Jack Barnett grabbed his wife's hand, pulling her along at break-neck speed, cursing when she stumbled. She cried out as he dragged her back onto her feet and, silently, he berated himself for hurting her. He felt her arm twist unnaturally beneath his desperate grip. He wrapped his own arm around her fragile frame to support her as they ran onwards and upwards, picking their way through the small rocks and boulders.
"We're... nearly there, Jill. Only a... few... more feet. You can make it."
His words were interspersed with hash gasps of exertion, and he could feel her small body shuddering against him as she sucked air into her own abused lungs. They reached the top of the rocky hill and froze, bodies heaving with exhaustion and fear. Barnett wrapped both of his arms around his wife, staring with dread at the manic, laughing man that appeared before them. Two of the man's henchmen stepped forward. One grabbed at him and he fought back, uselessly, as the other tore his wife from his grasp.
Barnett felt tears of frustration and denial fill his eyes as the psychotic man approached with a light skip in his step. On the snap of his bony fingers the henchman released Barnett, standing aside to watch with eyes full of glee and anticipation. Barnett raised his hands in supplication as the tall man came towards him.
"Please... I'm begging you. If it's money you want. Here... take my wallet."
The man giggled and knocked aside the wallet, its contents spilling out. Dollar bills were caught in the slight breeze and fluttered off.
"Jack and Jill went up the hill, to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown..." The evil grin grew more menacing as he locked onto Jack's eyes. "...and Jill came tumbling after."
"No! No! Jill!"
With the sudden realization of why they had been forced to climb up the hill, Jack lunged for his wife, desperately wanting to protect her from this madman. The maniac snapped forward, grabbing Barnett by his shoulders, the washed-out blue eyes staring deep into his own.
The man grinned then shoved him... once... hard.
Barnett felt gravity grab at his body, and he was falling, pain flaring in his shoulder as it impacted against one rock... then another... and then, darkness forever.
The maniac laughed maniacally at the woman's scream, avidly drinking in her reaction to the sight of her husband's body being dashed against the rocks as Barnett fell to the bottom of the steep incline. She ceased her struggles abruptly when he reached forward to cup her chin in his hand.
Her high-pitched scream ended abruptly, and the man's hysterical laughter filled the air at the sight of two broken bodies at the bottom of the hill.
Li Ann Tsei tried to look impassive but she knew she was failing miserably. She could not prevent a small huff of annoyance from spilling from her lips. She was fed up. Her partners were bickering— yet again— like an old married couple and, as usual these days, she felt the odd one out. A rubbed her forehead and frowned. There was a time when she would be the one sitting in the center seat— her ex-fiancé on one side of her, her ex-lover on the other, but now, more often than not, it was Mac who sat there. Her frown deepened as the bickering turned, inevitably, to whom was the better agent.
"Victor... You couldn't break into your own locker given the combination."
"Oh yeah... and what about that time when you lost the keys to your apart..."
"I was drunk! Anyway, I still got us in..."
"You phoned Li Ann!"
Li Ann rolled her eyes and sighed again, shaking her head slowly in resignation. She was tempted to butt in and tell them they were both inferior to her, but Mac had his back to her, effectively excluding her from the debate. Instead, she let her thoughts wander back over the past few months as she tried to figure out exactly when Mac had taken over as the heart of the team.
She remembered how, after breaking off her engagement to Victor, that she had felt uncomfortable being so close to him. She had forced Mac into the middle seat to act as a buffer between them; not that Mac needed any encouragement to be the center of attention. That was at the beginning of their Agency partnership but, after a few weeks with no animosity growing between them, she had regained the coveted center seat without a murmur of disapproval from either man.
She often wondered if Victor still thought about their former relationship. Certainly, she never expected to miss the feel of his arms around her in the night; he was a cuddler but she preferred to sleep unfettered. That brought a wry smile to her lips. Mac had also been a cuddler and would cling to her all night long if she had not made some paltry excuse each time about not wanting to upset Michael, and slipped from his bed.
She frowned at Mac, who still had his back to her as he teased Victor; her thoughts went in circles, eventually returning to that coveted center seat.
Come to think of it, she mused, softly to herself.
She realized, suddenly, that the only time she did occupy the center seat these days was when she managed to arrive before Mac. That, in itself, was something to frown about. She could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times she had arrived late whereas, in contrast, Mac was always flaunting the punctuality rule. At least he had been until recently.
It was almost as if he wanted to be a barrier between Victor and her.
She gave a small smile, inwardly laughing at herself for such a thought and, anyway, who was to say what would happen in the future. Perhaps, in another week, she and Mac would have a falling out and it would be Victor sitting between them.
"Such deep musings, Li Ann." The Director's auburn hair brushed against her cheek as the soft voice drifted close to her ear, startling her from her thoughts. "However..." Li Ann followed the Director's pointed look towards the now silent men. "...I can understand the need to escape from that... juvenile conversation."
Li Ann watched as Mac's eyes lowered in annoyance. Beside him, Victor was shuffling in his seat, clearing his throat and studiously trying to avoid catching anyone's eye. Victor seemed equally annoyed, for some reason Li Ann could not quite fathom. She watched as the Director walked to the far side of the desk, feeling strangely pleased by the glare that was aimed, mainly, at the embarrassed but seemingly recalcitrant men.
"Hmmm." The Director gave an exaggerated sigh. "Before we begin."
Li Ann flinched as the Director slammed a red book on the table, a book they all recognized; the book filled with their misdemeanors, both minor and major.
"Mac. It must stop."
Mac's eyebrows rose in beguiling innocence, the 'who me?', 'stop what?' expression floating across his face.
The Director sighed inwardly even as her eyes held Mac's. She schooled her face to show no expression and kept her eyes as hard as nails but, beneath the stern exterior, she was smiling.
She had several teams similar to this one. In fact, Victor had walked in on one during a debriefing several months earlier and yet, despite the similarities in personality, looks, skills and gender configuration, none of the other teams could annoy or please her as much as this particular one. This team was special and, despite being set up after all the others, it was as if those others were a mere parody of it.
This 'Mac' was more vibrant, richer in language and action, self-assured with the slightest touch of arrogance that was tolerated by his teammates because of his puppy-like desire to please. He was not so much "look what I did," but "look what I did for you." He was fiercely protective of Li Ann and, despite declarations to the contrary, even more so of Victor, especially over the past few months. The other 'Macs' were shallow, self-absorbed and irksome in comparison.
This 'Li Ann' was composed and poised, like an Eastern princess; cool exterior, molten interior, graceful as a swan, lithe as a ballet dancer with a sharp intellect that could not be matched by anyone but the Director herself. Her similars were vastly inferior. No other seemed to have that magical combination which, quite simply, took the Director's breath away.
And then there was Victor. How she adored him. The other 'Victors' seemed brash and brutish in comparison, their personalities floating way off the mark with the wide-boy attitude of a no-good street punk. None had the same complexity, the same tough exterior that often failed to camouflage the vulnerability hidden beneath but then, this Victor had never been a true criminal. He was probably the only truly honest agent she had ever recruited. She had once told him that she cried real tears over him. It had been said sarcastically but was very close to the truth, for if Li Ann were the brain of this team and Mac the heart, then Victor would be its soul.
Mac had lost his innocent look while he waited for the Director's response to his silent denial and, with a chagrined smile, he averted his eyes. She sighed inwardly. Perhaps his last prank on Dobrinsky had been a little harsh but, after all, nobody got hurt — and Nathan could always replace those fish. Her eyes turned away in triumph at her small victory over Mac, and she faced her next target.
"Victor. Victor. Victor. What are we going to do with you?"
"If you're referring to the Harbor Report then..."
"No. Well, yes." She opened the book and began writing, adding yet another misdemeanor to the long list against Victor. "Victor, do you have any idea how much background research goes into every case?"
She watched as Victor took a deep breath, the sudden dulling of his own bright, green eyes bringing a twinkling to her own. She felt a sadistic pleasure as she watched Victor squirm in his seat.
Victor cursed inwardly. The last time she had hauled them over the coals about reports, he had ended up spending a week doing 'grunt' work. He wasn't sure he could survive another seven hours straight of Nathan's paranoia, when two minutes was enough to put him on edge for a whole day.
"Yes. I'm sorry. I'll be more..." Victor paused. "More..."
"Detailed? Informative? Procedurally correct?"
"Yes. All of those... and more."
Victor shifted uneasily as the Director came up behind him, her hand carding through his hair, moving from his forehead backwards. Suddenly, she slapped him hard on the back of the head.
"See that you are."
He hissed, rubbing the injury as she moved back to her seat on the other side of the desk, obviously unconcerned with his pain.
"And now to business. Your new assign..."
"What about Li Ann?"
"What about Li Ann, Mac?"
"Doesn't she get chewed out for... for... well, for something."
"Like what? Li Ann gets a gold star this week." Li Ann beamed at her two male partners. "And if you interrupt me again I'll be forced to put you over my knee and spank you... Hmmm, that sounds..." The Director wiped the lusty smile off her face and returned to the business at hand. "Your assignment."
Victor's eyes narrowed with interest as she picked up three files from the end of the table and threw one in front of each agent.
"We're calling this the Nursery Rhyme Killings. No prizes for guessing why." Picking up a small remote, she drew their attention to the screen behind her. "Jack and Jill Barnett. A quiet couple in their late thirties... The latest victims."
Victor frowned as he glanced at the bodies lying broken at the bottom of a rocky incline. "Jack and Jill as in 'fell down and broke his crown'..."
"...or were they pushed."
"Very good, boys. So you have been paying attention... for once."
The next slide showed a plump man lying at the bottom of a high wall.
"Don't tell me... his name was Humpty Dumpty."
The Director smiled, for once not seeming annoyed at Mac's interruption.
"Close. Humphrey Dumfries. An accountant in charge of a small research office... but I believe his staff used it as a nickname."
"So what's the real connection?"
The Director turned her attention to Victor. He had already moved past the obvious connection and was trying to discover if there was anything more; something other than their nursery rhyme names that connected the murders.
"Maybe the rhymes are the only connection." The Director smiled at Li Ann beckoning her to continue with a wave of her fingers. "I mean, it may be all a serial killer needs. Some killers go for a particular type. Maybe Nursery Rhymes are his...thing."
"Interesting thought, Li Ann. So where shall we begin, boys and... girl?"
She paused, eyebrows raised in inquiry, but Victor could not think of anything to say— and, judging by the blank expressions, neither could Mac or Li Ann. The Director gave a loud sigh and reached for another book, dropping it onto the table in front of them. Mac craned his neck round to check the title.
"Humpty Dumpty and Other Nursery Rhymes."
The Director turned away and moved towards the staircase and, this time, it was Victor who sighed as she casually threw one final order over her shoulder.
"I suggest you make a note of any that could be... misconstrued."
An Hour Later
Li Ann's almond-shaped eyes widened in excitement.
"What about this one. 'Dr Foster went to Gloucester in a shower of rain. He stepped in a puddle right up to his middle'..."
"...and he never went there again." Victor looked up and then raised his eyebrows to match the lifted ones on his partners' faces. "It's not my fault I had a normal childhood... well, sort of."
"Vic's got a point..." Mac held up a hand and carried on as Li Ann started to interrupt that she had spotted the rhyme first. "...our childhood was more 'Confucius say'" He grinned at the annoyed pout on his ex-lover's pretty face.
"Why are we doing this?"
"Doing what?" Both Li Ann and Mac exclaimed together, then gave each other an annoyed glance before turning back to Victor.
"This is a job for the cops. Why are we handling a 'serial' killer?"
"Who's only killed twice." Mac frowned. "You're right, Vic. There's something strange about this."
"Well, I don't know about you two but if the Director says we investigate then I, for one, am going to do as I am told."
Mac whispered to Victor under his breath. "Teacher's pet."
Li Ann wrinkled up her nose and ignored Mac. "I suggest we ask Nathan for a list of all the Dr Fosters in the area."
Victor nodded, slightly preoccupied. "Yeah. Especially as the forecast tomorrow is rain."
"How does he do that?"
Li Ann rolled her eyes. "It's called a weather forecast, Mac."
"Nathan, my man!" Nathan winced as Mac gave him a slap on the back then leaned in closer. "Need some information."
"The library's downstairs."
Nathan petulantly turned his back on the man who had left sticky, apple jelly fingerprints all over his computer terminal only the other day— and had duped Dobrinsky into eating his goldfish. However, he jumped when another friendly arm dropped over his shoulder, turned and felt his knees weaken as his eyes were captured by the deep, sea-green depths of Mac's male partner. A husky voice, close to his ear, sent shivers racing down Nathan's spine.
"But the librarian's here... and we need you, Nathan."
A slight crinkling at the bridge of Victor's cute nose brought a small whimper from Nathan as he imagined licking a path across that frown line, but the image was spoiled by strange looks from both men. He felt himself become all flustered when they exchanged another less than respectful glance between them before each gave a small shrug, obviously dismissing his reaction to Victor's presence as yet another one of his foibles. Oh yes, he knew how they viewed him, with a certain amount of disdain, but had discovered quite early on that if he ignored Mac then the younger man would, eventually, get the message and go away. Victor, however, was a different matter altogether; Nathan felt he could forgive Victor anything.
"Nathan, we need a list of all the Dr Fosters in town... and a map of Toronto."
"Any-Anything for you, V-V-Victor."
Nathan sighed as the arm dropped away. Oh well, this latest encounter would fuel his fantasies for weeks. Nathan spaced-out as he started to imagine a new scenario... the feel of Victor's arms reaching for him, pulling him into a close embrace, soft lips parting as he moved forward to press his lips against... He jumped when he realized Victor was standing in front of him, Victor's strong arms were gripping his shoulders and Victor's beautiful face was moving closer... Victor's luscious mouth forming words... as that cute frown line deepened between the beautiful sea-green eyes.
"Are you okay, Nathan?"
"Yes." Nathan squeaked then cleared his throat, his voice deepening. "Yes." He sighed and moved away from Victor before he was tempted to give into the impulse to kiss those perfect lips.
If only Victor had said "I need you," rather than "we need you".
They made their way towards the elevator with the two agents to one side of him, and barely half a step behind. Out of the corner of his eye Nathan watched as Mac sidled up close to Victor, wishing it was him who leant in so close to that beautiful, stocky frame, breathing in the unique scent that was Victor alone. Although they dropped their voices to whispers, Nathan heard the exchange, his hearing more acute than either of the other two men realized.
"I think Nathan's got a serious case of hero-worship."
Nathan's mouth tightened at Victor's whispered question, amazed that the man could have no idea, and yet even more enchanted by Victor's innocence.
"Well, he doesn't get all flustered when he's talking to me or Li Ann."
The doors slid open and they moved forward to stand against the back wall of the elevator, waiting for him to select the floor number. Nathan turned, suddenly, to face them. He paused and then reached forward, hesitating slightly when Victor flinched. His fingers plucked at Victor's brushed cotton shirt.
Nathan turned away and stared at Victor's reflection in the metal control panel, grateful Victor was not looking his way... although he did love to stare into those beautiful eyes. No one else had eyes like Victor. He felt his cock twitch as his thoughts dwelled on those large, green eyes framed by long dark lashes; the sort of lashes all the women claimed they would die for. He brought his attention back to the present and jumped when he realized those eyes were staring back at him, reflected in the smooth metal. Another light frown creased Victor's forehead, crinkling the skin across the bridge of his nose in that sexy way that...
Nathan whimpered and then gasped softly in relief when the elevator door opened, depositing them in front of the library. He hurried off, willing his erection down before either Mac or Victor noticed his predicament. The two other men fell in step slightly behind him and, once again, Nathan was able to observe Mac edging up to Victor through his peripheral vision. He sighed, quietly, as he overheard Mac teasing Victor.
"Forget what I said about hero-worship. He's got a full-blown crush on you."
"What?" Victor burst out. Nathan couldn't help but jump, and look back at him. Victor smiled tightly then dropped his voice back down to a whisper, unaware that Nathan could still hear him. "What do you mean?"
Mac laughed, lengthening his stride until he had passed Nathan, leaving Victor lagging behind to stew in these new thoughts and Nathan pursing his lips in annoyance at having his feelings for Victor revealed in such a fashion.
"That was so... so... so embarrassing!"
Victor jumped when he heard Li Ann's voice behind them. "I wish you wouldn't sneak up on us like that."
"Don't change the subject, Victor. What was embarrassing?"
Victor reddened and squirmed in his seat. "Nothing."
"Oh, come on. Let me in." Gaining no response from her ex-fiancé, she turned inquisitive eyes upon her former lover as she took her seat beside him, on the far end. "Mac?"
Mac grinned inanely, unable to control the need to tell someone. "Looks like Vic has found a new love."
Li Ann frowned, feeling a hole open up in her chest at the thought of Victor finding someone to replace her so quickly and easily. To be honest, it had been almost a year since she handed back her engagement ring and, in that time, she had taken other lovers. Yet, the thought of Victor moving on was strangely upsetting, and she felt guilty for feeling that way. After all, why shouldn't he forget her and move on? Isn't that what she had told him to do?
"You mean who."
Despite Victor's plea for secrecy, it was obvious to Li Ann that Mac couldn't resist passing on the little tidbit of gossip. "It's Nathan."
Li Ann gasped and choked back a laugh. "Nathan the Librarian? You have a crush on Nathan the...?"
"No I do not!" Victor quickly lowered his voice, his eyes flashing in annoyance at his outburst. "Mac thinks Nathan has a crush on me."
Victor threw back his head. "Oh God. I said this was embarrassing."
"Embarrassment aside, Victor. Did Nathan have anything for you...?" Li Ann could not hold back a grin when the Director sidled up behind Victor and then lowered her voice to whisper suggestively into his ear.
Victor dropped his head into his hands as she moved on behind them, eventually rounding the desk and taking her customary seat opposite. He cleared his throat and looked up, catching a twitch around the corner of his boss' red-painted lips. He felt his own cheeks heat until they must have matched her bright lipstick colour. He cleared his throat again.
"There are only two Dr Fosters in town, but there are several 'Gloucester' place references in nearby suburbs. It'll be easier to stick with the Docs rather than stake-out the locations."
"If... and that's a big if... one of these two Doctors is the next intended victim. There are plenty more nursery rhymes for our killer to choose from." Li Ann added. "And who's to say he won't find another Jack and Jill..."
The Director nodded at Li Ann in approval.
"...Or a Miss Muffet."
"Victor? Miss Muffet was frightened away— no mention of..."
"Jack broke his crown... didn't say he died either."
"Point taken." The Director steepled her fingers. "I don't suppose you have a list of Miss Muffets?"
Victor drew out a sheet of paper from his jacket pocket and slid it across the table. "Just the one... but several more Jack and Jills."
Mac pouted. "Ooh, now whose teacher's pet... Ouch" The ruler struck his knuckles so quickly and unexpectedly that he had no time to react. He rubbed his tender knuckles with his other hand.
"Next time you interrupt class, I'll be aiming much lower."
"It doesn't pay to vex me."
Mac motioned his fingers across his mouth, imitating a zipper being closed.
"So, boys and girl. Jack and Jill's aside, we have three possible targets— and three of you. Any guesses as to what I'm going to propose?"
"Why are we doing this?"
"This is a case for the cops."
"Then why are we looking into this?"
The Director sighed.
It was obvious to Victor that there was far more to this case than she had revealed to them, and he waited patiently. Experience had taught him that if he did not get an instant response from her that it was 'need-to-know' then she would, eventually, offer up the missing information. In this case he found he did not even have to wait that long.
"Both Jack Barnett and Humphrey Dumfries had a connection with the Agency."
He sat back a little, feeling a little smug as he had alluded earlier to the possibility that there was more to the murders than just a nursery rhyme connection.
"Jack Barnett was a very able research assistant. Humphrey Dumfries worked as an accountant in our legal research department."
"Has anyone investigated a connection between the two? Were they working on a similar case?"
"That angle is being covered, Victor. But I wanted to put together a back-up investigation just in case— as Li Ann pointed out earlier— the rhymes are the only connection."
Victor opened his mouth to debate the logic of that but then bowed to the inevitable. He looked across, expecting Mac to be staring off into the distance, completely bored with events. Instead, he found those bright eyes focused on him, but what made Victor's eyebrows rise in surprise was the fact that Mac's gaze dropped away as soon as he realized he had been caught staring at his partner.
Vic raised his eyebrows. What the hell was that all about?
Any chance to question the strange look he had seen on Mac's face was lost as the Director gave them their assignments.
"How come I get the Old Maid? I hate spiders."
"You hate spiders?" Li Ann said, taken aback.
"I never knew you hated spiders. When did...?"
"The Black Widow in the box with the Fourth Emerald. Gave me the creeps..." Mac shuddered dramatically. Victor rolled his eyes in contempt.
"That wasn't a Black Widow... just an overgrown house spider that got trapped in there the last time they took the stone out to polish."
"Nah... it was huge!" Victor shook his head in amazement and carried on walking as Mac continued. "Talking of huge; problems that is. What're you gonna do about Nathan?"
"Nathan? Well... nothing. He's just gonna have to get over it by himself."
"You're not gonna talk to him... make his day?"
"I'm just gonna ignore it... in fact, I'm just gonna ignore you too."
Victor strode off, stepping just a little faster and a little harder than before. Mac grinned to himself. Baiting Victor just got better and better, although, to be honest he had been expecting a little more moral outrage from his straight colleague, especially after Li Ann related Victor's comments during the Transsexuals case. On that occasion the Director had told Victor to be more open to possibilities, that there was more to life than white bread. To Li Ann's merriment, Victor had replied 'Not that open'. It was strangely pleasing to discover Victor was not overly upset about being on the receiving end of another man's sexual fantasies. Or at least it seemed that way, and that was enough to give him a little hope.
He followed in his partner's footsteps, whistling happily away to himself, until the irony occurred to him. This was the one thing he and Nathan did have in common— the presence of Victor Mansfield in their sexual fantasies.
Doctor Foster's House
Victor sighed heavily, readjusting his position for the umpteenth time as he tried to get comfortable upon the hard leather couch. Part of his discomfort came from his thoughts. Despite his assertions to the contrary, the thought of Nathan fantasizing about him made him feel decidedly uneasy. He had never considered himself a sex object. At least, not until he had ended up in prison after being framed by his former police colleagues. The powers that be had placed him into solitary for his own protection, but the catcalls and whispered threats from the other inmates as he was moved from his solitary confinement to the exercise yard, shower block— and back again— had made him nervous. He remembered the lust in the eyes that followed him. They had made lewd suggestions of what they would like to do with his pretty face and with his ass, offering him protection if he agreed to be their bitch in return.
Victor had never been so grateful in his life as when the Director offered him a route out of that place. He had spent many a night lying awake wondering when some corrupt prison guard would 'accidentally' leave him vulnerable to attack. By accepting her offer, he had blown his chances of being found innocent of his supposed crimes, but it was a choice he had been given, a choice he had made without too many regrets.
As to Nathan Muckle... The man was harmless, Victor knew that. He knew Nathan would never act upon his fantasies, knew he would never try to force him against his wishes. He could honestly say he had never noticed a mean bone in that lanky body but still, it had changed the way he looked at the librarian. Victor cursed himself. Why had he never noticed before? The way Nathan stammered whenever they were in close proximity, the way the librarian was always touching him on one pretext or another; picking fluff from his clothes, gripping his arm to attract his attention... holding him close as he whispered some inane secret into his ear.
Was that how he fuelled those fantasies?
He had always assumed the small moans and whimpers whenever they spoke or touched, and the constant staring, were something to do with the man's paranoid belief that he was part of some ruling council. He remembered the way Nathan would zone out on him at those times. Now he wondered if he would ever be able to look at Nathan again without wondering if the man was undressing him— or even fucking him— in some private fantasy world.
But that was too stupid to contemplate (or something to replace the thought), and he berated himself for becoming as paranoid as he believed Nathan to be. Damn Mac for opening his eyes to Nathan's crush on him. This was one occasion when he wished he could have remained in blissful ignorance. Now he wondered if he would ever be able to turn his back on Nathan and feel safe. That thought angered him.
Damnit. Remember, he is harmless.
It was not as if he was even bothered about homosexuality normally... but it was the threat of being raped that had fuelled his own fears in prison; of being taken violently, or being coerced to service someone he neither wanted nor cared for. Although a nice enough person, once you got beneath all that paranoia and spooky talk, Nathan did nothing for him... not like Mac. He felt a warmth coiling in the pit of his stomach as he considered the tall but graceful, beautiful frame of his very male partner, suddenly realizing that he had some terrible secret in common with Nathan.
They both fantasized about someone they could never have.
Victor thumped the hard pillow in annoyance, as he remembered the strange look Mac had given him back at the briefing room. If he wanted to be a masochist then he could easily read something special into that look; a longing, a desire for him reflected in those dark eyes. He sneered in contempt of himself. Even if that look had meant what he hoped, Victor had no intention of ever taking Mac as a real-world lover, for he was certain that all Mac could offer him was a one-night stand... and Victor had never been one for casual relationships. When he allowed someone into his bed he also gave that person the key to his heart. It meant he had seen his heart ripped out several times during his life but, in love, he remained the eternal optimist, forever hoping that next time it would be the real thing.
The predicted rain arrived in a torrent with flashes of lightning illuminating the room, and he stopped thinking about Mac— and Nathan— allowing the force of the outside storm to command his attention. Gradually, the claps of thunder moved away into the distance leaving just the melodic pattering of rain against the windowpanes. Victor frowned as he contemplated how many inches of rain had fallen, wondering whether it would be enough to bring this Nursery Rhyme Killer seeking a new victim.
He wondered how Mac and Li Ann were doing with their own babysitting tasks. Thoughts of Mac looking after the ancient Miss Muffet, with her seventeen cats and eight dogs brought an evil smile to his face, but the ring of the telephone interrupted further delicious contemplation of Mac's fate.
Victor sat up and waited expectantly, muscles coiled ready to spring into action. He moved quickly as the door opened, gaining his feet in one fluid motion. Doctor Michael Foster stuck his head around the door, slightly taken aback to find Victor Mansfield awake.
"I have to go out."
"O-kaaayy. Where're we going?"
"Emergency call from an apartment in Gloucester Place."
Victor pursed his lips. This would be it... Dr Foster going to Gloucester in the pouring rain. Hopefully, all he had to do was watch out for any large, deep puddles, but first... He pulled out his cellphone and speed-dialled Mac's number as he pulled on his shoes. No answer. He tried Li Ann's with the same result, and wondered whether the electrical storm was interfering with the signals.
"We have to go. Now. The man's neighbor told me my patient is having trouble catching his breath." Foster huffed in annoyance. "And don't get all fired up. It won't be the first house call I've made to that apartment over the past few weeks."
Victor grimaced, partly at the doctor's ungrateful irritation and partly at the thought of going out into the miserable, cold, wet night, but the doctor was already pulling on his trench coat. Victor eyed the phone on the hall stand longingly as he shoved the cellphone into his pocket, and then he shrugged into his own coat, quickly following the Doctor out of the door. He pulled the collar high as the rain pelted down upon them and then raced to the car, clambering into the passenger seat with some alacrity.
"Aarghh! I hate the rain."
Victor moaned as the water ran in rivulets down his face and under the collar, following an icy cold path down the back of his neck. He watched the darkened streets pass by as the car gathered speed and he swiped a hand across his hair, flicking the excess water away even as the wiper blades swished back and forward over the windshield.
Several minutes passed in silence, the doctor's full attention taken by the road ahead. Victor used the opportunity to pull his gun out, wanting to give it a final check to ensure it was fully loaded, and then readied himself mentally for all eventualities. From his peripheral vision, he saw Foster give him a sideways glance as the dull street light glinted off the metal barrel. He tried to give the doctor a reassuring smile in response.
Eventually the car turned into a narrow side street before pulling over to the side of the pavement. The storm was slowly abating, the rain easing off as Victor stepped out of the car, body tensed, gun ready in his hand, his eyes darting in all directions as he tried to penetrate the darkness beyond the halo of light from the street lamp. He walked quickly around to the driver's side, grabbing Foster by the arm as the man made to walk towards the darkened entrance of the apartment building.
"Hold it. Let me go first."
"I hardly think..."
Victor smiled tightly in exasperation.
"Just humor me. Please."
There was a large puddle lying between them and the apartment building, which Victor eyed with some suspicion. He grabbed a small branch that had broken off one of the tall trees that lined the road, and prodded into the center of the puddle to check its depth, and frowned. It was such an anticlimax, having half-expected it to be the puddle, the one in the rhyme, but this puddle was barely an inch deep. The likelihood of drowning in it was pretty remote.
"Have you quite finished? My patient needs help."
Victor stepped back as the doctor elbowed him aside, walking swiftly past him towards the entrance to the tenement building. With a shrug of annoyance, Victor followed immediately behind— and that's when the earth moved beneath his feet, quite literally. He barely had time to draw a breath before he was submerged in freezing cold water. When he surfaced, spluttering and gasping at the sudden shock, he found his feet slipping as he tried to find purchase on the floor beneath him, but once he had regained his feet, Victor pulled the spluttering doctor upright beside him. He glanced around, trying to see through the darkness. Wherever they were, they were standing waist-high in water.
Victor opened his mouth to reply but the words froze as a manic giggling echoed around what had to be a cavernous cellar. A couple of fluorescent lights flickered on, throwing grotesque shadows around the room, elongating the form of a man who had stepped out from the deeper shadows onto a ledge a little way above them. Although still shrouded by shadows, the man began to talk, his deep voice bearing a singsong cadence as his words floated around them.
"Doctor Foster went to Gloucester in a shower of rain. He stepped in a puddle, right up to his middle..." The owner of the voice stepped out of the shadows into full view, the pale blue eyes glinting madly. "...but who is this? You weren't invited. You're not in the rhyme."
The man's eyes pierced Victor, pinning him in place, seemingly unafraid of the gun still held tightly in Victor's hand; a gun that was aimed at the stranger's chest.
"Put down the gun... or Doctor Foster meets his end here and now."
Two more shapes moved out of the deeper shadows, their guns trained on the unarmed doctor who stood up to his waist in the ice-cold water beside him. Victor swallowed hard and allowed the gun to fall from his grasp, raising his hands aloft so they could be seen to be empty. The soft splash of the gun hitting the water was the only sound heard for several long moments as the white-haired man's blue eyes swept from Victor to the doctor and back again. Finally, it was Victor who broke the silence.
"What are you going to do to us?"
"Why... nothing." The man continued on with his nursery rhyme. "He stepped in a puddle right up to his middle... and was never seen again."
"Never seen there again."
The man waved his gun nonchalantly. "Artistic licence."
"Hey, where're you going?"
Victor moved forward as the man walked back into the shadows.
"Goodbye, Dr Foster... and friend."
The basement room was plunged into darkness and all sound ceased except for the deep boom of a heavy door being closed and sealed. That sound echoed around the interior, reverberating off the walls and destroying any attempt Victor might have of figuring out where that door could be. Victor pushed his way towards the small ledge that their assailant had stood upon and pulled himself out of the cold water.
A grating sound began to echo around the basement, and he froze. Climbing to his feet he stretched his fingers out towards the wall... and found it coming to meet him. He braced himself but the wall's inward movement was relentless and he found his wet feet slipping beneath him on the tiled floor. Eventually, despite all his efforts, he found himself falling backwards as he was pushed off the ledge by the approaching wall. The noise stopped abruptly, silence falling about them until all he could hear was the sound of his own harsh breathing, and the soft movements in the water behind him that were coming from the Doctor.
"I don't know. Let me think." Victor pushed back through the water until he collided with the doctor, reaching out a hand to steady them both. "Okay, let's check around the perimeter, see if there's a set of steps or anything." He grabbed hold of the doctor's arm and pulled at him. "We both go forward until we hit the wall."
Keeping one hand in contact with each other they pressed forward into the darkness, wading with difficulty through the waist high water, the other hand stretched out to stop them banging into the solid wall. When they finally reached their destination, Victor pressed his fingers against the join of the moving wall and the floor of the ledge, and he sighed. There was not even enough ledge left for a toehold, so climbing was out of the question.
"Okay, you go left. I'll go right. Yell if you feel something... anything."
He could hear the swish of water as the doctor made his way around the perimeter as requested. Eventually, they collided once more.
"There has to be some stairs, a door or something, but they must be higher than we can reach."
Another ominous grinding noise filled the room, followed by the sound of water trickling in from high above. Victor moved to where he could hear the running water meet the pool in which they stood. He reached out a hand and let the cold water trickle through his fingers, puzzled by this slow downpour. He looked about the darkness uneasily as yet another grinding noise filled the room— and suddenly, the trickle became a torrent of gushing water.
"What is it?"
"He's filling the room with water. We've got to get out of here before we drown."
Victor gasped as he remembered he still had the cellphone in one of his jacket pockets. He fumbled about his body with fingers that were slowly becoming numb with the cold until he found it. Making a stab at several keys, he tried to remember the layout of the keypad and eventually the display lit up, affording him enough visibility to depress the right keys. The phone crackled and he swore.
"I can't get a signal."
He tried again, wading around the room in the hope that, somehow, there would be a chance of the signal breaking through the thick walls of the flooding basement. For a moment he thought it had connected, but then the signal broke up again.
He was tempted to throw the phone away, but pushed it back inside his shirt pocket instead.
"Looks like we're on our own for now. Just try to keep afloat. At the worst, perhaps we'll be able to reach up and open the door above our heads."
Miss Muffet's Apartment
Mac rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and looked around the small, smelly living room, tying to figure out what had awoken him. He sat upright and stretched, trying to ease the kinks out of his back and shoulders. The old-fashioned couch, with its lacy covers, was as deceptively lethal as its frail looking but sharp-tongued owner was. As he came to full awareness his brain finished processing the sound he had heard and relayed the results. Mac reached for his phone and checked the 'Last Caller' info, frowning when he recognized the number displayed.
"Vic? What the hell would you want at... three in the morning?"
There was no message and, if it had not been for the cat that decided to walk across his face the moment he lay back down, Mac would have quite happily tried to go back to sleep. Now that he was wide-awake, he started to wonder why Victor hadn't left a message. The more he thought about it, the more concerned he became.
"Ah, what the hell. He woke me first anyway."
He picked up his phone again and speed-keyed Victor, but couldn't get a connection. Mac looked at the display in bewilderment, checking the strength of his own signal. When he had contacted Victor earlier on in the evening on the pretext of venting his annoyance at being smothered by cats, wanting to hear Victor's soft voice, both cellphones had worked just fine, so, either his phone was no longer working or Victor was no longer at Doctor Foster's.
A high-pitched scream caught his attention. He dropped the phone and raced up the stairs, taking them three at a time. Without a second thought he slammed open the door to Miss Muffet's bedroom, bringing another piercing scream from that withered body. Mac felt a moment of embarrassment, but then one bony finger started pointing towards the end of the bed. Mac's eyes followed the finger, and his eyes closed.
"I hate you, Victor."
He was tempted to draw his gun and aim at the dark mass, but he couldn't tell where the old lady's spindly legs were beneath the covers. With great care, Mac approached the dark mass, instantly recognizing the large venomous bird-eating spider poised on its back legs, fangs exposed. With unbelievable speed he whipped the end of the sheet over the creature, pulled the whole lot to the floor and jumped up and down on the small lump until he could see red blood seeping through the folds of the white sheet. Still breathing hard, Mac pulled back the sheet and grimaced.
"Ewwhhh!! You're gonna pay for this, Victor... Victor?"
Leaving the old woman to fend for herself, Mac raced back downstairs and grabbed his cellphone off the couch where he had dropped it. He keyed in Doctor Foster's home number and waited impatiently, but there was no response. With a feeling of dread curling in his stomach, he tried Victor's cellphone once again but still got a number unavailable.
Mac put in a quick call to the Agency and then went back upstairs to reassure the distraught Miss Muffet, his heart racing with fear for his partner. Eventually, he gave up the pretense of caring for the old woman and started to pace back and forth, whispering angrily under his breath.
"Where are they?"
A few minutes later, to his immense relief, a knock on the door heralded the arrival of several agents to take care of Miss Muffet and the dead spider. Leaving the old woman's protection in their capable hands, Mac grabbed his coat and ran through the smattering of rain to his car. His sixth sense was screaming at him, telling him that something bad had happened— or was happening— to Victor, so he jammed his foot down hard on the gas pedal and sped through the quiet streets, hoping no cops were about at this ungodly hour.
When Mac arrived at Doctor Foster's house he found the place dark and, when nobody answered his knock, he picked the lock and slipped in. He glanced into the living room but found it empty. There was nobody home. Mac made his way to the doctor's phone and checked the writing pad. The top sheet was blank, but Mac drew a pencil from the container by the telephone and rubbed it across the page. Two words appeared: Gloucester Place.
That feeling of dread clenched down hard, taking his breath away.
The water level had risen several feet in the past half-hour, and Victor found himself standing on tiptoe to keep his face above water. He held onto the doctor, keeping the shorter man afloat as the water continued to rise, but after another few minutes had passed, both of them were forced to tread water in order to stay afloat.
"How are y-you doing?"
"We h-have to watch for h-hypothermia."
"'Fraid there's not m-much we can do ab-bout that, Doc."
Victor couldn't stop his teeth chattering. His body was shaking from the coldness of the icy water and he wished there were some way they could keep warm. Although he knew it was stupid to move about too much, that he conserve his energy, Victor decided to go around the perimeter one more time. When his raised hand fell into an empty space, he found himself gasping in relief. The ledge was about two feet above the current water level and it was an area only as wide as a door frame, but it seemed pretty deep. He hauled himself out of the icy water, relieved at no longer having to tread water.
"D-doc, here! F-follow the sound of m-my voice. Come on, over here."
Victor kept talking until he felt the Doctor brush up against his outstretched hand. He hauled the smaller man onto the ledge with him. Leaving the doctor to regain his breath, Victor pushed to his feet and crept about five feet along a small corridor until he came to a door. He tried the handle but it was locked. Victor tried shoving against it, throwing all his weight against the door but it felt solid, as if it had been custom-made to withstand a lot of pressure. Running his fingers along the edge, he could feel no cracks around the door; it was a perfect seal— this was no ordinary basement door. Victor reached into his inside pocket and withdrew a lock pick set, laying out the items on the cold floor and trying, by the feel of his numb fingers, to figure out which tool would be best to try. He jiggled about in the lock, trying to bring to mind everything Mac and Li Ann had shown him during the past year, cursing at the shaking of his cold fingers.
He yelled in triumph as he heard the locking mechanism open but, even though he twisted and turned on the handle the door remained obstinately shut.
"Wh-What is it?"
"A d-door but it's b-bolted on the outside. I c-can't shift it."
Victor wrapped his arms around himself as he felt the rising water slide over his already saturated shoes. He shoved the lock pick set back into his inside pocket then moved back until he bumped into the doctor. He jumped in surprise when he found himself being wrapped in the man's arms.
"H-hope you don't m-mind, son... b-but I'm f-freezing."
Shivering violently, Victor and the doctor held on tightly to one another as they tried to combine their waning body warmth. Far too tired to stay standing, Victor ignored the slowly rising water and sat down, taking the doctor with him. He wrapped his arms around the shivering doctor and leaned in closer as the Doctor's arms encircled Victor's body, trying to conserve as much energy as he could for when they would be forced to start treading water again.
When he closed his eyes for a moment, Victor's thoughts raced back to a tall, strangely graceful frame and the mischievous, handsome face of its owner. Not for the first time, he imagined that he was being held in Mac's arms, feeling Mac's breath against his hair, hearing Mac's heart beating beneath his ear as he lay with his head upon the younger man's chest. He wondered if Mac would ever understand— or even know— how he felt about him.
He sighed as he thought of the very masculine Mac Ramsey wondering whether Mac had ever taken a male lover. Victor would not have called himself particularly experienced with men, in fact, he could count the number of his previous sexual partners— of either sex— on one hand, but none of those partners had been a one night stand, all had meant something special to him. He gave himself a wry grin. Perhaps he was a little old fashioned in that respect, having always preferred to have real feelings for the people he willingly gave himself to, and yet also wanting to be certain that they had real feelings for him in return before he offered.
As to the gender, what did it matter as long as each individual was willing? After all, the pleasure was the same, just packaged differently.
As he shivered, wrapped in this stranger's arms, Victor wished he could have let go of some of his antiquated views about sex only in established relationships to find out if Mac would have shared some of that pleasure with him.
Only in your dreams, Mansfield.
He smiled, his body starting to feel warm for the first time since they had gone out into the cold night rain.
At this moment he truly understood Nathan for the very first time. They were both fantasizing about someone, both living off each casual touch, both hearing words spoken out of context or, perhaps that ought to be 'placing those words into a new context', making those touches and words a source of reality in which to bind together their most erotic fantasies.
He blushed at the thought of Nathan imagining him the same way he imagined Mac— naked and wanting, lust-driven eyes aflame with desire just for him. He wondered if Nathan's fantasy fingers drifted over his firm flesh the way his own caressed the silkiness of Mac's skin.
Did Nathan see his face as he came? Did he look as beautiful to Nathan as Mac did to him? It was a surprisingly warm thought in his cold body.
Victor groaned as soft fingers caressed his cheek... Mac's fingers.
Mac's thumb would caress his lips, then Mac would lean over and kiss him, tenderly, and when Mac drew back there would be that knowing smile that said 'you're mine, Victor', and he would smile back as possessively.
The fingers became more insistent, the gentleness disappearing until his cheek began to sting. He opened his eyes, puzzled momentarily by the darkness then he was jerked back into his freezing body.
"M-Mansfield? C-Come on. You m-mustn't sleep. We're t-too cold to s-sleep."
"S-sorry, I d-didn't realize. I'm... I'm ok-kay."
His teeth started chattering again and he held on tighter to the doctor, trying to find that extra little bit of warmth. While he was lost in his illusion of strong hands caressing him, the water level had risen almost to his waist. Another foot and they would have to stand again. A few more feet after that and they would be back to treading water.
Mac stood outside the tall tenement building and sighed. There was no apartment number listed on the Doctor's pad and, looking at the intercom, there were sixty-eight apartments. Victor and Doctor Foster could be in any one of them. For the first time a shiver of fear coursed its way through his body. How the hell was he supposed to find him? What if Victor was in trouble? What if Victor was dead?
"No. Don't think things like that."
A car drawing up pulled his attention back from his fears and he waited, impatiently, until Li Ann had come to stand beside him, watching her intently as she peered upwards.
"Mac, there must be dozens of apartments in here."
"I know... and I have a very bad feeling about this."
"Then we'd best get started. I'll take the elevator to the top, start working my way down— "
"— and I'll take the ground and work my way up."
He tried to move quickly from apartment to apartment but half an hour later, Mac had barely managed to check a single floor. He slapped his hand against the nearest wall in frustration then speed-keyed his cellphone and was relieved when Li Ann responded.
"I've made hardly any progress."
"Same here. There has to be a better way." Mac heard Li Ann gasp and he tensed, already moving towards the elevator. "We're not thinking logically."
"What is it?"
"The rhyme... Dr Foster went to Gloucester..."
"Yeah! In a shower of rain. He stepped in a puddle..."
"Mac, we need to look for water. I'll check the penthouse and roof for a swimming pool."
Mac grinned as excitement replaced frustration and defeat in Li Ann's voice, feeling his own hope rise in response.
"I'll check the basement."
Victor was tired— bone tired but, strangely enough, he no longer felt so cold. His limbs felt heavy yet pleasantly warm, and he could feel the welcoming darkness embracing him, drawing him down once more. Mac was waiting for him behind his closed eyes, and he smiled. Something smacked him hard on the temple and he forced his eyes back open, realizing it was the Doctor struggling against him. Victor was suddenly aware that his face was wet and he knew he must have slipped beneath the surface, dragging the Doctor with him. He coughed up a little of the water he had swallowed and held on tighter to the Doctor, thankful that he had insisted they tie themselves to each other to prevent either of them slipping away to a watery grave. For a moment he had a strong temptation to just give up. He was so very tired having pulled Foster tight against his chest to support him after Foster's strength had given out some time back.
He found his thoughts drifting once more as he wondered how long they had been treading water? All he knew was that in the silent blackness, he had lost all track of time.
Drawing a deep breath and forcing a sluggish burst of energy from his exhausted muscles, Victor kicked up and reached above him. His fingers seemed to brush against something and he felt a flicker of hope rise inside as he sank back down, tempered by the fact that he could barely feel anything through the tips of his numb fingers.
"S-still... with me... D-doc?"
"G-good. Think we n-nearly... reached the... c-ceiling. G-got to... look for the... h-hatch. You'll... need t-to... try and float."
"Okay. S-so cold."
With numb fingers, Victor unbuckled the belt that had held the doctor tied to him, hoping he had given Foster enough of a respite to stop him from sinking into the dark depths as soon as Victor let go.
Mac frowned as he pressed his hands against the door in the rear corner of the basement. The door looked as if it was made of wood but a close inspection had proved that was merely a thin veneer over metal. He stripped away some of the rotting veneer so he could touch the metal beneath, his frown deepening with growing fear; it was icy cold to the touch. Mac tried the hefty handle and was even more confused to note that it moved easily. He glanced up and down taking note of the heavy bars that anchored the door securely, and he wondered why someone had gone to all the trouble of bolting the door and yet had not bothered to lock it.
His mind was screaming at him to release the bolts, fast, but something cautioned him to think it through a little longer. If he was right then the room beyond might be flooded.
Mac turned to check the layout of the area behind him, taking in the sharp edges of the stacked broken furniture and the protruding pipes filling the short passageway that ended at a T-junction. If the room really was flooded, opening the door would probably release a torrent of water that could easily sweep him to his own death.
He moved back several meters, trying to re-orientate himself with the layout of the building, thinking furiously about this enigmatic door and the room that lay beyond.
By rights the door ought to lead to the outside, and would have done so if it were on the next floor up, which meant... His mouth fell open in sudden realization and he carried on his thought process aloud.
"...the door leads into an area below the pavement, and there's probably a trap-door set into the pavement to carry in supplies."
He pulled out his cellphone.
"Li Ann. Get down here fast. Back outside."
His long strides carried him from the basement as he took the stairs three at a time. Outside it was still raining, but the wind that had driven the rain had eased off considerably. He dropped onto his hands and knees and began to run his fingers along the pavement beneath the puddles, searching by touch for anything unusual.
Li Ann paused for a moment on the threshold of the building, looking down at her ex-lover in confusion as he frantically swept his hands along the cold, wet paving. She could hear him murmuring away to himself.
"It's got to be here. This must be the spot."
Understanding dawned and she leapt down the small flight of steps, landing on the paving next to Mac... and froze in place when she felt the ground vibrate hollowly beneath her.
Li Ann dropped to her knees, ignoring the water that soaked into her clothing.
Mac scrambled over to where Li Ann's fingers were prizing up the edge of a piece of paving. He wedged his fingers underneath the slab and together they tried to shove it aside but without any luck. Mac raced back to his car and back the lever he had stashed in the trunk as part of his 'breaking and entering' toolkit. Moments later the slab was shoved aside to reveal the hidden trap door. It took only seconds for Mac to pick the lock and slam back the bolts. The heavy door dropped open with a huge splash. A face broke the surface, spluttering weakly.
Mac trained his torch through the hole, his eyes widening as he realized Victor was only a couple of feet below them; the fall of the door had come close to cracking open his skull.
The sight of Mac's face appearing above him brought a sob of relief to Victor. He saw those strong hands reach for him but he pushed them aside, thrusting the Doctor up instead. Victor barely registered the growl of anger this action elicited from Mac. All he knew was that the Doctor had no strength left and if he let go of him now then the man would die. Victor strained and kicked as hard as he could as he tried to push Foster far enough up for Mac to grab hold of the exhausted man. When he felt the weight being lifted from him he stopped moving, his arms and legs feeling, suddenly, too heavy, realizing he had burned the last of his own energy ensuring the Doctor was safe.
Water closed over Victor's face as he slipped beneath the cold, dark surface. He opened his mouth to cry out for help and felt the coldness seep down his throat and into his lungs, his breath bubbling out in a desperate escape bid of its own.
He tried to kick back up the surface, but his legs wouldn't respond. Was this what it was like to drown? He didn't understand. He was waiting for the flash of images to pass before his eyes, his whole life reduced to a few miserable scenes like a video on fast-forward, but instead his mind seemed to focus on a single image, a face— Mac's face— and on a single thought.
With no energy left, he could only sink into the cold embrace of water and death without the strength to formulate an answer.
Dr Foster moaned softly as they heaved him out onto the wet pavement. He was coughing water and his skin was blue was the coldness of the water. Li Ann rolled him out of the way, and Mac turned back to the trapdoor. He cried out in horror when the torch illuminated only flat patches of murky water; Victor was gone.
Mac's eyes scanned the darkness beneath him in panic, and he called out Victor's name, but there was no response. He stripped off his jacket and slid headfirst into the icy water, diving deep, searching frantically until his fingers encountered cloth. He pulled on the heavy object, dragging them both back up to the surface, gasping for breath as his own head cleared the water.
Victor was a dead weight in his arms. He tried shaking the waterlogged body that threatened to drag him back under and, with one arm wrapped tightly around Victor's chest, he reached out with the other to pull Victor's face towards him. Mac was shocked by the whiteness in the relaxed features.
Mac saw Li Ann reaching down towards him, saw her bracing her legs against the edge of the trapdoor as she grabbed at the heavy, waterlogged clothing, trying to pull Victor upwards. Mac tried to push from his end, but only succeeded in pushing himself underwater. When he broke the surface, the weight having been taken from him, he found another set of hands had joined Li Ann's in pulling Victor up.
Within seconds they had Victor lying on the pavement, leaving Mac to extricate himself from what should have been Foster's watery grave. The Doctor was sitting astride Victor, hand's placed together over the top of Victor's heart.
"One. Two. Three. Breathe."
Mac crawled over to where they were desperately trying to resuscitate Victor, watching as Li Ann tipped back Victor's head, her beautiful lips descending onto the equally beautiful, blue-tinged lips below her, Victor's face a deathly white in the glare of the street light.
The doctor started to falter, still too exhausted from his ordeal to continue.
Mac watched as Li Ann pushed the doctor aside, her own lithe frame taking up the man's former position as she continued with the heart massage. Mac needed no second guess as to what she expected him to do, and he felt his lips tremble as they descended upon Victor's. For so long he had wanted to kiss this man, to taste him, but not like this. He wanted passion; he wanted to take Victor's breath away not be part of this desperate act to force air into Victor; to make him breathe again.
The body beneath him arched suddenly, and Mac closed his eyes momentarily in relief, he took a deep shuddering breath then opened his eyes to watch Victor coughing up the water he had swallowed. Li Ann turned her attention to the Doctor, leaving Mac to push Victor over onto his side, one hand supporting his partner while the other rubbed Victor's back in strong, broad circles.
"It's okay, Vic. I gotcha."
Mac glanced up, momentarily, at the sound of approaching sirens, barely taking the time to watch as the ambulance pulled to a halt, the flashing blue and red lights reflecting off the wet pavement and walls in a surreal discotheque. His attention remained focussed on the man he had nearly lost this night. Two paramedics jumped out and he found himself gently pushed aside as they took charge. Mac looked over his shoulder as someone draped a blanket over him, and he did not argue when he was led into the back of the ambulance. He had nothing to argue about, they were placing him exactly where he wanted to be— by Victor's side.
From a short distance away, a tall man with white hair and pale blue eyes snarled in anger. He had been waiting here expecting to see Doctor Foster's lifeless body being dragged from its watery tomb. Instead, his intended victim had been hauled to safety and was, even now, being led into the back of the ambulance with two others. There was one exciting moment when it looked as if all his plans were not completely in vain and he had watched, avidly, as they dragged Foster's unwelcome companion from the water. He had licked his lips in anticipation as they fought to resuscitate the drowned man, but it seemed his luck had fled him once more as the still figure convulsed into life.
He pulled back out of sight as the beautiful oriental woman looked in his direction and snarled once more, but the growl ended in a grin. With all this activity, no one would expect him to strike again so soon.
"Perhaps we should pay Miss Muffet an early visit instead. Where are the spiders?"
"The ones I asked you to obtain for me."
"I thought... I mean, I delivered the spider..."
His eyes flashed as he grabbed the front of his henchman's coat, pulling the man towards him until their faces were bare inches apart.
"The spider? Where?"
"To Miss Muffet's."
"But boss... thought you wanted to kill the old battle axe."
"Yes. Yes, I do." The man dropped his henchman, licking his lips in anticipation. "But I need to be there when it happens."
Several hours later Mac's convertible pulled up to the sidewalk in front of Victor's apartment building. He turned his head to give his passenger a long, hard look, his hand reaching out to touch Victor's thigh in a reassuring gesture. Victor looked tired and more than a little subdued. Given the kinds of lives they led, his most recent escape from death was affecting him far more than Mac expected. The stormy green eyes were cast downwards, their lids so heavy that the long, dark eyelashes brushed against his pale cheeks. Mac eyed Victor carefully, uncertain if Victor would be able to make it up to his apartment door under his own steam, let alone get himself undressed and into bed.
The doctor at the hospital had wanted Victor to stay there, but Victor had other ideas, and not even the Director, who had turned up within moments of their arrival, could persuade him otherwise.
"You don't have to stay with me."
"Director's orders, Vic."
"Yeah? And when have you ever listened to her?"
Mac had the good sense to look chagrined but this was one argument he was not going to lose. This evening he had almost lost Victor, and it had felt as if a huge black chasm had opened up beneath his feet. If Victor had died then Mac had a feeling he would have plunged into that abyss just as quickly as he had dived into the darkness of that watery grave.
While he had waited outside in the hospital reception area, Mac had found plenty of time to think about how his heart had stopped thumping in his chest when he looked back through that trap-door to find no sign of Victor. He knew he cared for Victor, and he knew he lusted after that gorgeous body, for many a night had been filled with fantasies of licking and teasing that muscular frame. He dreamed of watching green eyes glaze over in passionate abandonment as he deep-throated Victor, hearing moans of ecstasy fall from those perfectly shaped lips. But lust was one thing, a willingness to die rather than live without Victor was something else entirely.
Love? Could it be love?
He thought he had loved Li Ann, but never had he felt he would rather be dead than go on living without her. Hell, he had believed she was dead for almost two years and yet, here he was, alive and kicking. Li Ann had gone forward, making a new life for herself— with Victor— having convinced herself that Mac had perished in Hong Kong... and he had spent that time locked up in a jail cell making plans of his own that did not include her.
However, the thought of making plans that did not include Victor was an alien concept. He could not conceive of a life without Victor sniping and snapping at his heels, could not imagine never having another one of those inane conversations with him; Jackie Onassis versus the Queen of England.
The image that thought conjured up in his head of Queen Elizabeth in hand-to-hand combat, handbags at twenty paces, with Jackie Onassis, still put a grin on his face. Only Victor could be so serious one moment then be a giddy kid the next. It was part of what he loved about the man.
He sighed. There was that word again. Love.
Victor sighed when he gained no answer from Mac other than a slightly embarrassed grin and another one of those strange looks that he just didn't have the energy to decipher. He pulled his weary body out of the car and pushed the passenger door behind him, a little surprised that Mac did the same rather than jump over the top of the driver's door with his usual enthusiasm. He was very conscious of the figure that trailed him up to his apartment and gave another deep, heartfelt sigh as he opened the door and left it ajar for Mac to follow him in. His keys were thrown carelessly onto the table near the door before he shrugged out of the trench coat he had borrowed from Mac, revealing the blue hospital gown that barely covered his dignity. He was grateful that Mac kept this spare coat in the trunk of his car or he might have been forced to accede to the doctor's demands until someone brought him some fresh clothes. He turned towards the bedroom, too tired to care about the amount of flesh he was showing through the cloth ties that held the gown together at the back.
Mac felt his throat go dry as he watched Victor move towards the bedroom, totally absorbed by the play of muscles in that perfect ass, by the fluid motion of hips and legs working in complete harmony. He had never truly considered how graceful that frame was, the way Victor moved like a powerful big cat, muscle rippling like liquid under the ivory skin. Mac was shocked when he realized his own feet had carried him to the bedroom door and he could barely hold back a gasp of awe as Victor twisted to release each tie then allowed the gown to float to the floor, discarded without a second thought to his nudity.
Beautiful. Victor was so beautiful: inside as well as outside.
The sound of a throat clearing caught his attention and Mac blinked away the confusion only to realize Victor had turned around at some point, and Mac had been staring at him in his full naked glory. He tore his eyes away from the softened sex hanging from a bed of curls that were, intriguingly, lighter in shade than the dark mahogany of Victor's head. Mac's cheeks heated as that perfect cock twitched, and he flicked his gaze up to Victor's face, noting the heightened colour against the pallor of his skin.
"Maybe I'd better go."
Victor continued to stare at him, tired green eyes widening in realization of the lust he must have witnessed on Mac's face.
Mac tried to draw up a facade of nonchalance as he fumbled for a joke, but his mind was too shocked tonight for pretense. Searching Vic's face, he saw no revulsion, no contempt, just realization and tired surprise.
"I never realized," Victor murmured.
"Yeah, well Nathan Muckle is not the only one who has fantasies of you." Victor cringed, and Mac wished he could pull the words back out of the air unheard, and stuff them back inside where they had lived since realizing Nathan's infatuation. He searched his mind, frantically, for a way to make light of his comment, a way to attribute those fantasies to Li Ann or the Director, but was stopped by a whisper.
"I have fantasies of you."
It was hard swallowing passed the lump that seemed to have appeared in his throat, but Mac made a good effort and found he could breathe again.
Victor's eyes narrowed as Mac contemplated his revelation. It was obvious that Victor had a question; a delicate question that would affect how they would handle the next few minutes.
"Have you ever... you know... with another man?"
Mac nodded his head, his eyes never leaving the beautiful figure standing in front of him. He had a feeling his upbringing in Hong Kong had been a lot more liberal than the one Victor had suffered through here in Canada.
Mac grinned broadly. All this time he had held back because he believed Victor was as straight as an arrow.
"Damn! Wish I'd known sooner."
Mac moved across the room, a predator on the hunt, sighting prey at last. He reached out and stroked the back of his hand down the heavily stubbled cheek, feeling the rasp against his knuckles.
"'Cause then I'd have done this sooner."
His hand was sliding through the short dark hair to cup the back of Victor's head. Mac drew Victor forward, meeting him halfway, head tilting slightly so he could press his lips against the luscious mouth. Those lips parted beneath the onslaught and Mac could not resist sliding his tongue into the hot cavern, touching and tasting Victor's own, their tongues coiling together for a moment before Mac retreated.
"I wouldn't have let you."
"If you had tried this sooner. I wouldn't have let you."
Mac pulled all the way back in confusion, trying to find an explanation written in the expressive eyes, wanting to understand what had changed to make Victor want this now, when he might have refused before. Victor smiled smugly before giving Mac a clue.
"You haven't stopped touching me since..." he let the words hang in the air and smiled once more at Mac's soft reply.
"Since I thought I'd lost you."
Looking back over the past few hours, Mac realized how true it was.
He had held Victor's hand in the ambulance for the whole ride to the hospital, then he had sat next to Victor in the ER cubicle, shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh. Even on this trip back to Victor's apartment he had taken every opportunity to touch him: a brush of his fingers over his hand, a squeeze of his arm or thigh. He had even pressed the back of his hand against Victor's cheek claiming to be worried that Victor was cold, offering to raise the soft top on the convertible if that were the case.
"Until today I knew you liked me, despite actions to the contrary... but I never realized how much you also cared for me."
"I'd like to show you how much I care."
Victor moved forward, obviously expecting to be taken into Mac's arms and ravished. His eyebrows climbed as, instead, Mac wheeled him around, pulled back the covers and pushed him onto the bed. Mac pulled the light quilt over the beautiful body, tucking it around Victor.
Victor pushed himself up onto his elbows as Mac turned and made for the bedroom door, his face showing his total confusion. Mac paused on the threshold and looked back.
"I care enough to wait just a little longer." He gave Victor another grin. "Get some sleep Vic. You're gonna need it."
When Victor awoke he found himself snuggled against a warm, very masculine chest. He could barely make out the sheet-shrouded figure in the darkened apartment, and realized with a start that he must have slept the day away. A quick glance at the clock on the bedside cabinet confirmed the lateness of the hour, and he was suddenly aware that this same time the previous night, he had been lying on Doctor Foster's uncomfortable leather couch thinking about holding Mac in his arms.
It was amazing how much could happen in just 24 hours.
He shifted over onto his back and stared up at the ceiling, wondering if the Director was still placing her bugs in his apartment, and wondering whether she had been sitting at her desk somewhere watching him sleep all curled up against Mac. She probably was, in infrared or another of those 'see-in-the-dark' colors. Mac would probably know all about that type of equipment.
He snorted softly to himself. Here he was, lying naked next to an equally naked Mac, and all he could think about was their voyeuristic director.
"I disabled them."
"The bugs. I ran a sweep while you were asleep. You know she even had one in your bathroom. Despite all her sexual overtones towards me she never placed a bug in my bathroom."
"The bathroom. Where exactly in the bathroom?"
Victor felt his cheeks redden in embarrassment as he imagined the unknown audience he may have had every time he did his ablutions— or used the facilities.
"Hey, don't worry. Worse she could have seen is you masturbating in the shower— if you do that kind of thing."
Victor groaned loudly and buried his head under the covers but didn't stay covered for long as Mac snatched them away, his easy grin barely visible in the dim light.
"I take it you do. That's good."
"Good? What's so good about that twisted woman watching me... you know, in the shower?"
"Not thinking of her. Thinking about what we can do there— together. Give a whole new meaning to having a good, clean fuck."
"Do you have to say that?"
"That word... the F word."
"What's wrong with Fuck?" Mac grinned as Victor winced. "You really are a Boy Scout, Vic."
Victor looked up in annoyance as Mac teased him, but any further words were lost as he fell into eyes darkened with more than just desire. Until this moment he had believed Mac cared for him, and certainly lusted after him, but now he knew his partner's emotions ran a lot deeper. Victor reached out and stroked a finger down the length of Mac's torso, watching intently as the finger parted the dark hair curled across the well-defined chest before trailing down across the dip of the naval. He stopped just a scant few centimeters short of the mass of wiry dark hair curled snugly at the base of Mac's rapidly lengthening cock, mesmerized by the slowly arching flesh. His gaze flickered upwards to find those dark, awe-filled eyes intent on his face.
"Would you be embarrassed if I told you how beautiful you look?"
Victor could feel the heat rise into his cheeks but any chance to retort was lost when his lips were taken in a soul-searing kiss. He groaned as he was slowly manoeuvre onto his back, his lips parting under the insistent pressure, allowing Mac's tongue to sweep arrogantly into the hot interior, possessing him thoroughly. He saw the strong arms brace themselves on either side of his head as the lanky body settled over him, the long legs parting his own until he could feel Mac's hardened flesh pressed tight against his belly, rubbing against the length of his own heated erection. Even the slightest movement sent licks of energy sparking through his nerve endings, travelling the length of his body until every part of him, from fingers to toes, tingled in anticipation.
Mac groaned, and Victor felt the vibration through their joined lips, the sound and sensation inflaming his senses, sending him soaring to even greater heights. Their lips separated and he felt the raspness of stubble against his own cheek before Mac's mouth darted away to slowly suck and nibble and bite a path down the length of Victor's exposed throat leaving him gasping. Those lean hips gyrated and ground against his own, with sensation building upon sensation. Through the haze of passion he could hear mumbled words and tried to focus on them, but they faded in and out like a badly tuned radio.
"Beautiful... want... so bad... aahh... Vic... Vic..."
Mac stilled his movements, head arching away, eyes glazing over before he thrust harder, hips snapping forward as a warm stickiness flooded between their already sweat-slicked, close-pressed bodies.
Victor's heart skipped a beat. He had never seen a more rewarding, more glorious sight than Mac as he sighed out his name in passionate abandonment. With the slippery ejaculate smeared between them, his own sensitive cock found a perfect degree of friction and he cried out, back arching off the sweat-dampened sheets. He found himself poised high upon a precipice as if for an eternity before tumbling over the edge and crashing back down to earth.
Victor lay sprawled across the bed, chest heaving. Between the glorious sensations that still zapped along his nerves and the heavy weight that had collapsed upon him, he found himself fighting to draw breath. Eventually he managed to manoeuvre under the dead weight, slipping to one side. Mac's head remained pillowed on his chest, an arm flung over his waist possessively, and Victor gloried in the feel of Mac's ragged breath so warm against his cooling, sweat-slicked skin. Victor smiled, stroked his fingers through the damp curls falling over Mac's forehead and traced the arch of the exposed ear.
"Can we have that shower now?"
A few hours later
Miss Muffet screamed in fear and helpless rage as she was tied around the waist to a small, low-back seat and then lowered into a solid-sided crate; her favorite nightcap with its lacy frill edge was shoved onto her head. A small bowl and spoon were shoved into her hands and she looked down into the bowl in horror. The hideous lumpy white contents sloshed over the edges as she struggled, terrified. This was no way to treat an old woman, what had she done to deserve this?
"Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey."
The voice held a manic edge to it, a slight rise of breathlessness and a giddy glee. Miss Muffet recognized that voice from a long, long time ago. She looked up to the man who stood on the ledge above, and tried to remember which of her dreadful charges this was.
"Francis Norman Burbaker? You sniveling little crybaby, is that you? You know perfectly well I won't abide you saying those silly rhymes." She struggled to bring up the tough, no-nonsense tone that had always been necessary with this spoiled, rude, disobedient boy.
"What is this? Why, nanny, this is payback time."
Miss Muffet shook with fury at the indignity of this treatment at the hands of the child who had caused her so much trouble. That boy and his weak, softhearted mother who had continually compromised her attempts to instil proper discipline, had ruined her reputation as a governess.
"Francis Burbaker, I knew you never learned to respect your elders. You untie me right now, you revolting child. I still have my special cane, you know. You're not so big that I won't put you over my knee and tan your worthless hide.
Burbaker laughed, a vicious imitation of his annoying childhood giggles, and continued on with the rhyme.
"There came a great spider, that sat down beside her..."
She screamed as a mass of furry bodies fell from a bucket suspended over the crate. Horrid creepy creatures, all over her! Everywhere! Spiders of all shapes and sizes, with mandibles twitching, on her head, her shoulders, her lap. She beat at them with the spoon and bowl, slopping the contents all over herself as she tried to brush off the creatures.
"Francis!" she screamed as the man laughed, "you wicked, wicked boy, stop this, stop it! I'll put you back in the cupboard, I'll tie you up in the cellar again!"
One of the spiders sank its fangs into her hand, and pain blossomed amid the terror. Her body began to twitch. She felt the venom slowly creeping through her veins, as more stings bloomed in her face and arms.
"Francis!" she screamed, vowing the boy would pay like never before for this prank, his hide would bleed like never before, he wouldn't sit down for a month this time—
"...and frightened Miss Muffet away— forever."
Li Ann looked from Mac to Victor, her eyes narrowing even further as she tried to figure out what was so different about them this morning. They widened as a thought hit her.
Bickering! They weren't bickering.
Li Ann smiled, silently applauding herself for solving that particular mystery, until it occurred to her that there had to be a reason for this unusual truce. Her eyes narrowed again as she watched them closely. Of course, she reasoned, it could be that Victor's close brush with death had shocked them both out of their juvenile word games. In the past, though, close calls had always had the opposite effect, eliciting a frenzy of silly jokes and general tomfoolery, as if they wanted to pretend everything was just fine with their world.
She watched them carefully. Mac was sitting in the center seat, as usual, but despite the lack of verbal communication, his body was still angled towards Victor. Victor was reading the daily paper, but his body language screamed of intimacy... with Mac. Another frown, and a surreptitious look under the table, showed that they were seated so close together that their knees were touching.
If they both turned at the same time they'd bump noses.
"My, my... Victor, Mac... we are getting very cozy these days."
Li Ann jumped when those sultry tones washed over her but she couldn't stop herself from staring at her partners just to see their reaction to those words. They had leapt apart, and both now sported cheeks that had turned a dusty pink, their faces holding equal expressions which reflected something more than mere embarrassment.
"Victor. You seem to be well... rested, especially after the... climactic events of yesterday. But I'm certain Mac was ready, able and... willingly assisted you in some relaxation techniques."
Li Ann's eyebrows rose into her hairline as Victor grew a shade pinker, barely able to look anyone in the eye. She had seen that expression before. Guilt? No. Secrecy? Was it both?
Embarrassment and that other nameless emotion were slowly turning to anger, but with a skill that Li Ann presumed must have been cultivated through many years of dealing with recalcitrant agents, the Director turned the subject away from Victor and Mac to the real matter at hand. Li Ann watched as Victor dropped his eyes back to the table where the paper was still spread out before him but she had a feeling he was no longer reading it.
"Well, boys and girl. Victor's excellent description of his assailant has given us a name: Francis Burbaker. As to a motive... well, let's just say he had a nutso nanny who seems to have inflicted the condition on sweet, innocent little Francis. Oh, and you might be interested to hear that the nanny was the late Miss Muffet."
"The Miss Muffet?"
"If you are referring to the elderly matron you saved from a pathetic excuse of a spider then... yes. Otherwise I have to remind you that the other lady was a fantasy figure in a children's rhyme."
"I knew that old lady was hiding something, she... Wait a minute, you said, the late Miss Muffet. Late as in recently 'deceased'."
"Yes. Unfortunately, Miss Muffet was found an hour ago. The post mortem will no doubt confirm that she died from a heart attack induced by several different kinds of spider venom."
"What a way to go."
"Enough, Mac. We have a serial killer on the loose, and no idea where to find him, or anyway to tell who his next victim might be..."
"Hold on," Victor said, "if he's killed the nanny, shouldn't he stop now?"
"Yeah, I mean, he got her back, didn't he?" Li Ann added. "Why would he keep killing?"
The Director sighed and tossed a computer printout in front of them. "'Baby falls from treetop cradle, parents distraught.' He's not a gangster, children, who cold-heartedly exacted revenge. He's a serial killer sans sanity, and he's escalating."
Li Ann sighed and reached for the nursery rhyme book. "We've got agents guarding everyone we can think of. Who could he get to?"
Victor flicked the paper over, folded it and showed one side to the Director. Li Ann craned forward, hoping to see what Victor had found, but all she could just make out was the headline at the top of the sport's page.
'Lean Times For Jack Spratt'
"O-kay, Victor. I recognize the relevance of the name, but what has an baseball player— a player who has not hit a home run in six matches, I might add— got to do with Francis Burbaker?"
The Director took the paper out of Victor's hand, scanned the article, and her eyes widened. She handed the paper to Li Ann and Mac, and they moaned in unison as they read the header. It took a moment but, suddenly, a face in the background leapt into view; the face of Francis Burbaker.
Fifteen minutes later they were racing toward the Spratt's home.
Burbaker quoted the rhyme as he paced round and round the dining table, his attention focussed on the two frightened people who were slowly forcing in another mouthful of food. He stopped to grin at his latest victims. The none too gentle urgings of his thugs, who stood behind his victims holding sharp-bladed knives to their throats, gave them little choice in the matter.
Emily Spratt started to shake, tears flowing freely down her face as she tried to swallow another bite of her fifth cream-filled cake. Jack was not faring much better as he almost choked on a forkful of spaghetti. He looked up at their tormentor.
"Please! Why are you doing this?"
Burbaker gave Spratt a stunned look. He could not understand why Spratt should ask such a question.
"Because... because I can! Now, eat up, both of you."
The woman started to choke, her sobs growing louder.
"Please... I can't eat any more."
"Oh, but you must. It says so in the rhyme. Jack Spratt would eat no fat. His wife could eat no lean. And so between them both, they licked the platter clean."
Emily Spratt was staring at the two cakes remaining on her plate. Burbaker grinned as she glanced across at her husband, both of them watching the way he twirled more spaghetti onto his fork with reluctance. It was obvious that Jack was trying to buy himself more time by his action. Eventually, Jack brought the fork to his mouth, but he paused and stared up at Burbaker.
"What happens... what happens when we finish these?"
"Why, then you will die. The food contains a slow acting poison that I especially picked out for each of you. Once you have finished eating you will have ingested sufficient to cause crippling cramps, vomiting and— alas for you both— death."
The Spratts dropped their respective forks, the metal clattering against the China plates.
"However, if you don't carry on eating then I will have my dear friends cut off your fingers, one by one, until you start to eat again."
With bowed heads, and ragged sobs, they picked up the forks and took the next bite.
"Mac? What can you see?"
Mac edged towards the dining room window, peering through a crack in the curtains. He looked over his shoulder and whispered to his partners.
"Five people. Two seated at a table... must be Jack Spratt and his wife. Another two men standing, one behind each of the Spratt's— looks like they're holding knives on them. A fifth man— must be Burbaker— pacing around them all."
"That's one each."
"No kidding." Li Ann sighed and rolled her eyes. "I'll take Burbaker..."
"No, I want..."
Li Ann looked from one man to the other, surprised by the animosity on each man's face. To be honest, she could understand why Victor would like to have a go at Burbaker. After all, the man had tried to drown him, and had almost succeeded, but why would Mac be filled with such murderous fury towards this man? She sighed and stated the obvious.
"We can't all take him."
Mac looked from Li Ann to Victor, his gaze hovering far longer on those green eyes as he remembered the horror of dragging Victor's non-breathing body out of the water-filled cellar. He could see those blue-tinged lips, those dark lashes spiked with water lying unmoving in a crescent upon Victor's cheek, so black against the deathly whiteness of his skin. His fingers had touched the cold, clammy flesh, seeking in vain for a heart beat. For a few minutes that seemed to stretch into eternity, Victor was dead, and Mac felt as if he would die right there with him.
The memory of that beautiful body lying heavy, warm and very much alive in his arms only a few hours ago made the horror of those few minutes all the more poignant. Francis Burbaker had nearly destroyed the one person he had grown to care about— to love— above all others, and nothing would give him greater pleasure than to turn that sadistic, murdering bastard into a bloodied heap lying at Victor's feet.
Mac saw his lover's eyes soften in understanding, his heart melting at the imperceptible nod of the head that Victor gave him. Mac turned to Li Ann, his voice strong and determined.
Something in his look must have warned Li Ann that it would be useless to argue with him, as she nodded her acceptance before turning her attention to Victor.
"I'll take the one behind Emily Spratt. You take the other man. Give me two minutes to reach the internal door."
Victor nodded, then grinned, but Mac could see that this was not one of Victor's easy going smiles, this grin was full of menace.
Two minutes later the window exploded inwards with a well-placed kick from Mac, his anger driving his muscles with a ferocity that Victor had rarely seen from the man. Meanwhile, Li Ann sprang into action, reaching the knife-wielding thug standing behind Emily Spratt, a high kick spinning the blade from the man's hand. She landed, spun, and smashed the thug in the side of the head with another high kick, watching with almost vicious pleasure as he dropped to the floor several feet away.
Meanwhile, Victor had reached his target and delivered several hard punches to the man's abdomen, finishing with a splendid uppercut that lifted the man off his feet. Li Ann shook her head in resignation as Victor rubbed his knuckles with a hiss of pain, but he seemed very pleased with himself as he towered over the unconscious man for a moment before turning back to watch Mac deal with the murderous Francis Burbaker.
Li Anne watched intently as Mac stalked around his intended victim, seeing the insane gleam in the pale blue eyes falter as Burbaker recognized the murderous fury in Mac's.
Burbaker's gaze flicked towards Victor for a moment, narrowed in confusion when he found he recognized but could not quite place the darker haired man, and then realization dawned. This familiar man was Doctor Foster's unexpected companion from the night before. With growing fear, Burbaker realized that, for the tall, graceful man circling him, this was confrontation was personal. Burbaker pulled out a large serrated knife and angled it towards Mac, head tilting to give the younger man a mocking challenge.
His eyes widened in shock when the knife flew into the air, excruciating pain flicking through his broken wrist. The fist that connected with his nose sent a spray of blood into the air. He felt the air explode out of him in a grunt as the base of Mac's palm smashed into his solar plexus, and he dropped like a stone to his knees on the tiled floor, bent double by the pain.
Mac grabbed Burbaker by the shirtfront and raised the winded body, his hand positioned ready to smash the nasal bone right through the man's brain, but he froze when a strong hand grabbed his wrist. Mac turned, all the anger seeping out of him as those pleading green eyes caught him. He relaxed his tensed muscles and looked back down into the already bloodied face.
"You're right, Vic. He's not worth it."
Burbaker was dropped, without ceremony, back onto the hard tiled floor and, moments later, the clean-up squad from the agency arrived and dragged out the miscreants. The Spratts were taken away to have their stomachs pumped, leaving the three agents alone.
Li Ann watched in confusion as Mac reached out and cupped Victor's face, but confusion turned to shock when, instead of the usual reaction, Victor leaned into that caress, his head tilting as Mac's lips descended to his own. Her jaw seemed to lose muscle control, leaving her mouth gaping open as the kiss deepened into something that could never be described as platonic.
Li Ann stood in silence, eyes wide open in full realization of what each man meant to the other. Part of her felt elated for them, another part felt the full emotional impact of becoming the proverbial third wheel. Was this how Mac had felt when he first realized that she was engaged to Victor? Was this how Victor had felt when he believed she had decided to go back to Mac? It hurt to know that neither of them considered her to be the most important person in their lives any more. The other man had usurped her place in each of their regard, and yet she could not find it in her heart to feel any less passionate and loving towards them.
She was still standing there when they parted, but it was as if she were merely a shadow, a forgotten presence.
"Let's go home, Vic."
They turned as one, with Mac's arm slipping around Victor's waist, and headed for the door. On the threshold Victor turned his head back.
She swallowed hard and followed them out.
"Why so sad, Li Ann?"
Li Ann looked up as the Director came up behind her, placing a well-manicured hand upon her bare shoulder. The shock of those warm fingers against her cool skin brought her back from her reverie.
"Oh... nothing. Just thinking..."
"About Victor and Mac."
Li Ann frowned as the Director took a seat beside her at the bar, a quick flick of her long scarlet nails bring the bartender racing across to place a full glass in front of her.
"You... know... about them?"
"I know everything... about everyone, Li Ann." The Director took a long but dainty swallow of the high proof alcohol without batting an eyelid. "And I know you will not be the only broken-hearted employee in the agency."
"Ah, yes. Mr. Muckle will be most disappointed to learn that it will be Mac Ramsey holding the reality, while he will have to be content with only fantasy."
Li Ann could not help the smile that starting to form at the thought of Nathan still mooning over Victor. Her eyebrows knitted together as another thought hit her.
"Both Mac and Victor have their fair share of admirers. Those who care for Mac will be happy, but envious of Victor... and those that lust after Victor will be livid that Mac was the one to win his heart."
Li Ann's smile turned to a full grin. Mac did seem to rub a lot of people up the wrong way with his practical jokes and flippancy. In contrast, Victor was well liked, perhaps because he was just so genuinely... nice.
"How do you feel about it?"
Li Ann thought hard for a moment. Was she angry? Broken-hearted? Disappointed? Strangely enough— no. She was happy for them. They both needed someone and she, instinctively, knew that they were right for each other. It had always puzzled her how she could have fallen for two men who were so different, and now she knew it was because they were two halves that had, finally, been brought together.
Li Ann looked across at her employer and saw an answering smile of understanding pass across the woman's face. With sudden realization, Li Ann knew that, with Mac and Victor together, she had freed herself of the guilt that had been trailing her for years. The guilt of abandoning Mac in the belief that he was dead, and the guilt of breaking up with Victor when she realized she had not put Mac completely out of her heart. She had been carrying around this guilt like a heavy mantle that soured every new relationship but, finally, she felt that weight lift from her shoulders.
"How do I feel? I feel as free as a bird on the wing." She treated the Director to a smile that seemed to rise from the very depths of her soul. "I feel happy. For them... and for me."
The Director smiled broadly, eyes sparkling.
"Let's go back to the Salsa club... and this time you can wear the dress."
Mac crawled up the bed, being careful where he placed his hands and knees as he slowly straddled his new lover. He punctuated each move forward with licks and kisses on the exposed flesh, enjoying the way Victor squirmed and moaned beneath him. Victor's harsh, in drawn breath as Mac sucked gently on the taut sacs, was released moments later in a long, shuddering sigh. Mac smiled as he moved on, tongue stroking the length of the straining shaft before teasing along the slit, gathering the dewdrop of precome. He moaned in appreciation of the bittersweet taste of Victor Mansfield, as if sampling a very rare vintage, then bestowed a gentle kiss on the tip before moving onwards. Mac nipped the tender skin around the navel before delving in with his tongue, relishing the way Victor sucked in his stomach, loving the small childish giggle Victor was unaware of giving.
"Hmmm... you like that..."
Any more words were lost when Mac's agile tongue trailed over one nipple eliciting a deep cry of pleasure from kiss-swollen lips. Teeth raked across the over-sensitized bud wringing another cry from his lover. Mac smiled against the sweat-sheened chest, feeling the sparse hairs against his mouth. He pulled on a few with his lips, smile widening as Victor gave a small yelp.
"Have I... Hmmm... ever told you... how beautiful... you are?"
More licks and kisses punctuated his words but he fell silent when he reached the long, creamy column of Victor's throat. Mac nuzzled into his lover's neck, biting and sucking on the soft flesh, loving the feel of Victor's hands trailing down his sides as he placed his mark of possession on that beautiful body. Mac pulled back to admire his handiwork, eyes rising to meet the lust-darkened green ones, and the flicker of those long, black lashes mesmerized him. None of the fantasies he had ever held of Victor came close to the reality of having this man lying submissively beneath him.
"I want you."
Victor's tongue darted out to lick across dry lips, and the erotic sight of that pink tip sent a blaze of fire through Mac's nerve endings. He felt more alive than he had in years as he gazed upon the man he had longed to hold and touch for so very long, and his heart seemed to skip a beat when he saw the consent written so clearly upon the beloved face.
A shy smile and a small nod were the only response and Mac felt his heart melt with love for this man.
"I won't hurt you, Vic. I'll never hurt you."
He slid to one side of his lover and reached over to open the top drawer of the bedside cabinet. Carefully, he removed the tube he had placed there earlier that evening, having wanted to be prepared should he be given his heart's desire. He laughed nervously, realizing how much his hands were shaking as he tried to unscrew the lid. Mac swallowed hard when the tube was taken from his suddenly nerveless fingers, and watched as Victor opened the tube with quick, deft movements of his agile fingers. Victor took Mac's hand in his own and gently squeezed a generous amount of the lubricating gel onto two of Mac's fingers. He dropped the tube over the side of the bed and then, with one final poignant look, Victor turned onto his stomach, the invitation clearly given.
Mac was still trembling as his dry fingers traced a path down the curve of Victor's spine and between the firm ass cheeks. Slowly, he pressed one lubricated finger against the tight ring of muscle, his own sigh matching Victor's when the finger finally penetrated. He drew forward and captured Victor's lips with his own, his tongue slowly fucking the luscious mouth with the same heated rhythm of his finger in that hot channel. The tiny thrusts grew in strength as the muscle relaxed, two fingers replacing the single digit. Mac felt Victor groan when he found that special place deep inside his lover, the sound vibrating through their joining. He repeated the movement, thrilled by the moan this action tore from his lover yet again. Victor was writhing on the bed, hips jerking in perfect synchronization with the thrust of Mac's fingers. Mac sighed, unable to prevent a grin of sheer pleasure. He knew Victor was ready for him, and he knew he wanted him as he had never wanted anything in his life before. He withdrew his fingers, hearing a cry of desolation at the loss that wrenched at his heart. With quick movements he smeared the remaining gel over the head of his engorged cock and clambered behind Victor.
Mac was surprised to realize he was still trembling when he lifted Victor to an easier position on his knees. He guided himself to the relaxed hole and pushed, firmly, eyes screwed tightly closed as he sought to hold himself back from the desire to plunge hard inside this body. He let out a shaky breath as he felt something give; felt himself sliding forward an inch or two into the incredibly tight, heated channel.
"Oh God! Vic!"
Victor's groan of pain transformed into a moan of ecstasy when Mac bit down hard on his shoulder, and reaching under his body to grasp his flagging erection. A strong thumb rubbed across the sensitive tip, smearing the precome and sending a jolt of pleasure racing through Victor's body.
"Fuck me... fuck me hard."
Mac needed no further encouragement. He gave in to the incredible desire suffusing his entire body and thrust hard, burying himself to the hilt inside the heated flesh. Beneath him, Victor cried out in pleasure and pain, uncertain where one sense began and the other ended. Mac pulled out and slammed back in, his own cries falling from swollen lips as Victor pushed back in counterpoint, doubling the intensity. He knew he couldn't last... not like this... and he also knew that no power on earth could stop him from pulling out once more and then slamming back. He stilled, thigh muscles hardening to steel as his senses overloaded, his body going onto automatic pilot as he started to pump hard and fast, once, twice, three times, his seed spurting deep inside that perfect body with each jerk of his hips.
Mac was unaware of the tight grip he had around his lover's erection until his hand began to slide easily, his fingers coated in warm ejaculate; Victor had found his own release.
Moments later they collapsed onto the bed in a tangle of arms and legs but neither seemed to have the energy to move. Beneath him, Mac could feel the fine tremors still flickering along the pleasure filled body, could hear the ragged breathing mixed in with his own. Beads of sweat glistened on their skin, the perspiration running down their sides to dampen the bed sheets beneath them, but nothing could spoil this moment as they bathed in the soft afterglow.
Eventually, reality returned and Mac shivered as the cool air touched his overheated skin. He slid to one side and tugged at Victor until his lover lay heavy and satiated in his warm embrace, then he reached down to draw the covers over them. He knew he would later regret not cleaning up but, at this moment in time, all he wanted was the feel of Victor in his arms... alive and only his.
"You okay, Vic?"
Mac grinned at the blissful response. He had no idea where they would go from here— it was all too new for both of them but, somehow, he knew they belonged together, that they had always been meant for each other.
He wrapped his arms tighter around Vic's beautiful body, kissed the sweat-dampened hair and allowed himself to drift off, knowing that his fantasies would never match the reality of finally having this man in his arms.