Jack Horwood had just come off duty and planned nothing more strenuous for the evening than throwing a pizza in the oven and working on his thesis for a few peaceful hours. His phone had other ideas. The moment he turned it on it told him of two missed calls, and four text messages popped up in rapid succession.
How about £20 and a Big Mac for a fuck?
The list of people who would send him a text like this was no longer than two. And he had messages from both of them.
Jack was in his bedroom and had the wardrobe doors wide open before he’d even finished reading. He chose a long-sleeved black tee shirt before he bent and pulled a pair of black jeans from the laundry basket. They needed washing, but Jack argued that they wouldn’t get any cleaner where he was going. Five minutes later he was at his front door, lacing up heavy riding boots and shrugging into a black leather jacket. He’d be almost invisible in the dark and that was just the way he wanted it.
The bike kicked to life with a growl and Jack couldn’t hold back a grin. The black Honda Nighthawk had been his treat for getting through boot camp and passing his driving test and he loved it almost as much as his top-of-the-line hand-built laptop. He wasn’t extravagant by any means, but he understood value and was smart with money.
Rio had taught him that.
Rio had taught him a lot of things since he’d found a twelve-year-old Jack squatting in his basement and had offered him a home. Right now—on the verge of earning a degree in advanced network security without ever having gone to senior school—Jack was grateful for Rio’s presence in his life. Just as he was grateful for his chance to pay forward just a little of the debt he owed that man. Because paying it forward was what Rio believed in and Jack had made the sentiment his own.
The boys waited where they always did: near the Southern Fried Chicken place on the High Street. Jack had no idea why that particular restaurant appealed so much to them. He just walked in and ordered three times as much food as they could all possibly eat. He knew it wouldn’t go to waste.
The boys Jack supported weren’t homeless. Not if you defined home as a place with a roof and a bed. Most of them just found it easier and safer to be on the streets than where the law said they should be. Jack could sympathise with that—and he never judged them or tried to make their choices for them. He was merely ready to help and advise, if and when help and advice were needed. Sometimes his help involved money, he always bought food, but more often he taught skills or—like today—lent his own.
“He’s a new one,” the boys told him while they devoured chicken and fries. “Been around… three weeks, maybe? Boys, every time. He only picks street kids and he always offers food.”
Bastard. Jack listened to the information pouring into his ears from four eager mouths, not bothering to hide his scowl. The boys knew of his crusade, and they trusted him enough to call him when they needed help. It had taken a long time to build that trust, and Jack wasn’t planning on losing it.
“Where does he hang out?” he asked when two thirds of the food had disappeared. The woman who ran the place kept bringing chicken and fries as fast as the plates emptied, but she would start to bag up the rest of the order now, ready for it to be taken away. And she’d slip ice cream and cupcakes into the bags too… just because. “Does he have a special type?”
A round of grins answered him. “We’ve gone one better than that,” Paul answered. He was the eldest of the current group and their de facto leader. “We have bait.”
The redhead nodded eagerly. “New kid. He doesn’t fit. He’s… I dunno… academic?” Paul was careful with the word as if it could burn his mouth. “He has no clue, posh accent and talks la-di-da,” he leaned across the table and lowered his voice. “I think his folks maybe threw him out because he’s queer or something.”
“And how is he bait?” Jack wished he’d have the time to listen, but if he had a pervert to catch and dispatch and be back on base before curfew he couldn’t indulge in family histories.
“We told him you would send him somewhere safe,” Paul admitted. “You can, right?”
Jack tapped his chest pocket and found a smile. “Can and will, if he’s willing to go,” he said. He had offered that option to all of the boys repeatedly. Some were prepared to make a fresh start, others would never be.
“You know that alley by the gas works? He’s gonna bring him there.”
One corner of Jack’s mouth quirked up. “You’re getting good at that,” he praised. “Explain your choice.”
“No cameras,” one of the boys said promptly.
“No passers-by. No police patrols.”
“No mobile phone reception either,” Paul finished and grinned. “Good enough?”
“Good enough.” Jack pulled a stack of bills from his jacket pocket. He had stopped at a cash point on the way and now handed the money to Paul. “Keep your heads down for a few days,” he instructed softly. “Keep out of the area. No heroics.”
“Can we watch?”
He asked the question every single time they did this. And just like every other time Jack shook his head. “You can’t talk about things you haven’t seen.”
“We wouldn’t talk.”
“You know the rules,” Jack insisted.
“No intact chain of information, I know.”
“Exactly.” Jack rose from his seat and smiled down at the boys. They were brave kids who stuck together and looked out for each other when nobody else did. They deserved to be safe. “Keep safe and call me if you need anything,” he said and turned away. “And that perv… consider him out of your hair.”
~ oOo ~
Jack leaned against the alley wall his mind contemplating images of silver hair and amber eyes, of wide shoulders and sinewy forearms when he heard the footsteps and the voices. One high-pitched and scared, one deeper and petulant.
“If you’re getting me into trouble you little shit, I’ll…”
“You don’t need help to get into trouble.” Jack stepped into the centre of the alley, stopping the man’s progress. “You’re doing a fine job all by yourself.” He looked over at the boy, seeing immediately why Paul thought the kid ‘didn’t fit’. His clothes for one. The fancy haircut, now growing ragged, for another. Runaway or thrown out, this boy had had a home until fairly recently. Jack drew him to his side, out of the predator’s reach. “He touch you?”
The boy shook his head, eyes imploring. “Did I…?”
Jack stopped him, reached into his jacket and pulled out money and a card with a name, address and phone number. “This isn’t the way it needs to be. Not ever,” he said softly. “Phone the number, or go there and check it out. It’s safe.”
The searching looks always broke his heart. He knew the leap of faith it took to accept the word of a stranger, to put yourself into someone else’s hands when you’d just managed to escape. He’d found the strength to do it and he’d not regretted it, but he had also learnt that not everyone was able to ditch their past. Jack had maybe four years on the boy. Four years in age and several lifetimes in experience, but he couldn’t guess whether the kid would take the offered chance.
A slim hand reached out. For the card, not the money. Jack could have howled in relief. He pushed the money forward anyway. “It’s out of town. You’ll need a train ticket,” he said. Then he leaned forward and pressed a kiss to the boy’s forehead. “Thank you. Now go.”
Trainers scuffed on broken pavement as the boy ran from the alley and Jack turned to study his prey. The man hadn’t had the sense to try and run from the coming confrontation. He wasn’t the first to just stand there and wait for Jack to deal with him, strange as that was. This one was in his thirties, almost twice Jack’s age, heavy set and perhaps a couple inches taller than Jack. Neither the extra inches, nor the extra bulk bothered Jack. He’d been trained to fight, first by Rio and—more recently—by Gareth Flynn. He could take men older, heavier, and more experienced any day of the week. He could certainly take a bloke who thought offering a hungry, desperate child food in exchange for sex made him a good Samaritan.
“Right, lowlife, how d’you wanna do this?” Jack asked when the boy’s footsteps had died away. “Do you wanna look as if someone beat the shit out of you or do you just wanna feel like it?”
The man backed up in alarm until his back hit the alley wall. He didn’t have far to go. “What do you mean? I didn’t do anything wrong!”
“You didn’t. Do. Anything. Wrong.” Jack said slowly. “You didn’t offer a 13-year-old money and food for sex?”
“He was hungry.”
“So you feed him. Or you give him money so he can buy his own food. Explain the sex part to me so it makes sense, because I’m damned sure the kid didn’t offer to be fucked in an alley just so he could eat.” Jack moved closer, step by slow menacing step, with every ounce of swagger he could muster. He’d seen his captain do that and it had looked beyond badass, so Jack had made it a point to practice. It worked. The man cowered until the moment Jack’s fist took him across the jaw.
“What the fuck, man?”
“What? You still haven’t worked it out? I’m gonna beat the shit out of you until you remember your manners.”
There had been a time—three years ago, actually—when Jack had relished nights like that, when he finally had the fighting skills to back up his rage. He’d gone out night after night hunting pimps and johns and taking them apart with abandon. Now though, the game was changing. The army was teaching him different ways to deal with his issues, and Jack’s commanding officer was someone he wanted to impress. For the first time in forever, Jack wondered what Gareth Flynn would say if he could see him now. Would he support Jack’s choices or would he hand him his ass? Jack couldn’t tell and the inner conflict made him slow to react when a fist came flying his way.
His head rocked back and to the side, his vision lit with stars and Jack swore viciously. It was good to let off some of the steam, though, else he’d be killing the bastard and then where’d he be? And it was a timely reminder to keep it together. This was about punishment, not revenge, and Jack drew a deep breath, took a step back and let rip.
Doing it this way wasn’t too far different from a gym workout, Jack reflected as he systematically rained down kicks and punches over the pervert’s face and body. He had a man before him instead of a tethered bag, but the difference was minimal. His opponent defended about as well as a sandbag and Jack made sure to hurt him more than he hurt himself. Only problem was, it didn’t appease the rage. And after a while it got boring. Especially the excuses. And the accusations. Queer-bashing—whatever next?
“Just in case you wanna go whining to someone, let me tell you that this has nothing to do with your sexual orientation or any of that crap,” Jack snarled when his patience had worn too thin to hold back the ire.
A straight right to the jaw took the man off his feet. He hit the dirt and rolled to his stomach, groaning. And Jack was done.
“I don’t give a shit what you like to fuck, you understand?” Jack planted a boot in the small of the man’s back, grinding down the heel. “Men, women, goats—I’m fairly equal opportunity there. But lay your hands on a kid and you get your ass kicked. Every. Single.Time.”
Garbled words reached his ear and Jack tensed. He was close to losing his hold on the leash he had on his temper. And he couldn’t afford that. He leaned down to twist a fist in the man’s collar, yanked him to his feet and pushed him up against the nearest wall. The man struggled, but Jack had an arm across his throat and held him while his other hand found the man’s wallet and extracted the driver’s licence. He waved it in the man’s face, not caring that his calm facade had deserted him.
“You should thank god that nothing happened to that boy or I’d have carved the truth into your fucking forehead. You go near a kid again—any kid—and I’ll make sure everyone knows about it. Everywhere. See how you stand up to a mob of angry mothers… ”
Jack stepped back and pocketed the driving license. He stared into the man’s frightened eyes for a long moment, not hiding his fury or the threat. Then he stepped back, turned and walked to his bike. Not because he wanted to. But because he had to. One predator off the streets, if he wasn’t mistaken. But too many still left. Jack’s jaw throbbed, but his rage burned hot and he didn’t mind the sting.
~ oOo ~
“Horwood! My office.”
Jack groaned. He dropped the gun he was cleaning on the table and reached for a rag to wipe his hands. The captain had sounded irritated and that was never a good sign. Especially when Jack had something to hide.
“I think you got ratted out, man,” Lottie snarked from across the room as if he could read Jack’s thoughts and Jack felt inclined to agree.
He tugged his belt straight, checked his buttons and grabbed his beret as a tendril of heat sneaked down his spine. An irritated Gareth Flynn was an intoxicating sight that never failed to get him riled. It had taken Jack a while to admit he had a crush on his CO. It had taken a while longer to get over his embarrassment. Now that he had, he just enjoyed the strange feelings, enjoyed watching Gareth Flynn, and definitely enjoyed working with him. And whether he was ready to admit it or nor, he loved to catch Gareth’s attention.
“The spooks want to borrow you for a few days. You up for it?” Gareth asked as soon as Jack had presented himself in the man’s office.
Jack blinked in confusion. He’d done a couple of small side jobs for Rio’s team since he’d joined up, strictly on his own time, and none of those were in his file. At least, none of them had been the last time he looked. So how was it that shit was coming down official channels now?
“Are you asleep on your feet, brat, or do I need to send you for a random drugs test?”
“Then answer the fucking question!”
“Why does it matter what I want?” Jack looked up into his captain’s amber eyes as he asked, amazed to see that the man was angry.
“And there I was thinking you were actually smart, Horwood,” Gareth Flynn sniped and leaned back into his chair. “It matters because you’re one of mine. If anyone wants to borrow my men—and I don’t care if it’s for undercover work or for a children’s dress-up party—I make damn sure they’re okay with it. So do you want to help the spooks or not?”
Jack hated to be put on the spot like this. He had no idea what the assignment was and asking for details was pointless. He wouldn’t mind a couple nights chasing data, but he didn’t want to be away from the squad—from your hot captain, admit it Horwood!—for any length of time, so anything more extensive was out.
“I don’t want to miss the recon course, sir,” he managed just before Gareth Flynn’s tenuous hold on patience snapped once more.
“They want your head for five days, so you should be fine,” Gareth replied. He rose and came around his desk to stand before Jack. The amber stare was disconcerting and suddenly Flynn grasped his chin and turned his head to the side to inspect the bruise on his jaw. “I thought I’d taught you how to defend yourself.”
Jack ground his teeth. The bastard had managed to land a single hit and it had to be one that Gareth would spot. Now he reached for Jack’s wrist and pulled Jack’s right hand up. Jack’d put an icepack on his knuckles as soon as he’d gotten home, but of course the bruises still showed.
The amber gaze bored into him and for a moment Jack had the insane desire to blurt out the truth. To tell the man who mattered so much to him what he did in his spare time. But that would be stupid and if Jack was anything, he wasn’t that. Let Gareth think he’d been brawling and punish him accordingly. Much better.
The grip on Jack’s chin disappeared and a moment later Gareth dropped his hand. “Report to the infirmary and get that jaw checked out,” he ordered, voice completely flat, as he returned to his chair. His eyes were on Jack’s as he sat down, but he was no longer angry. “You’re confined to site for a fortnight. If the spooks can handle that, the assignment is yours. And since your close combat skills clearly need work, you’ll report to the gym every morning at 0500. Understood?”
Jack managed to hold back the grin until he was out of the room. He hadn’t given away a single thing, but he felt as if he’d been rewarded regardless. With the best prize he could imagine: one-on-one training with Captain Gareth Flynn.