Who is trying to kill the members of an elite special ops team that worked off the radar in Iraq in the '90s? It's up to Dan Stagg to track down the survivors the men with whom he stormed an undefended surveillance station, killing everyone inside. And now, many years later, the team is being targeted in what seems like a series of unrelated attacks. Dan teams up with his old comrade Al Benson, once a rising star of the USMC, now a respectable married civilian with a few secrets to hide. As they dig deeper into the secrets of the past, Dan discovers that Benson's looking for more than just answers. An explosive affair threatens everyone's future, and connects Dan to a past he thought he'd left behind.
About the Author
James Lear is the nom de plume of a prolific and acclaimed novelist. As James Lear he is the author of The Back Passage The Secret Tunnel Hot Valley The Low Road and The Palace of Varieties. He lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
Now, those of you who know me well will have rolled your eyes when I said I worked in a gym. ‘Oh yes, Dan, a gym. A place where guys come and take their clothes off. How convenient.’ I might bust your chops for that, or I might say ‘You’ve got me all wrong, I’m in a relationship now and I don’t fool around,’ and you’d pretend to believe me because you’d prefer to keep your limbs intact. But of course, you’re absolutely right. My official job at The Strong Box ‘Lowell’s Premier Fitness and Martial Arts Facility’ (ie the only gym in town) is personal trainer, specialising in kickboxing and other legitimised forms of violence. In between clients, who are sparse, I sit at the front desk, answer the phone, pick up wet towels in the locker room, mop the floors and generally clear up other people’s shit. It’s kind of like working for Uncle Sam, without the killing.
Of course there are opportunities, and yes, I’ve taken them. Not with the members: I can’t afford to lose this job, and the boss made us sign a piece of paper agreeing that any fraternising with the clients would lead to instant dismissal. I guess a few too many horny housewives got banged up by their personal trainers. They’re safe from me, but their husbands might not be. Nobody need know that. I’m not what you’d call out at work.
I didn’t sign anything about co-workers, though. People move around a lot in the fitness industry there’s a high staff turnover even in a little joint like the Strong Box, college grads trying to get a toehold in the business, former athletes whose competition days are over, even a few ex-military men like me. They’re all physically fit, and at a rough guess I’d say about 40 per cent of the men could be persuaded. You get talking about your bodies, you hit the showers after locking up at night, you compare abs or delts or whatever fucking muscle you like, and Bob’s your uncle. And it was just as I was putting the key in the ignition that I remembered I was sharing a shift with Lee, the young English guy who was doing a masters in sports science in a college over towards Boston. Like me he was living in cheap rented accommodation in Lowell, like me he was paying the rent by working at the gym, and in the couple of weeks he’d been there we’d really enjoyed complaining about stuff. He was 21, his first time abroad, his first time living away from home, and he was homesick. I guess I should also mention that he was tall and lean and had played rugby back at home, and hoped one day to play for his country. He had the English rose tattooed on his left pectoral muscle. ‘I want to wear that on my shirt one day,’ he said, the first time I saw him naked. If I had my way he’d never wear clothes again, but I just nodded and said something about sport.
He was already waiting when I pulled up to the kerb, leaning against the wall, wearing jeans and a thick sweater and a watch cap; it was September, the days still warm but the mornings cold as ice, a promise of the winter to come. He’d found a patch of thin early sunshine and was basking in it like a lizard, soaking up the warmth. His face was striking rather than handsome, particularly with the strong shadows accentuating his high cheekbones and deep brow. His eyes were close-set, his mouth large; in repose, he could look quite stupid, a brainless meathead. I liked this. I spent my career giving orders to guys like Lee, and I always had a soft spot for the dumb ones. When he heard the car door slamming he opened his eyes and smiled.
He stood up straight, pulled his cap off and ran a large hand over his head. The hair was cut in some crazy style, buzzed at the side but long at the top and back, a kind of modified Mohawk that would look fucking awful on anyone over 22. When you’re Lee’s age you can get away with it just. His nails were bitten down to the quick, and he had a band-aid on his right middle finger.
I shook his hand, then inspected his fingers. ‘What’s the matter, Lee? Can’t you afford regular food? Been eating yourself?’
He pulled his hand away, stuffed it into his pocket, ashamed of the childish habit. ‘Yeah, right, I know.’
He had a habit of mumbling which, combined with a thick London accent and an unfamiliar vocabulary, made communication interesting. ‘How are you mate?’
‘I’m good. You?’
‘Yeah.’ He did a nervous little sidelong smile, hissed between his teeth. ‘All right. Cold innit.’
‘Let’s open up.’ I checked my watch. ‘Half an hour before we let ‘em in.’
‘I need a shower.’ He sniffed his armpit and grimaced. ‘I fucking stink.’
I scratched my 24-hour stubble. ‘And I need a shave. Come on.’
The Strong Box occupied the basement of two retail units, an outdoor clothing store and a tackle and bait shop, accessed by a metal staircase and a tiny front area into which garbage always blew. Our first job was to clear out the night’s debris.
‘I’ll do this,’ I said, opening the door: as the senior employee, I was entrusted with the keys. ‘You go get the water running.’
‘Cheers mate. I owe you.’
Yeah, and I can think of a thousand ways to make you pay, I thought, watching his ass recede into the gloom of the interior. I kicked the trash into a little pile and dumped it in the bin, hoping there were no sharps. Usual stuff: burger wrappings, cigarette butts, cans. I needed to wash my hands.
I could hear the shower as soon as I walked in; good boy, he’d done as he was told, first thing in the morning it could take five minutes for the water to get up to a bearable temperature. The boiler was always breaking down, which made for pissed off members and smelly employees. The Strong Box was not exactly high-end.
‘Lee?’ I stowed my kit in a locker. ‘Where are you?’
‘I’m having a shit.’ He left the tops and tails off words: ‘avin’ a shi’.
I peeled off my shirt. The cheap fabric crackled as it went over my head, making the hair on my chest and stomach (there’s a lot) stand up with static.
‘Fuckin’ ‘ell, it’s Bigfoot.’
I laughed and growled, showing my teeth. ‘Keeps me warm in winter.’
‘Not like me.’ He pulled up his sweater to reveal a perfectly smooth, perfectly flat stomach. ‘Like a baby’s bottom, me.’
‘You’re young. And I bet you do all that trimming shit that kids do these days.’
He shrugged. ‘Yeah. A bit.’ He rubbed his head again. ‘Clippers. Can’t afford them salons.’
I dropped my pants. ‘Clippers don’t really work on me.’ Lee took in my hairy legs, and his eyebrows shot up, furrowing his forehead the expression that male models and pop singers affect in photoshoots.
‘You look like our family dog.’
‘Woof,’ I said, wondering what he’d do when he saw my ass. It’s starting to look as if I’m wearing hair underpants.
‘I miss him,’ he said, with complete sincerity. ‘He’s a nice old boy.’ I thought I detected a bit of moisture in his eyes, but then he pulled his shirt over his head. Lee’s skin was the very pale, smooth type that always makes me think of marble statues, the kind of things that decorate highfalutin military establishments. Apart from the tattoo, the head of the rose as big as the palm of my hand, he was flawless. Big pink nipples, enough definition to make him look masculine, but not one of those skinny muscle freaks who end up looking like anatomical models. I licked my lips, and felt my dick stirring; it hadn’t been completely limp ever since I got out of bed, even when I was picking up the trash. He unbuttoned his jeans and dropped them down his thighs; there was nothing underneath, just young flesh.
He sat down to remove his shoes and socks, looking up at me.
‘What you do at the weekend then, Dan?’
‘Saw my folks,’ I said. Sat in miserable silence around a dinner that nobody wanted to eat. Cleaned the guttering. Chopped wood for winter. Drank beer at home, alone. ‘How ‘bout you?’
‘Nothing.’ He looked down, struggling with a knot in his laces. ‘Can’t afford to go out.’
‘Come on. Young guy like you should be having the time of his life.’
‘I don’t know anyone.’
‘What about the other students?’
‘They all run around in cars and shit. They never ask me out.’
‘Well I tell you what, Lee,’ I said, pulling my underpants down and very conscious that my dick was well on the way to half hard, ‘next weekend let your Uncle Dan take you out for a burger and a beer.’
‘Course. Now come on. Let’s get clean for the people.’ I couldn’t stand there looking at him much longer, or he was going to get jabbed in the eye.
‘Fucking things,’ he said, and kicked his shoes off, laces still knotted. He trotted after me into the showers, where steam was thickening the air.
The Sweat Box, I’m happy to say, was one of the few remaining gyms to hold out against screened-in shower cubicles; it had a wall with five faucets and a drain down which soapy water ran. No sauna, no steamroom, nothing but running water and some pegs on which to hang your towels. No obstacles to a clear and uninterrupted view of your fellow washers.
We stood, as is usually the case when two men share an open shower, with an empty space between us: close enough to be friendly, far enough to avoid intimacy. For a few moments we both faced the wall, getting our heads wet, rubbing our faces, but as we started to soap up we turned to face each other. I was definitely half hard now, my dick sticking out at about 45 degrees from my body, water jetting off the end. I lathered up my armpits, my chest, my stomach. Lee’s hair was plastered to his skull, his body covered in a film of white bubbles. There was a small thatch of hair above his cock, trimmed to almost nothing; apart from that, he was smooth. His cock, which I had never seen before, was long and uncut and, unless I was very much mistaken, starting to wake up.
‘You lived round here a long time, Dan?’ He wiped soap out of his eyes.
‘On and off, all my life.’
‘Never wanted to travel?’
I laughed, and washed my ass, making no effort to cover my dick. ‘Oh, I’ve been here and there.’ Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia... all the glamor spots.
‘I always wanted to travel,’ he said. ‘See the world, right? Meet interesting people.’
‘Yeah, well, there’s plenty of them.’
‘That’s why I came to the States.’
‘Right.’ He was sneaking downward glances, which suited me fine. He wanted to see the world? I’d show him. ‘And does it live up to your expectations?’
He laughed. ‘Well, Lowell’s not exactly Vegas.’ He ran his hands down his wet, slippery stomach. ‘But it’s okay. I like it here.’
‘Me too.’ I rested my hands on the small of my back and pushed my hips forward a little. My dick swayed from side to side. He watched it like a mongoose watching a cobra. I guess he was missing his girlfriend or boyfriend back home as much as he was missing the family dog. ‘As long as you’ve got friends.’
He looked up into my eyes. ‘This okay?’
‘I’ve got the keys. And there’s twenty minutes before we let anyone in.’
He stepped across the tiled floor, under the spray from my shower. ‘I’m not, you know. Gay.’
‘Right.’ I grabbed his dick. ‘Me neither.’ He gasped as I started to stroke him, and buckled at the knees.
‘I just like fucking guys.’ He was fully hard now; it took about twenty seconds. The joys of youth, right?
‘You like fucking guys, Lee?’
‘I... I don’t...’
‘Or don’t they do that back in the Old Country?’
He opened his eyes, frowned. ‘What?’
‘Doesn’t matter. Now come here.’ His hands hung limp at his sides; I took one of them and placed it on my cock. ‘Time to learn.’
He didn’t look too happy about having a dick in his hands, in fact he was positively pouting. But then again, he didn’t take his hand away. We stroked each other for a while, slicked up with soap, water coursing down our bodies. There wasn’t time to fuck him all that business with condoms means I allow at least half an hour even for a quickie but I wanted to stake a claim on his ass for future reference. With Jody away, it made sense to have a regular buddy, especially one who wasn’t going to fall in love with me, and wasn’t going to be around for too long. I pulled him close so our cocks were touching, reached round and grabbed his right buttock. It felt like a basketball wrapped in a blanket. Lee was so intent on the feeling of two hard soapy dicks jousting around that he didn’t complain about my invasion of what, I assumed, was virgin territory. Some guys yelp if you so much as look at their asses. Not this one. He grabbed both our cocks with one hand, squashed them together, rolled them around.
‘Mine’s bigger than yours,’ he said, and smiled.
‘I guess it is.’
‘You want to suck it?’
‘Sure.’ Let him think he’s in charge. There’s a lot he doesn’t yet know but he’s going to find out. I dropped down to a squat, made a circle of thumb and forefinger round his balls, and started sucking his dick. He gently lathered my head, and once I’d got my lips as far down as they’d go he fucked my mouth. I could tell from the hardness in his shaft and the tightness in his balls that he wasn’t going to take long; time to teach him lesson number one. My index finger found his asshole and pressed.
There was enough soap around the place to make it easy. I slipped in to the first knuckle.
I looked up, wondering if bloody hell was a good thing or a bad thing. His lips were parted, and a thick vein was bulging in the middle of his forehead. Good, I guess.
I pressed in further, still sucking, still squeezing, getting a kind of head massage from his big white hands. And bang, there it was, the prostate. I drew a circle on it with my fingertip, letting him know what I’d found, and then pressed.
‘Jesus, Dan... Jesus...’
He was coming now, fucking my mouth hard, pressing me down on him. I pulled on his balls, making the sac tight, as semen pulsed into my throat.
When he’d finished, I slipped slowly out of his ass and let go of his dick. My thighs were cramping up a bit, and I stood. Lee looked stunned, and leaned against the shower wall.
‘What the fuck was that?’
‘Did you like it?’
‘But nothing. Now you just lie on the floor, pretty boy, and let me look at you.’
He did as he was told, a quality I greatly value, and I planted a foot on either side of his hips. Water splashed down on his chest, in his face, but he wiped his eyes and watched.
I took my cock in my hand and started jerking myself, taking in every contour of his beautiful wet body. The thick neck, the sculpted shoulders, the deep grooves from his hips to his groin, and that red rose blooming on his chest. He was playing with himself, gripping the base of his cock between two fingers, flapping it around from side to side; if we’d had more time, I could have made him come again. He crooked the other arm behind his head, lifting it off the floor, tensing his abs.
‘I ain’t never done this before,’ he said, ‘but it’s all right.’
That was all I needed to hear. My dick jumped in my hand and sprayed him with jizz from neck to navel, one big glob landing directly in the heart of the rose. It glistened for a moment before it was washed down the drain.
We dried and dressed quickly, quietly, pulling on our nylon Strong Box shirts and shorts, tidying the locker room, making sure the place looked respectable.
I checked my watch; six o’clock sharp.
‘Time to let ‘em in, Lee. You all set?’
He nodded, said nothing. Shit, I thought I’m going to have a confused, sulky co-worker all day. And then, as I was unlocking the front door, he came up behind me, pressing himself against me. ‘You really mean that about the weekend, Dan? I mean, you know, about going out and stuff?’
He looked crestfallen. ‘Oh. Just maybe.’
‘If you kiss me.’
He smiled. ‘Go on then.’ He grabbed my neck, opened his mouth and kissed me, pushing me into the door, pumping his hips. He was hard again.
‘Get behind the desk, Lee, and don’t come out until that’s gone down.’
He vaulted over the reception and greeted the early birds with a particularly warm smile.