rent’s due?
“Everything changes with bonus season. Guys’ll have money to burn, and they’ll celebratenot getting laid off before Christmas by getting laid.” Tristan’s boneless figure solidified one liquid joint at a time, and he sat up, rolling his shoulders under his slick, black shirt. “Well, as long as there’s some booths that aren’t occupied, we should go sit someplace more comfortable.”
Jared hesitated. “W-we?”
Tristan paused. “You don’t want to?”
“I didn’t say that. I just—” Didn’t think you’d . . . I mean, guys like you don’t usually . . . I’m me, and you’re you, and . . . Jared shook himself to life. “Sure. Yeah.”
Tristan gave him a puzzled look, but didn’t say anything and started across the lounge.
Jared picked up his drink. It was nonalcoholic, of course, since employees weren’t allowed anything else on the job. The rule was enforced too. There were a few guys who’d thought giving Raoul, the head bartender, a free blowjob would result in him breaking the rules and spiking their orange juices with vodka or the Coke with rum, but rumour had it all they got was a belly full of cum and, worst-case scenario, a swift and permanent dismissal from Market Garden.
Jared stood and followed his catlike colleague across the lounge, which was more crowded with tables and chairs than with anyone occupying them. Well, maybe tonight wasn’t all bad. He might not get paid, but it also didn’t cost him anything to look Tristan up and down as he walked. Tight leather, lithe body, slinking gait; God, it was no wonder he was in such high demand. Most of the time, anyway. Higher demand than a lot of the guys here, Jared included, but lower than food, heating, and mobile phones.
Jared reminded himself he just hadn’t been here long enough to be in demand like Tristan. He’d worked for Market Garden for about six months, ever since post-exam boredom had led him to search for more excitement than he’d found stripping on the weekends, which he’d done since his second semester of university. This was more enjoyable and much more profitable, so he’d stuck with it even after classes had started again.
He never imagined he’d ever be a rentboy. Might be something to leave off the CV, but he’d deal with that if there were any jobs available at all when he graduated. For now, he enjoyed it, especially with that thick wad of quid he had in his back pocket at the end of an evening.
At the end of most evenings. Before the past three weeks or so, anyway.
Part of him still thought a guy paying for sex was somewhat pathetic, even though he now understood that not everybody who did so was too ugly or too creepy to score on the open market, as it were. Some guys just considered it a legitimate shortcut past all the wining and dining or even getting onto Grindr and dealing with people who faked their profile pictures—or total sexual incompatibility even if they hadn’t.
He could get behind that, he supposed, certainly with the income possibilities it opened up, though he was studying bloody hard for his exams and thus had cut back on the work. He didn’t need slow nights like this at all. He was too skint. And his landlord was an arsehole, one of those buy-to-let vampires that kept increasing rents at least every year but consistently failed to get even the most basic repairs done.
Though, it was really hard to think about broken fridges when he watched Tristan walk. Jared just hoped he looked even half as nonchalant when he planted himself down in the booth next to Tristan.

EXCERPT: The Mayfield Speakeasy

Title: The Mayfield Speakeasy
Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Amber Allure
Format(s): Ebook


April 1931

“Name’s Walter Mayfield. I don’t want no trouble.”

No one wanted any trouble. Especially in a place like this. Because this was a speakeasy, you see? The Mayfield Speakeasy. Plenty of them all over town, but this one was popular. Real popular.

The O’Reilly brothers and their goons liked to put back some bootlegged whiskey and smoke cigars—those Cuban cigars that cost way more than the cheap ones everybody else had to make do with—while that pretty dame in the red dress sang next to the piano. That was Shirley. She was new here. She’d be Walter’s sister-in-law soon, if Billy didn’t mess things up.

Anyway, the O’Reilly brothers liked her and they liked the speakeasy.

Problem was, so did the Abandanato brothers and their goons.

Walter’d made it clear to both packs that there’d be no trouble here in the Mayfield Speakeasy. Not if they wanted to keep drinking and smoking and watching Shirley or whoever came along after she got tired of Billy. No guns out of their holsters or on the tables. No picking fights. Didn’t matter whose territory was whose or whose boys ratted whose boys out to the cops. They wanted to fight or even look at each other, they’d damn well take it outside, or else none of them was coming back. Walter meant it, and they all knew it. There’d been more than a few fights and a few bullets on the street outside or in the back alley, but long as the boys were in here, none of them even looked at each other. Because nobody wanted any trouble.

And with those two cops sitting up there at the bar like they had business here, trouble was what was coming. They weren’t in uniform, but they were cops. Showed in the way they’d looked around when they came in, and the way the younger had kept his jacket back just right to show off the butt of that .38.

They were cops, for sure, but something about them didn’t sit right. Cops didn’t come strolling in here and sit at the bar, but that’s what these boys had done.

One of them was young. Wild-eyed, probably the type who joined the force because he was looking for a fight, and still hadn’t found one. Kid hadn’t been close enough to dying yet to calm down.

His partner, he’d been around a while. You could tell from the way he walked. Not wound up like the O’Reilly and Abandanato boys who always expected a gun to their backs, but not quite strolling like a man wandering through the park neither. He was good-looking, Walter noted, though he’d never have said a word to no one about that. You just didn’t go around mentioning it when you noticed a man’s strong jaw, or his eyes that were much too blue in this dark and shady place. You damn well didn’t ask if you could take his jacket just so you could have a better look at a set of shoulders like those, so Walter didn’t, especially because taking his jacket would be an invitation for the man to stay.

He stood right across from them, hands on the bar and leaning over them so they had to look up at him. Music still played, and Shirley was still singing in that pretty voice of hers, but nobody was talking. Nobody except Walter.

“Name’s Walter Mayfield,” he’d said. “I don’t want no trouble.”

The younger cop pushed himself up and raised his hand from his trouser pocket. “I’m Detective—”

Sit down,” the other hissed, and snatched the upraised hand. “You let me do the talking, you hear?”

“Joe, we’re—”

“Sit down now.”

The kid—and that’s what he was, a kid—looked plenty chastened when he sat back down, but Walter kept his guard up. Never knew what kind of game they might be playing.

With his partner settled down, at least for the moment, the older one looked up at Walter and extended his hand. “Name’s Joe Riordan.”

Walter didn’t shake Joe’s hand. “Ain’t you a detective, too?”

Joe shot a look at his partner, who kept thumping his thumb on Walter’s bar. To Walter, Joe said, “I am, yeah.”

Walter leaned in closer. Doesn’t make sense, a man’s eyes being so bright in this— He gestured at the door. “How’s about you get out of my bar before we all get more trouble than we want tonight.”

Joe didn’t move. “I ain’t here to mess with your business.”

“It ain’t just my business I’m worried about. Some of my clientele, they don’t like the cops, and if my clientele ain’t happy…”

Joe looked over his shoulder. Everybody was watching. From the way some of the boys sat, there were guns out now, too. Under the tables, most likely. Just right to make sure these detectives didn’t make a scene. Not a long one, anyhow.

Walter put up a hand and nodded to the most senior members present from each of the two gangs. Postures relaxed, but the guns stayed out. Men turned and whispered to each other.

Billy had stopped playing the piano, and Shirley wasn’t singing anymore. Whole place was way too quiet when Walter wanted to kick out a few stray cops without a ruckus. Billy watched him, eyes wide like he didn’t know just what to think.

“Play us another one, Billy,” Walter called across the lounge. “Let’s hear what that girl’s pipes are made of.”

Billy hesitated. He eyed his older brother, then the two gangs of goons looking around like they wanted a fight. But then he took a drink, set his glass on top of the piano again, and started playing. Some fast thing he’d known for years, and it only took Shirley a couple of bars to join in.

Didn’t relax everybody, but it did mean Walter could throw out the cops without being so loud about it.

“We’ve got a deal with Vice,” he said. “You boys leave us alone, and—”

“I ain’t part of Vice, and I don’t give a damn what kind of place you’re running here or what those boys are up to.” Joe slid a card across the table. Just a photo of a young girl, that was all. “I need to talk to you, Mr. Mayfield.”

“I don’t have business with the police, and I ain’t going to let my clientele think I do.”

“No, I wouldn’t expect you would.” Joe nodded toward the photo. “But you might have a look at that, just in case it interests you.”

Walter didn’t pick it up right away, but eventually he did, and that’s when he noticed the folded piece of paper underneath it, and he looked at Joe again.

Quieter than before, low enough Walter almost didn’t hear him above Shirley and the piano, Joe said, “I don’t want any trouble either, Mr. Mayfield, but I need to talk to you.” His eyes flicked toward the paper, then met Walter’s. “Midnight. It’s important.”

Before Walter could tell him he wasn’t interested, Joe stood and plucked the photo out of Walter’s hand.

“Well, if you see heads or tails of the poor girl,” he said loud enough the whole place heard him, “give me a call, would you?” Then he looked at the gathered clientele, tipped his hat, and strolled on out of the Mayfield Speakeasy like he was just walking out of church on Sunday morning. And that partner of his wised up and followed him, too.

Everybody was watching them go, so while they looked the cop’s way, Walter picked up that folded slip of paper they’d left behind. Behind the bar, he held it low so no one could see, and thumbed it open.

Oleander Hotel. Rm 32. Regarding your brother.

Walter swallowed, wondering just when his mouth got so dry. He stowed the piece of paper in his trouser pocket just before William O’Reilly and Tony Abandanato stomped up to the bar.

William thumped the bar with his knuckles. “You said no cops in this place, Mayfield. We got a problem here?”

“We don’t want to see them here, you know that,” Tony said. Only thing these boys ever agreed on was they didn’t want to no cops wandering through their watering hole.

Walter wasn’t one to argue about that either, but he put up his hands. “Relax, boys. Detectives were just sniffing around for a young girl. Say she got lost around here and wanted to know if I’d seen her. That’s all.”

Tony narrowed his eyes. William scratched his jaw.

“What would a kid be doing in a place like this?” Tony asked.

Walter shrugged. “Guess she’s been seen around here before. Playing out on the street with the neighborhood kids.” He grabbed two glasses out from under the bar and a bottle of brandy. “Now take these, on the house”—he poured them each the same amount—“and get back to your boys.”

He set the bottle down and pushed the glasses toward them. They glanced at each other, and Walter thought for a moment there might be some trouble after all, but then they took their glasses, offered each other a slight salute, and then returned to their respective corners of the speakeasy.

Alone at the bar again, he glanced across the lounge at Billy. It could’ve been about his older brother John they were after, but he doubted it. If the cops were involved, then chances were it had to do with Billy. It always did.

What trouble have you gotten yourself into this time, kid?