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Excerpt for The Double by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Double

A Darke & Flare Mystery #2

by

Parker Avrile

♥♥♥

What if your new boyfriend was caught on video fleeing the scene of a murder?

A killer captured on video has his face and his DNA...

When ex-cop Darke Davis agrees to try again with former undercover FBI special agent Flare Greene, he has no idea of the explosive secrets lurking in Flare's family history.

Deadly secrets that could end their lives before they get their second chance.

This 98,000-word male/male romantic suspense mystery novel includes twists, turns, and twins you won't see coming.

♥♥♥

This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to anyone, any time, or any place is not intended and is merely coincidental. Cover models appear for illustration purposes only and have no relationship to any events in this story. Brief mentions of real persons, places, events, or products are used fictitiously and in accordance with fair use. All trademarks remain the properties of their owners. Some locations have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Epilogue

More Books by this Author

Chapter One

Flare

I saw people seeing him before I saw him myself. He created a disturbance in the atmosphere that drew the eye. And not just because he was foreign. Foreigners were no rarity in Mazatlán.

The young mother on the bench across from me quit rocking her stroller back and forth. I hadn't noticed how it creaked until it stopped. The baby gurgled a question, but the mother looked out rather than down, her eyes caught on the broad chest of the tall norteamericano behind two small boys.

He possessed the physical presence of a celebrity― the easy stride on long legs, the sandy hair that framed unusual sapphire-blue eyes. The boys with him were four or five years old, one perhaps a year older than the other. Butter-blond hair, buttermilk skin. No doubt most people in the park assumed the boys were his sons. In any case, they were two ducklings being herded a step or two ahead of a watchful drake.

A protective father type, although he wasn't in fact the biological father.

Such beautiful eyes. I wasn't really close enough to see into the sapphire depths. I was remembering them from the times I'd seen them on the pillow next to me.

Still strolling forward with his boys, still scanning the park, he registered the young mother, registered me on the opposite bench, registered something behind and beyond us.

I resisted the urge to turn around.

His gaze returned to me.

I looked directly at him, my own gaze a silent question.

A silver pigeon with a fan of black feathers on its neck landed on the path a little ahead of the trio. The boys stopped to let the bird wobble-walk closer on its bright pink feet. Their protector stopped too.

Even at this young age, the brothers were already distinct personalities. As the younger one folded his arms over his small chest, the older boy thrust out his chubby right fist to make a perch. The bird flew up immediately.

They knew this pigeon, and the pigeon knew them.

The man took a folded napkin from his pocket. A leftover tortilla, perhaps. He murmured something I couldn't hear as he slipped a small tidbit into the younger boy's hand.

The boy hesitated, then accepted the item.

The pigeon waited. The older boy waited. The man waited.

They were the picture of patience.

At last, the smaller boy stretched out his hand, making it into a cup to offer the treat. The pigeon flew the small distance to accept. The beak and the pink feet tickled the boy, and he laughed. Now, he was smiling as broadly as his older brother.

All three of them were smiling.

“Go on now,” said the man, his accent revealing him to be an American. “That's all now.” A city accent that could have been from Brooklyn or Chicago but which I knew to be from New Orleans.

The pigeon fluttered without haste to rejoin a flock in a dust puddle a few yards away.

All this time, Darke Davis was aware of me sitting there. The young mother picked up the tension between us. A smile played around her lips, and she rose. The stroller creaked as she walked away, although not so loudly I didn't hear her soft voice: “Buena suerte, señor.”

Nodding but not yet speaking, Darke sat next to me while the two boys scrambled onto the painted monkey bars behind the bench where the young mother had been sitting. Despite our hyper-awareness of each other's every breath, he always kept a keen eye on his small charges.

“Cute kids.” The throwaway comment felt false in my mouth.

What do you say to somebody after so many weeks apart? I told myself he'd had time to come to terms with the fact he'd met me when I was working undercover. By now, he'd gotten over the pain of learning I'd given him a false name. A false background, a false everything. He understood why I'd let him tell me he loved me― or, to be more accurate, why I'd let him tell me he loved a man who didn't exist.

Regardless of what he felt for me or what I felt for him, I had a job to do as an FBI special agent assigned to get close to him when he was at his most vulnerable― a few days after his release from federal prison. Hell, I'd gone in assuming he was the key to blasting open a large-scale money-laundering operation. It was my comeback case, the chance to get my career back on track. Thirty-nine million missing dollars is a lot of dollars.

Maybe a man never really came to terms with someone he called a friend― a lover― turning out to be a federal investigator.

Maybe I hadn't even come to terms with what I'd done myself. It was the job, and I'd once been good at it, but the feelings I had for a known criminal called everything I believed into question. And now here I was in Mexico, where the FBI had no jurisdiction.

This time, we were free to figure out who and what we really were to each other.

If Darke still wanted to figure it out.

When I turned up last night at his regular dinner spot, he'd agreed to give me another chance. Sort of. The words he used were, “I'm going to need to take my time.”

And so we sat together in the light of a new day, and it was awkward between us again, as awkward as if we hadn't talked last night at all. Not that we'd talked long or deeply. It was hard to talk when you've already shared so much on the physical level. The first-date getting-to-know-you chitchat didn't feel natural.

Trying again, nodding at the boys, I said, “You'd make a good father.”

“Well,” he said. “Thank you.”

There was another small silence. The brothers shrieked at each other in German, their high-pitched voices making the language less harsh than it usually sounded to me. I was officially fired for cause from the FBI, but my supervisor had slipped me some last few files in hopes I'd track down the stolen millions in places US federal investigators weren't welcome. Thus I knew where to find Darke. Thus I knew the brothers' youngish blonde grandmother Claudia Konig came from Bavaria.

And, though I'd refused to continue working for the FBI as an informant, thus I knew I was probably being tracked myself.

The pigeon came back. I knew it was that pigeon and not another one from the fan of black feathers on its neck. Darke smiled at the bird but didn't invite it to approach, and it flew away again.

“They recognize human faces,” he said. “People who are kind to them, people who feed them.”

“I didn't know you were the kind of guy who feeds pigeons. You learn something new every day.”

“I'm not a guy who feeds pigeons. Just that one. He's somebody's pet who got off the trail, and now he isn't quite sure how to get back.”

I thought pigeons had a good sense of direction. Hell, I once thought I had a good sense of direction. But I suppose he was really talking about himself. He'd gotten far off the trail after he lost his family to a drunk driver and became a cop. A lonely cop, a vulnerable cop, a cop easy for an attractive con artist to target so the con artist in question could escape with millions...

“I've talked to Miss Claudia,” he said.

The southernism tickled me. Maybe there was some Mississippi as well as Louisiana in Darke's family background. Even though I'd read all his files, I hadn't come close to learning everything about him.

“She's already making arrangements for my replacement. If somebody's watching me, if I've been tracked down here, it isn't good for the boys. I wouldn't want them to get caught in the middle of anything.”

“I'm sorry if it's bad for you that I'm here.” And yet I couldn't stay away.

“What's done is done.” His shoulder lifted in a familiar half-shrug that made me ache to hug him close.

But I didn't have the right.

Despite the spark between us, reminders of the physical fling we'd shared when I was undercover, Darke never took his eyes off the two small brothers. This watchful Darke Davis was the Darke I'd met in Angel Wing, Arkansas, the man who appointed himself to drive home drunks and tuck them into bed so they wouldn't hurt themselves or anybody else.

The boys played without a care. The way they scrambled up and down on the monkey bars told me they didn't know Darke would soon be leaving. The older boy tumbled to the grass, shrieked some kid's idea of a great joke, and scrambled up on the bars again. Kids that age are made of rubber.

“What did he say?” I asked. “You smiled.”

“No clue,” Darke said. “But sometimes you laugh just because someone wants you to laugh.” Like any half-decent detective, he was good at reading body language. A useful skill in a country where you didn't speak the official language and where you worked with two children who spoke a third language.

A middle-aged woman pushed a cart loaded with local fabrics almost up to our feet. Less tactful than the young mother, she didn't sense our desire for privacy, or perhaps she was too intent on selling to care. Darke shook his head and put up the palms of his hands.

No, no gracias,” I said.

Maybe I shouldn't have spoken either. Perhaps Darke thought the less we said, the faster she'd go away.

So much awkwardness, so much trying to read every little gesture and word said or not-said between us.

His leg warm near my leg. His physical presence.

I shouldn't have come, but I was drawn to him like a magnet to steel.

“I might need to leave as soon as tonight,” Darke said. “The sooner she can replace me, the better.”

“The people watching you won't bring trouble to her door.”

Darke studied me without ever looking away from the two boys. “You can't know that. Any attention from any investigator can lead to a situation. There's some mystery about the parents.”

“The father's an elite jewel thief who vanished four years ago. Bernard Konig worked the diamond markets in Amsterdam and London, and he hit a major vault in Geneva. That's the EU's problem, not ours.”

He froze where he sat, but he still kept his eyes on the brothers. “Another Tyler Acosta.”

“Only if you assume he used the same method to disappear with the diamonds that Acosta used to disappear with the casino cash. Nobody's assuming that. There's no link between the two cases.”

“Except there is. Now there is.” He stood up. “Me. I'm the fucking link.”

Chapter Two

Flare

I opened my mouth and closed it again. Impossible to know where to start or what to say. Nobody would think he was posing as a manny to help international cartels launder millions of dollars in cash and diamonds. Or would they? Wasn't that adjacent to what the FBI did think? The basic working theory had Darke Davis posing as a broken ex-con working small jobs while he waited for a chance to duck surveillance and get back to the big money being held by his boyfriend.

Once I got to know Darke on an intimate level, I could no longer believe such a theory, but my supervisor still did. My former supervisor.

Another thing. Kidnapping is big business in Mexico. If someone thought Darke had access to millions, the kids could be in real and immediate danger regardless of whether anybody thought Darke knew anything about the whereabouts of the boys' father.

“The sooner I get out of here, the better it is for everybody,” Darke said.

An ice cream cart tinkled from across the square. The boys leaped from the monkey bars and rolled around on the grass from sheer exuberance before they ran over to clutch Darke by the legs. You didn't need to speak any human language to understand what they wanted. He carefully counted out the coins into the older boy's hand, a way of teaching them about money. Uno, dos, cinco. Diez. Veinte. He pronounced the Spanish words carefully and repeated them in English less carefully.

The boys laughed and said the words back and then ran for the cart.

“‘I got the wrong kid,’” I said.

“What the hell?” Darke, always keeping an eye on the boys, didn't turn to face me, but I could see the tension in his broad shoulders. “What did you just say?”

“Something I remembered from being a kid.”

“All right.” He picked up my hand and squeezed it. Let it drop. We'd never talked about our childhoods before. We'd never had time. “Who told you that?”

“My father,” I said. “I was adopted. He only said it once, and he was drinking single malt when he said it, but sometimes I wonder if there were two of us.” The sight of two small brothers playing had tickled something in the back of my brain. The mind is a monkey, and it will snatch on any distraction to avoid thinking about more serious issues.

The boys laughed as they walked back together, the popsicles they clutched in their small hands already melting. Bright blue ran down the older boy's pale chin, bright yellow ran down his younger brother's. In a beach town like Mazatlán, their white faces were evidence of the care somebody took to paint them with sunscreen. The care Darke took to paint them with sunscreen. And now the best thing he could do to take care of them was to leave.

I'd done that.

The older boy smiled with pride as he counted out his sticky change into Darke's patient hand. Darke didn't spoil the moment by telling him to keep the nearly worthless coins. Instead, he smiled too, his face lit up with a pride that mirrored the boy's.

“Now in English,” he said.

The boy laughed and said, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven...”

“Good. Very good.” Darke tried to pronounce the word in the German manner, and the boys shrieked with laughter.

Popsicle sticks in the trashcan, faces wiped. A band started playing on a stand at a far corner of the park, and most of the crowd streamed in that direction. Darke tried to avoid the appearance of hurry as he walked us out against the tide, but he kept a hand on the younger boy's shoulder. As we neared the exit, the pigeon landed in the middle of the empty path ahead of us, and the older boy started to run forward, but Darke put his other hand on his arm.

Did the pigeon fly first or an instant after the odd whistle of the single shot from a silenced weapon? Everything seemed to happen at once. The scatter of feathers. A young boy's scream. Darke Davis down on the sidewalk, both boys pushed beneath him for safety, Darke's big body sprawling flat to protect them like a mother hen covering her chicks.

I'd dropped too, the old instincts coming back to me in a flash.

Ahead of us, on the sidewalk, three dark gray tail feathers floated and then dropped again. Well, feathers grew back.

A couple of people glanced at us oddly, wondering perhaps what game we played. Nobody else seemed to recognize the sound of a suppressed handgun.

Nobody seemed to be hurt. Nobody seemed to be running. If not for the pigeon's tail feathers, I might have thought I imagined the whole incident. In the United States, it was no longer rare for lone gunmen to shoot in public places, but no one seemed to expect such a thing here, and so it had gone unnoticed.

“The fuck was that?” I asked as I stood up.

“Well.” Darke too was already back on his feet. Already brushing off the boys, who giggled because they thought we were playing a game. “I assume it was a warning. Somebody wants to send a message.”

I kept looking around. It bothered me I hadn't spotted anything out of place until it was too late. “Did you see anything?”

“I saw the back of a man in jeans and a cheap denim jacket.” Darke shrugged. “Five eight. Chunky but not fat. Dark hair.”

There were a million guys in Mexico who looked like that. “Would you recognize him again?”

“He was in the shadow.” Darke nodded toward the hedges some distance off the sidewalk. “He didn't intend to be seen. And he couldn't have expected to hit anything with any accuracy at that distance. Not with that weapon.”

“You saw the weapon?”

“A glimpse. Something small, maybe a Sig Sauer Mosquito. Improvised-looking silencer, something anybody could make in an automotive machine shop.”

The Mosquito was a discontinued small semi-automatic. Some models were threaded for the manufacturer's suppressors, but Darke was suggesting this silencer had been handmade by the end user. Not much of a clue. Mexico was a nation full of resourceful people good with tools who worked in small shops.

We walked over to the hedges in question. The dark shrubs sat in the shadow of spreading trees that invited a variety of city songbirds. There was the usual litter of cigarette stubs and dropped candy wrappers, some footprints in the dirt that could have belonged to anybody. The boys, who didn't know what we were looking for, peered up rather than down, their attention caught by a single half-deflated red balloon trapped in the branches of the nearest tree.

We could have called the local police, but I already knew we wouldn't. Better to fly under the radar in a foreign country, especially when you were an ex-con or in the company of one. Getting shot at makes police departments wonder who or what you're involved with.

Darke stood at the place where he'd seen the shooter and looked back toward the sidewalk. From this angle, the distance between the three gray tail feathers and the scrape where we'd dropped was farther apart than it seemed in the heat of the moment.

I considered the implications. He could have fired multiple rounds from the semi-automatic. Instead, he fired once.

It was a message, but what message? And who did it come from?

“The FBI wants to pressure us, but they wouldn't do it this way,” I said. “Too much chance of something going wrong any time you have weapons fired in a public place. That's a criminal's way of communicating.”

Darke exhaled. His right hand clenched into a fist. We seemed to be at a dead end. Without the shooter, we had a puzzle we couldn't solve. After a minute, we resumed walking toward the exit, Darke keeping both hands on the boys' shoulders to hold them close.

The older, squirming, pointed back at the tree and said something too fast in German. He wanted his own balloon.

“Next time,” Darke said in English.

“Have you experienced any previous incidents?” I asked.

“If you're not FBI anymore, don't talk to me like FBI.”

“Sorry.”

“But, no. No previous incidents. The job's been a quiet one.” His alert sapphire eyes, the watchful eyes of a police detective, continued to scan everywhere around us. Hell, they were the watchful eyes of an ex-con, for that matter. Both sides of the law learn how to watch and how to see, and Darke was good at seeing everything and everyone, even if they were in shadow. It was irrational, especially in the first few moments after a shooting, but I felt oddly safe.

Eyes blinking in the glare of the street, we strolled out of the park at the four-year-old's pace. As we reached a patch of bright sidewalk, the shadow of three flying crosses passed over us. The boys looked up, and then I did too. Three frigatebirds flew high and fast and away.

“If we knew what the message was meant to say, maybe we'd know who sent it,” I said.

Darke kept looking around. “If we knew who sent it, maybe we'd know what it was meant to say.”

Chapter Three

Darke

We were out of time. Back at the house, I helped Claudia make her travel plans. She needed to head out to the airport right away, if not sooner. I didn't necessarily believe the shooter was a threat to the boys― he seemed to have made some effort to miss hitting them even by accident― but I couldn't guarantee he wasn't.

She was a woman who tended to under-react, and she betrayed little surprise when I told her about the incident in the park. Claudia was used to leaving places at short notice. Was that because she was once involved in criminal enterprise herself, or was it something she had to learn when her son became a master thief? Diamonds. I turned over Flare's revelation in my mind. I don't know what I'd imagined, but it wasn't diamonds. To a New Orleans boy, it seemed like a very European crime.

“Is there somewhere you can go?” I asked.

Ja, there's a high-rise in Panama City.” She meant the Central American banking destination, not the resort in Florida. “They have good security. The streets are not as good for the boys, very busy, ja, but they will be safe there.”

“I believe someone followed the man who came after me. I believe they're looking for me, not you. Still, it would be best to be careful for a while.”

“The boys will miss you.”

“I'll miss them too.”

Some people might have indulged in recriminations, but it was pointless. Claudia and I hadn't known enough about each other before she hired me to watch her boys, and we were both responsible for that. She wanted a big striking bodyguard for cheap, a bodyguard who wasn't secretly working undercover for the Mexican federales or a crime cartel. I wanted quick cash under the table. We clicked from the beginning because we both had pasts we didn't want to talk about.

And now I was a suspicious character linked to not one, but two, men who had vanished with large treasure chests. Coincidence, but an unhappy one. Would I have refused the job if I had known about her son?

Probably not. Bottom line: I was an American ex-con who didn't have the right to work in Mexico, and I needed the money. I could have found many worse employers.

They were gone in thirty minutes. Efficient Claudia made one call to her property manager, a second call to the car service. Most of their personal items would be packed and stored, although some of them would be shipped later to Panama. She didn't bother carrying any luggage herself other than an oversized purse, and the boys had no idea we were saying goodbye forever. Until four-year-old Bernie made airplane wings with his arms, I wasn't even sure they knew they were going to catch a flight.

My heart ached in the emptiness of the big house. It's easy to become attached to small boys. Leaving the house key on the hook by the kitchen door, I went to my small cottage out back. I stuffed every physical possession I still had in this world into a cheap duffel. It might have weighed all of thirty pounds.

The shooter had followed Flare Greene. There wasn't any serious doubt in my mind. The FBI probably had a tracking device in his car. They'd been doing their best to keep tabs on me all along. Even though I'd helped the Arkansas state police find a killer, federal investigators still considered me one of the bad guys.

The FBI had probably arranged for my mysterious early release from federal prison. They had― for certain, no probably about it― arranged for Flare Greene to befriend me. Even though Flare had left the FBI, they'd still try to use him to pressure me. That much was a given.

Now there was somebody else in the mix. The FBI might bend a few rules, but the shooter represented someone who lived outside the rules.

That somebody must have followed Flare, which meant they were after me, not Claudia's son. They might not even know about Claudia's son. I hadn't.

It also meant they didn't have an insider at the FBI. If they had, they would've already known where I'd drifted weeks, if not months, ago.

Hmm.

I lifted my duffel up and down a few times in my right fist, a lazy form of muscle-training.

I should leave before he gets here. Let them follow me, not him.

There was a knock on the door. I expected the property manager, but I saw Flare's handsome face in the peephole.

“I'm early,” he said when I opened up.

“All right. It's all right.”

“I had a thought...” He didn't say what the thought was, but he didn't have to.

“I wasn't going to run out on you. I said we'd talk, and we'll talk.” Was that the truth? Maybe, but a part of me had thought of running, if only for Flare's own safety.

He was a beautiful man. Beautiful and treacherous, I reminded myself. A man who was capable of playing a part.

The bed in the small room behind me felt bigger than it should. Taking a deep breath, I picked up my bag and dropped my key on the table. The old-fashioned door would lock automatically when it swung shut.

Flare was outside on the sidewalk before he knew it. So was I.

I couldn't trust myself alone in my cottage with Flare and a freshly made bed crying out to be rumpled up again. It had been too long, and the electricity between us was too powerful. It would be too easy to fall again into a physical relationship.

“We'll go to the restaurant on the beach,” I said. “My table.”

“If someone's been tracking you, they know about your table.”

I hefted my bag up and down. “I want them to know I'm leaving and where I'm going. I don't want them following Miss Claudia. Or you.”

His jaw went hard. “They'll be following me because I'll be with you. You need a vehicle.”

“You'd be smart to distance yourself from me for your own good.”

“Fuck my own good. It's too late for that, anyway.”

The watchful waiter brought bottled water, two glasses of a colorful tropical juice, and a large plate of popcorn shrimp meant for sharing. We exchanged a glance, and he nodded ever so slightly. I trusted his powers of observation, and I trusted my own read of the tension in his shoulders. He'd seen nothing unusual tonight. We could relax, at least for the moment.

When he walked away, I studied Flare's amber-flecked brown eyes. “There's no reason for you to involve yourself in my situation. That maroon Beamer screams gringo. It's going to be easy to track. Why make yourself a target by hooking up with me?”

He shrugged. “I need to hire a private investigator.”

“I'm unlikely to be able to qualify for a license any time soon.” If ever.

“I don't need a licensed investigator who plays by the book. I need a good one who takes chances.”

“An interesting cover story.”

Another shrug. “Who says it's a cover story?”

He wanted me back, and he'd come a long way to get me back. When we both reached for the same piece of shrimp, electricity crackled at the places where our fingers brushed together.

A stab of regret pierced my heart. Why did locking myself out of the cottage seem like a good idea? We could have used that bed.

“I can live for a year on what I get from selling the condo,” he said. “It's time to figure out some things about myself. You can help me with that. For extra bonus points, we can watch out for each other and keep each other safe. Two pairs of eyes are better than one. Nothing good happens in the movies when people in danger split up.”

“I can't be your kept man, Flare.” I nudged my chair back to get some distance from his distracting body heat.

“This is a real job.”

“What's a real job?”

He exhaled. We looked at each other.

Run, I told myself. Run for your life and never look back. He lied to you once, he'll lie again.

Being undercover wasn't a real lie, though. It was something he'd done to catch a criminal. And I was the one who'd made myself a criminal. Not him. It was never him.

Listen to you, making excuses for him. Listen to you, wanting to believe.

Apparently, I was still a sucker for a lithe body and a handsome face, but I vowed I'd move more slowly this time. No hopping right into the sack and letting my little head do all the thinking for me.

“Yes, if you want me to, I'll help you find your lost brother.” I said it slowly, tasting the words.

He smiled a shaky smile. “The thing is I might not even have a brother. Kid memories, man.”

I understood that much already. I also understood what brought those memories back. My own family, gone forever on a stretch of highway, flashed across my mind. “If your brother exists, it seems strange you wouldn't have already found him. What with working for the FBI and having all those resources at your disposal.”

“Actually, no. I could be fired or even arrested for using public resources to pursue a private investigation. My biological parents have a right to privacy, and I have to go through the same channels as everybody else.”

“Have you done that?”

“When I was in college, I left my information on record with Florida's Adoption Reunion Registry, but I never heard anything back.”

“Florida,” I said. “Thought you were from Maryland.”

His eyes flicked down a moment. “Nick Harley was from Maryland.”

The undercover identity. Of course. There was a slight pause.

“Anyway.” Flare's mouth twisted. “I updated the records around Christmas of this year, checked over the public information myself, but...” Christmas was a time when it was easy to feel lonely in a world where everyone else seemed to have a happy, glittering family. “Nobody's out there looking for me.”

I could think of a lot of reasons why his biological family might not ever get in touch. They could be dead or in prison or on the street. They could be rich and famous and not want to be reminded of the mistakes they made when they were young. Of course, every reason I could think of was something Flare had thought of a thousand times. A missing family was a hurt that never really went away.

“Are you sure you need to know this stuff? What about your real folks?” I fumbled over the terminology. “Real” seemed like such a loaded term, but I couldn't think of a better one. “Your mom and dad, the ones who raised you. What do they think about all this?”

“I appear to be something of a disappointment. My dad, especially. He had other plans for my future. Sometimes I feel like my parents kind of bought me.” Nick Harley, the investor he'd pretended to be, flashed in his eyes for a moment. The real Flare Greene had been brought up rich. He didn't have to tell me so. You knew it from the texture of his skin, the way he walked and wore clothes. No wonder the FBI chose him to go undercover as a commercial real estate broker. “There was something odd about the agency. It was private, and it only seemed to operate for a few years in the eighties.”

“You were adopted at birth?” I thought I already knew the answer, but it was worth making sure.

He nodded. “It was all arranged in advance, I suppose. And that's really all I know. In theory, once I turned eighteen, I was supposed to have access to my birth family's non-identifying information, stuff like my parents' medical history, but the state of Florida referred me to the private agency, and that's when I found out they were long out of business. I was busy with college, and I guess I let time get away from me. It didn't seem as important then.”

We both sat thinking a few moments. This seemed like more than a cover story to explain my presence in Flare's life. He might really want me to help him investigate this stuff. “Every adopted child has the right to seek their birth parents, and every birth parent has the right to privacy,” I said. “Are you sure you really want to do this? Even if I'm just going through the motions, there's a decent chance of uncovering something you might wish you didn't know about your family history.”

“Darke, honestly, right now I'm not sure of anything.” A small dent formed briefly between his eyes. “I'm lost. Completely lost. In disgrace with the FBI, leaving DC, selling my condo to figure out where to go with my life... I've got a lot of things to figure out. Sometimes, the only way to go forward to is go backward.”

Maybe I shouldn't have reached for his hand across the table, but I couldn't stop myself. His fingers were slick from the fried shrimp, and I suppose mine were too. In another time and place, I might have lifted his long, graceful hand to my lips. Sucked those long fingers clean.

Pressed my mouth to his mouth.

Tasted deep of all his warmth.

The ocean pounded the shore. A slight breeze whipped up, snatching voices from couples and quartets at other tables.

We weren't alone, and I'd already decided I wasn't ready for us to be alone. My hand let go of his.

Chapter Four

Flare

In the end, it was easier for ex-con Darke Davis to cross the border into America than it was for me, Flare Greene, former investigator of financial crimes for the FBI.

It was the day before Valentine's, a day that would go unmentioned between the two of us since we were no longer a couple. A sunny day I'd call spring if we'd been strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the FBI building in DC instead of trapped in an hours-long line of vehicles pointing out of Tijuana toward San Ysidro. Darke, patient in the way men only learn to be patient in confinement, tucked his chin down for a catnap. Me, the Beamer's driver, didn't have that luxury.

Too bad the sedan wasn't a ragtop. I would have liked to see his handsome face, already bronzed from weeks in Mazatlán, lifted in pleasure toward the open sky. Although months out of federal prison, he still appreciated small freedoms like sitting in the sun. There was something touching about the way he lifted a glass of tropical juice to his lips or dug his toes into the wet sand while walking on the beach.

In an alternate universe, a universe I was glad I couldn't see, Darke would be in cuffs, my captive. The vehicle wouldn't be my comfortable maroon BMW but, instead, some workhorse assigned to me by the FBI. I'd have a whole team in place around me. Tyler Acosta, Darke's missing ex, the one who'd vanished with thirty-nine million dollars, would be in cuffs as well. The money would be located, the accounts frozen. The Mexican authorities might not be thrilled about an FBI action taking place on their national territory, but the US authorities would have expedited our progress through this endless line.

Several cars pulled forward, and I did too. We'd entered an in-between area, not quite Mexico and not quite the United States, despite the Stars and Stripes flying on the flagpole overhead. Two uniformed American men with dogs moved slowly down the line of cars. An agricultural beagle, which I understood. A Belgian Malinois, which I didn't. Since when did Customs train Belgian Malinois? It seemed like a breed meant to intimidate. The beagle might spot something, but the Malinois could run you down.

Darke blinked awake. He regarded the dogs calmly. Had he ever worked with canine officers when he was a New Orleans police detective? So much I still didn't know about the fine details of his past. We'd been traveling together for days now, but we seldom spoke about anything except immediate, practical matters. We shared the car, we shared meals, but we spent our nights in separate motel rooms. He still needed distance, and I still needed to respect that.

It was the best I could expect― more than a reasonable person could expect― after Darke learned I was an undercover FBI agent investigating him for financial crimes. I'd wanted the solve, I'd wanted to find the money, and I'd wanted to find Tyler Acosta, but I didn't want Darke Davis in cuffs. I wanted him in my arms, a want which had cost me everything. Not just the case, but my badge. Not just my badge, but Darke's trust. Not just his trust, but the FBI's trust too.

The two canine handlers kept moving forward with their dogs. The Malinois guy was an African-American with maybe an Asian grandparent, while the beagle guy was a Latino who might have some Zapotec somewhere in the mix. Yet you knew they were Californians at a glance. It wasn't just the official uniforms, but the set of their eyes and the confident way they handled the leashes. The beagle pretended to sniff the car ahead of me, but the Malinois and the two men looked directly at the Beamer. Their frank gazes assessed not just my car but my face.

I felt the first twinge of uneasiness. The Malinois, I thought. Anyone would feel uneasy about an animal that size.

Their gazes shifted to Darke. His broad shoulders stretched the fabric of a white cotton T-shirt with a margarita-guzzling frog on it, something he'd picked up for a dollar or two in Mazatlán. His tan and the shirt shrieked tourist, but his wide shoulders and defined build said something else.

You'd expect them to study him longer, but all eyes turned back to me, the beagle's eyes too, its instincts cued by its human handler's interest. My uneasiness grew stronger. The beagle's nostrils flared. In Washington, I was just another random white dude who happened to have olive skin and brown eyes. Now, driving in from Mexico in a glossy Beamer with a big buff man at my side who could be a bodyguard, I was something else. A person of interest.

I held up my blue passport as they approached the vehicle. The lead officer, the black guy with the Malinois, rapped on my window anyway. Darke too held his passport already open to the picture page, but they didn't spare him a second glance.

I was the target, Darke the sidekick. Or the henchman.

I tried not to be irritated. Maybe, in their place, I'd be thinking the same thing.

Something hinky about that guy. Better check him out.

When I rolled down the window, the lead officer asked where I was coming from in Spanish. I replied automatically in the same language, a mistake, but a mistake I couldn't take back.

“Over there, sir.” This in English. He pointed to an area where unhappy people stood around watching uniformed officers remove spare tires and door panels from their open vehicles.

“Come on. A Spanish-speaking American citizen in a Beamer is not an automatic search. They think I'm clear.” I nodded at the dogs, who hadn't alerted. “Anyway, I'm...” I started to say I was FBI and then realized I couldn't, not anymore.

The FBI-sized hole in my life was going to be there for a long time to come.

Only then did the Malinois alert, a subtle signal not necessarily meant to be visible to the average civilian. It was something about the way he held his ears.

“This isn't a negotiation, sir,” his handler said. “Pull the fuck over and get the fuck out of that vehicle.”

The beagle, its nostrils no longer flaring, looked bored. At least one of them wasn't bothering to pretend my Beamer held any interesting smells. Still, I had no choice but to comply with the order. As we got out of the car, Darke nodded his chin at the canary-yellow Maserati GranCabrio Sport next to us. The busy officers at work were tearing it apart with all the respect due a chop shop's 1984 Chevy van.

The dog guys had moved on, and a couple of new guys came over. The uniform took Darke in one direction, and a suit guided me in the other. It was basic procedure― separate your evildoers to make it easier to catch the little inconsistencies in their stories. Still, there was something more going on. Other people were being questioned all around me where they stood, almost all of them by uniforms. Why did I rate a suit? Why was I a more fascinating person of interest than the angry middle-aged man frowning next to the GranCabrio?

“Let's go inside, sir,” the suit said.

“I have the right to observe the search.”

“You are mistaken, sir. Come inside now.”

I had little choice but to comply.

Thanks to the way voices echoed against poorly soundproofed walls, the hall inside was even more chaotic than the vehicle search area. Knots of people were being herded here and there to various desks or cubicles. A mixed message. I couldn't stay with my car, but I wasn't enough of a wanted man to require a private interview room. As the suit guided me through the throng, I spotted the open desk where Darke was being questioned.

Funny how, in a buzz of strange voices, you always hear the familiar one most clearly.

“An American,” Darke said. Again, with emphasis: “He's an American.”

They'd asked him about me. Was I meant to hear that?

“A few weeks,” he said. “A few months, I guess. I met him in September.”

“Are you listening to me, sir?” The navy suit in front of me was a white-bread guy with a Minnesota accent. His vibe was more high school principal than federal investigator, which was less disarming than he might imagine.

“Yes, sir.”

“This your passport?”

“Yes, sir.”

“We have to phone into the national crime computer. You understand what that is, don't you, sir?”

“Yes, sir. You know by now I was FBI, sir.” I'd overheard that from their chatter as Darke and I were stepping out of the car.

“The holder of this passport was FBI, yes, sir, I understand that.”

I wanted to roll my eyes. Maybe this hoops-jumping crap wasn't even about me. Maybe it was about politics. All this extra border security was budget dollars for somebody, and the current administration regularly tweeted about their displeasure with the FBI. Maybe Customs was fucking with me just because they could. Unprofessional, but there wasn't necessarily a lot of inter-agency cooperation at the best of times. And nobody thought 2018 was anywhere near the best of times.

“What were you doing in Mexico, Mr. Greene?”

Hadn't they already asked that? “Visiting a friend.”

“How long have you known this friend?”

“Since September.”

“How long have you been investigating this friend?”

So they knew even that. “I don't think that's an appropriate question for you to ask.”

“You have no rights when you're crossing an international border. You will answer my question.”

For fuck's sake. “I'm an American. You can't prevent me from crossing the border. You can arrest me and put me in jail, but it'll be an American jail.”

He folded his arms across his chest.

Are you an American, Mr. Greene? Are you sure?”

I folded my own arms across my own chest. “Are you really going to play that card?”

“What card is that, sir?”

“You know what fucking card.”

“Language, sir.”

“You're going to turn me away for my fucking language?”

Minnesota white-bread and I glared at each other. He'd been trained to stare a man down, but I wasn't going to blink first.

“Thanks, man.” When Darke's calm voice cut through the noise of the crowded hall, it registered that I'd heard his guy say, “Welcome to America.”

My eyes were still on my interrogator, but my ears strained in Darke's direction. His guy was reciting lines of script he must have uttered many times a day. “We've got some vending machines where you can get some refreshments, sir.” The guy was actually being courteous. Hell. The ex-con was getting treated better than ex-FBI.

What did it all mean? I wasn't sure.

Minnesota man said something I didn't catch. This situation was a threat, but the threat was too subtle for me.

“Stop.” I wasn't going to blink. If he was going to arrest me, I'd be in a cage. “What is this really all about?”

“This is routine, sir.” Even lying through his teeth, he didn't blink either. “You need to answer my questions, sir. Please. Can you tell me a little more about why you chose to visit Mexico?”

“My friend...” I nodded my chin in the direction Darke had disappeared. “He's been in prison, he's having a hard time making an adjustment. He sold his truck, and he was out of money. I drove down to give him a ride back. Nothing more or less than that.”

“Did you travel to Mexico for the purposes of transporting cash?”

“I told you why I went to Mexico.” I studied his pale face. “You were watching for me. Flare Greene. My name and my car are on a watch list. Aren't they?”

He still didn't blink. “You have some reason you need to be watched?”

We were talking in circles.

Another officer, one who'd seen too many movies to judge from his carefully styled silver hair, tapped my guy on the shoulder. They stepped away from me to discuss. After a minute, the older guy came back and said, “Welcome to America.” Zero enthusiasm in his voice. “Put your car back together and pull around.” He waved back toward the sunlight.

The searchers had left a mess. Our luggage was scattered across the concrete, still open with the interior panels cut out and our clothes scattered everywhere. The spare tire had been sliced to pieces. The door panels and the hardware to replace them had been dropped more or less randomly around the spot where I'd parked.

“Who's going to pay for this repair?” I asked to be an asshole, because I already knew the answer.

“Get the fuck out of here.” The silver-haired guy had followed me out. He didn't like me. Maybe because he thought I was a bad agent who should've been in jail. Maybe because of politics that had nothing to do with me at all.

Impossible to know, and maybe it didn't matter. Darke was somewhere in a hall full of vending machines and nervous people waiting. Time to find him. I didn't bother to fix the door panels. I just tossed all the crap in the back and drove around. There were plenty of places to repair a Beamer on the other side.

Chapter Five

Darke

San Diego had unofficial beaches for sailors that liked other sailors, and Flare somehow knew how to find one of those. We walked together, our jeans rolled up and our feet bare to let our toes dig into the wet sand. Sunny, mid-sixties. Spring weather. It was Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Partying and parades. People in glitter and costumes. Flare from DC wouldn't be aware of Mardi Gras in the same way I was, if he was aware of it at all.

Tomorrow was Ash Wednesday. Also Valentine's Day, but I wouldn't think about Valentine's Day.

We were together and yet not together. I could have stayed in Mexico for months more, as long as my money and the job held out. I'd told myself I'd never see Flare Greene again. Never touch him again. A resolve that melted in the first moment he sat down across from me in a beachside restaurant in Mazatlán.

Was I doomed forever to be a sucker for a pretty face and a tight body? I shouldn't be here. Flare might not be FBI anymore, but he was still trouble. At least, the boys were safe. My Mexican burner phone bricked when I crossed the border, but Claudia had sent a single text from Unknown Number directly to Flare.

>Arrived safe PTY.

Panama City's Tocumen Airport. Whether the boys could go anywhere on this planet and be free of their father's enemies, I couldn't know, but they'd be free of mine, and there were many high-level professional bodyguards available in Panama. Yes, they'd be fine. I had to let them go.


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