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Fighter

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Craddock was waiting in the meeting room. “Marcus,” he said, acknowledging the identity of his new undercover man.

With a quiet nod in his direction, Marcus secured the last of his valuables in the lock box and handed it over the duty officer. She looked at him with a sympathetic smile, as if to say, “See the old you in a couple of years, or perhaps never again,” and left the room, closing the door behind her.

The paraphernalia for Marcus’s new life was wrapped in plastic, sterile and unsullied; spread out across the desk: keys to his car and flat, ID, phone, credit cards, money ... and gun.

The first thing Marcus lifted was the gun – a black Baby Eagle. It was cold; its heft solid on his palm. And it was strong, built to last; the perfect shooter.

“Can I take it out?”

“It’s all yours. Ballistics have it catalogued.”

Craddock was watching, waiting. The creases around his eyes were deeper than Marcus had ever seen them.

Marcus balanced the weapon in his hand, still deliberating its weight and feel.

He’d learned a lot from Craddock over the years and more so in recent months; he respected his knowledge. If this was the gun Craddock said Marcus, aka the Centurion, should have, then this was what he was packing, no questions asked.

This was the gun for him: for Marcus.

“What about clothes?”

“In the suitcase. There isn’t much, though. You’ll have to go shopping once you get down to Exeter. Remember, you’re Marcus Aquila now, and you need to dress like he does, drive like him, eat the food he eats, watch his favourite shows on the telly, twenty-four-seven.”

“I know, I know, and I’ve got to like him to live him, or I won’t be convincing.”

They were stalling. They’d discussed all this a hundred times or more. Now it was time to go and put theory into practice.

Craddock slid his hands across the table and closed one around the fist Marcus had around the gun. “It’s going to be hard, pretending to be someone else.” He rubbed his thumb over Marcus’s skin. Marcus tried to ignore it.

“I’m not really going to be pretending to be someone else. I’m going to be me in a different life, as if I’d taken a different fork in the road.”

“Some people might say that’s a dangerous way to look at it.”

“And if that’s all the danger I put myself in, I’d say I got lucky.”

Craddock sighed and stared in earnest. His eyes were desperately blue, even under the fluorescent strip light. “Don’t forget your old friend, Craddock, in your new life. I’ll be down there every few months for you.”

“I know.” His old friend: they’d once been more than that and the memory of it still stung. However, that was the past, and now a new chapter in his life beckoned.

Marcus stripped away the plastic and threw his new possessions into a holdall, before grabbing the suitcase and heading out of the office. As he drove out of the car park he saw the New Scotland Yard sign in his rear view mirror for a few fleeting seconds. Then it was gone.


 

Marcus checked the email again and put the address into his GPS. The venue was one he knew about but hadn’t been to before – in a secluded, converted warehouse heading west out of Exeter.

He’d found out eighteen months before, when he’d first got down here, selling girls and women as slaves into the sex industry was lucrative but only half the picture. With the men there was a booming and growing demand for slaves that could fight – in cages for an audience. Marcus’s job, to uncover the key traders, had mushroomed into an investigation into a far-reaching net that connected international slave-trading, to vice, merciless violence ... and murder.

Straightening his tie and smoothing out the front of the navy suit he’d bought especially for the occasion, Marcus took a slow walk up to the entrance. It was pitch black through the car park but there was a dim light over the door. The bouncer stood facing the inside, probably talking to someone. It was hard to tell when his shoulders filled the entire doorway.

Marcus coughed and tapped him on the shoulder. “I’m on the VIP list – Centurion.”

The man turned, looked at Marcus and smiled wide, without looking at his clipboard. “So it is! You remember me, right? Bad Boy.”

Indeed he did.

Marcus and Bad Boy had crossed paths several times during Marcus’s first few months of employ with the General, mostly at fight clubs where they worked the door or as bodyguards to the bigwigs. “How could I forget you?” Bad Boy was the archetypal, over-sized career thug. He and Marcus had got on well enough, despite their differences. Forgetting him would be like forgetting you’d seen the Grand Canyon. “Is this King Larry’s gig then?”

“Yeah. Nice place, innit?”

“Very smart. I’m looking forward to being in a suite – I can’t stand it when the blood gets over your clothes.” Marcus almost laughed, and almost meant it.

“You’ve really moved on and up, hob-knobbing with the likes of the General himself now. Knew you would though – tough, nice-looking, clever lad like you. Well, go on then. Take the first door on the left, up the stairs, all the way to the end of the corridor. When you get to the end Cindy will take care of you.”

Marcus took a deep breath of clean, crisp night air, as if it was going to be his last, and stepped past Bad Boy. “Thanks. Have a good night.”

“Oh, I will. We’ve got some new Russian girls on the poles tonight.”

Turning back, Marcus slapped Bad Boy on the back before heading through the door to the stairs. He didn’t bother to take a glance into the front bar with the dancers in it.

When he got to the end of the corridor, which seemed to go on forever, Marcus encountered Cindy, who was sitting on a stool filing her nails. She hopped off and said, “Which suite?”

“The General.”

She lead him past several closed doors until she got to 123. “In here, love.”

They were just about to go in when a voice behind called out, “Hold the door, Cind. Oi, Centurion, nice togs.”

“Centurion?” Cindy laughed.

“Work name,” Marcus apologised. “Not looking too bad yourself, Sly.”

This time Cindy snorted. “Oh, Barry, you’re fucking kidding me?”

“Shh. Work names only. Walls have ears and all that.” Barry, aka Sly, slid around Cindy and through the door. “Come on, I want to get something to eat before the big fights start. All that blood really puts you off your food.”

Cindy rolled her eyes and tottered away in her shiny black heels, back to her spot, ready for the next people that turned up. Marcus followed Sly into the suite with a heavy sigh.

Inside the room the lighting was low. There were club chairs and round tables on a carpeted floor, with a small bar on one side. Opposite the door they’d come in, overlooking the fight arena, the wall was floor to ceiling glass. It was no doubt one-way, to allow the VIP guests inside to see the action below without the Plebs outside being able to see in. They walked straight to the glass and looked down. The seats in the arena were filling up with all kinds of punters – mostly men but a few women. Book-makers surrounded the fighting cage at the centre of the room and were taking bets the old-fashioned way - with chalk boards and cash.

An old man with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth was mopping streaks of murky water over the floor of the cage while a younger and fitter, but equally scruffy-looking man was running a cloth over the metal posts and chain link fencing that made up the walls. The cage was at least fifteen feet high with barbed wire looped over the top. Over the centre of the cage, several chains hung from girders attached to the ceiling. With a shudder, Marcus remembered those from the last time he went to a fight night: in some fights weapons like knuckledusters and nunchuks were attached to the ends of the chains. The fights with weapons came later in the evening, once the crowd was warmed up to seeing all the more brutal violence.

“Drink?” Sly asked.

“Just a Coke. I’m driving,” Marcus said as lightly as he could manage. They were all driving; this place was miles from anywhere. And it went without saying - taxis were out of the question.

“This is your first time in a suite, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Bit nicer than down there, eh? That’s why I don’t usually bother.”

“You’re such a snob. No rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi for the likes of you.” Marcus knew he only half meant it without malice. There had been a running joke amongst Sly and the other Reapers that Marcus wasn’t going to be with them long; that he was destined for promotion. It turned out they were right.

“I don’t see you complaining about being up here.”

“Me? I’d come on a kill night whether I was down there or up here. But up here’s better, of course it is.” His tone softened. Marcus had already proved he wasn’t to be messed with and it was on his account Sly had been given the invitation up here in the first place. “How much cash you got? We should grab a runner and get our bets in before the odds slip.”

“A few hundred. You’ll have to help me out – I never remember which fighters I’ve seen before.” The truth was, Marcus didn’t want to see the fights, let alone remember the faces of the men that were being forced to participate in them. These behind-closed-doors events made the cage fighting on the FightNetwork or Premier look like a cake-walk. Marcus loved a good, legitimate fighting competition, but watching these junkie machines tear each other to shreds made his flesh crawl and his fists tighten in frustration at the injustice and his inability to do anything about it... yet. He had to keep reminding himself when he came to these things and didn’t want to watch that ultimately the whole point of being here was to put a stop to slave-trading and slave-fighting. His goal was to have enough evidence for a sting by the end of the year. He didn’t know if he could take it much longer than that.

Marcus took a seat with his Coke while Sly poured a beer and perused the fight schedule. The suite quickly filled with a dozen dark suits and last of all, the General showed up. It had only taken Marcus six months to up ranks from Jack-of-all-trades-heavy to Reaper and he hadn’t seen much of the boss man since. He made sure he knew his movements, though, by keeping tight with some of the men he’d worked with at the beginning by sparring with them at the local boxing club. He’d developed quite a handy right hook, thanks to their coaching. A few of them were here and nodded in Marcus’s direction.

The General and his entourage sat down at the next table. One of his party, a curvy, dark-haired woman, the only woman in the room, perched on the arm of the General’s seat, took out her Blackberry and started tapping away.

Marcus noticed there was a spare programme on the table in front of him listing the schedule of the night’s fights. Attempting to look relaxed and involved, he scanned down the list of faceless names and stats. He was about to ask Sly for help when the woman from the General’s table came over. He could smell her perfume before he saw her and felt her red nails tapping him on the arm.

“The General will see you now. It’s Centurion, right?”

“Yes.”

The General was a short, wiry man in his fifties, wearing a burgundy pin-stripe suit and brown brogues. “Sit, sit. First fight’s in a few. Put any bets on yet?” His manner was as neatly clipped as his appearance.

“No. I was just looking down the list. Do you have any on tonight?”

“Yes. One’s a new one. He’s up first. Just trying him out, seeing whether he’s a keeper. Then later I’ve got Toby fighting. You should bet on him – he’s an animal. After that are the kill fights. Two tonight, I think.”

Marcus gulped and felt a hot rush of nausea sweep over him. He knew, of course, that this went on and that tonight’s main feature was the ‘deliberately scheduled’ kills. But he’d never seen one. The kill nights were invitation only and tickets were like gold dust. He’d been invited a couple of times before to the seats around the cage. But the mere thought of being that close and not being able to help the victims sickened him so much he’d made his excuses and not come. He hadn’t wanted to risk blowing his cover. He was supposed to be a hardened thug, after all; a rogue out of the armed services, well used to brutality and harbouring a disregard for the lives of the people he helped take into slavery.

Marcus leaned closer. “Sir. I know you’re busy, but I just wanted to say thank you, for moving me to New Blood. I won’t let you down.” He extended his hand and the General took it.

“No worries. I need someone intelligent who cleans up well handling importing the immigrants. I just need you out with my new recruits one more time. I’ve got two fellas down from Manchester who’ll be taking over your slot with Sly. Show them the ropes. After that, in a week or two, you’ll be with Twist.” He paused and leaned back off his chair. “Twist, get your arse over here.”

A tall man in a navy suit came over and took the spare seat on the other side of the General. He looked like he’d be more at home in a branch of Natwest handling insignificant financial transactions rather than facilitating the passage and entry of people illegally into the country.

“This is Centurion. He’s your new man. You need to get him situated and working before the shipment comes in from Thailand.” He turned to Marcus. “You’re going to be taking care of distribution after the cargo comes in. As I understand it, we have some girls for the titty bars in Soho but the bulk of the shipment is boys this time. Managed to score us some Thai boxers, didn’t we, Twist?” He looked proud of himself. Marcus despised him, prancing about like he had a legitimate, clean business, talking about human life as if it was nothing more than a commodity. Well, Marcus could see the blood on his hands and as soon as he’d relayed the evidence they needed, the Met and SOCA would have them all.

“Yes sir. Last word I had from our bloke arranging the ship was thirty girls and about eighty men. Youngest sixteen all the way up to about twenty-five. Should be here in about six weeks.” He turned to Marcus. “I’ll call you at the end of the week. Give you a chance to wrap up with Sly.”

Marcus nodded in reply and did a quick tally – that had to be almost half a million in human cargo. It could cost up to ten thousand for a good fighter but the return could be five times that in a year, with fight fees and takings from the bookies. While they were talking shop, Marcus listened carefully; it was too risky to attempt recording anything.

“That’s it – first fight’s up. Off you go then, lads. Bonnie, get us a scotch.”

Marcus went back to the table where he’d been sitting with Sly and did his best to take in everything he saw and heard. He’d head for the toilets in a few minutes and tap some notes into his Blackberry. First thing’s first, though, Marcus had to place some bets.

Sly was busy scribbling over his programme. He looked up at Marcus with a gap-toothed grin. With a face like that it was hard to imagine him as brutal. He was doughy and annoyingly jovial most of the time. Except when he was beating the living daylights out of young men too drugged-up and confused to put up a fight. Marcus despised him, too.

“You want me to put a couple of bets on for you?”

“Sure. Thanks. Pick me out three good ones and put a pony on each.” Marcus took out his wallet and handed over four twenties. “Tip the runner the change. I’m off to the toilets.”

When he came back the first fight had started. They were introductory bouts, designed for the owners of the slaves to see how good their men were in the cage. The new slaves were given a few bouts like this. If they won, they fought in the later bouts in future meets. It could be lucrative for the owners – some of these fighters had been around for years and had got a following. Of course, once they were really messed up they were on the scrap heap, though a few were kept on by the bigger owners to train new fighters. The ones that weren’t so lucky got entered into the kill fights which were reserved for the end of the night, where their chances were fifty-fifty of leaving the cage alive.

Marcus needed a drink but he couldn’t risk dulling his senses.

There were ten fights, the first two beginner bouts. The slaves had to fight for fifteen minutes, three five-minute rounds. A knock-out was an automatic win, as was a bone-break. Otherwise it went on points. There was no such thing as a submission or anything as innocuous as a pin-down.

Marcus kept half an eye on the fights and the other on the machinations in the suite. All along this side of the arena were other suites, ten in all, each bought by the biggest slave traffickers or slave owners, all wanting to see a good return on their investments.

The hours dragged through the first seven fights.

There was a buffet and Marcus was almost sick just looking at it. He swallowed down half a burger and a few chips, the food moving thick and slow down his gullet as he watched noses smash and eyes swell; the floor on the cage getting bloodier and bloodier while the spectators on the seats got louder and louder.

It was the eighth fight and it was over in the second round. One of the men in the cage went down with a final blood-curdling scream. Marcus could see the bone on his upper arm poking through his skin.

“Cheer up – you won!” Sly punched his arm. Marcus rubbed the spot, aching for the man whose fighting days were in all likelihood over. What happened to him next was anyone’s guess, but it wasn’t going to be a cushy retirement in sunny Spain, that much was obvious. If he was deemed worthless to his owner, chances were, he’d have one more chance in the cage and that would be his lot.

The excitement was short-lived for Sly and non-existent for Marcus.

There was a buzz in the arena as the referee took to the centre of the cage with his microphone to make an announcement - a change to the last fight. There was a temporary hush and then a loud cheer.

Marcus had missed it. “What’s going on?”

“The last fight: they’ve added a third person. A man called Esca. See on the board? Mike, AJ and now Esca. All bets are off.”

“What? Why?”

Sly and Marcus looked around, neither knowing the answer. The General was standing up, looking thrilled. Marcus got up and approached Bonnie. “Why have they added a third to the last –“

“Shh!” She held up her forefinger and tried to talk to someone on the phone.

Twist came over. “I haven’t seen a three-man in over a year. And this Esca kid, I’ve seen him fight quite a few times. He used to be like a fucking ninja. He must have got fucked up good and proper.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Why else would they have stuck him in the kill fight? This kid’s been around for years. First time I saw him was ... yeah, about three years ago. Surprised he’s lasted this long actually. Shame though. You wait till you see him. Hopefully he’s still got some fight left.”

Bonnie was holding her hand over her phone, whispering to the General.

Marcus had so many questions. He knew he had to stick to the fight, to things that would be relevant. “So what happens in a three-man? Do we see two kills?”

“Maybe. Depends on how quick they are.”

Bonny handed the General her phone and Marcus watched him talking, grim-faced, to whoever was on the other end.

Most of the guests were filling up their glasses and taking their seats. When the General finished talking he handed the phone back to Bonnie and slumped in his seat. Loud enough for everyone to hear, he said, “Could be over quick. I just spoke to Larry. The kid’s lost it – he tried to hang himself a few days ago.

With a heavy heart, Marcus went back to his seat. The next fight was a blur. There were baseball bats stuck in holders, one at each corner of the arena. It was easy enough for both fighters to grab one. After that it was over in minutes; the bigger of the two caught the smaller one across his forehead. Through the speakers on the wall Marcus could have sworn he heard a skull shatter over the groan and cheer of the crowd. His knees went first, crumpling beneath him, and as he hit the floor he got a second blow. His blood sprayed into the first row. The battered man on the floor jerked a couple of times then stilled. The referee gave a ten second count. When he didn’t move the referee went for the pulse while the crowd kept calling something like, “Finish him, finish him.” Only, he was already finished. Even from up here Marcus could see his brain and shattered skull. The referee called it with a sweep of his hand across his throat.

Marcus didn’t know what they did with the bodies. He did know there were ‘doctors’, most of them struck off the BMA register for malpractice, who fixed up the survivors. He’d managed to get the names of three back to the Met. Slowly, slowly Marcus and a couple of other undercover officers were building up a catalogue of people they would catch in one giant sting.

Marcus was finally about to relent and have a couple of shots of vodka in his Coke when the arena lights were dimmed. The cage had been cleaned up and for the first time this evening, they were going to use the chains. One chain, anyway. From the chain in the centre a knife dangled. It had a six-inch blade and was attached at the handle with the blade hanging downwards. It couldn’t be pulled down unless the person below was tall enough to reach past the blade all the way up to the handle, or they didn’t mind slicing open their own hand.

Marcus sickly realised that if two of fighters decided to team up, all it would take was for one to put the other on his shoulders and they’d have the weapon. Of course, there would be nothing to stop the man with the knife killing the man beneath him, but Marcus didn’t know enough of the men in the arena to know where their loyalties might lie. They all had different owners. They were all slaves and slaves didn’t get to go free. For all of them, in one way or another, their days were numbered.

When he’d first come into the business, Marcus was convinced these men would give up. Clearly some did. But after eighteen months, Marcus had seen enough to know many of the men, especially the ones they got from Reaping, had an iron-will to survive. Maybe they were drugged and brain-washed out of all reason, maybe they thought they’d escape, maybe they hung onto the hope they’d see it to a retirement and get to have a life beyond the cage. Whatever it was, Marcus had never seen a single cage fight where it didn’t look like the men in there were in it to win, whatever it took.

The bar was self-service. Marcus got up and quickly grabbed a bottle of Perrier and a glass, just as the three fighters were lead into the cage.

“Who’s who?”

Sly leaned in closer. “The black geezer is AJ, the taller, white one is Mike, and the little one is Esca.”

Marcus couldn’t believe his eyes. Esca was a boy – he looked eighteen at the most. He was no more than five-six or seven and probably weighed ten stone dripping wet. The other two men were six feet at least and built like brick shit-houses. AJ had a limp. The bone in his right leg was twisted. Mike looked in shape, but his eyes were vacant. He looked like he didn’t even know where he was.

Without realising it, Marcus found himself gripping the edge of his seat and hoping upon hope that perhaps Esca might stand a chance; that Esca might still have it in him that he wanted to live.

Esca stood in his corner, chin held high, stormy eyes staring out beneath an unruly mop of bronze hair. Marcus could see the angry graze and bruise around his neck – a reminder of his failed attempt to kill himself. Aside from that, there was nothing unkempt or lacking about him. He was slight but ripped: every ounce of him poised and looking like he was ready to fight.

“Has Esca killed anyone before?” Marcus asked Sly.

“You mean in a regular fight, by accident?”

It happened sometimes, that was no surprise to anyone.

Sly didn’t wait for Marcus to reply. “Dunno. He’s messed up a few fighters enough they were probably not coming back in.”

“He doesn’t look big enough.”

“That’s his advantage. Now shut the fuck up and watch – it’s about to start.”

The referee stood by the bell, ready to ring it: the one and only time he would. There were no rounds in these kill fights. The bout went on until one of the fighters didn’t.

The crowd fell silent.

The bell rang and Marcus flew up out of his seat to the glass, hands and face pressed close to get a better look. Everyone in the suite did the same, the people on the seats in the arena all jumped up and the noise pulsed through to the suite. Down on the floor it had to be deafening.

Judging by how far it was hanging above the heads of the two taller fighters, the knife was suspended eleven or twelve feet above the floor of the cage. It was unlikely any of the men had it in them to jump up and grab it.

But that didn’t stop Esca.

Before the other two had moved from their spots, Esca had sprung from his position in the corner opposite the suites and was scaling the side of the cage. In a few swift stretch-reaches he was high enough neither of the others could reach him. AJ was the first to reach Esca’s side of the cage and was grasping it with both hands, using his considerable weight to shake the cross link fencing that Esca was holding onto. Esca clung on, scanning the cage, his face creased into a vicious snarl.

Mike followed AJ, seemingly with no other strategy but to join in trying to shake Esca off the fence.

The General stood a few feet away from Marcus, close enough that he could hear everything he said. Marcus glanced over and the General caught his eye. He said to Marcus, eyes wide and virtually glowing with delight, “This is priceless. That kid’s got balls, I’ll give him that.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s going to fight. Think about it. He tried to commit suicide, or so we’re told, but now he’s going for the knife. He wants the last say in how he gets to die.” The General slapped his thigh. He was probably only as pleased as he was because Esca wasn’t one of his own. The General didn’t tolerate dissention – that was well known.

Marcus looked at Esca, holding onto the fence, legs curled up like a cat ready to pounce. He might not have a choice in how he got to live but he was going to do his best to make sure that he got to choose if and when he died. In that instant, Marcus knew that if Esca was killed he wouldn’t be able to stand it. He couldn’t look yet he couldn’t tear his eyes away.

Sly grabbed Marcus’s arm. “Wily little fucker, isn’t he? Look!”

Esca crouched and leapt, just managing to reach one of the chains that dangled from the ceiling. Marcus could see people’s hands clamp over their mouths in shock then the screams and shouts came in another wave, “Esca, Esca!”

Esca was swinging from the chain, likely trying to swing to the chain in the middle to get the knife. He was picking up momentum when two women appeared from opposite wings in bikinis, each brandishing a spiked knuckleduster on her fist. They waved them around, so that not only the audience could see them, but also the fighters in the cage. If they threw them in now, Esca wouldn’t be able to get one before Mike and AJ. He would have no choice but to attempt to get the knife.

This had possibly been the plan, to initially make it look like Esca had a chance. The odds, however, were never about being fair, only about putting on a good show.

Sly groaned, “I hate it when that happens. Someone must have sponsored the weapons. It’s always over too quick when they do that. I expect the two big lugs will have at it while Esca hangs on. Either that or they’ll gang up and take him out together.”

At the moment Esca made a swing for the middle chain, the two women removed the knuckle dusters and threw them into the cage.

Marcus heard someone from the suite shouting, “Go on, my son!”

After that it was chaos everywhere.

Esca frantically dangled from the chain by one arm while he endeavoured to untangle the knife with the other, while Mike and AJ scrambled to secure the knuckledusters that were bouncing and rolling across the floor. Even with a limp, AJ was faster than Mike, and with a lumbering roll he grabbed the weapon nearest the pair of them and was scrabbling to his feet. On the opposite side of the cage was the other weapon. Mike looked around for a moment, as if he was unable to focus on it. In the split second he hesitated, Esca freed the knife and was swinging the chain towards the same end of the cage as the dropped knuckleduster. With a flying leap, as Mike loped to the end of the cage, Esca was making his landing, not on the floor, but on Mike’s back.

Mike yelled and his arms flailed as he fell to the floor.

Marcus watched, his heart in his throat, as Esca swiped the blade across Mike’s throat.

Simultaneously, the crowd roared, “KILL!”

But there was no blood.

It took Marcus a moment to realise. It was a trick. “The knife was blunt!”

“Fuck me. That’s it then. Bye, bye Esca.” Marcus could have punched Sly for thinking it, let alone saying it. He squeezed his eyes shut for a second and opened them, determined to keep looking.

AJ had stopped in his tracks, but not Esca and not Mike.

Esca clung to Mike’s neck while Mike crawled and bucked, trying to throw Esca from his back.

AJ was hobbling towards them, knuckleduster held high. Esca and Mike were an arm’s reach from the weapon on the floor. It was anyone’s guess who would get it first. If AJ decided he would grab for it then he was guaranteed to win; he could pick off either one of his opponents. Esca and Mike were closer, though.

Next, Mike spread his palms and planted them on the ground, looking like he was going to make a last attempt to throw Esca off. In the moment he paused, Esca lifted the knife, high above his head, and plunged it in - straight into the side of Mike’s neck. There was a still silence, maybe only in Marcus’s head, before the blood oozed thickly from Mike’s throat, trickling then gushing down his neck and onto the floor.

Meanwhile, Esca had barely paused for a heartbeat before he’d clambered forward to reach the other knuckleduster. AJ reached them and was halted for a split second by Mike thrashing around on the floor. As he spun over, fell and his head and arms hit the floor, his eyes rolled up in his head – the last movement Marcus saw from his dying body.

The distraction was all Esca needed to reach the knuckleduster, picking it up and slipping it over his fist in one slick movement, as AJ reached him, swiping and swinging the spikes and catching Esca across his left arm. There was no mark at first, though Esca winced, and Marcus dared to hope that AJ had missed. A second later two fine stripes of red bloomed from his forearm.

Esca hardly gave it another glance.

Esca side-stepped AJ, looking preternaturally calm as he nimbly ran to the corner of the cage, keeping his back to the chain link. AJ turned, breathing hard.

“Is it over? Or does one of them have to kill the other?” Marcus tried not to sound frantic. Sweat was prickling at the back of his neck and he could feel his shirt clinging to his back. He wanted to wipe a napkin over his forehead but the last thing he wanted to do was look traumatised by what he was seeing.

Too late.

The General stepped closer, pushing aside the man that Marcus hadn’t even noticed standing next to him. “That boy’s got you a bit hot under the collar, hasn’t he?”

Marcus didn’t know what to say. He steeled himself in an attempt to sound composed. “What will happen to him, if he lives?”

“Oh, he’s going to live. That black fella don’t stand a chance now.”

Marcus looked down into the cage. Esca was standing his ground. His back was to the suites and it was only from his stance that Marcus could tell he was poised to fight, to keep going. He was waiting for AJ to make a move.

The crowd was chanting, “Kill, kill, kill, kill.”

The General spoke, looking down at the arena alongside Marcus. “In answer to your question: if he were one of mine, he’d get a swift bullet in the back of the head as soon as I got his scrawny arse out of here. He’s insulted his owner and if he has his way he’ll only try and kill himself again as soon as he gets the chance. It doesn’t do to let a slave have the last word, if you want to keep the rest of them in line.”

The hate that Marcus felt for these people boiled and flamed inside him. He flicked another glance down at Esca, circling the cage, and made a decision right there and then that this was one slave he wasn’t going to let die. It sent a strange wave of calm through him as the decision became irrevocable and final.

“What if I wanted him?”

“What would you want with him?” the General scowled. “You can’t fight him again, and the minute your back’s turned he’s going to top himself.”

“I don’t want a fighter. And I can keep him alive – if I want to.”

The General barked out a laugh loud enough to turn heads. “I don’t believe it. For a while, me and the lads thought your dick didn’t work.” He looked at Marcus and Marcus held his ground, looking right back. “You’re fucking serious, aren’t you?”

Marcus shrugged. “Absolutely.” He’d let them think what the hell they liked, if it meant Esca got to live.

“Bonnie, get on the blower and call Larry. I need to talk to him.”

In the space of a minute, the bell rang in the arena and the fight was stopped.

There were jeers from the crowd. Plastic cups were hurled at the cage and at the bouncers as AJ and Esca were taken from the cage and through opposite doors at the sides of the arena.

Looking thoroughly smug, the General handed the phone back to Bonnie and said to Marcus, “He’s all yours.”

“How? ... How much?”

“Think of it as a bonus.”

“Really? I mean, thank you.”

“Now, as a caveat to that, if he escapes and I get to hear about it, you’re both dead.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less.” Marcus’s insides were churning up a storm as he feigned his casual response.

“Yeah, well I like you, son, so to make sure that doesn’t happen I’m sending Curly down to fit him up with a collar and some handcuffs. He should already have a tracker. Make sure you get your half from his minders.”

Marcus tried to swallow. His throat was too dry.

The General continued, “I’d go now, if I were you, before his owner changes his mind. Drive your car around to the back and Curly will meet you there.”

On shaky legs, Marcus turned and headed out of the suite, before he had a chance to think about what he’d done.

Around the back of the building, on the steps of an open fire exit, Curly and another minder were waiting with Esca who was slumped against the minder’s side. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and the long shorts he’d had on in the cage.

Marcus pulled up at the bottom of the steps, jumped out of the car and bounded up to the three men. “What’s happened to him?”

The minder replied, “Doc gave him something to keep him docile for the night, so you can get him home and try him out.”

Marcus bit his tongue and pulled his lips tight. Then he noticed Esca’s feet.

“Where are his trainers?”

“Buggered if I know. But you’ll want this.” The minder took a small, black device out of his pocket. It looked like a phone, though Marcus knew it at once as the GPS tracker. He put it in his pocket and stepped closer.

“Where’s his chip?”

“Back of his neck.”

Esca was in no state to walk. His eyes had fallen closed and his legs were buckling under his weight. Marcus slipped his arm under Esca’s shoulders, leaned down and hooked the other under his knees, lifting him out of the minder’s grasp.

The fear had turned to anger and he bit out at the minder, “Put the bag on the front seat. Curly, can you get the door for me?”

As Marcus tucked Esca on his side, across the back seat, Curly said, “The electric collar is in the bag, just in case you have to take him out anywhere. The range is about ten feet before the shock kicks in.”

Marcus stood up straight and glared at Curly. “Hopefully, I won’t be needing it. Thank the General for me, though, eh?” Marcus sneered and pushed past Curly to the driver door.

Curly nodded, but said nothing in reply. However, as he turned and walked away Marcus was sure he heard him mutter, “Fucking pervert.”

Marcus was reeling. What had he just let himself in for?

He looked over his shoulder onto the back seat, where Esca was now fast asleep, curled on his side, looking as peaceful as if he’d dropped off there by himself.

Marcus drove off with a skid of his tyres on the gravel.

Not five miles from the fight club he pulled over into a lay-by and threw up on the side of the road.

Chapter Text


 

Esca didn’t stir the whole of the drive back to Marcus’s flat. It gave Marcus time to think.

By rights, he should get hold of Craddock and hand Esca over. He might be needed as a trial witness. More than that, Esca was going to need care: long-term therapy and help getting re-established in an independent life.

Marcus, however, was too close to the end, too close to wrapping up this stinking mess and getting out. While he should never have taken Esca in the first place, to cut him loose was too much of a risk, a liability. Questions would be asked if it were to transpire that Esca had disappeared from his charge and Marcus wouldn’t have the right answers.

There was nothing for it. Marcus was going to have to keep Esca. Somehow, he was going to have to take care of him and make sure he didn’t escape or kill himself. Marcus was going to have to do this while not blowing his cover. He had to keep his meetings, updates and regular activities while continuing his work as Marcus the slave-handler.

Not too much to deal with, then.

It might have been an impulsive decision to take Esca yet Marcus couldn’t quash the belief he’d done the right thing. Despite how much more difficult it was going to make his job, he wanted more than anything to keep Esca close. He wanted to hold onto the one good thing he’d done as Marcus, he wanted to have something tangible to prove that what he was doing was worthwhile.

Plus, if the truth be told, Marcus was lonely.

As he pulled onto the gravel at the front of the converted Victorian terrace where he lived, Marcus mulled over this fucked up situation, loath to admit if it all went south he only had himself to blame. Perhaps he was more fucked up in the head than he realised. In the space of an hour, he’d become the owner of a slave and was under the illusion he might actually be able to befriend him and make things all better. Perhaps it was getting time to call it quits before he got himself, and quite possibly Esca, killed.

In the meantime, Esca was out for the count on the back seat. Whatever the ‘Doc’ had given him was meant to keep him under for the night.

Marcus slung the holdall over his shoulder, then Esca, and hauled them both the three floors to his front door. When he got over the threshold he stopped short. Where exactly was Esca going to sleep, in his one-bedroom flat?

Given the trauma Esca had been through, Marcus decided on his bed. He tucked Esca in without removing the sweatshirt or his shorts, not wanting Esca to wake up and think Marcus had touched him.

There was enough light from the hallway for Marcus to look at Esca, who was frowning and murmuring softly in his sleep. Marcus couldn’t help himself. He knelt down by the side of the bed and pushed Esca’s hair back off his face. He was young, too young to have been through that living hell for three years. He bore the scars, Marcus had seen them, but asleep it was easy to believe he hadn’t been completely ruined; that there would be a person left to salvage.

Marcus wondered if he was being fanciful to imagine there was going to be more to Esca than the indomitable fighter he’d seen in the cage. How damaged was he? How he had been Reaped and ended up as a slave? Was he going to be able to readjust, once Marcus was able to set him free? He whispered over Esca’s quiet breathing, “What am I going to do with you?” not knowing the answer himself.

Esca’s long lashes flickered and he made a small noise in the back of his throat. There was a bruise blooming over his left cheekbone, acquired after he’d left the cage. Marcus gently lifted Esca’s right hand. It looked sore and swollen. In the morning, he would have to take a better look at Esca’s injuries. For now, Marcus needed to let him sleep and start figuring out a way to accommodate his new housemate.

Marcus grabbed a blanket, some joggers and a t-shirt, leaving the door to the bedroom ajar. In the living area, he went through the holdall. The only contents were the cuffs, the electric collar and underneath them at the bottom of the bag, a local newspaper for the City of York. It was a week old. Perhaps it belonged to one of the minders. Marcus put it on the kitchen counter and the other items in the safe he’d installed in the cupboard by the front door. This was where he kept his gun and a few other things of value. From now on, he was going to have to be extra vigilant, especially when the time came where he’d have to leave Esca in the flat alone.

Marcus felt disgusting: the sickening recollection of the evening clung to him like a film of filth. The feeling was worse tonight than after a night out Reaping. This time the poison had seeped too deep into his skin and he wasn’t sure that he was going to be able to wash it away with a shower, or flush it out of his system with a few bottles of beer.

Nonetheless, shower he did, before settling on the sofa with a bottle of pale ale.

A couple of hours passed before Marcus was able to fall into an uneasy, fitful sleep. Twice he got up to check on Esca. Twice he found him on his side, sound asleep. It was with no small amount of guilt that he hoped he’d find Esca awake. Marcus was excited to meet him, no matter what. Instead, he had to content himself with rehearsing what he was going to say when he introduced himself to Esca for the first time. He couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound terrible, and that admission didn’t help him settle either.

By the morning, Marcus had barely slept a few restless hours. When his watch finally said eight o’clock he couldn’t wait any longer. He tapped his knuckle on the door to the bedroom and slowly pushed it open. The light from a sunny day filtered through the blinds, illuminating the room in a grey, velvety haze.

“Esca?”

Esca was bundled under the duvet with just his face peeking out over the top. He was lying on his side facing Marcus, eyes wide open and staring. He blinked a few times, saying nothing.

Tentatively, Marcus approached and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I’m Marcus. I was at the fight last night. I brought you home with me. You’re going to live here now.”

Esca didn’t move a muscle. In a quiet voice, he said impassively, “You didn’t fuck me.”

“No.” Marcus flinched. It wasn’t the first thing he’d expected to hear. He also wasn’t expecting a soft northern accent that was more genteel than harsh. “You were unconscious.” Shit. As soon as he said it Marcus regretted it.

“Are you going to fuck me now?”

“No. What I meant to say before was that ... I was never going to ... I didn’t bring you back here to have sex with you.”

“That’s what the minders said you bought me for.” Esca was matter-of-fact, like he was talking about the weather, though Marcus had seen a forecast for rain elicit more emotion than Esca was currently displaying. Esca continued, as if he didn’t even care for the answer. “Why am I here, then?”

Marcus didn’t hesitate. “I didn’t want to see you killed. And I don’t want you to kill yourself.”

“You can’t stop me. You’ll have to leave me alone sooner or later.” There was no challenge in Esca’s voice, only quiet certainty. Esca must have seen himself as out of the frying pan into the fire. It was going to be nigh on impossible to persuade him otherwise.

“That gives me three days then - to convince you not to.”

Esca closed his eyes.

Marcus had expected more ... he wasn’t sure, actually. The silence was disconcerting and he had to steel himself to remain calm and reassuring. Esca must be terrified, angry, even if all he was showing now was this shattered hopelessness. Marcus knew he had a very small window of opportunity to start building a bridge to Esca before the chance would be gone and there would be no gentle way to reach him. “You must be thirsty? Hungry?”

Esca opened his eyes and nodded.

“How about orange juice?”

He nodded again.

“Good. I’ll get it for you now.”

When he returned, Esca hadn’t moved an inch. Marcus put the glass on the bedside table. He stood fidgeting for a moment, anxious for Esca to speak to him, to get up and move around, to ask for what he needed. He’d hoped that without the threat of assault or violence, Esca would be more amenable. Clearly, Marcus had not thought things through nearly enough.

Marcus knew very little about dealing with post-trauma shock or the effects of long-term abuse. He guessed simple, non-threatening requests and introductions were the place to start.

“I’m going to run you a bath and once you’re cleaned up I’ll make you breakfast. Are you able to manage by yourself?”

Once more, Esca nodded his assent.

“The bathroom’s next door, between the bedroom and the living room. As soon as you’re ready, go and have a soak. Take your time. When you’re done I want to check over your injuries.”

Marcus went from the bedroom, past the bathroom and front door, to the kitchen and rummaged about in the cupboards. His flat was small – from where he stood in the kitchen Marcus could see the living room and adjoining dining area, which housed a cross-trainer instead of a dining table. Since he never entertained at his flat, Marcus ate his solitary meals at the breakfast bar or on his lap in front of the television.

Hearing movement in the bedroom, Marcus leaned over the counter. Esca emerged from the bedroom and went into the bathroom. He didn’t close the door.

Marcus had managed to assemble a standard array of breakfast items: cereal, some fruit, a loaf of bread and a box of eggs, when Esca exited the bathroom. He lingered in the doorway, with a towel around his waist, holding his shorts and sweatshirt in front of his chest, looking at Marcus, as expressionless as before.

“Go in the bedroom. I’ll be right there.” Marcus grabbed the first aid kit from the cupboard over the counter. In his line of work he had to be well-stocked. There wasn’t always someone around to patch him up and going to a hospital or a bona fide doctor was always the last resort.

Marcus scrunched his face in annoyance as he reached the threshold to the bedroom, recalling Esca didn’t have any clothes or shoes. Given that Marcus was a good six inches taller and considerably more heavily built, that was going to be a problem. Nothing that belonged to Marcus was going to fit Esca. He took a step back and went into the bathroom, unhooking the bathrobe from behind the door.

The bathroom was spotless: the bathtub was rinsed, the surfaces wiped and the bath mat hung over the side of the bath.

Esca was sitting on the side of the bed nearest the door, his hands in his lap. His hair was damp, drying in soft spikes and errant flicks, and from the goose-bumps over his chest and arms, he was chilly. Marcus could smell the shampoo and the soap on Esca’s pale, taut skin as he slowly knelt down in front of him.

If he proceeded cautiously, Marcus hoped Esca would begin to trust that he wasn’t going to hurt him; that he wasn’t going to be forced to do something that would cause him physical or emotional harm. Maybe that would be enough to get him to communicate something, anything.

“I’ll be quick. Then you can put the robe on.” Marcus opened the first aid kit and took out antiseptic cream, bandages and his personal favourite, arnica. He must get through tube of that a month. First he looked at Esca’s bruised cheek. It was purpling now, across his cheekbone and over the soft skin on his eye. “I’m going to put arnica on the bruises. It helps them heal quicker.”

Esca didn’t say anything but tipped his head down and up the tiniest fraction to show his assent. The expression on his face remained impassive and he looked straight ahead as Marcus moved in closer to apply the cream. When he got to the skin around Esca’s eye, Esca sucked in a shallow-quick breath. Marcus pulled his hand back quickly and said, “I’m sorry.” He was done there, anyway and he didn’t want to linger on Esca’s face too long. He was already captivated by Esca’s grey eyes and wondering what he would look like if he smiled. This was no time for dubious fantasies.

Next, as gently as he could with his too-big hands, he tended to the grazes on Esca’s bruised neck. The marks were sharp and the abrasions deep. Esca must have used a belt when he’d tried to hang himself. It was painful to the touch: Marcus could feel Esca tensing at his ministrations. The tendons in his jaw and shoulders twitched though he kept absolutely still.

It was more than Marcus could bear, to see the wounds that must have been festering on the inside revealed starkly on the outside. What had caused Esca to try to end it now, after all this time? Moreover, how much pain had Esca endured over the years, that he could bear Marcus tending to these abrasions with such stoicism?

Marcus reached down to where Esca’s hands were folded in his lap. “Let me have a look. Hold them out for me, palms up.” They were bruised, red from clinging onto the chains the night before but there was little to be done except more arnica. Marcus was more interested in what he couldn’t see: the unblemished skin on the inside of Esca’s forearms and the creases of his elbows. Marcus even checked the webs of skin between Esca’s fingers.

Esca was watching from beneath his lashes. “I’m clean.”

“I can see that.”

“You can check my legs and feet.”

“No need. If you’re not, I’ll notice in the next day or two. Was that your choice, or did your owner keep all his fighters drug-free?”

Esca looked away and Marcus could see him swallowing hard. “It wasn’t my choice. But I was the only one.”

The scratches from the knuckledusters weren’t deep enough to need stitches. Marcus rubbed the antiseptic over the lines of the puckered scarlet scabs.

“Stand up for me. Hold your arms out a little.” Marcus stood, too, and felt up Esca’s ribs, though it didn’t look like more than bruises. Esca flinched but held his expression steady.

“I’m fine,” Esca said. He must have noticed Marcus frowning.

“What about your ankle?”

“It’s just a bruise.”

It was only slightly swollen. Since Esca was going to be resting, it wouldn’t need more than some ice.

“All right, put on the robe.”

As he stepped away, Esca put on the robe over the towel and didn’t remove it until he was fully covered. Marcus took the towel from him and threw it on the bed alongside the shorts and sweatshirt – the bed which Esca had made before he’d gone for a bath.

“Come, you must be hungry.”

Marcus held out his hand, close enough to guide Esca with a gentle palm to the small of Esca’s back. He decided against touching him and motioned in the air instead. Esca looked Marcus directly in the eye before stepping out of the room, like a predator sizing up its prey - leaving Marcus with the uncomfortable feeling he might not have as much control over Esca as was necessary to keep them both safe.

Esca ate in silence at the breakfast bar, though Marcus could see him eyeing the newspaper while he made fried eggs and toast. It was Esca’s then. It made sense: his accent could be Yorkshire. Marcus hadn’t considered how far people came for the fight meets. It was heart-breaking – a simple newspaper - the only thing Esca owned.

“I’ll have to go out today to get you some clothes. I’d take you with me but I don’t have anything that will fit you. Definitely no shoes.”

“Well, you’ve got the handcuffs ... and the collar,” Esca added without emotion, “or maybe you’ve got a cupboard you can lock me in.”

Esca wasn’t joking. Marcus felt the skin on the back of his neck prickle.

“I don’t want to keep you prisoner. But if you run away you’ll get us both into trouble and right now I don’t see that you’ve got a reason not to try to escape.”

“Or try to kill myself.”

“I’m hoping you’re going to give me that three days to convince you not to.”

Esca sneered. “And I suppose you’re going to give me the lecture on how, if I do as you tell me, nothing bad will happen to me?” Marcus toed the floor guiltily as Esca continued derisively, “You’ve never had a slave before, have you?”

“No. And I don’t particularly want one now.” Marcus started to clear away the plates, annoyed with himself as much as anything. He had no right to be petulant. More kindly, he added, “I hate to say it, but I’m in an awkward position. Either you wear my clothes and we go out together, or I have to restrain you while I go out by myself.”

“Cuff me to the bed. Just let me use the toilet first.”

Esca got up and disappeared into the bathroom while Marcus stood with a bottle of ketchup in his hand, dumbstruck. This was completely horrendous and the exact opposite of what he had planned for Esca. But, there again, what choice did he have?

Over and over in his mind, Marcus repeated the words, keep him safe, keep him safe, in the hope that if he kept saying them, putting the cuffs on Esca would be easier.

When Marcus got into the bedroom, Esca was lying on the bed, on his side. He’d thrown the sweatshirt and shorts into the corner which Marcus took as a sign to throw them away. He would be relieved to see them go. Next, Marcus got out clothes for himself, picking out underwear, socks, jeans and a t-shirt as if it were his life that depended on it. He laid them on the bed. Each action was a step closer to the inevitable and he was sick with dread.

There was no more stalling to be done and seeing it Esca raised his left arm, resting his wrist on the thick cross-post of the pine bed frame. The bed was solidly made and one half of the cuff would just fit around the wood. Marcus doubted Esca would be able to break it, though if he could swing around and use his legs ... there again he wasn’t wearing any shoes. The situation was intolerable to Marcus. He must have been hesitating too long as Esca finally said, “You really don’t want to, do you?”

Marcus shook his head. What made it worse was the tone Esca used: curious, puzzled, softer than the emotionless responses he’d given Marcus up to now, as if he’d been muting out his fear and anger. Marcus could only hope that he was reaching him.

Marcus put the cuff on the bed first and gave it a swift yank. It held, though there was a narrow dent left in the wood from the force. Marcus looked at Esca and said, his voice unexpectedly hoarse, “I’m sorry. But this is to keep you safe.” He frowned. “I want you to trust that I’m not going to hurt you. And if I can keep you here, safe, unharmed, for a bit longer, then hopefully you’ll understand and you won’t want to hurt yourself. But I can’t let you go,” he whispered, “not yet.”

He’d said too much. Marcus got up from the bed and couldn’t look at what he’d done. He mumbled, “I won’t be long: an hour. There’s a Next on an Industrial park ten minutes drive from here.”

“Marcus.”

“Yes.” He dared to glance back.

Esca said softly, “My feet. They’re a size eight.”

“Jeans?”

“Thirty waist.”

“Bra?”

For a second, it looked like Esca almost smiled. But the brightness was gone as quickly as it appeared, like a flash of lightning. Still, the image seared on Marcus’s brain and he was newly determined. He rushed into the bathroom to wash and change, checking in on Esca once more before he left.

“I’ll be back soon, I promise.”

Esca waved him off with a limp flick of his hand and turned away.

No more almost-smiles then.

 

It turned out that Esca was more amenable in clothes, even if he barely hid his disdain of some of the choices Marcus had made for him. This was a good sign; he seemed to be lifting himself out of the numbed, unresponsive trance of the morning.

They watched television most of the day. Marcus didn’t push Esca to talk too much, but he also considered that since he was living in the flat now too, he should make himself useful. Maybe if Marcus could put Esca’s focus on doing something innocuous he’d relax enough to reveal more about his past without Marcus having to push for it. He knew at this stage it was pointless trying to glean anything from Esca – he wasn’t giving up anything voluntarily.

“I’m cooking pasta. Would you chop peppers?”

“Alright. I haven’t had much practice.”

“There’s no wrong or right way to do it. Just small bits will do fine.”

They were both watching each other and trying not to show it. It was exhausting and they weren’t a day into this cohabitation. Marcus could almost hear Esca’s mind ticking over, trying to fathom out his situation. Was Marcus really friend, or foe? Did he even care?

As they ate dinner side by side at the breakfast bar, Marcus watched Esca like a hawk, out of the corner of his eye. Esca had a decent appetite, which was one less thing to worry about. He cleaned his plate and ate another half a plateful.

It was only after they’d finished the meal, in what felt like a more relaxed silence than had filled the rest of the day, Marcus noticed the knife Esca had used to chop the peppers was gone. He was half expecting it, yet had let Esca use the knife anyway, as a show of faith. If Esca was to trust Marcus, Marcus had to demonstrate he trusted Esca, too. It was stupid, really stupid to think Esca wouldn’t take advantage. Even so, Marcus couldn’t help the surge of disappointment that ran through him. The problem now, was how to broach the subject.

Marcus said, “You wash up, and I’ll dry.”

“Why can’t you wash and I’ll dry?” Any other time, Marcus would have delighted in his contrariness. Now it simply roused his suspicions more: Esca had a plan.

“Would you prefer that?”

“Yes.”

“All right then. I suppose that way you can familiarise yourself with where everything goes.”

Grabbing a tea-towel, Esca griped, “If you wanted a wife or a servant, why didn’t you get one of those Asian women off the internet?”

Marcus shuddered. That would have qualified as a punch below the belt if Esca had known of his recent promotion. “I was managing perfectly well on my own and quite happy for it to stay that way. You were ...” He almost said ‘an impulse-buy’ and immediately thought better of it. “I couldn’t leave you. That’s all.”

“What happens when you get fed-up with me being here? What will happen to me then?”

“I’m not going to get fed-up with you.” Marcus rinsed off and slotted a plate into the drying rack. “In six months or so, I hope to be moving and I’ll get a bigger place. Then we can think about what you’re going to do with yourself.”

“You mean like send me to college?”

The blistering sarcasm in Esca’s voice stung. Marcus couldn’t help being annoyed, though he had no right. He turned and in retort snapped, “Maybe. If that’s what you want.”

Esca’s face screwed up into a scowl and he looked like he was going to snap back. Only, in that instant he pulled inwards and his earlier look of indifference wrapped around him like a shroud.

It had felt like a storm brewing the moment Marcus opened his ill-tempered mouth and he should have known better. This had been Esca’s life for three years, fighting and clawing.

Marcus’ wrists were submerged, sponging over a greasy plate, the hairs on the back of his neck were beginning to bristle. He had an instinct for this - for trouble. Esca was holding the tea towel, idly wiping out a coffee mug – Marcus could see him in his peripheral vision. “In the cupboard, just in front of you.” Marcus sighed. “Listen, I can tell you’re clever. You wouldn’t have survived what you’ve been through if you weren’t. I just need you to give me a chance.”

Esca put the mug in the cupboard and reached over to the draining board for the next one. He said nothing. Marcus got back to the suds, sorry and resigned to Esca’s silence, and washed up the heavy-based stainless steel saucepan he’d used for the pasta sauce. There were only the glasses left and Marcus was preoccupied with what was happening between them, the deep frustration simmering beneath the agitated surface-conversation. The soap was running thin and there was definitely no sharp knife at the bottom of the washing-up bowl. At the same moment Marcus thought about casually mentioning it, there was a quiet whoosh.

Marcus’s heart jumped and he spun, seeing only a flash of silver as the bottom of the pan hit him squarely on the side of his head. There was blinding, all-consuming pain, his legs buckled ... and everything went black.

 

The first thing Marcus was aware of was movement around him, frantic movement and the sound of anguished breathing. Marcus groaned, then as will overtook instinct, he bit back the urge to moan aloud in response to the agony pounding in his head. Lying completely motionless, he tried to work out what had just happened, what was going on. His blood was pumping too loud, too loud in his ears, echoing the surges of pain that threatened his ability to listen, to hear.

As Marcus’s mind engaged, one word sprang to mind and lit sparks in his awareness.

Esca.

Marcus forced his eyes to open, pleaded with his muscles to do his bidding; he curled in his fists and pushed himself up. It took forever, his thinking sluggish, clouded; his body felt weighed down, hindered as if plunged in air as thick as treacle and as he swallowed he tasted bile.

Repeatedly opening his eyes and squeezing them shut again, demanding his vision return with some clarity, Marcus crawled from the kitchen floor into the living area. He had one destination crying out loud and sharp in his mind. Marcus needed to get to the front door.

Marcus managed to get to his hands and knees. He pushed himself up to his feet and as he predicted, Esca was there, pulling on the handle of the front door. As Marcus wobbled upright, their eyes met.

Esca hadn’t stopped to put on the trainers. There was a split second of stunned silence as they fell from his grip to the floor. In that moment, everything was as clear as if Marcus had been given a leisurely minute to take in the scene. After Esca had hit Marcus over the head, he’d gone for the shoes then made for the door. The top and bottom bolts were already pulled back. Only, Esca had been unaware that the mortise lock that Marcus had installed could be locked from the inside with a key. Without the key Esca was locked in.

Marcus had only been unconscious for seconds.

The lucidity that had enlightened Marcus’s consciousness faded with the shock shining in Esca’s eyes, the terror and frustration, the rage and the dogged determination. Marcus was, in a corner of his foggy mind, perversely pleased.

Esca had decided he wanted to live.

Apart from that revelation, Marcus could barely think past moving towards Esca, with what purpose he wasn’t sure. Esca had a knife, though it wasn’t in his hand. With Marcus struggling to stay on his feet, Esca could easily use his speed to slice Marcus open with a flick of his hand.

“Esca. Please.”

“Give me the keys, Marcus and you’ll never hear from me again. I’ll just disappear.”

“You know I can’t do that.” Marcus’s legs gave out as he stumbled towards the back of the sofa, his arm reaching out in time to break his fall. The pain in his head was blinding, the room was swaying. He crouched on the floor, gripping his head in his hands. “Not yet. Six months, Esca. Please, give me six months to set you free. I won’t hurt you. I promise. I promise.”

Esca walked two steps closer and, cold as ice, said, “You people. You’ll say anything to get what you want. But you’re all liars – sadistic, thieving, murdering, lying bastards.”

Marcus was afraid. “Are you going to kill me?” Waiting, as would a condemned man, Marcus asked again, “Esca?” But Esca only stepped closer and pulled out the knife from his back pocket. Marcus thought he would be brave when the time came. It turned out, he wasn’t. “I beg you, please listen. I work for a man called the General. He told me that if you escape we’re both dead. He’s got people everywhere – spies. I know he watches me – he watches everyone that works for him. He was the one that bought you for me. So now I owe him and he’ll be checking up to see that you’re still here. If you disappear he’ll want to see your body. If you run, we’re both dead and you know he won’t make it quick.”

“Why should I care about what happens to you?” Esca crouched in front of Marcus, an arm-stretch away, gripping the knife with a steady hand. Unlike Marcus, Esca had made his peace.

“You shouldn’t. You mustn’t. But I care about what happens to you, and so should you.”

Curled on the floor, crippled with pain, certain that Esca was about to try to slit his throat and make his escape, Marcus wondered if he had the coordination and strength to fight him. If he didn’t, saving Esca would have been in vain; he would end up dead, or worse, back in the hands of the slave-traders.

Marcus tried to focus on Esca’s face; to make eye contact in the hope the connection would deter him from attempting to kill. But there was only cold, hard steel in Esca’s stare. Marcus clenched his fists and braced himself. He had to be ready to move, to fight.

After what felt like an eternity, without moving, Esca spoke in a slow, clear voice. “I’m not a killer, I’m not like you. I took the knife so that I could try to get the GPS chip out of my neck once I escaped.” He paused, his eyes scanning Marcus’s face. “If you take it out for me, if you keep your word, I’ll give you mine and I’ll give you your six months. But only six months.”

Esca dropped the knife at Marcus’s feet.

It took Marcus several breaths to finally choke out, “Aren’t you scared that I’ll slit your throat while I have the knife at your neck?”

“No,” Esca replied with certainty. “If you decide to slit my throat, I assume you'll do it right. It’ll be over for me in under a minute.”

 

His house keys, his wallet, his gun: all were locked in the safe. The laptop and his phone were locked and password protected. If Esca decided to kill Marcus in his sleep, he could get away by smashing a window but he wouldn’t be leaving with any evidence that could blow Marcus’s cover. Marcus no longer believed Esca was going to try to kill himself. It was with that uneasy resignation Marcus allowed himself to go to sleep, in his bed, leaving Esca watching television.

The light from the morning sun and noises in the kitchen woke Marcus. He looked at his watch, somewhat horrified that he’d slept eleven hours straight.

Esca came in and put a mug on the bedside table. “I made you coffee. I’m ready when you are.”

Marcus groaned and rubbed his hand over the lump on his head. “All right.”

Esca left the bedroom without another word. Perhaps that was his way – always surly and curt. Marcus tried not to take it personally. He’d kept them both alive a whole twenty-four hours. As his eyes adjusted, Marcus rolled onto his back, scanned the ceiling and sighed - only another one-hundred-and-eighty or so days to go.

He’d given up all hope of Esca liking him. He laughed at himself for ever having had the thought. What a fucking idiot. Even Marcus’s ‘friends’ didn’t like him. He sipped his coffee, considering the possibility the blow he’d received to his head might actually have knocked some sense into him.

Esca came back in. He was anxious. Marcus could tell from the way he fidgeted, his eyes darting everywhere. “Can I get you anything?”

“No. Let’s get this over with, shall we?”

“Have you ever done this before?”

“Me? No.”

“I saw someone having a chip taken out, once. The hardest bit is digging it out. Mine’s been in three years and the tissue in my neck will have healed more thickly around it.”

Marcus felt his stomach roll upwards. He heaved himself out of bed and into the bathroom. Esca left him to it. He’d already got everything laid out on the vanity on a clean towel – knife, tweezers, butterfly stitches, antiseptic cream, gauze and tape.

After Marcus flushed the toilet, Esca asked through the door, “Can I come in?”

“Sure,” Marcus said, drying his hands.

“If you sit on the toilet, I’ll kneel down in front of you and you can hold my head steady between your legs.”

“You’re going to have to keep really still.”

“I know. I will.”

Esca knelt on a folded towel. There were no words of encouragement, no smiles of reassurance. It was a grim business and Marcus wanted it over with as quickly as possible.

As it happened, the micro-chip was easy enough to locate – a pea-sized lump under the skin on the left side of the back of Esca’s neck. Marcus felt it, pressed down on it and was relieved to find it didn’t move. As Esca had said, it was firmly embedded in tissue.

Esca was gripping onto Marcus’s thighs, his hands holding on tight, bracing himself against the inevitable bite of the knife.

“Okay, I’m going to do it now.”

Esca squeezed his hands into the tensed muscle of Marcus’s thighs and Marcus didn’t waste another moment. Pinching either side of the chip, pushing it outwards, Marcus pressed the point of the freshly sharpened paring knife, piercing Esca’s skin. The blood welled from the incision immediately, a slow-thick trickle down Esca’s neck. Marcus dabbed with gauze and tried to press against the sides of the chip, hoping it would slip free. It didn’t. He was going to have to cut deeper.

Esca’s fingers were digging harder into Marcus’s thighs, and Marcus could feel him tremble as he stuck the knife in again, slanting the tip until he was sure he’d cut through and beneath the connective tissue holding it in place. The blood was making the wound slick and despite using gauze to keep the skin dry, it was difficult to see anything but liquid red. From here on, Marcus was going to have to rely on feel.

His fingertips were too big to do more than isolate the chip; instead Marcus pressed the tweezers into the incision and gripped the glass. They slipped off. Esca flinched and swore. Marcus was going to have to literally cut the thing out.

Dabbing the wound one more time, Marcus cut around the other side of the chip and felt it give. It was hanging on by the thinnest of tissue and Marcus cursed his lack of scissors. He had no choice except to cut away the last fine stringy thread of flesh with the knife, slicing into his own finger in the process. However, the chip slipped out with a slow pulse of fresh blood and Marcus was able to free it. He pressed it into Esca’s trembling fingers and set about cleaning up the wound.

All it took was a swipe of antiseptic, two butterfly stitches and a small dressing, and Esca was done. It had taken all of five minutes, though Marcus felt like he’d run ten miles. Marcus eased Esca up by his shoulders and said, “That’s it. It’s out.”

Esca’s face and eyes were red. He looked down at his opened, shaking fist, at the bloodied glass capsule containing the tracker chip. For the first time, Marcus saw something that was frighteningly raw and open. Esca couldn’t draw his eyes away from it and he stayed there, kneeling in front of Marcus, frozen, his breath coming in fast gasps.

“Esca. Do you want me to destroy it?”

Esca looked up at Marcus, as if he hadn’t understood the question. Marcus could only wonder at what was going through his mind. Whatever it was, it must have been overwhelming, as Esca no longer seemed able to hide behind an expressionless facade as he had the past day. It crushed Marcus’s aching heart to see Esca staring at him, the colour visibly draining out of his face, his chin creased and his eyes watery.

Marcus slowly stood, lifting Esca to his feet with an arm around his torso. He guided him to the living room and sat him on the sofa, uncurling his bloodied fingers from the chip and taking it away. It was abhorrent to think it, but it might be useful. Marcus decided he would clean it off and lock it in the safe with all the other reminders of this sordid existence he didn’t care to look at right now.

Marcus returned to Esca and sat beside him, putting a tentative hand on his back, saying nothing.

Long moments later Esca said, “Why do you work for the General? You don’t seem the type. No one like you worked for Augustus.”

“Augustus?”

“Yes. I thought you’d have heard of him.”

Indeed he had.

Marcus thought how best to word it without telling an out and out lie. “Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly my choice but I’m stuck with it for now. If I’m careful, though, it won’t be for too much longer.”

“Six months?”

“That’s right. Six months.”

Esca nodded solemnly. It was something Marcus was probably going to have to get used to: Esca’s quiet stoicism.

Though perhaps not just yet.

It seemed Esca was still full of surprises. Because as Marcus removed his hand from the warmth of Esca’s back, Esca turned to face Marcus and tentatively smiled.

Chapter Text


 

When he was eight, the summer after his father died, Marcus and his mother spent the summer in The Witterings, on the south coast.

The first morning, they went down to the beach and found a quiet spot to the west, further from the public toilets and café than most people would choose. Marcus and his mother weren’t inclined towards company; their grief was too fresh. Not that Marcus saw much of his father when he was alive, since he was stationed overseas for most of the time. That didn’t mean Marcus didn’t miss him. And he still wanted to be a soldier when he grew up, just like his Dad, or maybe a policeman.

Marcus’s mother laid out an old blanket, set up a wind-break, positioned herself in line with the sun and lay down.

“Put some lotion on my back?” she asked.

Marcus rubbed the lotion into her skin, all over, not missing a single spot. He was careful like that: thorough. His mother said no one put on sun lotion as well as Marcus. There was no one else to do it but that didn’t stop him feeling proud.

A good ten metres down the beach from his mother, Marcus settled with the golf umbrella for shade; two buckets - one large, one small - a metal spade and a tiny plastic one he’d found lying on the ground in the car park. For hours Marcus toiled over his sand fort, hardly thinking about the fact that once he was close to being done he didn’t have to walk as far to fill up his big bucket at the edge of the sea.

When it was finished and his mother was calling him up for lunch, he stood back, grinned wide and admired his work. The fort had eight towers, each linked by walls, and Marcus had meticulously carved in the brickwork and added mussel and razor shells for decoration. He’d truly earned his sandwiches and joyfully ran back to the blanket to feast on warm jam and bread, orange squash and a bag of Monster Munch.

“You’d best go get the brolly – tide’s coming up,” his mother said, before Marcus even noticed the waves lapping at the south wall of his fort.

He ran to his sand creation and folded down the umbrella, returning it to the blanket as his mother had asked. Then, not concealing his distress, Marcus ran back to the fort to try to mend the wall that was crumbling in front of his eyes. He couldn’t believe it! All his hard work, all that effort, and it was being washed away.

“My fort!” he cried, unable to hold back the fierce-hot tears that pushed out from his eyes. He scrabbled around in the sand, trying to salvage what he could; knowing deep down it was futile, but incapable of letting it go. He talked himself through the task, “Come on, don’t give up, it will be all right. A little bit of water won’t stop me.” The tears and sobs, all the while, went unchecked.

Because he was wrapped up in the fort rescue, Marcus was unaware of the elderly couple walking along the beach until they were upon him.

“My, my, a big boy like you crying like a sissy,” the old woman said unkindly.

“What a stupid thing to do, building a sandcastle here when the tide’s coming in. You should get your Dad to check the tide timetable.” The old man smirked, showing his yellow teeth and Marcus knew the smile was without sympathy.

“It’s a fort!” Marcus shouted and in a fit of rage kicked it hard. Sea and sand splashed over him and the couple. They didn’t like that, of course, and carried on their way with renewed pace, muttering about lack of discipline and something else that Marcus didn’t quite catch.

His mother held him in her arms and let him cry. “Hush, hush, tesoro mio. Never mind them.” She was Italian and didn’t hold anything back. “If I’d have heard that mean old cow and her idiot husband I’d have told them,” she soothed.

That afternoon, Marcus went into the dunes and hid in the shade between two clumps of tall Marram grass. He listened to the waves and the wind and fell asleep for a bit. When he awoke, the tide was on its way back out again and his fort was gone. The only sign it had ever been there was the dense strewing of shells where, that morning, the finest fort in all of South England had stood.

After he got over the first fort disaster, with the sleep and a giant ‘99’ ice-cream with two milk chocolate flakes, Marcus decided the first fort had merely been a test-run. He would build a bigger, better fort the next time. And if the tide took that, too - well, they had many, many more days left by the sea. Marcus was not the kind of boy to be deterred so easily. And besides, more than fort-building, Marcus was fascinated by the tide.

His mother had explained the tides were created by the interaction of gravity from the moon and the sun. Marcus imagined a celestial tug-of-war, with him playing the moon (because the moon was slightly stronger), pulling the oceans back and forth while helpless mortals in boats on the sea below swayed with the ebb and flow of the tide.

Later, some years after he lost his mother, Marcus realised he’d been grieving, those long months on the beach. It was exactly what he’d needed; his mother, too. He wasn’t given the same opportunity when he truly became an orphan, as his aunt and uncle weren’t given to ‘indulging the emotions’. It didn’t matter in the long run, though. Like the breakwaters that jutted out into the Channel all along the south coast, some things remained, permanent and unfailing, no matter how much the waters changed around them. The loving memory of his parents was one of them. Another was Marcus’s unwavering determination to see a task through, even when the odds looked stacked against him, even when he failed the first time.

And twenty years on, he still recalled that summer as a good one.

 

The day following his release from the tracker chip, Esca had the buoyant energy of a choppy, inbound tide. He didn’t talk about his past and Marcus expected no different. But he worked out for an hour on the cross-trainer, banged out a hundred push-ups like a walk in the park, and devoured three hours of whatever was showing on Dave without bothering to look and see if there was anything to interest him on the other channels. A few times he laughed and, in response, Marcus was filled with a startling happiness.

Esca was sleeping on the sofa at night, insistent that Marcus should have the bed. He’d argued that, in addition to it being Marcus’s bed and he should sleep in it for that reason alone, Marcus was too tall and too old for the sofa. He concluded that Marcus needed a good night’s sleep before going back to work. That was when Marcus found out that Esca was nineteen.

The day after that, it was like the water had turned and was ebbing out and away. Esca was quiet. Not sullen or bristly, simply quiet. Marcus had administrative work to take care of on his laptop, before going out that evening Reaping. Esca took a pile of FHM and GQ magazines and asked if he could lie on the bed to read them. That made things easier for Marcus, not having to tilt the computer screen out of eyeshot or filter the content of his phone conversations. It didn’t assuage his reluctance, however, and he closed the door on Esca, uneasily recollecting a sand fort being swept away by a spring tide.

Marcus would be glad to be done with Reaping, not least because it meant that part of the General’s operation was imminently doomed. Marcus had sent enough information back to Craddock that raids and arrests were only a matter of time. He checked over the list of documents. He had pictures and film the Hackers had sent him with the schedules of the Potentials, the dates and locations of some poorly organised amateur street fights, along with the names and pictures of fighting regulars also identified as Potentials. And last of all, there were the unpredictable Wild Cards. It was the culmination of several months work. Marcus, together with Sly, was almost ready for the next round of Reaping.

Marcus owned a printer but never used it for anything related to work, either for the General or the Met. Everything was stored on meticulously catalogued flash drives. The ones relating to his undercover work were stored in a fake plug socket behind the fridge – there was no such thing as being too careful. The ones relating to his job as a Reaper went in the safe. When he went to the ‘office’ anything that needed to be printed or shared was exchanged via the flash drives to individual’s devices, never to the computers where the Reapers convened.

With everything saved and backed up, Marcus shut down his laptop. He was hungry and thirsty. When he looked at his watch he realised he’d been working for four hours. In that time, Esca hadn’t emerged from the bedroom once, not even to use the toilet. Marcus hadn’t said he had to stay in there, in fact, he’d specifically told him he should help himself to anything he needed. It had been mutually agreed it was in both their interests that the less Esca knew about what Marcus did, the better. That didn’t mean Esca was banished to the bedroom while Marcus was doing nothing more than reading files and filling in spreadsheets.

Marcus got down from the stool at the breakfast bar and crept into the bedroom. Perhaps Esca was asleep. The magazines looked as pristine and unopened as they had done when Esca took them from the shelf beneath the coffee table. They were lying neglected on the near side of the bed, while Esca lay on his side facing the far wall. He wasn’t asleep; when Marcus came in he turned and managed a weak smile. “Are you done?”

“Yes. It’s well after lunchtime. I thought you’d have come out foraging before now.”

“I’m not hungry. Do you want me to make you something?”

“No. I can get my own lunch.” Marcus gently admonished, “You didn’t eat breakfast, Esca.” Then he came over and perched at the end of the bed. “Do you want to talk?”

“Not really.”

“I have to go out to work in a couple of hours. Are you going to be okay?”

“Yes.” Esca paused. “Can I watch the TV?”

“Yes. You didn’t have to ask me that.”

They were both treading on eggshells. Marcus had to be very, very careful, as he held the balance of power. He was doing his level best to make sure that Esca never felt forced into doing anything, even if it was just making him coffee: Esca was not a slave. But at the end of the day, Esca was a hostage and there was no way either Esca or Marcus could forget it.

Esca curled away, which was his way of saying he was done with talking.

Marcus dragged his feet as he left the room, taking a last look back at Esca lying still and silent. There was no point in pushing him. Chances were that Esca needed this downtime. Marcus’s biggest worry was that he was misreading the signs. What if he didn’t pull out of this depression? Maybe he was in serious need of psychiatric help and the longer Marcus denied him, the lower his chances of recovery.

In order to think things through, Marcus put on some music, got on the cross-trainer, set the programme to manual and pushed off. If he didn’t get any answers, he’d have at least burned off some of his anguish and frustration.

By early evening, just before it started to get dark outside and the likes of people who had day jobs were pulling onto their driveways for the night, Esca emerged from the bedroom. He’d lain through Marcus extracting a suit, getting dressed to go out and packing a holdall containing more practical attire for field work. It wasn’t until Marcus went back into the bedroom and told Esca he was leaving in a few minutes that Esca finally lifted himself and wearily moped into the living room, falling onto the sofa as if he was unable to hold up his weight.

“I’ll be back late, probably three or four in the morning. You should sleep in the bed and I’ll crash on the sofa. That way I won’t wake you when I come in.”

“All right,” Esca mumbled.

“Esca?”

“Hmm?”

“Please, will you eat something while I’m out?”

Esca shrugged noncommittally. Marcus knew that was the best he going to get.

 

Over the top of Brett’s Steakhouse, the General had a suite of offices. By day, there was a small agency that employed domestic cleaners under the business name of Filth Fighters (the General’s genius idea, no doubt). It was run by Mrs. General, who was in fact the General’s daughter and not his wife. The filth fighting business was all above board and legitimate and served as a front for the real money-making business of slave-fighting. It had nothing to do with dusters and polish.

Marcus went into the restaurant. Brett was there, laying up tables. Tuesdays weren’t busy with members of the general public and he was glad to feed the General’s boys before they went upstairs to work - not least because he got his lease for a bargain in return for his hospitality ... and keeping his gob shut.

Brett looked up from where he was setting out cutlery and serviettes. “Oh ho, the Centurion’s looking swish tonight, as usual.”

“I do my best.” Marcus gave him a friendly nod. “How are you?”

“Not bad. You?”

“Great. Really great.”

“I bet you are,” said a familiar voice from a back table. Sly was already there, stuffing his face full of garlic bread. “I won’t be asking you what you’ve been up to the last three days with your new toy,” he said with a leering wink. His mouth was full as he spoke. The man’s table manners were atrocious.

“Good - because it’s none of your business.” There was no trace of humour in Marcus’s retort.

Sly rolled his eyes and laughed with his mouth wide open. “I’ve seen Pulp Fiction. I know all about your lot. You don’t need to tell me nothing.” There was nothing jovial about his apparent mirth. The face that Marcus had curiously thought of as slightly ridiculous all these months was at once ugly and cruel.

Marcus sat down next to Sly and said as calmly as he could, “Oh, I think you’ll find you have no idea. If you’re lucky, maybe one day I’ll show you.”

Sly coughed down the last of his bread. Marcus unfolded his serviette, laid it across his lap and smoothed it out with shaking fingers. “Could you get me a Perrier and lime please, Brett?”

Sly mimicked Marcus’s request then hid behind the menu.

It appeared Marcus’s tenuous friendship with Sly was officially at an end. Marcus wasn’t sure if that was down to his impending departure from Reaping or whether it really had anything to do with Esca. It didn’t matter – Marcus didn’t care.

Marcus was about to enquire after Clyde and Lanky just as they entered the restaurant.

“Is that your Beamer out the front?” Lanky said to Marcus.

“Yes.”

“Nice. Very nice.”

Lanky looked like a miniature Sumo wrestler. His neck was wider than his head and his fingers were chubby little sausages. In addition to a heavy gold watch and a chain with a medallion, he also had a gold band on his ring finger; Marcus tried to imagine what Mrs. Lanky looked like: probably a six-foot supermodel.

“Thanks. I hope you two haven’t eaten yet. We get dinner before we adjourn upstairs. It sets us up for the night. Sometimes we’re out until the small hours and there won’t be time to eat on the job.”

Clyde nodded and sat down. His blond hair was slicked back with gel and Marcus could smell his aftershave from across the table. Good thing. Some nights the smell in the van was unbearable. Marcus would make sure Clyde sat next to him.

When Brett came over, Lanky said, “I’ll have a Guinness.”

“Sorry,” Marcus apologised. “No alcohol until after work.”

“Sly’s got a beer.”

“Sly sneaked that in before I got here, and Sly won’t be having another,” Marcus added pointedly, shooting Sly a glare. “We don’t drink or get high before a job. You’ll put months of work and the whole operation at risk, not to mention yourself.”

“Don’t worry, lads,” Sly smirked. “Once Mr. High-and-Mighty moves on, we’ll do what we like.”

Sly was too pathetic to deserve a response from Marcus.

“I’ll have a Coke,” Clyde said. “And a sirloin - extra rare.”

Clyde didn’t say much after that, Lanky talked non-stop about absolutely nothing and Sly ate and ate and ate. Marcus looked at the three of them and thought about his next report back to Craddock. These three could be behind bars before the end of the summer. It was hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy when they were sat around like this, enjoying a fine meal. But the thought of Esca was enough to nip that misplaced over-sentimentality swiftly and permanently in the bud.

Up in the office, Marcus took the floor.

“These are your laptops. They’re to be used for work and work only. If you use them for anything else, the General will know about it. I don’t think I need to add to that.

“I’ve printed you out a portfolio containing all the necessary details of the Potentials that we’re targeting the next couple of nights and Sly’s got the street fighters and Wild Cards. He’ll go through those with you in a few days. The aim is to bag thirty decent fighters over the next week, at the very least, with minimum casualties and damage to the goods. Once you’re doing this for yourselves, you’ll work on your laptops and keep the paper to a minimum.”

“Saving the environment?” Lanky smirked.

Marcus smiled back. “There is that, but the main reason is not leaving a paper trail. There’s a shredder in here. Only one set of paper leaves the office. It comes back at the end of a job and it goes in the shredder.”

They were paying close attention so Marcus continued. “What you have in front of you is a compilation of information sent to us by a team of Hackers that are inside the police, courts and welfare system, pictures and video captured by Field Agents and surveillance courtesy of me and Sly.” He’d give it to Sly, the man was a master at surveillance: probably because he didn’t mind sitting on his backside for hours on end. “You’ll see the details for ten men. We call them Potentials because they’re our strongest candidates for fighting-slaves. They’re men who have no jobs and no family to miss them. They’re society’s drop-outs, many with records, and they have a history of violence. If they have a drug habit, it’s not debilitating. They’re the hardest to catch but they’ll give us the best return, when it comes to selling them, and the best results when they fight. Any questions?”

“How do you make them fight?”

Sly said, “That’s not our problem. We hand them over to the Boarding House and the minders deal with them after that. They have ways of persuading them.”

“Sly’s right. You need to focus on catching these men and you need to be quick, quiet and discreet. Your best bet is to disable with the TASER. You’ve both had your training?”

“Yes,” they replied.

“Good. Once they’re in the van we sedate them, gag, blindfold and wrist and ankle cuff them. If we’re lucky we should get five tonight and have them in the Boarding House before sun up. Then tomorrow night we go for my other five. Sly has the rest and we’ll deal with those later in the week.”

Marcus let Clyde and Lanky look over the details of the first five Potentials. The first two were brothers. That made them ideal candidates, because they could hold the life of one over the other. They were a sorry pair, already dealt about the worst start life could offer, yet things for them were about to take a turn for the absolute worst.

Marcus could see the twisted logic behind the General’s justification for slave-trading these men, though he didn’t share an ounce of sympathy with it. The General said his job was nothing more than mopping up the dregs, ridding society of petty criminals and public nuisances. These were the brawlers, the vandals and the bullies. But they were also the bullied, abused and forgotten. Their humanity was already broken into such small pieces that it slipped through every safety net that might have saved it. Now they were simply going to be swept up and thrown away.

The plan for the evening was straightforward. The brothers lived in a council flat on a rough estate in Plymouth. Tuesday nights they regularly played snooker in a hall in an area mixed with residential housing and a secluded industrial park. The two men walked home and for the last three weeks, had been seen cutting through the back of one of the warehouse buildings on their way home. The other Potentials also lived in the Plymouth area and were easily isolated, in one way or another.

In preparation for what could be a rough and tumble night, Marcus, Sly, Clyde and Lanky changed into jeans and boots and hung up their decent clothes in the office. Sly was the first to notice Clyde’s get up.

“You got money to burn, Clyde?” Sly asked.

“No,” laughed Lanky. “It’s just that someone told him once that he looks like David Beckham and now he thinks he has to dress like the dude.”

“Fuck off, Lanky. At least I don’t look like his football.”

They all laughed at that, except Marcus, who said in all seriousness, “Those PRPS jeans you’re wearing are more than likely going to get ruined. If you can’t stomach Tesco jeans then at least get a pair of Levis for next time.”

The drive to Plymouth, in a specially converted Transit van, was quiet. They were all hard men - they’d already proved themselves in order to get moved to Reaping. But they were all reasonably savvy, too. Mistakes could get them caught and this was a time to focus on the night ahead. Marcus used the time to think about his personal long-term goal. He talked himself slowly through his reasons for being here and to psych himself up for the part he had to play – the most efficient and successful Reaper the General had seen in his entire ten years in the slave game. The General was one of the first, one of the most notorious, after Augustus, and was proving the most difficult to pin anything on.

When they reached Plymouth they drove to the snooker hall and Clyde was sent in to spot his targets. The rest of them were twitchy as they sat waiting in a dark corner of the car park. It was always a gamble, sending someone in where they could be remembered. Clyde was the one most likely to blend in. He was to take no longer than ten minutes, going in under the pretext of seeing how busy it was, and if necessary to ostensibly enquire as to whether he and his mates could come back for a game later.

He was in and out in five.

Ensconced in the front, Clyde was full of nervous excitement. “They’re in there. What do we do now? Wait?”

“Yes. I’m going to move the van – there’s a side street on the way they take home where the street lights are out. You and Lanky can gear up and once we see them coming I’ll pull out, and you two need to stun and grab. Sly will be in the back with the hypodermic and after that you can strap them in while I drive us across town.”

“They’re not that big, neither of them. It’ll be a cinch.”

The next hour was tense as they prepared for their task. Once they got these two it was going to be a mad dash to get the others. There was only a small stretch in the nocturnal routines of the targets that allowed for a clean and unseen capture.

As their intel had indicated, the brothers emerged round the corner a few minutes after ten o’clock. They’d cut around the back of some industrial buildings, to avoid walking the long route along the main road, and it looked like one of them was taking the opportunity to light up some dope. Its flickering orange spark was the only light aside from the dull crescent moon.

“Ready, lads?” whispered Sly. Marcus watched them nodding and adjusting. They were wearing night vision goggles to allow them to get in close. While the range was fifteen feet, they aimed for less than ten. The van doors were ajar at the back so they could jump out and surprise the two. If they made their target it would be over quickly. If they didn’t, Sly was there for back-up.

“Remember, try not to go for the neck or chest and load them up as if they’re made of glass. The less damage the more you get paid.” Marcus had never had a target break a bone on a fall, though cuts and bruises were inevitable.

Marcus sat tight in the van. The engine was off but the keys were in the ignition. He could see everything in his rear view mirrors and the moment the men were in the van, he would be pulling away.

There was a quiet, “Now,” from Sly, the doors opened slowly and cautiously and finally the loud bang-snap and fast clicks as the TASERS were deployed almost simultaneously. It was noisy but would pass as nothing more than a car back-firing.

It was over in seconds. The poor sods weren’t expecting to be ambushed. They were half-cut and on the way to getting stoned and Clyde and Lanky were fast. Marcus was impressed, especially with Lanky. He’d never have guessed the stout little man could move so quickly.

Once they were all in the van, Marcus pulled away at a leisurely pace. This was no time to attract undue attention. “Check them for weapons, especially knives.”

“Done.” Lanky was on the floor, presumably securing their ankles.

One of the men had been rendered unconscious. Marcus could hear the other whimpering from beneath the bag over his head: the sedative hadn’t fully kicked in yet. The sounds were groans and muffled cries of terror and he pulled against his restraints. He was probably as frightened for his brother as for himself.

Marcus took a deep breath and took meagre solace in the fact that neither had been injured during their capture.

Sly climbed in the front to join Marcus. “Looks like I won’t be missing you after all.”

Marcus had to buck up or rouse suspicion. “I’m glad. Really, Sly, I am. You’ve got a good team with those two.” Marcus meant it, if not for the reasons Sly thought he did. Marcus glanced over at Sly and saw he was looking into the back like a proud father. The silly grin was back on his face.

With four of them, the Reaping went fast and easy. All their intel had been spot-on. Marcus was pleased about this for two reasons: The first was that there were no unplanned-for casualties and all the Potentials had been secured with a minimum of fuss and injury. The second reason was that if it went like this all week, Clyde and Lanky, and possibly Sly, would be lulled into a false sense of security. By the time it came around to the next Reaping in a couple of months, they would be more likely to find themselves in a situation that they were unprepared for, and with luck that could lead to mistakes.

By the time they got back to Exeter it was two in the morning – earlier than Marcus had anticipated. They went in around the back of the steakhouse and found Brett dozing in a chair in the storeroom-come-staff-coffee-room. He yawned and stretched. “What can I get you to drink, boys?”

Marcus said, “Nothing for me. I’m going home.”

“You aren’t going to congratulate us on a job well done?” Sly replied.

“You did a great job tonight. Please, Sly, they’re your team - you have a drink with them. I’ll see you again tomorrow night. Okay?”

Clyde came over to Marcus and shook his hand. “See ya. And cheers, mate. It’s true what they say - you were cool as a cucumber out there. It helped.”

Lanky added, “We’ll take good care of Sly for you, Centurion.”

Marcus shook his head and held up his palm in a wave before heading up to the office to collect his things. He didn’t need to get his suit back on as he’d barely left the driver’s seat all night, but he put it on all the same and went to the toilets to wash his hands and face. His Reaping clothes were packed into the holdall, out of sight.

The first thing that sprang to mind as Marcus drove home was Esca. He’d had to put him out of his thoughts in order to keep a level head while he ‘worked’. With that over for the night, he felt his body start to slump and slumber while his mind raced away with the echoes of screams and sobs. With any luck, Esca would be asleep in the bed and if Marcus was very quiet, he could wind down with a large Scotch without waking him. It was his turn to not feel like talking and the guilt from the evening was enough to bear without having to add Esca to it.

From the driveway, Marcus could see the faint amber glow of light through the curtains in his living room window. Esca didn’t like the dark. He hadn’t said anything about it to Marcus but Marcus had noticed the signs, namely Esca leaving the nightlight under the extractor fan hood on all night while he slept on the sofa.

Marcus rolled out his shoulders and let himself in the front door of the building, leaving his holdall in the boot of the car. When he reached the top of the stairs, he pressed his ear to the door and could hear the television. He sighed. It was going to take some getting used to, having to share his space with another person. He’d agreed to this undercover mission without worrying about that aspect of things; he was by nature a solitary creature. Even before the undercover assignment there had never been a housemate or a co-habiting significant other. There were times he’d wished it otherwise but mostly dismissed those thoughts as the ‘grass is always greener’ type – it was easy to envy what you didn’t have.

The best Marcus could do was feign tiredness and head straight for the bedroom without his whisky. If he couldn’t switch off, he might have to resort to the flu remedy in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, which was the only other thing in the flat that might induce drowsiness.

With leaden legs, Marcus took a tired step inside and scanned the half darkness. The flat was quiet apart from the low volume of the television. He couldn’t see Esca and crept over to the sofa to take a peek over the top - just as Esca stirred.

Marcus screwed up his face in apology. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It’s all right.” Esca stretched out, rubbing his eyes. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep with the TV on. What time is it?”

“Twenty to three. Why don’t you go and get in the bed?”

“I’m okay here. Honestly.” Esca blinked hard and grimaced. “God, you look knackered.” He pushed up and slid to the far end of the sofa. He seemed in a much better mood – he’d said more in the last minute than the whole of the day and after he’d rubbed the sleep from his eyes they were brighter, shining in the TV light.

“I’m more weary than knackered.” Marcus slumped on the arm of the sofa and, before he knew it, he was confessing, “My brain’s still going ten to the dozen. I’ll probably have a drink before I go to bed – to help me sleep.”

“I’ll get it for you. What do you want?” Esca was already getting up. He slipped out from under the duvet, clad only in boxers and a t-shirt. It was with a tinge of sadness Marcus looked at Esca, so lithe and graceful that he could have been a dancer, in a different life.

“Scotch. With ice. Are you sure you don’t you want to get back to sleep?”

“No. It’s not like I’ve got anything special to get up for tomorrow.” Esca smiled, in the understated way Marcus was becoming accustomed to - and was beginning to seek out.

Marcus scratched the back of his neck. He wasn’t sure what to make of this departure from the morning’s melancholy. Esca was a different person. Maybe he was as unused as Marcus to sharing his space and all he’d needed was some time alone. He seemed almost sociable.

Unexpectedly, Marcus was suddenly in the mood to be sociable, too.

He got comfortable, kicking off his shoes, undoing the top buttons of his shirt, and turning off the television. Esca had switched on the lamp and was handing him his glass before he had a chance to pull out his cufflinks. Warmth spread from his head to his toes as his hand curled around the tumbler and the tightness uncurled from his chest.

Esca sat down next to Marcus, watching him taking a sip and worrying his own bottom lip. Marcus was about to tell him to get something for himself when Esca, after hesitating long seconds, said, “Could I try some?”

“Sure. You’ve never had whisky before?”

“No. I haven’t had any opportunity for drinking the last few years.”

Esca went to the kitchen, leaving Marcus to remove his foot from his mouth.

He considered he should use that foot to kick himself, hard, in the bollocks for good measure. He wasn’t sure how he managed to say all the right things when he was in a work situation, when he was often unbearably stressed, yet the mere proximity of Esca and he seemed to lose the ability to censor anything before the words tumbled unbidden from his lips.

When Esca came back he sat at the opposite end of the sofa to Marcus, rubbing his finger over the top of his glass. He lifted the tumbler and smelled the liquor. Without tasting it he said softly, “I was sixteen when I was taken. I’d tried beer but nothing else. I haven’t drunk anything with alcohol in it since then.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t think.” Marcus took a sip of his drink, searching in the swirling amber at the bottom of his glass for something better to say.

He didn’t need to. Esca lifted his glass and said cheerily, “Bottoms up,” tipping the whole thing back in one go before Marcus could warn him to sip it.

The next second Esca was clutching his throat, his tongue out, eyes watering. “Fuck. Fuck.”

Marcus slammed his glass on the coffee table, leaning in to slap Esca’s back as he coughed and spluttered. Then he laughed and Esca laughed and Marcus said, “I was going to say take it slow.”

“Not really my style,” Esca wheezed, rubbing the tears from his eyes.

They looked at each other and laughed again. The flush that had flared over Esca’s cheeks was showing no signs of subsiding and Marcus could feel the heat from it burning up over his own face. Or perhaps that was a blush of his own. He moved away, at once acutely aware of how close he was to Esca, close enough to see the moisture beaded on his eyelashes and the quivering line of tendon in his neck.

“Do you want another?” Marcus asked. Immediately the stupidity of what he’d said echoed between his flaming ears.

“No. This one’s gone straight to my head. I didn’t like it much, anyway.” Esca put his glass down and smoothed away the last of the moisture from his eyes. “Maybe next time I’ll try vodka,” he said lightly.

“Definitely. Try anything you like. But only when I’m here, okay?”

Esca quirked him a questioning frown.

Marcus added, “I wouldn’t miss that look on your face for anything.”

The silence that followed was the easiest they’d shared – comfortable and without the anxiety of hurriedly trying to think of the next thing to say. When Marcus spoke it was because the words had gradually surfaced and were ready to be released, cautiously, respectfully. There was no fear.

“Is that why you were sad today, thinking about all the things you haven’t done yet?”

“Partly.” Esca leaned back and said, “I wasn’t the best kid but I wasn’t the worst either. I’ve been drunk before. But I never got my driving licence, I haven’t been to see an 18 film, or voted. I never got to finish my GCSE’s either. There’s so much I’ve missed and lost and I can’t get my head around it all, you know?”

Marcus nodded, aching to slip his hand over Esca’s and knowing he mustn’t. Esca was quiet and calm, slowly unfurling like wisps of smoke in still air. The last thing Marcus wanted to do was jeopardise Esca’s feelings of security.

Marcus mulled over what Esca had told him. The things he’d revealed were as telling as the things he hadn’t.

“We can talk, whenever you want. But there’s no pressure. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”

“I know.”

The night had caught up with Marcus and his bed beckoned. He didn’t feel so worried about Esca now, about his sanity at least. But he had the feeling that Esca was going to get very bored, very soon, and the television and a cross-trainer were not going to be adequate stimulation. Tomorrow, he thought, tomorrow I’ll cross that next bridge.

Pushing up with a tired groan, Marcus said, “Are you going to be all right here, if I go to bed?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll see you in the morning then.”

Esca jumped beneath the duvet and quickly pulled it up to his chin. He looked a bit tipsy. “Good night, Marcus.”

“Good night.”

As Marcus stripped and dropped like a stone into his bed, he felt himself drifting almost as soon as he closed his eyes, with memories of breeze-swaying grass and salty air. His final thought, before he succumbed to his exhaustion, was that he’d only had one sip of his whisky.

Chapter Text


 

The next few days went by in a blur. Marcus hadn’t forgotten that Esca needed more stimulation to deflect the inevitable boredom from being cooped up in the flat alone for long hours. The best he could come up with, in the brief hours he had away from his Reaping colleagues, was a Wii and a selection of games that had as little to do with combat as he could manage. Esca must have noticed his exhaustion as he didn’t bother him, and seemed content for Marcus to reciprocate.

On his return from a third night of Reaping, in the early hours of Friday morning, Marcus noticed that Esca had done all the laundry and it looked like he’d cleaned. Marcus hadn’t insisted Esca do any domestic tasks, though he had to admit it was nice to come home to clean clothes and a clean flat ... and a peacefully sleeping flatmate.

Esca didn’t stir when Marcus poured himself a drink. Marcus knocked it back and went to bed, falling asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

The Reaping had become steadily more difficult as the week went on. Following the capture of the top-rated Potentials, their next task was to catch the Potentials for whom they had less intel. These were men who kept off the radar: petty criminals and thugs who managed, for the most part, to keep their noses clean. Like the first round of Potentials, they didn’t have close familial associations that would result in immediate filing of Missing Persons reports. Because they were better at avoiding the law they were generally older and smarter and that made them harder to track down. Fortunately, if you could corner a man like that, he was no more difficult to catch than any of the others and in the long run, these men usually made the most ruthless fighters.

After a total of four nights, Sly’s team and Marcus had captured a total of twenty-three men. One more night and Marcus would be done with this side of his assignment forever.

It was Friday night, or more accurately, the small hours of Saturday morning, and Marcus lay in bed with his ‘undercover’ phone and his ‘work’ phone. There were files he needed to send and there were messages he needed to respond to, on both devices. He knew he shouldn’t do it this late, when there was a chance he could make a mistake, but his contacts were mutually exclusive and he was feeling too wired to sleep yet. Not to mention, Esca was asleep and Marcus could work without the danger of Esca seeing or hearing something he shouldn’t.

To Craddock, Marcus sent updated copies of all the files he had saved. This included the week’s schedule of Reaping, an update on how he was doing, and tentative arrangements for their next meeting. Craddock had sent Marcus no information with regards to what the Met were planning to do with all the information he was sending their way, as was the protocol: Marcus was undercover and he received information from Craddock alone, on a ‘need to know’ basis. He was aware that their biggest difficulty and delay was linking all the slavery activity to the General, who was already known to the Met by his real name – Leonard Vittorio. It appeared, to those in the know, that his legitimate shipping business was lucrative enough to afford him his lifestyle and his taxes were, as far as Inland Revenue were concerned, all paid up and correct. Unless they could make direct and irrefutable links between him and the slave-trading or cage-fighting, there was nothing any of the authorities could pin on him.

On his ‘work’ phone, a Blackberry, there were several emails. Most of them were innocuous enough – vague and obtuse references to meetings connected to ‘the business’. The email addresses of his colleagues, like Sly, were as disguised as the names they used, and since communication was by falsely registered mobile devices and dedicated laptops only, there was no way to link correspondence to the real individuals concerned. There was nothing to connect any of Marcus’s activity to the General via his phone, his laptop or his actions. The few times they’d interacted personally there had been no chance for Marcus to get incriminating evidence, either. It was turning out to be a waiting game, using a combination of skill, chance and seizing the opportunity when it presented itself.

Just as Marcus was about to put his ‘Met’ phone back in the safe and switch off for the night, he got an email on his ‘work’ phone. It was from Twist.

Overseas friends arriving unexpectedly early.
Dinner Saturday night, 7pm, our favourite Greek restaurant.
Sorry about short notice.
Twist

It was probably too late for Craddock to set up surveillance, with less than eighteen hours to go, but Marcus relayed him the message anyway. He didn’t know who the ‘overseas friends’ were, but the meeting was important enough that Twist wanted him there.

After that surprise, Marcus’s mind settled as he realised that meant no more Reaping. Marcus’s new job took priority over the old one. Sly would have to take his team out by himself, on what always amounted to the messiest night: the organised street-fights. It was hit-and-miss who they picked up at these events and they worried less about the provenance of their captives, which was why they were called Wild Cards. Sometimes the return was lucrative, sometimes not.

Marcus couldn’t say he was sorry, not a bit. His email to Sly was sent with a wry smile of satisfaction and a surge of pity for the men who made it into the van Saturday night.

 

Mid-morning on Saturday, Marcus surfaced to find Esca on the cross-trainer wearing only a pair of Marcus’s shorts. They had a draw-string as well as elastic on the waist but they were much too big for him. He looked ridiculous. And flushed. And sweaty.

Marcus couldn’t pull his eyes away from the way his muscles glistened with sweat, tensing with every movement. His veins stood out on his forearms and neck and Marcus didn’t have to work hard to imagine running his fingers, his tongue over every one of them. He was torn between lust and shame. In order to stop staring, he busied himself in the kitchen. He didn’t kid himself that his dry mouth and blinking eyes were solely down to a dire need for strong coffee. Esca might be small and young, but he was a fully grown and perfectly formed man, and Marcus was only human: a human who hadn’t had sex with another person in quite some time.

“We’re going shopping,” Marcus declared after half a hurried glass of orange juice.

Esca slowed down and called over, “What for?” He wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. His bruises had faded to almost nothing and apart from a few scars on his torso, his skin looked healthy, if pale.

Marcus was trying to sound as if he was being practical when he said, “You need more clothes and, I don’t know ... something to keep you busy while I’m out.” There was more to it than that, though. He wanted Esca to be happy. He yearned for it. Ironic, considering he was keeping him locked in his flat like Rapunzel.

“The devil makes work for idle hands?” Esca grinned as he stepped off the machine. He came over and leant across the breakfast bar, close enough Marcus could smell his sweat, taking the remainder of Marcus’s juice. Marcus raised his eyebrows. Esca didn’t seem to notice as he asked, “Don’t you have any books?”

“An Exeter A-Z, which I don’t use because I have Sat Nav in my car and a telephone directory.”

“Philistine.”

“There’s nothing I want to read about that I can’t find on the internet.” Marcus put four slices of toast in the toaster without asking Esca if he wanted any. He was mulling over the meaning of being called a philistine by a young man whom he’d assumed had been failed by the system: a young man who was asking for books. Marcus was also trying to ignore the tight feeling low in his belly that had nothing to do with hunger, for food at any rate.

“You won’t let me use the internet,” Esca complained.

“Do you want some books?”

“I wouldn’t mind. I used to like painting, too.”

“You mean like watercolours and oils?”

“Yes, not the graffiti kind. But some pencils and paper will do.”

“Sure. Yes. That’s a great idea.”

They’d apparently reached an entente cordiale as far as domestic arrangements went, without much discussion and no argument. Marcus had no doubt that when Esca wasn’t feeling overwhelmed, and subsequently withdrawing from all outside stimulation, he would argue his position if he felt the occasion deemed it necessary. So when Esca said, “I need a haircut, too,” Marcus had to resist the urge to put his fingers through the unruly mop on Esca’s head and tell him he liked it the length it was.

“You’d best shower. I have to go out for work at six and it’s nearly lunchtime already.”

Esca began eating his toast, in no particular hurry.

He was being remarkably casual. This was going to be his first trip out of the flat, and while Marcus hadn’t said anything, it had to be on Esca’s mind, too. The collar was out of the question but what else could Marcus do to ensure Esca didn’t try to escape? There was no doubt Esca could outrun Marcus and lead the police back to his flat. Still, Marcus was deathly serious about the General’s threats and, having worked for Augustus, Esca had to know that the General was more than capable of tracking him down.

Once again, Esca allayed Marcus’s fears before Marcus had a chance to air them. Between mouthfuls of toast and marmalade, he said flatly, “I won’t try to run. I promised you six months and you’ve been decent to me, so I’ve got no reason to betray you. Come October, though, it’s all bets off.”

“Thanks.” Marcus should have been more pleased than he felt.

Whatever progress Marcus thought he’d made with Esca, it was nothing more than Esca keeping to his end of the bargain: he would stay quietly and cooperatively with Marcus for six months and then, if Marcus didn’t set him free, he would escape by whatever means necessary. There was no burgeoning friendship, no affection, no loyalty. Yet that’s what Marcus felt it was, despite his better judgement and despite everything Esca said to him that screamed the opposite.

Marcus rubbed his aching stomach and hoped he wasn’t getting an ulcer.

 

They walked the Guildhall and Harlequin shopping areas and into Princesshay. Marcus by-passed the boutique shops and his personal favourite, Reiss, thinking Esca was probably more comfortable shopping at Fat Face. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter where they went; Esca thumbed the racks in several shops, his hand sometimes lingering on a t-shirt or a shirt but never picking anything up. His defence mechanism of retreating into hostile silence had returned with a vengeance. It was a shame, because it was easy enough for Marcus to imagine what he would like to see Esca wearing; how hot he would look in clothes that fitted close to his chest and his hips. Marcus had to bite back the temptation to lift things off the racks and shelves by way of suggestions. The last thing he wanted was for Esca to think he was trying to dress him, like some toy, some possession.

When Marcus asked Esca if there was anywhere in particular he liked to shop, Esca shrugged and blushed. Marcus wanted to ask him what kind of clothes he wore before, but he was afraid to go there, to mention the before-life, when Esca already looked uncomfortable and unhappy.

“I don’t know when I can pay you back,” Esca mumbled, as they exited yet another shop empty-handed.

“That’s the last thing you should worry about. I want to make sure you have everything you need. Please.” Marcus ventured a hand to Esca’s arm and was relieved when he didn’t flinch away.

Esca glanced back at the shop entrance and shoved his hands in his pockets. Marcus could see other teenagers in there: regular-looking kids in skinny jeans and loose t-shirts with scruffy hair and too many accessories. They looked sort of arty, and Esca liked art, and he hadn’t made the derisive faces he had when he’d held up some of the shirts Marcus had bought him from Next. Marcus really thought he’d got it right this time.

Then, finally, the penny dropped. Esca was embarrassed. And now Marcus wasn’t sure how to handle it. Where had Esca lived and shopped when he was sixteen? Who had paid for his clothes, bought him things? What kind of teenager had he been in his former life?

Marcus decided he needed a change of tack. It was probably reckless, but he couldn’t think of what else to do. He headed for the nearest cash-point machine, withdrew money, more than enough, and handed it to Esca.

Esca’s eyes went wide. “What are you doing?”

“Clearly, I’m cramping your style.” Marcus’s feigned nonchalance was jarring to himself. Goodness knows what Esca would make of it. “Go and get what you want and I’ll meet you here in an hour.”

“Aren’t you scared I’ll take it and run?”

“I’m shitting a brick but my feet are killing me and all we’ve got to show for two hours walking are a few art supplies. And you haven’t had a haircut yet or chosen any books. Did I also mention I hate shopping?”

Esca fanned out the notes and said to the floor, “I won’t spend all of this.”

“Esca,” Marcus said firmly, pulling his attention back, “I don’t plan on spending my free time over the next six months cooped up in my flat and I don’t plan on leaving you there on your own. Get what you need, what you want, and don’t worry about the money. Just stay in this mall, okay?”

“Okay. I’ll see you in an hour.”

Esca walked away on fast feet. Marcus smiled, settled comfortably on a bench, and checked his phone for messages. Things were blissfully quiet - except for the thumping of his heart.

When Esca returned, fifty-five minutes later, he was carrying six bags and a lighter expression. Marcus looked at him with hope and regret. There really was a chance Esca was going to turn out fine, but it was unlikely Marcus would ever get to see it, let alone be a part of it.

 

Leaving Esca with his pile of new clothes, his books and everything he needed to sketch and paint, Marcus left the flat at six o’clock. He straightened his tie for the tenth time before heading out to The Grecian. He was holding the steering wheel too tightly and had to keep wiping the sweat from his palms on the front of his trousers. When he caught his reflection in the rear view mirror he was dismayed to see beads of perspiration peppering his forehead. All he could do was turn up the air conditioning and direct the fans to blow in his direction. If he didn’t calm down, when he arrived at the restaurant and had to put his suit jacket back on he was going to drench his shirt in minutes.

Usually Marcus drove in silence. Tonight, the quiet reminded him too much of a serious young face that was the personification of loss and bitterness and trying too hard to be brave. The radio station that Esca had picked out earlier was playing eighties’ tunes: the stuff of sometimes embarrassing childhood memories. Ah well; it was better than worrying that someone was going to spot him as a faker and blow his brains out.

The Grecian, like all the other restaurants that catered to the criminal classes, had a secluded section at the back that made no allowance for the taking of incriminating surveillance photographs. It was also standard protocol to be patted down by a bodyguard and swept for hidden cameras or bugs. There was rightful paranoia at this level: too much was at stake. Marcus therefore, had to have his wits about him, to remember names and faces and, on occasion, to secret away any shred of physical evidence that he could to secure the positive identification of an individual.

Twist was already there. He approached with his hand outstretched, his smile relaxed and confident. Marcus had no doubt that Twist knew how to handle himself and didn’t need to brag about it or waste his time proving it. That made him a different kind of dangerous than the volatile thugs that were at the bottom of the organised crime ladder; the kind of dangerous that was going to start Marcus profusely sweating again if he didn’t get a grip on himself.

“Centurion, good to see you. I’m glad you thought to come early – I know you’ve been put on the spot but I’ll give you a quick rundown of what’s going on, okay?”

“Thanks.”

Twist sat down on a seat facing out into the restaurant and pointed Marcus to a seat opposite. He leaned back and looked Marcus over as he spoke. “You’re here to watch and learn only tonight. This is your chance to meet the biggest players in this part of the operation, and I’d make the most of it because it’ll probably be the one and only time you ever get them all in the same room at the same time.”

“Understood.”

“The overseas friends are our contacts in Asia; Mr Roberts and Mr Smith.”

Marcus’s eyebrows went up involuntarily.

Twist smirked and said, “I know. They chose those names - they’re not their real ones. Anyway, they round up the slaves and get them on the boat over here. As well as those two, there’s Mighty who runs the docks and liaises with his contacts on the ships during transit and Old Luke takes them to a Boarding House when they arrive. He gets them cleaned up and cleared for sale. Then there’s Carter. He takes care of sales. You’ll be working alongside him, because once money’s changed hands you’ll be in charge of making sure the goods are delivered.”

It didn’t sound like much and while Marcus tried to listen intently, with enthusiasm, he must have come over disappointed.

“I can’t stress to you, Centurion, how vital your role is. You come highly recommended for your ability to ensure the cargo gets delivered with minimal damage. Don’t forget, most of the blokes we have working for us are animals. They think it’s all right to fuck the girls, to manhandle the slaves if they play up. You’re able to keep these boys in line and you don’t seem to mind being unpopular for it.”

Marcus smiled a very short-lived smile.

“Oh, and it helps you have some dark and dirty habits of your own. I heard about your slave-boy. I know there was talk for a bit about you, amongst the boys. Forget it, though. I don’t listen to that homophobic shit. It’s lonely at the top and they’re just jealous of your success. Now what will you drink? Scotch?”

“Yes. I’ll have a Glenlivet, if they’ve got one.” Marcus needed to clear his throat and a Scotch would take care of that nicely. He hadn’t thought for a moment that buying Esca would send him up in the estimations of his current peers and as much as it sickened him, he couldn’t deny its serendipity. That didn’t mean their assumptions didn’t sting.

“Good choice.”

Twist called over the manager and ordered drinks. They had fifteen minutes to kill before the others were expected to show. Small talk wasn’t one of Marcus’s fortes. Fortunately, he had a wine list and a menu and he knew about food and drink and since he hadn’t eaten at The Grecian before, it was a good segue into innocuous conversation. Twist was a wine aficionado and the time passed quickly enough that the rest of their party began to show up as Marcus drained his Scotch and felt the warm buzz of the alcohol spreading out from his belly. Before standing to greet his new associates, he reminded himself to sip the wine and eat plenty of bread.

 

Sunday morning, Marcus was awoken too early by his phone. He grunted an unfriendly, “Hello.”

“Good morning to you, too.”

It was Twist.

“You’re calling me. We’re not supposed to call each other.” Marcus desperately tried swirling his tongue in his mouth to squeeze out some saliva. He needed coffee.

“Yes. You owe me for this. I’m using a public phone in the fucking railway station for your benefit.”

“What’s going on?”

“The Reapers. They got rumbled. I don’t know all the details, only that Sly’s in intensive care, Lanky and Clyde are under arrest and Brett’s place was raided at six this morning. I haven’t heard about the Boarding House yet but it isn’t looking good.”

Marcus sat bolt upright, his lingering lethargy evaporating in the heat of an explosion of adrenaline. “Shit.” Dragging his fingers through his hair, Marcus tried to process what this meant.

“How much do the boys know about you, Centurion?”

“Nothing. Not where I live, my real name, not even my phone number: nothing. What’s happened to the van?”

“I don’t know. It’s probably been impounded.”

“Fuck. We clean that van, Twist, every night after we get back, but those forensics teams are thorough. They’ll tear it apart.”

“You got form?”

“Parking tickets, no prints. I’m fucked, Twist. When Sly comes around he’ll grass. You know he will.”

“No, he won’t.” Twist was cold as ice. It sent shivers down Marcus’s spine. “That’s all being taken care of. Orders are, you’re to lie low for a week and if it’s all clear you’ll come back to work with me at New Blood.”

“What do you mean lie low - get out of Exeter?”

“Might be best. Have you got somewhere you can go?”

Marcus’s mind raced. He had to speak to Craddock. Either the events of the last night were part of the plan to put a stop to illegal cage-fighting and slave-catching, or they were the unrelated work of the local police force. Either way, the results of this premature strike-out could be dire for Marcus’s mission. At the same time, Marcus was also in danger. The General didn’t like loose ends; that much was obvious from what Twist had said. Marcus had to get far away, with Esca.

Marcus was panicked, if not for the reasons Twist thought he was. The effect was the same. Marcus stammered, “Yeah. I’ve got a place. It’s really quiet - used to belong to my Mum’s family.”

“I don’t need to know.” Twist was firm, if urgent. “Don’t tell anyone where you’re going. Check your email in a week – there’ll be instructions.”

“Okay. Thanks, Twist. Thanks a lot.”

“Don’t thank me. Thank the General, if you see him again. He’s the one that’s got your back.”

Somehow, that didn’t make Marcus feel any better. Not given that the General probably had Sly, Lanky and Clyde’s backs, too – up against a wall while facing a bullet.

Marcus’s next thought was Esca. If anything happened to Marcus, Esca was in serious trouble. Any interest in Marcus from the police could be enough for the General to decide he’d become a liability. The Met wouldn’t interfere unless they really had to, and that could be too late to get Esca to safety.

There was no need to conceal his alarm. Marcus slipped his legs off the bed and strode into the living room. “Esca, you need to pack. We’re going on a little holiday.”

Esca was lying on the sofa with a book. He peeked over the cover. “You’re joking?” It took another second for him to absorb Marcus’s demeanour. “You’re not joking.”

“No, I’m not. We’re leaving as soon as we can.”

“Marcus?” Esca was up, ready to fly.

“What?”

“Are you on the run?”

The panic on Esca’s face meant he’d thought of the consequences already; he was simply recalling something he’d already deliberated. The colour drained from his skin.

Marcus didn’t hesitate; he approached Esca and slid his fingers around Esca’s upper arms. “No. I’ve just got to lie low for a week. Some people I used to work with were arrested last night and a couple of buildings raided. There shouldn’t be any connection to me – we cover our tracks well. It’s a precaution, that’s all. I promise; there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Yet.”

“Esca, if anything happens to me, I’ve got money and I’ve got friends you can go to. I won’t abandon you.”

He knew Esca couldn’t believe him, that it was too much to believe yet. How could he really trust Marcus? Despite wanting to pull Esca close, to hold him and feel him in his arms, Marcus contented himself with the fact Esca hadn’t pulled away from his grasp.

They were in Marcus’s car within the hour. While Esca was in the bedroom packing his things from the drawers and the half of the wardrobe Marcus had given him, Marcus loaded his briefcase with everything from the safe, including his gun. There was nothing on the flash drives behind the plug socket and no time to download, anyway. In any case, the laptop was going with them.

Between the both of them they had the briefcase, two large holdalls and the smaller one Esca had come with, which he used to pack a few books and his art gear. Marcus threw their things onto the back seat and wound his way around the back streets to a row of lock-ups behind a gated development of trendy townhouses.

“Is this it? This is where we’re hiding?”

“No. This is where I’m leaving the car.”

“Oh, are we going to walk? Or do you have a couple of ponies lined up for us?”

Esca was trying to conceal his anxiety. Marcus could tell now, the way his jaw tightened and his voice took that sharp edge of sarcasm. His eyes, if you knew how to look, flickered with fear.

Marcus pushed their luggage over to one side, pulled the door across and locked it with a heavy padlock. “I’ve ordered us a taxi to the airport. It’s going to pick us up at the bus stop around the corner in about ten minutes.”

“The airport? Where are we going? Spain? Because it might have escaped your notice that I don’t have any ID, let alone a passport.”

“No. We’re going to the airport to pick up a hire car. I’m covering our tracks, as best I can. Now, don’t say anything to the cab driver. If he asks, then yes, by all means tell him we’re going to Spain.”

“Where are we going in the car?”

“Sussex. A small place by the sea. I have a house there.”

“And no one else knows about it?”

“No.” Well, one other person knew it was there but he didn’t know Marcus was going there right now. Marcus didn’t feel the need to elaborate on that minor detail.

Esca’s expression brightened at Marcus’s reassurance, mostly around the eyes. It was amazing, how different his face was when he smiled. Marcus tried to focus on the positive. A week away together might be exactly what Esca needed to unload some of the pain that kept him from smiling more freely. And Marcus was coming to the reluctant conclusion it was more than Esca’s smile and contentment he was longing for.

Marcus was falling for Esca. It was insanity – Esca was almost ten years his junior, had been to hell and back and was being held hostage by Marcus with no guarantees for his future. Esca was tolerating Marcus’s presence while he had to, for his own survival. The odds of a start like that evolving into a blissful union had to be as good as Sly’s odds of leaving the hospital alive.

They arrived at the beach house in late afternoon with groceries and cleaning supplies, picked up at the Tesco’s off the A24. There was a light drizzle, not enough to prevent Marcus going around the small bungalow and opening all the windows.

Marcus hadn’t been here in two years. No one had been in the house for two years. Leaving Esca in the hallway, Marcus scanned the living and dining room, the kitchen, the bathroom and the two bedrooms for any trace of his real identity. He’d had the foresight to have all his post redirected before he’d gone undercover and he’d barely used the place before. There was hardly a thing here from his adult life.

As Marcus made it back to the hallway, Esca said, “Is that you?”

Esca was looking at a photograph on the wall. Marcus’s heart skipped a beat, unnecessarily. It was only a picture of him and his mother on the beach.

“Yes. I was eight. My Mum and I came here for the summer after my Dad was killed in action abroad.” It was about time Marcus told him something about himself and he preferred it not to be a lie.

“He was a soldier?”

“Yes.” Marcus realised there was no picture of his Dad up there, though he was pretty sure there were more family pictures around the house that he’d overlooked. “We liked it here so much that my Mum bought this place for us. She had family money and his life insurance.” Marcus didn’t know why it was important for him to stress that while all his money came from crime (as far as Esca was concerned) his parents were not to be tarred with the same brush.

Marcus picked up the bags and lead Esca to the room that used to be his. There was a single bed and a chest of drawers. All the other furniture, and the toys and books, Marcus had cleared out years ago. The walls, however, were the same seaside blue with golden shell stencils the around the top. Marcus’s mother had put those up and while he doubted there would ever be another child in this room as long as the house was his, he didn’t have the heart to paint over them.

Esca put his holdall down by the door. He leant against the frame and when Marcus turned back from contemplating the shells to look at him, Esca said, “My family used to have a place like this. In Scarborough.”

“Your family?”

“Yes. I had one, once.”

“I wondered about them.”

“You could have asked.”

“Would you have told me?”

“Probably not. Anyway, they’re all dead now.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, me too.”

Marcus stepped closer, desperate to touch Esca, to show him he cared, he understood about loss. All he managed was a gentle rub of Esca’s arm, afraid to offer more in case Esca flinched back as he passed by. “I’m going to switch on the water and the electricity. Then I’ll make us a cuppa. Feel free to look around.”

Feel free. Marcus despised his traitorous tongue.

Marcus could hear Esca going from room to room and opening cupboards and drawers. He cheered at once and unpacked the shopping.

Esca poked his head around the door. “What’s that door in the hallway?”

“It opens into the garage.” Marcus opened the drawer next to the sink. There were benefits to being obsessed with orderliness. “Here, try this key.”

Esca disappeared for a minute and returned looking triumphant. “Does the drier work?”

“It should do.”

“Good. I’ll give the sheets a tumble and make up the beds.”

“Thanks.”

The fridge stank. Marcus left the milk out on the counter and took the tea into the living room. The house needed a vacuum and a polish. He needed to unpack his bags and find a safe place for his briefcase. He also needed to call Craddock.

Marcus called out, “Esca, I need to make a phone call. I’m going out into the car, okay?”

“All right.”

“Your tea’s in the living room.”

The housework could wait. Not for very long, though. Craddock’s phone went to voicemail. It was Sunday and Craddock was probably out fishing or with his wife and kid, having a semblance of a normal life.

Marcus left him a message. “Hi, it’s me. Just letting you know I’m under orders to hide out for a week. I’m safe and still in business for the time being. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

With a wistful sigh Marcus recalled sitting up all night fishing with Craddock, in a tent up in the Lakes, and not catching a bloody thing. He hadn’t cared but Craddock had said, “I’ll take you out on the boat next time,” before he kissed him. There was no next time. Things got too awkward and that was the end of it.

It was too much to expect from himself that the next time Marcus fell in love it would be with someone who wanted him back. He was good at a lot of things and it was hard to accept that affairs of the heart weren’t one of them.

Marcus sat staring at the rain running in slow rivulets down his windscreen. He should go in and help get the house aired and cleaned. He should stop moping and feeling sorry for himself. He should be feeling happy that Esca had warmed to this glitch in their arrangement. Should, should, should - Marcus always did what he should, except when he let his emotions get the better of him and look how well that always turned out.

By the time Marcus prised himself out of the car, the rain had stopped and there were patches of blue in sky. He plastered a smile on his face and headed back into the house through the front door.

Esca had unpacked his things and made up the bed. Marcus hadn’t slept in the small room for ten years, not since he’d inherited the place outright, and it was strange, in a good way, to see that old checked duvet again.

Though Marcus had lived with his Aunt and Uncle for several years, as soon as Marcus turned eighteen his retired guardians moved back to Italy. His mother had never been fond of her oldest brother but the burden of raising Marcus had fallen to them, as they were the only ones with the means. When they moved back to Italy all correspondence with them quickly atrophied, years before his Uncle actually died. As far as Marcus knew, his Aunt was still living in the Tuscan hills with no plans to ever return to England.

Marcus hadn’t done much with the place, except clear out a lot of junk. Everything in the house was worn and soft, with a patina of love and sea breezes and the faint lingering scent of roses.

When he’d found out that he was going away for a while, Marcus had arranged for a local retired man to keep the garden tidy and the gutters clean, and paid him by direct debit. He’d done a nice job. The leaves were emerging on the roses in the front garden and the beds were turned and weed-free.

The front bedroom, Marcus had redecorated. His mother had loved all things floral. It was an aversion to her extremely feminine taste that spurred Marcus to strip it back and paint the walls a serene grey-blue. Esca had made up the double bed in Marcus’s room, too, with white sheets and the red and white candy-striped duvet. It was meant to look nautical. From a distance it just looked pink. Marcus didn’t change it because the irony of his failed attempt to make the room look more masculine amused him.

He slid the briefcase onto a shelf in the wardrobe and unpacked his clothes. He’d been optimistic to pack shorts. The central heating was going to need a run this evening.

Since Esca had also wiped around everything, Marcus cooked. He preferred that infinitely over wielding the hoover. Esca was curled up on the sofa with one of his books and Marcus peeked out at him every now and again. He was engrossed and didn’t glance back at Marcus once.

For the first time, they ate dinner together sitting at a table. Marcus opened a bottle of wine and Esca discovered he didn’t like that either. Luckily, they’d bought beer, too.

By the time they were settled and fed, there was an hour of daylight left and only three channels working on the television. It was pointless staying inside when the crisp evening sun had come out and some of the most beautiful coastline in the south of England was on their doorstep.

Marcus tipped Esca’s book back and said, “Do you want me to show you how to get to the beach?”

“I thought we were lying low.”

“We’ll have to make sure we lock up every time we go out. And it’s best we stick together.”

“I thought you’d say that.”

Marcus didn’t ask what Esca meant by that. It didn’t sit well.

“We don’t have to.”

“No, it’s fine.” Esca was up, pulling on his trainers. “Come on then.”

Esca kicked stones all the way down the lane and when they reached the field, he looked up and whistled. The sea was glistening on the horizon, interrupted only by the tufted mounds of dune grass. The sun was low in the sky to the west and pink-tangerine shadows lit up Esca’s hair like it was burning.

They walked side by side over the scrubby field. There were dandelions and daisies and some little blue flowers Marcus didn’t know the name of. The wind was picking up, away from the shelter of the trees in the lane. It was bracing, refreshing. It blew away the despondency that nudged around the edges of Marcus’s mind, all too often these days.

Esca walked fast. He was more than a head shorter than Marcus and his stride shorter; he made his gain with speed. They reached the dunes and were over and on the beach in minutes. The tide was out and the sand firm underfoot. It was pleasant walking.

Heading west, towards the falling sun, Esca stretched his arms wide and sucked in a lungful of air. He felt it too, the joy of all that space, stretching out wide and infinite.

Esca spun on the spot and said to Marcus, “Want to see something cool?”

“Sure.”

With that, Esca took off his jacket, shoved it into Marcus’s arms and took off at a sprint.

“Esca! Where are you going?”

Marcus started to push off and a second later stopped dead as Esca lifted his arms, hopped, lifted his right leg, then proceeded to do a front handspring, followed by another and another.

At the last tumble, he turned and took a bow, the grin wide across his face.

“Bravo!” Marcus gave him a resounding round of applause as Esca cart-wheeled, sending up a fan of sand and spray in his wake.

Perhaps freedom was relative. Perhaps, having been a slave, in fear of pain and in fear for his life for three years, the purest moments of bliss were this - moving unhindered any way you chose. Perhaps, in this fraction of a moment, Esca felt freer than Marcus and he was embracing it with open arms - while it lasted.

Marcus had to reconsider all the preconceptions he’d had of Esca. He liked to read and draw, he was a gymnast, and his family had had enough means to have a second home by the sea. How did they die? When did they die? And what had made Esca a target for the Reapers? Augustus was more prolific than the General, and more elusive. It was counter to all the protocols Marcus had been introduced to, to take a boy like Esca. And yet they had, and had made him into a successful cage-fighter, until he decided he’d had enough and was going to kill himself. What had precipitated that, after three long years in captivity?

Marcus would be as able to coax more answers from Esca as he was able to turn back the incoming tide. Esca wasn’t going to tell Marcus anything until he was ready. There was no point pushing it.

Esca ran back, looking like the youth that he was, flushed and luminous, his short hair standing like a cockerel’s comb in the sea breeze. “I’m going to sketch the coastline tomorrow, if it’s not raining.” He paused. “Is that okay?”

“Yes.”

“What will you do? You could read one of my books.”

“Maybe I’ll just lie and watch the clouds going by.”

Esca laughed. “I doubt you could do that for more than ten minutes.”

Marcus shrugged, amused at the observation. “Then maybe I’ll build a sandcastle.”

“Sometimes you’re pretty funny.”

“But this time I’m perfectly serious. You’ll see.”

“All right.” Esca snatched back his jacket and cocked his head to the side. “I’ll race you back?”

Marcus hadn’t breathed the words, “Marks, get set, go,” before Esca was gone, disappearing over the dunes before Marcus had cleared the wet sand. He slowed to barely a jog as he got to the field, gasping for air, as Esca showed no signs of slowing down ahead of him and was already over the stile and into the lane, out of sight.

Marcus trusted Esca not to make a run. However, if anyone was lying in wait, they could snatch Esca and drive off with him and Marcus would be powerless to stop them.

A sick wave of panic washed over and through Marcus. He broke back into a run, telling himself not to be stupid. No one knew they were here. He’d checked everything for trackers and bugs before they’d left and was certain he wasn’t followed from the airport. It didn’t allay his fears, his paranoia that someone would come after him, the word traitor bleeding from their lips, Esca bleeding at their hands as they punished Marcus for his betrayal and his perversion. Marcus’s nightmares were spilling into his waking hours now and his lungs burned in agony as he reached the lane, Esca nowhere to be seen. He was meant to keep him safe, keep him close and keep him safe.

“Esca!” he called but he was too short of breath; it came out as no more than a quiet wheeze.

His thighs screamed for him to slow as Marcus pushed on, stumbling past the high bushes and through the front gate.

Esca was sitting on the front step.

“God, you’re slow. I hope I’m not that unfit when I get to your age.”

Marcus didn’t know whether to punch him or pull him in for a hug. He settled for falling onto his knees, his hands braced on his thighs, chest heaving with quick breaths of burning-cold air.

As he knelt on the floor panting, Esca got up and came over. He stood in front of Marcus, looking down at him. As Marcus met his gaze, he was unsure if Esca’s smile was meant to console or to taunt.

Still, when Esca held out his hand to pull Marcus up to his feet, Marcus took it anyway.

Chapter Text

 

Esca slotted into the beach routine with complete ease. Everything about the life here suited him. He didn’t seem to care much about the lack of television, he hadn’t complained once that they hadn’t brought the Wii (Marcus wondered in retrospect whether he’d actually taken it out of the box), and he was content to slope about in bare feet and, by the looks of it, any old combination of clothes that came to hand. Marcus was also pretty sure that in the space of five days Esca hadn’t combed his hair once.

The drawing pad that Esca had arrived with was rapidly filling up. Marcus had seen some of the sketches of the beach, of the beach huts and of distant walkers with dogs and rolled up jeans. They were good: dark, determined lines with blended, layered, softer shading. Marcus could see Esca’s personality on the paper, translated into images of late spring days by the sea.

Marcus might have given Esca the impression he didn’t like to read but it was far from the truth. Somehow, without Marcus realising it, his undercover life had buried much of the real him; parts of him he would have embraced before. Marcus hadn’t been in the right frame of mind, lately, to immerse himself in fiction. It occurred to him only now, with half a dozen paperbacks at his disposal, that he hadn’t read a novel in almost two years. He picked up one about a brother and a sister, just a family tale about siblings. Marcus was an only child. He’d heard it said that you can’t miss what you’ve never had but there was a part of him that lamented never having a sibling. After only a single chapter, he was absorbed in the pages, taken vividly to a different time and place. Esca had given him a look that said ‘I-told-you-so’ which filled Marcus with amused affection.

It was ironic, therefore, given the relative peace and quiet and lack of stress that, for the first time since he had come to Marcus, Esca was having nightmares. The first night in the cottage, Marcus heard him in his bed, tossing and turning and mumbling anxiously. Marcus had tiptoed across the hall to the door of Esca’s room to see him sound asleep. He’d called Esca’s name, but it didn’t wake him up. Marcus had watched Esca for several long moments before he’d tiptoed back to bed.

In the morning, Esca hadn’t mentioned he’d slept badly the night before so Marcus hadn’t mentioned it either.

The following three nights the nightmares were increasingly more troublesome. Each night Marcus was awakened by the sounds of Esca fighting his demons in his sleep. Each night, he went to the doorway but Esca didn’t wake up when Marcus called his name. Marcus never mentioned the dreams, thinking Esca didn’t remember them the next morning and he would be ashamed if he knew that Marcus had heard him whimper and cry in his sleep.

On their fifth night in the cottage, Marcus went to bed knowing that in a few hours time he would be awoken by Esca. He’d started leaving his door open so he could hear him better, though Esca left his own door only slightly ajar. Marcus hadn’t had his evening Scotch all week and was sleeping quite soundly without it. Therefore, when he fell asleep with ease but awoke not a couple of hours later, heart pounding wildly against a pressing silence, he was confused.

As was the norm now, Marcus’s first thought was of Esca. He got up, as he had every night before, and crept across the hallway to Esca’s wide-open bedroom door. Esca wasn’t in his bed.

Marcus initially thought Esca was simply unable to sleep and he expected to find him in the living room with a book or his sketch pad. The house was dark, though. As Marcus looked down the hallway there were no lights coming from the bathroom or living room doorways. Where the hallway turned to right towards the kitchen and front door, there was no trace of light either.

Marcus strained to hear something in the pulsing quiet as he slowly walked along the hallway, primed to react at the slightest movement in the inky shadows. He’d got as far as the bathroom door when there was a sharp clunk; the bolt on the front door was being slid back. Marcus quickened his pace and in a dozen steps, rounded the corner of the hallway to see Esca, in nothing more than his boxers, pulling on the front door.

For some reason, perhaps the darkness, Marcus whispered. “Esca, what are you doing?” It wasn’t like there was anyone to disturb.

“Maeve.” His voice was distant, younger and distressed. He was shivering.

Marcus wasn’t sure what Esca had said. Confused, he moved in closer to Esca’s side. Esca was frowning, his hand still on the latch and his eyes half closed, blankly looking ahead at the door. It took a few seconds before it dawned on Marcus – Esca was asleep.

Marcus had no idea what to do. He deliberated waking Esca; he’d heard once it wasn’t a good idea to do that. He’d heard you should humour the sleepwalker and get them back to bed.

“Esca, you need to go back to bed now, okay?”

Completely ignoring Marcus, Esca didn’t let go of the door handle. Instead, Marcus watched helplessly as Esca began rattling the door, his bottom lip quivering.

As usual, Marcus had said exactly the wrong thing. He should have woken him up. It would have been much easier than watching Esca break down while he was locked in a bad dream. Marcus thought fast. Tentatively, he put his hand on the small of Esca’s back and leaned in close enough he could talk quietly, almost directly in his ear. “I’m taking you back to bed.”

Esca’s head turned only a fraction. He didn’t awaken but it seemed Marcus’s voice had reached him. Pushing ever so slightly, Marcus turned Esca and he began to walk without resistance. As Marcus guided Esca back into bed, Esca curled onto his side at once and closed his eyes, as if nothing had happened.

Marcus went back to bed and stared despondently into the darkness. It was time to talk to Esca; to persuade him he needed to start getting a few things off his chest.

The next morning, Marcus slept late after having been awake for several hours in the night. Esca was sitting on the sofa in the living room watching the television, a bowl of cereal under his chin.

“’Morning.” He didn’t look around.

“Hi. Looks like a nice day out. Fancy going for a drive?”

“Yeah. If you like.”

Marcus settled on the armchair with his coffee. There was an interview on the morning television show that Esca was watching. Marcus recognised the actor, although, he had no idea where he’d seen him. Esca was interested enough in what he was watching that he carried on scooping up cornflakes without a glance down at the bowl, or Marcus.

It always took Marcus an inordinate amount of time to work up the courage to ask people personal things. In his current line of work it was taboo and prior to that, there hadn’t exactly been a glut of close friends to share with. He kept waiting for a break in the programming that didn’t come. Esca finished his breakfast and put the bowl on the floor by his feet.

This was Marcus’s chance. Gripping onto his coffee mug, he cleared his throat at the exact moment Esca slouched back on the sofa and asked, “Are you gay?”

Marcus coughed. He shouldn’t have been surprised. It was a fair question.

“I think, if I had to put a label on it, I’d say I was bi.”

“Oh. So you’ve had girlfriends and boyfriends?”

Esca had been doing this more and more as the days went by. He’d started by asking Marcus fairly innocuous questions, such as what had Marcus’s first car been and had he had any pets when he was a kid? But as each day passed, the questions had become more and more personal. Had Marcus gone to University? Had he ever been to prison? For the most part, Marcus was able to answer honestly: Ford Escort, no pets, Sussex University to study Business and, no, he’d never been to prison.

There was really nothing innocent about the questions though. Marcus had interrogated enough suspects to know when he was on the receiving end. Esca was trying to suss him out, without much subtlety. He was little more than a boy, after all, and had no training. Marcus would give it to him that he was deft at steering these exchanges in the direction he wanted to take them, only partly because Marcus let him. If this was what Esca needed to do to begin to trust Marcus, he had no qualms about indulging him.

“I don’t know if girlfriends and boyfriends is what you’d call them. I’ve had relationships with two women and one man. None of them were long-term.”

Esca lifted nothing but his eyes in Marcus’s direction.

Marcus continued, matter-of-factly. “The first woman was when I was eighteen. I’d not long been at university. She didn’t know much more about sex than I did. It only took a couple of months until we realised we liked each other better as friends and that was the end of that. The second woman,” Marcus smiled and then blushed at the recollection, “she was more ... passionate and um, daring. We had a lot of sex. Yeah, well, it was with her I discovered that I liked certain things more than others and started to think about doing them with a man. It took me another three years to work up the courage to follow through with it, though.”

“And the man, how did you meet him?”

“My first proper job. He was my boss. Only he was married.” Marcus only realised he’d sighed after he heard himself release it.

Esca looked like he was seriously mulling over what Marcus had told him. Was Esca questioning the truth in what Marcus said? Because if Marcus was going to lie, he would have made his personal life sound much better than it actually was. Frankly, casual sex was good enough when you could get it, but Marcus could hardly boast he knew anything about what it was to truly love someone and know they loved you back.

Esca asked, “When you say proper job, do you mean like, a legal one?” He was clearly more concerned about this than Marcus confessing an affair with a married man.

“Yes.”

“Then how did you end up doing what you do now?”

“Well, most people, when they have a bad break-up, go and have bad break-up sex. I let him talk me into a career move.”

“He got you into this?”

Craddock hadn’t suggested Marcus go undercover, but when the opportunity arose he didn’t try to stop Marcus either.

“In a way,” Marcus mused. “I mean, it was my choice. I can’t blame him.”

“I see.”

Esca picked up his bowl. He shot Marcus a glare before he went out to the kitchen and Marcus could see the accusation in it, the sheer revulsion at what Marcus had just said. Marcus wanted to say, “No, you don’t see.” But how could he without giving himself away?

 

The drive was strained and silent. Esca put on music while Marcus drove sedately through the country lanes, as befitted the owner of a navy blue Volvo Estate. They stopped at a quiet pub on the way down to Selsey and Esca refused lunch. This time Marcus was irritated. It was getting harder by the day to be patient. He gritted his teeth, ignored his rumbling stomach and kept his exasperation to himself.

On the way back, they came a different route and passed an abandoned boat dealership. There were no locked gates onto the property or the yard out the back, and the car park amounted to a huge, flat expanse of tarmac with only the odd small weed growing up through the cracks.

Marcus had an idea. He stopped the car and turned back.

Esca turned to look back the way they’d just come. “What are you doing?”

“Today, Esca, I’m going to teach you how to drive.”

“I don’t need you to teach me how to drive.”

“No, that’s true. But it might be fun and you’ll want to learn eventually. Why not now?”

Esca scowled. “All right, fine, whatever.”

As Marcus turned in, he pointed to a dangling sign on the fence to their right. “It’s okay. Look, this place is private property --”

“Which means we’re trespassing.”

“Minor detail. We’ll just get you moving slowly around on the tarmac for ten minutes. It’s not going to bother anyone.”

Marcus pulled up near the building and positioned the car facing outwards to enable Esca to drive away forwards. He pulled up the handbrake and set the car in neutral.

“I know you’d probably have preferred to learn to drive in the BMW, but believe me, this is a much better car to start on. The gas is less responsive and the clutch is more forgiving.”

“Yes, all right, Jeremy Clarkson, I get it.” Esca got out and slammed the door before heading around to the driver’s side.

Marcus winced.

Without their eyes meeting, Esca and Marcus swapped seats. Esca was already feeling around, moving his seat forward and adjusting his mirror before Marcus had his seatbelt on. “Make sure that you can put your clutch foot all the way to the floor. Your right foot is for the gas and the brake.”

It looked like Esca might have rolled his eyes but he pressed his left foot down anyway.

“Okay, good. The first gear is for pulling away. As soon as you’re moving you can change up to second. Once the engine sounds like it’s revving too high, change up to third, probably at about twenty miles an hour and so on. When you slow down you change down gears. Like a bike.”

Esca nodded and Marcus checked the grounds once again. The engine was purring, the sky was thick with pale grey clouds, which meant no glare, and there wasn’t an obstacle in their way for two hundred feet: perfect for a first go at the wheel.

Esca followed Marcus’s instructions on how to pull away and they started forward with a slight jerk, much less than Marcus had expected. Esca was handling this remarkably calmly given the grouchy mood he was in. Marcus instructed, “You need to change up to second gear. Push the clutch back down, move the gear stick into second and lift your clutch foot back up.” Esca had completed the move before Marcus could complement him.

They were moving along at about fifteen miles an hour in a straight line, nearing the end of the tarmac.

“Try turning the steering wheel while we’re going slowly.” Marcus motioned the direction with his hand. “Once we get near the end of the tarmac, you’ve got enough room on the left to steer around and on our way back you can try going a bit faster and changing up to third.”

“Faster, you say?” Esca queried flatly.

“Just a bit.”

They reached the end of the tarmac and Esca slowed using the brake, turned the car in a wide arc, and started to head back. The building ahead was fronted and backed by more tarmac and beyond that there was a narrow strip of parking with the property bordered by a six foot hedge. They had a good minute at this speed before Esca needed to turn again.

“Faster now?”

“Go for it,” Marcus said, as no sooner as Esca, without hesitation, slammed his gas foot to the floor. He was up into third in a second and hurtling towards the other end of the tarmac.

“Too fast! Slow down! Put your foot on the brake!”

Marcus grabbed the dashboard with rigid fingers, his knuckles whitening as he braced himself.

Esca didn’t flinch, didn’t bat an eyelash as he said to Marcus, “Fuck you.”

Esca didn’t let up on the gas; he was gaining speed. If Marcus grabbed the wheel they would probably crash. He could try and jam his hand or foot onto the brake but Esca was much further forward than Marcus and there wasn’t room. His last option was to jump and leave Esca to it.

The tarmac was running out. With less than twenty feet ahead of them, as Marcus readied himself to grab the wheel, Esca slammed on the brakes, pulled up the handbrake and was spinning the car around with a screech of the wheels and billows of smoke puffing out the rear and past Marcus’s window.

It didn’t stop there. Esca drove the car, not dropping below twenty, around the perimeter of the building, spinning the steering wheel with a sure and vigorous yank at each corner, finally pulling up at the front doors with an abrupt stop. Without a break in his motion, Esca put the car in neutral and engaged the handbrake.

He looked over at Marcus, smug and triumphant, and said, “Driving lesson over I think. Or do you want to teach me how to reverse around a corner?”

Not waiting for Marcus to respond, Esca got out of the car and walked sedately to the passenger side, at the same time Marcus was leaping out and heading for the driver’s side, hardly able to contain the urge to grab Esca by the scruff of the neck and shake him.

When they were both re-seated and Marcus was pulling back out onto the road, he growled, “Do you think you could have drawn more attention to us being in here?”

“It was your idea.”

Marcus tried to calm, tried as hard as he could not to act hurt and disgruntled. “Why didn’t you tell me you already knew how to drive?”

“You didn’t ask.”

“Don’t give me that bullshit.”

“I only told you I didn’t have a licence, not that I didn’t know how to drive. You assumed that part.”

That was it. This had crossed into an argument and rationality was breaking down.

Marcus didn’t bother to restrain himself. “I think it’s only fair, considering you were sixteen the last time you were free, that I assumed you had never driven a car. I suppose, since I was completely wrong on that score, I can also assume you picked up your skills joy-riding, especially given that little stunt with the handbrake?”

“You can assume anything you want. It doesn’t mean you’re right. You don’t know anything about me.”

“You’re right, I don’t. But I trusted you and I trusted you’d tell me about yourself when you were ready.”

“Then you’re an idiot.”

“You’re damn right about that.”

They drove back the rest of the way in stony silence with Marcus seething, his blood simmering up to a boil. When they parked on the driveway, in front of the garage, Marcus was ready to stomp out of the car and shut himself away in his room with his iPod. And he wasn’t the teenager.

Esca had other ideas.

“I’m sick of you hovering over me, never getting the guts up to ask me anything. I’m sick of you staring at me like I’m some fucking broken toy for you to fix.”

“I don’t think that. And I haven’t asked you because I didn’t want to push you before you were ready.”

“I’m ready. Go on, ask me now. What do you want to know, Marcus?”

“Not like this, I’m not asking you anything like this.”

“Why the hell not? Go on, ask me. Ask me about everything. Ask me how I spent the last three years. You only want to know whether they fucked me, so you can decide if I’m messed up enough for you to have a go.”

Marcus reached for the door, livid. He could feel his hands start to shake as he used every ounce of his strength to not lose his temper. Esca couldn’t help it, he was scared - that’s all. As long as Marcus was consistent and calm, Esca would see that what he’d accused Marcus of wasn’t true; it wasn’t true.

“When you calm down, we’ll talk.” Marcus slowly punctuated his next words with barely concealed fury. “Now get out of the car.”

Esca’s eyes flew wide. It was the first time Marcus had really ordered him to do anything; the first time Marcus hadn’t handled him with kid gloves. Marcus didn’t wait for Esca to answer him. He stormed from the car and into the house. Of course, Esca followed.

As soon as the front door was closed, Esca lunged at Marcus, grabbing his arm and spinning him around. He didn’t let go. His fingers dug into Marcus’ flesh hard enough to hurt and his eyes, Esca’s eyes were wild with rage.

He snarled at Marcus, his voice getting louder with every vicious word. “Admit it, go on. You’re just biding your time, being nice to me so that I’ll give in; that I’ll let you fuck me and think I asked for it. Well I won’t, because I can’t even stand to look at you. You’re a monster. You steal people and make them kill each other and I’d rather die than let you put one finger on me. So you know what? If you’re planning on fucking me, get it over with because the only way you’ll ever have me is if you rape me.”

“Stop, Esca. Stop it now. You’re wrong, so wrong.”

Marcus tried to pull away, he tried to prise Esca’s fingers off. Esca held firm and shouted, “Then why me? Out of all those slaves, why me?”

Everything shrank back to that fateful moment at the fight night: Marcus staring helplessly down at Esca trying not to be killed. All Marcus had thought, as he had watched Esca, was that he was a fighter: one of life’s fighters. And if Marcus could save him, Esca was in with a shot at getting his humanity back.

Marcus sucked in a breath. Every ounce of him burned and hurt and grieved, for what he’d become, and Esca too.

Esca was coiled tight and maniacal, he was out of control and, as the air bellowed out of Marcus’s lungs, he knew he’d lost it too. Everything poured out of Marcus: into his violent shout and the speed with which he pushed forward and slammed Esca against the wall. Why did Marcus save Esca? The reason was simple, so very simple. Marcus wrapped his free hand around Esca’s throat as he screamed in his face, “Because I couldn’t save all of you!”

He’d vowed never to lay a finger on Esca and, as Marcus withdrew, the marks of his fingers bloomed red and angry on Esca’s neck.

Esca gasped, slumping back as if he was being held up by the wall and the wall alone. “What do you mean? All of us.”

“Nothing.” Marcus had said too much and yet the words tumbled out still. “You were right. I do look at you, and it kills me wondering what happened to you. There - I admit that. Is that what you wanted to hear?” Marcus clenched his jaw, knowing it was too late stop now. He stepped in close to Esca, once again, and pressed his palm into Esca’s chest, pinning him to the wall. With every shred of certainty he could muster, Marcus leaned down and, mere inches from Esca’s face, he spat, “And I might be an idiot, because I want you even though I’ll never be able to have you, but don’t ever, ever accuse me of trying to trick you into sleeping with me. I am not a rapist, and I never will be. Do you understand me?”

Esca looked away, his body ramrod straight and shaking beneath Marcus’s palm.

Marcus pushed harder, until Esca gasped. Marcus wasn’t going to let him go, not for this. With unfettered rage he repeated, “Do you understand me?”

“Yes.” Esca said it so quietly; Marcus barely heard it over the violent pounding of his heart.

Releasing Esca from the force of his body pressing through his hand, Marcus crashed along the corridor to his bedroom. He was so angry he couldn’t see straight. All he wanted to do was lash out, break something; kick something to pieces. He paced the floor with his fists clenched and cried out, loud and deep, like a pained animal. It wasn’t enough. He was ready to throw something.

The next half-coherent thought Marcus managed to form was of the rickety shed in the back garden. The roof leaked and the door didn’t close properly. He hadn’t stored anything in it for years. Today, right now, this minute, that eyesore of an old wooden box was going to get the full measure of Marcus’s wrath.

Without further pause, Marcus stalked out of the bedroom, down the hallway and around the corner. Esca was crouched on the floor in front of the door to the garage, looking terrified. Marcus growled, “Move!”

Esca jumped up, his back hitting the front door.

Marcus couldn’t look at him. He stormed through the door into the garage, turned on the light and scanned the walls. He needed an axe – which, of course, meant he didn’t have one. Hanging from the wall on rusty hooks, there was a spade, a rake, some shears, and a pair of crusty old gardening gloves. Marcus grabbed the spade and the gloves.

Using the cord that hung from the latch, Marcus opened the garage door from the inside and marched out into the chill air, gloves on, spade in hand.

The first thing Marcus did was rip off the door. Next he kicked and slammed the soles of his feet hard into the shed walls until they started to buckle in. It felt good, exploding his strength and power out through his booted foot, with every crash into the sides of the rickety structure. The noise echoed throughout the garden, drowning out his grunts and the bloody, fucking birdsong.

The shed collapsed with much less effort than he’d hoped but there was plenty more destroying to do. Stopping only to wipe the sweat trickling into his eyes, Marcus kicked and tore at the shed until it was nothing but a messy heap of fractured wood. Finally, Marcus lifted the spade above his head and, using the blade edge over and over again, he brought the metal crashing down on the collapsed shed walls and roof.

Once his arms burned with the exertion and there was only a pile of shards that could be burned in a bonfire, Marcus stood up straight and rubbed the ache from his lower back. He felt better and, at last, dared to look back towards the house. Esca was sitting at the window of his bedroom, watching Marcus. When Marcus caught his eye, he turned away and slipped out of sight.

The gloves were wrecked. Marcus was soaked with sweat and only now noticing he was getting cold. He threw the gloves down on the splintered wood and picked up the spade.

Now that the rage was all gone he truthfully, if sadly, accepted he couldn’t blame Esca for the things he’d said. Everything he said and did was from a place of mistrust and fear and it was going to take more than a couple of weeks to undo the damage done by three years of captivity. If Marcus was hurting, it was nothing compared to what Esca must be going through.

Marcus put the spade away, closed up the garage and took off his boots, leaving them on the step into the house.

It was quiet. As Marcus ducked his head into the kitchen, passed the empty living room and bathroom, he concluded Esca must be in his bedroom. The door was closed. Marcus listened at the door and heard him cough. He was still here then. Marcus didn’t bother to go in - he couldn’t speak to Esca yet. He didn’t have a clue what to say.

Stripping off his sweaty clothes in the bathroom, Marcus turned on the shower and examined his stinging forearms. They were scratched to shreds and when he looked in the mirror, there was a shallow gash on his forehead, too. The hot water stung his skin and the pain felt good, distracting. Marcus lingered under the spray, letting the shampoo suds run down over his face.

When he was out and dry, Marcus went to his bedroom, put on joggers and a t-shirt and dug out his iPod from the holdall. He hadn’t used it in weeks but was glad of it now. He inserted the ear buds, slumped down on the bed and found Gorecki’s third symphony. If he was going to wallow in self-pity and misery he might as well listen to the right music to go with it.

The haunting voice of the soprano wound above and below the meandering pulse of the orchestra and Marcus was into the third act when he felt himself drifting. He wasn’t angry anymore - only sad, so very sad - for himself as well as Esca. He knew that was selfish but he couldn’t help it, couldn’t help feeling that he’d lost something he never really had.

The melody was slowing to the final refrain, like the beat of his heart, like his breathing. His eyelids were heavy and his mind sluggish. It took a few seconds, in that foggy state, to realise he wasn’t alone. Before he opened his eyes, Marcus felt a light touch on his wrist. He blinked open his eyes and there was Esca, stood at the side of the bed. He’d pulled back his hand and wrapped his arms about himself, clutching the newspaper he’d come with on that very first night. He was looking down at the floor but Marcus could see the swollen redness around his eyes, the tears rolling down his cheeks, the downward curl of his mouth and his shoulders jerking as he sobbed.

Marcus ripped the ear buds out and sprang from the bed as Esca crumpled to the floor. All the bravado that had been holding him up, holding him together these last two weeks had vanished and he fell down to his knees, the newspaper discarded at his side.

It didn’t matter what Esca had said. He was here and he needed Marcus.

Marcus slid his hands under Esca’s shoulders soothing, “It’s all right. I’ve got you.” He half lifted, half dragged Esca up to the bed. Without the slightest resistance, Esca let Marcus pull him into the cradle of his arms. Marcus held Esca to his chest, with his head tucked beneath his chin, and gently pushed his fingers through the spikes of Esca’s hair.

The entire time Marcus was thrashing around outside, was sulking and pouting in his room, Esca had been falling apart at the seams. Marcus was filled with shame. He pressed the words with his lips to Esca’s head, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

In increments as subtle as the minute hand moves around a clock, Esca curled into Marcus. He slid his arms around Marcus’s body, brought his knees up and pressed his forehead against Marcus’s neck, as if he was trying to bury himself in the embrace. Esca was only wearing a thin t-shirt and his jeans and the heat from his trembling body radiated, suffusing Marcus with his fever. Esca’s hair tickled against Marcus’s jaw and Marcus wound his fingers through it, smoothed it down, as if his caress could smooth away the pain of those horrific three years.

Esca was trembling hard enough that Marcus could feel it resonating through his bones. He rubbed Esca’s back, mouthing soundless, soothing words into his hair. “You’ll be all right, Esca. There’s no need to be afraid, I’ve got you, I’ll keep you safe.”

Marcus didn’t know how long they stayed like that. He’d never witnessed anyone break down completely, shatter into a million tiny pieces. Holding Esca in his arms, at last, Marcus knew that if he had to, he would pick up every last piece of Esca until he could fit him back together. He’d never for a moment thought of Esca as a toy, a plaything; he’d never lost sight that he was a human being, a living, breathing, feeling person who deserved better than he’d had.

With him so close, Marcus could feel Esca’s heart, his breathing, his anxious grip on Marcus’s shirt. Very slowly, everything unwound. Esca said into Marcus’s neck, “I didn’t mean it – what I said. I’m sorry, too.”

Marcus held him tighter and whispered into his hair, “It’s all right. There’s nothing to be sorry for.”

As long as Esca stayed where he was, Marcus wouldn’t move a muscle. As he’d done from the moment he took Esca, he would wait and let him make the next move, even though he wasn’t ready himself to let Esca go, not yet and not for a long time.

Long minutes slipped by.

When Esca finally stretched out, easing back, Marcus could see the beginnings of peacefulness beyond the wreckage of his tear-ravaged face. Marcus reached for Esca’s hand and finding that Esca didn’t tense or turn away, Marcus laced his fingers through Esca’s. His hands were warm and solid and even so, it was hard to believe this moment was real until Esca spoke, his voice hoarse from crying. “When I saw you breaking up the shed, when I saw you going berserk, that was when I realised you were telling the truth. I mean ... I always knew it deep down, that you wouldn’t hurt me. But when I saw you outside, I realised you could have killed me. All this time you could have done whatever you wanted, but you never did, even when I hit you with the pan, even after I said all those spiteful things.”

“Esca, you mustn’t feel bad about me.”

Esca sniffed and scrubbed his face with his hands. Then he looked at Marcus, reached up and touched his fingers over his collar. “I’ve made a mess of your shirt. And you cut your face.”

Marcus cupped Esca’s jaw and rubbed his thumb softly over the abused skin under his eye. “It’s fine.”

Holding Marcus’s wrist, Esca said, “I want to tell you what happened to me.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

They moved, unhurried, and settled in the living room. Every nerve-ending in Marcus’s body was primed as he waited for Esca to release his words. He sat by Esca’s side, mindful of the vulnerability Esca had opened himself to, feeling nervous for them both.

Esca began, “I was in the car with Mum and Dad and my little sister, Maeve. She was nine. We were driving home from the cinema and I was sulking because I hadn’t wanted to see that stupid High School Musical film but it was Maeve’s birthday and it was her choice. So I had my music on and my eyes closed and the next thing I know, Maeve is screaming and the car is falling down this steep hill and then I think I blacked out for a minute because, when I came to, we were stopped and it was a mess. I couldn’t see much, it was so dark. I guessed Mum and Dad were unconscious in the front – they didn’t answer when I called out to them. The only one I could hear was Maeve, crying that her tummy hurt.”

Marcus reached over for Esca’s hand. “Maeve was your sister?”

“Yes. Why?”

“You’ve been having nightmares. I couldn’t tell exactly what you’d said before – but hearing you say it now – it was Maeve.”

“Oh ... shit. I didn’t sleepwalk did I?” Esca managed a self-deprecating smile.

“Yes, last night.”

“God. I did something embarrassing, didn’t I? No, don’t tell me.”

“You were trying to escape out the front door.”

“The doctors told my Mum I would grow out of it. Ah well. At least I didn’t piss in the fridge or anything.”

Marcus had never seen this side of Esca before. He looked almost relaxed, in that moment, laughing at himself. If they got through this, Marcus promised himself he was going to see that look again. It would be worth seeing this through, if he could have another chance to watch Esca, free and flourishing.

“I shouldn’t have interrupted. Sorry. Tell me about the car crash.”

“I undid my seatbelt and I couldn’t believe I wasn’t hurt. But Mum and Dad, they didn’t answer when I called out to them, and the airbags, I couldn’t see them under the airbags. Maeve was crying and saying she couldn’t find her shoes. She always kicked them off in the car because Dad used to tell her off for scuffing her dirty shoes on the back of his seat. She’d taken her coat off, too, because she liked curling under it like a blanket, and we couldn’t find that either. It was too dark. So I undid her seatbelt and I managed to drag her out through my door. Then I took my coat off and wrapped it around her and carried her up the bank. I could hear cars going by and, as I looked up, I could see someone had pulled over.

“Only they didn’t come down to help us. I couldn’t understand why – I was calling up for help. I was confused and tired and when I got to the top, Maeve was crying out ‘Esca, Esca my tummy hurts’. I told her it was going to be okay, because there were people on the road and they’d call an ambulance.

“One of the men took Maeve and that’s the last thing I remember until I woke up in a strange bed, locked in a room like a prison cell.”

“The slavers took you from a car crash?”

“Yes.”

Marcus could hardly digest what he was hearing. Esca was gripping his hand, anchored to Marcus as he relived that fateful night. Marcus refocused on simply listening; taking in everything Esca had to tell him.

“At first, I wouldn’t do anything they said. They beat me up and used this weapon to give me electric shocks. I figured they wouldn’t hurt me too much if they wanted me to fight but sometimes I thought they might kill me instead. It was terrifying. There were a load of us and the others, some of them were vicious – and they gave them drugs to make them crazier - and when they took us to train, those guys would really hurt each other.”

Esca paused. The colour had risen up his neck to his cheeks and Marcus could feel the trembling returning in his grasp.

“Do you want to take a break?”

Esca shook his head. “I made a mistake - I kept asking what they’d done with Maeve and what happened to my parents. In the end, the head trainer told me Maeve was in the hospital and that my parents were dead. I said I wanted proof but they wouldn’t give it to me. Then they said if I didn’t fight they’d kill Maeve. I didn’t know what to do – I couldn’t risk it - so I fought. And I won. You see, I was so angry, so scared, and I was fit, you know, from the gymnastics? When they trained me how to fight, I picked it up. I wasn’t messed up with drugs and it gave me an edge.”

None of this part surprised Marcus. It didn’t fail to elicit nausea and rage but Marcus was under no illusion about the insidious techniques up the slave-trainers’ sleeves.

“After a few months, I’m not really sure how long, I told them I wanted proof that Maeve was alive or I wouldn’t fight again, but they still wouldn’t give it to me. Part of me knew she was already dead but I didn’t want to believe it. I told them I knew she was dead and I wouldn’t fight anymore. They kept insisting she was alive and that if I didn’t fight and win, I might as well have murdered her myself. I got so confused. All I did day in, day out was train and fight. They wouldn’t let me watch TV or mix with the other fighters. I just knew she was dead and I wanted to kill myself but I was too scared to do it.

“They must have realised I was losing it. I don’t know. One day they brought me a portable DVD player and a load of films for me to watch but no regular TV, no radio, no books. It was better than nothing but I’d get bored. I’d lie in bed remembering all the times I’d moaned about having to revise for my exams, having to babysit my sister, and I hated myself. I was a spoilt brat and I’d had no idea. Then I began thinking that maybe I was being punished.” He paused and smiled weakly. “God, they fucked me up in the head.”

“No, Esca, they tried to but they didn’t. Don’t forget that. You beat them.”

“No, I didn’t. After I went a bit loopy they brought in Adam. He got the room next to mine and, for an hour every day, he was allowed to come in my room. He was sweet and I couldn’t for the life of me work out how they thought they could make a fighter of him. By now, I did most of my training on my own, except for sparring, but after he arrived he used to come and train with me. The first time they made us spar he wouldn’t fight back. I told him to try, that I wouldn’t hurt him, and it didn’t work, so I hit him a few times, to try to make him angry, thinking he’d have a go back. Only he cried, he fucking cried. I hated it, and I should have pummelled him for it, but I was an idiot. I gave him a hug. I gave him a hug and that was it for him.”

This memory was causing Esca so much distress. His fingers dug into Marcus’s hand and his eyes were glassy with unshed tears. Marcus swallowed hard, choking back tears of his own. The dread clawed over his back as he thought of Adam. He wasn’t sure he could bear to hear what Esca had to say next.

“Adam didn’t have to fight as long as I won mine. I thought if I lost, they would fight him the next time. So I fought hard, no matter who they put me in that ring with, I fought them all. Only they’d never planned to fight him. I won a straight six months – that’s twelve fights – before I lost. And that night, two of the minders paid him a visit. I could hear them, right next door. They must have put their hands over his mouth, but I knew he was screaming. I’d had no idea that men could he raped. I was so stupid.”

“Esca.” Marcus wrapped his arms around him. “You were a child. You couldn’t have known what was going to happen.”

Esca leaned his head against Marcus’s shoulder and sighed. Marcus could tell he was crying as he spoke. “I fought like mad after that, for almost two years, and I only lost once more. But they hurt him anyway. He never told me but I worked it out for myself. They destroyed him.

“A couple of months ago, he slit his wrists. I heard him crying that night. I asked him what was wrong. He said he was going away and that he’d miss me. We used to talk through the wall at night. I hate the dark and it helped me go to sleep. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I wondered if they were moving one of us. He said good night to me and that was the last thing he ever said. I didn’t realise, I thought as I went to sleep that I’d be able to ask him in the morning. But when they unlocked his room he was dead. He’d ripped a shard of metal off the bed frame and used it on his wrists and his thighs.

“After that, I didn’t want to live either. I lost my next two fights, by evasion mostly. Then these new recruits turned up, with new minders, and one of them slipped me this newspaper. I don’t know why. I hadn’t been allowed anywhere near anything that was going on in the outside world. So I flipped through it and on the third page, there was an article.”

“The one you were holding earlier?”

“Yes.”

“Can I see it?”

“Yes. I left it in your bedroom.”

Marcus let go of Esca and took his face in his hands. He wiped the tears away with his thumbs. “I’ll be right back.”

Esca nodded and curled into the arm of the sofa.

Marcus stumbled to his room, sucking in air as if he’d been drowning. He knew it was going to be awful. He also knew there was no preparing for awful, no matter how many times you saw it, or heard it or felt it. And nothing could have prepared Marcus for hearing it from the lips of someone he’d quickly come to care about so very much.

Scooping up the creased newspaper from the floor, Marcus headed straight back to Esca, waiting until he was back at his side to open to the third page.

Halfway down, there was a picture of a smiling girl, and at the top, the headline, Missing Girl, Maeve MacCunoval, Laid To Rest.

The article read:

Following the discovery of the body of missing schoolgirl, Maeve MacCunoval, a service was held yesterday at St. Mary’s Church, Harrogate. She was laid to rest alongside her parents, Hamish and Esther MacCunoval.

Marcus read on:

Maeve’s older brother, Callum, is still missing, now also presumed dead. The children disappeared following a car accident on March 20th, 2008, in which both their parents were killed. At the time, Callum was sixteen and Maeve was nine.

Marcus skimmed the rest. “Callum MacCunoval. That’s you?”

“Yes. Except my family called me Esca, for my mother, Esther. Maeve was saying it when the slavers took me.

“When I saw my whole family were dead, and they thought I was dead, too, I gave up. The first chance I got, I tried to hang myself from the air vent casing. I would have done it, but someone heard the chair kick out and they got me down. Not days later, I was in the kill fight.”

Folding up the newspaper, respectfully and carefully, Marcus put his arm around Esca. He wanted to tell him he was going to make this right; that he was going to make things better. Instead, all he could say was, “I’m sorry.”

Esca breathed out sighs then, as if the recollection had only just returned, he said, “The funny thing is, the minder who gave me the newspaper was at my bedside when I came around, and he said, ‘That was a stupid thing to do’. He was there with us fighters on the kill night, too. He must have put the newspaper in my holdall, he must have.”

“What was his name?”

“He told me he was called Saul.”

Marcus hadn’t heard of him but it sounded suspicious. All of it sounded suspicious.

There had been no word from Twist, as Marcus had expected. There were another couple of days until his week was up. He’d also sent all he could to Craddock and had heard nothing back, which wasn’t unusual. There was probably nothing worth telling him at this point. Marcus might have time to do some private research for Esca.

The remainder of the day, Marcus and Esca stayed close and quiet. Marcus trod gently around Esca, as he had at the beginning. It was different now, though. Esca was different. The layers that he’d wrapped around himself had been peeled back at the edges, giving Marcus what he hoped was a glimpse of the man that Esca would be free to become, somewhere down the road. He seemed at the same time older and younger; braver and more afraid.

Later, when night fell and the world outside entirely disappeared, Esca said, “Why do you do what you do?”

Marcus was tired of lying. Esca had trusted him with everything. The time had come when he should do the same. “I want to tell you the truth, and I promise I will. More than anything, you deserve it. Will you give me until tomorrow?”

“Okay.”

Esca was exhausted. Marcus could see him fighting sleep. The television was on but Marcus was lost in his thoughts, after the events of the day, and not paying the slightest attention to the action on the screen. On the other side of the room, Esca’s head jerked and he started for the third or fourth time.

Marcus got up from the armchair and went to Esca. “Why don’t you go to bed?”

Esca looked at him then looked away.

“Esca?”

“I haven’t been sleeping very well.”

Of course, Marcus knew that. He pulled Esca up from the sofa saying, “Come with me.”

Marcus led Esca down the hall to his bedroom. He didn’t need to say another word, he didn’t have to ask or explain. Esca just took off his jeans and climbed in.

“I’m going to lock up. I’ll be back in a few, okay?” Marcus said.

“Okay.”

Marcus checked every window lock, bolted the front door, closed every curtain and blind. As he came back to the bedroom, he paused at the light switch, and decided he would leave the light on in the hall. Once he was in the bedroom he pulled the door, leaving it open a couple of inches. Esca didn’t say anything, so Marcus crept to his side of the bed, thinking to ask him if that was light enough. When he looked down at him, curled towards him on his side, Marcus didn’t need to say a thing.

Esca was already asleep.

Chapter Text


 

There was enough light that Marcus could make out the outline of Esca sleeping beside him. He was facing away; the curve of his shoulder, the slope of his side and the tufts of his hair silhouetted in charcoal hues. His chest rose and gently fell. The sound of his breaths gusting into the pillow was peaceful.

Marcus would have liked to touch him, to feel under his spread-wide palms the way Esca’s muscles flexed when he moved. With him so close, Marcus could have pressed his face to the nape of Esca’s neck, to smell his skin and brush his lips to the downy hair at the top of his spine. It was a bittersweet temptation, to have Esca inches from his side; so near and yet so far.

The revelations of the day sat uncomfortably in Marcus’s chest. They kept him awake while Esca serenely slumbered. He’d known it would break his heart to hear Esca’s story but what Marcus hadn’t expected was intrigue - to be left with more questions than he was given answers. Esca’s capture and the horrors he’d endured after his capture, were uncannily different to that of other slave-fighters. In many ways, what Esca had been through was far worse than Marcus could have imagined.

It was approaching midnight. Esca turned over in his sleep and Marcus saw his face, sleep-slack and younger-looking than when he was awake. Marcus hadn’t allowed himself the luxury of deliberating the contours of Esca’s face, and it would be better for his sanity if he kept it that way.

Esca pursed his lips, lost in a dream. Marcus rolled onto his back. He didn’t need that visual to imagine what it would be like to kiss him.

Usually, it was deathly quiet in the lane outside. There were only four more houses after Marcus’s. After that, the road came to a dead end at the field, and at this time of year most nocturnal noises were courtesy of Mother Nature. Therefore, when the unmistakeable noise of a car pulling up and stopping in the lane interrupted the silence, Marcus was naturally alerted. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. This was never a good sign.

As noiselessly as he could, Marcus slid from the bed and pressed his feet in slow, measured steps across the floor to the window. He pulled back the curtain just a fraction at the same moment the headlights died, leaving him unable to see anything of the car through the gaps in the hedge. He cursed for not having them cut lower. It was a double edged sword – keeping the hedges high so that no one could see in meant not being able to see out either.

Marcus strained to hear the sounds of footsteps or the sound of voices, and could hear neither. He waited for a slow count to sixty - one minute and nothing. Whoever it was out there didn’t go to the houses either side of Marcus’s – he’d have heard a knock or a gate or door opening. Then Marcus heard footsteps on the gravel of his own driveway which promptly stopped after ten steps. Someone was pausing there or had moved onto the grass. Marcus’s heart leapt up, fast-thudding into action, priming his muscles for fight or flight with a quick-fire of adrenaline.

Without a thought, Marcus dropped to his hands and knees and crawled over to the wardrobe. His gun was in the briefcase. With the hall light on, Marcus was able to see well enough to effortlessly slide out his case, roll the combination lock and remove his gun, within another slow count to sixty. Two minutes had passed and whoever was outside was still out there. Another steeling breath and Marcus heard the footsteps on the drive once more, for several steps, before they stopped again. Marcus got up, gun in hand, and stepped over to the door to the hall. With a light on inside the house, he was a sitting duck. If he switched it off it would alert the person outside that Marcus was awake inside the house, up and moving around. With everything left as it was, and a gun in his hand, Marcus had the edge. He was the one lying in wait.

Marcus pushed the door to the hall closed, save catching the latch, plunging the room into near complete darkness. A narrow sliver of light sliced in beneath the doorway, diffusing enough radiance to make out the edges of the objects in the room, to tell movement from stillness, human from inanimate.

Next, Marcus side-stepped back to the window and with his back pressed to the wall, he lifted his gun to his chest, sliding the safety off with his thumb.

There was movement around the perimeter of the house. Marcus could feel it, more than hear it. If the potential intruder broke in through any room other than the bedroom, Marcus would take them out in the hallway. If they came near this bedroom window, he’d have them before they got a finger inside. Marcus cast a glance towards the bed. Esca continued to sleep and it was better he did for now. It was one less variable to worry about.

Marcus’s ears were ringing with the effort of trying to single out any noise that would give him a clue as to where the person outside was. His heart was thumping too loudly, and the gun was slipping in his grasp. He slid the safety back on, swapping hands for only a second in order to wipe his palm on the front of his boxers. He heard a low scuffing and a tap on the window – a tap on the window - and someone calling under his breath, “Marcus, it’s me. Are you in there?”

Marcus knew that voice, hushed or not. He breathed a heavy sigh of relief and pulled back the curtain to see a familiar face, bearing a sheepish grin. Standing on the rose bed was Craddock. Marcus didn’t smile back.

Brandishing the gun high enough that Craddock could see it, Marcus waved the barrel in the direction of the front door. Grabbing his joggers on the way, Marcus edged out of the room to let Craddock in. He was inordinately relieved this hadn’t turned out to be a visit from one of the General’s men. That didn’t mean he was pleased to see his Met boss.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” were Marcus’s first growly whispered words, as Craddock stepped in and hastily closed the front door.

“I texted you a couple of hours ago to let you know I was on my way. Given up checking your phone?”

“I was in bed.”

Craddock was dressed head to foot in black, including a woollen hat pulled down past his ears. He removed it and shook out his hair. He regarded Marcus, who was still standing in the hallway in nothing but his underwear, gun in one hand and black jogging trousers in the other. With a fond smile, Craddock pulled Marcus in for a hug. Marcus stood stiffly until it was over.

“How did you know I was here?”

“Oh, come on, it was obvious. Shall we go in there?” Craddock motioned along the hallway and went without waiting for an answer.

Marcus had no choice but to follow. When they’d just reached the point where the corridor turned, about to go into the living room, Marcus saw Esca was standing outside his bedroom door.

“Marcus?”

Esca’s fists were balled tight, his jaw flexing. His eyes darted warily from Craddock to Marcus. It must have been an alarming sight: Marcus wielding a gun and Craddock looking like an SAS operative, both of them a head taller than Esca.

“Ahh, this must be the elusive Callum MacCunoval,” Craddock said, with warmth.

Marcus shot Craddock a glare. Was that why he was here? Marcus felt his legs wobble, as he began to sink in a mire of yet more unanswered questions. How on earth did Craddock know about Esca?

His hands in the air, waving his trousers around like a flag of surrender, Marcus strode the length of the hallway towards Esca. “It’s alright, he’s a friend.” As he reached Esca’s side, Marcus spun on his heel and sniped, “But I think I’d like him better if I knew what the fuck is going on?”

Craddock stood his ground. “I could ask you the same thing.”

“Marcus, who is he?” Esca was trembling. “How does he know who I am?”

“Esca, this is James Craddock. And I have no idea how he knows who you are.”

Craddock reached into his back pocket and pulled out a hip flask. “Shall I get glasses? I think it’s time the three of us had a little chat.”

“Go on then. We’ll see you in the living room.”

Inside Marcus’s bedroom, he and Esca quickly pulled on trousers. As Marcus went to put away the gun, Esca said, “Don’t you think you might need that?”

“No.” Marcus looked back to see Esca was shivering. “Here, put this on.” Marcus threw him one of his own sweatshirts; a thick, moss-green hooded affair that was much too big for Esca. It wasn’t going to help Marcus’s case, with Esca looking more like a schoolboy, wearing Marcus’s clothes, no less. But then there probably wasn’t anything he could do to make this situation look any better.

“You look really worried.” Esca wriggled into the sweatshirt before adding, “That scares me.” The sleeves dropped to Esca’s fingertips, and the hood bunched up behind his head. He came over and caught Marcus’s arm.

“It’s going to be just fine.” Marcus sighed. “I think I might be in a spot of trouble though.”

“Because of me?”

“No. Don’t be stupid.”

“Is Craddock one of the General’s men?”

“No, he’s not. Esca, please, don’t worry. Come, you’ll see.”

It was supposed to be a relief for Marcus, to be able to tell Esca who he was. Unfortunately, that feeling was completely obliterated by the anxiety Marcus felt from having Craddock turn up. The proverbial shit had well and truly hit the fan - with Marcus standing squarely in its path.

Craddock was sitting on the armchair; his legs stretched out, his foot nudging at the leg of the coffee table. He was taking a leisurely sip on what looked like brandy - if Marcus knew Craddock - which he did, only too well. Marcus and Esca took seats on opposite ends of the sofa, Marcus nearest Craddock. There were two tumblers, each filled with a finger of amber liquor, on the coffee table in front of them.

Craddock didn’t waste a second. “How much does he know, Marcus?”

“Nothing. Not yet. And I only found out who he is today.”

Craddock barked out a laugh. “So it’s true. You bought yourself a slave.”

“No he didn’t.” Esca leaned forward on the edge of his seat. “He rescued me. And the only reason he didn’t know who I was sooner was because I wasn’t ready to tell him. What’s it to you, anyway?”

Marcus pressed his hand to the small of Esca’s back, hoping to calm him. Frankly, he was surprised at Esca’s sudden loyalty.

“Callum --”

“Call me Esca.”

“Esca, I don’t know what sort of arrangement you two have going here,” he said as he raised his eyebrows, “but it’s stirred up a shit storm far bigger than I think either of you two realise. Anyway, we’ll get to that in a minute. Marcus, perhaps it would be best to start with you telling Esca who you really are.”

Marcus closed his eyes and braced himself. He felt like he was in some kind of intervention. Perhaps he had lost his grip on reality. His actions over the last two weeks had seemed to be the only solution, the perfect solution at the time. Now he felt like he was being watched by Esca and Craddock while they waited for it to dawn on him he had a problem: he actually believed was living in a world where it was acceptable to own slaves, and because he’d treated his slave with kindness he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. Esca and Craddock were waiting for Marcus to break down and admit he’d forgotten who he was, that slavery was illegal and immoral, that Marcus was there to put an end to it, not endorse it.

His head felt like it was too full, too full, and he was falling down from the weight of it.

Then Marcus felt the almost imperceptible brush of Esca’s fingers on his thigh, where Craddock wouldn’t see it. “Marcus?”

When Marcus opened his eyes and looked at Esca, looked into Esca’s eyes, he saw what he always saw. Shored up by that determined steely-blue, Marcus knew he wasn’t deluded. He’d made the right decision under the circumstances and he would stand by it, no matter what the repercussions. “Esca,” he said. “My real name isn’t Marcus Aquila. I’m an undercover officer for the Metropolitan Police. I’ve been on this assignment for just over a year and a half, working my way up the ranks, trying to get as much evidence as I can against the General and his organisation.”

“You’re a copper?” Esca’s frown was miniscule, hardly there. In fact, it looked more like a hidden smile. Marcus didn’t know what to make of it. He was currently more preoccupied with trying to breath.

“Yes ... for now.”

“And I’m his real boss.” Craddock sat up straighter. “For now. And as your boss, I would really love to know why you didn’t tell me you’d bought a slave? I’ve been fending off all sorts of threats from the Home Office, in the vain hope you were going to share this bit of inspiration of yours with me, and nothing, nothing for two weeks. So come on, this had better be good.”

Marcus didn’t know how it had got back to the Home Office, to the Met, but he guessed he was about to find out. Such was the price you paid for being kept out of the loop – sometimes it paid off, sometimes it didn’t.

Marcus ran his fingers through his hair. He needed to get his thoughts in order, to make sure he put this in the best light - for himself and for Esca. “It was a case of, either I bought Esca, or watched him get slaughtered. I couldn’t allow it. So I had to pretend I wanted him as a slave, for myself. The General bought him for me, as a gift, and you know as well as I do that means as a retainer. He thought I wanted Esca as a sex slave. It wasn’t my idea but it suited my situation for them to think I had vices, to let them think I’m some kind of deviant. It makes you one of them, more corrupt.” Marcus could feel his face getting redder as he got more and more worked up, having to relive those decisions, the actions that were likely going to cost him dearly. “The General said that if Esca escaped he’d kill us both. I thought it was a pride thing on his part. Maybe it was. I don’t know how strong his connections are to Augustus or whether he was relaying a message. I don’t even know how much he paid for Esca. But I owe the General now and I still believe that if I let Esca go he’ll be in as much danger as me.” Marcus added, “Up until today, I didn’t know he’d had a family.” He was unable to finish the rest of what he was going to say as Esca interjected.

“It’s true.” Esca stood up, his voice urgent. “I didn’t tell him about myself, not until today. And he’s never laid a finger on me, after the first night he took my tracker chip out.” Approaching Craddock, Esca pulled the hood on the sweatshirt back and leaned down to reveal the fresh scar on his neck.

Craddock gave Esca’s neck a cursory examination. “Okay. I get the picture.”

“No, you don’t.” Marcus couldn’t stand Craddock’s sanctimonious tone, not when he had no idea what this last year and a half had been like. He persisted, “Esca’s family are gone now. If I’d told you about him, all you’d have done is get him set up in a council flat and forgotten he ever existed.”

Craddock didn’t look angry, though he had every right to be. Marcus should have trusted him, but he’d let his personal feelings get ahead of his professional ones. He’d wanted to keep Esca to himself, and the danger aspect, it was an excuse more than a reason. Even as the admission took root and grew, Marcus still didn’t want to believe it. And he knew how it looked to Craddock, sitting there looking at him like he was off his rocker.

Before Marcus could say anything else, Craddock said, “The problem with all this is that you’re supposed to tell me everything. Good or bad. By withholding information you didn’t think was relevant you’ve jeopardised this whole operation. We had to bring the Reaping raid ahead of schedule because I was worried we were going to have to pull you out.”

Ah, so the Met had been responsible. It hardly seemed to matter anymore. “I suppose you’re going to enlighten me now, on how I fucked up?”

“In a minute. Before I do, I think it’s important that I tell you, Esca, no matter what Marcus has said to you, you’re free to leave at any time you want. If you want to come back to London with me tonight, I’ll get you set up in a safe-house while we get this mess sorted. I don’t want you to give me your decision until I’ve told you the main reason why I’m here.”

“A safe-house?” Marcus said. That could only mean one thing. “You want Esca as a trial witness? You know the fighters don’t know enough except to identify their minders.”

“True, but that’s not what we want Esca for.” Craddock refilled his tumbler with the last of the brandy from his flask. “This operation stretches far wider than the South-West. Marcus, you didn’t just buy a slave, you bought a potentially valuable witness, one that we might need when we come to arrest Augustus and take him to trial. This operation hasn’t just been about the General and his business, its purpose has been to bring about the downfall of both of the biggest organised slave-crime bosses in England, at the same time.”

“Me, a witness?”

“We think so, Esca.”

“But I don’t know anything about anything, except for the fighting.”

Craddock looked at him kindly but Marcus could see the lines of sorrow at the corners of his eyes. It was the same look he’d given Marcus before he’d left, right back at the beginning. “The fact you believe you don’t know anything is the only reason you’re still alive, and the only reason Augustus allowed you to be sold. If he’d had any idea to the contrary, he’d have killed you along with your parents three years ago.”

“My parents died in a car accident.”

“We have reason to believe they were run off the road.” Craddock paused and pinched the bridge of his nose. Marcus knew he only did that when he was struggling for words, which wasn’t often. “It’s complicated. At the time of the accident, that’s all the police thought it was, a tragic accident. For a while, they believed you and Maeve had tried to get to safety and had perished away from the vehicle. When the search didn’t turn up any bodies it was assumed you’d both been abducted. Only there was no evidence, no witnesses and with no family left alive to press the authorities, the both of you joined the long list of two-hundred-thousand other people who go missing in Britain every year.”

Esca gasped. Marcus knew that number, knew it was actually much higher than that. It didn’t make it any less astonishing. The slavers banked on those numbers. The thousand men a year taken at their hands were a drop in the ocean and with no advocates, they were low on the police priority list for trying to find them. With all those missing people; the ones with no one to miss them didn’t stand a chance of being found.

“What changed your mind, about it being an accident?”

“To cut a long story short, about six months ago, we were approached by two investigative reporters for The Independent who were researching a piece on modern slave-trafficking. They’d decided to focus on the missing men taken for cage-fighting, rather than the sex-trade. By a massive coincidence, one of the reporters hails from your native Harrogate, Esca. She saw you in a cage fight in London and recognised you. You see, after you and Maeve went missing, your parent’s solicitor went to a lot of trouble to try to find you. The reporter was still living in Harrogate at the time and remembered the case. Apparently, your father was a well-known businessman and there were great efforts locally to find you both, though to no avail. It was solely down to her memory Esca, that you were found.”

Esca and Marcus looked at each other, dumbfounded, then back to Craddock.

Craddock took another sip of his drink and continued. “There’s more. When we sent someone to speak with the solicitor, he told us that your father, Esca, had been to see him some months before his death with regards to some business problems he was having. I don’t know how much you know about your family’s business, but your father owned a number of properties on the docks in Hull. We think there’s a connection to your parent’s ownership of those properties and their untimely deaths, but there’s key evidence missing, which the solicitor believes you’re party to. We’re hoping you’re going to be able to help us.”

“What evidence? I don’t know anything. I was sixteen, I never paid any attention to what Mum and Dad did for work. What does he think I know that’s so important?”

“I don’t know. That’s all I know about that side of things, Esca. I’ve got the Home Office breathing down my neck to get you out of here, and into safe custody and aside from that, I’m in the dark. You see, the problem was finding you; who you belonged to, where you were housed, and when we did find you, we still had the problem of getting you out of captivity without ruining two years worth of undercover work. Augustus has been more difficult to catch than we could have imagined. So we added another undercover man to the mix - Saul. He was supposed to get you out.”

“Saul?”

“Yes. And I’m sorry it took so long and that it got fucked up. He’d guessed you might end up in a kill fight after your attempted suicide, but the decision wasn’t made until literally an hour beforehand and the holding area was impenetrable. We couldn’t get the go ahead to go in guns blazing. Saul was confident you’d make it out alive, given the other fighter is usually half-gone already, and the plan was to break you out as soon as the fight was over. When you ended up in there with two others,” Craddock paused, looking sickened, at last. “We had no idea that went on, none of us; our only hope was that you would still make it out alive. But then someone bought you before the fight was over. And it didn’t take five minutes to find out who – Marcus, Saul gave us your BMW licence and that was it.”

“Christ Almighty, didn’t that prick have any idea what goes on in a kill fight? That was one huge fucking risk.”

“Yes. But Esca was kept under the tightest security, so our only chance was to get him out at a fight venue. It happened too fast for us to be able to react any other way.”

Marcus was shaking with the onslaught of yet more revelations. He wanted to scream that if it wasn’t for Saul’s unsubtle and heavy-handed message to Esca about his sister, Esca might never have attempted suicide in the first place; he would have if Esca hadn’t been sitting right in front him. Still, Marcus was this close to losing his temper. “Your potential witness, an innocent man, was almost killed. If I hadn’t intervened, I was led to believe he was getting a bullet in the back of the head the minute he was out of the cage. And now you have the nerve to come here and tell me I fucked up? Given your success so far, you should be thanking me.”

“That might be the case,” Craddock said, “but the powers that be are going to say that the end doesn’t justify the means. They think you’ve lost it.”

“Then you need to make them understand.” Marcus’s voice rose up and if he’d been closer he would have grabbed at Craddock and shaken him. “You’re supposed to be my advocate.”

The air around Marcus was charged with the desperate quivering of every ounce of his heart and soul; everything that Marcus had invested in this assignment. Maybe he’d slipped up, but he had never once lost sight of his purpose. No one had any right to accuse him of that. And Esca, sat on the floor in front of him, looking dazed and frightened and too young to have lost everyone he loved. The Home Office didn’t care about him; he was nothing more than a witness, a pawn.

The three of them sat tense, deliberating. Marcus knew Craddock was here to take Esca back and if Esca wanted to go, there was nothing he could do. That didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. It was a mistake to get emotionally involved, a mistake that Marcus had promised himself he wouldn’t make again. Only, it was too late. And all of a sudden it was too much.

Marcus felt a lump clogging his throat, a tightening across his chest, heat flaring up over his face and the prickling in his eyes all at the same time. And he didn’t want Craddock or Esca seeing it. He got up and fled to the bathroom, locking the door behind him.

Running off to the loo wasn’t exactly the best way to behave - Marcus knew that. Nonetheless, given he felt like he was going to throw up, it was the best place to hide out for a minute. He washed his face and looked in the mirror. No surprise he looked like shit.

There was a knock on the door. “Marcus, are you all right?” It was Esca.

“Yeah. I’ll be right out.”

Marcus dried his face and hands and sat down on the edge of the bath. He looked at the cup on the sink, with his and Esca’s toothbrushes in it. This thing with Esca, whatever it was, it was only ever in his head and it was over before it had begun. He didn’t know why it felt like he was losing everything and more.

When Marcus got back to the living room, Craddock and Esca were standing up, waiting for him. Esca had moved a step away from Craddock, his arms folded across his chest, his expression tight. He relaxed when he saw Marcus and looked like he was going to approach when Craddock stepped forward instead and put his arm around Marcus. Shrugging away from him, seeing Esca shoot Craddock the filthiest glare, Marcus was certain Esca had worked out that Craddock was the boss who’d been his lover and Esca didn’t look pleased about it. There was a part of Marcus that was pleased, though it meant nothing really.

Craddock took the brush-off without comment and said, “I’ll make sure he’s taken care of and we’ll do it right for you. How much longer are you here?”

“Another couple of days.”

“I could get someone down here, mock up a scene of a fake murder; you can take pictures and get them to the General.”

Marcus sat down, resigned to being on his own again, and hating the prospect. He looked at the floor, unable to look at Craddock and even less able to look at Esca. He certainly wasn’t expecting Esca’s hand on his shoulder or what he heard when Esca spoke.

“What if I don’t want to come with you, Craddock? You can’t force me. Right now, there are no guarantees I can even help you.”

“Esca, you don’t owe me anything,” Marcus said. His voice was hoarse.

“I owe you my life. If I disappear, if I don’t stay with you, you could be in danger.”

“You should go with Craddock, Esca. If I’d known from the outset about your father’s business, about his possible connection to Augustus, I never would have kept you. I thought you had nothing to your name, and I didn’t want to turn you onto the street without giving you some help to get started.”

“I’ve still got nothing, no one. That hasn’t changed.”

Esca sounded as upset as Marcus, as if he thought Marcus didn’t want him around. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Marcus didn’t want to say it. It took everything he had to choke out, “You’ll be looked after. You’ll be safe, and I can find you when my assignment is done.”

“You’ve kept me safe.” Marcus looked up at Esca, as fierce and unyielding as when Marcus first saw him in the cage, just as he turned to Craddock and said, “Craddock, how do you keep in touch with Marcus?”

“By phone – he has an iPhone. We have a PO Box that I can send things to and every few months we meet up, though that’s risky.”

“So what about if you got me a phone or a laptop, and you set it up so that I can communicate with whoever I need to from Marcus’s flat? That way, I’d be helping you and Marcus at the same time.”

Craddock cracked half a smile.

Esca wasn’t finished. “When Marcus’s assignment is over, I’ll testify, I’ll do whatever you need me to. But only if you can guarantee Marcus doesn’t get into trouble, okay? You tell your boss I’d be dead if it wasn’t for him. And probably so would Saul.”

At that, Craddock half laughed. Marcus doubted he’d had any idea of Esca’s tenacity. “Anything else?” Craddock asked.

“Yes.” Esca slumped down next to Marcus, on the arm of the sofa. “Would you thank the solicitor, my Dad’s solicitor, and tell him to keep looking after everything until I can get back?”

“Yes. I can do that.”

“One more thing.” Esca’s voice fell, all traces of humour vanished. Marcus watched him swallow hard, wringing his hands in his lap as he asked, “Do you know anything about what happened to my sister?”

Shit. Maeve. Marcus slid his arm around Esca’s waist. He didn’t imagine it; Esca leaned closer towards him.

Craddock sat, too, on the arm of the chair. He leaned forward and took Esca’s hands in his. “I haven’t read the coroner’s report but I can tell you this; her body was found six weeks ago, fifteen miles from where you had the car accident, wrapped in a blanket, inside a collapsed storm drain. She’d been there a long time – the coroner believes she died shortly after your car accident and her body was placed there after she died. She had a couple of cracked ribs but no other obvious injuries.” Craddock stopped and glanced at Marcus as if he needed some reassurance and who could blame him? “Because three years had gone by, the coroner couldn’t say with absolute certainty how she died, but he didn’t rule out the possibility that it could have been internal injuries from the accident.”

Craddock was trying to make Esca feel better by telling him that Maeve hadn’t been the victim of a violent death. It had to be small consolation. Marcus could feel Esca’s bitterness and rage seeping, bleeding out of him before he drew a breath to speak.

Marcus watched the tears spill as Esca said, “If she’d been taken to a hospital, she would have survived.”

“Maybe.” Craddock sighed. “Probably.”

“Then they murdered her, too.”

Marcus looked at Craddock, pleading. Esca was better off with Marcus and they both knew it. The safe houses were safe and Esca would, if he was lucky, get a couple of counselling sessions a week but, apart from that, he would be on his own. Marcus’s heart was saying, you can’t take him away from me while his head followed with, he needs me; he needs someone who’ll be there for him night and day, to help him deal with this. He needs me to look after him and keep him safe. And perhaps it wasn’t too loathsome to admit that a small part of Marcus wanted Esca, needed Esca, too.

Craddock didn’t let go of Esca’s hands and didn’t drop Marcus’s gaze. He frowned and gave Marcus a small nod. “Let me see what I can do.”

“I’ll be careful,” Marcus said, sincerely, gratefully.

“I know you will.”

Esca tightened up and withdrew from them, wiping his face with the cuff of the sweatshirt. He stood and said, “I suppose you two have to talk?” Marcus knew well enough by now, Esca needed to be alone; that he’d had enough.

“It won’t be for long,” said Marcus. “Can I get you anything?”

“No. I’m going to bed. So, um, good night, morning. Whatever.”

Esca headed for the door as Craddock stood and said, “It was a pleasure meeting you, Esca. I’m hoping it won’t be too long before I see you again.”

Esca nodded at Craddock and Marcus before he left the room. Not wanting to leave it like that, Marcus chased after him into the hallway. “I’m sorry about everything.”

Esca turned and offered a weak smile. He looked worn down to the bone, like he’d been besieged by shadows, even in the glaring hallway light. “Go talk to your boss.” He gave Marcus a half-hearted shove. “We can talk tomorrow about how you fucked with my head for two weeks, okay?”

“Okay.”

Too weary for more talking, Marcus reluctantly edged back into the living room to find Craddock had moved to the sofa. He didn’t join him but settled for the armchair. He didn’t want Craddock’s comfort, though it looked as if that was what Craddock was offering. All Marcus wanted was for Craddock to do his job, to state Marcus’s case and get him, get Esca, what he needed.

Settling back, Marcus asked, “Are you going to tell me what happened with the Reapers?”

“We’ve got two in custody that aren’t talking. The other, Barry Whitlow, died in the hospital. No one’s got anything on you, so I expect your guy Twist will be calling you back at the weekend.” Craddock made a tentative move to get closer then shook his head and didn’t bother. “I can see this is taking its toll on you. How much weight have you lost?”

“Not much. A stone, maybe.”

“It’ll be over soon. There had been a problem following the money. They always get these blokes by following the money. But there’s been some headway made. With one of the Boarding Houses gone and you weeks away from getting us the slaves brought in from Thailand, you could be back home inside a month.”

“And what about Esca? He doesn’t realise he’s never going to be able to go back home, not if he testifies.”

“We don’t know for sure if we’re going to need him to testify. It depends on what evidence we can dig up without him. You’ll have to break it to him gently. He trusts you; that much is obvious.”

“And I don’t want that trust ruined. He’s been through enough already. You have to keep me informed of what’s going on. Things have become too dangerous now.”

Craddock leaned across and slapped Marcus’s knee. “Agreed.”

They shared a few careful reminiscences. Marcus felt less sad about what had gone on between them, seeing Craddock there, careworn and greying around the edges. Looking at him, Marcus wondered, for a moment, which of them was living the biggest lie.

The sky was paling when Craddock left and Marcus snuck into bed next to Esca, who’d come back to Marcus’s bed as if that was where he should have been all along. He’d spread out a bit and Marcus clung to the edge of the bed on his side, too tired and relieved to be uncomfortable.

 

When Marcus awoke, he kept his eyes closed, feeling he was being watched. He could hear a low scratching sound, though not the sound of fingernails on skin. It took a few moments to recognise what it actually was. Marcus rolled his eyes around behind his closed lids and licked his lips, flexing his shoulders back on a big inhale.

“Don’t move.”

“Can I open my eyes?”

“Yes.”

Esca was sitting cross-legged on the bed with his sketch pad on his lap, facing Marcus. His bare legs jutted out from beneath the soft expanse of the green sweatshirt. It was a beautiful sight; Esca looked relaxed.

Marcus was uncomfortable. “I need to take a leak.”

“Just a minute, all right?”

Marcus lay still, somewhat thankful his aching bladder had dampened any chances of a morning hard-on. He hadn’t exactly thought about that when he unintentionally gave Esca the impression that the bed-sharing was to be a permanent arrangement. Not that he was resentful. He liked having Esca close, even if it wasn’t as much as he wanted. And, in any case, he almost always wanked in the shower.

That was a bad move - to allow his line of thought to traverse in the direction of masturbation, because it was an easy extrapolation to muse on where, when and if, (oh seriously, if) Esca wanked. He was nineteen and not getting any action. Of course he wanked. Marcus felt a stirring in his groin.

“Okay, I’m done with you.” Esca looked amused. “Go, go. You look like you’re going to piss yourself.”

Marcus had to count to ten before his dick subsided enough he wouldn’t piss up the wall. After washing his hands, he decided to brush his teeth before going back to the bedroom.

Esca was still sitting on the bed when Marcus returned, rubbing over the paper with his forefinger. Marcus reclined on the spot where he’d been sleeping. He was more than curious to see the fruit of Esca’s labour, especially with Esca looking so ... intense. Marcus watched a while, enjoying the sight of Esca concentrating, before he asked, “Can I see it?”

Esca handed over the picture. Marcus blushed. “You’re really good. It’s fantastic.” So that was what he looked like when he was asleep; to Esca, at any rate.

“It would have been easier if you’d undressed last night. I prefer drawing skin.”

“You were hogging all the covers and most of the bed.”

Marcus didn’t think he’d made it sound like a gripe, but Esca quickly replied, “Did you want me to leave with Craddock?” It must have been on his mind a while for him to have brought it up virtually unprovoked.

“Honest answer?”

“Honest answer.”

“No.”

Esca looked happy about that, though not nearly as happy as Marcus felt inside. There were difficult times and untold danger ahead of them. It was worrying, terrifying, and yet, looking at the change in Esca after just two weeks, Marcus couldn’t have been more content.

 

The sun had decided to grace them with its presence and Marcus and Esca spent much of the day combing the beach. Marcus got to wear his shorts while Esca rolled up his jeans. Both of them got soaked to the skin anyway, kicking the waves and racing up the estuary frightening away the wading birds. They had to shake the wet sand from their clothes on the back patio upon their weary return.

Later, at the end of the day, while they were ensconced in front of the TV, Marcus got an email from Twist. Marcus tensed with anticipation and dread in equal measure.

It was time for them to go back to Exeter.

Chapter Text

 

If Marcus detached himself from the fundamental depravity of the business he was engaged in, which he did with fair regularity in order to preserve his sanity and remain objective in his goal, he might have been inclined to describe working for Twist as bordering on mundane. Twist, on the whole, liked to keep office hours and he liked everyone else to do the same. Except when the nature of the business necessitated some irregular hours, in which case he and his employees took time in lieu. That didn’t mean Twist was lazy – quite the opposite, in fact. There was no personal calling, emailing or internet browsing allowed in the ‘office’, no fraternising if you were in one of the clubs and no ‘stopping off for a couple of jars’ when you were on the road.

Marcus’s initial assessment, that Twist carried himself like a bank manager, was uncannily accurate. His second observation, that Twist knew how to handle himself, was evident in the fact that Marcus never had to see him prove it. When Twist said jump, his employees jumped. Marcus may have heard rumour that he was called Twist because he could break a man’s neck with one quick, deliberately administered twist, and he’d done so twice in Mad Harry’s recollection, if Mad Harry was to be believed. And Marcus was inclined to believe Mad Harry, despite his moniker; that apparently had nothing to do with his mental capacity, and everything to do with his penchant for Hawaiian shirts, and their complete incongruity with not-so-sunny Exeter.

With Marcus having spent the best part of the week going to the office, the following weekend came around with a Saturday sleep-in and a lazy breakfast. By the time Marcus had got as far as the bathroom, it was late morning. Esca was in the middle of composing an email on his new government-issued laptop, and Marcus was having a shave.

The thing with Esca, Marcus had come to realise in the week since they returned from Sussex, was that, on the whole, he didn’t want to talk about his past. Marcus couldn’t be sure if that was the residual effect of protecting his memories, the one and only thing he had of his family when he had been a slave, or whether that was essentially Esca, private and restrained. However, every now and again, when Marcus was least expecting it, Esca would reminisce with startling candour and it was always a shock and a gift. All Marcus had to do was open himself to the possibility and not interrupt when the moment presented itself.

Marcus usually tended to his ablutions with the bathroom door closed and frequently locked. For someone who had largely lived alone for ten years, this was a bizarre behavioural quirk and one that Esca was quick to notice.

Of course, Esca’s right to privacy had been snatched from him three years before, and it would have been completely understandable to Marcus if that had made him more protective of his ablutionary rights, once he was given a choice. Not so. Esca closed the door but he didn’t lock it, because, as he had pointed out to Marcus, the bathroom was without a window. Marcus suspected this was related to Esca’s fear of the dark. Esca took a piss with the door open, frequently brushed his teeth while walking in and out of the bathroom and around the flat. The couple of times a week he shaved, he often did that with the door open, too.

Today, for no particular reason, Marcus had left the door open, as Esca always did, and was applying shaving cream when Esca came and stood, hovering, in the doorway.

“Do you want to go?” Marcus tilted his head in the direction of the toilet.

“No.” Esca didn’t move; he was about to tell Marcus something, or he was going to ask him a question. The questions Esca asked since he found out Marcus was one of the ‘good guys’ were no less frequent than they had been before, but the tone and quality of the questions had changed. They were genuinely curious. And instead of asking Marcus about pivotal events and revealing facts, as he had before, Esca tended to ask about the little details of things, like he was adding subtle shading and light to a portrait of Marcus he’d already outlined in his head.

Marcus picked up the razor and scraped a stripe down past his right ear.

Esca asked, “Who taught you to shave?”

“My uncle.” Marcus hadn’t told Esca about his life after his mother’s death. He didn’t much care to recount it. To Esca, though, he offered, “I went to live with him and my aunt after my mother died, when I was eleven.”

“I learned by watching my Dad. I kept waiting and waiting to have something to shave off, until he got fed up of me pestering him and let me use the razor on my skin.”

Marcus gave Esca a sidelong glance in time to see Esca smiling. It was quite charming to see him when he looked fond, quite disarming, too. Marcus stuck his tongue in his right cheek and went to work on his soapy stubble while he waited for the rest of the story.

Esca obliged, in that quiet and serious tone he took when something was hard, as if he couldn’t reconcile the love and happiness of the recollection with the pain of loss. Marcus knew about grief and was pretty sure that Esca hadn’t allowed himself to work through his, or more likely hadn’t had the chance to contend with it until now. These moments were more than idle chat - they were Esca’s way of coming to terms with what he’d lost.

“He had to shave every day,” Esca said, “and sometimes twice if he was going out in the evening. He was so hairy: he had hair on his shoulders, like a werewolf or something.”

“You must take after your mother then?” Marcus asked, before rinsing the razor in the sink and starting on his left cheek.

“Yes, I do. Only I didn’t know that for sure until I hit puberty, which wasn’t until I was fifteen, almost sixteen. I was one of the last boys in my year at school. It was embarrassing – looking and sounding like a kid,” Esca sniggered, “while the likes of Kyle Gallagher were getting a blow-job a week.”

“That’s what he said, was it?” Marcus remembered those boys, bragging in the changing rooms after P.E. Everyone remembered those boys. Only the odd few would have been telling the truth; the rest were liars.

“Oh, it wasn’t just him saying it. And he didn’t limit himself to getting sucked off. He got Chelsie Phillips up the duff while we were still in Year 11. She got homeschooled once she started to show, but everyone said she’d have to come back to sit her exams in the summer, with her big pregnant belly.” Esca paused and added, in barely more than a whisper, “Of course, I didn’t get to finish, so I don’t know what happened.”

Marcus finished under his jaw and rinsed off. He was about to offer Esca a consoling hand, when Esca’s expression changed again, lifting up from where it had fallen.

Quite matter-of-factly, he said, “Helen Harris gave me a blow-job on my sixteenth birthday. Shame I was too drunk to remember it properly. It was the one and only time.”

“Helen was your girlfriend?”

“No, just a friend. We were drunk and being ... I don’t even know now ... I suppose we thought we were being daring and bohemian. I wasn’t in any hurry for anything serious with one person and she wasn’t interested in me as a boyfriend. I was a late starter, remember?” Esca looked up at Marcus and his brow furrowed somewhere between regret and amusement. “If I’d known I wasn’t going to get the chance again, I’d have been putting it about all over the place with whoever would’ve had me.”

Marcus laughed even while his heart sank a little. Esca liked girls. This was his way of telling Marcus gently and sweetly. It was so wrong that it made Marcus like him more. Ruefully, Marcus sluiced the sink, washing away soap and stubble and any hope of Esca becoming more than a friend. “I expect you could have had whoever you wanted.”

“No, I really couldn’t. Kyle was definitely only into girls.”

Marcus inhaled loud enough Esca must have heard it.

“I didn’t exactly like boys then, I mean, I wasn’t sure because I liked girls, too – I just fancied Kyle. By Year 11 he was like a grown man. He had hair on his balls before we left primary school.”

Esca was laughing as Marcus said, “Sounds like quite a catch.”

But Marcus was the only one of them blushing.

“No. He really wasn’t. I wasn’t sure what or who I liked and with him it was a crush, that’s all. I suppose everyone secretly wants to be liked by the popular kid, even if the popular kid is rubbish.”

“You felt that if someone like him noticed you, it would make you more popular by default?”

“I suppose, something like that. Well, I haven’t had much chance to find out but I’m sure there are plenty of better men than him.” Esca was quiet for a while. Marcus could almost hear the cogs turning, winding their way up; there was a building tension in the air between them. He held his breath, not wanting the sound of his nervous exhale to cause Esca to falter.

Esca risked a smile. “Anyway, I was only saying ... because I didn’t want you to think I’m freaked out by you liking men ... by you liking me ... if you do.” Esca had gone ten shades darker than scarlet, leaning against the doorframe and using his toe to annoy a loose woollen thread that was sticking out of the end of the carpet gripper. “I mean, not even nearly freaked out, I ... you know ... it’s nice.”

Given it took Marcus a few seconds to digest what Esca had said, he was unable to respond before Esca had made his escape back to the living room.

Marcus should have loosened his grip on the sink, splashed cold water on his face and gone to the bedroom to put on a t-shirt. But Marcus was increasingly incapable of doing what he should as far as Esca was concerned and this time was no exception.

Marcus clung to the wall outside the bathroom while Esca crouched on the sofa, hugging his knees. He looked at Marcus then quickly looked away, out of the window; his foot tapped up and down, faster than a raging heartbeat.

Even though he was fairly certain Esca had said he liked Marcus, Marcus wasn’t quite confident enough to out and out ask Esca if that meant he wanted something more to happen between them. Instead, Marcus was going to make an attempt at subtlety. There was a risk that it might come over as juvenile and clumsy, or Esca wasn’t going to get his drift at all. Either way, Marcus was under no illusion he had the slightest capability when it came to seduction. But if Esca was interested, he would forgive him, and if he wasn’t interested, Marcus hoped he’d still forgive him.

With his best effort at calm and collected, Marcus asked, “When’s your birthday?”

“November 12th.”

“Ah.” Marcus was determined not to regret this, no matter what Esca’s response. “I feel bad – you probably haven’t had a birthday present for three years. I’d like to do something for you, to make up for the ones you missed out on.”

Esca perked up, loosened his hold on his legs. “Did you have something in mind?”

“I thought I’d leave it up to you. I’m not very good at surprises. But, um, you tell me want you want and I’ll see what I can do.”

Tilting his chin up, Esca nodded. “Can I have a minute to think about it?”

“Sure. Take as long as you need.” As an afterthought, Marcus added, “I’ll be in the bedroom,” which was the stupidest thing to say in a flat that was hardly big enough to swing a cat in.

Marcus hurried to the bedroom and fumbled around in a drawer for a t-shirt, unable to find anything he liked. He couldn’t tell if it was the warmth of the early May sunshine pouring in through the bedroom window, or the rampant swarm of butterflies trying to free themselves from his stomach, that had him breaking out in a sweat. Whichever it was, Marcus was diverted from looking for a top by this sudden feverishness; he went to the window and twisted the rod on the blind until the slats pointed upwards, casting the room in grey shade.

Next, Marcus went back to the drawer and pulled out two t-shirts just as Esca ambled into the bedroom, his fingers slotted into the tops of his jeans front pockets. If Esca asked Marcus for a book token, Marcus vowed he would never, ever mention his interest in him again. Nor would he ever, ever again stray from simply asking a potential love-interest out to dinner.

“I prefer the blue t-shirt, with the collar. The red one’s all right but you look better in the blue one.” Esca came closer and pointed to the t-shirt in question just in case, he supposed, Marcus had by some fluke, in that instant, found himself unexpectedly colour blind. Pulling his hand back and wrapping his arms around himself, Esca continued, “I thought of something you could do for me, for my birthday. And I was wondering, if you wouldn’t mind ... you could do it right now.”

Not a book token then. “Fire away.”

“Two things.” Esca took a step closer. He looked up at Marcus, his face mere inches away, his eyes darting, blinking. He lifted his hands out in front of himself, flexing his fingers, and after swallowing hard, moved them slowly, tentatively, placing one on each side of Marcus’s waist. They were breathing the same air, their chests heaving into the same space, as Esca said low and hesitant, “Don’t put your shirt on.”

Marcus had to tell himself to nod, to speak. “And the second?”

“I was hoping we’d work that one out as we went along.” Esca looked down for a second.

Marcus took Esca’s jaw in his hand and tilted it up, leaning down enough for his lips to meet Esca’s. The kiss he placed on Esca’s mouth was slow and cautious, more breath than skin.

In return, Esca pushed forward and kissed back, hard and urgent, up into Marcus’s mouth, his hands sweeping over the bare skin of Marcus’s sides and chest. Marcus shivered with heat, bringing Esca closer with one arm around his waist, the other holding Esca’s head in place. It was all teeth and tongue and spit; hurried gasps for breath. It was perfect.

Marcus wanted to feel Esca’s skin with his hands as Esca was feeling his. Without breaking contact with his face, Marcus glided his hands over Esca’s shirt, seeking out the hem and ducking his fingers underneath. When he reached the warm, smooth skin of Esca’s back, Esca let out a high gasp in the back of his throat and held onto Marcus tighter, as if he was trying to climb him.

Needing no further encouragement, Marcus embraced Esca firmly enough he could have picked him up, and walked him in baby steps backwards to the bed. When they reached the edge with a bump, Marcus spread his stance, put an arm beneath Esca’s hips and half lifted, half pushed him, onto the bed. Esca went willingly, scrabbling up and back with his hands and feet, falling onto his back as Marcus slotted close next to him on his side.

Marcus surveyed Esca lying supine, his chest heaving, a flash of pink splashed over his cheekbones and an unmistakeable erection bulging from the loose denim of his jeans. One part of Marcus’s mind urged him to take it slow, slow, slow, while another screeched, now, now, now, all of it now. Not that it was his choice. Esca needed to set the pace, to be in control.

Esca pulled Marcus half over him, kissing him on his mouth, his face and neck. Marcus slid a leg between Esca’s thighs and together, pressed close, they shared their heartbeats and their heat.

Marcus remembered this, lingering minutes stretching to hours of grinding and kissing, from a long time ago. He’d forgotten how good it felt, to have someone close, too close for their face to be anything but a blur; to be able read how they felt by the speed and depth of their breath. Esca’s entire body pulsed against Marcus’s, a bare foot rubbing against Marcus’s calf, his fingers gripping Marcus’s head. His actions telling Marcus to stay like this, to stay close.

Esca’s body was firm, compact and every single move he made, no matter how small, was discernable against Marcus’s body, beneath his fingers, beneath his lips. Every sound Esca made, from his breathing to the tiny, throaty gasps and whimpers, as Marcus skimmed his nipple under his shirt, nipped at his neck and pushed against his crotch, was like sending a jolt of electricity straight to Marcus’s cock. It had been a long, long time since he was this turned on.

He should have waited for permission, but Marcus wanted to see Esca coming undone and couldn’t stop himself from urging things along. “Take your shirt off?”

Esca nodded and undid his buttons while Marcus skimmed his hand over the ripples of Esca’s taut stomach muscles and the bumps of his ribs, kissing at his jaw, breathing hot and wanting onto his shoulder. Esca was flushed all the way up his neck and over the top of his chest; Marcus wanted to feel Esca’s arousal, to know for certain whether Esca was as hard as he was: bulging and throbbing in his underwear, his erection pressing out against the thick denim of his jeans.

When Esca sat up to take off his shirt, Marcus ran his palm up Esca’s back. He was clammy with sweat and as he turned Marcus shook his head and smiled.

“What?”

“Nothing.” Marcus bit his tongue against saying something cheesy like, ‘just admiring the view’. Esca looked unsure; Marcus pulled him back down. “Come here.”

With Esca’s bare chest against his, soft, warm skin against skin, Marcus kissed Esca again. Esca responded without hesitation. He pulled at the belt loops on Marcus’s jeans and rolled his hips rhythmically, the hard line of his cock pressing against Marcus’s side. Esca’s jeans were loose enough it was easy for Marcus to slide his hand inside the back, to squeeze the tensing flesh of his backside, encouraging him.

Kisses gave way to breathy moans into Marcus’s neck as Esca reached behind and grasped Marcus’s wrist, guiding his palm to the front of Esca’s jeans. Ah. Marcus knew what Esca wanted. With some wriggling and grappling, Marcus had Esca on his back, jeans undone, and was putting his hand down the front of Esca’s boxers. The instant Marcus slid his fingers over the silky skin of Esca’s cock and nudged and cupped his balls, Esca nearly bucked off the bed. His fingers dug into Marcus’s shoulders and he squeezed his eyes shut.

Marcus loved it, loved watching Esca enjoying his touch, and he wasn’t going to stop now. He wanted to see Esca climb up and up and let it go. Esca’s cock was damp, the tip slick. Marcus pulled down the front of Esca’s boxers enough to free his erection, taking it in the firm circle of his fist. He rubbed slow for a few strokes and greedily watched Esca biting his bottom lip. Spurred on and thrilled, Marcus sped up, stripping the head of Esca’s cock. As he did so, for a few seconds it seemed like Esca had stopped breathing. Then Esca frowned, his lips parted and silently he came - thick white spurts of semen splashing over his stomach and dripping down his cock onto Marcus’s fist.

“Shit. Oh shit.” Esca batted Marcus’s fist away and looked down at himself before letting his head drop back onto the bed. He took a few deep breaths as Marcus kissed his temple and draped an arm over Esca’s chest.

It had been nothing short of brilliant, seeing Esca coming - only Esca didn’t seem very happy. He pushed Marcus’s arm aside and sat up, wiping off his come with his discarded shirt and tucking himself away.

Marcus put his hand on Esca’s back. “Esca? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“Yes. Something.”

“I ... I wanted to last longer, that’s all.” He didn’t turn around. His head hung down and he’d wrapped his arms around his knees.

Marcus couldn’t help sniggering despite how despondent Esca seemed. “Oh please. At your age you’ll be ready to go again in what, maybe ten minutes? Half an hour tops?”

“Again?” Esca ventured a look over his shoulder. “You mean this wasn’t ... a one-off? Like on my sixteenth birthday?”

“Oh no, no. You thought this was ... why would you even think ... oh God.” Well, Marcus had said he would do something for Esca’s birthday. He let out a groan. “I am so crap at this sort of thing.”

“I thought this was you ... I don’t know, feeling sorry for me.” Esca turned away again and talked into his lap. “I’m well aware that fancying someone doesn’t mean you’d actually follow through when given the chance, especially when you know they’re completely fucked up. You’re a decent bloke – I know you wouldn’t take advantage, but when you made an offer like that ...” Marcus’s legs were stretched out in front of him, at Esca’s side. Esca ran his hand over Marcus’s calf and added, “I thought about saying no, but I thought if ... I wanted this for myself even if I only got to have it once.”

Marcus grabbed at Esca’s shoulder, reining in the temptation to shake some sense into him. “You have this all wrong.” Marcus felt Esca cringe away from him but he put a steadying hand on Esca’s back and pressed on, all thoughts of his own anxiety about laying his feelings bare cast to one side. “You thought I did this because I was feeling sorry for you? Why the hell would you think that? I thought I made it clear how I feel about you, and the way you’ve survived through everything you’ve been through makes me like you, respect you and care about you more, not less.”

Marcus had to pause to get his thoughts in order. He didn’t want to leave out anything. “If our circumstances had been different, I would have done things right. Well, I would have asked you out for a drink or something. Not that I would expect someone like you to notice someone like me, ordinarily.” Marcus inhaled deeply and kept going as Esca slowly turned and watched him – all serious eyes and straight-mouthed. “I know I can’t expect anything from you. I know you’ll want a chance to sort your life out after all this is over. I expect you’re going to want to try and meet someone your own age and after everything I put you through ...” Marcus could feel himself getting distraught, his throat tightening. There was no point in pretending this was any more than the result of the two of them being thrown together – that didn’t mean he couldn’t want it to be more. “What we do here and now, it is what it is. You don’t have to feel like it’s a long-term commitment but I want whatever you’re ready to give. Please don’t think you don’t deserve me, of all people.”

Esca sort of smiled, almost, and said, “Marcus?”

“What?”

“Shut up, you idiot,” as he pushed Marcus onto his back and unzipped his jeans.

 

Later, in the night-darkness, they lay in bed; the narrow space that had previously delineated the boundless distance between them closed at last.

Esca spoke in his quiet, unhurried way. “I’ve seen a lot of terrible things. Sometimes, when I’m here by myself, I have to remind myself it really happened; that I didn’t dream it. I have the scars to prove it, and nightmares sometimes.

“When you took me and you were kind, I couldn’t trust it – the people I’d been with used a lot of tricks to get what they wanted. I knew it could go on for weeks, maybe months and one day, bam, I’d get taken by surprise. Only, you always seemed so upset by everything, I mean, in your eyes. I thought you had to be a really good liar or you really did hate what you were doing. Then you’d go out to work and I was sure I was only thinking that because I wanted to believe you weren’t out to hurt me, and I had to be on my guard. With that, and thinking about Maeve and how I’d lost her, and Mum and Dad, it’s been ... I’ve felt like it’s hard to just breathe in and out some days.”

Marcus kissed the top of Esca’s head. “I’m sorry.”

“I know you are. And I know you didn’t have many other options. But the truth is, I don’t feel like I can trust myself at the moment, my feelings. Half the time, when I’m not feeling nothing, like I’ve just switched off from being alive, I feel like I need to tear someone’s face off. It’s better when you’re around, except I know you have your own stuff to deal with and I don’t want to add to it.”

Esca shifted; the twitching tension in his body saying much more than his words.

“You’re not a burden: quite the opposite. I’ve been selfish, keeping you here. I should have sent you back with Craddock. You need to be talking with someone --”

“I’m talking to you.”

“I meant a professional.”

“I don’t want to talk to anyone else. Craddock offered. He said they could get someone to Skype with me on the laptop.”

Esca hadn’t told Marcus that before. He wondered what else Craddock and Esca had been talking about and had to check himself for being childish.

Marcus ran his hand up and down Esca’s back, soothing him. “If you change your mind, let him know. Maybe you’re not ready yet, but in a day, a week, you might be.”

There was a long lull in which Marcus thought Esca might be falling asleep. Then, out of what had seemed like a stretch of serene silence, Esca said, “I killed that man, in the cage. I could get sent to prison.”

Marcus hadn’t spared a thought to that line of thinking. His focus had been on all the criminals and trying to find enough evidence to convict them of something, anything; to get them put away and serving time. He hadn’t dwelled for a moment on what Esca perceived as a crime.

“Esca, you were acting in self-defence, under duress. There’s no proof that your knife wound killed him and I expect, if he was disposed of as the other slaves are, no one knows who he was, or what happened to his body. It’s wrong and tragic that the two of you were forced into the cage and that you had to hurt him, but there’s nothing to convict you of. Don’t waste another second worrying about that - you didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I still think about it.” Esca’s sad sigh was a gust of warm air across Marcus’s chest. “I think about all the people I hurt.”

“Me too. I mean, I think about all the men I’ve captured, all the ones I couldn’t save. But we’re putting it right, both of us.”

There was so much hurt; so much pain. Yet in the darkness, when Esca’s mouth caressed Marcus’s skin, kissing across his chest and shoulder, breathing hotly into his mouth, there was a sustaining measure of reprieve. It wasn’t going to last, it couldn’t, but it might see them to a peaceful sleep, and right now, that was all they could hope for.

 

In the couple of weeks that followed, Marcus learned the ins and outs of the New Blood operation. It was quite a different atmosphere to the tension and edginess of Reaping. Most of the players in this outfit made almost no contact with ‘the cargo’; they were detached from the human tragedy so effectively, Marcus could see how they easily forgot their culpability in the atrocious crimes they were committing. And he had little doubt that the money was good enough to ease away the pain of any possible trace of guilt.

Marcus was in the office: a couple of rooms below a nightclub in the city that could only be accessed through a secret passageway. It was clandestine, very dark on the way in, and a bit damp despite the dehumidifier that whirred constantly in the background. It was a far cry from the corner office Marcus used to command above Brett’s Steakhouse and, though this placement might have been a move up on the slaving career ladder, it was a physical move down, to the belly of the underworld.

For most of the men involved in slave-trading, it was a part-time job. Most had legitimate jobs, or more usually businesses, to supplement the irregularity of their income and to act as fronts to divert the prying eye of the Inland Revenue. That occasionally meant there was a conflict in schedule that Marcus could play to his advantage. As far as his counterparts were concerned, Marcus made money playing the stock market, which he could fit easily around his slaving schedule. He was single and didn’t bother with the distraction of drugs or women, because he had his own boy sex-slave tied up at home. Twist appeared to admire Marcus’s life-choices, as did Carter, who was currently in the office with Marcus, labouring and groaning over a spreadsheet and a pile of papers.

“Do you want some help?” Marcus offered, seizing the potential chance to glean more information.

“I’d love some help. Turns out those wankers, Roberts and Smith, added another forty units to the cargo. So, muggins here has to find a home for them and I’ve got two weeks. There’s a list of buyers that might be interested, here, and a list of units with their specifics. If you could try matching goods to buyers, I’ll make contact.”

Carter was, like Twist, an ordinary-looking man with a cheery disposition. He wore a polo shirt and chinos and looked like he spent his weekends on a sun bed. He was the nearest thing Marcus got to sunshine down in the basement, underneath the drug-deals and dirty money that changed hands a floor above. Nonetheless, he was no better than the rest of them. The dehumanising words ‘unit’, ‘cargo’ and ‘goods’ stuck in Marcus’s throat every time he had to say them.

Marcus looked down at the list of extra people. There were no names or photos. The New Bloods worked with numbers and that suited everyone in the supply chain. It wasn’t for lack of information or the technology to provide it, more that it was expedient, and the buyers and sellers of the slaves didn’t give a shit who these people were as long as they got what they were paying for.

The people being sold wouldn’t be reported missing because most of them had come willingly, having scratched together their life’s savings, or their family’s life savings, to pay the fare to come to England for work and a better life. Goodness knows what lies they were fed, but there never seemed to be any shortage of takers. Once they were on the boat, in conditions that wouldn’t meet the standard for the transportation of EU livestock, let alone the passage of fare-paying customers, it was too late for them to protest. They were invariably told that the exorbitant fee they’d paid their so called ‘agent’ wasn’t enough to cover any more than their ‘visa’ and that they would owe the agent their transportation costs when they reached the UK.

Once these trapped people arrived in the UK they were told they were unqualified for any work other than that provided by their buyers. Their earnings paid for their food, accommodation, and their debt plus interest. It went without saying, the debt was never repaid and there was no way out of the life they had inadvertently landed themselves in.

The paper Marcus was scanning was nothing more than a chart of columns of numbers: the essence of real human beings condensed to five or six alphanumeric symbols. Alongside a listing number were the personal details for each of the enslaved people. The first line on the paper Marcus was looking at said, 104: F/22/48/1.55/+Eng/8 which meant female, age twenty-two years, weight forty-eight kilograms, height one metre fifty-five centimetres and, in addition to Thai, she spoke some English. The very last number was Smith’s own ‘assessment’ of the attractiveness or ‘fightability’ of the woman or man, with a score from one to ten. For those with even a modicum of English, it could be a blessing or a curse. Some of the English speakers, if they had the right look, could end up as domestic servants, bogus ‘wives’, and once they were in private households they were lost forever. It was going to be a depressing task, taking that list of extra people and matching numbers to potential buyers.

Carter, however, having been able to offload some of his work to Marcus was feeling chatty. “Twist thinks very highly of you, Centurion.”

“He does?”

“Yeah. He likes the way you carry yourself; that you don’t give a shit what anyone thinks about you - that’s the first thing. He sees it as a mark of confidence. And that sex-slave you’ve got. We’re a right bunch of perverts, us lot that work here, otherwise we wouldn’t stomach it. Twist, he does all his kinky business with a pro over in Barnstaple. I don’t ask and he don’t tell, but I know when he’s been to see her from the marks on his neck. Me, I’m married and I love me wife. That don’t mean I don’t wish I didn’t have to listen to her yacking me ear off of an evening. Sometimes it’d be nice to get me cock sucked without having to negotiate for it. I can see you’re a man who don’t care for too much conversation, but I bet your little fella does exactly as he’s told and no fussing.”

Marcus, in another time and another place, might have found what Carter had said about Esca amusing. He smiled, and said, “I’m a private person, Carter, and I’m glad you and Twist and the others respect that. But I’d have you know I’m not a violent man when there is no need for it, and I don’t get off on pain, whether it’s receiving or inflicting it.” Marcus added with a pointed look, “I have much more subtle ways of being persuasive.”

“So he’s still in good nick then? I mean, you ain’t looking down that list and thinking about going shopping for a replacement?”

“If you saw him you wouldn’t find a blemish on him, except the scars he got when he was a fighter. And I’m nowhere near tired of him yet.” Marcus said the words with as much smug pride as he could muster, and for no other reason than weariness.

“Well, good on yer, mate, that’s what I say. Looks like we’ll be doing overtime on that lot, then.” Carter smirked, eyeing the list, and took the bottom sheet from the pile back from Marcus.

Marcus assumed that was his welcome to the fold. He shuddered.

There were, in actual fact, over one-hundred-and-forty slaves on the ship bound for Ipswich. Marcus would be making his way over there in a couple of weeks to meet the drivers and ostensibly start on the distribution of the human cargo to their final destinations. By the time Marcus got to them, they would have been in a boarding house for a few days, where they would have been washed, fed and looked over by a ‘doctor’. It gave most of the slaves, according to Twist, the false sense of security that they’d landed in bona fide half-way accommodation and that they were finally on their way to better things. That Marcus, and his reputation for handling ‘the goods’ with care, would in fact exacerbate their misguided notion that they were in safe hands didn’t escape his notice. But he couldn’t be party to more harm than was already being done.

By six o’clock, Marcus was eager to leave the office and Carter was the same. They locked up and headed out together, into a sun-hazy early evening, out into the car park at the back of Sinatra’s nightclub. A long stretch of the street at the front of the club was lined with shops and small businesses. As Marcus pulled out he noticed the fish and chip shop had a queue outside; it was Friday after all. The roads were filling up with normal people going home to their normal lives and, sitting in a line of traffic, Marcus could almost pretend he was one of them. To that end, he called ahead to the curry house on Alma Road in order to pick up dinner on the way home. Esca loved spicy food.

Climbing the stairs up to his front door, Marcus stepped lightly, excited to be home, to enjoy an evening in. Of course, if Esca wanted to go out, to the cinema or for a walk, he was up for that, too.

When Marcus got into the flat, Esca looked sheepish. He kissed Marcus and took the food but Marcus wasn’t fooled.

“What’s the matter?” Marcus crept up behind Esca, wrapped his arms around his slender waist and put his chin on Esca’s shoulder.

Esca tensed. “Nothing. You need to call Craddock. He’s got some important information for you.”

Marcus’s stomach flipped and his heart stuttered. “It’s party time, isn’t it?”

Esca nodded.

Marcus spun Esca around and held him tight. “It’s going to be all right. Don’t you worry.”

Esca looked away and Marcus couldn’t help but see sorrow and anxiety falling over Esca’s face. He tried kissing it away, smoothing his hands over Esca’s back, but Esca pulled away.

“Call him, Marcus. And promise me you won’t lose your temper. Please.”

“I’ll call him but I’m not making any promises. Not when you’re looking at me like that.”

Marcus’s appetite fled as butterflies filled his stomach. Something wasn’t right about this. It was clear from the look on his face that Esca wasn’t going to tell him, was too nervous to tell him. Instead, Marcus picked up his Met phone from where he left it these days, on the kitchen counter, and slumped down on the sofa.

Craddock picked up before the end of the first ring.

Marcus didn’t dwell on the niceties of asking how Craddock was, and didn’t care to be asked the same. He was deliberately abrupt. “What’s going on?”

“It’s time. Everything is in place for the final sting. We just need some audio and visual and we’ll be good to go. We have intel that the General is having a party in three weeks time, and we want you to go in with a wire.”

“You know that’s impossible. The minders scan you before you’ve got past the front door.”

The hairs on the back of Marcus’s neck stood on end.

“Yes, but we have a way around that. I’ve discussed it with him and he’s already agreed.” Marcus could hear Craddock breathing heavy and uncertain before he added, “You’re going to take Esca.”

Chapter Text


 

There was a moment of stunned, silent shock, before anger coursed through Marcus like fire in his veins. Esca had rushed over and was kneeling on the floor in front of Marcus, his face beseeching. Marcus grasped Esca’s jaw and ran his thumb over his lips, as if that could wipe away every word Esca had said to Craddock.

Marcus snarled, “Have you lost your mind, James? Esca is a civilian, he has no training in undercover work and he’s suffering from post-traumatic stress. You have no right to ask him to participate in anything that could put his life at risk. You know as well as I do that, regardless of what he’s agreed to, he’s in no fit state to make that kind of decision.”

Marcus shook his head at Esca, silently pleading with him to give it up, to take back whatever he’d agreed to with Craddock. But Esca only wrapped his fingers around Marcus’s wrist and turned his face in to kiss the skin over the worried veins of his pulse-point. He mouthed to Marcus, “Please. Listen to him.”

On the end of the phone, Craddock said, “Hear me out, talk to Esca, then we’ll make a final decision. But don’t baby him because you’re in love, Marcus. He’s tougher than both of us put together.”

Marcus could have crushed the phone with his bare hand. He ground out the words, “This had better be absolutely fucking water-tight.”

“It is. It will be.” Craddock went on, “While you’ve been out working, Esca has had time to do a lot of thinking of his own. We’ve talked about his father’s business, and a bit about the place he was housed as a fighter. It’s all useful and essential to build a case against Augustus.”

“Oh, so now you’re telling me not to worry – you won’t let any harm come to him because you need him as a witness?”

“Don’t put words in my mouth. You know these cases are never won on a single damning piece of evidence. These men are too slippery for that. The more evidence we have, the stronger our overall case and the more likely we are to secure a lasting conviction, and find and eradicate the illicit businesses that these two have scattered over more than half the country.”

Esca had moved, sidled up to Marcus, and was fiddling with the cuff of Marcus’s shirt sleeve. Marcus was furious with the both of them, plotting behind his back. It might be immature, in the whole scheme of things, to feel that way: this operation was far bigger than his role and certainly had nothing to do with his personal relationships. But he couldn’t help feeling betrayed.

Craddock continued, “If we can get anything on tape, on camera, of the inside of the General’s mansion, such as who’s at the party, what’s said, anything at all; it could be enough to seal this case.”

“But you have enough to proceed without us going in?”

“According to the CPS, we might have to settle for money laundering and tax evasion based on what we have at the moment. The owners of the clubs, the brothels and the fight clubs - they could be up for harsher convictions, and it’s possible we may be able to nail a few of the fight-slave owners. But we’re reliably informed this party could well be attended by a number of key players. If we can identify them in the same place at the same time, it could irrefutably associate one or more criminal with another, which adds weight to the prosecution of the General and Augustus.” Craddock paused and sighed. “I want them done for murder; I want justice done for all the lives they’ve stolen, and so does Esca.”

Marcus looked at Esca looking up at him, awaiting Marcus’s decision. Marcus slid his arm around Esca’s shoulders and kissed his temple before saying to Craddock, “If, and I mean if I agree to go in with Esca, assuming I can get an invitation in the first place, how do you propose we obtain this audiovisual evidence? We’ll be swept at the door and anything with a radio signal will be confiscated.”

“Esca told me that he came to you with a collar.”

“Yes, it’s in my safe.”

“We think we can rewire it and insert a camera. With it on around his neck, everything he sees and hears, we’ll be able to see and hear, too. We’ll be a safe distance away, recording everything. Oh, and Esca said you still have the GPS tracker. We were thinking we should reinsert that, so that we can locate you in the building, if necessary.”

“No.” Marcus would never budge on that. “You are not putting that chip back inside him. If you’re paying attention you can locate us based on what you’re seeing with the camera. You’ve got a blue-print of the house?”

“Yes, we have a blue-print.”

Marcus hoped the Met team had played this out properly, had considered the plethora of possible eventualities in a situation like this. “How am I going to get us past the front door, with a radio signal blaring out of the collar?”

“You’ll have full control. We’ll rig it so that when you switch off the control box, it switches off everything. When you turn it off, there’ll be no radio signal from your box or the collar. Security will think that the radio signal it emits when you switch it on is simply the signal between your controller and the collar, and not from the collar to us.”

Marcus wasn’t convinced. As far as he was aware, the General didn’t allow any electronic devices over his threshold, such as phones: anything which had the capability to take photographs or relay secret information in situ, which quite possibly included slave collars. What if Marcus was told to check Esca’s collar, along with his phone and gun? It would render the whole mission pointless, while also putting them in unnecessary danger. Then there was the question of the collar’s original purpose.

Tilting the phone so that Esca could hear Craddock’s reply, Marcus asked, “What about the electric shock the collar gives the wearer when the collar is more than ten feet from the control box?”

“We’ll keep that working but with a dampener. We don’t want Esca to forget that he has to react if you’re separated, but obviously we don’t want to send him into convulsions. On the highest setting it’ll hurt, but not enough to disable his movement. He’ll have to fake that, should it get activated.”

They’d thought of everything, apparently, yet Marcus wasn’t reassured. He’d rather risk going in by himself, though there was no feasible way to do that and secure the evidence Craddock needed. Taking Esca was a dreadful proposition - and the only option available under the circumstances. Of all the possible scenarios Marcus had played out in his head over the long months of his undercover assignment, he couldn’t have imagined in his worst nightmares this would be the lucky break Craddock had been waiting for.

Esca kept trying to catch Marcus’s eye – presumably to assuage Marcus’s anger towards Craddock. Marcus ignored him.

Despite his revulsion, Marcus tried thinking it through, step by step. What it would be like with Esca a step behind him, collared and enslaved; how humiliating it would be, being gawped at and demeaned by people Marcus hated? Never mind whether Esca could handle it: the bigger question was, could Marcus?

Craddock was waiting for him to say something. At last, Marcus said, “All you want us to do is walk in, socialise for a couple of hours then walk out? Nothing more?”

“Nothing more.”

“And what happens if, for some reason, it goes belly up?”

“I’ll have some contingency on stand-by – maybe a power cut or something to give you a chance to get out.”

“I still think it’s too risky.”

“Think about it some more. Don’t give me your answer for a couple of days.”

Craddock was beginning to sound tetchy and that tipped the limit of how much Marcus could stand to hear before he seriously thought about putting his fist through a wall. He wanted to make it absolutely clear how much he abhorred this idea and that he held Craddock entirely responsible should anything go wrong.

Marcus lowered his voice and said, full of contempt, “Just so you know - I hate you, James. If we go ahead and anything happens to Esca, I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you myself.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Craddock managed to say, before Marcus hung up.

Marcus slung the phone onto the floor, reining in the temptation to hurl it across the room.

Esca captured Marcus’s jaw and pleaded, “I know you’re scared for me, and I know it’s going to be dangerous. But don’t you see? I need to do this.”

“No, you don’t. If you ...” Marcus couldn’t say the words, couldn’t allow himself to imagine Esca being recaptured, tortured; killed. The possibility that Marcus could also suffer the same fate if they were found out was a secondary concern. All this time, Marcus had been able to promise Esca he would keep him safe. Taking Esca to the General’s home, subjecting him to the company of those sadists, flew in the face of all Marcus’s work and worry of the past few weeks.

Marcus knew it was wrong, to play on Esca’s emotions, but he had nothing else to use to dissuade him. “You need to survive, for all the ones that didn’t. And I can’t risk losing you.”

Esca was undeterred. “Then we’d better make sure we do it right.” He slid up and over onto Marcus’s lap, straddling his thighs and carding his fingers through Marcus’s hair. His kisses were feather-light and chased with soft whispers of assurance. “You’re the best undercover man they have, Marcus. Craddock can’t afford to lose you or me. If anyone can pull this off, it’s us.”

Marcus didn’t agree. Craddock could easily proceed without either of them, in some shape or form. Esca was brave and clever; he wasn’t wise to the lengths the so-called good guys would go to in a case like this, where playing by the rules was unlikely to work.

“I’m not agreeing to anything, not yet,” Marcus said against the rub of Esca’s cheek.

“I know.”

Esca ground his hips down and closed the remaining space between them.

The food was neglected as Marcus placed an arm under Esca’s hips, the other around his body, and got to his feet. Esca wrapped his legs around Marcus’s waist and his arms around his neck. They didn’t break their kiss until Marcus had walked the dozen steps from the sofa to the bedroom and laid Esca on the bed. Mouthing hot, insistent kisses to Esca’s neck, Marcus pulled at his shirt and sought out Esca’s bare skin.

“I want you inside me,” Esca breathed into Marcus’s ear.

“And I want you safe.”

Esca grabbed the back of the collar of Marcus’s shirt and pulled him away from his face. “Not now, let’s not talk about it now.” Beneath Marcus, Esca was breathing ragged-sharp.

Marcus closed his eyes from Esca’s face. “I’m sorry. I’m scared, that’s all.”

“I know you are. But I was scared every minute of every day for so long. In the end, I thought I was forgetting how to feel anything else, like all the doors had been closed to any other emotions.” Esca pushed at Marcus’s clothes, arching up into his embrace. “You set me free. I won’t do anything to risk losing it again, I promise.” Esca squeezed his legs tighter and Marcus could feel him hard against his hip. “I want you, Marcus. Please.”

How could he make Esca plead for something he already wanted to give him willingly, with all his heart? Marcus kissed and caressed his reply, slowly peeling away layer after layer of fabric and fear until they were both bare and breathing hard, the outside world forgotten for too few precious hours.

 

Day by day, Marcus felt a growing desolation.

With reluctance, he’d acquiesced and agreed to take Esca to the General’s party, knowing he would probably be ordered to do so, whether he liked it or not.

A fortnight later, Marcus had to deliver the people from Thailand with no intervention from any of the authorities. With the raid on the General’s fight-slave boarding house in Exeter, they didn’t want to raise further suspicion by intercepting this mixed cargo of human slaves. Marcus didn’t have a say in when or how the law would intervene with the crimes he witnessed and participated in. He was merely the deliverer and receiver of messages and, increasingly, all the news was bad.

The day after he took the last of the Thai women to a string of brothels in Weymouth, the slave collar was delivered to Marcus’s PO Box; on the same day he received an official invitation, by email, to the General’s fiftieth birthday party. Marcus thought the General looked older than fifty. But when he looked in the mirror, Marcus didn’t think he’d pass for thirty, and that auspicious birthday was well over a year away. This line of work piled on the years, stripped off the pounds and had peppered with grey, what used to be a flawless head of gleaming, dark brown hair.

Night after night, Marcus and Esca rehearsed the best way to play their parts: What they would do should they need to escape: How they should react to the inevitable slurs Marcus would receive, and the possible abuse the guests might see fit to try to inflict upon Esca. It would be easy for Marcus to be protective, but to be protective of his property, to detach himself sufficiently to see Esca only as an object? They both of them knew that Esca was far better at disguising his emotions than Marcus and had to hope, with luck, that might be sufficient for them to pull this off.

They walked the floor of the flat, using the collar, testing out the settings, while Esca pretended to convulse and thrash as Marcus turned up the dial on the electrical current. During these sessions, Esca made something of a joke of it, writhing about on the floor. But Marcus’s hands trembled and his back prickled with sweat. He was back to drinking Scotch at night to sleep and he’d started pulling his belt a hole further in to hold up his trousers.

The New Blood team had earned some time off to relax. However, not one thing about Marcus’ hiatus was relaxing except for Esca’s sighs in the dead of night, though even that sweet sound filled Marcus with sorrow.

 

It was a bright, sunny evening in late May, when Marcus and Esca donned formal shirts and trousers and prepared for what they hoped would be a night of damnation for the General and his gang.

Marcus wore a light, linen jacket to hide the gun in his belt and to carry his phone and the control box for the collar. It was the size of a mobile phone, but thicker and heavier, and it weighed in his pocket like a millstone.

Before they left the flat, Marcus once again smoothed his fingers over the polished silvery white collar around Esca’s neck. He felt the rivets on the hinge at the front where it closed and where a miniscule fibre-optic cable looked out upon the world in front of Esca. They’d practiced that, too - making sure Esca knew how to position his body to obtain the most useful footage. What Esca saw, so would Craddock, and the rest of the team, out in a van watching from a safe distance away.

The General’s mansion was nestled in an area of wooded hills, surrounded by equally opulent and secluded properties. None of the country houses in the vicinity sat on less than ten acres, and not a single one was visible from the road. The General’s gated driveway curved through a leafy tunnel of trees and terminated on an expanse of gravel that swept out like a fan in front of the sandstone facade of the old house.

It was past eight when Marcus pulled in and there were already more than two dozen smart, shiny cars lined up in neat rows, as directed by one of the minders. Marcus recognised the man ushering him with a flourish to the next space, though he couldn’t remember his name. Marcus gave him a friendly wave, nonetheless, and parked deliberately on the end of the penultimate row with one tyre on the grass. The minder didn’t object, which was the first hurdle out of the way. Their transport out was in a prime position; if they had to leave fast they had a clear path.

“You look good,” Marcus said to Esca, brushing a hand over his thigh, “apart from the collar.”

“You too. Although, I think you’re getting too thin, in case you think I haven’t noticed.” Esca offered Marcus a wry smile, belying any nervousness he was feeling.

“When this is over and done with, I’ll eat steak and kidney pie, and chips and curry and whatever it takes to pack a few pounds back on, okay?”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

Marcus didn’t want to let Esca go but there was a car pulling in behind his and it was time to get this over with.

As Marcus opened the passenger door for Esca, Twist got out of the black Mercedes coupe that had parked in the next row.

“Twist! Nice car. Is it new?”

“Yes. I picked it up yesterday. Drives like a slick dick up a nice, wet cunt.”

Marcus shuddered and noticed Esca suppressing a smirk.

“Is this your boy?” Twist nodded at Esca.

“Yes.”

“He scrubbed up well. I see you got him on a leash. Wise move. I bet he’s a right slippery little bugger.”

Marcus laughed, “Only with lube.” He had to look away while he locked the car, not sure if he was more embarrassed to have said that to Twist, or to have said it in front of Esca. Esca’s fingers brushed over his as he positioned himself behind Marcus in order to walk up to the house. Marcus took a deep breath and talked to Twist about his car: a subject on which Twist was more than happy to wax lyrical. They chatted all the way up to the two minders positioned at the large, wooden front door and inside to a marble-floored foyer.

When they entered the house, another minder inside ushered them into a side room off the foyer which might ordinarily qualify as a parlour, though Marcus didn’t know much about the layout of the average country mansion. Inside the parlour was a long table, tastefully covered with a white tablecloth. In front of the table stood two more minders, both of whom wore gloves. This was the weapon and device check. On either side of the table were two cabinets, something like toolbox towers, with drawers labelled with numbers. Twist went first, placing his gun and phone on the table. The minder tagged the items, handed Twist a ticket, and put the items in a drawer labelled with the corresponding ticket number. Marcus noticed the drawers weren’t locked, but all the minders – the two in the parlour, one in the foyer and two on the front door - were carrying guns.

As Marcus understood it, the guests at the party were the General’s business associates. There would be no family or friends for this occasion. Nonetheless, there was no reason for anyone to object to the security precaution, which was for the safety of the guests, as much as the host. The General liked to be prepared for any eventuality and his men were expected to be armed whenever possible, so that in the event there was an emergency on or offsite, they were ready to go. It would be easy enough to retrieve a gun from a drawer, with the permission of the minders.

Twist stood waiting while Marcus checked his gun and phone.

Marcus said to the minder feeling over Esca, “This is my boy. He doesn’t have anything except the collar and I have the control box.” Marcus switched it off while the second minder swept it and got no signal.

“You’ll have to check in the collar, too,” the minder said.

“No way. Do you know who this is?” Marcus pointed to Esca. “If I take the collar off, he’ll be out of here and across the garden quicker than it takes you lugs to reach the front door.”

“Policy, mate. There’s no way he can get out of here - the place is guarded and there are alarms on all the windows. You won’t lose him.”

Twist stepped in. “I think, in this instance, it would be appropriate to let him keep the collar on. What’s the problem with that?”

“No electronics, those are the rules.”

Marcus added, “The General issued me this collar,” and was about to protest further when the birthday boy himself sauntered into the parlour.

“Who’s taking my name in vain?” The General was followed in by Curly. “Oh, it’s the Centurion and his fighter-boy.” Next he addressed the bigger of the two minders. “For the love of Pete, let him keep the collar on the boy. I don’t want my night fucked up with you lot chasing that little cunt all over the show, and I’m pretty sure the Centurion doesn’t want his fuck-body messed up by the dogs.”

Marcus looked at Esca who was looking at the floor. He didn’t even flinch. Marcus set his jaw and said seriously, “Thank you, sir. I tried to explain. I like to keep him in good shape, but that means I have to be diligent with the restraints.”

“No worries. Now come on, take a look around. I’ve got a roulette wheel and a craps table in the ballroom – you can pick up your chips in the foyer. There’s a bar in the ballroom, too, food and drink in the conservatory and ... if you need a few minutes to yourself, there are a couple of rooms in the East wing. Upstairs is out of bounds.” He winked. “Don’t want to make too much work for the cleaner.” The General was in high spirits.

“Thank you, I will most definitely look around. You have a beautiful home. But I plan to head off before midnight, if that’s all right. I’m taking Esca to a little retreat I have in the Brecons. Nice and secluded.” Marcus tapped the side of his nose and smirked.

“You are one sick cunt,” the General said with genuine affection. “I knew it, as soon as I met you. It’s always the quiet ones. Didn’t I tell you that, Twist?”

“Yes, you did.” They beamed at each other while Curly scowled in the background.

The General wasn’t finished. He said to Twist, “And I know all your dirty secrets, too. Right couple of pervs the both of you. I fucking love it. I’d direct you to the back lounge – I have a nice floor show going on in there, but I know it’s wasted on you two.”

With that, he headed out of the room with Curly in tow, calling out to Bonnie to chivvy along the waiting staff before his guests died of thirst.

“Can I get you a drink, Twist? I’m in the mood for something potent and a couple of throws on the craps table.”

“No thanks. I’m going to check out the nosh. I’ll catch you later, okay?”

“Sure. I’ll do that walkabout first then.” Marcus watched Twist leave the room, nodded curtly to Esca, and proceeded to explore the ground floor of the General’s house. There were only several rooms in use; the others were either locked, such as the office at the front of the house on the opposite side of the foyer to the parlour, or had blue ribbon taped tastefully from one side of the doorframe to the other, as a polite ‘keep out’. Esca walked to Marcus’s side, half a stride behind, in order to transmit a clear picture to Craddock.

The bulk of the guests were gathered in the ballroom, which was at the back of the mansion. The room was large and airy, the outside wall lined with tall windows and two sets of patio doors.

Marcus mingled, disarming any sidelong looks with a friendly smile, saying hello to the few people he recognised and making small talk where he dared. There was a man he believed to be an accountant, and a couple of men he recognised from the suite at the fight-club, but most were strangers who looked at him disapprovingly as he flaunted his perversion. Whatever this lot got up to, most of the more ‘unusual’ behaviours were kept behind closed doors. Marcus knew they saw it as perfectly acceptable to watch enslaved women strip and dance around poles, and acceptable to pay to fuck them. But for Marcus to publicly parade around with a man that he used in the same way they used women? Apparently that was a step too far for most of the men at the party. It wasn’t long before Marcus found it a source of strength, and he resolved to introduce Esca to the next person who spoke to him while pretending, with a downturned gaze, that Esca wasn’t actually there.

There seemed to be a lot of activity around the roulette table. Marcus headed over and placed a bet. The General had issued everyone with one hundred chips, with the idea that the winners could redeem their chips for a number of prizes. Those included the services of a couple of Thai women, currently entertaining in the lounge, and a pricey selection of wines, whiskeys or cigars for those less inclined to celebrate with their dicks under the General’s roof. There were few women in attendance but in this domain, it was presumed they were the appendage of a male counterpart and were not specifically catered to with regard to the prizes.

Marcus managed to find a seat at the roulette table. Esca stood still and silent behind him, though Marcus was aware that, despite his eyes being respectfully lowered, he was occasionally turning on his spot to get a clear shot of one person or another that had caught his attention.

The wheel wasn’t in Marcus’s favour, which was the perfect excuse to leave the table and head into the conservatory for some refreshment. However, he was on his last chips when Esca furtively leaned forward, pressing his hand into Marcus’s back. Marcus tilted his head back. “You may speak.”

Esca leaned down and whispered; his hand up to his mouth so that no one else could see his lips move or hear him speak, except for Craddock. “Augustus has entered the room. Three o’clock, beige suit.”

Neither of them was expecting to see him here. Marcus’s heart rate instantly sped up.

Marcus threw in his final chips and turned to Esca, saying just loudly enough that the man next to him would hear should anyone ask after them, “Come on then. Toilet break it is. I’ve lost all my chips anyway, and I could do with a Scotch.”

As they left the ballroom, Marcus swept a look over the left side of the room. Augustus was unmistakeable, standing straight, slender and assured, in a light brown suit, surrounded by an entourage of heavies.

There was no one in the spacious toilet adjoining the ballroom and Marcus and Esca went in together. Esca was, for the first time, jittery and anxious. “One of the minders with Augustus, I recognise him: the fat one with the dimple in his chin. He’s the man – the one that stopped by the side of the road when I was in the car accident. I can’t see the one that took Maeve from me, but the one that’s here - he’s the one that knocked me out. I’ll never forget his face.”

Aware that the rooms in the house could be fitted with hidden cameras or bugs, Marcus and Esca knew that any communication they shared in private had to be as in character as when they were in public. Marcus figured that it wouldn’t hurt the General to know he was protective of Esca, given that he was presented as a gift. It demonstrated a mark of respect for his boss, no differently to polishing and waxing the car his boss had funded.

Marcus held Esca’s shoulders. “Breathe, all right? You’re mine now, and we’re on home turf. They don’t get to touch you or speak to you without my permission. Likewise, you are to say nothing to them without my say so. Got it?”

“Yes.”

“There’s my boy. If you’re good, I’ll let you sleep in the bed with me when we get to the Brecons, okay?” Marcus winked.

“Yes. Thank you.”

Marcus turned Esca to the sink and urged him to splash water on his face. He wiped Esca’s face with the towel and straightened his shirt and collar. Finally, he trailed his fingers down Esca’s spine, circled his waist and said, “Hungry?”

Esca nodded.

“Then let’s get something to eat.”

Marcus kissed the top of Esca’s head and they left the bathroom. More confident, Marcus held his head high against the familiar disdainful stares as they headed out of the ballroom to the conservatory next door.

There was a decadent buffet on a T-shaped table dissecting the space that was edged with small round tables and wicker chairs. Marcus deliberately picked out Esca’s plate of food, knowing what he would like without having to ask. They were being watched from across the room by Carter and, who Marcus guessed was his wife, from the way Carter had described her to him at the office. Marcus decided that once he’d got his plate of food, they would go over.

As they approached, he could see Carter lean in and mouth to her, “Be polite.”

Marcus liked her instantly.

Carter spoke first, in an overly cheerful tone. “Ah, the Centurion. And this must be Esca?”

“It is indeed. Esca, this is my colleague, Carter, and his lovely wife Louise, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s right,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “Pleased to meet you both.” She made a point of holding out her hand to Esca first. Marcus didn’t object.

“Hello, Carter, Louise,” Esca said in a soft-serious tone. He nodded in her direction first, then Carter’s, while Marcus took Louise’s hand and planted a kiss to her tanned, dainty knuckles.

Marcus stood close to Esca, carefully manoeuvring them so that Esca was facing into the room. Carter was as exuberant and chatty as ever, which was quite the gift. He talked relentlessly about the people in the room, telling Marcus who was who, what they did, who was worth speaking to and who wasn’t.

Finally, Carter took a breath and said, “Nice bonus this month, eh?”

“Definitely. Esca and I are taking a short break in the Brecons.”

Marcus caught Louise staring at them, not for the first time. Unlike the other people they’d spoken to, however, there was no hostility or scorn in her expression. She caught Marcus’s eye and smiled, before asking Esca if he’d like to come with her to pick out a dessert.

Marcus said fondly, “Go, go,” before Esca got the chance to do his thing with the begging eyes.

Carter went on and on about the General’s house; how much he thought it must cost and where did he get that tile and those light fittings, etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseum, while Marcus tried not to yawn. He was rescued by a bowl of profiteroles and a coffee.

“Do you have plans for your bonus?” Marcus asked Carter brightly, as he harpooned his pastry.

Esca slowly licked the fruit topping from his cheesecake, off his spoon. Marcus should have kicked him.

“I think Louise has already spent it on our extension, eh love?”

“Yes, well, now the children are getting bigger we could do with the extra room.” She looked at Marcus to ask, “Do you two have plans to start a family?” There was no way of telling if she was serious - none whatsoever.

Marcus responded honestly. “I don’t think so. Not really my style.”

“No, I suppose not,” she said. Next, Louise turned her attention to Esca. “What about you, Esca? What do you get up to all day when the Centurion is out at work?”

Marcus watched Carter flush and press his hand to Louise’s back. Though the slave import had gone to plan and they were all buddies now, Carter knew Marcus well enough to know not to pry into his private life.

“You may answer, Esca.”

Louise shot Marcus a defiant glare and placed a hand on Esca’s arm. He flinched back, slightly enough to send the message he was not to be touched by her, not by anyone except Marcus, but not enough to insult the woman. She didn’t seem put out.

Esca said, calmly, without emotion, “I keep the flat, just the way the Centurion likes it, I work out, and I read or watch television.”

“You must get lonely, all by yourself.”

Marcus watched Esca not giving anything away. He glanced up at Marcus for permission. Marcus nodded.

“No, not really. The Centurion is very,” Esca paused and said emphatically, “very attentive when he comes home.”

Louise looked like she might have something more to say, Carter was blushing and, in amongst the surreal weirdness of the situation, Marcus felt like he could have laughed. He thought back to the morning and how very attentive he’d been towards certain parts of Esca’s anatomy. Esca was teasing him.

Luckily, the awkward direction this exchange was headed was swiftly averted by the General’s arrival into the conservatory. He was accompanied by Augustus, the minder Esca had recognised, and Bonnie, the General’s assistant. A few people attempted to halt his progress to the food table; it appeared they were extending birthday greetings and being generally ingratiating. After a few hurried handshakes, the two men made it to the buffet and helped themselves to plates. Bonnie didn’t touch the food, though she did take a glass of champagne from a passing waitress.

The sun had set; the room was gently lit by a chandelier on the ceiling and several sconces set onto the supports of the glass room. There were soft-draped, sheer curtains over the windows; it would be possible to make out shapes if not identities from outside, though the trees around the perimeter, the dogs and the two minders walking around the grounds meant the possible success of outside surveillance had got to be minimal. The best evidence would be had from Marcus and Esca doing the rounds inside.

Carter was bumbling over his words and making his excuses; Marcus was more interested in the tête-á-tête that was going on a few feet away from him. This was what they’d come for. After this, they could leave; leave the mansion and this life forever.

“Please excuse us, Carter. Louise, it was an absolute pleasure. You are a beautiful and formidable woman. Carter is very lucky to have you for a wife.”

Her eyes went wide and she half smiled, half gawped. It was too late for her to say anything, though, as Marcus had already liberated Esca from his half-eaten cheesecake and, leading him by the hand, was heading towards the General and Augustus. Esca squeezed Marcus’ hand tightly. Marcus wasn’t sure if that was amusement at what Marcus had said to Louise, annoyance at losing his dessert or a feeling of impending terror at finally coming face to face with two devils. Marcus squeezed his hand back and rubbed his thumb over Esca’s wrist, just in case it was the latter.

“Good evening, gentlemen.” Marcus planned on being brief and directed his attention to Augustus. “Sorry to interrupt. I’m the Centurion. The General bought Esca for me, and I just wanted to extend my gratitude that you were willing to sell. It was a whim on my part to have him, but he has brought me a good deal of entertainment and pleasure, over the last couple of months. As you can see, I’m keeping him in good working order.”

Augustus was a weasel of a man, with small weasel eyes and an oily complexion. He held out his hand for Marcus. His handshake was an overt and, in Marcus’s opinion, clumsy display of his dominance. His hand was palm down, forcing Marcus to slide his hand into his with his palm up, and his grip was unnecessarily firm. Augustus was not quite as confident as he seemed.

Augustus looked over Esca disparagingly. “That boy caused me more trouble than he was worth. You’re welcome to him.”

“If I’d known that was how you felt, I’d have bartered you down on the price,” the General barked, laughing.

Marcus continued, “How so? I understand he had a long winning streak before he lost his will to fight, as it were.”

“I’m not talking about that. His father had something I wanted but, like all of those old families in the north, he was all about honour and all that bullshit. He wouldn’t sell me what I wanted so I had to go shopping elsewhere, after my attempt at persuasion backfired.”

“You mean when you ran my parent’s car off the road, killed my baby sister and kidnapped me?”

“Esca!” Marcus admonished. This wasn’t what they’d planned. “You were not permitted to speak. That life no longer exists. We’ve talked about that. Perhaps I didn’t make the consequences of you speaking out of turn clear enough? Go and sit over there while I apologise to the General and Augustus.” Marcus pointed to an armchair by a closed door that opened out onto the patio. It was more than ten feet away but gave Esca a wide view of the room.

“Yes, I think that would be wise,” said the General, scowling.

Esca went without question and sat on the armchair Marcus had pointed to. Marcus could see Louise pulling on Carter’s sleeve, trying to approach Esca. Carter glanced over at Marcus and held her back.

Marcus returned his attention to the General and Augustus. “I won’t turn up the voltage too high, if you don’t mind. It makes his muscles spasm for some hours afterwards and that’s no good for later. Sometimes his throat closes involuntarily and the last thing I want is him choking on the way to Wales. Let me show you.”

Esca went scarlet, the veins throbbing in his neck as he clung, white-knuckled, to the arms of the chair, his eyes filling with tears. It looked horrific and it was only the rehearsals of the past week that convinced Marcus it hadn’t caused Esca nearly as much pain as it would have appeared to the party guests looking on.

Marcus turned the dial back down. “I’m sorry about that,” he said with remorse. “He’s feisty, which is why I like him. I’m still working on controlling his tongue.”

Augustus sneered. “Though not too much.”

They laughed, amiably. Filled with contempt for them, Marcus couldn’t stop himself. “Out of interest, Augustus, do you know what happened to his sister? It’s nice to have a bit of ammunition, for when he acts up.”

The General shot Marcus a forbidding look. Augustus nodded to the minder, unperturbed. “Tell him, Fletch.”

“We were going to dump her near a hospital. She hadn’t seen anything, not with all that blood in her eyes. But she died on the way there. We thought about killing the boy, too, after that. But having seen him climb out of the car wreckage without an injury and carry his sister all the way up that bank, with how small he is, we both looked at each other and thought ... fighter. It would have been a waste to kill him.”

Marcus’s mouth was dry, the bitter essence of the coffee sticking his tongue to the roof of his mouth.

“The stupid fuckers weren’t supposed to run the car off the road,” Augustus griped. Marcus doubted his chagrin had anything to do with the lives that had been stolen, and more to do with a wrecked business opportunity. “Water under the bridge now, though. I’m glad to be shot of him.”

Neither Augustus nor the General seemed the slightest bit bothered about Esca, as if he no longer existed, as if they were infallible. Marcus bit back his contempt and took it as the advantage it was.

Finally, Marcus said, “Well, I’m embarrassed he acted up in public. I think it best if we leave quietly, if that’s all right?”

The General looked relieved, but not apparently because Marcus wanted a swift departure. “Oh no, stay for another hour,” he said. “You can always deposit him in the lounge. I’ve got some cuffs somewhere you can use.” The General’s relief was probably because Augustus wasn’t outraged by Esca or Marcus shoving his shameful past in his face. And Augustus wasn’t remotely ashamed, that was for sure.

Marcus began to protest staying but was cut short by the General. “No, I insist. Dump the boy-toy for an hour and let your hair down. Bonnie’s got entertainment lined up and,” he looked around, “where is that silly moo?”

There was a high voice booming from the foyer. It was Bonnie. “Everyone in the conservatory! Cake time!”

Marcus’s legs almost crumpled beneath him. A quick bead of sweat trickled in a line down his back and he had to consciously try to slow down his pounding heart with a few deep breaths.

He and Esca had been saved by a birthday cake – how sweet.

Everyone in the room started clapping, followed by the bellowing of more than fifty people breaking into a hearty rendition of the birthday song. Marcus seized the opportunity, while singing, to edge away from the throng surrounding the General, to collect Esca from where he sat on the armchair.

Esca waited until Marcus was at his side saying, “Come on, we’re leaving. Almost there,” before getting up from the seat.

The room was suddenly packed and, with the lights dimmed for the cake, it was easy enough to sneak out. They reached the parlour through the empty foyer, which was now attended by only one minder. Marcus swallowed and flexed his fingers before handing over his ticket. In the time it took for the minder to find Marcus’s drawer and hand him over his weapon and phone, the birthday song had finished and someone, thankfully, had broken into a resounding chorus of ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow’. Marcus cringed at the irony but had his sights on the front door. The single minder attending the door paid them no attention, except to open the door and wave his hand to usher them through.

“Good night, sirs.”

“You, too.”

Marcus, with his left hand on the small of Esca’s back, looked down the flight of steps and turned off Esca’s collar. There was something of a breeze; the temperature had dropped since their arrival a few hours before. Marcus shivered and instinctively put his right hand on his gun, which was wedged into the waistband of his trousers. He couldn’t see the minders that were stationed in the garden. He couldn’t hear the dogs. But even from the front of the house, he could hear claps and cheers and whistles from the back, which must have meant the singing was over.

“Quick march to the car, Esca. It’s freezing.”

They were on the last step when the front door opened behind them and the familiar voice of Carter rang out. “Hey, wait a minute. Don’t run off just yet.”

Marcus looked back and groaned. They had no choice but to head back up the stairs. “This had better be quick.”

“Louise wanted to invite you over for Sunday lunch. I know you’re off on holiday --”

The minder signalled that he wanted Marcus and Esca back inside to chat. Marcus tried not to sound terse, with Louise stood beside Carter. “We’ll be back Saturday night. We’d love to. Email me directions. We have to get going, though. I’ve got a long drive ahead.”

“No worries --” Carter was cut short by Louise.

“Oh no! I left my stole in the conservatory.” She looked doe-eyed at Carter and pleaded, “Be a love and go get it for me?”

Carter rolled his eyes, turned and took a jog towards the back of the house. Marcus was about to attempt to say their farewells when Louise quietly said to him, “You two don’t fool me.”

Marcus’ heart missed two beats and leapt through the next ten.

She continued, “I can see it’s all an act, this master-slave thing. You two are in love.”

Marcus was speechless, as was Esca. Louise took Marcus by the hand and said kindly, “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.”

It was Esca who found his voice first. “Thank you.”

Marcus finally spoke, seeing Louise genuinely concerned for them. “I appreciate it, Louise. You’re a good person.”

“Nah, I’m really not,” she laughed. “Now be off with you.”

They were barely an arm stretch from the front door when all the lights went out. Instantly, Esca’s hand grabbed for Marcus’s. Louise gasped and Marcus could just make out that she was reaching for one of them. Esca put out his other arm.

The next moment, the groans and complaints were halted by the ear-shattering sound of breaking glass coming from the conservatory, and from what sounded like every downstairs window in the house. The sound of screams and gunfire coincided with what Marcus could smell more than see: smoke, billowing out of every room.

The next few seconds passed slow like treacle, as the realisation steam-rollered over Marcus: the mansion was being raided.

Craddock had lied.

A voice on a loud haler from outside could be heard, telling everyone to lie face down on the floor with their hands on their heads. There was so much noise: screams and shouts and gunfire, the bang of boots and slamming of doors. It was almost impossible to see and to hear anything with clarity. All Marcus had to hold onto for sure was Esca’s hand and his wits as the sound of a battering ram slamming into the front door signalled the imminent entry of the police into the foyer. He slid over Esca's body and spoke firmly into his ear. “Lie still. Don’t panic, it’s going to be fine.” Esca was trembling beneath him, but Marcus felt him nod his assent.

This wasn’t ideal - to be caught up in the mayhem inside the house, but it wasn’t a disaster. The police had already breached the building, which meant they’d secured the perimeter of the house, and were ready to start pulling out the occupants and making arrests. Marcus could only hope that the tactical team on the ground were on the lookout for them. When their car wasn’t seen leaving the mansion there should have been an alert to keep an eye out in the grounds or in the house. Though it was unlikely, it was possible Marcus and Esca could be mixed up in the fray with the rest of the General’s henchmen. Marcus didn’t fancy the prospect of being arrested and having to wait in a police van, and worse still he didn’t want to be separated from Esca. But if he made a move, he was likely to be at the receiving end of a cosh to the arm or leg, or possibly worse, and then he’d be no good to Esca at all.

There was a second ram to the front door, and still it didn’t give. The General may have had it reinforced, but it wouldn’t be enough. Scanning the floor in the darkness, as far as Marcus could tell, there were only the four of them in the hallway: Marcus, Esca, Louise and the minder who’d been on the door. The four of them had fallen to the floor when the noise and chaos started. Louise was on the ground next to Esca. The minder, however, had rolled onto his back and even with the lack of light Marcus could see he’d pulled his gun. It was probably an instinctual move, his ability to think about the futility and danger of such an action impaired by the chaos going on in the rooms around them. It would only be a matter of seconds before the police would be over the four of them, too.

“Put that away. You’ll get yourself killed,” Marcus shouted across to the burly man.

“No fucking chance. I’m not getting banged up again.”

The next moments passed in a commotion of deafening noise, a blur of frantic motion and flashes of blinding light. Marcus had made the decision to disarm the minder a split second too late. As he pushed up from the floor, the minder was already on his feet and was hauling Louise up by her hair. He pulled her to his chest as the third and final ram to the front door had it crashing in, and columns of brilliant torchlight swept the floor. Shouts, screams and shots rang out, as Marcus flew through the air in a lunging leap, aiming to pull Louise from the minder’s grasp.

What followed all happened at once: Esca cried out, the police charged in, and Marcus felt himself falling, falling. He saw Louise thrashing and heard her screams, too, but his his legs wouldn’t carry him to her. As he twisted in the air he saw Esca pinned to the floor with a boot on his back, his arms outstretched to Marcus in terror.

Marcus hit the ground and it was only then he felt the searing pain in his leg. He grabbed his thigh and his hand slipped slickly through what he knew was his blood. The ringing in Marcus’s ears was deafening, the pain all-consuming and the rush of bodies and resonating vibrations of boot-fall and gunfire shook him to his bones. He wanted to call out, but there was no air in his lungs. Against his will, Marcus’s eyes closed, to the image of Esca reaching out for him from across the room.

Chapter Text


 

Bright light filtered through Marcus’s closed eyelids. Somewhere in the distance he could hear the noise of machines and the hushed tones of concerned voices.

Later, he couldn’t say where, but Marcus felt the touch of a hand, as faint and fleeting as a midnight whisper.

If Marcus tried to reach for any one of the sensations that teased at the periphery of his consciousness he always found he was too far away. It was exhausting, he was too tired, and eventually he would give up and slip back into the darkness.

Some time, that could have been months or minutes later - he’d lost track by now - Marcus felt thirsty. There was a bottle of Coke in the fridge. He never usually drank the stuff – Esca liked it more than he did. Right at this moment though, he craved it, hungered for it.

Esca. Coke. Fridge. Flat.

Like a series of dots being joined up one by one until they became the shape of something recognisable, single random images slowly connected into a picture of a life. At first, Marcus wasn’t sure if the life he was dreaming was his own, or if it was a figment of his imagination.

He recalled there was a half-eaten chicken wrapped in foil next to the Coke, and a corn on the cob he shouldn’t have saved. But Esca didn’t like throwing food away.

Marcus was very, very thirsty, and it was hard to think of anything else when that bottle of Coke kept beckoning.

“I’m thirsty.”

Marcus heard a croaky whisper and realised it was his own voice, at the same moment he also became aware of light and his eyelids flickering.

Sensation and memory rushed in around him, over him, through him, including a dull-throbbing pain in his left thigh.

Marcus opened his eyes. Esca’s face had been the last thing Marcus remembered seeing, lying on the floor, looking up at him with his arms outstretched. And Esca’s face was the first thing Marcus saw when he awoke.

“Welcome back.” Esca was at Marcus’s bedside holding his hand, sitting on a vinyl chair, wearing the same shirt and trousers he’d been wearing at the General’s party. His feet were bare. He got up and filled a glass from a jug on the bedside table and brought the water to Marcus’s lips.

Marcus tried to suck and gulp as the water trickled too slowly over his tongue. The drink was gone before he’d had his fill.

Esca sat close, on the edge of the bed, hesitating before he said, “I thought I was going to lose you.”

Marcus felt clogged, like his mind and his tongue were battling against a heavy fog. However, there was no question of the clarity of what he felt for Esca. “Always here for you, tesoro mio.”

He hadn’t meant to say it out loud but now that it was done, he found he was unexpectedly calm and fine about it. Marcus had, after all, meant every word. Still, the water hadn’t entirely washed away the scratchiness in his throat and the words came out low and hoarse. Maybe Esca hadn’t understood what he’d said.

Esca melted before Marcus’s eyes and Marcus knew it then – he had understood. Softly, Esca said, “Always here for me ...” He looked at Marcus, questioning. “Tesoro? I didn’t catch the last bit.”

Marcus smiled, and it felt foreign, as if his whole face objected to the exercise. “Tesoro mio. My treasure. It’s Italian.”

Esca slid his arms around Marcus, under his shoulders, and buried his face into his neck. Marcus lifted a bandaged hand; his fingertips were poking free. He tucked them inside the neck of Esca’s shirt and found the scar that the GPS tracker chip had left behind. Scarred, both of them, but still alive. Marcus wanted to howl with joy but Esca was pressing too heavily onto his chest and he didn’t have enough air inside him.

In the end, Marcus had to prod Esca in his side to make him move. When he was free enough to draw breath to speak, Marcus said, “Was it my imagination, or did I just see a bunch of metal bars poking up out of my leg?”

“They’re holding you together, like scaffolding,” Esca sniffed.

Marcus wanted to say something witty, to ease Esca’s obvious anxiety. It was no use, not with his brain unable to shift out of first gear. Esca was running his hands over Marcus’s body and up and down his arms, and it occurred to Marcus, at that very moment, that he’d been lucky, very lucky. It might cheer Esca to know it.

“At least I didn’t get my dick blown off ...” Esca flinched before he almost smiled. Marcus added, “Or did I?”

“No, it’s still there. Though it’s temporarily out of order.”

Esca lifted up a bag hanging on the side of the bed. It was half full of urine. Marcus scowled and Esca’s expression lifted, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

“I could still get a hard-on,” Marcus chuckled slow and growly. “You might have to give me a mercy blow-job before a nurse sees it.”

Finally, Esca managed a proper smile and rubbed a hand over Marcus’s crotch, where there was nothing going on whatsoever. “I don’t think the drugs have worn off yet. I hope you’re not going to regret saying all this stuff to me when you sober up. Or worse still, forget it.”

“I won’t forget. Promise.”

Esca kissed Marcus on the mouth, on his cheeks, his nose, his forehead. “Go back to sleep, Marcus. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

Marcus closed his eyes gratefully, sparing hardly a fleeting thought to his battered leg before succumbing to the darkness again.

 

The next time Marcus awoke everything came sharply into focus: the stark white walls of a private room, the smell of disinfectant, a stiffness in his wrist, the throbbing ache in his thigh and an acrid taste in his mouth.

Esca was asleep in the far corner of the room, curled up on a sturdy armchair with wooden armrests, half covered in a white cotton blanket. It was still light outside but Marcus didn’t know what time it was, only that Esca was still here in the same clothes he’d been wearing since the General’s party; since Marcus woke up the last time.

After taking in his surroundings, taking a tentative look at the scaffolding around his thigh - which was covered in a thick dressing and propped on a long pillow - and unsuccessfully trying to squeeze out a mouthful of saliva, Marcus looked around for the nurse alarm. It was wound over the bed-frame and he was able to press the button without untangling it.

Within a minute a nurse came in. She looked over at Esca and whispered cheerily, “Hi, there. How are you feeling?”

“Thirsty, and I have a headache.”

She tilted the bed up and passed Marcus the filled glass. “I can get you some paracetamol, but you might feel better after a drink and something to eat. Dinner will be coming around soon.”

“What time is it? What day is it?”

“Half past five, and it’s Thursday. You got here last night and were out of surgery by early this morning.” She patted Marcus’s hand and looked over at Esca. “He wouldn’t leave you.” Turning back to Marcus and fluffing his pillows, she said, “The doctor will be around in about an hour. She’ll be able to tell you more about your injuries and what to expect from here on out. Don’t worry. The metal looks worse than it is. You’ll be up and moving around before you know it.”

She was gone with the same speed and efficiency with which she’d arrived and interacted with Marcus, not disturbing Esca from his sleep. The only evidence that she’d been in the room was the lingering smell of her perfume – something floral. It was nice, comforting.

Esca awoke when dinner arrived. The orderly was sympathetic and brought him a plate of watery sweet and sour chicken, as well as one for Marcus. Like much of their lives this last couple of months, they braved the food together, over hesitant smiles and weary silence.

Later, the doctor, a young woman with blonde hair tied in a ponytail, arrived with a nurse, who took Marcus’s vitals.

“We managed to clean you up nicely, Mr. Farrell,” the doctor said. Marcus did a double-take, having forgotten that’s who he was. That, and the doctor’s Scandinavian accent, had him thrown for a few seconds, so that her words drifted in without much meaning. “Your bone was shattered at the impact site of the bullet, but there’s an intramedullary rod inside the bone as well as this external framework, which means you’ll be mobile relatively quickly. Once the scar from the bullet entry and the surgery heals enough, and the bone looks stabilised, we’ll take out the external pins and framework and have you up and about on crutches, and down doing some physio.”

“How long until that?”

“A couple of weeks at the most.”

“And what’s going on with my wrist?”

“Just a mild sprain from where you fell when you were shot. I expect its sore now, but it’ll be good in a week.”

With no further information to exchange, she gave Marcus’s good leg a friendly pat, smiled at Esca and put his chart back on the end of the bed. She and the nurse were gone before the news had a chance to settle. On top of the sweet and sour, it was a lot to digest.

 

Craddock came in the early evening and Marcus would have hurled the plastic bedside-chair at him if he could have mustered the strength. Except that Marcus had never seen him so contrite. Perhaps he took the death threat seriously.

At Marcus’s say-so, Esca stayed, sitting on the armchair, knees pulled up to his chest.

Craddock apologised at once. “I’m so, so sorry. Honest to God, I thought you two were out of there.”

“Did you get what you needed?” Marcus didn’t have the energy to entertain Craddock any longer than was necessary.

“Everything and more. You don’t need to worry about doing anything else. Someone will come in over the next few days to take a statement and complete your report for you. But we’ll do it at your pace. Just work on getting better, okay?”

“What about Esca?”

Craddock turned to Esca, and back to Marcus. “I’ve arranged for him to stay with Uncle Aquila.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Esca snapped, “especially not with you.”

“Esca you can’t stay here. Go - it’ll be fine. You can trust Uncle Aquila – he’s nothing to do with Craddock, and ...” Marcus paused. “What the hell hospital am I in?”

“The Royal London.”

“They flew you here in the chopper,” Esca said. “I came with you.”

Marcus had only just noticed the smears of, what he assumed, was his blood on the front of Esca’s shirt when he said to him, “In that case, definitely go and stay with the old man.” To Craddock, Marcus said, “I thought he was retired. Is he still in Stepney?”

“He is. This is a favour. He’s alone in that big house of his, but he’s still got the alarms and he knows the drill. I put in a call and he was happy to help. Esca will be safe and it’ll give him time to sort himself out and for us to get his statement, plus he can get a cab to the hospital from there.”

“Is Esca in danger?”

“I don’t believe so. We’re not expecting a trial for months yet, and I’m not sure we’ll even need Esca as a witness with the film evidence we have from the collar. Not only that, there are witnesses whose testimony is going to be much more crucial. Of course, it depends on what the prosecution decide they want to use. I think we arrested everyone who’s anyone. Aquila knows what needs to be done, he has all the necessary clearance, and he has a comfortable place to stay while Esca’s in London.”

Esca was looking out the window, though Marcus knew he was listening. He said, “Esca you’ll like Uncle Aquila. He’s a retired Met DS who used to take in witnesses, anyone that needed a safe place to stay in London, out of the limelight.”

Esca turned his attention back into the room, to Marcus. “What about you? Will you be safe here? Shouldn’t there be a policeman outside the door or something?”

“This entire floor is secure,” Craddock said. “There are some high-profile patients at this hospital.” Craddock stood up, looking ready to leave. He added, “Don’t worry, either of you. Everything’s been taken care of. We cleaned out the flat in Exeter, and we’ll have everything sorted out at this end before you know it. Rest up now and I’ll come back tomorrow.”

Esca stood up, too. “Marcus, if you want me to stay, I will.”

“No, go and get some rest yourself, get cleaned up, do what you need to do. I’m not going anywhere – you can visit whenever you want.”

Marcus had used up every last ounce of his energy being civil to Craddock and convincing Esca it was in his best interest to leave. That didn’t mean it didn’t hurt to see him go. Marcus was falling asleep before he had time to dwell on the fact that, for the very first time since Esca came into his life two months before, they would be spending the night apart.

 

The interminable days passed over Marcus in a permanent rolling fog, smothering him in impermeable billows of cold, dank white. The more he rested, the more drained he felt, the less able to think, feel or move.

Marcus’s drudge-misery was punctuated by the coming and going of official people through the shiny white door of his private, solitary room: the police, the hospital staff, a prosecutor for the CPS. Marcus did his best to cooperate, to be professional and useful. He didn’t have to be enthusiastic.

From his bed, Marcus watched the news.

The newsreader announced, “In the biggest undercover operation in the history of the Metropolitan Police, a number of arrests were made last Wednesday evening during a party at the home of Leonard Vittorio, a known organised crime boss prolific in the south-west of England.

“The arrests follow a lengthy investigation into a range of alleged organised crime activities involving national and international slave-trafficking, drug-dealing, money laundering and tax evasion. Also arrested was Martin Guthrie, alleged boss of another organised crime family operating mainly in the north of England. More than thirty other people were arrested during the raid, four of whom have been released without charge.

“During the arrests, there were two fatalities and more than a dozen injured ...”

Marcus switched off the television. He didn’t want to hear about it.

He should have been pleased the operation was a success. But the faces of over a hundred young, puzzled and terrified Thai slaves, of beaten-up men and of drug-addicted prostitutes, haunted him every time he closed his eyes. They all seemed to be saying, “How could you have left us behind?” and Marcus, in all honesty, didn’t have an answer to give them – not one that he could live with, at any rate.

 

A few days into Marcus’s hospital stay, Craddock came to visit with the keys to Marcus’s flat and the other personal effects he’d handed over for safe-keeping almost two years ago. Craddock could hardly look Marcus in the eye. He put the plastic bag on the bed and hesitated before sitting. His knee jittered up and down; he was probably dying for a smoke.

Without emotion, Marcus said, “I suppose you’ll be up for a big promotion now?”

“Maybe.”

“Kira will be pleased.”

Craddock flinched and his face exploded into a crimson-red. Marcus never usually mentioned ‘the wife’, and that had been the easiest course of action, to ignore her existence and the kid’s: easiest and most convenient for Craddock, that was; not Marcus. But Marcus was done with indulging him; he no longer gave a fuck about Craddock and his messed up personal life.

Craddock hung his head and talked into his lap. “Oh, she’ll be pleased if it means bigger maintenance payments ... She left me.”

Marcus didn’t have a grain of sympathy for him. He didn’t have anything to give Craddock except a few parting words. There was no way Marcus was going to let Craddock derail his anger with his marital problems. He was only going say it once then he would leave it alone, never mention it again. “You’re lucky it wasn’t Esca that took the bullet.”

“Neither of you should have taken a bullet.” Craddock spoke quietly, venturing a glance in Marcus’s direction. “I’ll make it up to you – make sure we find you a decent desk job until you’re mobile again.”

“I’m not sure I want to come back at all.”

“It’s too soon for you to decide that yet. You need to speak to a counsellor and I’ll send in someone from personnel to talk to you. Maybe you could take an extended leave of absence, take your time to think about it until you’re sure.”

“All right.” Marcus would say anything to get rid of him. “I’m tired. I think you should leave.”

“I can come back and see you tomorrow.”

“Unless you have to speak to me on police business, I don’t want you here. I don’t want anything more to do with you.”

Craddock nodded as his eyes filled. As he got up to walk away, he took a breath and said, “I’m sorry ... for everything. I hope you get well soon.”

Marcus closed his eyes and didn’t bother to say goodbye. There was no more need for Marcus to entertain the notion of killing Craddock – it was a waste of what little energy he had.

With the clicking shut of the door and Craddock gone, Marcus peeled open the plastic bag and emptied its contents onto his lap. He looked at his driving licence: Carl Farrell – what the hell happened to him? It might have seemed ironic, that Marcus couldn’t give up the name he’d adopted two years ago. But it was nothing to do with who he’d been then, and everything to do with the man he’d become two months ago - who’d risked everything to rescue a condemned man, to save his life. He’d fallen in love as Marcus and, despite all the trauma and heartache, liked himself better than he’d ever liked himself before. As Marcus, he’d been more true to himself, his feelings; more honest and open than he’d been since he was a child. And it was all because he’d met someone worth risking his heart for.

Esca still called him Marcus and, as long as he did, that was who he would always be. He said the name out loud, and decided; Marcus Farrell didn’t have such a bad ring to it.

 

Esca visited every day. He was the splash of colour that broke up the never-ending monotonous gloom of Marcus’s incarceration.

Every day he grew brighter, like the rising sun, filling Marcus’s room with his joie de vivre, his unstoppable determination. All the while, Marcus felt himself fading. He should have been happy – he’d done it, he’d got Esca out of slavery, freed him. And Esca had proven to be worth it, flourishing and promising to become the man he was meant to be. Marcus was happy – it was just that he couldn’t shake the sadness he felt, too.

Within a week, Esca was well and truly a fully-fledged teenager. He came barging into Marcus’s room in time to halt Marcus from drifting off into an apathetic slumber.

“Hi!” He plundered Marcus’s mouth for a sloppy kiss and nudged his way onto the edge of the bed. “Were you about to have a nap?”

“No. You saved me from death by boredom.”

“Do you want to see my phone?” He was sliding it open and writing down his number before Marcus had a chance to respond. “Now you can call me whenever you want.”

Like Esca’s finger swiping over the tiny screen, everything was moving too fast. Marcus was dizzy from the speed. He wanted to close his eyes to it but, at the same time, he didn’t want to miss anything.

The man that used to be Esca’s father’s solicitor, a Mr. Smith, was coming down to visit Esca, all the way from Yorkshire. He was going to talk to Esca about the business, about his father’s concerns before the accident, and he was going to walk Esca through the extent of his assets.

Esca had applied for a provisional driving licence and was looking around at college course options, though was he was in no hurry to be bossed around by anyone for a while, thank you very much. He’d made it very plain to Marcus; he was ready for some fun. One of the nurses, Sally, had invited Esca out for drinks. It was going to be with a group of her friends, Esca emphasised, and not a date. Marcus encouraged him to go despite the ache it left in his chest.

“Uncle Aquila said he’ll come and visit you tomorrow,” Esca said, popping another grape into his mouth, “since I’m going to be with Mr. Smith all day and out with Sally in the evening. He said he’d sneak you in a snifter - of Scotch I expect.”

That about summed it up for Marcus: Esca was going out with a fun group of twenty-somethings, while he stayed in and drank a snifter, a fucking snifter (who the hell but an old fart used words like that anymore?) of Scotch with a man in his seventies.

Marcus said flatly, “As long as it’s not putting him out. I’ll be fine for a day.”

“He doesn’t mind. He wants to see you.” Esca had slid alongside Marcus and nuzzled his head onto his chest. “I expect I’m going to have to go up there soon – to Harrogate.” He curled his hand around the back of Marcus’s neck.

“You’ve been away for three years; it can wait a bit longer if you’re not ready.”

“I owe it to Mum and Dad and Maeve. I have to go.”

“I could come with you.”

“Not for weeks yet, not all that way. I’ll be all right – Uncle Aquila said he’d come with me and Mr. Smith is being really helpful. My Dad trusted him – I remember that much.”

“Then you’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

Marcus knew Esca could manage on his own. It forced the question of how much longer Esca would stick around. With a kiss to his head, Marcus held Esca tighter, while he still had the chance.

 

The days blended into weeks and the steady stream of official visitors dwindled to an intermittent trickle. Marcus had done his part and was no longer needed. With the help of an officer who acted as a scribe, he submitted his final report from his bed. For the most part, that episode of his life was behind him. Aside from any testimony he might be required to make at a trial, which he was informed could be as much as a year away, Marcus’s part in the slave-trade operation was over.

The prognosis on Marcus’s leg was as good as could be expected. If he rested well, he should be able to go home in a week, though he might not get rid of the limp for months yet. He could probably go back to work within a month, as long as he kept off his feet. The prospect of nothing but paper-pushing until the end of the year and quite possibly longer was dismal and depressing. As was the consideration that Marcus didn’t have much else by way of options if he really did decide to quit law enforcement.

The physiotherapist showed Marcus how to use his crutches, how to get in and out of the bath and lectured him on when and how long to rest. Marcus put in every effort at his exercises but he was curt, bordering on abrasive. He didn’t mean to be; he just couldn’t break out of this deep rut he was in, looking up and out at the world but unable to join in.

The doctor suggested a mild anti-depressant and therapy. Marcus refused them, hurling the water jug at the wall the moment she left the room. The jug was plastic and bounced around on the floor before rolling under the armchair. He’d desperately wanted it to break and the fact that it hadn’t made him scream out in frustration. The nurse came running in, took one look at Marcus and left again, closing the door behind her.

Later, she brought him tea and sat by the bed for a while. Marcus was grateful for the drink and her silence. But he wished Esca was here. He missed him so much.

As he’d mentioned he’d have to, sooner rather than later, Esca had gone to Harrogate for a few days.

By late afternoon of the third day, after staring at the clock for an hour, Marcus decided to go for a walk down the corridor. No one noticed him. He could have walked right out and gone, and no one would have stopped him. He was sorely tempted.

By the time he got back to his room, Marcus was tingling with the beginnings of a plan. A care assistant had delivered his dinner on a tray and left it on the table by the armchair. Marcus was unable to carry his food back to his room by himself, and he needed to keep his leg elevated and out straight whenever possible, so he wasn’t expected to eat in the communal room at the end of the corridor.

With almost three weeks under his belt, Marcus qualified as a long-term inmate, yet he hadn’t made friends with anyone. He wasn’t in a position to share the gory details of how he’d come to be in hospital, and he didn’t care to hear the graphic details of other people’s ladder falls and motorcycle accidents. He’d had enough of violence and bloodshed and injury to last a lifetime.

As usual, Marcus ate his dinner alone.

Sandra, the duty nurse poked her head around the door. “Esca called while you were on walkabout. He sounded a bit glum, if I’m honest. He said the weather was miserable and he asked if you’d call him on his mobile after nine, as he’s going to dinner at the solicitor’s house. You can use the desk phone on the nurse’s station if you like.”

“Thanks.”

The walls of his cell closed around him and more than ever. Marcus wanted to go home - the home he hadn’t seen in two years. He’d been informed that the Met had taken care of having his services reconnected and they’d sent someone over to clean up and air the place out. It was move-in ready for as soon as he was able to leave the hospital.

The doctor came in just as Marcus pushed away his apple pie and congealed custard. He didn’t wait to exchange niceties. “I want to discharge myself.”

“I’d prefer if you waited at least a few days longer. You said yourself, you have no one at home to help you out.”

“I’ve got a ground floor maisonette, a phone and a computer. I can manage.”

“All right. How about you wait until tomorrow? The pharmacy is closed now; it’s too late to prescribe you any painkillers.” The doctor’s effort to get him to stay was half-hearted at best. She probably couldn’t wait to see the back of him. It almost made him laugh.

“No.” Marcus was emphatic. “I’m going home tonight.”

There was nothing they could do to stop him. Marcus took his two carrier bag’s worth of belongings and a pair of crutches, got in a taxi and found himself on his doorstep a little after eight o’clock, feeling happier than he had in weeks.

He shoved the boxes that had been delivered from the flat in Exeter over to one side of the hallway, hobbled into the living room, flopped on the sofa and switched on the television. Somehow, doing exactly what he’d been doing from his hospital bed for several weeks was an inordinately more enjoyable activity in his own home. For good measure, Marcus stripped down to his boxers and stuck his hand down the front of them to give his balls a scratch. It was bliss.

A little after nine, Marcus dialled a call to Esca from his newly activated, personal mobile phone: the one that he’d been unable to use on the ward in the hospital.

“Hello?”

“Esca. It’s me, Marcus.”

“Hi. Where are you?”

“Great news. They sent me home.”

“But I thought you weren’t going to be well enough for at least a week yet?” Esca sounded genuinely concerned – much more than Marcus expected.

“I made a miraculous recovery. And they needed my bed.” Esca made an agitated noise, which Marcus knew translated roughly to ‘don’t bullshit me’. He added, perhaps too lightly, “Don’t worry. I get a nurse coming over every couple of days for the next week to check in on me.”

Esca didn’t take the bait. “Seriously Marcus, how are you holding up?”

“I’m okay. I was sick of being cooped up in there, that’s all. What about you?”

“Tomorrow I go and sign all the paperwork, then what used to be my parent’s assets legally become mine. We’re going to talk about what I might want to do with it all. I already decided to sell the house.”

“Did he ask you about your Dad? You know, he thought you might know something.”

“He thought Dad was keeping a record of all the meetings he’d had with this man who’d wanted to buy his properties on the docks. He thinks the man was Martin Guthrie, but he has no proof. He went through everything, at both houses and at the office, and he couldn’t find a thing. I feel sorry for him – he’s so desperate to help. But I just want to move on and forget about it.”

Esca sounded worn out. Marcus wanted to say ‘come home to me’, only he wasn’t sure where Esca considered home anymore. He wasn’t sure if Esca was going to want him, after all was said and done. Why would he?

Esca sighed and Marcus could imagine him worrying his lip before he spoke. “I shouldn’t complain; everyone’s being so nice, but I kind of feel like telling them to fuck off and leave me alone. That’s really shitty, isn’t it?”

“No. I know how you feel. It’s why I came home. I’m skipping the painkillers tonight. I’ve downed a Scotch and I might find myself some porn on the computer later.” Marcus forced out a laugh. “Oh, to have a wank in peace.”

Esca laughed back. “Don’t get me started. Thankfully Uncle Aquila’s in another room in the hotel. Have you ever had phone sex?”

“No.” Marcus could hear Esca shuffling about, sniggering down the phone. “Esca?” Marcus had the feeling he might need to find some tissues, fast. His neglected cock started swelling at the mere thought.

“Okay, I’m ready.” Esca’s voice had brightened considerably.

“For phone sex?”

“Yes. I’ve got my flies undone and my cock in my hand. I’m already half hard.”

“Jesus.” Marcus flushed. “Um, I was only wearing my pants. I’ve pushed them down now.”

“You filthy bugger. Are you touching yourself?”

Marcus could hear the excitement in Esca’s voice. It was infectious. “Yes,” he breathed.

“Where?”

It was ridiculous to be embarrassed. It’s just that it was one thing to do, and quite another to say. Marcus steeled himself and stuttered out, “I’m touching my cock.” He started wanking, slow and firm. He listened to Esca’s breathing and small groans on the other end of the phone, knowing he was doing the same, being able to picture it as if he was there in front of him. Marcus hadn’t imagined it would arouse him as forcefully as it did.

Esca’s breathing was going ragged. Marcus listened, his cock filled in his fist, hardly daring to take a breath. Finally, after panting for long seconds, Esca said, “I’m close.”

Marcus was into it now – so very turned on after no action for weeks - no action like this, anyway. “Keep going. I want to hear you, when you come.”

Esca made a throaty noise and Marcus’s fist jerked in response. He rubbed fast and hard, knowing Esca was on the verge. There was a low groan and Esca gasped, “I’m coming. Now, oh, oh ...”

Marcus felt a jolt through his cock and balls and he followed soon after Esca, coming all over his stomach and chest. “Fuck, fuck. That was ...” Marcus gasped for breath and barked out another laugh. “God, I needed that.”

“Me too.”

“Esca?”

“Yes?”

“Are you going to be all right? We can talk, if you want.”

Marcus would have listened to him read the phone book, if it would keep him talking. If he couldn’t have Esca here with him, he would make do with his voice.

Esca wasn’t in the mood to talk, though. Marcus could tell from the way he sighed, “I’m okay for tonight. We’ll talk when I get back. Can I come straight over and see you?”

“Yes, of course. You didn’t have to ask. Meantime, take care?”

“Okay. You, too.” Esca sighed again and added, “Good night, Marcus. I’ll see you in a couple of days.”

 

Esca came knocking on Friday afternoon. Marcus had been hop-flapping around all morning: getting cleaned up, unpacking his Tesco Direct delivery and getting a clean duvet cover on the duvet, which took longer than the other two tasks put together.

Marcus did his best to get to the front door in a calm and collected fashion. When he opened the door, Esca was stood there, eyes wide and bluer than the summer sky, beaming.

“I came straight here,” Esca said, breathless. He was bustling in and hugging Marcus before the front door was closed, almost sending them both toppling to the floor. Marcus wasn’t too steady on both legs yet.

“Let’s take this inside. I don’t plan on setting foot in another hospital for a long time if I can help it.”

Esca slid his shoulder under Marcus’s armpit and helped him limp to the sofa, where he could elevate his injured leg.

Esca muscled in onto the corner of the cushion between Marcus’s legs, leaned in and took a long, wet kiss from Marcus’s mouth, drinking him down like he was parched. It was good for Marcus, to feel Esca close; all eager hands and hot breath. Marcus groaned as Esca licked behind his ear and ran his hand over Marcus’s crotch. Marcus was hard. He’d been on the cusp of getting an erection the entire morning, just in anticipation of Esca’s arrival.

“You missed me,” Esca grinned.

“Yes.” Marcus slid his hand up Esca’s thigh and said, “You missed me, too.”

“Yeah, I really did.” There was an edge to Esca’s voice that slowed the blood rushing through Marcus’s veins, tempered the urge to pull off Esca’s clothes and suck him dry before he’d said as much as a ‘how was your trip?’ Marcus dared to hope that what he was hearing in Esca’s voice was what he thought it was.

Marcus ventured, “Do you remember what I said to you, when I came around from the anaesthetic?”

“Yes. Do you?”

“I’ll always be here for you.” Marcus could feel Esca trembling. He took his face in his hands and said, “Nothing’s changed for me, Esca. If anything, this past few weeks, watching how you’ve handled yourself, it’s made me care about you more.”

Marcus looked at the expressions warring over Esca’s face. Esca could look hard and fierce, sometimes; his sharp features pointing like a spearhead straight to the heart. Other times, when he was tired or content, everything would soften, especially around his eyes, and his smile would catch Marcus like a warm embrace, lifting him up.

At the moment, all Marcus could see was uncertainty, as Esca said, “You called me something.”

“My treasure.”

“You wouldn’t say that to just anyone?”

“I’ve only ever said it to you.”

Marcus pressed a gentle kiss to Esca’s mouth and pulled him close enough he could feel his heart thumping. It hadn’t occurred to Marcus, not once, that Esca could think their change in circumstances might change the way Marcus felt about him.

Esca traced his finger over Marcus’s bottom lip, moving back only just enough that he could look at Marcus as he spoke. “Do you remember when I said I couldn’t trust my feelings?”

“Yes.” Marcus waited; his heart in his throat.

“Well, being away from you these few weeks, when you were in the hospital, I really missed you. I mean I’ve been worried, too. You’ve been so depressed.”

“Have I?”

“Yes, stupid. And I get it. I know how hard you worked when you were undercover, how much it meant to you to do things right, and how much it hurt you to have to do the things you did.” Esca sat up straighter, as if he was about to say something he’d rehearsed, something that had been on his mind for a while. He cleared his throat and continued. “Even though you’ve been miserable the last few weeks, you’ve never once acted differently towards me and I realised you’ve never stopped being the person I lived with in Exeter. None of what we had was fake; I’m not in love with someone who doesn’t really exist.”

“Oh Esca.” Marcus was torn. He wanted Esca like he’d never wanted anyone before, but he couldn’t shrug off the hard-weighing guilt that he was being selfish. He had to say it, to be sure, no matter how difficult it was to get the words out. “I never meant to tie you down. I want you to be free to do whatever you choose, to go where you want to go and do what you want to do.”

“And what if I choose to be here, to make a life with you? Will you have me?”

“For as long as you’ll have me.” Marcus was shaking and grinning and tearing up at the same time, and all of it felt completely right.

He couldn’t see the expression on Esca’s face but he felt his joy as he threw his arms about Marcus’s neck and pushed his whole body in close again, so they were cheek to cheek, chest to chest. “I’m scared to say forever,” Esca whispered into Marcus’s ear, “for now, anyway.”

“That’s okay. Let’s just take one day at a time, and see how we get on.”

That was good enough and plenty for Marcus. And from the way Esca was kissing his face, it was good enough for him, too.

 


 

Esca took his driving test in early October. Marcus waited at the test centre and knew the second Esca leapt out of the instructor’s car waving the paper in his hand like a trophy that he’d passed.

They hired a car to drive up to Harrogate from Marcus’s flat in London. The wind picked up as they crossed the M25, blowing russet leaves across the drizzle-slick motorway. It didn’t stop Esca putting his foot down once the morning traffic thinned out on the M1. He grinned across at Marcus who absolutely did not clutch the dashboard until his knuckles went white.

Back in the early summer, after Esca had talked many times with a therapist he actually liked and trusted, he began to draw pictures of Adam. It had started out as catharsis, but Marcus had the idea that perhaps, if the drawings resembled the dead boy closely enough, it would be possible get a positive identification of who he was.

The Met were supportive and put the drawings through their facial recognition software, but were unable to identify him. They scanned Esca’s drawings and added what little information they had to their database, where Adam joined the legions of other dead and missing people who had never been claimed or found.

In the end, Esca accepted his friend had been Adam, just Adam, all the time he’d known him - and that would have to be enough.

Esca had an oak bench made in dedication to his lost friend. It was placed in a shady spot, under the strong, sweeping arms of a horse chestnut on the crest of the hill behind St. Mary’s church where Esca’s parents and Maeve were buried. The brass plaque on the centre of the backrest said, “For Adam, the bravest fighter of them all.”

Marcus and Esca rested a while on the bench, looking out at the graves and not saying a word. Neither one of them was inclined to prayers. Esca cried silently, wiping his tears away with the back of his hand.

Marcus bent down and picked up a horse chestnut. The soft, green-white husk was split and it was no effort to peel it off to reveal the shiny brown conker inside. This one was a beauty. Once upon a time Marcus might have made it a champion in the playground. You never quite knew, though, with conkers. Sometimes the small ones were stronger – the force more concentrated when they hit their opponent. Marcus put the conker in his pocket and moved over to Esca, wrapping an arm around his shoulders.

“They almost beat me, too,” Esca said softly, into the breeze.

“But they didn’t. You beat them – you beat them all.”

Esca got up and pulled Marcus to his feet. “Can we go?”

“Of course.”

Esca found coming back north unbearably hard. Sometimes it wasn’t the best course of action, to keep returning to the past. This is how it was for Esca, at the moment anyway.

They reached the car in time to avoid the rain. Marcus’s leg ached, from the walk up the hill and back down again, so Esca gave him a driving tour of the town. They drove past his old school and stopped outside the house where Esca used to live when he was a boy. There was a Sold sign attached to the gate pillar at the front.

“Do you want to go inside, one last time?” Marcus asked.

“No. I already said my goodbyes. I kept a few of their things. Mr. Smith sent the boxes to the house in Scarborough.”

They had dinner at their hotel and didn’t venture out again that night. There was a log fire blazing in the stone hearth in the bar, the local beer they had on tap was good and it wasn’t like there was anything to do; anything else they wanted to do.

The next morning, they went to the offices of Smith & Spears to meet with Mr. Smith. Esca had decided to permanently employ his father’s old assistant manager, who’d single-handedly managed the family business for the last three years, as full-time manager. Esca also awarded him a twenty-five per cent share in ownership of the company, as compensation for his dedicated service during Esca’s absence.

With the papers signed and his finances in order, Esca was ready to leave Harrogate.

They set off shortly after lunch, taking the scenic route for the first part of the journey, heading north first over the Dales instead of directly south to the motorway. The clouds sagged in the sky and in the distance rain was falling. Marcus’s leg ached from the cold and damp and as beautiful as it was up here, he was looking forward to getting home.

“What are we going to do now?” Esca asked, as he turned onto the Harrogate Road.

“Go back to London.”

“That’s not what I meant. I mean, what are we going to do? You want to quit the police and I haven’t got a GCSE to my name. But it’s not like we haven’t both got some funds.”

At that moment, they passed a smallholding. There were baskets of apples and potatoes, and logs for sale, on the side of the road.

“Maybe we could buy a farm,” Marcus snorted. He’d never cultivated anything except mould on bread and fruit. Not to mention, animal smells made him gag.

Lightly, Esca replied, “Or maybe I could sell my drawings.”

Esca might have meant it as a joke, but Marcus was perfectly serious when he hooked his hand around the back of Esca’s neck, rustled his thumb through the spikes of his hair and said, “Maybe you could. Anything’s possible.”

Just then, Esca glanced across and gave Marcus a smile that reached right inside his chest and clutched at his heart.

Anything was possible. When it came to Esca, it really and truly was.

 

The End