June 15, 2011
Three years ago, Carl Ragar turned on the mob. His conscience couldn’t handle the murder of an innocent bystander, and he had to turn his back on his mentor, Petroc “Pete” Barbu, a man he’d admired and lusted after. Pete made no apologies for his job as an enforcer, but he’d never planned to get himself or Carl involved in the murder of a reporter. When Carl turned state’s evidence, Pete couldn’t even pretend to be surprised.
Now Pete’s still on the run, and Carl is unceremoniously dumped out of witness protection. Two men tangled in their own pasts, they will have to face the shifting moral lines in the sand that drove them to make disastrous choices. Once Pete and Carl were partners who trusted each other with their lives—now they’re struggling to save their souls.
Review at Jessewave
With two so flawed heroes, a murderer and a traitor as the main characters in a romance, of all things, it’s not an easy task to get readers to like those men. And yet, I couldn’t help doing exactly this. READ MORE
Review at Top 2 Bottom Reviews
Lyn Gala has written a terrific redemption story. This is about getting a second chance in life, even though the first chance was a bit of a miss for these men, to say the least. READ MORE
Dark Divas Reviews
Lyn Gala has a fantastic way with words: there’s nothing like standard exposure in this, and I was propelled into the action from the very moment I started to read. READ MORE
Whipped Cream Reviews
The characterization is the key to making this a successful story and I think both men are three dimensional and very real. They’re definitely not average heroes but their personalities are vibrant READ MORE
The two main characters are interesting with a lot of chemistry. The story is pretty internal with both men in their heads a lot, almost too much, but for the most part Gala’s clean writing and evocative descriptions are what keep me reading. READ MORE
“WELL, look what we have here.”
Carl froze, his head still under the hood of the piece-of-crap car he’d been trying to get started. A voice in his head that sounded a lot like common sense told him to run like hell and hope Petroc’s aim had gotten rusty. Another voice suggested that running was the fastest way to end up not only dead, but the sort of spectacularly dead that ended up as a lurid news story.
He could imagine the voiceover now: “Carl Ragar, former informant and ex-driver to the mob, was found today in Norfolk… and Suffolk, and Smithfield, and Virginia Beach, and a couple of chunks that might be him turned up in Elizabeth City, but police are waiting for DNA confirmation.” The newswoman would smile the entire time as she described the painful and slow end of Carl Ragar.
Even worse, his death would be at the hands of the man he once considered a friend and mentor. The man he’d betrayed. Carl had thought about this moment, this reunion… obsessed over it, really, but somehow he hadn’t ever expected it to really happen. For three years, he’d lived in fear of that voice, and yet that voice had fueled most of his darkest fantasies. He’d get himself therapy, only he couldn’t afford it.
“Pete,” he said as he carefully stood. He laid the wrench on the side of the car and grabbed a rag as he turned around. He didn’t know what he expected, but the lack of a gun or other deadly weapon was a surprise. Petroc “Pete” Barbu was still as handsome as he’d been three years earlier. He had dark good looks, a thick five o’clock shadow, and wider shoulders than in Carl’s memory. His muscles bulged and strained even though Pete was pretending to look indifferent. And the eyes. Mostly what Carl remembered about Pete were his eyes.
In pictures, Pete’s eyes always seemed flat and cold. They fit his persona as a hired enforcer, a man who would do most anything for the mobsters he worked for; however, in real life, they were so alive. Pete was always smiling, looking around the world with curiosity and amusement. True, the amusement always had a sharp edge, a certain sarcasm, but Pete wasn’t a cold man. Like Carl, Pete had worked for the Serbs and Romanians—Mr. Lomik, mostly. They weren’t as cold and vicious as the Russians or as well established as the Italians, but their enemies ended up just as dead.
“That’s all you got to say?” Pete asked, his eyebrows going up. He crossed his arms and studied Carl the way a five-year-old studied a bug he’d pinned to the ground.
Carl didn’t have illusions here, but if he was going to die, he wouldn’t do it begging for mercy. “Not really much to say,” Carl agreed with a casual shrug. Wiping the grease from his hands, he waited to see Pete’s move. “You have some reason for tracking me down?”
Pete’s eyebrows went up. Yeah, it was a stupid question. Pete had a whole shitload of reasons for tracking him down. Three years ago, Carl’s bout of conscience led him to wear a wire and burn half the Romanian mob. Three years ago, he’d tanked his whole fucking life for some promise a fed had made, a promise that things would get better—for him, for the city, for the immigrant population that turned to the fucking gangsters for protection. Oh yeah. That’d turned out great. The Russians moved in and ran the rackets with even more brutal efficiency, the city had ignored any promise to send in more police protection, and Carl had been given the choice to toe the line or get booted from the damn witness protection program. He’d made his choice and he’d live with it. Even if that meant he’d die with it.
“What do you want, Pete?” Carl asked wearily. His handler had warned him that they’d come looking, but if anything, Carl was relieved the waiting was over.
Pete moved slowly around the car Carl had towed back from the scene of the accident where he’d bought it. The side was still caved in, but Carl planned on going to the junkyard and getting new parts later. First, he needed to get the engine running. Pete ran a large hand over the ripples in the front panel where a tree had stopped the car.
“I figured you were off playing at having a new life. Thought maybe they’d set you up as a banker with some fancy car and fancier suits.” From the tone, Pete never thought anything of the sort, but he was determined to play his game his way.
“I figured you were on the run from the law,” Carl countered.
Pete stopped and gave him a wolfish grin. “I am.” With that, Pete fell silent, his stillness making Carl uncomfortable. Whether Pete was angry or happy or drunk, he was a man of movement. He talked with his hands. He stood with his feet spread and his body swaying side to side. But now he was perfectly still.
“Things didn’t work out with the feds,” Carl finally answered. If Pete had come back for a little revenge, there really wasn’t much he could do. He had given up his chance to have a nice quiet life under another name. Even knowing how it was going to turn out, he wasn’t sorry. Some things… some things you didn’t give up.
“Yeah, heard about that. Cops tossed you out like yesterday’s garbage. Worse. They brought you back here and dumped you. Fuck. You must have pissed them off for fair. What, did you sleep with some fed’s pretty little daughter?”
That wasn’t likely, but Carl didn’t bother to answer.
Pete’s body started a familiar swaying motion. “How long before someone else shows up?” He looked around as though expecting some enforcer from the Russians to jump out from behind a bush. The Russians might not have liked Lomik, but they’d love to get a chance to show off what they would do to a traitor. Carl was more than a little surprised they hadn’t shown up yet.
Carl shrugged. “Couldn’t guess.”
“And you don’t have anyone watching your back.” Pete sounded disappointed in him, like Carl was still his protégé and Pete was trying to beat some common sense into him. For one moment, Carl wanted to erase the last three years and pretend he was some dumbass kid, twenty-two years old and coming out of prison. Back then, the mob had been his career ambition, and Pete…. Well, he’d always had more than one fantasy about Pete. The one that came true involved Pete teaching him the business. At least until Carl’s stomach couldn’t handle the violence.
“Funny thing, there hasn’t been anyone volunteering to do that for me lately,” Carl admitted. Pete continued to stalk around the car, his eyes focused on the machine, but Carl still couldn’t escape the feeling he was being judged, and he probably came out about as high in Pete’s books as the torn-up Ford hatchback.
“I can imagine.” Pete sounded amused, and an amused Pete was a dangerous thing. It usually meant he was about to find something to amuse himself. “You fucking turned on me. I brought you into the business, and you fucking turned on me. Hell, you turned on all of us. What the hell were you thinking? The feds? You’re a small-time con, a piece of shit straight out of prison, and you turned to the feds? You didn’t fucking talk to me?” Pete continued to focus on the car, his words sounded as mild as a housewife offering a cake recipe, but cold shivers ran down Carl’s back. This was getting ugly.
“I made a choice.” The fact was, Carl didn’t have the words to explain. He hadn’t gone to Pete because he didn’t want Pete to be the one putting a bullet in his brain if things went wrong. Clearly the universe couldn’t do him even that one favor, because here Pete was. “You’re the one who always told me that I had to make my own choices, that I had to draw my own line in the sand,” Carl pointed out.
“A line means making choices for yourself, not fucking everyone else over.” Pete’s hands flew up in the air.
“My line in the sand… it didn’t include killing an innocent woman. It didn’t include giving people a pass on that.”
Now Pete looked at him, his sharp eyes pinning Carl in place. “I never meant that to happen. You knew that. Don’t go getting on your moral high horse, because you’re no better than I am. You never were. I just had the balls to grab the opportunities that were out there.”
Carl wanted to deny it. He wanted to point to something in his life that proved he’d been a better man, but there wasn’t much. He was a thief, a con, a man who had gotten into bed with the mob knowing what they were. He was the coward who would listen to some of the hired guns bash gays and paste on a smile instead of sticking his neck out to do the right thing. He stood next to Pete that day knowing Pete was going to execute one man, and then he got moral when a second person got caught in the crossfire. Yeah, his morality had some tarnish on it. He sighed. “I know.”
Carl had already sold his soul to get out of the ghetto, to earn a little respect, to prove himself as a man. Everything. Hell, the night that woman reporter died, Carl probably would have done exactly what Pete did. He remembered her eyes going wide, Little Mark’s gun firing, her arms splayed out against the full moon as she tried to run. He remembered Pete’s voice, low and angry, as he barked out orders. They’d been there to take care of a business partner who’d thought stabbing Mr. Lomik in the back was a good idea. Little Mark had no business shooting into the dark… not that it mattered. Carl and Pete and Mark—they’d been out there to do violence, and she’d died. Stan Richardson had shared a grave with that reporter until Carl’s testimony had led to the cops digging them both back up.
Carl sighed. Ever since that night, he knew he was going to end up in his own shallow grave. Strangely, it didn’t even bother him anymore. He’d grown a lot more religious in the past three years, and if he could believe the priest, God could find a way to forgive him. Hopefully God’s opinion counted for more than a few dozen mobsters and thousands of citizens who had gossiped about him over water coolers when the case had hit the news.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Carl said wearily. “The cops still sometimes come by, check on me.” Carl wiped his hands, more of sweat than of grease, before he started for the front door of his tiny duplex. Check on him. He gave a snort of amusement. Checking was not the right verb. It was more like they harassed him, showing up to give him a hard time about still breathing. They hated that the feds wouldn’t let the locals touch him on those old mob cases, and when the day came that he vanished or turned up with a his back blown out by some shotgun, the locals were going to knock back a good bottle of Scotch and toast to justice. Carl hadn’t gotten more than two steps before a large hand grabbed his arm and stopped him. Without turning around, Carl waited.
“What the hell are you doing here, Carl? I taught you better than this. I taught you to have an escape strategy.”
Carl couldn’t help it; he laughed. “Yeah, well, your teaching didn’t stick quite as well as you expected. Fuck, the first day I drove for Mr. Lomik, you told me I didn’t have the stomach for this work. I should’ve listened. If I didn’t listen to you then, why the hell should I listen to your advice now?” Carl braced himself for the coming trouble.
Pete sucked in a fast breath. “Shit, you really don’t have backup. You don’t have backup or a plan for how to get yourself of this shitpile.”
“Yeah, I know.” His backup plan involved dying and dealing with whatever he found on the other side. Carl continued to focus on the house. The front had a big crack going from under the bedroom window to the foundation, the gutters had fallen from one side so that they dangled from the roofline, and the whole thing needed painting. Maybe he should take a break from fixing up cars and do a deal with the landlord to fix up the house a little.
“I don’t get you.” Pete tightened his grip, and Carl struggled against an instinctive need to pull away. It wouldn’t do him any good, not against Pete, and if he planned to die quick and clean without the torture, he needed to avoid pissing Pete off any more than he already had.
“What’s to get? I turned you in.” Carl looked over. He couldn’t read Pete’s expression, but then, he never really could. Sometimes Pete would laugh and slap someone on the back. Other times, he’d lash out with a fist, and no matter how long Carl worked with Pete, he was never able to predict which was coming.
“And then you ended up right back here.” Pete’s voice was still soft, but that didn’t mean anything.
Carl sighed and looked back at the house. Four months he’d been here, living small, trying to forget dreams of wealth and power that now turned his stomach. Four months he’d expected a bullet to the back of the head, and now that it was here, Carl didn’t know how to feel about it. “Doesn’t matter how I see it. Now, are you planning on us fighting—because if you do, I’m just too fucking tired right now, Pete.” Carl looked over his shoulder, and Pete was studying him, his fingers still making bruises on Carl’s arm. “And if you don’t plan on beating the shit out of me, I’m still just too fucking tired to have this conversation.”
Pete cocked his head. “Nice place.”
Carl didn’t answer.
“Get in the car,” Pete said without letting go of Carl’s arm. He gestured toward the Chevy illegally parked in front of the house.
Carl started shaking his head. “No way. No fucking way. You want some sort of revenge, fine, take it, but I’m not about to get in a car with you, Pete.” Carl paused. “Not after what I did.” If Pete took him into the house, there were a limited number of things he could do. Screaming would attract attention, even in this neighborhood. Pete could use a silencer or slit Carl’s throat, but he couldn’t get creative—not without risking attention. However, if Carl got in that car, Pete could take him anywhere. Death might be entirely too long in coming.
“Yes, you are,” Pete said firmly. He had the physicality, the height and the muscle and the force of personality that made Carl want to yield—to follow the way he’d always been a follower. However, he couldn’t. The stakes were too high.
“There’s a limit to what you can expect me to go along with,” Carl pointed out. “So if you want to take this in the house, you go for it. I’m not even going to argue. And then you take off before someone calls the cops, not that they’ll show up very fast in this neighborhood.”
Pete stared at him for a long time, and Carl waited, his stomach heavy and his heart pounding until he could feel it strain in his chest. Fear, he realized distantly, but he couldn’t feel it the way he had when he’d turned that woman over and listened to her last, rattling breaths. He didn’t feel fear like he had sitting in his apartment holding the phone, rocking it, as he wondered if he could turn in his friends. No, he felt this strange new breed of fear that he’d first felt when he’d sat on the stand and testified against Mr. Lomik and Little Mark and a dozen others, although the police had never found Pete. Now Carl felt a fear that crawled up into his belly and then circled and settled down like a familiar cat finding a warm spot in the sun.
“Get in the car,” Pete repeated as he started pulling. Even though Carl set his feet firmly in the dry dust of his dead front yard, he felt himself pulled inexorably toward Pete’s Chevy. Carl was a solid man—he had muscles he’d earned lifting fucking engines—but he couldn’t match Pete’s size or strength.
“You don’t want to do this,” Carl tried arguing, even though Pete’s stubborn face made it very clear that he did. “Not like this. Make it quick, Pete. You know I didn’t do it for money or spite, so don’t make this any uglier than it needs to be.”
That stopped Pete. “You stupid little shit. If I wanted you dead, don’t you think I could arrange that without coming back to this shithole?” Pete asked as he suddenly let go. Carl stumbled back several steps before he could catch his balance. “I don’t work for Lomik. I haven’t since he got sent up.” Pete crossed his arms over his chest, and Carl didn’t really have any answer, since he was now totally confused. Now Pete looked less pissed than he did just flat-out amused.
“Shit, Carl, when are you going to learn to fucking read people? I’ve been pulling in as many favors as I could to try and keep you off certain people’s radars. You’re hanging around the old neighborhood with a fucking target painted on your back, and there’s a limited amount of damage control I can do from long distance. It’s time for us to get the hell out of Dodge. Now get in the car, Carl.”
“Pete?” Carl said softly. Pete was covering for him? Pete hated him. He had to.
“There’s nothing around here you need. So get your ass in the car before I kick it up between your shoulder blades and toss you in the car, Ragar,” Pete threatened, his voice barely controlled.
“This is crazy.” Carl stepped forward, toward Pete, and Pete just stared back at him. “I have a landlord, bills.” Okay, that really didn’t sound like a valid excuse, but Pete was part of a life Carl had rejected. He’d given up their friendship, and he wasn’t ready to give up on having given it up.
“Tough shit,” Pete said with a shrug. He turned around and headed for the curb. “Get the lead out, Ragar, because you know what I’ll do if you keep me fucking waiting,” Pete called from the street. Carl took one last look at the house: the tinfoil in the front window, the tilting TV antenna, the screen door you had to lift to open or it fell off its hinges.
Carl dropped the greasy rag on the ground and headed for the Chevy just as Pete gunned the engine. The motor was rough, and Carl itched to get his hands under the hood. Cars were about the only thing Carl really understood. Hell, even now he wasn’t entirely sure this wasn’t some trick to get Carl into the car and off to a part of town with more privacy and fewer neighbors. Looking up and down the street, Carl looked at the worn houses and tired people. Decision made, Carl pulled open the door and slid in next to Pete.
“’Bout damn time. Shit, you’re slow,” Pete complained.
“Sometimes,” Carl agreed with an amiable shrug. “You knew that when you hired me four years ago.”
“Yeah, well, you knew engines and driving. Two skills I’m only passable in. That’s why it’s ironic that I run a shop now. I have a vacancy for a mechanic, and I’m hoping you’ll take the job.”
“You… what?” The comment was so unexpected, Carl wasn’t sure how to answer. However, Pete pulled away from the curb without answering. For better or worse, the life Carl had hobbled together vanished in the rear view mirror, and he was, once again, relying on Pete to help him build a new one.
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