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“Explain it to me again,” said Officer Van Ray.

Lieutenant Billie Chambers sighed, exasperated, “Once isn’t enough?”

Van smiled like a shark and replied, “I mean, explain it to me in a way that makes me believe it.”

Billie flicked her gaze to the room’s other inhabitant. Detective Deaqon Hayes spread his tented fingers in a why not? gesture.

Billie rolled her eyes heavenward and began again.

“You heard of the Murphys? Loose tie-in with that whole thing with Simone and her dad? Their cover is mechanic-type, handymen, can fix all kinds of strange things like your Hummer or maybe a helicopter if you happen to have broken one. No one’s been able to make the connections but it’s suspected that they also steal, chop, and smuggle cars. It’s also rumored that they’re starting to dabble in designer drugs. Manufacturing, not distributing. The why of all this has not yet been revealed but their political affiliations are…murky.”

“I get that part,” said Van, “Worth keeping an eye on.”

“Exactly,” Billie continued. “And that’s been happening. Undercover operative has been working on them for the past two months. And he’s gone missing. And that’s where it starts getting kind of hinky.”

“Hinky,” Van muttered, “Is that even a word? It does not even begin to describe this mess…the guy who called you, what’s his name?”

“Tanner,” Billie said with a let’s-get-on-with-it hand roll.

“Is he a friend of yours? ‘Cause his story about how he just…mislaid this cop like a set of spare keys makes me think that he’s a few cards short of a deck, y’know what I mean?”

Billie’s mouth had pinched up in a way that showed all her dimples. “I wouldn’t describe him as a friend…”

“More of an acquaintance really,” said a new voice. Van and Deaq turned as one to face the new arrival. A solid, no-nonsense, seen-it-all cop stood in the door.

“Sergeant Tanner, I presume,” Deaq said, quietly.

Van gave a long sigh and said, “Sergeant Tanner, great to meet you, love your shoes.” Van turned to face Billie again and continued without taking a breath, “Can someone explain to me why, if this place is such a big secret, everyone and his sergeant can just waltz right in? ‘Cause, I’m really tired of doing the take-out thing with Domino’s and I’m thinking that the delivery boy could be made a valuable ally.”

Billie ostentatiously ignored Van as she rose to shake Tanner’s hand. “Good to see you again.”

“I’m really sorry about this, Billie…but I guess you knew I’d be calling that favor in someday,” Tanner tried to smile but it didn’t quite work.

“Undercover is a small world,” Billie smiled sympathetically. “We’ve got to take care of our own. I’m glad you’re here to give us the details.”

Van rolled his eyes and started shooting questions at Tanner interrogation-style.

“So your guy didn’t meet with his handler, what, three days ago? Was that normal?”

“No, it wasn’t.” Tanner tried a small sardonic grin. “As his handler, I can guarantee it.”

“What’s his cover, again?” Deaq asked.

“Ian McManus.”

“And his real name is?”

“Brian O’Conner.”

“Irish as whiskey. What’s this bullshit about you publishing his obituary in the LA Times?” Van’s voice had a definite current of hostility. Deaq shot Van a look that said, take it easy.

Tanner glanced at Van and then continued. “We kept in touch at alternating three and five day intervals. Ten days ago, Brian told me that he’d overheard one of the Murphys on a phone call saying something about a cop named O’Conner. Since there was more than a little chance that he had been made, I urged him to pull out…to leave with me that second. He refused. Brian’s really …stubborn when he wants to be.” Tanner bowed his head and suddenly seemed lost in thought.

“So the plan was…?” Van didn’t let it go.

“He wanted to stay in, I had to shore up his identity. So ten days ago, I had a guy I know at the Times publish a small article about Officer Brian O’Connor dying in the line of duty. No photo, of course. But we figured that it was probably enough to keep the Murphys from confusing the dead O’Conner with the very live McManus.”

“Did O’Conner think it was working?” Deaq asked.

“We met eight days ago and he said that it seemed solid. No one was acting suspicious.” Tanner was unconsciously unraveling the pocket flap of his tweed jacket. “He called me four days ago to confirm our meet on the following day. Then he didn’t show up.”

“Why did you wait to come to us?”

Tanner rubbed his bald spot like he expected a genie to appear. “I guess, I thought we could handle it ourselves. I thought Brian could just be laying low for a while, not needing any unexplained absences, if the heat was on. But he should have called by now.”

“You’ve moved in some heavy surveillance at the Murphy’s place, right?” Billie asked as if she was ticking off a mental checklist.

“Sure,” Tanner said quietly. “And no one’s seen hide nor hair of him.”

“So, potentially, he’s been missing for up to three days?” Deaq tried to make his voice neutral, to keep it from sounding as bad as it was. Three days was a pretty good head start if you wanted to get someone out of the country or, alternatively, hide their body in the desert.

Tanner was silent.

Van asked what everyone was thinking, “Do you really think we can find him?”

“I hope you can find him,” Tanner’s face was distant, sad and grim. “He’s a real good cop.”

**********

“I can’t believe this guy’s a cop.” Van was paging through the file as Deaq drove.

“What’s so hard to believe?” Deaq asked, distracted. Olympic Boulevard five o’clock traffic was like playing Frogger.

“Have you looked at him?” Van brandished the file photo in Deaq’s face. “He looks like he could be making a mint in Hollywood, man.”

Deaq shrugged, even though he could see Van’s point. O’Conner looked relaxed and happy in his file photo. O’Conner’s smile alchemized his even features into male perfection. Deaq’s eyes were drawn from the photo to his partner’s perfect cheekbones. Deaq could tell just from the slight edge in his voice that something about this case was already bothering Van.

“So?” Van was looking at him expectantly.

“So what, Van?” Deaq sighed. It seemed like he had developed a whole repertoire of sighs since he had started working with Van Ray. “Do you want me to theorize as to why O’Conner is not…how did you put it…making a mint in Hollywood?”

“Yeah, dude, theorize.” Van leaned back and snapped his gum. “We need to know this guy.”

“Maybe he can’t act.”

Van grinned his tight, not-funny grin. “Yeah, he can’t act, that’s probably why he’s such a successful undercover cop.”

Deaq slanted a glance at his partner, “Sarcasm’s not a good look on you, Van.”

“So, you can do better than that, Deaq.” Van drummed his fingers impatiently.

“Two theories” Deaq held up two fingers. “Maybe he’s turning. Maybe he’s more con than cop and he needs the moral gray area like a junkie needs the spike. Hollywood wouldn’t be nearly exciting enough for him.”

Van had gone still. “What’s your other theory?”

“Maybe he’s just like us, partner,” Deaq smirked at Van’s bemused look. “Maybe he’s just a fucking idealist.”

Van grinned again, a real grin this time. “Idealists. Is that what we are?”

“Hell, yes.” Deaq thrust out his fist.

“Amen, brother. Preach it.” Van bumped Deaq’s fist with his knuckles.

*************

They went back to Deaq’s place, ordered Thai and spread the file out all over the couch and the coffee table. Billie had asked them to figure out their best way in to the Murphys, assured them that she would play it their way. Deaq was trying to concentrate on O’Conner’s current case log while Van messed around with the rest of his personnel file.

“This guy’s getting too deep,” Van was sprawled across the floor, sorting through the photo attachments.

“What makes you say that?” Deaq wondered how Van could simultaneously wear pants that were too damn tight and yet hung so low on his hips.

“He’s taking all kinds of risks.” Van sat up abruptly and started counting off on his fingers. “First, he’s working alone, never a good thing. He might be losing perspective. Second, if you check the dates, he hasn’t taken any time off since some administrative leave thingie in 2001. Third, did you read the report on his first gig undercover? Didn’t that seem…as Billie would say…hinky? He fucks that one up…and then from there on out it’s textbook. So what does that tell you?”

“He…learned from his mistakes?”

“No, no, no, see, he’s got something to prove. Maybe to his sergeant…” Van rolled his eyes. “Maybe to himself. Whatever. But when you have something to prove, you’re already screwed.”

Deaq acknowledged the point with a shrug and asked. “Why were you such a dick to Tanner, man?”

Van rolled up to his feet and started pacing across the carpet. “Dunno. Something about him rubs me the wrong way. I mean it’s like he thinks he knows what’s best for Brian, but really he doesn’t. He’s got no fucking clue.”

Brian? thought Deaq, but what he said was, “He seemed plenty concerned to me.”

“Concerned, yeah, it means shit. He did the exact wrong thing.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to know just what’s the right thing to do.”

“No, no, it’s not.” Van abruptly stopped pacing. “Let me give you an example: you broke our cover for Hillary.”

Deaq took a long swig of his Thai iced tea. “I thought you understood why I did that.”

“Sure I do,” Van eyes had turned a particularly intense shade of green. “I do understand: you’ve got my best interests at heart. That’s why you bent the rules: to make me …happy and help me keep my perspective.”

Deaq looked away before he said something dumb. “And Tanner doesn’t have O’Conner’s best interests at heart?”

“No. And the worst thing is: he thinks that he does. He killed Brian O’Conner. He killed off Brian’s real identity. Who the fuck does that so casually? And he’s surprised that it’s become this self-fulfilling prophesy?”

“We don’t know that yet.” Deaq rolled his head around on his neck. “O’Conner must have approved of the plan.”

“Yeah, that’s what scares me,” Van was just looking out the dark window. “This is going to be like Dallas all over again.”

“No, it won’t. Dallas fell in love with his mark, remember? Or rather the mark’s sister, right?” Deaq rubbed his eyes.

“Do you see any evidence that O’Conner’s ever fallen for a mark? Since you’re the expert, and all?” Deaq knew it was a low blow, but it was late and he was tired.

Van’s eyes had gone blank and he grabbed some cartons and took them into the kitchen. “You’re right, it’s not like Dallas. But I have a hinky feeling about it anyway.”

***********

When Deaq picked Van up the following morning, he had the sneaking suspicion that Van hadn’t slept at all. Van’s hyper metabolism both alarmed and annoyed Deaq, but in a weird way, he admired Van’s go-go energy.

Van had spread Brian O’Conner’s arrest and incident reports into a deck like cards. He would riffle through them, pausing and quoting at Deaq.

“Look at the dates on the meth bust! Four weeks? What is he, a magician?

“Van, what exactly do you think the paperwork demon is for? He tells you exactly how he did it. That’s why we fill out these little forms…it’s all CYA and look, here’s what works, here’s what doesn’t. So meth bust, O’Conner makes like a tweaker, cozies up to the chemist freak, goes in wearing a wire, simple, done.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t say why…” Van held the papers up close to his face, like he was trying to read between the lines. “The guy trusted him so fast. I mean …drug dealers? Do the meth dealers of your acquaintance come across as trusting types?” Van raised his eyebrows and poked Deaq in the ribs.

“Stop that. Maybe the guy just liked O’Conner. Maybe he wanted to impress him,”

“Impress him?” Van’s eyebrows climbed even higher. “What are you saying, man? Think the dealer was queer?”

Deaq sighed again, “Look, haven’t you ever found that everyone, not just the ladies, opens up a little faster when you work on them? People respond to attractiveness, it’s like a law of nature. Doesn’t mean they’re that way. That’s why pretty people do the advertising, yeah? O’Conner probably milks it for all he’s worth.”

Van was staring at him as if Deaq was a game Van was attempting to win. “So you’re saying that you think I’m attractive.”

Deaq wanted to sigh, but instead recognized the opportunity. “Well, you’re not in O’Conner’s league.” Deaq leered down at the files. “But …you have your appeal.”

Predictably, Van whacked him on the head with a handful of files and jerked the rearview mirror over so he could examine his face in detail. “You really think he’s better looking than me?”

“This discussion began to bore me about two minutes ago.” Deaq pointed at Van’s chest. “Call Billie and tell her we’re going over to the Murphy’s garage.”

Van grimaced and jerked open his phone. He’d gotten no further than, “Hey, Billie…” when the voice on the other end got very commanding and specific. He closed the phone.

“She wants us to come to the store. Tanner’s coming too. He says there’s been a complication.”

“Already?” Deaq sighed and turned toward the candy store.

***********

When Tanner walked in, they could see that the complication had been a violent one. Tanner looked like he’d had a rough night. A long cut over his eyebrow had been stitched closed and it was seamed with a dark line of congealed blood. The eye beneath was shadowed black and swollen almost shut. Tanner moved like he might have other injuries that weren’t as readily apparent. He was clutching a couple of file folders. Billie guided him into a chair.

“So that ‘complication’ that you mentioned, is that what gave you the shiner?” Early in the morning, and Van was already putting on the snark.

“Did you read up on Brian’s case file?” Tanner’s voice hadn’t changed.

“Why, is there going to be a quiz?”

Deaq nudged Van a little harder than necessary. “What happened to you, Sergeant?”

“The ghost of cases past paid me a visit last night.” Tanner leaned over his coffee. Deaq noticed then that Tanner’s left hand was heavily bandaged. He spread the contents of the file out over Billie’s desk.

“Could you maybe come to the point sometime this century?” Van was rocking on the balls of his feet. “And lay off the Dickens?”

Tanner fixed Van with his good eye, “Brian’s first UC case.”

“The big rig hijackings….had something to do with street racing?”

Tanner seemed to relax minutely. “So you did read it. So the name Dominic Toretto would be familiar to you.” He pointed at a photograph.

Where O’Conner looked like a movie star slumming as a cop, the man in the mug shot looked like what would happen if a man mated with a bulldozer. The wide set of his shoulders hardly fit in the photograph. He stared out from under his heavy brows with a defiant look that seemed to say, you’ve gotten me but you haven’t beaten me.

“Would have been familiar without the file. Toretto was a big name in that world. Vanished about eighteen months ago, right?”

“Ye-es. That was kind of a bone of contention between me and Brian. Going in, Brian was convinced that it wasn’t Toretto and he got waaaay too close.”

Van shot Deaq an unreadable look. “Toretto got away?”

“The official story is: he overpowered Brian and took his car. Hasn’t been heard from since. Suspected that he fled to Mexico after the heat came down. So no more semi hijacking, so technically the operation was a success. Just a couple of bodies unaccounted for and several thousand dollars of property damage. Wasn’t Brian’s finest hour.”

“So why is Toretto putting himself in harm’s way now? Assaulting a cop in a country where there’s a warrant out for his arrest? I mean, I assume that’s what happened?”

“I’ve made some phone calls this morning and I think I have tracked his movements pretty conclusively.” Tanner tried to scratch his chin with his damaged hand. “Toretto must have read the Times article down in Mexico. That explains the week’s delay. He crossed the border very early yesterday. He went to the downtown courthouse and discovered that there was no death certificate registered…”

“No death certificate?” Billie was unconsciously shaking her head at the lack of thoroughness.

“Well, technically, there was no death. I wasn’t expecting anyone to dig any deeper. So he goes to the Times office and finds the guy who wrote the article. A friend of mine, as I think I mentioned.” Tanner hung his head.

“So that’s how he got your address,” Deaq leaned in.

“My friend said that Toretto was…very persuasive.” Tanner held up his bandaged hand. “I can just imagine that he was. I went home after I left you guys and first thing, he dropped me with a baseball bat. When I came to, he started asking me questions and when I didn’t answer fast enough, he started breaking my fingers.”

“So what does this mean?”

“It means,” Tanner held out his broken hand like he wanted to count his fingers. “He knows what you know. He kept accusing me of killing Brian. I thought he would kill me.”

“So you put him on to the Murphys?” Billie’s voice sounded like it had risen an octave. “That’s going to make everything just a little bit harder, you realize? Do you know where he is now?”

“No clue,” Tanner paused for a long minute. “Toretto is a lot smarter than I thought he was. Plus he may be crazy. Dangerous combination.”

“Yeah, well,” Van drew himself upright. “We’re a dangerous combination, too.”

***************

The strangest things float through his head. He imagines that his life is flashing before his eyes, but backward, rewinding like a videotape. He remembers his first meeting with the men who have become his captors. Their bright blue eyes piercing as they interviewed him with their gentle brogues.

Michael, Mike, he says, call me Mike. He’s the talker. Colin, in the corner, is the silent one, the dangerous one, but Brian would bet money that Michael’s plenty dangerous on his own account. Michael asks him questions about how he would fix this thing or that thing and seems pleased with Brian’s answers. Then he asks, “So how’re you at minding your own business, McManus?”

Brian puts on his best vacant-surfer look, “What do you mean?”

“Say if you were working and you should look over your shoulder and someone was doing something that looked exciting, wouldja be curious then?”

“I don’t…look around much when I’m working. All I focus on is the engine.” Saying this makes him think of Jesse.

“Good answer, McManus. We like people who can focus.” Michael smiles beatifically, it’s hard to believe that this man is among the most vicious of criminals. Of course, one thing that Brian knows with certainty is that appearances deceive.

Michael casts his eyes down and asks coyly, “McManus, that’s a good name. A very Fenian name. But you’re not a Fenian, now are you, McManus?”

“Well,” Brian rolls his head as if seriously considering it. “If the Fenians are buying drinks…”

And they laugh, they both laugh and he’s good, he’s golden as Mike gives him benediction. “Good answer, McManus. You’re in.”

***************

When they were back in the car rolling east, Deaq asked, “So what’s the story on this Toretto dude?”

“If he did what they say he did, he’s an exceptionally daring hijacker,” Van sighed. “He did a two year bit up Lompoc for beating a man into an entirely new shape. Extenuating circumstances, supposedly, hence the short ride.”

“There’s always extenuating circumstances,” Deaq checked his piece. “He’s never killed anybody?”

“Not yet,” Van conceded.

“Considering our usual players, he’s practically a saint,” Deaq rolled his shoulders and slumped down in his seat.

They pulled up behind the Murphy’s garage barely an hour after leaving the candy store. It was a sprawling estate in the northern part of East L.A. Grids of indistinguishable warehouses punctuated by isolated houses, small bodegas and the occasional burned-out gas station. The Murphys main garage looked like an airplane hangar and their name was on the deeds of six outbuildings. This was going to take a while. Not for the first time, Van wished they could just order up a SWAT team and blaze in shooting. Well, this way was more…intellectually challenging. Deaq was impeccably gangsta in his track suit and chains, so he elected to go up front and recon.

Van sat in the car staring at his Blackberry. His eyes happened to fall on the first page of Brian O’Conner’s personnel report. He’d scanned it maybe a dozen times already, but his eye fell on a sentence at the bottom that he’d never noticed before.

It was the ‘In case of emergency notify:’ And in Brian’s neat handwriting: Sergeant John Tanner. It suddenly occurred to Van that his own file still had Dre listed for his emergency contact. And how fucking tragic was that?

Just then the green screen brightened. “Deserted up here.”

“Think nobodys home?”

“Thats what it looks like,”

“Im going in,”

“Bcareful. Im coming in from the alley.”

Van pushed out of the car and vaulted up the drainpipe to get into the side courtyard. He saw a fuse box and threw the main crank, hopefully it would disable any camera-type security they had going on. Murphys probably trusted a lot to the complete anonymity of their location.

His theory was proved correct when he easily loided the lock on the back door. The garage had a high line of windows right under the roof line and the morning light filtered down lazily. The back walls were lined with a maze of custom-built metal shelves that housed a variety of tools many of which Van had never seen before. The shelving went up all the way to the ceiling. He pulled his gun, something about the air put him in full-alert mode. But like Deaq had observed, the garage felt dead.

Van was rounding one of the last corners before the garage opened up into the workspace, leading with his gun, when the roof caved in on him. Or at least that’s what it felt like. A hot heavy shadow landed on his right shoulder and whacked his wrist, numbing him to the tips of his fingers. Van didn’t have time to watch his weapon drop to the floor because he was too busy trying to break his own fall. The weight on his back shifted direction suddenly and instead of being thrown forward, Van was jerked back into a wrestling hold that would have gotten the user kicked out of the WWE. A hand clamped around the top of his throat. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”

The voice sounded like someone raking gravel. Something told Van that the speaker had never been Irish. From the sound of it, he wasn’t sure if the speaker had actually ever been human. Van struggled but the presence behind him was too close to put any conventional move on. He was wrapped around Van like a casket. Van couldn’t even stomp on his instep because their thighs and knees were so perfectly aligned.

“A little conventional wisdom for you, Toretto.” Van sagged in relief at the sound of Deaq’s voice. “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off that ol’ Lone Ranger and you don’t mess around with Van.”

Van could feel Toretto stiffen slightly against his back. Van could imagine the long barrel of Deaq’s gun pressed in between Toretto’s shoulder blades.

“Nice talk,” the voice rumbled a bit louder. “What are you, his pimp?”

Toretto spun unexpectedly on his heels, taking Van with him. Suddenly, Van was staring down the barrel of the Desert Eagle. His eyes flashed up the barrel to the fleeting look of abject horror on Deaq’s face. He could see the tiny movement where Deaq straightened his trigger finger and the quick flick of his thumb as he eased the safety back on. Van couldn’t help but swallow even though he knew there wasn’t any likelihood of Deaqon Hayes blowing a hole the size of a fist through the bridge of his nose.

“Oh you did not just say that,” Deaq covered his moment of weakness flawlessly.

“You guys are cops?”

Van tried to keep eye contact with Deaq and wrestle away from Toretto’s grip. Deaq tried to keep Toretto talking and move up on him. But every time Deaq took a step forward, the iron hand tightened on Van’s throat. They stood motionless as chess pieces, pondering their next move.

“What’s your beef with Brian O’Conner, Toretto?” Van raised his eyebrows. Cagey, Deaq, tell him everything, why dontcha?

“You friends of his?”

Deaq rocked his head, “You could say that. We don’t want anything to happen to him, that’s for damn sure.”

Van cleared his throat, testing the pressure of Toretto’s grip. “Finding him is our highest priority. We don’t have time to mess around.”

“Does it look like I’m messing around?” Toretto’s breath in his hair made Van twitch. “He’s not here.”

“How long have you been looking?” Van was amazed at how calm he sounded. His heart was loud in his ears.

“I’ve been here all night,” Toretto’s voice was like a promise of doom.

“Look, you want to talk to O’Conner, we’ll call you when we find him.” Deaq said. “But don’t get in the way, man, we’ll have to arrest you for obstruction.”

“We just want to find Brian, Dominic. We’ve got no problem with you.” Van tried to sound reassuring and in control.

“So why don’t you play nice now and lay off my partner?” the wheedling tone in Deaq’s voice was surely impossible to resist.

Van could see Deaq stiffening slightly, Deaq didn’t like what was in Dominic Toretto’s face. If he really looked, Van could see his and Toretto’s reflections in Deaq’s clear brown eyes. Toretto was…smiling?

“He’s yours? Take him.” Van felt the thick muscles coil like springs as Toretto catapulted him straight at Deaq. They stumbled together for a moment in an awkward embrace and by the time they had disentangled themselves, Dominic Toretto was gone.

*************

Van was pretty sure that if Toretto said he had been there all night, there was slim to no chance that something or someone had crept past him. They searched the garage and outbuildings anyway and turned up nothing more than dust and grease.

“Tanner’s heavy surveillance didn’t happen to notice they’d all split?” Van tried to joke.

“They must’ve just ditched it,” Deaq didn’t meet Van’s eyes.

Silently, they headed back to the candy store. Temporary setbacks weren’t anything special.

Deaq wordlessly racked a game and they played for almost an hour. This was part of the job. Thinking time, while they kept their idle hands busy. Van’s mind kept wandering around the stranger corners of the case, while trying to shake the suspicion that Deaq was angry with him. Deaq was off his game. After Van had effortlessly sunk two eight balls, he felt moved to enquire, “You okay?”

Deaq just looked at him for a long minute. Deaq’s skin was so smooth and fine-grained; it was almost glossy. Van tried to get a mental stranglehold on the deeply masochistic part of his brain that kept sending him these unwanted Deaq-observations.

Deaq took a deep breath as if he was about to launch into a tirade, then he just exhaled and said, “This shit’s complicated.”

Van cocked his head and smiled his most infuriating smile. “Really? You think so? Missing cop, psycho ex-con, the most radical faction of the IRA…thought it sounded kind of boring and prosaic, but that’s just me.”

“I’m not sure what’s more aggravating…” Deaq was rocking back and forth on his heels. “That goofy grin of yours or the fact that you have a word like ‘prosaic’ on tap. You really think Toretto’s psycho?”

Van rolled the cue ball around in his hand thoughtfully. “Nah, but let’s say, I could see how other people could get that impression.”

Deaq relaxed against the edge of the table. “Yeah, that’s how it felt to me too. He’s smart…he’d copped to our scene within seconds. So we’ve got that guy running around looking for our guy and knowing we’re cops. Which doesn’t feel like a plus to me.”

“He is pretty … single-minded. But he wasn’t ever out of control.” Van threw the cue ball from hand to hand, distractedly.

Deaq twisted his stick angrily, “What does he want?”

“Short answer: Brian O’Conner.”

“But why?”

Van turned up his hands in an exaggerated shrug. “There, you’ve got me.”

“I’d feel a lot better if that guy wasn’t around potentially fucking things up. Talk about a loose cannon.”

“Deaq,” Van thought he’d try to slide past with it while Deaq was preoccupied. “CanIputyoudownasmynotifyincaseofemergency?”

Deaq did that thing where his whole face twisted up in a disbelieving scowl. “Van, think about that for two seconds and maybe you’ll realize why it’s a stupid idea?”

“Can’t exactly call Ray Ray,” Van addressed this to the table. Surely his hair would cover his face.

“Van, you got an emergency, you call my name, get it?” Deaq racked the balls and moved to break. “Don’t be having any other kind of emergency, dawg.”

Van chewed on that for a moment because it tasted so good.

*****************

The slow burn that the injection pours through his veins has become the only flame that he has to warm himself. Time has no meaning anymore, he’s got no clue how long it has been since he last ate, drank, washed or relieved himself. His body has betrayed him in many ways but he still looks the same. The texture of his skin still feels the same. This feels like yet another betrayal.

He’s never done drugs before. Not like this. He’d have scoffed at the idea.

Now he goes on hourly trips inside his head courtesy of his captors’ resident mad scientist. This woman has made his skin catch fire, his blood erupt through his pores, his brain snake out through his ears. She has watched dispassionately as he has begged her to free him, to feed him, to fuck him, to kill him. Watched and taken notes. Sedated him if his induced madness grows threatening or just tiresome.

He just hopes it’s not heroin. Something to put a literal hole in his head that will suck away at him until it’s all that he thinks about. Surely, she could not be that cruel. To give him something that he won’t ever be able to truly live without.

He tries to comfort himself with the thought that he’s been living without something that he thought he needed for eighteen months now. Well, not living. Surviving.

He rubs his shoulders to keep the blood flowing and whispers to the darkness. “Dominic.”

*************

“Hey,” Billie strolled into their game space, back from wherever it was Billie went when she wasn’t at work. Updating her mental database of the criminal underworld of greater Los Angeles, Van suspected. “You guys find O’Conner?”

Van whirled on her, “Oh yeah, he just had to hit the can…..no, actually we didn’t find him. Warehouse and garage deserted. No rats even. We came back here to buy a clue.”

“Any suggestions?” Deaq asked wryly. He’d shot Van a funny look which Van could guess was probably related to the fact that the warehouse hadn’t been completely deserted.

Billie pursed her lips. “If they’ve cleared off, known associates are our best bet. Unfortunately, if we include former customers, it’s a longish list.”

“How longish we talking?”

“Rest of the afternoon?” Billie shrugged. When Van’s shoulders slumped, her voice became surprisingly gentle. “Hey, if they’ve kept him alive this long, he’ll be okay for a while yet.”

Van didn’t say anything and turned toward the computers. Billie and Deaq were quiet behind him and he just knew that they were exchanging worried looks. They got down to busywork.

Four million profiles and several hours later, Van raised his head and wondered aloud, “Is there such a thing as too many leads?”

“They do get around, don’t they?” Billie agreed.

Deaq interjected suddenly, “Designer drugs are the Murphys’ new money angle? Isn’t that what Tanner said?”

“Yeah, he said it was rumored that they might have been manufacturing or distributing some new versions of X that have been popping up in the clubs. Nothing solid, though. Nothing that would stick.”

“Mr. Goodyear can’t become Pfizer just by going to night school,” Deaq mused.

Van perked up a little. “So let’s cross-reference the rest of these losers for all their drug offences.”

“Can do,” Billie sometimes seemed like she was actually part of the computer. It was only a few seconds before she said, “Well this one looks good. In more ways than one.”

The woman whose mug shot flashed up on screen had a sulky, dark-haired beauty. “Linda Lengane.” Deaq read aloud.

“She’s been swept up in a few Vice trawls of the big playrooms in Hollywood. Which could just be a case of wrong place, wrong time, but…” Billie’s fingers danced over the keys.

“But what?” Van’s head felt raw from all the gritty information of the thousands of rap sheets he’d examined.

“But she was a summa cum laude graduate of the chemistry program at UCLA,” Billie leaned back. “She has no visible means of support. And she’s been seen with Mike Murphy on more than one occasion, recently. So you can draw your own conclusions.”

“She could be part of the supply chain,” Deaq surmised.

“She could be the supply chain,” Billie confirmed. “Unfortunately, she has no fixed address to go with her no visible means of support. But it’s Saturday night. And golly, look at the time!”

“You got a hot date, Billie?” Van’s patience was wearing thin.

“No,” She twirled the chair around and smiled, “But now you do.”

**************

“Where should we hit first?” Van asked as they headed to the car. “Sky bar? Halo? Rainbow?

“Mmmmm, let’s just get up there and we can flow with what feels right.” Deaq jogged around to the driver’s seat. “I’ll drive.”

“No, you won’t. That’s my neighborhood.”

“C’mon Van.” Deaq gave him a look that was both aggravated and concerned. “You look tired and it could be a long night.”

Van wanted to argue but when he opened his mouth, it occurred to him that he was tired. And Deaq was standing right there. He shrugged and handed over the keys.

“I’ve got a theory,” Van sagged back into the upholstery while Deaq fiddled with his side mirrors. “About Toretto.”

Deaq rolled his eyes, “Let’s hear it.”

“So the official word is that Toretto took Brian’s car off him and escaped down to Mexico, right?”

Deaq nodded agreement.

“And Tanner said that Brian got way too close.” Van leaned forward and tried to envision it in his head, “So what if Brian just…gave Toretto his car and let him get away? Heat is coming down from all sides and Brian’s the lightning rod while Toretto makes the fast exit? If I were Toretto, I’d be maybe a little grateful.”

“So O’Conner yanked a thorn from Toretto’s paw and now he’s come back to repay the debt? Sounds crazy, man.” Deaq shrugged elaborately. “But sometimes crazy works. Beats the alternative.”

Deaq’s eyes glowed like the cherry of a cigarette in the neon of the streets. He tapped the steering wheel impatiently.

“Hollywood, Hollywood, damnit what’s the best way to get to Hollywood at this hour?”

“Are you seriously asking me this? Take Chavez to Sunset, man.” Van settled back into his seat.

“I am in no mood for Boulevard traffic, Van.” Deaq rolled his shoulders “That’s your neighborhood…you’re supposed to know the shortcuts.”

“Take the 101 to the Santa Monica exit.”

“Ab-so-lute-ly not.” Deaq glared at Van. “No fucking surface streets. And no 101.”

“That doesn’t leave me with much, man.”

A voice growled out of the darkness of the backseat. “Take the 5 to the Los Feliz exit.”

“Holy fucking shit!” As the driver, Deaq confined himself to cursing creatively while Van snapped his 9mm loose and took aim at the shadow that leaned forward to reveal Dominic Toretto. Toretto regarded Van and his gun mildly for a moment, then sank back as if he was tired or bored.

“Where the hell did you spring from?”

“Followed you back from the garage,” The words were almost inaudible.

“What?” Van sputtered. “Nobody followed me! Deaq, did you...I didn’t see any…there’s no way any car was tailing me.” Van decided to stop before he sounded any more ridiculous.

“I was in this car,” Toretto said this like it was no big deal. Van gaped at him and then looked at Deaq.

Deaq’s hands were clenched on the steering wheel. His teeth flashed in the street light. “How you did this isn’t really what interests me, but why? That’s a question worth asking.”

“You gonna shoot me?” Toretto still sounded bored. Van looked at the gun in his hand and had a weird flashback to the first time he ever watched Pulp Fiction. He imagined Toretto’s brains all over the backseat and shoved the Baretta back into his waistband.

Toretto looked at Van for a long time before rumbling, “You guys still looking for O’Conner?”

“We aren’t going to stop until we find him.” Van stared right back.

“Well, then we have that in common.” Toretto leaned forward and his eyes glittered. “I can help you.”

Deaq slammed his fist into the dashboard. “Newsflash for you, Toretto. Just so you get the picture, we are cops. We’re here to find a guy who is also a cop. We arrest people who do things like assault other cops, whatever their intentions might be. We don’t want your help. We want you in a cell.”

Toretto’s lips twisted into what Van thought might be a grin. “You’re driving around in a Yenko ’67 427ci Camaro RS/SS. Big block, four-speed. Original Rally Green. There are only six in the country. The engine has been converted from its original 375 horsepower 396 to a 425 horsepower L72 427. You seized it from a wiseguy named Angelo ‘the Angel’ Ancinni.”

“How do you know this?” Van had to shake off the spell of the quiet voice.

“Who do you think converted the engine? I also know that the Angel would never sell it. But you haven’t auctioned it off, which is what a cop would do. You’re using it. Because it’s useful.”

“Your point is?” Deaq’s eyes flashed in the rearview.

“I can be useful too.” Toretto leaned back into the shadows.

Deaq stared for a moment and then changed tack. “Start being useful then. You got any leads to O’Conner?”

“Do you really think I would have tucked myself into the trunk of this car and waited in the garage of an abandoned theater for ten hours if I had any leads? You’re the cops, you find the leads.”

“What are you going to do then?” Van asked.

“I’ll drive the car.” Toretto said, his voice dripping with irony.

“I can drive the damn car, thankyouverymuch.” Deaq shot back.

Toretto shifted his gaze back to Van. “Then shoot me, Miz Daisy. Or put me in a cell.” Toretto spread his arms across the seat backs. “Those are the options.”

Deaq looked at Van and Van gave him an it’s-up-to-you look. Deaq threw up his hands.

Van swiveled around and asked, “So that’s as far as we can trust you? You start doing something we don’t like, we shoot you or book you? Seems fair to me. That seem fair to you, Deaq?”

Deaq mumbled something that sounded like ‘whatever’.

“So Mr. Toretto. Dominic?”

“Dom,” came the growl.

How appropriate, thought Van but what he said was, “I’m Van Strummer and this is Deaqon Hayes. My partner and I were kind of having this discussion this morning and maybe you could settle it. How did you know you could trust us? You don’t know us.”

Dom was silent for the time it took to navigate the exit and get into Hollywood. When he spoke, his voice seemed to have lost its edge. “This morning, when you said that finding Brian was your highest priority, your breathing never changed and your pulse stayed the same. Figured you weren’t lying.”

Deaq rolled his eyes as they pulled up to a club. “He’s already useful. He’s a fucking human polygraph.”

***************

Sunset was bumping. Beautiful wannabes milled around. Van and Deaq blended right in. Toretto …didn’t really but that was all right since he was planning on staying with the car. When they explained to him the circuitous route that they were taking to try to find Brian, Dom looked worried but deferred to their judgment.

“You think someone here is going to recognize you?” Having committed, Deaq was all business.

“This ain’t exactly my scene,” Dom’s lip curled disgustedly.

As they walked away from the car, Deaq shot a look over his shoulder and asked Van, “You sure you’re okay with this, Van?”

“You didn’t like the idea of him nosing around, fucking things up for us, right?” Van looked back to where Toretto’s hulking form leaned on the hood. Passerby were already giving him a wide berth.

“Better than the Club ™. Let’s keep him where we can keep an eye on him,” Van shrugged. They got their hands stamped and joined the party.

*************

Three hand stamps later, they were beginning to wonder if their luck was just terminally bad. Deaq’s eyes felt raped by all the neon and black light. He’d looked into dozens of faces, smooched what felt like hundreds of air kisses, and his ass was beginning to ache from all the groping. Why did Angelenas always have to be so…aggressive?

Van’s eyes were beginning to look as though Toretto had done a number on him as well. Dark shadows circled the green. His partner was obviously reaching the end of his nervous energy reserves. Deaq sent up a silent prayer that they might just catch one break.

And suddenly, there she was, schmoozing it up in a back booth at Seethe of all places. And just as Deaq had spotted her, Van ran into Ana, an old friend, girlfriend, fuckbuddy, whatever, who knew the lady and could introduce them. As she led them over to the table, she glanced over her shoulder and said coyly, “So, Van, I didn’t know you were into the funny stuff.”

Deaq lived for moments like this. Watching that bland look come over Van’s face while Van tried to play it cool was just priceless.

“Well,” Van said weakly, “I like to keep an open mind. You know me, I’ll try anything once.” He elbowed Deaq while Ana smirked at them.

“It’s good shit,” Ana explained obliquely, “I think you’ll enjoy it.”

Deaq openly appraised the woman they were approaching. He didn’t have to worry about seeming rude because she was doing the same thing to him. Her dark eyes were as direct as a touch. She lounged across the modern black leather banquette like a combination of queen and harem girl. She was wearing the club uniform of leather skirt, a keyhole halter top in a color that only Van would know. Her manner set her apart. Well, that and her handbag. Nothing marked you a drug dealer faster than carrying a purse that wouldn’t fit into a palm into an L.A. club. Another girl crouched next to her, examining Van as if he were something on the menu.

Ana made the introductions and whispered to Van that she was going to get a drink, did he and Deaq want anything? Van smooched her and said they would wait for a waitress. She kissed him back enthusiastically and vanished onto the dance floor.

Linda leaned forward and said conspiratorially, “You boys looking for a good time?”

Van rolled his head back against the leather and said, “Always.” Now that they’d made contact, Van was focused, at his best. Deaq grinned internally and looked out at Linda from under his eyelashes. Van started to flirt while Deaq threw in the occasional word.

“Looks like our little party has grown,” a jovial voice came from somewhere over Deaq’s shoulder. Deaq didn’t have any trouble recognizing the smiling face, despite the fact that he’d only seen it in surveillance photos. Mike Murphy wasn’t exactly handsome, but the friendly openness of his face made him the object of many female stares.

Linda introduced Van and Deaq to the Murphy brothers as they wedged themselves into seats. Just then the waitress showed up. Deaq ordered cranberry and soda, tossing off a quick ‘driving’ excuse. Van’s order of Black Bush made both the new arrivals nod approvingly. Mike Murphy settled back next to Linda. “So what do you boys do?”

Deaq knew better than to speak up at this point. He would probably say something that Van would simultaneously contradict. Van settled down more comfortably into the upholstery, “Our business is pleasure.”

“Oh, so you’re a bit like our Linda here in that regard?”

“Sort of,” Van looked self-deprecating. “Our profession is considerably…older.”

Deaq put on a slightly bored, menacing look and tried to give the impression that pimpin’ ain’t easy. Mike flashed a wicked grin.

“How do you guys know each other?” Van asked, indicating Linda and the Murphy boys. Van tapped a hand on Linda’s knee; the look she gave him was part invitation, part sneer.

“They made an investment that helped me get my business off the ground,” Linda explained. “Kind of my silent partners.”

“Speaking of silent partners: does your friend talk?” said Murphy joshingly, tilting his head at Deaq.

“When he needs to,” Van tilted his head at Colin, “Does your brother?”

Mike Murphy just laughed.

“Murphy, Murphy, Murphy,” Van was tapping his lip like he was trying to remember something. “You did some work for an acquaintance of mine, I think. Customized some funny cars for Bunny Hendricks back in ’01, isn’t that right? ”

“Aye, Bunny. I liked that crazy bastard. Always paid his bills on time.” Mike shook his head and leaned back, remembering old times. “Shame about what happened to him,”

“Live by the Vulcan II, die by the Vulcan II.” Van philosophized. Deaq flashed back to the look of Bunny’s body under the tarp after they’d chased him down in the Angeles Crest. Like a rag doll. Bunny’s bike had almost made the turn; he hadn’t come close.

“He said you were better than competent. I actually have a few projects that you might be interested in. We have a small sideline in some classic muscle cars and it’s tough to find someone who really knows their business. You’re out in East L.A., right?”

“Actually, we’ve got a new operation in El Segundo,” Murphy took a sip of his own highball.

“Moving up in the world,” Van nodded approvingly. This was going astonishingly smoothly.

“Well, that’s what you’re supposed to do in America, right?” Murphy smiled at his brother. “Immigrate, work hard, move into better neighborhoods. Land of opportunity.”

Van looked at Linda while he addressed Mike. “You know, we may have more than one acquaintance in common? Last I heard an old buddy of mine had started working for you. Ian McManus, does it ring a bell?”

Colin Murphy’s face remained as impassive as ever but while Mike’s smile widened, his eyes narrowed. “So you know Ian, do you?” his brogue softened the words but Deaq still caught the slight hint of …something.

“Back when we were kids. Haven’t caught up with him for a while.” Van rolled his head lazily.

Deaq cut his eyes over to the lovely Linda. She was still sprawled bonelessly across the seat, but she was tapping her foot staccato on the low table.

“How are you liking your poison?” Mike’s voice was still affable but his eyes glinted. Deaq could feel Van stiffen beside him and he had to quell the urge to break Mike Murphy’s nose. Van looked down at Deaq’s hand and Deaq felt him try to loosen up.

“It’s very…” Van looked down into his glass and tilted it. “…flammable.”

Mike Murphy laughed appreciatively, the menace gone, “Mother’s milk to us. Two reasons you can’t cremate Irishmen, first we’re Catholic and second, we’d burn for three days.”

Van chuckled and said, “Two Irishmen walk out of a bar…”

Mike leaned in for the punch line and even Colin cocked his head as if he was listening. Van turned and winked at Deaq. “Well, I guess it could happen.”

Mike Murphy’s lip twisted while Colin was still puzzling it through. Linda’s laugh was almost a whisper.

Mike stood abruptly, followed by his brother. Linda and her nameless friend also sinuously snaked to their feet. “As much fun as it’s been, boys,” Mike sketched a tiny bow, “We’ll have to break tradition and excuse ourselves. Look forward to perhaps doing some business with you.”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” Van stood up for the ladies and both he and Deaq moved to shake everyone’s hand. “Where can we find you in the Segundo?”

Mike Murphy had already turned to go; he was leading the pack through the crowd. He threw a smile and nod over his shoulder at Van, “Around!”

Deaq muttered, "Tail ‘em,” and Van nodded in time to the music. They got into a flanking maneuver that took them around either side of the bar to the back of the club where the foursome was ducking out. Deaq pulled out his phone to call Toretto.

Van was focusing so hard on Linda’s back that he didn’t notice the bodyguards until one of them stepped directly into his path. Van said, “Excuse me,” in a tone that added, “asshole,” when Deaq noticed the sudden prevalence of dark suits paired with muscle shirts. Jeez. It was like they’d suddenly walked into a store called Thugs ‘R’ Us.

“Get lost, faggot,” the most articulate of the bunch volunteered.

Van grinned at him and asked pleasantly, “You suck your boyfriend’s cock with that mouth?”

There was a pause while the group digested this. The cocksucker took a step forward and swung at Van.

In an impressive economy of motion, Van ducked the blow and elbowed the guy in the ribs while pulling his gun free. Deaq was involved in his own little shoving match with a guy who looked like a tank. Deaq freed the Desert Eagle and both he and Van brandished their pieces.

“Step off, fellas,” Deaq advised the solid wall of hired muscle that seemed to fill the back of the bar. A woman trying to push to the restrooms saw the guns and shrieked.

Instead of verbalizing a response, each of the thugs pulled their own weapons free. They ranged from a classic cheapo Saturday Night Special to a fully automatic AR-15. Van and Deaq exchanged a glance and dived behind the suddenly empty bar.

“Looks like we struck a nerve,” Van’s eyes were snapping with adrenaline. The bar rocked with a volley of shots.

“Yeah and as long as we’re here, they’re going to keep shooting up this very crowded club.” Deaq hissed furiously. A wood chip from the bar, dislodged by a ricocheting bullet, fell into Van’s hair.

“Yeah, I know. Billie’s not going to like it.”

“So, strategic retreat?”

“Gotcha, I’ll cover,” Van snapped off a few shots while Deaq made it to the door. Then Deaq returned the favor with his back-up piece. They launched themselves out the front door.

Toretto was waiting with the engine revving. Van threw himself in through the window and slithered into the backseat. Deaq was so close behind him that his face was pressed into the back of Van’s thigh for a long second while Toretto peeled out. Sirens were beginning to sound in the near distance. More distressingly, shots rang out into the crowded street. The velvet rope mob turned into a churning maelstrom of screaming and running people. A bullet found a home in the trunk of the Camaro with a sudden thunk.

“Get going,” gasped Van, but Toretto was already blazing west on Sunset. The roar of an engine behind them made Deaq’s heart sink. The Murphys’ security was obviously paid enough to be tenacious.

“What happened?” Dom asked while he turned across two lanes of traffic.

“We found the bad guys,” Deaq managed to say this even though gravity was trying to push him into the backseat. Dom was straightening his leg on the accelerator.

“Do these guys know where Brian is?” Toretto tapped the rearview indicating the hot pursuit. A bullet shattered the back window but Dom didn’t flinch. “Shouldn’t we be chasing them?”

“You want to? Feel free!” yelled Deaq as another bullet took out the driver’s side mirror. Dom’s face locked into a scowling mask and his hand tightened over the steering wheel. Unexpectedly, he stomped on the brake and twisted the wheel, guiding the big car down an alleyway like water going through a pipe.

Their pursuit overshot the turn and the screeching brakes wailed up the street. Dom made a three point turn in a garage that abutted the alley and zipped back down another featureless side street. The Camaro’s engine rumble seemed loud in Deaq’s ears. A siren roared past a block down on Sunset.

It was a pleasure watching someone do what they did well. Even with half his brain busy scanning the street, Deaq had to admit: Dominic Toretto was a hell of a getaway man. Better than Van, maybe. When they turned north on a canyon road, another car zoomed up behind them with obvious criminal intent. The driver tried to pull up alongside, all the better to shoot you, m’dear. Dom cut the wheel in tiny increments that made the big car shimmy across both lanes. He downshifted to second and let all the horses under the hood gallop to redline. When he shifted up, the car jerked forward like some giant was pulling it on a string.

Dom was looking in the rearview as much as the road. Deaq got the feeling that he wasn’t going all out yet. Deaq asked, “What are you planning, man?”

Dom said slowly, “There’s a turn up here. I want them to think we’re going faster than we are.”

That made little sense to Deaq but as they slung into the turn, it became clear. The narrow arc slammed Deaq into the door. In the backseat, Van was tumbled around like a bowling ball. The edge of the right rear tire’s rim shot sparks off the high curb. Momentarily, Deaq found himself looking down into the narrow culvert on the far side. Then they were past it, sailing into the dark of Mulholland Drive.

Physics wasn’t so forgiving to the pursuing vehicle. By the time Deaq turned to look, all he could see was the shower of sparks the curb drew from the undercarriage as the car flipped into the ditch. Van said “Ouch,” under his breath.

Dom zoomed through the next four miles of the road silently. He pulled into one of the turn offs that overlooked the L.A. basin. At 2 AM, a cauldron of light blazed below them as far as the eye could see.

“That was some fancy driving, man.” Deaq offered.

“Brian was better at this shit,” Dom said so softly that Deaq barely caught it. Dom stretched both his thumbs over the wheel and drummed an impatient tattoo then he clenched his jaw and turned to glower at both of them.

“Well that wasn’t completely unsuccessful,” Van said sardonically.

“So do all of your successful evenings end in a firefight?” Toretto looked like he was on the verge of slamming their heads together.

Van opened his mouth to protest, paused and then muttered, “More often than not.”

“So where’s Brian? What are we doing out here pulling our dicks while they kill him?”

“Look, let me make this clear to you, Toretto, Ease. Your. Mind.” Deaq gave it to him like a sermon. “The Murphys are professionals. We met ‘em, so we know. Professionals don’t waste their energy by doing things all random and shit. So far as the record goes, they haven’t killed anybody, they sure as hell aren’t going to start with anyone they suspect might be a cop. They’re gonna do a crime, it’s for one of three reasons. Money. Love. Or revenge.” Deaq brandished three fingers and continued.

“Now we just let them know that we know Brian and we know he was with them. That we care about what happens to him. They don’t know if we’re cops or stone-cold gangsters so they’re going to be going back, finding out about us and considering their next move. Carefully. Because they’re professionals. Now you need to chill out hard. You need to be a professional too. Don’t be going off all half-cocked. That ain’t gonna help Brian none.”

Dom’s lips were pressed together so tightly, they’d gone white at the edges. Van recognized that look. The look that says you want to slam your fist into something, but you’re not sure what. Dom gazed at Deaq for a long moment, and then lowered his head.

“So what’s our next move?” Dom muttered.

Deaq looked into their exhausted faces, sighed and said, “To the Palisades, man. Back to my place. You both need to crash. Bright and early, we call Billie and maybe Aquarius.”

Dom seemed to perk up a little at this, “You know Aquarius?”

Deaq turned one corner of his lip down, “Yeah, and I don’t want to know about the nature of your acquaintance either, dawg.”

“Well, you know what they say.” Dom steered through Mulholland like he could have done it blindfolded. “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Deaq and Van both laughed out loud.

****************

They’re not sadists. Their cool demeanor denies that there might be a personal element in all of this. This is about protecting their assets, nothing more, nothing less. When he’s lucid, sometimes it helps him to imagine just how much worse it could be. Many of Mike Murphy’s file photos were catalogues of victims who’d been hurt so badly that they couldn’t bring themselves to press charges. Their pain went on after the bruises faded.

But they haven’t touched him. They’ve left him utterly alone. They let the featureless room and the drugs work his nerves. Left him at the mercy of the woman’s cold black eyes. She gives him drugs that she thinks will make him talk. The stuff spreads heat through his skin, makes his face ache if he doesn’t speak. He babbles utter nonsense at her for what feels like hours and she doesn’t even raise her eyebrows.

She asks casually, ‘Is your name Ian or Brian?”

He answers, “They called me snowman.” It’s the truth, as far as it goes.

When she asks him, “Who are you?” he answers “I don’t know.”

And that’s also the truth.

*************

“This is some funky stuff,” Van was emptying his pockets after sweeping all the shattered glass into the footwells of the backseat. The car rumbled through the darkened sweep of ridge road.

Dom threw a glance over his shoulder while Deaq took a longer look. Half a dozen sealed bags of pills.

Deaq asked, “You lifted that off the lovely Linda?”

“It was easy, seeing as how she only had eyes for you,” Van fluttered his eyelashes and smirked as Deaq flipped him off.

Dom shot another look back at Van’s stash. “These people are drug dealers?”

“Well she’s either a drug dealer or a compulsive pill collector,” Van held up one of the half-sized Ziploc baggies. “This stuff looks homemade. Wish we knew what it was.”

“Can’t you, like, take it to a lab or something?” Dom asked reasonably.

“Not that simple,” Van explained. “Police are like any other municipal organization in this town, stretched pre-tty thin. Compounding the problem is the fact that we’re so deep under cover that they don’t even really acknowledge our existence. So I drop it off at a lab, I’m lucky if I get a report in six weeks. Plus, in case it escaped your notice: it’s 2 in the morning on Sunday. The labs are busy analyzing shot powder residue, etcetera.”

“You really want to find out what that stuff is?” Dom asked, thoughtfully.

Van shrugged, “Sometimes the details are what crack the case.”

Dom went quiet for a long minute, then he turned down Sepulveda toward West Los Angeles.

“I know someone we can ask.”

***************

Dom knocked on a featureless door in one of the cookie-cutter apartment buildings that line the blocks around Westwood Boulevard. Van’s cop instincts made him listen to the ambient neighborhood noise even though he was focused on the door and what might come out of it. Despite the late hour, the apartment complex seemed weirdly active. Then it struck Van, students. They were only a few blocks south of UCLA.

Dom had gone from polite tap to an insistent knock that probably made the baseboards shake. “Mia, open up!”

A muffled voice came from the interior, “Dom?”

“Who do you think?” Dom grumbled.

The door opened hesitantly, a woman stood on the other side. While Van didn’t hear trumpets and angels singing, he suddenly had the Door’s ‘LA Woman’ blaring in his head. He glanced at Dom and Deaq to make sure they had the proper respect for this vision of loveliness. From her perfect oval face to her shell-pink toenails, Van was completely infatuated.

Dom had already shouldered his way inside and swept the slim woman up in a bear-hug. Van moved in quick to make sure she wasn’t being squeezed too hard. Dom and Mia shared a few moments of private conversation in the circle of his arms. In the light of the tiny living room, she was even more beautiful with long dark hair and eyes as warm and brown as Deaq’s. Best of all, she wore her beauty like a pair of sneakers. They had obviously woken her; her eyes were heavy and half-lidded.

“Dom, is something wrong?” She moved toward the kitchen. “Do your friends want something to drink?”

Van and Deaq both respectfully declined and reached to shake her hand at the same time. She shook both hands and Van was left wondering if it meant anything that she’d shaken his hand last but held it incrementally longer.

“So what’s the story, Dom?” Her eyes were clearing.

Van, Deaq and Dom spent about twenty seconds looking at each other, trying to gauge how much truth was necessary.

Dom asked, “Do you still have all-hours access to the lab?”

Mia looked confused, “Sure, I do. What do you need?”

“We need these pills identified,” Van stepped forward with the cluster of baggies. “They’re variations of designer drugs.”

“We need every bit of information you can get from them,” Deaq added.

“And the sooner, the better,” Dom said firmly.

Mia took the pills from Van and held them up to the light. She said sotto voce, “Sounds like a fun extra credit project,” and then louder, “Just what are you planning to do with this information?”

Van opened his mouth to explain but shut it when Dom shot him a look that could freeze lava.

“Mia, could you just do it!” Dom sounded aggravated.

Van was paying close attention to the conversation to get a feel for the relationship dynamic. Girlfriend, no. Old girlfriend, maybe. Ex-wife, hmmm. If so, Toretto obviously had charm that Van hadn’t seen. If Mia was just an old girlfriend, Van could definitely still play the game, depending how long ago they’d called it quits.

“Do you have a baby sister?” Mia addressed this question to Deaq, since Van was just staring at her like an idiot.

“I have three,” Deaq said, politely.

“Do you go over to their places in the middle of the night and start giving orders and throwing your weight around?” Mia asked sweetly. “After not having seen said sister for almost six months?”

“Well, no,” Deaq looked as though he should be wearing a halo. “That would be rude.”

Mia looked expectantly at Dom who looked up at her from his perch on the couch. Dom said simply, “Mia, this is important to me.”

Van was still reeling from the blow. Baby sister? Damn. Wasn’t like that relationship was going to end anytime soon.

Mia folded her arms and regarded her brother sadly for a moment. She said, “I’ll go over right now. Call you in the morning with what I find out.”

Deaq thanked her expansively as he wrote his number down for her. Van tried to look suave and unconcerned as they made their way out the door.

Lucky little lady in the city of lights, just another lost angel in the city of night.

*************

On the drive back to Deaq’s place, Toretto looked sad and dangerous. Van wondered briefly why the melancholy face of this robber and attempted murderer should make him feel so weirdly depressed.

“So she studying chemistry?”

Dom looked at him and then back to the road. “Pre-med. Dean’s list, too.”

“That’s great, man. She must have got all the brains.”

“Yeah,” a fugitive smile passed over Dom’s face. “I got the looks.”

Van snickered and then grew serious, “Why didn’t you want me to explain? I mean, I trust her just as much as I trust you.”

“She wouldn’t have…” Dom searched for the word. “…approved.”

“She hates cops or something?” Van grimaced, another fantasy bit the dust.

Dom looked seriously into Van’s face, “I can’t explain.” Then he lapsed into silence for the rest of the drive.

****************

It feels like he’s been hard for hours. Such a twisted, terrifying new spin on reality. Being hard used to feel like power, strong and dynamic. Now he just feels weak and helpless, rubbing his cock frantically, not easing the ache or feeding the hunger. Jumbled impressions of dusky skin gleaming with sweat, heat, dark glowing eyes. His skin begs for touches, his mouth aches from where he’s chewed the tender skin inside. The sex feeling washes through him and leaves him with a feeling of lightness. The feeling of rushing so fast that gravity meant less, the sheer joy of watching Dom’s face when he grabbed the door handle. Too fast even for Dom. Brian squeezes his eyes shut.

He can’t control his body and now he can’t even control his thoughts.

*******************

When they got to Deaq’s, Van collapsed on the couch. Deaq walked into the kitchen and Dom followed. Van yelled for Deaq to toss him some Dasani and Deaq yelled back that he should get it his own damn self. Deaq turned to Dom and noticed that in the bright light of the kitchen, Dom’s skin appeared almost gray.

“When’s the last time you ate, bro?”

Dom looked surprised, “Don’t remember.”

“Well that ain’t good.” Deaq rummaged around in the ‘fridge and pulled out cartons. He piled a plate high with leftovers and shoved it into the microwave. When it beeped, he handed the steaming mass to Dom. Dom took it and started to use his fork like a shovel.

Deaq walked to the door, tossed Van the fucking Dasani, no-good, lazy-ass white boy. He turned back to where Dom was still swallowing whether or not he’d actually chewed.

“Hey, slow down,” Deaq took a swig of his own bottle of water. “If we run out, we call, they bring more.”

“Thanks,” mumbled Dom around a mouthful. Deaq examined the top of Dom’s shaved head where it leaned down toward the plate.

“So what do you think of Van’s theory?” Deaq asked casually.

Dom chewed meditatively for a moment. “Theory?” His hunger sated, Dom’s eyes fell on the pile of Brian’s case folders. His thick fingers spread them out across the counter.

“Yeah, you heard. Van thinks you’re here to help O’Conner because you’re grateful to him for letting it all slide back in the day.” Deaq explained. “That theory work for you?”

“It’ll do,” Dom stared at his own name on the side of one folder.

“I think there’s more to it than that, myself.” Deaq rocked back on his heels, all nonchalance, despite the fact that Dom was shooting him a look that said, very clearly, tread lightly around this subject. “What’s the real story, Master D?”

Dom looked up at the ceiling, cleared his throat and said, unexpectedly, “I hear voices.”

“Voices?”

“Yeah, voices. In my head. Of people who’re gone.”

Deaq was about to say something sarcastic but then thought of his own conversations with Dre. He shut up and made a ‘please continue’ gesture.

Dom looked up from paging through the file. “Did you read this?”

“Parts of it,” Deaq admitted.

“The day that Brian gave me his car, whatever it says in here, he gave me the car, that day….you ever remembered something really well, even though you didn’t want to?”

“Yeah.”

“I remember that day though I try every day, every hour to forget it. It was like hell. Each time I thought that things couldn’t possibly get worse, they did.”

Deaq nodded silently and after a moment Dom continued. “I lost a lot of friends that day…. I lost almost everyone in one way or another. Now all I’ve got is ghost voices in my head.”

“I knew Brian would catch heat for this shit,” Dom gestured at the file. “I left him, I don’t believe now that he would ever have left me. I left him to catch hell and ran to save my own sorry ass.”

“When I saw that article….Officer Brian O’Conner dies in the line of duty…” Dom looked up at Deaq. Deaq was struck by the helplessness in Dom’s eyes. “It just doesn’t seem right that Brian should go…that Brian should….die…without a fight. Without me doing…something. I just…I can’t take anymore ghost voices.”

Deaq tapped Dom’s shoulder with his fist. “It’s cool. We’ll find him.”

Van looked in through the door of the kitchen as he headed off to the guest bedroom. Deaq and Dom seemed engrossed in conversation. Van stared at Deaq’s chocolate brown head leaned in toward Dom’s caramel bronze face and felt more…colorless than he had in his entire life.

*******************

A few hours later, Van woke up and stared at the ceiling. The phone was ringing. Birds were starting to twitter. That was one thing he missed over at the Chateau Marmont. Birds. He got up, splashed around in the bathroom for a while. He pulled on his pants and shuffled into the kitchen.

Dom was sitting in the same position he’d been in when Van had crashed last night.

“You sleep?” Van toyed with the idea of making coffee. Then he thought of the expression on Deaq’s face if he screwed something up. He pulled some water from the ‘fridge. They could go out for coffee.

Dom shrugged, “Enough.” He had spread all of Brian’s case files out across the counter and was examining them meticulously.

“You stayed up to go through all this shit?” Van started tucking photos back into envelopes.

“I find it very interesting reading,” Dom said with heavy sarcasm. “Some of it is about me. You read it all, didn’t you?”

“Sure I did,” Van felt oddly defensive.

Dom asked in a way that Van could tell was trying to be casual. “Am I the only one he ever let go?”

“Looks that way,” Van tilted the bottle up.

“You ever let anyone go?”

Van nearly choked on his gulp of water. “Uhm, yeah.”

“Why?” Dom’s eyes were electric with curiosity.

Van stared at him a long moment and tried to collect his thoughts.

“Look, no one knows better than I do that it’s not all cut and dried. Black and white. We have to get really close to people. We have to know what they’re thinking, what motivates them,” Once Van got started, it was surprisingly easy to talk. Dom’s eyes were so calm and free of judgment.

“Some of these people are killers, predators…and some of them are just making bad choices. We’re not supposed to make distinctions, but we’d be…fucking inhuman if we didn’t, get it?”

“Why do you think he let me go?” Dom traced his finger along the edges of Brian’s personnel file.

“Maybe he didn’t think you were really guilty.”

“The person you let go, did you think they were guilty?”

Van shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. “I knew she was guilty but it was a matter of degree, yeah?” Van focused on the splash of bougainvillea out the kitchen window. “Plus I was pretty much in love with her. Or I thought I was.”

Van wasn’t sure what he expected to see when he turned to face Dom again. A smirk, a leer, a pitying look. But Dom looked like someone who’s been gut-shot, right before they see the blood. Dom was looking straight at Van but it was obvious his head was with someone else entirely.

Van plunked a glass of water down in front of Dom to bring him back from wherever cold and lonely place he’d gone. “Sometimes it feels like you don’t get to choose, right?”

Dom looked embarrassed and vaguely guilty. “Choose what?”

“Who you fall in love with,” Van tried to rub away the headache that wanted to take up refuge in his skull. Dom just stared at him, his brow furrowed.

“Deaq thinks I’m insecure and approval-seeking because I’ve got, you know,” Van rolled his head around on his neck. “Dad issues.”

“That’s interesting,” Dom said quietly. “I have Dad issues, myself.”

They were both silent for a moment, staring down at the file photo of Brian’s smiling face.

There was a small sound at the side door and Mia Toretto ducked her head in experimentally. Dom slid off his stool and went to greet her with a hug and kiss to the forehead. Van leaned on the counter feeling very unkempt and shirtless and contented himself with a weak, “Hey,”

“So you found us,” Deaq’s voice came from behind Van. Van caught a faint whiff of the combined scent of starched cotton, aftershave and soap as Deaq leaned past him to shake Mia’s hand. Six in the morning and Deaq was polished and put-together enough for the pages of GQ. Van felt an odd mixture of envy and pride.

“Your directions were very clear,” Mia looked around at the kitchen and said, “You have a lovely home, by the way.”

“Thank you,” Deaq said graciously. “Have you eaten? Van, get Mia some O.J.”

While Van obliged, Deaq started putting together a basic breakfast buffet, bagels, toast, etc. When they were all munching on something, Dom started, “So what are those pills?”

Mia finished chewing and pulled some loose pages covered with neat script from her bag. “This stuff is all over the map, want me to give you all the details now?”

“Please,” said Van and Deaq finished “If you would be so kind.”

Mia looked down at her notes, “OK. Since you told me they were club drugs I started looking for the standards. Ecstasy is the main ingredient in most of these guys. Combined with synthetic opiates and in one case carisoprodol, which is a muscle relaxant. Pretty dangerous, all mixed together. Ecstasy is a neurotoxin, causes heart failure in an alarming number of young, healthy people. Some of these admixtures could have hallucinogenic effects, depending on what the combination was. Mix ‘em up with alcohol, it’s a real dice roll.”

Mia sighed and continued. “The most worrying part of this is that one of those pills was ecstasy synthesized with a benzodiazepine: flunitrazepam.”

“Uhm, Mia,” Dom started.

“Rohypnol.” Mia said flatly. “The date-rape drug. Rohypnol can amp up a heroin binge and cushion a cocaine crash. Mix it with alcohol; it’s like a kick in the head. In one of the pills it’s in a concentration that would make an average-sized person very out of it but not completely unconscious, which, combined with the ecstasy, could make for a very unpleasant evening. And one of the pills is just a straight-up roofie, two point five milligrams which would knock an ox on its ass.”

“Is there anything about them that would indicate who made it or maybe where it was made?” Deaq asked.

Mia tapped a finger on her notes. “Rohypnol is a controlled substance. Its manufacturer, Hoffman-La Roche has to keep a file of any and all purchasers. Here are the names of some chemical distributors…if you can find out if someone is receiving these specific chemicals,” She passed Deaq a list. “It’s a good bet that that’s your guy.”

“Girl actually,” Van said absently.

Mia’s eyes went hard and sharp, “There’s a woman out there selling chemical slavery?”

Van nodded. He was beginning to see the family resemblance which manifested itself in gestures more than looks. Mia moved with the same decisive grace that marked Dom. “’Fraid so.”

“She should rot in hell,” Mia said with no room for argument.

“Gonna fax this to Billie,” Deaq excused himself.

“Dom, what…” Mia looked at Van, obviously she didn’t want to start asking impolite questions around a stranger.

“Later, Mia.” Dom’s voice had a note of finality to it, but his look was pleading.

She stared at him for a long second. Dom turned away from her piercing gaze. After a moment, she shrugged and stood up. “It was nice to meet you, Van. Tell Deaq I said goodbye.”

“I’ll walk you out,” Van offered. The sun was peeking up over the tops of distant palms. Mia’s face had turned into a Renaissance painting in the growing light.

“I know this must look…strange.” Van started. “Believe me, all your questions will be answered.”

“There are a lot of questions that I’ve learned that can’t even ask my brother,” Mia said and if there was a trace of bitterness in her voice, it was only a trace. “It’s fine. He has his life, I have mine. I guess I should just be glad he’s still alive, huh?”

“I’m sorry,” said Van sincerely. “He’s not doing anything wrong, you have my word on that.”

Mia looked at him, arched her eyebrow and smiled, “Well, that’ll have to do then.”

She patted his hand gently and left. Van looked through the door at Dom’s bowed head and wondered which one he should feel sorrier for.

**************

It’s a hideous cycle. He’s figured out that the stuff is in the water, the food she gives him. This knowledge doesn’t help when his thirst or hunger starts to be all that he can think about. The thirst is particularly unbearable. Once he makes the connection, he tries to forgo the food and drink, lets the water sit, the food dry on the plate. He rides out his pounding head, the sweat that he thought would leave him a puddle on the floor. He feels some of his strength return and waits for her in the corner of the door. If he could just…grab her, he might be able to get out of here with her as hostage.

Untold hours pass. He slumps down finally from sheer exhaustion. He asks himself if this is in some way his own fault. Perhaps he became exhausted with the whole thing. Perhaps like some criminals, he subliminally desires to be caught.

*************

“Next move?” Van directed this question to the kitchen at large.

“Aquarius,” Deaq said, snapping open his cell phone.

“Don’t think he’ll be catnapping?” Van looked at the clock. Barely seven A.M.

“I’ve never actually seen him sleeping,” Deaq grinned at Van over Dom’s head. “Guess you eat that much, you don’t need to sleep.”

Dom raised his head and offered, “We’re gonna need another car.”

**************

Aquarius wasn’t sleeping, he invited them down to join him at the ‘salon’ wedged into a mini-mall off of Olympic and La Brea. Van silently hoped they weren’t about to walk into some sleazy cathouse scene on such a bright Sunday morning. The smooth, serene face of the receptionist told them nothing. When they were ushered into Aquarius’ private room, Van noted with relief that the big man was half-covered by a loose sheet that made him look like a particularly challenging Alp. The loose clothing and intent face of the tiny Thai woman clambering over the mountain of Aquarius let them know that this wasn’t one of ‘those’ massages.

“Y’all up early,” Aquarius drawled, regarding them over his folded hands. “Crime suddenly don’t pay?”

“Pays as well as it ever did,” Deaq sighed. “Have you heard anything lately about the Murphy brothers?”

“They’re packing up,” Aquarius said meditatively. “Tying up loose ends.”

“The story we got was that they’d moved down to El Segundo,” Van interjected.

“Story I heard: they was going a bit further than that,” Aquarius rocked his head. “Pulling up stakes, going back to the old country.”

“Why would they do that?” Dom asked from the far corner of the room.

Aquarius started at the sound of the voice and hefted his bulk up to turn and look at Dom. “Do my eyes deceive me? Dominic Toretto, my, my, my!” His face split in a grin and he leaned out to shake Dom’s hand. “You got bored with your early retirement?”

“Something like that,” Dom grinned. For the first time, it looked sincere.

So when did this duet become a trio?” Aquarius’ eyes laughed at Van and Deaq’s uncomfortable expressions. “Why all the mechanics from the wrong side of the tracks?”

Van leaned on the wall casually and ducked the question. “Been trying to bust the Murphys from the inside. Guy who was working that has disappeared. We think they’ve still got him tucked away somewhere.”

Aquarius’ genial face turned serious. “That’s no joke, G. Remember Jimmy Nelson? We all called him Buckethead?”

“Yeah, we used him for information a time or two,” Deaq shrugged. “Ain’t seen him around for a while.”

“S’cause he bought a ticket to the boneyard, courtesy of the Murphys.”

“They didn’t go down for it?” Van pushed himself off the wall. Dom tightened up like an animal that smells blood.

“Naw, see it wasn’t like that.” Aquarius bowed his head. “Buckethead was working for them, not wrench time, just running errands and stuff. He cut loose and came to see me about two months ago. Boy looked like a stone cold user so I gave him some hard words. But he said it was the Murphys who’d hooked him. Said they were experimenting on the help. Two days later, he’s out of the game. Heart just stopped.”

“Bad news,” Deaq said in his dangerous voice.

“No lie,” Aquarius agreed. “You looking to bust ‘em. I’d check their suitcases when they leave. They ain’t going back to raise sheep, y’all.”

“Thanks, man,” Van slapped his palm.

Dom asked, “You still got that old goat?”

Aquarius looked at him for a long moment, curious about what he was seeing but knowing better than to ask. “That’s one choice ride. You want to take it for a spin for old time’s sake?”

“I wouldn’t mind,” Dom said quietly.

Aquarius grinned. “I’ll call C.C., tell her to give you the keys. ‘Course if you wanted to bring back a truckload of DVD players, we’ll just call it even. Just had her painted, so she’s looking fiiiine.”

“What color is it now?” Dom asked.

“The best color, dawg,” Aquarius chuckled.

The massage therapist dug her knee into Aquarius’ left shoulder and wrestled his arm (which was about the same circumference as her waist) backwards into an almost vertical hold. Van and Deaq both winced as Aquarius’ spine snapped like castanets.

Aquarius sighed in satisfaction and tilted up to wave with his free hand.

***************************

 

They had just gotten ensconced in Aquarius’ glossy black ’67 GTO when Billie called. She had an address.

 

***************************

“You know, we have cars back at the candy store.” Van said. “We don’t need to go getting in debt to Aquarius.”

“Aquarius wouldn’t take advantage,” Deaq seemed to be reassuring himself.

“He owes me,” Dom said in a deceptively mild voice. “Plus this car isn’t cherry red or blaze orange or whatever the hell else I suspect you’ve helped yourself to.” He turned onto the highway and the tachometer screamed.

Deaq shrugged, acknowledging the point.

“So what’s O’Conner really like?” Van thought it best to distract Dom who appeared to be barely restraining himself from gunning the 440 stroker and going all Nascar on the 10 freeway.

“Brian?” Dom rolled his eyes over Van suspiciously. Deaq shot Van a warning look.

“I feel like I know him ‘cause I read his file, but it doesn’t give the real picture, yeah?” Van had put on the casual, uncurious voice he always used while drawing out a mark. “He a stand-up guy?”

“What makes you think I know him any better than you do?” Dom addressed this to the horizon. “As far as I know, everything he told me outside of his first name was a lie.”

“Doesn’t quite work like that,” Deaq said, musing. He thought for the thousandth time, if that’s true, then why are you here, Toretto?

“What do you mean?” Dom shifted lanes in a death-defying move that made Van wince.

“The two of us have done just about everything you can do undercover,” Van thought he knew where Deaq was going with this.

“Yeah, and the deal is: you go as deep as you can while you can keep yourself safe but you should never lose you, you know what I mean? People don’t trust you if you don’t feel real, so I bet what Brian was showing you was pretty much the genuine article. Except that he was a little above average in his knowledge of the penal code.”

Dom seemed to ponder this while they zoomed up the interchange to the 405 southbound, weaving in and out of the mid-morning traffic.

“Keeping safe,” Dom said after a long minute. “Is the last thing that Brian worries about.”

“See, you know him better than you think,” Van bobbed his head. “What does he like to eat?”

“Uh, tuna fish. Pretty much anything,” Dom shrugged. “Like me,”

“What does he do for fun?” Van persevered.

“He likes speed,” a tiny smile curved the corner of Dom’s mouth. “He likes cars best, but I bet that anything that put the wind in his hair would do. He didn’t talk about himself much but he said that he’d skated and surfed before he could afford a car.”

Van perked up at this, “Brian liked to surf?”

Dom turned his head to stare at Van. Something sad passed over his face, hardening it like concrete. “Van, I appreciate what you’re trying to do.” Dom jabbed his finger under Van’s nose. “But if you refer to him in the past tense again, I’m going to break you in half.”

The car fell into silence except for Deaq’s muttered directions.

********************

Something is different today. Brian’s nervous because lately different never means better. Linda breezes in with no time to chat. Or for any of the little sadistic games she likes to play. Colin grabs him by the throat before he can get up from the floor and the needle stings his neck again. It takes seconds to push the juice in but by the time they both stand up, he already feels warm and loose.

“Will this kill me?” He tries to keep his voice from sounding hopeful.

“No,” Linda’s face as she smiles is so beautiful that it hurts to look. “It’ll just make you not mind dying,”

********************

Following Van and Deaq’s instructions, Dom circled the block before easing into a space in the shadow of the warehouse off Grand Avenue. Van’s heart sank; the location seemed as deserted as the one they’d scouted yesterday. From their location they had a perfect view of the two garage doors that flanked the unremarkable glass entranceway.

“What do we do now?” Dom asked tensely. If he had been a kettle, he would have been whistling.

“Watch for a little while,” Deaq advised. “We gotta know this is the right place before we go in and start busting heads.”

“They could be killing him in there right now…” Dom started.

“They could be waiting for an excuse to kill him,” Deaq finished. “You don’t want it to be you, right?”

Dom was unhappily silent.

“I’m going to have a look around. I’ll page if I see anything.” Deaq got out with the utmost casualness, adjusted his sunglasses and disappeared around the corner. Van cajoled Dom into the backseat with the argument that he was an unarmed civilian and if he got shot while on stakeout with them, they’d have lots of ‘splaining to do.

“Do you think they’re giving him drugs?” Dom asked quietly.

Van sighed. He didn’t want to face that thought head-on, anymore than Dom did. “Maybe. It would be a smart way to kill someone. They can sometimes tell from an autopsy how long a person was using. And if they kept that person doped up for a while, it wouldn’t really matter if a body ever turned up. Medical examiner would just assume the person was a junkie. It would be hard to prove it was murder.” Van thought about his own recent drug-related ordeal and felt his jaw twitch.

“The stuff Mia analyzed, none of that stuff’s addictive.”

“Physically, no.” Van tried to put a hopeful spin on it. “Be that much easier for Brian to shake it off.”

Dom lapsed into a brood.

Van was just starting to worry about Deaq when he showed up bearing bags of haute cuisine from Jack in the Box. The smell made them realize they were starving and they fell on the food like wolves.

“Did you remember about the…” Van examined his sandwich.

Deaq breathed a long-suffering sigh, “Yes, I remembered about the no pickles, extra ketchup rule. Damnit, Van, you’ve only mentioned it about a billion times.”

“Then why,” continued Van doggedly. “Does this burger have pickles and inadequate ketchup?”

Deaq smiled the ‘I’m only smiling to keep from biting your head off’ smile. “Because it’s my burger,” He snatched the contentious sandwich from Van and replaced it with another foil-wrapped package.

Van looked like he was about to say something but just chomped on his Jumbo Jack and munched contentedly.

“So,” Dom’s voice from the back was innocent. “How long have you two been married?”

They both ignored him.

**********************

They had just devoured the last fry when the action started. One of the garage doors started to rise and a well-dressed man and woman appeared at the glass door. A black Lincoln Navigator emerged from the garage, driven by one of the blank-faced tough guys. Linda Lengane and Colin Murphy blinked into the noon sun and supervised the loading of four suitcases into the back of the SUV. Mike Murphy came out to join them and they talked while another identical Navigator pulled out. Mike gestured broadly at the warehouse and seemed to be asking a question. Both Linda and Colin responded in the affirmative and Linda checked her watch.

Mike Murphy said something while pointing at his cell phone that made both his girlfriend and brother laugh. Something about the gesture made Van very nervous but he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. Mike exchanged some words with two bodyguards who had walked out from the garage behind the cars. Then the three loaded up into the SUVs, Mike in one, Linda and Colin in another and they departed in the same direction, while the bodyguards looked on.

Deaq asked urgently, “Should we tail ‘em? Which one?”

Dom said, “If you do that, leave me here. I’m not moving ‘til I know Brian’s not in there.”

Deaq shot back, “He could be in one of those cars, man!”

Deaq looked at Van to get his vote. Van pulled out his cell, “Billie, we need a tail on two Lincoln Navigators black, plate numbers 4FEX-199 and 4FEX-200. Currently going south on Grand in El Segundo. Don’t move in on them: just keep an eye on all the stops they make. They may be headed toward the airport.”

He flipped his phone closed and turned back to Deaq, “She’s on it. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

The bodyguards stood on the drive in front of the garage with the air of men prepared to wait.

“Maybe they’re coming back soon,” breathed Van.

“I don’t think so,” Deaq disagreed.

“Let’s go,” Dom made to get out of the car until Deaq stopped him with punishing hand on his chest.

“Wait,” Deaq’s eyes were snapping. “You gonna try and roll up on those guys, fine. They are seriously strapped. We have no warrant; we have no invitation to enter, so until a crime is being committed, Van and I can’t bust it up with any authority. In other words, we’d have to wait until they shot you or started whaling on you before we could arrest ‘em. Just so you know.”

Dom sunk back in the broad seat of the GTO. Van thought Deaq had made him see reason until Dom’s shoulders bunched and he surged up into Deaq’s face, “What the fuck good are all your fancy toys and your bad-ass attitude if one of your brothers is in there dying?” Dom’s voice was a panther’s snarl. “Are you fucking cops or are you just some pussy repo men? I am GOING IN THERE!”

And he slid through the window and out of the car before Deaq could draw breath.

Things started happening very fast. A nondescript delivery truck was cruising up the street and one of the bodyguards perked up and nudged the other. The truck slowed down in sight of the garage. The driver was obviously concentrating on his destination and didn’t notice Dom Toretto trotting in his blind spot. The bodyguards opened the garage, one of them disappearing into the black hole, one of them directing the driver to back into the wide bay.

Dom waited until both guards had retreated into the darkness of the garage and the driver was focused on his left side mirror before gracefully leaping to the passenger door and wrenching it open. The driver had time for one startled glance before Dom slammed his head into the dashboard and jerked him to the floor. The next moment, Dom was sitting in the driver’s seat with the only indication of his presence a slight hitch in the truck’s reverse.

Deaq and Van lost sight of him as he backed into the garage. They ran up to the entrance with their guns at the ready. Flanking both sides of the garage door, Van waited for Deaq’s nod before he turned into the wide entrance sweeping the bay with his 9mm. Deaq and Van moved up on either side of the truck. They converged on the back of the garage to find Dom standing above the supine figures of the bodyguards. One had managed to pull his gun free and it looked like Dom had pistol-whipped him with it. The other was bleeding from his temple. Van checked their pulses and handcuffed them together.

Deaq said disgustedly, “If O’Conner’s not here, I may book you for assault.”

Dom scowled, “Get in line.”

Dom darted to the inner door and Deaq started to follow him until Van drew his attention to the palettes stacked with boxes. Van opened one and sifted his hand through the pearly white pills.

“Big shipment,” Van mused.

“Lot of evidence,” Deaq agreed.

They cautiously entered the main building which was configured to be a basic, depressing office-cum-warehouse. A long hallway stretched the length of the building. Dom had left a trail of breadcrumbs marking his progress in the form of smashed doorframes. They passed a supply closet with innocuous stacks of paper, paper clips and cleaning supplies. A tiny room that looked like it had been used for meetings. A smallish laboratory that wouldn’t have looked out of place at Caltech. An office space with half a dozen laptop computers.

When Van hesitated in front of the office, Deaq said guiltily, “We should probably look for O’Conner.”

“Dom will find him,” Van responded. “We need to build a case against these guys so they can’t do this shit again, yeah?” Deaq tacitly agreed by walking into the office and breaking open a file cabinet. Van powered up one of the computers.

“Finding anything?” Van tossed over his shoulder.

“They’ve tried to make this look legit,” Deaq paged through a few files. “Everything’s coded…pretty consistently. But with the shit in the other room, these…” He held up a sheaf of Fedex receipts. “Could be a serious kink in their plans. That’s interstate, baby. That’s federal crime time.”

“Wonder why they just left it like this…for anyone to find.” Van checked the hard drive for locked files.

Deaq scanned the room and suddenly stiffened. “Van, look at that!”

Van glanced over to the wall that he was pointing at and felt his stomach turn over. Low on the wall, around the phone jack, it looked like the wall had been kicked or damaged and someone had clumsily repaired it with a huge gob of caulking. It wasn’t immediately noticeable, but it looked strange because where the wall was white, the ‘caulking’ was a grayish-pink like Silly Putty. A tiny cable, spliced from the phone cord, wormed from the center of the mass.

“That what I think it is?” Deaq asked in a dead-cold voice.

Van nodded and murmured, “Plastique.”

“How much time do we have?” Deaq was already whipping out his cell phone.

“How long do you think it would have taken them to load that truck?” Van checked his watch. Twenty minutes since the Murphys had left the building.

Deaq was already half shouting into the phone, “Billie, we need the Bomb Squad and the Fire Department at the address in El Segundo. We’ve got plastique explosives here wired to the phone line.”

Something about listening to Billie’s crisp, no-bullshit voice seemed to soothe Deaq. Van heard her say, “We’ll dispatch a team now and call the phone company, see if they can do anything to block or splice that line. You guys get out now.”

Van had gone to kneel by the deadly glob. He looked up at Deaq. “Tell her that it looks like they’ve clipped the detonator onto the line and then surrounded it with C4. It’s not sophisticated, but it’ll do the job.”

Deaq’s eyes widened when he looked down at Van. He relayed the information to Billie in a tight voice, snapped the phone shut and hissed at Van. “Get away from it!”

Van almost laughed, “You think you’ll be safe over there?”

“Van, so help me God, you mess with it, I’ll kill you.”

“What, you don’t trust me?”

“I don’t trust the damn explosives!”

Van stood up and moved to the door, snapping shut laptops and stacking them to carry. “Let’s take those folders and whatever else you can carry. Warn Dom. Get those guys out of the garage.”

Deaq nodded and they scooted back up the corridor. They could see Dom’s shadow down at the end of the hall; he appeared to be wrestling with a door. Deaq stepped toward him and shouted, “Yo, Dom! We’ve got to get out of here. This place is set to blow!”

Dom turned and flapped a hand at them, then disappeared. Deaq started after him. Van called, “Deaq, we gotta get those guys in the truck and get ‘em out of here.”

Deaq turned back, “He didn’t hear me.”

“Yeah, he did.” Van tried to make his voice even. “Come on.”

Still Deaq hesitated. He asked softly, “You ever have a friend like that?”

“Once,” said Van, pulling his sleeve gently. “I still do.”

Deaq flashed the ghost of a smile at him and they ran back to the garage, trying not to lose any of the evidence. They piled the computers and files in the delivery truck and dragged the unconscious bodies of the guards in behind them. As an afterthought, Van grabbed one of the boxes of pills. Deaq cocked his head as sirens began to converge on them. Van’s cell phone rang as he pulled down the rolling door of the truck.

“Van?” Billie’s voice was urgent but confident. “I’m on the way, squads right in front of me. They think they’ve blocked the phone number but Bombs says watch out for any secondary sys—“

The blast knocked the phone out of his hand, but it didn’t quite knock him off his feet. His ears were filled with the sound of shattering glass. Clouds of dust shot out of the vents and filled the garage with a choking cloud. Deaq shoved himself off the wall where he’d fallen and peeked out the front of the garage. “Doors are gone and the front of the office is burning,” he panted.

“That wasn’t the plastique: that would have blown out this wall,” Van shook off the temptation to brush the sheetrock dust out of Deaq’s hair. “Guess they had a back-up plan.”

Van’s cell was still chirping with Billie’s anxious voice. He swept it up, “Billie, I’ll talk to you later.” He ducked his head into the main building and called to Deaq, “It’s flaming up good in there.”

And Deaq was suddenly by his side, clenching his shoulder in an immovable grip. Deaq had realized, even before he had consciously known himself, what he was planning to do. Deaq’s voice and eyes were calm but his hand was squeezing Van so tightly that it was starting to hurt.

“Van, there’s a back door. Let’s get the truck out and circle around.”

Van turned back to look at the truck, thought about six dead versus three, and nodded.

****************

He rolls his head on the wall wondering what he was supposed to be thinking about while he prepares to be gone. He had deduced that the room was soundproof, because he could never hear anyone who wasn’t right in front of the door. They never wanted to hear him yelling. But that doesn’t keep scent from penetrating. And he can feel the shockwaves and smell the smoke that coils in, ready to kill him.

He gets on his knees, he should pray, right? But his thoughts won’t come in line; he can only remember. Flashes of memory so intense and bright that he knows the end is coming. His skin aches to be touched by something other than concrete.

Someone calls his name in a voice that he recognizes. The hallucination makes him groan with despair and tears gather in the corner of his eyes. His treacherous mind has betrayed him at the last, conjuring up the sound of that beloved voice. The darkness seems to grow and deepen. Smoke and tears threaten to choke him.

Then the door cracks and splinters. Brian raises his head and the light streams in.

*****************

They pulled the truck as far down the street as they could. By that time, a fire truck was pulling up and another closed black truck that Van assumed was Bombs. Van leaned in to brief the team leader and Deaq did the same for the grim-faced fire chief. Black and whites started to appear and the fire captain directed them to block off the perimeter and evacuate all the other buildings.

A fireman blocked Deaq when he tried to dash back in, Van on his heels.

“There’s someone in there!” lines of sweat cut through the dust on Deaq’s face.

The fireman looked at the conflagration, swore and said. “I’m sorry but we’ve got to wait until Bombs clears it.”

Deaq threw up his hands and seemed ready to kick some ass when Van caught his eye and cocked his head toward the back of the building. Deaq nodded and they turned to the GTO.

Billie’s car screeched to the edge of the line and her eyes went directly to Van and Deaq. “You guys all right?” She raised her eyebrows at their coating of soot and dust. “Did you find O’Conner?”

“Not yet,” Deaq hedged, backing towards the car. “We got a lead though.”

“We got a whole truck full of evidence and accomplices.” Van tried to edge away. They needed to check the back before the LAFD sealed their perimeter and no one could get in.

Billie grinned unexpectedly, “Evidence? Accomplices? Is it my birthday?”

“Who’s tailing the Murphys?” Deaq asked quickly.

“Some of Tanner’s guys are on it.” She looked deep into their faces, sensing their nervousness. “You guys get out of here. You’re a little too stressed out to be useful.”

Van tried not to look too relieved as Deaq slid into the driver’s seat. He got in and they rolled out past the line of cop cars, a uniform waving them through. They pulled around the block and parked in a tiny side street that was little more than an alley. Then they ran back to the back of the warehouse.

As they got within sight of the building, a muffled BOOM shook the ground and the back wall collapsed in on itself. Deaq ran a few more steps but pulled up in the face of the wreckage. He said dully, “Guess we weren’t fast enough.”

Van’s hands were on his knees, he was panting and his heart was pounding like he’d tried to outrun a train. “God damn it all to hell,” he said to his shoes. “Why didn’t he just listen to you when you called?”

Deaq didn’t answer but started viciously kicking a dumpster. He stopped abruptly, “I was just starting to like that crazy bastard.”

“Me too,” Van said tiredly. He felt old and drained and hopeless.

A sound interrupted them. A voice they’d never heard before.

Dominic Toretto rounded the corner in front of them and paused while he regarded their shocked faces with what could have been amusement.

And he wasn’t alone.

**********************

Van’s first impression of Brian O’Conner was that he was taller than expected. He seemed to be all limbs and pale skin. Dom was attempting to propel him with one arm around his waist, but O’Conner was having a bit of trouble keeping his feet underneath his long legs. O’Conner would stumble a few steps, draping his long arms around Dom’s shoulders and then just let Dom drag him while he buried his face in Dom’s neck. The effect was of a man trying to cling to the figurehead of a ship under heavy sail.

O’Conner didn’t even seem to notice Van and Deaq. He was addressing a long monologue to Dom’s collarbone, speaking so quickly that the words weren’t comprehensible. Van caught a flash of his eyes when he turned his head. Van knew from his file that O’Conner’s eyes were blue. This guy’s eyes were barely blue at the edges, the rest a solid glittering black. Shit. Obviously, Linda Lengane hadn’t skimped on her parting gift.

The drugs had relaxed the muscles in his face as well. So despite the stubble shadowing his square jaw, O’Conner looked oddly young and untouched by his ordeal. In the bright sun, he almost seemed to glow. Damn, thought Van, he is better looking than me.

O’Conner didn’t look like he’d spent the last few days a drugged-up hostage. Or like someone who’d just been pulled from an exploding building. He looked…ecstatic. Van shifted uncomfortably.

“He’s a little out of it,” muttered Dom, displaying a talent for understatement. When Dom started to speak, Brian grinned blissfully and stuck two fingers in Dom’s mouth. Dom gently pulled his hand away.

“Does he need to go to a hospital?” Deaq’s eyebrows were almost at his hairline.

“Brian? Do you need to go to a hospital?” Dom asked softly.

“Nooooo.” Brian unbalanced himself by shaking his head vigorously. “’m cool. Thirsty. Hungry.”

He leaned in and started whispering in Dom’s ear. Van and Deaq watched as Dom stood up straighter and looked around nervously.

“Maybe someplace to sleep it off?” Van suggested. This time it was Dom who nodded vigorously.

They retreated to the GTO, slowly, because Brian refused to be carried. They introduced themselves and attempted to act normal, like the object of their fervent search wasn’t completely hopped up on goofballs. Brian was delighted with the sound of their names and repeated them until he was installed in the backseat of the GTO where he was delighted with the leather seats. And progressively more delighted as Dom slid in beside him. By this time, he was repeating Dom’s name in a chant like a drum roll.

Deaq drove carefully around the emergency vehicles while Dom eyed the uniform cops with apprehension. When they got out on the open road, headed north, Deaq quizzed Dom with his eyes in the rearview.

“Where did you find him?”

“Dom, Dom, Dom, Dom, Dom, Dom, Dom, Dom, Dom,” Brian was as steady as a metronome.

“The last place I looked,” Dom attempted to pry his hand loose from Brian’s grip. “Maybe a hospital wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

“Dom, Dom, Dom, Dom, Dom,”

“Was there anyone else there?” Van asked, trying to conceal his amusement as Brian leaned on Dom’s chest and started whispering in his ear.

Deaq cut in. “We can head for St. John’s in Santa Monica.”

“No, just him.” Dom sat up straight and pawed clumsily at Brian’s hair with what Van thought must be an attempt at a soothing gesture. Brian wriggled happily under his hand.

Deaq’s cell phone rang and he snapped it open impatiently. Billie’s voice filled the car. She was shouting over the background roar. “Guys, I appreciate the thought with the accomplices, but next time can we try not to lay on the smackdown? ‘Cause guys like this they wake up and the first thing they think is ‘Where am I?’ and the second thing they think is, ‘Who do I sue?’”

Deaq glared at Dom in the mirror and replied, “Got it, Billie. We won’t do that again.”

“Another thing.” Despite the fact she was shouting, she still managed to sound dry. “Did you tell one of the firemen that there were still people in the building? They got really agitated after the second blast. You know LAFD…they’re pretty…conscientious.”

“Uh,” Deaq tried to hand the phone off to Van, but Van shoved it right back at him. “We thought O’Conner might be inside, but he wasn’t.”

“How do you know this for a fact?” Billie was relentless.

Deaq glanced at Van to gauge how he wanted to play this. “Cause we found him.”

“Dom, Dom, Dom, Dom, Dom, Dom!” Brian’s even voice was insistent. And loud.

“Really? Fantastic! Is that him?”

Deaq held the phone to his chest, turned around and snarled, “Put a cork in that kid, Toretto. I can’t hear myself think!”

Dom looked at Deaq, wide-eyed for a second. Emotions washed rapidly over his face, anger, dismay, concern, something fierce and primal that Deaq couldn’t identify. Dom snarled wordlessly at Deaq, then leaned toward Brian’s pleading face and very effectively shut him up.

Van was so shocked that he actually stared for long seconds until he realized what he was doing and snapped around to face forward. He’d heard the expression ‘suck face’ but hadn’t ever seen it taken so…literally. Deaq was staring open-mouthed at the rearview. Van snapped his fingers and pointed, “Deaq, Deaq, the road!”

Billie was still on the line, “Deaq, Van? Are you guys okay?”

Deaq brought the phone to his ear hesitantly, as if afraid that it might turn into something strange that would bite him, “Yeah, we’re…fine. Billie. Uhm, what were you saying?”

Billie’s long-suffering voice could be shouted too, “I said, is O’Conner with you now?”

“Ye-es,” admitted Deaq, wondering if this was some weird dream.

“Could I speak with him?” Billie’s slight sarcasm wasn’t lost either.

“Uh,” Deaq shot Van a please-you-gotta-help-me look.

Van breathed deep and grabbed the phone. “Billie!”

Billie appeared to be long past the point where she would begin to find Van amusing. “Van, if you’ve really got O’Conner, let me talk to him now.”

“Sorry, Billie, he’s uh…” Van turned to peek and lost his train of thought. “Busy?”

“What do you mean: he’s busy? Busy doing what?”

Van briefly considered just telling the truth. He tried to envision Billie’s expression: You remember that fugitive con that beat up on Tanner? Yeah, Toretto, that’s the one. Well, he and O’Conner are in the backseat macking on each other like horny teenagers. No, I haven’t been drinking.

Deaq shook his head at him as if to say, don’t do it, man!

Suddenly, it came to him. Sheer brilliance. “He’s talking to someone else.”

“Oh,” Billie was brought up short. “Well, why didn’t you say that?”

“Yup, he’s talking to someone else.” Van steamrolled ahead. “Been missing, you know. Gotta report in and stuff.”

Now Billie sounded ever-so-slightly chastened. “Fine, that’s fine. I understand. Have him call me later. He seems okay?”

“Uh,” Van risked another glance back. O’Conner was plastered on Dom’s chest, moaning into Dom’s mouth, gripping Dom’s T-shirt so tightly that it was ripping. “He seems fine.”

***********************

The rest of the ride was something of an uncomfortable blur. Van stared straight ahead resisting every temptation to turn his head and gawk. But he couldn’t exactly put his fingers in his ears and start humming ‘Sweet Caroline’. He could feel his face flush at some of the greedy, needy, lascivious sounds that filtered from the back.

Deaq was in an even more awkward position because he couldn’t overcome his ingrained training to look in the rearview every 90 seconds.

So he didn’t miss Dom’s fierce, bruising kiss that was kind of a question and Brian’s gentle, feathering kiss that was kind of an answer. The way Dom’s broad hand curved over Brian’s jaw, the way Brian’s lips looked redder when they were wet. It was maddening.

The sound of fabric tearing made Van stiffen and stare off into the middle distance as if he were completely fascinated by the highway interchange. O’Conner gave an exultant little laugh that turned into a long sigh.

Dom’s knuckles were scraped and bleeding, why? Deaq pondered the mystery until he remembered the chain of smashed doors, their locks dangling. Drugs aside, it looked like both Brian and Dom weren’t feeling any pain. The rest of the world might not as well have ever existed. It began to look less like kissing and more like cannibalism.

“Where are you going?” Van murmured. Van didn’t look in Deaq’s direction and for this Deaq was oddly grateful. All thought of the quiet hospital on 20th Street had fled.

“I don’t know,” Deaq wished he could just pull into some anonymous lot and abandon the car.

Van shifted uncomfortably. “Let’s go back to your place.”

Deaq opened his mouth to protest and then considered that they really didn’t have many other options.

Deaq pulled into his driveway, twisted the ignition and flung himself from the car. Halfway up the walk to the house, something occurred to him and he turned back. Van was pulling something from his wallet and placing it in the middle of the front seat, keeping his head carefully turned away from the backseat shenanigans. Then Van trotted up to Deaq, looking vaguely guilty.

“What were you doing?” Deaq asked accusingly.

Van looked like he was contemplating if telling the truth was worth it. “Ah, condom. Keep one.” He gestured vaguely at his back pocket. “Hope springs eternal and all that.”

Images raced through Deaq’s head in Technicolor and Dolby stereo sound. He closed his eyes against the onslaught and asked through gritted teeth. “Is anyone getting taken advantage of in there?”

Van hid a grin, “You gonna go pour cold water on them, Officer? Cite them for public lewdness?”

Van turned to look back at the car. Brian’s hand was pressed against the side window for leverage. He could barely see the back of Dom’s head in the shadow. “Dom may have started it, but Brian’s gonna finish it. Don’t worry about them, I’d worry about us.”

Off Deaq’s frantic look, Van explained, “How we’re going to report this to Billie. To Tanner.”

Deaq nodded slowly, squared his shoulders and walked into the house. Past the kitchen, through the living room and directly to the bar. He splashed out a tall one for himself and Van and collapsed on the sofa.

Van took his drink and moved to the window, staring out at the distant surf. “Tough day,” he said offhandedly.

“And it’s only noon.” Deaq affirmed.

Van cocked his head. “Then the tide is with us.”

He drained his drink, turned to look at Deaq expectantly.

Deaq pursed his lips and said dryly, “Is this your solution for everything?”

“It works,” Van grinned at him, disappeared into the guest bathroom and reappeared half in and half out of his wetsuit. “I’ll get the boards,”

Deaq tried to get a handle on his runaway thoughts as he retrieved his own wetsuit.

*************************

The surf was great. They paddled in after a few hours as the sun was setting and Deaq was already feeling a little more relaxed. His lighter mood dissipated slightly in sight of his house, wondering what fresh hell would greet him as they went back in through the terrace.

Inside, they followed the traces that told the story. The kitchen was a scene of minor carnage: someone had done a pretty thorough job of cleaning out anything remotely edible from the refrigerator. Cherry tomatoes sat forlornly on the floor where they’d spilled. There was a wet ring on the counter where someone had set down a large glass of water and water splashed around on the path to the living room.

The edge of dried blood in a handprint where someone had leaned on a wall. A random shoe. A depression in the carpet in the shape of a bare foot. And the door to the guest bedroom distinctly closed where Van had left it open.

“Could be worse,” Van said philosophically.

“Yeah?” Deaq replied skeptically.

“They could be in your bed.”

Deaq rubbed his eyelid where it wanted to twitch.

“This is really bothering you, huh?” said Van in a tone calculated to infuriate. “What is it…some kind of race thing? The brother can’t get with Mr. Aryan Nation?”

Deaq clenched his fists to keep from bitchslapping his partner. “No, it is not ‘a race thing’, smartass. It’s just…they….how…?” He threw his hands up, unable to articulate.

Van looked at him strangely. “You don’t really need me to explain how that works, do you?”

“Goddamnit, you know that’s not what I mean!” Deaq yelled. His voice echoed off the silent white walls. Van looked at him and dropped his smart-alecky façade.

“You said it yourself, in so many words.” Van voice was so reasonable that Deaq was instantly contrite, though he didn’t show it. “Most people get out of bed for just three reasons: love, money or revenge. Love is the only explanation that fits.”

“Love?” Deaq snapped. “How can they love each other, Van? They don’t know each other. They’re on opposite sides of…everything.”

“We just read the report. We don’t know everything that happened.” Van continued quietly. “Why did Brian give Dom his car? Made his life hellaciously difficult, right? Why did Dom come back to the States and start racking up felony assault charges? It didn’t make sense before. Now it does.”

Deaq held Van’s eyes across the room, trying to keep his skepticism from showing in his face.

“I guess…” Van sketched a hand in the air. “There are times when love…takes over. When everything seems impossible. And that’s when nothing else matters.”

Deaq wished he had a better response than silence. But Van’s simple words seemed to hang in the air, to fill the space until there was no longer any room for doubt or dissent.

Into this charged atmosphere, the phone rang shrilly. With a strange sense of loss, Deaq picked it up and sighed, “Yes, Billie?”

“Where the hell have you been?”

Deaq searched for an answer somewhere between ‘Out’ and ‘None of your damned business.’

He settled for, “Thought we had the afternoon off?”

“Off doesn’t mean gone. Off doesn’t mean inaccessible.”

“You got a reason to call, I mean, other than to bitch at us?”

Billie’s moment of silence made him wince. Van held his hands up in a don’t-involve-me-in-your-death-wish gesture and disappeared into the bathroom.

“Well, just in case you might be interested.” Billie snapped. “They lost the tail on Mike Murphy. Linda and Colin almost slipped the net, too. But I’ve had my sources checking the airports and we think they just got on a plane bound for Ireland.”

“What the fuck?” Deaq was incredulous. Stop paying attention for a few hours… hell…handbasket.

“Hold your water,” Billie continued. “It’s a commercial flight and not direct. And ironically, knocking their bodyguards out paid some unexpected dividends, since they’ve been hospitalized for observation and thus technically not under arrest. So they haven’t been warning anyone with their one phone call.”

Deaq wondered briefly if he should apologize to Dom. Then he discarded the notion. “So you got someone picking up Lengane and Murphy?”

“Of course,” Billie said. “But you need to quiz O’Conner and see if he has any leads as to where Mike has disappeared to. A.S.A.P. since he may know we’re on to him by now.”

“It’ll have to be tomorrow,” Deaq looked at the closed bedroom door apprehensively.

Billie sighed, “Deaq, what is the deal with O’Conner? Is there something I should know?”

Deaq let the sincerity flow. “Billie, you’re just going to have to trust me on this one.”

He could feel her shaking her head as she sighed again and acquiesced. He hung up.

Deaq relayed the particulars to Van when he emerged, dressed in his street clothes. Van listened and shrugged.

“It’ll keep or it won’t. Guess I’ll be shoving off now. Looking for somewhere to crash,”

Deaq nodded numbly and let him get to the door. “Van!” he called out as Van opened the door and let the night sounds pour in.

“Yeah?” Van turned back quickly.

“Uh…the uh, Roosevelt hotel…has nice bungalows. Out back by the pool. On Hollywood Boulevard.”

Van half-smiled, “Thanks for the tip.”

Deaq waited until Van had closed the door completely before burying his face in his hands.

*************************

Van tripped out into the deepening darkness, slid into the Camaro and started making for Sunset Boulevard. The trip back to Hollywood was a scenic one but nothing could take his mind off the things he had seen in the past few hours. The way he had felt.

He wondered how he had managed to talk so calmly to Deaq as if nothing in what he said touched him at all. How he managed to play it cool while his heart trembled, hollow and loose.

Van tossed a glance at the ruined driver side mirror. The bullet had torn through the center and his reflection was now refracted into six parts. Which seemed oddly appropriate, his self-image in jagged pieces that didn’t quite fit together.

**************************

Brian swam into consciousness the following morning up from a confusing, if pleasant dream. His head was pounding and his eyes ached, dazzled by the sun and the snowy whiteness of the linen. The inside of his mouth felt like raw meat, bloody and tender. He drew himself slowly upright. He’d been in darkness for so long that the light felt like it was penetrating his skin, like he was soaking it up like a sponge. Filled with light, he wrapped his arms around his knees and regarded his bedmate.

Dom dwarfed the large bed and his face, relaxed in sleep, looked somehow timeless and ancient like an Egyptian statue of some all-powerful pharaoh. Dom’s skin glowed golden in the dawn light, his eyelashes feathered crescents.

Brian remembered Dom’s eyelashes fluttering as he came. He flushed as his memory came flooding back. He’d had dreams occasionally that had turned into nightmares. He’d never had a nightmare turn into a dream, a fantasy. Yesterday afternoon was so perfect that it was almost hard to believe it had really happened. But he was here, in this comfortable bed with Dom beside him. Tooth marks on his hip bone. A hickey on his rib cage. It was all…real.

Brian played it all back in his head, slowly, stopping and rewinding when he got to his favorite parts. He hadn’t ever thought to question when Dom burst in on him. It had just seemed so…natural. He had wished for this, prayed for it, not even dared to hope and it had happened.

He couldn’t feel embarrassed at the memory of the things he had babbled at Dom. In front of witnesses, no less. His body had thought that it would be enough just to get close to Dom, to feel the press of his flesh, but his mouth wanted to make desperate whispered pleas. Give Dom all the truth he had hidden, all the truth he had discovered in their time apart. Intuiting that if he can just make the last jump, gravity will take over.

Dom didn’t disappoint. Dom’s mouth tasted of tenderness and fear.

The frantic headlong lust that led them to tear off each other’s clothes in the car, muted and focused somewhat after Dom had arched his back, grunted and spurted come onto Brian’s chest and Brian had responded by leaving his own spunk pooled on Dom’s washboard stomach.

“I’ve always wanted to do that,” panted Dom.

“What, come all over me?” returned Brian as he wiped it off the underside of his jaw.

“Well…that…and have sex in the back of a GTO,” Dom was getting his breath back.

Brian noticed his surroundings for the first time. “This is a GTO?” He looked down at Dom unable to mask his goofy grin. “Sacrilege!”

Dom had pushed him out of the car, up to the house, into the kitchen. He remembered Dom’s eyes watching him drink the clear cold water that tasted like liquid sky. Dom trying to feed him weird random things like almonds and croutons. Brian had drawn the line at the baby carrots and actually had to knock the tomatoes away.

“C’mon,” Dom’s voice urging him, “Eat, you need this.”

“You’re all I need,” Brian just let the words fall out of his mouth. The blaze that flamed up in Dom’s eyes sent chills down his spine but Dom didn’t say anything just hooked a finger over Brian’s waistband and ran it around the top of his jeans. A mute testament to his concern.

So he had allowed Dom to press food on him, though the water did more for him than anything. The water and the look in Dom’s eyes quenched the raw places inside.

Brian focuses on the kaleidoscope of memory: the taste of the sweat in the twin ridges of muscle that frame Dom’s spine. Dom’s fingers alternatively soft as feathers or hard as spikes. The heat of Dom’s hands massaging his lower back. Dom pulling back from the cradle of his thighs and saying, “I can’t,” His own self pressing forward and declaring, “you have to.” If he could just get Dom close enough, it feels like Dom could unlock his rib cage and see his heart. While Dom had fucked him gently, Brian had pressed his lips to the places where Dom’s knuckles were split and encrusted with blood. Somehow that blood is a silent promise that nothing will ever stand between them again.

Brian pondered all this while he watched Dom sleeping, completely content for the first time in his life.

And even though his head was pounding and his mouth felt like someone had slaughtered a cow in it, he wanted more than anything to reach over and stroke Dom awake. Dom was tired, though, exhausted, maybe. He needed rest. Brian’s mouth was sore but he was sure it would feel much better with Dom’s tongue in it. Or maybe his…

He was looking at Dom’s lips when they opened on a breath. Dom’s eyes were open; he’d gone from asleep to awake in the space of a breath. “Hey,” he said quietly.

Suddenly shy, Brian ducked his head to his shoulder to sniff himself. “I need a shower. I stink.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Dom’s voice was slightly amused. Brian rolled off the bed wondering if he could take this kind of painful intensity every day. The large presence on his heels as he walked to the bathroom. Dom’s hot eyes reflected in the mirror, looking at him and his reflection both.

Dom stepped into the shower behind him and Brian felt himself melting into sensation, a dizziness that wasn’t chemical. That wide hand on the back of his neck. A hand reaching around to brush his hair back from his forehead, the quiet voice that said, ‘Let me.”

************************

Deaq woke to the smell of frying bacon, eggs and coffee. For a second, he muzzily wondered how Van had managed to get so far without burning anything, then the events of the previous day returned and he groaned aloud.

Deaq hadn’t slept well by any means. He had fortified himself with another drink or three, wanting to be completely insensible if the lust machine roared to life next door. While the night remained quiet, he found his imagination filling in the blanks with the grunts and gasps he had been privy to that afternoon. Deaq kept seeing Dom’s hand spread across Brian’s taut neck, darkness into light like coffee poured into cream.

He wondered if Van had slumped against him so vulnerable and wanting, how long would he have been able to resist? He ran his fingers over the sheets and thought of Van’s hair, the length so perfect for stroking. He imagined Van’s green eyes darkening with lust and wrestled his pillow down between his thighs, trying vainly to keep his imagination and his erection at bay.

He had punched his mattress, inexplicably angry at Dom, getting all stove up over some skinny-ass white boy. Making him think about it. Think about how easy it could be. Thinking about it until exhaustion and unrequited lust sapped all his energy and he fell into an unsatisfying sleep while wondering what stupidity had led him to send Van away.

Hearing the clatter of plates in the kitchen, Deaq gave up the sleeping thing, kicked away the sheets and strode into the bathroom to roast himself under a hot shower. Dom Toretto had obviously gotten a little too accustomed to getting whatever the hell he wanted, but he, Deaqon Lavelle Hayes, was not like that. He would never take advantage of someone’s physical or emotional neediness. No matter how much he wanted to.

Thinking these self-righteous thoughts, he marched down the hall and paused outside the kitchen. He leaned on the door and prayed that they’d both be completely dressed.

Thankfully they both were, though Dom’s shirt was obviously borrowed. It fit him like a sausage casing.

“Thanks for letting us crash.” Was it Deaq’s imagination or did Dom look insufferably smug?

Brian O’Conner turned from his stool behind the counter to look piercingly at his host. Brian was clean, shaven, alert and Deaq almost didn’t recognize him. O’Conner’s eyes were shadowed but he looked 100% better than he had in hours past. Brian was shaking his hand and saying, “I’m sorry I was so out of it yesterday, man,” while Deaq thought wildly, seemed like you were pretty into it to me.

Deaq silently accepted a plate of breakfast and felt unaccountably relieved when Van showed up. It seemed like Brian took to Van immediately, so the meal proceeded without all the awkwardness that Deaq had been dreading. Being around Brian and Dom was difficult but for different reasons than Deaq had anticipated.

They rarely touched but all of their gestures seemed imbued with significance. Van looked away quickly when Brian pointed at his own face to show where Dom needed to drag his napkin. It was like being together magnified their personalities exponentially so that Van and Deaq felt like shadows of themselves beside the vitality that pulsed between Brian and Dom.

Brian’s sheer physical beauty was misleading, Van decided. There was tautness in his lean form and flashes of danger in those ice-blue eyes. The strength of character that could shake off almost a week’s worth of primal fear and torture in less than a day was also a force to be reckoned with.

“Don’t mean to bring up a painful subject,” Van started, “But how’d they get the drop on you?”

“Easy,” Brian shrugged. “Boss wants you to have a drink, you have a drink. I had one beer and it felt like ten. I woke up in a room with no windows and one chair. Don’t remember much else. They weren’t sure who I was, so they just fucked with my head for fun.”

“Mike Murphy ditched his tail yesterday. Can you remember anything that might help us find him?” Deaq asked hopefully while downing his coffee.

“What’s the date today?” Brian asked.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Deaq started puzzled, while Van said simply, “October 5th.”

“Good,” said Brian, chewing thoughtfully. “That means it’s not too late. He wants to send a message so he’ll have to act today.”

“What’s going to happen?”

“What do you think of when you think of all the IRA clichés?” Brian asked.

“Bombs,” answered Deaq while Van chimed in, “Hate the Brits.”

“Right on both counts. Mike Murphy is a fanatical patriot,” Brian sighed. “You know you’re off the wall when the IRA blackballs you for being too violent. That’s why he left. Used his exile to increase his power. I think he wants to do something newsworthy to mark his return to the old sod.”

“The British Consulate?” Deaq suggested.

“Is a tiny office suite on Wilshire Boulevard. Not obviously British enough.”

“So what’s he going to hit? The King’s Head Pub?” Van asked.

“Nah, he’s looking for maximum symbolism and carnage.” Brian smiled wryly. “I think the move to El Segundo was to make the commute easier,”

“You mean…?” Deaq couldn’t quite believe what Brian was suggesting.

“Yeah, the Queen Mary,” Brian looked out the window, his eyes stormy.

“That drag bar on Ventura Boulevard?” Van said before his brain could catch up with his mouth.

Brian and Dom looked at him curiously for a moment. Deaq’s eyes had widened to a degree that would have been comical, if Van hadn’t felt that his heart was already pulsing on his sleeve.

“Uh, no. The Queen Mary. The ocean liner that’s now a hotel? Down in the harbor?” Brian was looking for comprehension and not finding it. “It has 365 guest rooms and there’s a convention on right now. Some British corporation is hosting its shareholders. With hotel employees and day visitors, we’re talking about a second 9/11.”

Van stopped looking clueless and started looking grim.

“He doesn’t want to get caught, but I don’t think he wants to die for his cause either. Backing him into a corner would be an extremely bad idea. ” Brian stood up. “We get the Bomb Squad out there, the press gets word, this could end up…real bad.”

“What do you suggest?” Deaq asked.

“I say we go in there alone.” Brian nodded, envisioning the bust. “Four of us can search and isolate him without it being too obvious.”

“Four of us?” Deaq started dubiously. “I don’t recall signing on for any action with Mr. Vigilante Mayhem here…”

“Tough,” Brian said matter-of-factly.

“Look, O’Conner, I don’t want to pull rank on you now,” Deaq continued.

“Then don’t,” Brian’s voice was even but Van could catch a hint of the steel lurking under the surface.

“I just…” Deaq chose his words carefully. “I think you might be getting a little too personally involved here.”

Brian smiled at both Van and Deaq a smile that spread across his face like clouds across a sunset. His voice teased gently, “Oh, so I guess that’s never happened to you?”

And even Deaq had to chuckle because they were so busted.

*************************

 

Deaq let Dom drive them to the candy store while Van called to recon. The idea of coming face-to-face with Billie made both Van and Deaq turn slightly green. Van didn’t see why they had to come in at all until Brian mentioned that while he was no longer a Boy Scout, he still liked to be prepared.

“Do you have any smaller calibers?” Brian examined Deaq’s Desert Eagle dubiously. “I mean it is a boat, y’know and part of it is underwater.”

“Alert the media, Van,” Deaq announced. “We’ve finally discovered the one person who may be a bigger smartass than you.”

“I’ll defend my title later,” Van unveiled a cache of .32s and handed them out.

“No thanks,” Dom waved off Van’s offer. “I hate guns.”

“Well, other people like ‘em.” Brian slapped Dom’s ass like they’d just broken out of a football huddle. “So I hope you like vests.”

Watching Brian help Dom wrestle into his bulletproof vest was like watching some bizarre form of foreplay. Van and Deaq had moved to the opposite side of the room but Van couldn’t help watching them as Deaq tightened his shoulder straps. He stirred guiltily when he found himself staring, but luckily Deaq hadn’t seemed to notice.

Dom caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, the white lettering turned backward that proclaimed him POLICE. Muttered to Brian something that sounded like ‘kill me now’ and Brian laughed easily and handed him a jacket to cover up. His work done, Brian took a moment to appreciate the finer points of the candy store. When they were suited up, they found him admiring the Porsche.

“Ready to roll?” Deaq asked.

“You guys got some sassy chassis,” Brian grinned. “If this was still my game, I’d asked to be transferred here.”

“We’d be glad to have you,” Van said sincerely, pondering if this was still my game. Van pulled out his cell phone and handed it to Brian. “Before we go, you should call your sergeant.”

Brian’s face dimmed suddenly and he looked at the phone warily. Dom had come up behind him, while they talked and he put one reassuring hand on Brian’s shoulder.

“And you,” Van snatched Deaq’s cell phone from jacket pocket and brandished it at Dom. “You should call Mia.”

Brian and Dom looked at each other and their faces were oddly similar for a moment wearing the same guilty look.

Van pulled Deaq up the loft to give the other two the sensation of privacy. From the balcony, they could watch Dom pace around and Brian perch on the edge of Billie’s desk.

Van punched the bag experimentally, but his heart wasn’t in it.

“When did you become Phil Donahue, man?” Deaq asked, without malice.

Van ran his hand over the Everlast-Choice of Champions logo. “They can’t do what they did yesterday, forever. They can’t forget that there’s a large part of the world that’s not them.”

“So you’re a relationship expert now? Gonna get your own talk show?” Deaq snarked.

“It’s real easy,” Van jabbed the bag mercilessly. “When it’s not your own ass.”

The spare truth of that shut Deaq up completely.

***********************

Both Brian and Dom were silent and broody on drive south to the harbor. Van wondered when they were going to notice that Van and Deaq wouldn’t let them near the backseat. Van asked Brian quietly, “So you talked to Tanner?”

”Yeah, I did,” Brian glanced at Van, then looked wryly at Dom. Brian raised his voice slightly. “He told me the wildest story about this crazy…”

“You want me to apologize?” Dom cut in.

“Yeah, I do.” Brian settled back into his seat, satisfied. “As soon as we’re done here.”

***********************

Brian and Van got them on to the boat by sweet-talking security while Dom and Deaq slid past. The lower half of the cruise ship was a confusing maze of identical hallways. They were just about to split up, when Van caught sight of a familiar form turning a distant corner. Brian took off running, almost silent on the thick carpet and tackled the guy before Van and Deaq had unholstered completely.

By the time the rest had caught up, Brian had shoved the guy into a cleaning alcove and knocked his gun away. Van recognized one of the jerks who’d opened up on them at the club.

“Ain’t telling you shit,” the thug folded his arms and then seemed to waver as the party filled out with Van, Deaq and Dom. “’Sides I don’t know anything, anyway.”

“It’s not me you have to convince,” Brian said in a flawless good-cop act. “It’s them.”

The thug flashed between Deaq’s flat gaze, Van’s sparking eyes and Dom’s menacing look. He seemed to come to a quick decision and muttered, “Engine room is second level up. Third turbine over. Security code is 1167382.”

“Is he alone?”

“I don’t know.”

“Does he have a time frame?” Brian’s voice was preternaturally calm.

“He’s doing his final run-through now.”

Van cuffed the guy to a shelving unit, ignoring his urgent protests. “Hey, this thing is supposed to turn into Pearl Harbor when the conference starts.”

Brian said over his shoulder, “You better pray we get to him first then.”

The engine room was enormous and crowded with noisy machinery. Even though the ship was inactive as a sailing vessel it still contained enough generators to power a small city. They were reduced to making hand signals as they fanned out along the walls to home in on the third turbine. Deaq crept along, not even able to hear his own footsteps when he heard the unmistakable snap-crunch of bone behind him. When he spun around, Dom was massaging his hand wryly above the limp form of a random bad guy.

Deaq made a ‘thanks’ gesture and Dom returned a ‘no problem, don’t mention it,” gesture. They both perked up at the sound of voices that carried above the bass thumping of the turbines. They dashed forward to where the floor opened out on the central unit.

Brian was there, gun drawn facing down on Mike Murphy who had drawn his own weapon and appeared to be standing over what was unmistakably a detonator. Despite the guns and the rigid postures, Brian and Murphy appeared to be chatting almost amiably. Deaq took a few steps closer and was struck by the bright hardness of both pairs of blue eyes.

Move, Brian’s eyes seemed to say, and I will fill you so full of holes that my new life partner and I will use you to drain spaghetti.

Van had used Murphy’s distraction and was creeping up behind him while Brian moved inexorably forward. Deaq was close enough now to see the exact moment when Murphy decided that it was over.

Murphy snapped off one wild shot in Brian’s direction, then twisted like a snake and pumped a round into Van’s chest at a six-inch range.

Van’s mouth opened but no sound came out. Brian’s shot caught Murphy high in the shoulder before he could fire again.

Murphy was snarling when Deaq’s kill shot opened a black hole in his cheekbone.

Deaq was kneeling beside his partner, before Murphy toppled to the floor. Van’s face was pale like he’d taken a bad fall. Deaq’s eyes filled with the images of Van laughing, grinning, Van saying, ‘you are the most interesting person I know’, Van surfing, playing pool, Van driving too fast, Van’s outrageous clothes, Van playing thumb war, the smiling look in Van’s eyes every time he caught sight of Deaq. All the things that he couldn’t imagine living without.

“Deaq,” Van gasped, “Room to breathe, is it such a hard concept?”

*****************

It had been a long flight, so when Linda Lengane flanked by her silent companion had walked wearily up the ramp to the terminal, she was unsurprised to see an attractive, smartly-dressed woman waiting for them. The flight had been delayed from the start, so Linda assumed that this was some airline representative sent to placate the first-class passengers with vouchers and whatnot.

“Miss Lengane?” the young woman asked warmly, extending her hand for Linda to shake. Linda took it almost unconsciously and the woman’s left hand came up to circle her wrist, her eyes conveying her sincerity. That is, until Linda felt the cool of the metal snap closed. The young woman continued without the barest hint of irony, “Welcome to New York. I’m Officer Maria Sanchez.”

Colin had taken an abrupt left turn and smacked right into Officer Sanchez’ partner, all 6’4” and 230 pounds of him. His smile glowed in his dark face and he also greeted them cordially, “Welcome to New York. I’m Officer John Bell. We have some Customs and DEA colleagues who are pretty anxious to meet you. You have the right to remain silent, anything you say….”

****************

Dom drove to a deserted parking lot and handed Deaq the keys to the GTO. Brian’s eyes had lit up when he caught sight of a zippy little foreign car and it made his farewell to Van and Deaq somewhat hurried and distracted. As they walked away, Deaq could hear Dom say, “Forget about it.”

“Dude, you are absolutely no fun,” Brian’s voice was fading.

“I’m plenty of fun,” Dom shot him a loaded look. “But you aren’t driving and that’s final.”

Dom leaned in and said something too low for Van and Deaq to catch, but Brian laughed. Brian turned and waved at them before he slid into the passenger’s seat.

“Think they’ll be OK?” Deaq watched the bright car turn on to the freeway.

“Those two? The guys who just left?” Van looked at him incredulously. “They could walk through hell in gasoline overcoats, man.”

They returned the car to Aquarius and made their weary way back to the candy store. Deaq placed a quick call to Billie and returned to find Van struggling to unbutton himself left-handed.

“I really liked this shirt,” Van said dolefully.

“Would you believe me if I told you that it was no great loss?” Deaq said softly. Van smelled like cordite and sweat and Deaq wondered when he’d begun to find that irresistible.

Van rubbed at his bruises, uncomfortably. “You think those two are going to remember to send what they borrowed back? Don’t think so. I’m really suffering on the shirt front.”

“I’ll buy you new shirts if you just shut up for two seconds,” Deaq ripped the side panels of Van’s vest loose and loosened the shoulder strap so he could ease it off. The bruises on Van’s chest spread from his left pectoral into his sternum and under his arm. Deaq hesitated for a moment and then laid his shaking hand over the worst of it. Van froze but Deaq could feel it when the heart under his palm started to race.

“You remember what you said?” Deaq whispered this.

“I said a lot of things,” Van was obviously not going to give him an inch. He could feel Van’s hope swelling around them. Or maybe it was his own.

“About the times when love takes over?” Deaq was six inches away from Van’s mouth.

And Van’s eyes did darken with arousal, Van’s lips relaxed when he offered them, “Like now?”

“Yeah,” Deaq whispered. “Like right now.”

It was good to know, for future reference, that there was one surefire method of making Donovan Ray be quiet. And that was to guide him down to a couch, wrap one arm around his neck and the other around his waist and let yourself loose on his expressive mouth. Van’s mouth was expressive even when he wasn’t talking; it spoke to Deaq of pent-up passion, imaginative lust and relief. Deaq massaged the numbness from Van’s left hand and guided it to his chest. Van raised his eyebrows while his eyes dared Deaq and he slid his hand down to Deaq’s crotch.

When Deaq caught his breath again, he nodded and let Van unbutton him. Van pushed him back until Deaq was half standing, trying desperately to undo his own shirt with shaking fingers. Van sat up between Deaq’s splayed knees. He had almost gotten his shirt off when Van raised the stakes and Deaq nearly fell over when he felt Van’s hot mouth on his cock.

He couldn’t look because it was just too much, too fast, too scorching hot. Van’s eyelids sank to half-mast and his skin flushed a tender pink. Deaq had to clench his fists to keep from reaching under and squeezing Van’s jaw, gripping his hair and brutally fucking his gorgeous face. Van slyly glanced sideways at Deaq’s tightening knuckles, looked up at him and somehow smiled around Deaq’s thick erection. Too much, too hot and Deaq could do nothing except feel himself violently erupt.

He could feel the blood pumping in his ears as he slumped down next to Van. Van already looked like the cat with the proverbial canary, so Deaq had to move in on him fast even though he wasn’t fully recovered. Van squawked when Deaq snaked his hand into Van’s pants and cradled Van’s head in the curve of his shoulder. Deaq could feel the aftershocks of his own orgasm taking over the rhythm of his hand around Van’s cock as he whispered into Van’s ear, “You know how I feel about you, baby, right?”

Van’s breath came in short gasps and he nodded. The way his muscles tightened under Deaq’s hands plucked at Deaq’s arousal again and when Van came, it was the most exciting thing Deaq had ever seen. Deaq wrapped himself around Van as his breath gradually slowed.

“Do you think that Billie’s going to be pissed?” Van inquired, stroking Deaq’s stomach lazily.

Deaq paused for a long moment considering. “If she is, I can think of a way to make it up to her.”

Van said nothing and just considered how good and whole he looked, reflected in the dark window of Deaq’s eyes.

 

**********************

In the car on the way down, Brian tried to sleep but couldn’t. He felt like a kid, too excited to sit still, just restraining himself from asking, ‘are we there yet? How much farther? Now? How about now?’

“Where we headed?” he asked, secure in the knowledge that he didn’t really care.

“Down to Baja,” Dom said softly.

“What’s down there?” Brian asked.

“Little hacienda near the beach. Garage with a good reputation. Good food. People who mind their own business.”

“Sounds cool.” Brian sounded deceptively casual. “Any chance that garage needs another mechanic?”

“I can’t pay you much,” said Dom and only the tiny curve in his lips gives the joke away.

Brian leaned back with a gusty sigh. “That’s alright. I won’t work much.”

Dom’s chuckle was a piece of his soul, flying free in the cool darkness.

*********************

FOUR MONTHS LATER

Deaq hoped that Van’s Spanish was up to comprehending whatever detailed instructions the older woman was spouting. He tried to lean casually on the truck. No one seemed especially surprised to see two gringos towing a totaled car around so Deaq assumed that they’d come to the right spot. Van’s Spanish made the pretty doe-eyed girls giggle, but they probably would have giggled at him anyway.

Van listened to the older lady’s monologue very politely, and then asked, “¿Donde ahora están?”

“Playa,” she pointed helpfully.

Van returned to the truck, rubbing his hands together. “Did you hear what she said? Beach, man! I knew the boards would come in handy because: why? Is it because I am a genius? Why yes, I think it is.”

“This isn’t supposed to be a vacation, remember?” Deaq tried unsuccessfully to rein Van in.

“Aw, c’mon quit channeling Billie, dude.” Van put his hand on Deaq’s thigh and gave him a seductive look. “You deserve a little R&R.”

“In that case: what exactly did you have in mind?” Deaq leered. “Since I deserve it?”

“Soon as we find a room with a lock, I’ll tell you in excruciating detail.” Van squeezed him and leaned in for a quick kiss. “In the meantime, we’re here. The water is almost always 72º here, did you know that?”

The dirt road had petered out into an open space between the palisades, the beach beyond just visible. Ruts and tire tracks marked it as an impromptu parking lot that was currently empty. Except for an old Dodge, looking sufficiently turbocharged to let them know that their search was over. Van bounced out, grabbed his board and ran down to the water’s edge. Deaq followed more sedately.

Dom was lolling just above the surf, looking like a genie out of the Arabian Nights with a colorful towel wrapped around his waist. He looked up as Van raced past him, whooping, into the waves. Brian, out bobbing on his board, caught sight of Van, laughed and started yelling something about a shore break. Dom looked back and waved Deaq over.

Deaq crouched on the edge of Dom’s blanket. “Damn, those white boys are nuts.”

“I dunno, it’s kind of fun.” Dom shrugged. “If you like that sort of thing.”

“Aw shit, they got to you too.” Deaq huffed. Dom laughed and handed him a beer from the cooler. They talked about nothing in particular while Van and Brian tried to outdo each other hanging ten.

Deaq had just dozed off when Van decided to sneak up and drip on him. Dom had armed him against just such an eventuality, so he just snapped a towel at Van and rolled over. Nothing could touch the peace of this beach, not even an amped-up Van Ray. They stayed until the sea and sweat had dried into their skin and then Dom invited them up to the house. They walked back under the colors of a sunset sky.

“So why the surprise visit?” Dom teased. “Thought you guys never got a vacation?”

Brian chimed in, “Yeah, you checking up on us?”

“Like we care about you punks?” Van scoffed. They caught sight of the truck and Brian and Dom quickened their pace with curiosity.

“Actually, we need your help in a professional capacity.” Deaq broke in before things got out of hand. “Custom resto job.” He swept the tarp from the body of the tow truck, revealing the smashed hulk of a car.

“Nice classic Mustang,” Brian mused. “You want us to bring it back to life?”

“That was the idea,” Van replied.

Dom examined the car for a while, assessing the true damage, and then gave his verdict. “If the chassis’ not really bent, this shouldn’t be too hard.”

Brian walked around the Mustang, taking a mental inventory. “Yeah, we can do this,” he affirmed. He stood back a little to get the full picture. “You know that this looks just like the car that Steve McQueen drove in ‘Bullitt’?”

Van looked at Deaq and grinned. “Right down to the cigarette smoke.”

 

The end