The Flesh Cartel #14: Independence Day
Mat and Douglas’s time as Nikolai’s wards is finally drawing to a close. Though torn apart by Nikolai’s machinations, their fates are still inextricably entwined: they’ve been sold to the same cruel master, and are united in their desire to go home. But “home” means two different things to the brothers: for Mat, their little bungalow in Nevada, and for Douglas, a swift return to Nikolai and Roger, the only people he believes still love him.
But first they must survive their new master. Smythe Hall is a twisted island paradise where Americans affect British accents and slaveboys dress up as slave girls, all at the whims of the rich and megalomaniacal Allen Smythe-Kennedy.
Meanwhile, FBI Special Agent Nate Johnson can’t let the case of the missing brothers lie. He knows it’s a waste of resources to chase ghosts down a cold trail, but after admiring Mathias “Stonewall” Carmichael ringside and at countless afterparties where he was too shy to say hello, he’s determined to solve the mystery and bring Mat and his little brother home.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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It was after 10 p.m., and Nate was so tired he was nodding off mid-conversation. Not that it wasn’t an amusing story, because it was—it always was with Ty and Zane, and he hadn’t seen them outside the office in months. But he was beginning to deeply regret having offered to host Fourth of July celebrations at his house. Unfortunately, he was the only one in the whole damn department with a yard big enough to actually put people in. And when it came to free food, nobody even minded the commute into the suburbs.
But he was surprised his neighbors hadn’t started to complain yet about all the noise at this late hour. Between the drunken conversation and laughter and the ’80s music blasting on the patio, he could hardly hear himself think. Well, at least nobody was shooting their guns into the air . . . you never did know with this crowd.
And all he wanted was to go to bed. The fireworks had ended an hour ago. Why wasn’t everyone going home? It wasn’t even the fourth, for God’s sake—it was the fifth, because apparently the city thought nobody would bother to attend fireworks on a Thursday.
Louise interrupted his internal grousing with a beer to the face. “Here,” she said. She popped the top for him, plunked it in his hand. “Smile. Oh, hi boys.” She waved to Ty and Zane. “Wasn’t expecting to see you at the misanthrope table.”
Zane, nursing a Coke, smiled and nodded once. Ty saluted her with his beer and said, “Well, we go to the same Gay Agenda meeting every Sunday while everyone else is in church. Would’ve been rude not to say hi.”
Louise just shook her head. Pointed at Ty’s lap, where T’Challa was curled contentedly, sleeping, like Nate wished he were doing. Except not in Ty’s lap.
Well, okay, maybe in Ty’s lap—it was, admittedly, a very sexy lap. Except for the part where Zane would murder him slowly and painfully, then resurrect him to do it again. “Is that Nate’s cat?” Louise asked.
“He misses those damn evil beasts we were cat-sitting,” Zane said.
Ty glared at him. “Well, if someone would let me take him to animal control to look at the kitties . . .”
“You’re not setting foot in that fucking place.”
But there was no heat in their words or gazes, and Nate found himself laughing. And kind of jealous. The two of them were so comfortable together, like an old married couple. Then again, when Louise grabbed his beer out of his hand, took a swig, and then draped herself across his lap like T’Challa across Ty’s, he supposed he and Louise probably looked that way to the outside world too.
“Come on,” she said. “Come dance with me.” ABBA was playing. She wanted him to dance to ABBA? He wasn’t that kind of gay.
He grabbed his beer back and gave her the stinkeye. “Can’t. I’ve gotta, um . . .” He waved vaguely with his beer, and just when he thought he’d have to admit that he didn’t know how to finish that sentence, his phone vibrated in his pocket.
There really is a God.
“Gotta take this,” he said, knocking her off his lap as he stood. He pulled his phone from his pocket, didn’t recognize the number. “Hello?”
“Is this Special Agent Nathaniel Johnson?”
Nate’s brow immediately firmed up, every ounce of relaxation fleeing his body at once. He strode to the edge of the yard by the fence, waving off Louise as she called after him. “Speaking.”
“The Special Agent Nathaniel Johnson responsible for the Carmichael missing persons case?”
“This is he.” His stomach clenched; there was generally only one reason to be getting this kind of call this long into a disappearance, especially at this time of night on a holiday weekend. Somebody somewhere had found a body. Professional dread warred with personal grief. He was suddenly not even remotely thankful for the call.
“My name’s Detective Ofelia Constanza, with the Boynton Beach Police Department in Florida. I think you might want to hop on a plane tonight, Agent. Mathias Carmichael washed up on City Beach this morning”—Nate’s eyes closed, chest tight—“and he’s just woken up.”
There really is a God, indeed.
“And the brother?”
“Still missing, but Mathias seems to have a lot to say about that. He’s . . . agitated. Knocked a nurse unconscious. Hospital staff had him 5150ed, so he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.”
“Did he say what happened? Where he’s been?”
“Kidnapped,” the detective said. “Guy’s a mess, but he’s alert and oriented.”
“All right. I’ll be on the first flight out. You staying with him?”
“Yeah, I’ll be here all night. Text me your flight info when you have it; we’ll send a black-and-white to pick you up at Palm Beach International.”
“Good. Thanks, Detective. I’ll bring you coffee.”
He could hear her weary smile. “I like you.”
“Ditto.” Because, really, she’d just given him the best news he’d heard in months.
He hung up the phone, smiling for the first time all evening, and walked back over to the table where he’d been hiding before. Ty and Zane were still there, chatting amiably with Louise, who could probably have charmed the pants off both of them if she’d really wanted to. He snagged her arm mid-sentence with a “Sorry, excuse me” aimed at his old friends, and dragged her over the patio and into the house. “Go home. Pack a bag. I’ll pick you up in half an hour.”
She went from mildly affronted to dead serious in about two-tenths of a second. “What’s up, partner?”
“Just heard from a detective down in south Florida. They found Mathias Carmichael.”
She stared at him a moment, then raised her eyebrows, prompting, “. . . And?”
Nate’s smile grew. “And he’s alive.”
Four hours later, Nate and Louise were standing in the hallway of a locked psychiatric ward in south Florida, buzzed on coffee and good news, waiting for Detective Constanza to brief them. He handed her the coffee he’d promised her—Starbucks, not the garbage they served in the lobby—and peered through the window into Stonewall’s hospital room. He looked asleep. In the chair by his bedside, a man in his early fifties with salt-and-pepper hair was leaning forward over his knees, holding one of Mathias’s hands in both of his own.
“Who’s that?” Nate asked. It was nearly four in the morning, and on a locked ward; he hadn’t expected to see visitors.
“Brother’s foster father. Mike . . . something.” Constanza flipped through her notepad. “Stacks. Got here a couple hours ago. Lives in Miami.”
Nate gazed through the window again. He should go in there. Talk to them both. But he was loath to wake Mathias after all the guy had been through. He’d read Constanza’s report on the plane—evidence of months’ worth of violent rapes, beatings, restraints. Someone had whipped the guy, for fuck’s sake, and more than once. Branded him with their fucking initials. No wonder he’d freaked out when he’d woken up in a strange place with strange hands on him.
But Douglas was still missing. And Mathias could help them find him. And if the brother was being treated even a tenth as badly as Mathias clearly had been, then every second counted.
“They drug him?” Louise asked.
Constanza shook her head. “He was insistent. Not even Tylenol. He came in unconscious and stayed that way for almost ten hours, so they got fluids into him, and some antibiotics in case he inhaled any seawater. But he ripped his IV out when he woke up, wouldn’t let them put it back. They can hold him against his will for seventy-two hours, but they can’t treat him against his will without a court order.”
Nate took a deep breath, followed it with a swig of coffee. “All right,” he said to no one in particular. Looked at Louise. “Ready?”
Louise nodded. Constanza swiped a key card through the lock on the door. The little light turned green. “Careful,” she said. “He . . . startles.”
Nate nodded, and he and Louise went inside.
The guy who walked in next was too damn gorgeous to be legit. Detective Ofelia was pudgy and had a hardened, weary face. The various nurses who came and went were middle-aged or stout or grizzled or carelessly groomed. The doctor had bad acne scars. Mike was . . . Mike, except for the part where he looked like he’d aged twenty years since the last time Mat had seen him.
But this guy? This guy was six feet tall and firm-bodied, with high cheekbones and striking hazel eyes that were impossible to miss: so bright against his copper-brown skin. The woman beside him was also too perfect; petite but strong, like a gymnast or a fighter (or a sex slave), thick dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, brown eyes almost too big in her delicate face. They couldn’t be cops. Couldn’t be social workers. Not in this room, not with Mat. It was too fucking convenient. It was too fucking perfect. They were too perfect.
And here Mat was fucking restrained, wrists and ankles pinned to the bed by wide leather straps. They’d fucking restrained him. He knew it was useless, but he tugged at the straps anyway, weak and exhausted as he was. Couldn’t help it. The heart monitor was broadcasting his rising panic for all the fucking world to hear, and Mike was touching him, fingers tight around his own, and he couldn’t even make Mike let go, let alone protect himself from what was coming—
“Easy, easy, they’re with me.” Detective Ofelia smiled at him like he was some tantruming toddler, and the guy and the woman reached into their pockets—and God, no, there was no fucking reason for him to be panicking at that like he was—and pulled out . . .
No, no, badges meant shit. Badges could be faked. The Cartel would definitely fake them, if they needed to. And they’d have the skills and resources to make them look real, even if Mat were versed enough to know the difference.
“Stay back,” Mat barked, his throat still rough. Then, darting his eyes to where Mike’s hands lay curled around his own, “Mike . . .”
He didn’t have to say anything else; the desperation in his voice was perfectly clear. Mike let go with a guilty little “Sorry.”
The man and woman kept their distance, hands up in what they probably figured was an unthreatening posture, fake FBI badges dangling from their fingers.
“I’m Special Agent Nate Johnson, and this is my partner, Special Agent Louise Menendez. We’ve been on your case for over four months now. We’re here to help.”
Mat tugged against the restraints again, sat up as much as he could. Fell back, exhausted, a moment later. Stupid fucking body—now was not the time to be giving out on him. “Let me go,” he demanded, even if it did come out more like a plea. Mike looked guilty, but nobody moved to unstrap him. “Who owns you? Is it Nikolai? Allen? Does he really think he can drag me back there? I’ll fucking kill myself first, you hear me?”
“Mat . . .” Mike, sounding half-pained and half-embarrassed, and God, why was everybody looking at him like that? Like he was fucking insane. An object of pity. Fuck that noise. He looked the guy dead in the eye and yelled, “I said who owns you!”
The guy’s brows drew down in a convincing mask of confusion, with just a dash of indignation. “I . . . what? Nobody. Nobody owns me. I work for the FBI, in the DC bureau, under Assistant Director Pileggi.” He turned to a nurse, who’d presumably been drawn by the commotion, and asked, “Is he lucid? I think . . . he seems to think I’m a slave.”
The guy sounded as offended as Mat felt at being talked about like he wasn’t lying right fucking here.
“Yes, I’m fucking lucid,” he said at the same time the nurse said, “He’s alert and oriented, has been since he woke up. No sign of hallucinations. But he needs his rest,” she added pointedly. “So perhaps you should come back tomorrow.”
“A young man’s life is at risk,” the guy—Johnson, was it?—replied.
Mike stood, like maybe he was planning to put himself between Johnson and Mat, and said, “Look, maybe you should just—” at the same time Mat said,
“I don’t think you’re a slave, I fucking know you’re a slave, pretty boy.”
“Boy, now, is it?”
The woman grabbed the man’s arm, pulled him back a step. “Careful, partner.” She moved to stand between him and Mat. Mike, looking lost, sat down again. “Sorry about him,” the woman said to Mat. “He gets touchy sometimes. Let’s start again, huh? My name’s Louise. I’m here to help you find your brother. But to do that, I need to know where you’ve been for the last eleven months. Think you can talk to me about it?”
Eleven months. Jesus.
“You fucking know where my brother’s been. You fucking know.”
“Mat,” Mike said, and reached to touch him but then thought the better of it. “Mat, buddy, you’ve got to calm down. These people are here to help you.”
What if they are? What if they’re telling the truth? Dougie . . .
One more useless, exhausting tug at his restraints. “Show me your feet, then. I’m not saying a word until I see your feet. Both of you.”
A long, awkward pause, and then Agent Johnson said, “All right,” clearly trying to put his anger away but not quite succeeding. He lifted his leg, showing off one shiny black shoe.
“Your bare fucking feet,” Mat shouted.
Johnson’s hesitation—as good as refusal—was all Mat needed to know; he turned to Mike, gave up all pretense and outright begged: “You gotta let me out, man, you don’t understand. Please, please, for Dougie, let me out of these damn—”
“Hey.” Soft, gentle. The woman.
“I’m sorry, Mat,” Mike said, actually a little choked up about it. He looked devastated, and Mat felt terrible even putting him in that position. But he needed out. Needed it.
He turned back to the woman. She’d moved a step closer, was reaching out to put a hand on Mat’s shoulder. He jerked away, and she pulled her arm back, looking sheepish. “Hey, look, it’s okay. I get it, you need to see for yourself. No brand. See?”
She bent down, unlaced both shoes, toed them off. Took her socks off and straightened up. Elbowed her partner in the side, which seemed to get him moving; he bent down to do the same. While Johnson was untying, Louise lifted one foot, effortlessly balancing, and waved it toward him, baring the sole. The blank, unmarked sole.
“Now the right one,” he said. The incessant beeping of the heart monitor had slowed, and he no longer tasted dirty metal in the back of his throat. She switched feet, exposed her right sole and waited patiently while he looked. No brand on either foot. He turned his gaze to Johnson. “Now you.”
Johnson didn’t balance quite as gracefully as Louise did, and he looked grumpy about it, but there was no brand on his right foot, and no brand on his left either.
Mat . . . actually kind of didn’t know how to feel about that. Relieved, sure. But just because they weren’t slaves didn’t mean they weren’t bounty hunters. Still, he wanted to believe they could help him. Needed to, quite frankly. Because he couldn’t spend the rest of his fucking life freaking out every time he saw a pretty face. And if he was going to get Dougie free, he’d need help.
“Sorry.” He rubbed his face against his shoulder, wishing he could rub his eyes. “You have to understand,” he explained carefully, trying to get the rage and fear out of his voice. “The people who took my brother and me . . . they’ll be looking. They might even already know where I am. I took the chip out, but that doesn’t mean shit, I don’t think. They’ve got people. People in the government. They’re powerful.”
The looks on the two agents’ perfect faces told him he sounded completely crazy. Of course, of course. Chips, agency spies. Add in a little talk of the apocalypse, and it was the kind of shit homeless people on street corners raged about.
He blew out a noisy breath, consciously made himself stop struggling, tried to calm the fucking beeping of the heart monitor. “Look. I know how crazy all this sounds, believe me, I know. But you saw my chart, yeah? You saw—” He had to stop, swallow. His eyes stung. He turned to Mike, asked, “Could you, um. Could you maybe go get a cup of coffee or something? You’ve been sitting up all night.”
Mike nodded, stood. “Sure, buddy.” He kind of sounded like he wanted to cry too. He leaned in, like maybe he was going to ruffle Mat’s hair or kiss his forehead or something, but stopped himself, wincing, when Mat cringed. What the fuck was wrong with him, shying away like some stray fucking dog? This was Mike. And Mat hadn’t exactly been a wilting flower these last eleven months, so why now?
“Sorry,” he murmured, cheeks heating, but Mike just nodded, said, “Don’t apologize. I’ll be back in a little while.”
Mat waited until he was gone, the door closed behind him, before speaking again. “You’re investigating a missing persons case. You must’ve seen your share of sex trafficking in the past. I’ve spent eleven months—” That fucking tightness in his throat again. Jesus fuck, he was not going to break down crying over this. Not fucking now. “Eleven months being raped and tortured and fought like a fucking dog, and the evidence of every second of that is all over my body. I haven’t seen my chart, but I know what’s written on it. I know what the doctor found. My back. My body. My . . . my ass. So why is it so hard for you to believe me?”
“We believe you,” Louise insisted.
Even Johnson’s face had softened, like maybe he realized he’d been hasty to judge. He nodded. Rubbed at the back of his neck with one hand, then put them both out, open, in front of him, and stepped forward. Reached for Mat’s wrist. “I’m sorry,” he said, and then said it again, stepping back, when Mat tensed at the proximity. Johnson sounded like he really meant it, too. “Just . . . what Louise said. I get a little . . . touchy sometimes.” He flashed a lightning-quick grin, guilty, apologetic, a little fierce. “Although I think a little touchiness is justified, don’t you?” Mat didn’t bother to reply. Johnson cleared his throat, his hands inching toward the restraint on Mat’s left wrist again. “So, um, how about I untie you, and you don’t punch me in the head”—another quicksilver smile, like what Mat had done to that poor nurse was funny, or . . . no, just self-deprecating, that’s all—“and you can tell us all about what happened to you and your brother so we can help bring him home.”
[A] turning point in the series . . . [A]nxiously awaiting #15!
I’m completely hooked on Mat and Doug’s story.
These authors have a way of dragging you through torture and make it worth it. You have to go through the dark to get the light.