Job Hunt

The Power of Zero #1

by Jackie Keswick

You don't greet your new boss dressed like an underage rent boy. But when Jack Horwood--ace hacker and ex-MI6 operative--opens the door to Gareth Flynn, he's too busy to worry over details like that. And anyway, his potential new boss is his former commanding officer - the same guy Jack has had a crush on since he was seventeen. So he should understand, right?

When he applied for the job in Nancarrow Mining's corporate security division, Jack had hoped for peaceful days repelling cyber attacks. Maybe a bit of corporate espionage on the side. His plans didn't include rescuing abused children, hunting pimps, or dealing with his overly protective and hot-as-hell boss, Gareth Flynn.

Walking away is not an option. Jack never takes the easy way out. More than that, meeting Gareth raises old ghosts that Jack needs to put to rest. Rescuing kids. Taking risks. Saving the day. Jack can do all that--but deciding what to do about his attraction to Gareth isn't the sort of cloak-and-dagger game Jack plays well. As far as Jack was concerned, a second chance for him and Gareth was never even on the cards. Yet Gareth, strong and smart and always on hand when needed, might be Jack's salvation.

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Published:
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Editors:
Cover Artists:
Genres:
Tags:
Pairings: MM
Heat Level: 4
Romantic Content: 3
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Bisexual
Protagonist 1 Age: 26-35
Protagonist 2 Age: 36-45
Protagonist 3 Age: Under 18
Tropes: Badass Hero, Coming Home, Hurt / Comfort, Lone Wolf, Second Chances
Word Count: 95000
Setting: London, England
Languages Available: English
Series Type: Continuous / Same Characters
Excerpt:

Chapter ONE

Interview

MIDMORNING TRAFFIC on the Strand was steady. Jack Horwood drifted with the flow of pedestrians—mostly tourists and visitors to the capital with the odd office worker out on an errand—past the Savoy Hotel and on toward Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. The buzz and bustle reminded him of the morning after his viva exam when he and Tom had decided to treat themselves to a proper breakfast after a night out celebrating. And how that simple decision had turned into the grandest, biggest, and most magnificent breakfast the two had ever seen. Or eaten.

The Ten Deadly Sins? Was that what they called it?

He stopped outside the restaurant’s ornate entrance and snuck a peek at the menu. Yes, he’d remembered that right: everything you ever thought of eating for breakfast and then some. And they were still serving it.

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Maybe, if this job interview worked out, he’d do it again. Heaven knew he needed it. He’d shed a lot of weight in the last nine months—his usual reaction to stress—and his suit sat a little too loosely on his waist. Though trying Simpson’s again without Tom might be only half the fun.

The last he’d heard, Tom Walken was off somewhere arid and rocky in the company of a hammer, preferring the life of a freelance mineral prospector to drawing a regular salary on the staff of a big mining company. Meeting for lunch at Simpson’s might be tricky, but just the memories made Jack wonder if his friend would consider working for the company Jack was planning to make his next home.

Compared to the elegance of Somerset House, the Victorian red brick and white trim edifice that housed Nancarrow Mining looked ostentatious, but Jack knew that the inside of the building had a very different feel. A bit like his redheaded friend, who resembled a model pretending to be a hoodlum but had his very own brand of loyalty and integrity, and somehow Jack thought that Tom would approve of Jack’s plans.

Jack Horwood had never had a job, before or after university, that did not involve the government in some capacity. He’d freelanced on projects for the secret service since he’d turned fourteen, so joining MI6 after leaving the army and gaining his doctorate had been a logical next step on his career path. It had taken the last couple of years, and especially his last case, to make him realize that it wasn’t the life he wanted. He wasn’t content to be written off as collateral damage. He didn’t aspire to be a pawn in someone’s power game. Nor did he want to be seen as a liability.

So, he quit.

And now here he was, looking for another job to fill his days. Something to pay the bills, if someone was asking. Another crusade to fight, if he was honest.

Jack slid out of the stream of pedestrian traffic and stopped in front of a store display. He had a few minutes to kill before his interview. He was also desperate for more caffeine, but that particular craving would have to wait until later. He wasn’t on duty, hadn’t been on duty for four months, yet he automatically scanned the crowd for conflict points, the traffic for threats, the surrounding buildings for cover and hideouts. When he checked his reflection in the glass before him, though, only his professional facade was visible: a light gray suit, the jacket fitted to his wide shoulders and slim hips, and a shirt the exact same eucalyptus leaf shade as his eyes accented by a deep green tie. His face was schooled into a calm mask that showed none of his thoughts, and the tattoo on his left temple was almost hidden by his mop of dark spikes.

Pretending interest in the store’s merchandise, Jack ran a fingertip over the tattoo, an idiocy committed under the influence during his year of postgrad study. Though the choice to leave the army had been his and his only, he had struggled with guilt and heartache, had felt lost and adrift and alone. For a time back there, he’d rarely ever been sober, but when he came home with that tattoo, Tom had finally flipped and kicked his ass into the next week. Jack had given back as good as he got, and they both ended the incident in the ER.

It seemed inconceivable that anyone so conspicuously marked would be good at undercover work, but Jack had a knack for it. Despite the tattoo, he could blend—better than most of his peers, who didn’t stand out to begin with. He never bothered pointing out that just having the tat was akin to wearing a sign saying this guy could never be a cop.

Undercover work wasn’t all Jack did or what he’d been recruited to do in the first place. He was a systems security specialist. An excellent one, if you read his appraisals. A damned hacker, if you talked to people at the receiving end of his skills. Analyzing and sequencing data was second nature to him. He didn’t wait for loopholes. Neither did he go out of his way to find compromised systems—he simply created them when needed. Whether or not he was tattooed hadn’t entered into the equation until much, much later.

Jobs for his kind of skills simply were not advertised.

He’d taken time out after resigning from MI6, spent a couple of weeks on a beach, three weeks in a retreat practicing kendo, and when he returned to England, he’d been ready for a new challenge.

With nobody but himself to answer to, he’d thrown himself into research, creating a list of large and prominent companies that were under attack from their competitors. He even pulled a few all-nighters sneaking into networks to prove how vulnerable his targets really were. Just to refine his list.

Then he’d started his real job hunt. One by one he dissected each company: their books, leaders, projects, cash flow, customers, and values until only a handful were left. Five corporations that Jack wanted to work for. Five corporations with the mindset, projects, policies, and ethics to attract him. Nancarrow Mining was at the top of that list.

His watch buzzed a ten-minute alert, and Jack turned from his contemplation of what he now realized were women’s shoes. He took a deep breath and smiled at the familiar hint of pressure across his throat, where a narrow strip of embossed leather caressed his skin just under the edge of his tie, offering comfort and reassurance. Ahead of him loomed the huge metal-banded mahogany gates that guarded Nancarrow Mining’s headquarters. Beside the ostentatious entrance was a more sensibly sized door—for people without megalomania—and Jack grinned at the thought, at ease with the world and with himself.

 

TWO HOURS later the world was still the right way up, even if Jack got to see it through floor-to-ceiling windows from the executive floor. The London Eye spun serenely. The Thames flowed as it had since the last ice age, and if he squinted and craned his neck a little, he could just make out red open-topped buses between rows of trees, ferrying tourists along Victoria Embankment. It didn’t bother him that he did all this while civilly answering questions and discussing security issues common to most larger corporations. If anything, the sightseeing kept him calm. His mind ran on at least two tracks for most of the time, and that wasn’t a habit he wanted to break.

He had hoped to find a kindred spirit in Donald Frazer, Nancarrow Mining’s own systems security specialist, and he wasn’t disappointed. The Scot was young for the job, but he was good. And fun to tease. Within moments of meeting, their discussion turned technical, and banter and insults followed shortly after. Jack deliberately played on his reputation, but Frazer wasn’t the least bit awed. He knew his stuff, and he wasn’t scared to call Jack out when he suspected bullshit.

“That’s about as logical as a first generation Pentium,” Frazer commented on one of Jack’s assertions, making Jack laugh.

“I can prove it,” he baited, just as the door to the office opened behind him. Jack didn’t turn around to see who had entered, but his world flipped upside down and ground to a screeching stop at the sound of a voice he’d not heard in almost eight years.

“Horwood.”

 

JACK PRAYED that his mouth was closed. Right in front of him stood a man he’d never thought to meet again. He knew he was staring and couldn’t do a thing about it. But at hearing the once so familiar voice, his body remembered old times and old habits. He shot out of his seat, back straight, hands by his sides.

“Captain Flynn, sir!”

It confused him that his body acted without his mind giving directions, but the confusion fled when Gareth laughed. Jack remembered the sound of that laugh from his army days. The deep rumble had once had the power to turn an ambush into a training exercise. No wonder it sent shivers down Jack’s spine.

“Stand down, Horwood.” Gareth Flynn smoothed a hand over the lapel of his charcoal pinstriped suit. “No uniform, see?”

“Yes, sir.” Jack’s brain refused to process the facts. If this was a test, if Gareth wanted to see how Jack reacted under sudden extreme stress… then he’d just failed spectacularly.

“Are you about done, Frazer?” Gareth asked and turned to Jack when Donald Frazer nodded. “I’d like to discuss a few other issues with you,” he said blandly. “Would you care for lunch?”

Jack couldn’t have answered coherently had he tried, so he merely shook hands with Frazer before he followed Gareth from the room and into the nearest elevator.

Physically his former commanding officer hadn’t changed much. He’d had white hair in his twenties, and time had only added a few lines to his forehead and the corners of his amber eyes. Gareth Flynn stood tall, moved smoothly, and his presence had the solidity Jack had always loved. The silver hair was a little longer than Jack was used to, and it tried to stand up in spikes to rival Jack’s. It didn’t really suit Gareth Flynn’s chiseled features and tough image, but Jack found it adorable.

He watched the man from the corner of his eye while they braved the bustle of the Strand at lunchtime and dodged people carrying sandwiches and coffee to go. His memories were of Gareth in fatigues and rolled-up sleeves, muscular forearms on display, but Gareth Flynn in a pinstriped suit that fitted like a second skin across his broad shoulders and was tailored to hug his narrow hips equally closely… well, that was downright hot.

“You’ve made a right name for yourself,” Gareth rumbled, voice raised a notch to be heard over the rattle and chug of a red Routemaster bus that passed only a few feet from the edge of the pavement. “But did you have to become a bloody spook? I had to pull in favors to find you, only to learn that you’d just quit your job and disappeared again.”

“You were looking for me?” Jack couldn’t quite wrap his head around that.

“For the better part of a year, I’ll have you know,” Gareth growled, sounding almost offended at the length of time it had taken. He slid out of the stream of pedestrians, leading them up the steps and through the entrance to Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. The burnished copper sign saying simply “Simpson’s” looked as imposing as Jack remembered it, and entering the iconic restaurant’s hallowed halls felt like stepping back in time. Now as then, huge chandeliers lit the foyer and brightened the dimness of the wood-paneled dining room, their light dancing over crystal and china and adding a soft gleam to the table linens. The mouthwatering scent of roasting meat enveloped them like a welcoming hug, and Jack’s stomach reminded him that he’d skipped breakfast.

Gareth Flynn didn’t seem to need a reservation. He merely nodded a greeting to the maître d’ before the man conducted them to a quiet booth at the far end of the room.

Jack followed in silence. The world around him felt like a beautiful island paradise littered with land mines, a pleasant dream that could turn into a nightmare at any moment. It urged him to caution, to move carefully, to listen rather than speak.

They settled into the soft cushions, and Jack’s brain unscrambled enough so that he could ask a question. “Do you come here a lot?”

“Often enough for the staff to know that I want peace and privacy when I do.”

Gareth’s tone was just this side of caustic, and Jack met Gareth’s eyes for the first time since the man’s surprise appearance at his interview. It wasn’t the smartest move in the book. The amber eyes burned with an intensity that snared Jack’s mind and took his breath. And that was before Gareth smiled.

A real, genuine smile curved the full lips into a tempting bow and crinkled the corners of Gareth’s eyes into spider webs of mirth. The gaze was warm, and Jack promptly drowned in the expression, painfully aware of how much he had missed seeing that smile.

“What are you drinking?”

Gareth’s amused tone drew Jack from his abstraction. He blinked rapidly, noted the waiter by his side—where did he spring from? And how long has he been standing there?—and registered Gareth’s words.

“Just water, thanks,” Jack said quietly. He really wanted something a little more potent, but that would have to wait until he made it home. For now, he had to pull himself together and act like the professional he was. Hiding behind the menu while he chose his lunch helped him settle, and after the waiter had brought their drinks and taken their orders, he felt a tad more ready to deal with Gareth Flynn.

“When did you leave the army?” he asked, pleased when his voice came out level.

“Eighteen months ago,” Gareth replied, raising his gin and tonic in a brief salute before taking a sip.

“Why?” The question slipped out before Jack could censor, and he fought not to flinch. He wanted to know, but… “Sorry. Bad form to quiz the boss—I remember.” His brain stuttered over the old, familiar phrase. He hadn’t heard or used it in too many years, yet here it was. Out of the mouths of babes and idiots….

“Jack.”

Gareth’s tone, commanding and hesitant at once, made him lift his head. Gareth wasn’t smiling this time, and his gaze was unforgiving.

What did I say?

Their food arrived, distracting them both, and Jack was content to let the issue drop. He didn’t doubt that Gareth would revisit this if it bothered him. Leaving things unfinished had never been Gareth’s way. Jack concentrated on his lunch—the devilled kidneys served with his Barnsley chop were just the way he liked them, with a nice kick at the end—and wondered if Gareth’s habit of neatly tying loose ends was the reason for this meeting.

“Have you really been looking for me?”

“Yes,” Gareth confirmed around a mouthful of roast beef.

“Why?” This time, Jack didn’t flinch when he asked. This wasn’t quizzing the boss. He was… gathering intel.

“At first, I just wanted to catch up,” Gareth mused. “Then I joined Nancarrow Mining and thought you might enjoy working there.” He pinned Jack with a direct stare. “And I wasn’t wrong, was I?”

“No.” The stab of disappointment was swift and sharp, but Jack kept his face blank and his answer to a single syllable. He had approached Nancarrow Mining about a job, so he couldn’t very well argue with Gareth’s assessment. “Is that the problem?” he asked instead. “You no longer think so now that you’ve seen my CV and watched the interview?”

“What do you mean?”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “If you’re trying to tell me that there isn’t a camera in that monstrous gilt frame behind the group of armchairs—”

…you can save your breath.

“I’m not,” Gareth interrupted brusquely. “And I’d appreciate it if you’d stop second-guessing me. If you possess half the brain everyone says you do, you must remember that I really hate being told what I’m thinking.” He set his knife down with a little too much force and clenched his fingers around the almost empty crystal tumbler. “I thought I’d beaten that out of you years ago,” he added under his breath.

Jack couldn’t stop the grin that spread across his face. This was vintage Gareth, from the bite in the tone to the stilted language, right down to the hand reaching for a convenient missile. Not that the crystal tumbler would come screaming at his head any time soon, but the reminder was… nice. Another little piece of history verified, shifted from the realms of wishful thinking into the box marked “real and true.”

Jack relaxed against his seat’s cushioned backrest. “Tell me what it is, then,” he demanded with something close to his usual aplomb. “Why did you gatecrash the interview? If you think I fit so well, why not leave the bureaucracy to run its course and surprise me on my first day?”

“Because I haven’t seen you in years,” Gareth replied, voice harsh. “Because you walked out without giving a single good reason. Because you’ve been avoiding all of us ever since.” He drew a deep breath and calmed himself with an effort. “Because I wanted to see if you’d avoid me if I stood right there.”

Heat washed across Jack’s neck and face. He’d known that Gareth would see his actions as a kind of desertion, but hearing the pain in the man’s voice as he recounted it hurt Jack on a level he didn’t think he could hurt anymore.

“I had a reason,” he told the linen-draped tabletop.

“I never disputed that. I just wish you’d trusted me enough to explain it to me.” Like Jack had done earlier, Gareth leaned back from the table and tried to relax. “Tell me one thing,” he said softly. “Was it PTSD?”

Jack drew a deep breath, grateful that Gareth didn’t pry. Grateful, too, that this was a question he could answer. He looked up, straight into a pair of intent amber eyes. “No.”

Gareth nodded, and his shoulders relaxed a fraction. “Fine,” he growled, before he pointed a finger at Jack’s face. “Now, what’s with that tat?”

“Don’t ask,” Jack groaned, wishing for a place to hide. Of course, there wasn’t one. Short of draping a napkin over his head or stripping off his jacket, there was little cover to be had while facing Gareth across a dinner table. Just as there was no way in hell he’d ever admit his real reason for getting that tattoo. “It was an idiocy committed on the back of too much booze, okay?”

“Should have known,” Gareth snorted. “How could you be a spook looking like that?”

“It’s a gift.”

“No doubt. Do you use makeup?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Jack had been trained to change his appearance—and hide the tattoo—using both cosmetic and theatrical makeup, but Gareth didn’t need to know that. Or what Jack looked like while he hunted pimps through nightclubs.

Still, the banter cleared the air, and both men carefully stayed away from serious topics while they finished their meal and drank their coffee. Only when the grand entrance of Simpson’s closed behind them and they rejoined the throng of pedestrians on the Strand, did Gareth return to their earlier conversation.

“I want you to work for me.” Gareth’s voice was low and serious. “We’re more than busy. There’s plenty of competition, and the fight gets dirty at times. Provided you’re careful, you wouldn’t even have to stick to one side of the law only.” Gareth ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “Listen to me. I sound like a used car salesman.”

He did, in an endearing way, but Jack was too tense to be entertained. “Gareth, I… I’ll think about it.”

“Yes, you do. Think. Usually too much.” Gareth waved a hand in the air, an odd aura of defeat surrounding him. “Go and think. But watch that you don’t think yourself out of something you actually want.”

 

TIME SPED and slowed in odd patterns when there were no means to estimate how late or early it might be. Being stuck in the dark made it worse, but Ricky had long given up asking for a light to be left on. Nobody cared enough to listen, and Ricky would rather not reveal another weakness for his keepers to taunt him with. Curled into a tight, tense ball, he huddled into his blankets. He buried his head under the lumpy pillow and tried to block out the sobs and pained shouts filtering through the thin walls from Nico and Daniel’s room next door.

The scent of patchouli hung in the locked, windowless room, so thick that he gagged if he breathed too deeply. His father used to wear it, and Ricky’s memories were full of insults, shouts, and pain, always accompanied by the sickly sweet, invasive scent. It made sense that Goran Mitrovic reeked of patchouli. The pimp got off on pain. He got off even more on inflicting it on others, though he tortured with more deliberation than Ricky’s late and unlamented father.

Ricky found no pleasure in being hurt, but he’d long since learned that being caned was sometimes better than the alternative: streams of strangers through his room at all hours, hard hands and rough mouths on his body, and nothing but threats and insults in his ears. Ricky barely heard the words anymore. Being apostrophized as a filthy, dirty whore didn’t bother him. He was better than that. He had choices. Being caned was the easy way out sometimes.

Daniel didn’t agree, but the slender, blond teen didn’t deal well with pain or violence. Daniel could hide inside his mind—something Ricky had never learned to do—and it seemed to help get the younger boy through the days and nights.

Please, don’t do anything stupid! Just give him what he wants, Ricky begged silently. He knew that prayers served no purpose, but the sounds coming through the thin walls made him screw his eyes shut and address any higher powers that might perchance be listening. Or maybe he was simply hoping to connect with the youngest member of their little group, who refused to scream even though it might end the beating sooner.

The wall blocked the hiss of the whip, but it did little to muffle the sounds of harsh, rough laughter from the adjoining room. Daniel’s screams made Ricky bite his knuckles, made him flinch and shudder and drag the thin pillow tighter over his head, while Nico’s bitten off groans tore at his soul.

Ricky knew that Nico would rather take a beating than watch his friend being hurt and abused, that he frequently offered himself in Daniel’s place, to clients as well as their jailer. It had worked often enough that Nico had grown just a little too sure. He had tried to spare Daniel when Goran was in a foul mood, and now both boys were reaping the fruits of his failure.

Ricky was wiser in the ways of their world. He had learned to pick his battles. It hurt, but he swallowed the urge to hammer on the walls to stop the torture. Getting in the way of Goran’s entertainment would accomplish nothing; might even prolong the violence if he misjudged. At sixteen, he was the eldest of Goran’s boys and had been in the man’s clutches the longest. That didn’t mean that Goran listened to anything Ricky said. Just like the other boys, Ricky was caged. The doors to his prison opened when Goran saw fit and not a moment sooner.

Ricky pulled the thin blanket tighter over his head and buried his face deeper in the pillow. The rough laughs, Nico’s broken sobs, and Daniel’s screams continued for some time. Ricky huddled under his covers, muscles tight, and kept his eyes wide open in the dark long after the screams had turned to silence.

COLLAPSE

About the Author

Jackie Keswick was born behind the Iron Curtain with itchy feet, a bent for rocks and a recurring dream of stepping off a bus in the middle of nowhere to go home. She's worked in a hospital and as the only girl with 52 men on an oil rig, spent a winter in Moscow and a summer in Iceland and finally settled in the country of her dreams with her dream team: a husband, a cat, a tandem, a hammer and a laptop.

Jackie loves unexpected reunions and second chances, and men who don't follow the rules when those rules are stupid. She blogs about English history and food, has a thing for green eyes, and is a great believer in making up soundtracks for everything, including her characters and the cat.

And she still hasn't found the place where the bus stops.

For questions and comments, not restricted to green eyes, bus stops or recipes for traditional English food, you can find Jackie Keswick in all the usual places.

 

 


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