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He’s been in Italy five months now. Milan, specifically, three weeks. He’s settled into something of a rhythm; got used to the culture, picked up enough of the language to get by, just about wrapped his head around European measurements and currency… But it doesn’t feel like home.

Not that home really feels like ‘home’ anymore either. That was why he left, after all.

Actually, no; he didn’t really leave. He’d just never gone back.

Life growing up in Chicago hadn’t had many frills, but it hadn’t been particularly hard. He’d struggled at school and had barely scraped through – no one had expected anything more of him on that front – then, like his father, uncles and grandfather before him, went straight into working for the Mob.

That there might be something else out there for him, or that he might not actually fit the life that had been picked out for him, he hadn’t stopped to consider.

He can’t remember exactly what prompted him to enlist. Probably boredom; he remembers being bored a lot back then. Sure, he was a big strong kid who’d found a natural talent with his fists, but the life of a muscleman was, in reality, far from interesting. Nor did he fancy chancing his arm at professional boxing, despite Fr MacMahon’s urging.

Living at home with his family wasn’t up to much either; little to no privacy, his younger brothers and sisters still getting underfoot, his mother dropping increasingly strong hints about how he needed to find himself a nice girl and set up on his own, get a few grandchildren on the way…

He had dated a few girls just to keep her happy. But whilst it had been fun and said girls were undeniably ‘nice’, it had predictably always fizzled out. The reason why, he realised fairly early on, was painfully simple; it just wasn’t girls he wanted.

Not that he’d ever dare admit it to anyone, let alone try dating men. There were no secrets in Chicago; no matter how careful he might try to be, the risk of it getting back to his mother was too great. He couldn’t face that level of disappointment and disapproval, and God alone knew what his father might say!

Anyway, the chance to get away was welcome – and it had actually suited him. He’d not had any real buddies, but it that hadn’t really mattered; life was still crap, but Army life crap wasn’t half bad at all. He got fed, clothed, got to play with some very fun toys, even took on the organising of others when he’d been made up to sergeant – and, best of all, thinking about the bigger picture got left to others way above his pay grade.

Baghdad had changed all that. He was near the end of his eight years anyway when he got shot, but in reality it was just the event that brought about the inevitable. He’d been shipped off back home to recover, then when the time came he took his chance to get out and stay out.

Thing was, having been away, coming back threw everything into an even worse perspective. The ‘brave hero’ thing only lasted six months, if that, before he began being the butt of every joke again, before he was expected to go back to being an unthinking slab of muscle, before his opinion counted for absolute squat once more.

As misery piled upon misery, he found he couldn’t ignore it like before. He needed to escape. But where was there left to go?

Then his boss had made the trip to Naples. There was going to be a meeting with some politician or other – he’d never known who or for what purpose. It’d been made clear it wasn’t his job nor his business to ask questions; just shut up and do as he was told.

So he’d tagged along quietly; went where he was told to go, looked threatening when he needed to, drank a few beers in one of the many harbour-front watering holes… then went back to his grotty hotel room, packed his suitcase, bought a one-way ticket and got on a bus to Rome.

They wouldn’t miss him. When they noticed he was gone, they’d probably think that he’d got himself lost or beaten up somewhere. They’d fly back to the States expecting him to follow. No one would come looking for him when they finally realised he wasn’t coming back.

He’d spent a couple of months in Rome, working alternatively as casual security and a bouncer, but the Mafia had all the best gigs sewn up tight, and there was no way he’d break into the Family without some sort of introduction or connection – which he definitely didn’t have. From there he’d drifted up the boot of Italy; Florence, San Marino, Bologna, Genoa. Then, finally, a lucrative assignment providing close protection to some famous soccer player had brought here to Milan.

To Milan; home of high fashion and culture. To a little rented room in the Porta Venezia; the heart of the city’s gay scene. To this seat at the bar in a club in the Via Lecco, where Mike Sharkey is starting to think that he may have made a huge mistake.

Alessio Ingoglia may not be a gang boss, but he has proved to be something far worse; a spoiled brat. When he’s not playing soccer (or calcio, as it’s called here), he’s training. When he’s not training, he’s partying. When he’s not partying, he’s screwing. When he’s not screwing, he’s shopping. When he’s not shopping, he’s screaming at his publicist down the phone that the paparazzi either don’t pay him enough or too much attention.

In Mike’s opinion, Ingoglia doesn’t need a bodyguard. He needs a nanny to slap him upside the head and tell him to get his shit together.

Unfortunately, Ingoglia is filthy rich and convinced that he is at constant risk or being robbed or kidnapped, so he gets what he wants. He never has less than two guards on duty at his luxurious villa, and never goes out with fewer than four to cover both him and his entourage. Mike and the other guys assigned to him also know for a fact that he gets off on the ego trip of having four big, tough guys at his beck and call. It’s stomach-turning but, sadly, nothing new.

Shifting on the uncomfortable stool, Mike glares into his second beer whilst the music thumps and the lights strobe towards the beat drop of the current track. Being so far from home, and with no intention of returning, he had thought now might be a good time to see if he could find a way to some sort of happiness – if not in work, then maybe his personal life. Even getting a personal life in the first place was a start.

Trouble is, he has only a vague idea of what ‘being gay’ means or looks like. So far as he can tell it involves flamboyant clothes, hanging around clubs looking for hook-ups, glitter in places where glitter has no right to go, and being far too open about your sexual preferences with complete strangers.

He isn’t sure that this was the best way to go about ‘coming out’, but then he doesn’t really have all that much to go on. This is the fifth time he’s been out clubbing since he’s arrived. Don’t get him wrong; he’s actually doing ok at it. His face isn’t the prettiest, sure, but being a big, muscled-up guy – American, a little rough around the edges, and still ‘charmingly naïve’ in some respects – each time he’s had no difficulty in finding someone to spend the night with.

Which would be fine if sex is all he’s after; and whilst there are plenty to whom that applies, Mike is not one of them. Is it too much to want some sort of connection, someone to spend everyday moments with? To just be there in your life, and want to stay there? Maybe not all of your life, but a significant part of it.

If that’s the case, then he might as well just tuck his tail between his legs and head back to Chicago. Liberated he might be, but a ‘liberation’ where he is made to pretend to be something he is not, is just another prison. Even if it does have rainbow-coloured bars on the windows.

Plus he’s starting to get to know faces, faces are starting to recognise him, and apparently word is getting around that he’s not badly endowed in the wedding-tackle department.

And whilst there are worse things than being known as L’americano col cazzo grandissimo, there are far better.

Mike glances up, gazing at the press of bodies milling around the bar and crowding the dance floor. Tonight there’s a theme of Notte al Neon, so the place is a sea of UV, glowsticks and brightly-coloured spandex. His outfit for the evening consists of a tight, hot-pink tank top, bright green bandana, khaki cargo pants and his old army boots. He’s also smeared a couple of stripes of neon warpaint across his cheeks, to give the impression he’s made an effort. He still keeps his hair cut to regulation length out of habit, but the effect is not unlike what would happen if Rambo were to give up the vigilante game and start teaching aerobics instead.

He had, for a split-second, considered putting on his old dog tags to complete the look. But that sort of crap move is for guys who have something to prove, and Mike Sharkey is a man with nothing left to prove. Not in that way, at least.

He’s attracted a few looks, a few offers of drinks and invitations to dance, but he’s just not feeling it tonight. He’s wondering how much longer he should give it before he goes home, gets changed and heads back out to a normal bar for a quiet drink by himself. It’d be preferable to sitting here having a not-quiet drink by himself and batting off advances. There’s only so much Eurodance that can be endured before he starts getting a headache at a cellular level.

Thinking of leaving, his eyes turn to towards the main door, and his heart skips a beat.

A man in a cream linen suit has just walked in past the security. Tall, elegant, well-groomed black hair and a thin moustache. Pale skin, dark eyes, sharp, hawk-like features that set off a self-assured arrogance.

Mike can’t stop himself from staring, drinking in the details he can see in the alternating bright flashes of light. The stranger looks in his late thirties. He’s not bulky, but the broad shoulders and the well-muscled neck framed by the open collar of his pale blue shirt shows that he knows how to take care of his body. It’s the sort of muscle that’s functional too, not just for show; after years in the business Mike instinctively knows and can spot the difference a mile away. (Possibly another reason why he’s disillusioned with the club scene. Too many gym posers.) This guy carries himself with the poised self-possession of a man on his guard against trouble, and confident that he can deal with it if it shows.

And then there’s the clothes. That suit is tailored perfectly, pressed with knife-edge creases in the trousers. The light brown shoes are rich, hand-finished leather and beautifully maintained, as is the belt around his waist. No jewellery save a watch, the strap of which Mike can just about see on his left wrist. There’s nothing intrinsically ostentatious about any of it, but in this crowd it’s like picking out a diamond from a pile of rhinestones.

Expensive. Fit. Cultured. Aloof.

Fuck.

It seems Mike isn’t the only one here finding the whole package devilishly attractive. The newcomer’s drawing both admiring and envious looks from all directions as he crosses the club floor; all of which he’s pretending to ignore, but Mike can tell he’s quietly revelling in the attention. He looks like he could be a villain in an old-fashioned melodrama but, somehow, it totally works for him.

The message is clear, though; Out of your league. Out of anybody’s league, really.

Mike continues to watch as the man leisurely makes his way over to the VIP booths (Of course he would be heading there!) to join one of the already occupied tables – but who he joins is what knocks some sense back into the bodyguard’s head.

His mystery man has just sat down opposite Giovanni Lastra.

Anyone else who had still been watching quickly returns to minding their own business, but Mike narrows his eyes, now wholly on alert. He may have been working relatively straight jobs for the past five months, but he’s been smart enough to keep up with the local players.

Giovanni Lastra isn’t Mafia, but he’s a pretty wealthy businessman, and around here the two aren’t entirely different. He had made his money in plastics during the 80s, and apart from young Greek men, Lastra’s consuming passion is for the collecting of Holy relics; the rarer and more obscure the better. Word is he’s far from picky as to how he gets them. Mike had learnt fairly early on during his stay in Milan that Lastra likes to meet his contacts here to complete his business, taking advantage of the setting to make the other (usually straight) party uncomfortable, so tipping final negotiations in his favour.

Unfortunately for Lastra, this time around that ploy seems to have backfired. Mike can see the irritated look on his face as the man in the linen suit lounges back elegantly in his seat and makes himself at home, an amused smirk on his face that is as much a challenge as it is a greeting.

Lastra sends away his arm candy – a slim, pretty, honey-tanned boy about twenty years Lastra’s junior, wearing a pair of silver lamé dungaress and not much else – motioning his bodyguard to stand closer.

There’s no hope of Mike overhearing what they’re saying, and no way in hell he could lipread Italian, but he’s been on the edge of so many similar ‘transactions’ that he can pretty much guess what’s going down word for word based on body language alone.

‘You don’t seem all that happy to see me, Lastra. I hope you’re not coming down with something.’

‘Did you get it?’

‘Of course. Did you ever doubt that I would?’

‘I’d like to see it.’

‘And I’d like to see the remainder of my fee.’

Even more irritated, Lastra signals to his bodyguard, who reaches inside his jacket, extracting a very thick brown envelope and sliding it halfway across the polished marble tabletop. The stranger in turn reaches inside his own jacket, taking out a small white carboard box tied up with string, sliding it across the table in deliberate imitation of the bodyguard.

Lastra reaches forward hungrily and scoops up the package, undoing the string with careful, but impatient fingers as the other man picks up the envelope and starts casually counting the used banknotes inside.

‘I trust you ran into no difficulties?’

‘Not in the least. Too easy, in some respects.’

Lastra, however, is no longer listening. He has opened the package and is gazing enraptured at whatever is inside.

‘Perfect! Oh, my friend, you are certainly worthy of your reputation.’

Meanwhile, the stranger has finished counting his money and the expression on his face very quickly changes from suave good humour to a frown of displeasure.

‘But not, it would seem, of your respect.’ He drops the packet on the table and directs a sharp, dangerous glower at Lastra. ‘This is not what we agreed.’

Mike’s stomach clenches in anticipation. Uh-oh.

Lastra leans back, shrugging expansively, a smarmy grin on his face – but Mike sees the tell-tale flash of uncertainty in his eyes. Whoever this guy is, Lastra’s wary of him, and is maybe starting to suspect that his usual move of short-changing his contractors might, in this case, mean he’s bitten off more than he can chew.

‘Now, my friend, I have been most generous – have I not? It’s a lot of money.’

‘I gave you my terms. You accepted them.’

‘But, perhaps, you tried to overcharge me. After all, it was as you said yourself “too easy”… Perhaps that ought to be reflected in the price?’

The expression on the other man’s face is now murderous. Mike can’t tell from here if the guy is packing, but Lastra’s bodyguard certainly is, and he’s squaring up to take a stand. Even if the stranger might be able to handle this one guard, if things kick off the rest of the club’s security will come down on Lastra’s side, and that is not going to end well. For anybody. Not if guns are involved.

Mike has made his decision even before he’s realised there is a decision to make. Abandoning his barely-touched beer, he gets off the stool, strides over quickly but calmly to the booth, and comes to a halt behind the stranger, taking up position and folding in hands in front of him in his standard neutral-but-ready stance.

‘This guy giving you trouble, Boss?’ he asks lightly, in his best Italian.

To his credit, the man in the linen suit doesn’t start in surprise – nor does he whip around in his seat. Instead he waits a beat, then turns his head to glance over his shoulder and upwards. Mike is met by a pair of fiercely intelligent eyes, which in a few seconds have sized him up, judged this new development, and found it to be very much in his favour. A smile lifts the corners of his mouth beneath the moustache.

Well, he seems to say. This will be fun.

Poise restored, he turns back to face Lastra and his bodyguard, who are both watching Mike, cautiously trying to work out what this means for them.

‘You could say that,’ the man says smoothly. His voice is rich and measured; his Italian excellent, but not that of a native. ‘Signor Lastra here is trying to renegotiate the terms of our agreement, after I’ve secured the item for him.’

Mike clicks his tongue in mock disapproval. ‘That’s not very honest of him’

‘Indeed, it isn’t.’ The grin on the man’s face is now thoroughly wicked. ‘You see, signor, my friend here doesn’t like it when people go back on their word. He was raised with some very strong principles, and he gets very disappointed when others break their promises… We wouldn’t want to see him disappointed, would we?’

Lastra glances up at his own bodyguard who, having sized Mike up, gives a subtle shake of his head. This guy’s smart enough to recognise another professional when he sees one, even if he is dressed in bright pink spandex. Mike knows exactly what’s running through his head too; might there be more like him disguised among this crowd?

Mike gives a pleasant little smile to the other guard; the sort designed to reassure him that things would remain perfectly civil until they no longer were.

A gentle sheen of sweat can be seen breaking out beneath Lastra’s receding hairline. Faced with an opponent whose strength he has apparently underestimated, he clearly has come to the conclusion that this is not the easy win that he had thought it would be. He mumbles something hastily about how, of course, a gentleman must keep his word – but, nevertheless, a businessman wants to make doubly sure he is paying a fair price and not being swindled, that associates trade in good faith. You understand?

Mike’s ‘boss’ doesn’t deign to answer. He merely looks on imperiously as Lastra continues to squirm in this ridiculously one-sided game of ‘Chicken’.

Finally, Lastra reaches inside his own jacket and pulls out a much thinner envelope, all but throwing it onto the table like a petulant child.

The man in the linen suit calmly draws the envelope over to him, opening it and counting through the notes as before. It seems that this is indeed the missing amount, as he then picks up the first envelope as well and tucks both into his inside pocket.

‘Thank you,’ he says, directing a cool glance at the decidedly warm-looking businessman. ‘I won’t say it’s been a pleasure doing business with you, Signor Lastra. Please do not trouble yourself trying to engage my services in the future; any further enquiries will not be answered.’

‘Fuck you, von Kreuz!’

The stranger gives a thin smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes.

‘Let’s go,’ he says to Mike, smoothly rising from his seat, turning his back on Lastra and unhurriedly heads for the exit.

Mike tips an imaginary hat to Lastra and his bodyguard, then follows on.

He catches up just as they step out into the street. The man in the linen suit is pocketing his cell, having apparently finished sending a text. Barely a minute later a sleek, black Lexus LS 460L promptly appears from around the corner and rolls to a stop in front of them.

‘Get in,’ he says quietly to Mike, in English. ‘Unless you want them to follow you home.’

Without another word Mike opens the car door for the stranger to get in, then hurries round the other side. No sooner is he in and the door is shut than they’re off and heading north along the Via Lecco, before sharply turning west onto the Via Lazzaro Palazzi. Mike has to scrabble for his seatbelt before he ends up sliding all over the backseat and its other occupant. Trying to push that image from his mind, he hurriedly clicks the belt home, then settles his ass back into the undeniably plush and well-valeted leather interior.

The driver, an Arab-appearing guy with curly hair in a dark grey suit who Mike hasn’t had a good look at until now, glances at his two passengers in the rear-view mirror with open curiosity.

‘So there was a change of plan, Chief?’

‘Obviously. As expected, Lastra decided to be difficult. Our new friend here stepped in to keep things civil.’

The driver grins from ear to ear.

‘And there I thought you’d picked up a date!’

‘Shut up and drive, Razul. Eyes on the road.’

‘Yes, Chief.’

 The man Lastra had called von Kreuz (Mike feels pretty certain that’s not his real name) turns his full attention to his now fellow traveller. The sharp, calculating gaze is back, and Mike tries not to shiver and keep some sort of reign on his galloping thoughts – chiefly as to why, apart from having his head turned like a teenager, he decided to step up for and accept a ride from a complete stranger who is undoubtably both a criminal and a very dangerous customer.

Whatever happens, he knows that he’s not going to be the next one to speak, or to ask questions. Even though every second they travel in this direction is moving him further and further away from his flat.

‘I’m guessing you’re the American with the huge cock?’

The vehicle swerves violently for a second and Mike grips onto the car door as motor horns blare around them.

‘Razul!’

‘Sorry, Chief, sorry!’

‘Damn-well concentrate or get out and I’ll drive myself!’

‘Sorry, Chief!’

Regaining his composure, von Kreuz smooths down his rumpled suit and turns his attention back to an utterly mortified Mike.

‘My apologies if that seemed crass, but you were mentioned when I did my initial reconnaissance of the venue.’

Mike doesn’t know whether that makes it better or worse, so tries instead to shift his head into gear enough to change the subject. The guy’s accent is making it difficult, though; it’s British, classy, the sort you’d hear on a sophisticated villain straight out of a movie. Mike doesn’t think he’s a Brit, however, even discounting the obviously fake name. He’s not sure entirely why; just a vibe. Probably German or Russian, or somewhere in that area, whose parents paid for an expensive education and a place at Oxford. Something like that.

‘So you did a recce, huh?’ he mumbles. ‘Could’ve fooled me.’

Von Kreuz raises an eyebrow, but on the whole seems more amused than displeased.

‘I’d like to hear your thoughts on that,’ he says – and, as far as Mike can tell, he’s not taking the piss.

The man reaches inside his jacket pocket and pulls out the second envelope that Lastra had surrendered. He opens it and counts out a slim wad, then hands it across to Mike.

‘For your assistance tonight,’ he says simply.

Mike’s eyes widen in astonishment. The Euro bills are marked in hundreds, and total to more than three times what he gets for a day guarding Ingoglia.

‘I can’t –’ he begins to stammer, but von Kreuz cuts him off with a Look.

‘You’re a professional security man,’ he says pointedly. ‘That much is clear. You stepped in on what was your night off, at great personal inconvenience and not insignificant danger to yourself – all of which ought to be reflected in the fee. Only idiots undercharge.’

That shuts Mike up right enough. The fact that he would ever be entitled to any sort of additional pay for going out of his way, or being in a position to ask for it, is so alien that it’s more than his brain can cope with right now. Is he really worth that much? For doing what he’d do anytime at work, but just on his night off?

As the man says, no point in refusing the extra dough. It’s not as if he doesn’t need it.

‘Ok. Well, thanks,’ he says, taking the money and pocketing it.

Von Kreuz sits back, pleased, as if Mike has passed some sort of test.

‘What’s your name?’

Instinct makes Mike hesitate a split-second before answering, briefly considering giving a false name – but what’s the point of that? This guy probably already knows his name. He seems to know everything else.

‘Mike,’ he says, then corrects himself to be more formal. ‘Michael Sharkey. Most folks I work with call me Sharkey.’

‘Well, Mike –’ von Kreuz begins, automatically reaching into his jacket pocket – then stops, catching himself, an annoyed look crossing his face. He lifts his hand, rubbing his thumb distractedly across his bottom lip in what already seems like an uncharacteristically awkward gesture. Mike wonders at it a bit, but von Kreuz very quickly gets his train of thought going again.

‘– the very least I can do is get you a replacement drink for the one you left at the bar.’

Mike tries very hard to control the hundred or so butterflies that seem to have suddenly taken up residence in his stomach and answer like a competent human being.

‘Good of you to offer,’ he says, trying his best to sound indifferent but not rude. ‘No need to, though.’

And there’s definitely no need, seeing as what von Kreuz has just handed him would keep him in beer for several months, but von Kreuz waves a hand in dismissal.

‘I insist,’ he says. ‘Especially as I can offer you something a little better than overpriced Peroni. Razul will drop you back wherever you need to go afterwards.’

There are a thousand reasons why he ought to say no – the least of them being that he really ought to stop his imagination running away in a direction it shouldn’t be going.

Yeah. Because how often do rich, dark, handsome strangers take over six-foot, 225lbs worth of brawny American trash with a broken nose like him home to seduce?

Never, is the answer. So he’d better quit fantasising and focus on the here and now.

Ok. So. An undeniably criminal and, by the looks of it, pretty successful operator has paid him off handsomely for covering his ass in a tricky situation. As such, he wants to buy him a drink to say thank you. Fine, nothing wrong with that at all. Mike is a criminal too, even if he is working straight at the moment, so that doesn’t bother him at all.

No, that doesn’t bother him in the slightest. It’s that throwaway comment – I’d like to hear your thoughts on that – which bothers him. It had been dropped casually, almost thoughtlessly, but Mike already gets the feeling von Kreuz is the sort of character who doesn’t say or do anything without a reason. Mike doesn’t believe in fate or “signs” – but, if not seduction, his instincts are telling him that something may come of this meeting.

Opportunity. The word surfaces from somewhere at the back of his mind.

‘Okay,’ he says. ‘Thanks.’

And that, it would seem, is that. Von Kreuz gives Razul the order to drive them back to “the hotel” – which turns out to be none other than the Grand. Well. Criminal or not, von Kreuz definitely doesn’t feel the need to hide away in the shadows, confirming that he must be a very successful criminal indeed.

As they pull up in front of the entrance, Mike immediately becomes acutely aware and embarrassed at his very un-smart attire. He’s been to a couple of places like this whilst babysitting Ingoglia, and they are nothing if not sniffy about dress code.  Would they even let him past the door?

He starts to express his concerns, but is silenced by another withering look from von Kreuz.

‘Just act like a bodyguard,’ he says, testily. ‘They won’t dare say anything to me.’

That doesn’t help Mike feel any less nervous, but he has to trust this guy knows what he’s doing; every indication so far shows that he does.

So, he does as he’s told. He pushes the fact that he’s wearing a pink spandex top out of his head, and switches his mind into work mode.

Check through car window. Open door and exit car. Point check curbside and surrounding buildings for potential threats. Close door and cross around back of car to Principle’s side, staying alert.

He steadfastly ignores the very surprised expression of the doorman and bell-hop, his gaze sliding over them and simply factoring them into the ongoing risk assessment.

Open Principle’s door, shielding Principle with body, ready to jump back inside and cover Principle should any active threat arise. Step back, giving Principle enough room to exit car. Close car door, following one pace behind Principle, keeping alert to the environment, shifting point of retreat from the car to hotel lobby.

Von Kreuz exits the car and strides unhurried yet purposefully straight towards the door, ignoring the bell-hop and doorman. The latter snaps himself out of his daze and hurries forward to open the door with a touch to the brim of his hat. Mike follows on, confident and casual in his role, desperately keeping his professional tough face on whilst trying not to be overwhelmed by the plush interior of the hotel lobby, nor the fact that this is actually happening to him and not some fever-dream.

He follows von Kreuz up to the front desk, all the time scanning the comings and goings in the lobby – and, of course, picking up on the hastily suppressed expressions of disapproval of the staff, and the not-so supressed on those of the guests. Taking von Kreuz’s advice, he ignores them and concentrates on doing what would ordinarily be his job.

The concierge at the desk very swiftly wipes the horrified look off his face and returns to being attentive as von Kreuz approaches.

Signor Hilton,’ he says hurriedly, all smiles. ‘I trust you enjoyed your evening?’

‘Tolerable,’ von Kreuz replies. Or Hilton. There’s confirmation right there that Mike’s dealing with a professionally sketchy character. ‘Any messages?’

‘None, signor, but there is a package and a letter that came with it from London.’

Mike waits as the concierge fetches the items, and Hilton-von Kreuz signs the book. Idly he wonders just how many more names this guy may operate under, and what sort of business might require multiple identities.

‘Move yourself, Sharkey.’ The order is dropped offhand, naturally, von Kreuz picking up his mail and heading towards the elevators without even a glance at Mike; utterly confident he’ll follow.

It’s the most natural thing for Mike to follow, shadowing von Kreuz across the lobby, calling the elevator for him, then stepping in afterwards, patiently waiting as the doors slide shut.

Now unobserved, von Kreuz presses the number for his floor. It’s near the top of the panel.

Mike decides to keep quiet for the duration of the journey, staying on the job until they’re out the lift, along the corridor, and the door to von Kreuz’s suite is shut behind them.

It’s a real fancy suite too, but by this point Mike already expected no less. All antique furniture, gilding, and damask drapes; huge flatscreen tv, desk, and a screened-off private terrace. He bets the bathroom’s marble too.

Whilst Mike takes in the setting, von Kreuz walks through a door to what must be the bedroom, emerging a few seconds later with a plain white t-shirt.

‘The bathroom’s through there,’ he says, throwing the t-shirt at Mike, who automatically catches it. ‘You can freshen up, or at the least wipe off that awful paint. You’ll find everything you need on the side.’

Mike decides it’s safest not to say anything, and he just walks on past, through the bedroom (studiously ignoring the dimensions of the very comfortable-looking bed) and into the bathroom, shutting and locking the door behind him.

He’d been right. All marble and gold plating.

Taking a seat on the closed lid of the john, Mike exhales a moment whilst he tries to gather his very scattered thoughts. Ok, he really needs to concentrate here. He needs to stay sharp and impress this guy – for his own sake, if not for any other reason. Or, if not ‘impress’, at the very least not make a fool of himself. Historically, easier said than done.

He glances at the side next to the sink. Sure enough, there are fresh towels and the usual set of complimentary toiletries, alongside what he assumes must be von Kreuz’s own plain black wash kit.

Mike considers the t-shirt in his hands again, and what von Kreuz handing it to him might indicate. He certainly stinks a bit – the standard odours of sweat, stale alcohol and cigarette smoke hanging about him from the club – and a check in the brightly-lit mirror makes him wince. Yeah, he does look a bit of an eyesore.

Briefly, he considers the shower cubicle, but decides against it. The invitation to “freshen up” was pretty open, but taking a full shower in the bathroom of a stranger he’s just met in a business capacity is one step too weird for him. It’s already weird that he’s borrowing his t-shirt.

He settles on a quick hair wash and scrub-down of face, underarms and chest. There’s a fresh toothbrush and mini tube of paste, so he makes use of those as well for good measure. Whilst he’s doing this, Mike’s thoughts keep straying to a sordid little scenario titled “What if I had decided to take a full shower, and von Kreuz just happened to walk in on me naked?”

It does make Mike wonder, though, as to the sexuality of his host. They may have encountered each other at a gay bar, but von Kreuz had been there at Lastra’s invitation. True, he had been unruffled by the surroundings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Although, another tiny thought whispers, he doubts that any man who takes such care in his appearance, with such excellent taste in clothing, and seeming that assured in that location could be entirely straight.

After he’s done with his teeth, curiosity gets the better of Mike and he decides to take a nosey in the bathroom cabinet.

There’s nothing in there.

Now even more curious, he takes another look at the wash bag, hesitating only a fraction before carefully unzipping it.

Yep, all of von Kreuz’s personal items accounted for – deodorant, toothbrush case, shaving kit, soap, travel bottle of shampoo… Everything neatly packed away, simple and designed for practicality, save a lone bottle of a classic designer eau de toilette and a box of nicotine patches.

The latter provides an explanation for the slightly awkward moment in the car – von Kreuz had been automatically reaching into a pocket for cigarettes that were no longer there. Mike has never smoked himself (Tried it at 12, didn’t like it.) but he’d seen plenty of guys in the army try to quit – in various ways, and with varying degrees of success. It’s always rough. These are the big nicotine patches too; 21mg, 24 hour dose. Either von Kreuz has just started his treatment, or he’s got a hell of a habit to kick. Mike wishes the poor bastard luck with it.

The other thing his mild snooping tells him is that von Kreuz is a man used to travelling, and not for pleasure. Everything has the vibe of a man who keeps his things neat and together so that they can be grabbed if he needs to leave in a hurry.

He reminds himself that said guy is waiting somewhere the other side of the door, and that he, Mike, had better hurry up and finish or else his host might start to wonder what he’s doing in here.

Mike zips the bag up quickly. He towels off and pulls on the t-shirt. It’s a little snug, but not a bad fit on the whole. He slings the pink monstrosity and the bandanna in the bin, treating them like the mistakes they were. He quickly combs through his damp hair to give some impression of respectability, then heads back out into the lion’s den.

He catches the brief unguarded moment where von Kreuz is distractedly rubbing his thumb over his lower lip again before the smooth façade goes back up. Yeah, definitely finding it hard to kick the habit.

Von Kreuz looks Mike up and down, taking in the change of attire and disappearance of the paint. He nods once.

‘Better,’ he says. He has removed his own jacket and is now in shirtsleeves. ‘Hot pink really isn’t your colour.’

Mike shrugs.

‘Not my first choice,’ he mutters.

‘I won’t ask what the first choice was,’ von Kreuz says sarcastically, walking over to the sideboard. There are a couple of decanters there, and he picks up the lighter shaded one. Who has decanters in a hotel room?

‘You know why I was at that club,’ he continues, pouring out a measure of amber liquid into a whisky tumbler. ‘But I’m not so sure as to why you were. You obviously weren’t waiting for someone, and it didn’t look as if you were enjoying yourself.’

Which can only mean that von Kreuz had clocked him as he entered the club, and Mike can’t help but wince at the thought von Kreuz might have caught him staring, practically drooling into his beer.

‘Yeah, well,’ he mumbles tersely, trying to push away the hot feeling of embarrassment. It had all been pretty pathetic, really. ‘I’m not long out, and I gave it a go. I don’t think it’s my scene, though.’

‘I’d agree with you there.’ Picking up the two glasses, von Kreuz walks over and hands one to Mike. ‘So. You’re in security, I’m guessing the bodyguard business. You also strike me as ex-military – probably infantry, probably made it to at least sergeant before you left. Plus, judging by your accent, and the fact you were confident enough to step in to mitigate a transaction you recognised as less than legal and about to go south, I’d say experienced in organised crime. Am I correct?’

Spot on, in fact. Mike has to consciously remind himself not to gape in amazement.

‘Pretty much,’ he says simply.

Von Kreuz raises an eyebrow, and Mike realises that he’s expected to give more of an answer than that. So he takes a quick sip of the drink – definitely whisky, and a pretty damn fine one at that – shuffling his thoughts into order.

‘I grew up in Chicago, South Side,’ he starts. Keep it simple; stick to the facts. ‘Mob runs in the family. Barely made it through high school, went straight into work – just muscle and close protection. Nothing special. Enlisted when I was twenty, went to the 3rd Infantry Brigade. Saw some shit, learnt a thing or two, made sergeant despite the CO having it in for me from the start. Got shot in Iraq and took the chance to stay out. Back to the Mob after that, then five months ago came here and ended up playing bodyguard to a soccer princess.’

‘What made you leave the Mob?‘

For a moment Mike considers how honest he ought to be… then mentally shrugs. What the hell. All bets seem to be off tonight.

‘Got sick of being treated like crap,’ he says. There, the words are out now. It only took five months. ‘Not like they noticed when I left. Not like my mom and pop need me at home. But the new start’s not turning out like I thought it would. Not even really a new start at all. Different boss, same shit.’

Von Kreuz takes a slow sip from his drink, seemingly mulling over Mike’s answer. He gestures to the couch next to the coffee table, and Mike sits, perched on the edge of its delicate frame.

‘You were of the opinion in the car that I’d overlooked things in my reconnaissance,’ he continues, moving to sit in the armchair opposite Mike, elegantly crossing his legs. That thoughtful, calculating look is back in his eyes – eyes which Mike can now see are a very dark blue. ‘Give me your assessment of the situation.’

Blunt and to the point. More of an order than an invitation, but Mike likes it, even though it puts him on the spot. It’s one of the parts of Army life he’d actually appreciated; everything clear-cut, not having to second-guess where he is meant to be or what he ought to be doing. No ambiguity in the least.

All at once, hundreds of little subconscious observations Mike has made since he’d first seen von Kreuz start clicking into place; the man’s posture, his fitness, his attitude, the polished but straight-forward way he speaks, the air of implied threat, his taste for finer things, the neatness of the room, the fancy but utterly practical wash kit… Mike suddenly recognises he is looking at another ex-soldier; an officer, of the old school European variety. He’d come across a few in his time, particularly in Bosnia and Iraq.

Okay, well, that explains a few things. Not everything, but a few things. It gives Mike a better idea of where he stands.

Taking a shallow breath, Mike once more shuffles his thoughts into order, and launches into the debrief.

‘So, you scoped the layout of the club,’ he reels off, thinking it best to get through the preamble as quick as he can. Officers always liked you to get to the point. ‘You knew where you were going and something about the regulars who visit the place. You had a man waiting outside, probably knew Lastra would be accompanied. But you didn’t feel the need for your own back-up inside, even at the risk that he’d be armed.’

Mike hesitates a second before continuing.

‘I’m guessing you were prepared for that, right?’

The other man smirks, amused rather than insulted by the question. In answer, he reaches down and raises his left trouser leg, revealing what Mike recognises as a Heckler & Koch P2000 SK strapped to his ankle. A compact and deadly little model.

‘Okay, right. So you’re armed, and I bet well-practised at drawing in a tight spot. You’ve got all the rest figured out pretty well, but there’s one thing you left out.’

‘Enlighten me.’

This is it. Mike takes the plunge.

‘The crowd,’ he says simply. ‘Single most dangerous element there. It’s a low space, cramped, bodies that can go anywhere at any time. Sure, you probably planned to nip out the back in a pinch, but if it got to guns?’

Mike shakes his head.

‘Guns in a gay bar? After recent events? They wouldn’t hit the deck and stay put, they’d want out. Everyone would panic, properly freak out, likely stampede, block the exits and there’s no telling how bad that would have got. You’re not getting out, and like hell is your back-up getting in!’

So there it is. Silence settles between the two of them as von Kreuz considers the verdict. Mike recognises this as the point where, depending on the other man’s temperament, things could go very sour very quickly. Either he will take the observation as a constructive evaluation, as he asked for and as Mike intended it, or – having been found genuinely wanting – will view it as a personal criticism and will turn on Mike that instant. Possibly with fatal consequences, seeing as he is armed. Mike mentally prepares himself to throw the whisky glass and its contents at von Kreuz’s head and make a dive for cover.

‘You’re right,’ von Kreuz murmurs, at last. ‘I’d considered the crowd as a negating factor, thinking Lastra would be reluctant to doing anything drastic in a public place. But I hadn’t considered the recent history when it comes to attacks on gay clubs. The risk was slim, but that could have gone very badly indeed.’

He raises his glass to Mike in a mocking salute.

‘Very good.’

Mike very nearly sags in relief, but manages not to and instead gives a weak smile. He’s also pathetically pleased to have received the man’s approval. Sad, but he can live with it.

‘So, you know you stuff when it comes to individual protection.’ Von Kreuz takes another sip of his whisky. ‘You mentioned Iraq. What other combat experience do you have?’

Unless Mike is very much mistaken, this casual invitation to drinks might just have suddenly turned into a job interview. He takes another quick sip of his own drink to steady himself against the sudden surge of dread and excitement.

‘Bosina,’ he says, remembering his very first action straight out of training. It hadn’t been pretty. ‘Serbia. And the Yemen.’

‘Tibet?’

Mike frowns. That’s a bit of too-recent history. Why’s he asking about that?

‘No, I was out by that point. And we weren’t really involved anyway.’

No, that mess had kicked off the year after, in 2004. The US hadn’t involved itself until right at the end as part of a token UN peacekeeping contingency – after the Brits, Indians and Europeans had done the majority of the work. Internationally, it was still a bit of a sore point that the US had preferred to concentrate on Iraq, willing to tolerate a newly-liberated and belligerent Tibet as a buffer to Russian and Chinese ambitions, despite the increasingly desperate warnings of their supposed allies. It was going to be a while before that embarrassment went away.

‘And from your earlier remarks, I take it you are not enjoying your present employment?’

‘It pays the rent, but no. Not exactly a thrill a minute.’

Von Kreuz gently swirls the whisky around in his glass, gazing at it contemplatively.

‘In that case, I might be able to offer you a better prospect,’ he says. ‘Certainly more interesting, if not more thrilling.’

Mike stays quiet and tries to look merely ‘interested’ instead of ‘desperate’ as the butterflies in his stomach return tenfold, hanging on the man’s every word.

Rising from his seat, von Kreuz begins to pace steadily.

‘As you will have possibly surmised, I run a bespoke service to select clients,’ he begins. ‘I acquire and trade in commodities; fine art, antiquities, weapons, documents, secrets… anything that is difficult to obtain, and can be exchanged for a price.’

Secrets, huh? Mike’s brow creases as he considers that one.

‘So like a spy?’

‘Of a sort.’ Von Kreuz gives a smirk. ‘In a previous life, I worked in military intelligence, so naturally my expertise in that field are available. At the moment I am concentrating on a very lucrative little operation smuggling antiquities. The current conflicts in the Middle East particularly have opened up several opportunities for obtaining previously inaccessible objets d’art, and demand is only growing.’

Mike understands that one; looting to order, either in person or through local insurgents keen to sell their country’s history for weapons. They’d received warnings about it whilst he was deployed in Iraq – though it didn’t stop some officers he could think of helping themselves to a few little “souvenirs”. Seeing as von Kreuz has just admitted to being ex-military, it makes perfect sense that he’d know how to make a fast buck from it.

Something’s tickling at the back of Mike’s brain. A thought is trying to get his attention, though he’s not quite sure what it is or what prompted it. Not related to old stuff, but something newer. Recent events. Now, what is it?

‘Until now, my ventures have been largely solo,’ von Kreuz continues, unaware of the mild brainstorm going on in the other man’s head. ‘It’s kept me under the radar, and I’ve always preferred the flexibly it affords me. However, as my trade increases, along with the geographical impracticalities, I’ve come to realise that I’m going to have to change my set-up. On that note, I’m looking to put together a permanent crew.’

He stops and looks at Mike full on.

‘Razul you have already met, and I have a couple of others who will be joining me at my next destination. This evening I realised that, whilst I can for the most take care of myself, having an additional pair of eyes to watch my back and to add a bit of physical presence to negotiations would be quite beneficial.’

That challenging little smirk is back, curling at the corners of von Kreuz’s lips.

‘Interesting enough for you?’ he asks, in a tone that could almost be called playful.

Mike has to resist the urge to pinch himself. He certainly feels dizzy, as if all the air has been knocked out of his lungs. God knows what the expression on his face must be – but, quite frankly, he’s lost the ability to care.

‘Yeah,’ he manages to utter. Is that really his voice? It sounds to high-pitched, sort of breathy. ‘Yeah, I’m interested.’

‘Excellent.’ Von Kreuz drains his glass in a business-like fashion, and places it back on the sideboard. ‘Your employment will be on a permanent basis, along Forces lines; 24/7 availability, pay by an hourly rate, no overtime but with a bonus per successful job. Leave and evenings off will be available on request and subject to any current operational needs. As to conduct… I run nothing less than a professional set-up and will not tolerate sloppiness of any kind. A few drinks off duty is fine, but it should never overstep the mark. Personal life –’

Here he waves an impatient hand.

‘– I don’t care what you do or who you do it with. Just make sure it doesn’t interfere with work or draw undue attention.’

His expression suddenly becomes deadly, a hostile frown creasing his brow.

‘Drugs, however, are strictly forbidden. If I get even a suspicion that you or anyone else is getting high, they’re out – no excuses. Is that understood?’

Mike nods. He gets the picture. Exactly like the Army.

‘Understood,’ he says. Then, because habit is a hard thing to cure and he wants to make a good impression – ‘Sir.’

Von Kreuz laughs – a good, full-throated laugh that sends a tingle down Mike’s spine.

‘“Boss” will do,’ he says, amused. ‘I run a tight ship, but I don’t stand on ceremony. Not anymore.’

That has Mike wondering a bit why von Kreuz left the military, whichever one he’d worked for. Did he choose, or was he pushed? Maybe, in time, he’ll find out.

There’s that nagging feeling at the back of his head again, like he’s forgotten something important. What is it about this guy that his brain thinks it’s trying to remember?

‘So,’ von Kreuz concludes, leaning against the sideboard and folding his arms. ‘Is that an offer you would like to take up?’

He knows he has Mike hooked, but it’s good of him to ask anyway. Mike takes a convulsive swallow of the last of his whisky before he replies, clearing his throat.

‘I would,’ he says. ‘Count me in, Boss.’

Von Kreuz smiles – genuinely pleased, it seems. He picks the decanter and his empty tumbler off the sideboard, walking over to refill Mike’s glass before doing the same to his own.

Sappy as it is to admit it, Mike feels a warm flutter of excitement in his chest. Ok, so he’ll never stand a chance with this guy personally, but he’d succeeded in impressing von Kreuz enough that not only had he offered Mike a job, but was actually happy that Mike had accepted.

He’d never had that experience before. Not in anything.

And he wouldn’t have to look at Ingoglia’s stupid face ever again. At least, not off a tv screen.

‘Good.’ Von Kreuz puts down the decanter. ‘That decided, you can start as soon as tomorrow if you want to.’

If he could, Mike would start tonight, but he nods. ‘That’d work fine. I haven’t got any real contract with the security firm, nor for my room. Not much to pack up, either.’

‘Even better. Razul can take you back to your place and collect you again in the morning.’

Mike feels his heart sink like a lead balloon. Is this the dismissal? He doesn’t want to go yet; not at all. Surely he’s allowed to stay to finish this new drink he’s been poured, right? Only polite.

‘Isn’t it bit late to be asking that?’ he asks, stalling. It’s only about half eleven at night, but even so… ‘I can get my own ride.’

‘Razul will go where I tell him to go whenever I tell him to go.’

Yes, of course. What are paid lackeys for? Mike will be doing exactly the same; it goes with the territory. Desperately, he tries to think of a way to keep the conversation going.

‘So, now that I’m on board,’ he says. ‘Who am I working for?’

Von Kreuz lifts an eyebrow, the expression suggesting he finds the question idiotic.

‘Personally, I would have asked that before I said yes to the job offer,’ he comments archly.

Mike quickly backpeddles, realising he hasn’t picked the right words for what he meant. Don’t screw it up now!

‘No, not like that,’ he says hastily. ‘I mean, I know who I’m working for, but not your name. Your real name. You’re too smart to tell that to Lastra, or that flunky downstairs. Hilton, von Kreuz…’

He makes a vague gesture with his hand, as if he might be able to pull the phrase he wants out of the air.

‘…I reckon they’re both a wassit. A.K.A.s.’

The amused smile is back on the other man’s face.

‘I think “alias” is the word your after,’ he says, in a tone which Mike recognises from his school years as “restrained patience”. ‘But, yes. The nature of my business interests means that my best protection from law enforcement is layers of false identities. For two years, every client that has engaged me, even repeat customers, knows me under a pseudonym. That way there is no one thread for the authorities to pick at.’

He pauses whilst taking another sip of whisky. He seems to consider briefly before speaking again, choosing carefully what he says next.

‘But my name is Olrik.’

Mike frowns a little. The way he’d said it had all the gravitas of a huge revelation, which seems somewhat extreme. Maybe for him, though, it is? After all, he’s been hiding in a nest of false identities for at least two years.

‘There a family name to go with that?’ he asks. Again, that weird feeling that he’s missing something obvious.

‘Once upon a time,’ Olrik replies, seemingly without regret. ‘But it hasn’t mattered for years. One name, and sometimes my old rank is all I’ve needed.’

Bit of an odd statement, but fine. Mike takes an educated guess. ‘Major?’

‘Colonel. It was always a bone of contention I was promoted so young, but I earnt every step.’

Colonel Olrik. Mike tries it out in his head.

Which is when that nagging thought comes crashing to the front of his brain. His eyes widen in disbelief.

‘No way!’ he chokes. ‘That Colonel Olrik?’

No wonder the guy had asked about Tibet! Jesus, Mary and Joseph!

Olrik gives an irritated sigh. ‘Yes, that Colonel Olrik, as you so eloquently put it.’

‘Well, shit. Hey. Didn’t they say you were dead?’

The expression on Olrik’s face suggests that Mike is starting to severely try his patience. ‘That’s what they think, and I’d like to keep it that way. Now, if you’ve got over your pathetically obvious shock? Good. Does that make any difference to your taking the job?’

The implied threat is there - and there’s no doubt in Mike’s mind that Olrik will kill to protect his identity - so the smart thing to do is immediately and definitely answer ‘No’.

He’s about to do just that, when something makes him stop. He’s not sure what; but as he looks at Olrik, watching him intently, something is telling him that taking the easy way out isn’t the best option here. The guy’s just confessed to being an internationally-wanted war criminal with some very, very serious charges against him. It would be an insult to pretend that wouldn’t make a difference. And it would be a poor reflection on Mike too if he thought Olrik would respect him for the lie, either.

Besides, unlike all of Mike’s other bosses to date, Olrik wants him to think things through.

So for once in his life, Mike stops and thinks. Would it bother him? Honestly? Like he said, the States hadn’t really been involved in Tibet, and Mike personally doesn’t much care for the ins and outs of international relations. All he has is the soldier’s understanding that someone could be an ally one day and an enemy the next. Atrocities aren’t only limited to the bad guys – he knows that from personal experience. The only difference, in the end, is who gets away with it.

On that note, Mike himself is far from an innocent. He’s never really had a hope in Hell of that. So why not cozy up with Satan for a bit, if he’s offering to make things comfortable?

‘No,’ he says, after a while. ‘I don’t think it does.’

He meets Olrik’s eyes, and the other man nods. Thank God, he did judge that right, then!

‘Does anyone else know?’ he ventures. Presumed dead Olrik might be, Mike can’t be the only one in on the secret.

‘Only a select few. Razul is one of them; he was an informer of mine when I worked for Damdu. He’s a fool, but a loyal fool, and will take what secrets he knows to the grave as a matter on honour.’

‘Is that an Arab thing?’

‘Balochi. Never call him an Arab unless you want your windpipe severed.’

‘Noted.’

Olrik smiles once more; smug, triumphant.

‘So, now that’s settled again,’ he says breezily. ‘We will begin tomorrow, as planned.’

‘Yeah,’ Mike says, his heart sinking again. Well, life was about to improve, so what was a little waiting? ‘Yeah, tomorrow.’

Olrik takes another sip of whisky, his gaze becoming intense.

‘Which means that we have some time to enjoy ourselves,’ he says, his voice dropping to something uncomfortably close to a mischievous purr.

Mike has to swallow to keep a hold of his composure, as Olrik’s change in tone is getting him far too hot under the collar. God knows what the guy considers fun, but it certainly isn’t what Mike’s thoughts desperately hope it would be. Maybe he’s decided he’ll take Mike out on a trial run – gate-crash a millionaire’s party, or something? A light raid on a basilica?

‘What do you have in mind?’ he asks, managing to keep the strain out of his voice.

But to his instant confusion, Olrik rolls his eyes and lets go an irritated sigh.

Putting his whisky down, Olrik closes the distance between him and Mike where he’s still seated on the sofa. He rests two fingers beneath Mike’s chin, tilting his head up gently but firmly, so that he has no option but to meet his eyes. They really are a very deep blue.

‘Do I really need to spell it out for you?’ he murmurs, just shy of exasperation.

What? Mike’s head is swimming in confusion. Why is Olrik so close all of a sudden, touching him? And what does he mean by…?

The gears of his brain seize up and come to a grinding halt.

Oh.

Oh.

Wow.

Oh, wow!

He can only sit there staring, mouth agape.

Olrik gently takes the glass from his fingers and puts it to one side on the coffee table. Then he wraps his arms around Mike’s neck, not breaking eye contact as he straddles his lap, slowly and deliberately settling with a quiet hum of contentment as their bodies meet, Mike’s hands automatically coming to rest on his hips and hold him there, suppressing a gasp as he feels the heat and stiffening already in the other man’s groin.

‘We’ll have to work on your poker face,’ Olrik says lightly. He lifts a hand, stroking his thumb along Mike’s left cheekbone; the one that’s slightly misshapen from the unlucky punch that also broke his nose when he was seventeen. ‘You can read every thought in that head of yours – even from twenty feet away across a dark and crowded nightclub!’

Mike’s thoughts, however, are very firmly no longer in his head, but have gone south – along with all his blood.

‘I-I’ve never been much of a gambler,’ he manages to stutter.

A truly wicked smile spreads over Olrik’s face. He rolls his hips forward, sending a shock of sensation through Mike’s loins and up his spine, tearing a moan deep from within the bodyguard’s throat.

‘I’ll make sure to give you lessons.’

Overwhelmed and beyond saving, Mike leans forward to kiss him – only for Olrik to stall him with a finger pressed to his lips.

‘Don’t let it interfere with work,’ he says flatly, finally.

It takes a second for the words to sink in, but then Mike nods. He understands.

‘It won’t, Boss,’ he breathes. ‘I promise.’

‘Good.’ Olrik traces the outline of Mike’s lips with his fingertips, before wrapping both arms around his neck again. ‘Now hold still, you idiot.’

***

He had got to use the shower, in the end. The bed had been by far the most comfortable he’s ever slept in, too.

Mike’s future is likely to have many more luxurious showers and comfortable beds in it.

He’d also been right about the nicotine patches.

‘I do have other lovers,’ Olrik murmurs at around two o’clock in the morning, his head resting on Mike’s bare, sweaty chest. ‘Occasional friends that I fuck. Sometimes I need to seduce someone for a job as well.’

‘I guessed as much.’

‘I will continue to fuck them.’ Olrik’s hand slides down Sharkey’s abs, beneath the sheets, closing his fingers around Mike’s length. ‘You’ll be jealous.’

‘I guess I will.’ Mike takes a shuddering breath, closing his eyes in bliss. ‘But you’re the boss. That's the deal. I don’t get a say.’

He can feel Olrik’s smile against his skin.

‘Good boy.’ The colonel begins to move his hand in long, lazy strokes. ‘And if you’re a very good boy, I may even let you watch…’

***

Early the following morning, Razul drives Mike back to the Porta Venezia, waiting in the car as he changes into one of his work suits and packs up his few belongings.

Razul seems to have taken this new development in fairly good humour, only raising his eyebrows as his only comment when Mike had emerged from his chief’s bedroom, towelling off his still-damp hair and in search of breakfast.

Mike, on his part, is walking on air. It’s going to take him a while to fully believe this isn’t some dream which he’ll wake up from at any moment, but he doesn’t give a damn.

For the first time in his life, he is happy. It may not last, but Michael Sharkey will take every moment he can get.

 

FIN.