There was a civilization before this one. All that remains of it are some writings and some names. Most people can't be bothered with what they said or what they meant. Historians and scientists do that sort of thing. For a long time after the cataclysm that destroyed the civilization before, all that mattered was having enough of anything to survive. Those needs brought forth the rise of gangs that found ways of finding anything that was needed and getting it to those with something to exchange. Over the generations that passed since the cataclysm, one gang grew in power and influence above all others. Even as governments grew and technology advanced, this gang remained the real power behind every aspect of the economy. There was no politician, nor royal nor titled citizen that came close to having the power this gang commanded. They were the final arbiters of everything – including justice – in this civilization that is. They are the Cosimo, an old world word that meant 'those who keep order' or Cosi for short. Not much is known about their inner workings especially how they rise to their rank. Rumor is that they are bred from birth for their roles. There are whispers about genetic manipulation that makes them something more than men. They are bigger and stronger and more agile thinkers. It is said that they sometimes think as a unit. Nothing is known for certain as they tightly keep their own counsel. All that is as certain as the sun rising is that to run afoul of the Cosi can easily mean death.
* * *
“I still can’t believe that I knew of a night spot before you,” Mykos Estevan said with a bright smile.
Darius Galatea glowered at his Second with mild indignation as the driver pulled up to the building. He could almost see the man’s violet eyes dancing in the darkness of the car.
“I had heard of Club Zero from a number of people,” Darius corrected. His deep, melodious voice had somewhat of a clipped tone. “I just hadn’t time to explore it as you obviously did. I was working.”
“Don’t be cross, Darius. We’re here to celebrate,” Mykos said as they alighted from the long, opulent vehicle.
Darius made no comment as they swept past the line of hopefuls waiting to get inside the club. Cosi didn’t wait in lines. All that saw them knew exactly what they were. Their unusually tall height, their uncommon good looks and the waist length hair were unmistakable. The manager rushed over to greet them, and, as all such managers before him have done, quickly showed them to the best guest table in the house. They had an excellent view of the bandstand and the dance floor. Their orders were taken quickly and soon they were enjoying a surprisingly good wine. Darius found himself relaxing within a few sips of the exquisite vintage. Mykos smiled at him knowingly. Darius finally smiled back. He raised his glass.
“To tough negotiations,” he murmured.
“To successful negotiations,” Mykos amended. “I really thought it was going to come down to force.”
Darius shook his head. “That region had just begun to see prosperity after years of internal conflict. They didn’t have the stomach for another fight. Only their pride stood in the way.”
“I can’t believe that simply waiting them out worked so well,” Mykos commented. “We made not one threat.”
“We didn’t have to,” Darius replied as he sipped his wine. “They knew what we are capable of bringing into their midst. That has been my point these past months, Mykos. Our reputations are almost part of the DNA. We don’t have to make threats anymore.”
“In this instance, I agree, old friend,” he replied. “But we are being challenged in places that wouldn’t have dared a year or two ago. A show of force is an inevitability. But that is for another night. Wait until you taste this food.”
The waiter arrived with their platters. Their food order was apparently put ahead of a number of other tables. Again, Darius was not surprised. Cosi did not have a reputation for patience though they were actually quite patient as a rule. No one dared complain more than whispers amongst themselves. Darius didn’t hear or care. He was lost in the taste of the elegantly simple fare in front of him. The food was not expensive, but it was exquisitely prepared. Darius sighed around his fork.
“You should see your face,” Mykos said.
Darius ignored the comment. “Is Zed Crew responsible for this place?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Mykos said. “The owner grew up in the same group home as Zed’s leader, Andreas Hesper. He fronted the seed money and extended protection to the place. Zed Crew operates out of here, but Club Zero made its own reputation.”
“It’s well deserved,” Darius commented. “Music, wine and great food. No wonder Calix Elite frequent the place.”
“There is the lure of a brush with the underworld,” Mykos said. “And now, even Cosi.”
“You’re that sure I’ll frequent?”
“I know you, remember?”
Darius smirked at him but made no reply. He wanted to enjoy the plate in front of him. Mykos had always been the Cosi to deal with Zed Crew. Darius knew very little about them save that they were a reliable asset to Cosi interests. But anyone capable of fostering such a place as Club Zero was worth his attention.
“Is Andreas Hesper here?” Darius asked once his plate was clean.
“I believe I saw him as we were seated. Should I summon him?”
“No,” Darius replied. “Let’s enjoy the wine and perhaps a dessert. I don’t want to work tonight. I was merely curious.”
They did just that. By the time they were ready for dessert, the wine was gone and the club was very crowded. The Cosi had not seen their server in quite some time. Still, there was good humor at the table.
“I suppose a place can be too popular,” Mykos quipped.
“Our lack of wine is easily remedied,” Darius said. “I’ll get some reinforcements from the bar. You hold our position.”
Mykos chuckled in surprise. Darius knew it was rare for him to be in such good humor that he was actually playful. He felt a smirk tugging at his lips as he rose from his seat to head across the room.
Club Zero was crowded, but the revelers parted easily for Darius. Everything he did was of interest to every strata of Aglaia society. He made a mental note to order two bottles of wine as it was likely it would sell out once he placed his order. There was a spot at one corner of the bar that managed to be unpopulated. Darius stood there to signal the bartender.
“Good evenin’ milord. How may I serve you?”
“Two bottles of the local Cab we’re having at the table,” Darius replied. “I’ll wait for those. And if you could have our server bring a dessert sampler.”
“Very good, milord. Right away.”
The bartender hurried away. Darius was listening to the band and subtly watching the room watch him.
“Excuse me, Lord, but you are in my spot.”
The sentence was so absurd to Darius that he didn’t think he’d heard the words correctly. He glanced to his right to find a young man gazing at him with a challenge in his fascinating green-gold eyes. His tawny coloring bespoke of origins in Eris though his hue was different. His skin was the color of honey. The brash one was tall for the underclass of Eris. The top of his head came to Darius’ shoulder where most commoners were shorter due to generations of being malnourished. That tall frame was lithe and beautifully muscled. His face had an elegant jaw and delightfully full lips to go with those eyes. Dark, shiny hair framed his face then flowed just past his shoulders. This was also unusual for his class. Only the Cosi grew their hair long. It suited him though. The man was incredible on many levels. That was the only reason Darius decided to engage him and not have his discreet but ever present security throw him out.
“This area is neither roped off nor labeled. How do I know it belongs to anyone?” Darius asked mildly.
“Everyone knows this spot is mine,” he replied reasonably.
“Obviously that cannot be true, because I did not and do not know that,” Darius rumbled.
The young man glowered at him before sidling into the space between Darius and the bar with his back to the bartender.
“You need to get out more then, Lord,” he replied staring up at Darius with a mix of defiance and humor. He turned his head a fraction. “Stu! Where’s my drink?”
“Just a sec, I’m waiting on....what the hell do you think you’re doing?” The bartender stammered. He had the sense to be afraid for this customer, but Darius was delighted with him. “I have your wine, milord.”
Darius fished out some bills.
“No, milord. Your food and drink comped. Your visit means a lot to our business,” he said trying to keep things light. “We expect be very busy in the weeks hence.”
Darius leaned forward to take the bottles almost pressing his body against the brash one. His long hair fell forward veiling their faces.
“The money is for you, barkeep,” Darius said. “As for you, I believe a lesson in manners is in order.”
“Story of my life,” the young man replied with a dazzling smile.
Darius smiled enigmatically at him in return before he straightened and headed back to the table. Mykos was among many who looked at him quizzically as he crossed the room.
“I thought you were going to have him thrown out and beaten,” Mykos said over a fresh glass of wine. “You really are in a great mood.”
“He’s a charming scoundrel,” Darius said with a smile. “Dessert will be served shortly.”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t react badly,” Mykos said with a chuckle. “It could have made some things very awkward.”
“Why is that?”
“That scoundrel is Andreas Hesper,” Mykos said dryly.
Darius raised his brows in surprise.
“I suppose dragging him out to the car to teach him the consequences of flirting is out of the question,” he said dryly.
Mykos laughed then.
“Yes, that would be very complicated. And you have your rules.”
“It’s not a hard and fast rule,” Darius corrected. “It’s more of a guideline.”
Mykos shot him a look, but the server had returned with a tray of delightful looking desserts. They fell silent again in their enjoyment of the food.
“I may send Yannis here from time to time for an order of these,” Darius said. “They are remarkable.”
“Some of these places in Kacia are finer than the expensive places in Amara,” Mykos observed.
“I’m shocked that you would admit that,” Darius said with a wry smile. “You can be such a snob.”
Mykos tried to glower at Darius but found he couldn’t. Darius knew his Second was very much a believer in the caste system and was generally proud of it. Darius supposed it helped to be on the top of that system.
They finished the desserts and had another glass of wine while conversing amicably. Darius had few people with whom he socialized and even fewer that he could call close. Mykos was the closest person to him that he’d had in his life. It was a pleasure to share the evening with him.
Just as they were about to give some thought to leaving for their respective homes or seeking out some other entertainment, the band started playing a very familiar song. Mykos looked at Darius with a raised brow.
“They really are a cheeky lot here, aren’t they?” Mykos asked.
Darius agreed. The song had been written about him by a very famous ex-lover, the musician known as Zoran. It had been meant to be a slam against him, but the tune was so catchy, and the lyrics were as flattering as they were provocative. Darius actually liked the song very much. Still, he wondered who would have the gall to risk his wrath in public like that.
“Of course,” Darius murmured has he noticed Andreas Hesper heading away from the bandstand. As he crossed the dance floor, his eyes met Darius’. There was an unmistakable challenge in them.
The decision was made in a split second. Before Mykos could offer a course of action, Darius was on his feet. A second later, he was pulling Andreas into his arms. In one smooth movement, Darius entwined his long, elegant fingers with Andreas’ then pulled his left arm behind his back to bring him close. The other hand firmly held the right hand to guide the dance. Andreas was stunned for a few seconds, but soon he was moving in a sensual counter rhythm. Andreas relaxed in his grasp then met his gaze. Darius was impressed, and not just because of the way Andreas felt in his arms. They fit well and moved very well together – almost like they had danced that way before. What Darius admired was the attitude he was getting from Andreas. The challenge was there, but there was also curiosity in those incredible green-gold eyes. He met Darius’ eyes without fear, yet there was fascination and appreciation there as well.
Andreas Hesper was not fawning over Darius. He was subtly fighting, him all to the beat of the music. Every 8th beat, he tried to pull back and get some distance from the Cosi’s body. No one watching them knew just how hard Andreas fought against being overwhelmed. He was very graceful and very subtle in his movements. Darius was just as graceful and subtle pulling Andreas back pressing him close without grinding against him. Though he knew that his face remained impassive, Darius felt a spark of lust from holding Andreas that he hadn’t felt in some time – if ever. He had to fight a nearly overwhelming urge to grab him by his hair and kiss Andreas long and hard. He wanted to weaken him to the point where he’d be willing to give his body for thorough use until he could come no more. Yes, that was deeply appealing and completely impractical.
Instead, Darius dipped his head to one side to scent Andreas just behind his ear. He smelled of warm spices. With that honey colored skin, Darius was certain that he tasted delicious. The Crew Leader inhaled sharply then leaned into the hold Darius had on him. The Cosi looked Andreas in the eyes once more. What he saw almost ended his fragile resolve. The fight was still there but this time his eyes were dilated and a little dreamy. This time, when he tried to pull away, Darius was certain that Andreas was fighting himself. Darius wondered what he would try next to escape.
“I’m Andreas Hesper, Lord Galatea,” he said. Darius found he liked that deep, rich voice a little desperate.
“I know that now,” Darius replied mildly. “It’s unfortunate that I’ve never dealt with you personally. That may have to change.”
Andreas swallowed hard just as the song ended. Darius released him with clear reluctance.
“Thank you, Lord,” Andrea said softly.
Darius wasn’t sure if he was thanking him for the dance or for releasing him. He returned to his table heedless of the gaping eyes upon him. At least, he was heedless of all but one set of eyes. Mykos was beside himself. That was of little concern. He wasn’t about to let anyone ruin his good humor of the evening – not even Mykos.
“I know that expression, Darius,” he hissed as Darius seated himself. “He has caught your attention. You held him like a Dami.”
“I hadn’t realized that,” Darius murmured thoughtfully. “He didn’t seem to mind.”
“Who knows how much he’s had to drink or what he’ll think tomorrow,” Mykos countered.
“It’s not like Zed Crew would stop doing business with us,” Darius scoffed. “And it’s not like I molested him on a public dance floor. We were barely touching. Relax, Mykos.”
“I wish I could, but I know you too well, Darius,” he replied quietly. “I can see you calculating how to arrange an affair with him.”
“Oh, you’re wrong about that,” Darius assured him. “I could never settle for a mere affair with one as exquisite as Andreas. Anything more would be completely impractical...unfortunately.”
Mykos sighed with relief, then he managed a smile.
“You still know how to make waves.”
“Apologies, old friend,” Darius replied easily. “Perhaps it was the dessert that went to my head.”
“Let’s call it a night then?”
“Yes. Responsibilities call very early.”
The pair rose from their table. They left a very handsome tip for their server, and gave regal nods of approval to the manager and the bartender. Darius felt a pointed stare coming from a back table. He turned his head to find Andreas staring at him. The young Crew Leader looked torn to Darius like he wanted to say or do something but was frozen in place. Darius nodded at him with a small smile before sweeping from the room.
“What in the hell was that all about?” Viktor Stamos, Andreas’ Second, demanded as the room went back to its own amusements. “You let him hold you as if you were some...plaything.”
The rest of Zed Crew looked on with great curiosity. They apparently wanted answers as well.
“He’s half a foot taller and at least 60 pounds heavier. I doubt I could stop him from doing anything he wanted,” Andreas laughed. A thrill went down his spine at the possibilities in that thought.
“I guess the question should be why did you go out of your way to provoke him – twice?” Viktor amended. “Darius Galatea is known for a vicious temper.”
“I know that,” Andreas said with a snort. “But when he was willing to go to the bar to get his own wine, I thought he might be in good enough humor. It was a chance to meet someone with his connections in person. Mykos Estevan has been okay to deal with, but he’s a huge snob. I wanted to make an impression on the boss.”
“You did that,” Viktor muttered. “So you’re hoping to get a better deals for Zed by going around the snob?”
“Something like that,” Andreas said after a big sip of his drink.
He could still feel the warmth of the Cosi’s hands and the press of his hard body. Those vibrant blue eyes had been hot and dilated when he released him on the dance floor. Andreas was certain that had he been alone, Lord Galatea would have dragged him away somewhere and taken him hard. Andreas wasn’t sure he would have minded.
“That’s Andreas,” Hector, 3rd in Zed, said with a smile. “Always thinking.”
“Have you thought about what you’ll do if he wants something from you for these better deals?” Viktor asked pointedly.
“Viktor, I’ve been handling passes from all sorts since I was twelve,” Andreas scoffed.
“You’ve never handled a Cosi that way – let alone THE Cosi,” Victor said. “No one says no to Lord Galatea.”
“Will you stop worrying,” Andreas said. His voice had a harder edge to it. “I can handle myself. I know he can be dangerous, but I don’t believe he actually eats babies.”
The rest of the Crew agreed with Andreas. To his infinite relief, Viktor let the matter drop. Andreas was left with his thoughts. Truth be told, he couldn’t really explain what possessed him to behave that way toward the most powerful man on the planet. He was far better looking in person than Andreas expected. Mykos Estevan was very attractive with his flowing platinum hair and strangely violet eyes. But Lord Galatea was strikingly beautiful with that creamy skin and hair the color of butter. The way the man enjoyed his food was like watching foreplay by a master. Andreas found himself wondering what it would be like to have that focus aimed at him. A simple introduction would not do. He had to do something to make Darius remember him beyond that night. Andreas believed he had succeeded, but to what end? Viktor was right about Darius and his reputation. No one refused him – ever. Andreas wondered why he didn’t fear that. Why did he enjoy feeling almost helpless in his arms?
Suddenly, Andreas grew tired of all the eyes on him. The day and the brief encounter with Lord Galatea had drained him.
“I’m going to crash in the office,” he announced to the Crew. “Let’s meet tomorrow at breakfast. We’ve got a lot coming up.”
There was a chorus of good nights as Andreas left their back table and made his way through a labyrinth of corridors to the rooms Club Zero set aside for Zed Crew’s offices and crash space. Club security kept any wandering guests away from that end of the building. Just a short time later, Andreas was away from the heat and the noise of the Club. He grabbed a glass of cool water before shucking out of most of his clothes and stretching out on the narrow bed. As Andreas fell asleep, he wondered again about Lord Galatea and what it would feel like to be with him.
Zed Crew’s specialty was the procurement of rare items. They didn’t deal with illegal contraband – just very hard to find things that the Elites of Amara thrived on having for the mere sake of having them. The Crew had a well-earned reputation for clean execution of contracts with minimal fuss and very rare violence. This track record eventually caught the eyes of the Cosi themselves. Such reliability was important to the Cosi, as they liked their day-to-day dealings to be dispatched with as little trouble as possible. Thus, a direct request from the Cosi for a job was not unusual. However, a direct request from Darius Galatea himself upended what passed for order in Zed Crew’s world.
Andreas found out about the request as he was drying his hair fresh from the shower. Viktor barged into the back room to tell him. Despite the lack of morning coffee, Andreas was able to take in the parameters of job attentively. He was confused by Viktor’s attitude by the end.
“This sounds like a really sweet gig,” Andreas said. “It’s complicated, but nothing we can’t handle. And the payoff is amazing before we get to the haggling. I’m not seeing a downside.”
“Lord Galatea wants to deal directly with you on this,” Viktor said cryptically.
Andreas rolled his eyes as he finished dressing.
“Put the call through. I’ll be right there.”
Andreas may have seemed calm and almost cavalier about the call, but he was excited and just a little bit nervous as he sat in front of the console. The rest of Zed Crew looked on from the shadows. Darius Galatea blinked onto the screen looking serene and impassive. His eyes were fixed on Andreas.
“Good Morning, Lord Galatea,” Andreas said easily. “I’ve been filled in on the assignment.”
“Can your Crew handle this with the delicacy required?” He asked. Once again, Andreas was enthralled by his melodious, deep voice.
“If the cache is real, we can find it and secure it,” Andreas replied. “How reliable is your information?”
“It comes from historians working in the Unsecured Areas, not from the usual purveyors of contraband,” he replied. “I am transmitting the data now.”
“If the cache is from The Time Before, it may still be contaminated,” Andreas cautioned.
“I realize that,” The Lord replied. “Bring proof of contamination, and you will still be paid. Bring proof if the cache is irretrievable, and the same applies.”
“Data received,” Andreas said. “Your offer of payment is quite generous, milord, but this kind of job may require more upfront costs in bribes and protective gear and protocols.”
Darius looked at him with something close to amusement. He even smiled slightly causing the expression to become more predatory.
“I’m transmitting a pass into Amara,” he replied. “I will send a car for you within the hour. Present your expenses and I may grant them.”
“Thank you, milord.”
As that call blinked out another blinked in. It was Mr. Turge, the manager of the building where Andreas lived.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Turge?” Andreas asked with surprise.
“I’m glad to see you in one piece, lad,” he replied. “Someone wrecked your place, and it looks like they were after you and not your stuff.”
“What the fuck?” Andreas exclaimed. “I haven’t mixed it up with anyone for years. Viktor, anyone got a beef that could come down on me?”
The general consensus was negative. Andreas turned back to Mr. Turge.
“I’m sending Viktor and Hector over to check things out. I have a meeting at Cosimo Tower,” Andreas said. “Don’t call in the cops just yet.”
“Cops,” Mr. Turge nearly spat. “Like I would. You just watch your back. Paying tenants are hard to find.”
“Thanks,” Andreas muttered as he rang off. “Go over the place carefully. If it’s another Crew, there will be some sign.”
“I know,” Viktor said with a frown. “Are you sure you should leave here now?”
“If I’m not safe in Lord Galatea’s private car, there is no place I will be,” Andreas replied. “But we should set up one of the safe houses.”
“Good idea,” Viktor said with relief.
Viktor and Hector set off just before the private car arrived. It was big, impressive and formidable. So was the driver. Andreas felt safer already. The twenty minute ride from Club Zero to Cosimo Tower was like crossing into another world to Andreas. He had seen all the shiny, opulent towers from a distance. But nothing prepared him for the affluence that greeted him everywhere at street level. Andreas felt humbled and completely under dressed for his surroundings. Thankfully, the car pulled into an underground garage. From there, he was taken to a private elevator so he wouldn’t have to mingle with the well-dressed citizens of Amara.
Naturally, Darius had his office on the top floor of the building. The driver took him down a corridor off the private elevator directly into the biggest, most elegantly decorated office that Andreas had ever seen. Darius was behind a desk large enough to hold them both on top. Andreas brutally pushed at image out of his head as Darius stood to greet him.
“Thank you for seeing me so quickly, milord,” Andreas said.
“Not at all. This is a matter I’d like tended to as quickly as possible,” Darius said. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Xavier, have a coffee service sent in,” Darius said. “Then, wait until I call you to take Mr. Hesper back.”
“Andreas, milord. Call me Andreas,” he said.
“Call me Darius,” he replied with a smile.
Andreas was startled.
“Yes, I thought I might like how you said it.”
Andreas felt himself blush under those disconcerting blue eyes and was relieved when the coffee arrived. They helped themselves in a surprisingly comfortable silence. Andreas sighed when he took a deep drink. All the while Darius watched him.
“Something is troubling you, and it’s not the meeting here,” he said.
Andreas smiled ruefully.
“I will never gamble against you,” he said. “It’s probably nothing, but someone broke into my apartment and wrecked the place. I should have been there.”
“Why weren’t you?”
Andreas wondered about the pointed tone of that question, but he let it go.
“I sometimes sleep at our offices in Club Zero when I don’t feel like going home,” he explained. “But no one would know that unless they knew me well.”
“Zed Crew is not known for fighting with other Crews,” Darius observed. “Were you in possession of something valuable?”
“No, and I’d never keep something like that at my place. I don’t even keep data there,” Andreas replied. “It may be an up and coming Crew being stupid.”
“That is terribly stupid, indeed,” Darius remarked.
Andreas looked at Darius who was gazing at him with great interest that was not just professional. He felt his stomach drop a little.
“I shouldn’t be bringing this to you,” Andreas muttered.
“I might agree with that had you courted this trouble,” Darius replied thoughtfully. “But as you did not, I must conclude that someone is trying to upend order in the underworld. That is ultimately bad for Cosimo business. I will have some discreet inquiries made.”
“Thank you, Darius.”
“Now, let’s start haggling,” the Cosi said with a wry smile.
Darius really enjoyed haggling with Andreas. He was just enough of a scoundrel to keep the talks amusing. Amidst the hefty profit margins, there were enough legitimate expenses that Darius could be persuaded to up his offer. All the while they talked, Darius noted that Andreas watched him. He watched not just his eyes but his hands and even his mouth. Yes, there was interest from Andreas beyond the encounter on the dance floor. He wondered absently how far he could push the Crew Leader. What Darius had told Mykos the night before was true. He didn’t want an affair with the man. He wanted to possess him and for some time if he could manage it. But first there was the job he had just given him, and then there was this strange attack to be dealt with. Darius called in Mykos after Andreas departed and presented the situation to him. He was not full of solutions at first.
“Darius, I can’t believe you’re willing to pay so much for this unknown asset,” he muttered looking at the tablet on the desk.
“Andreas didn’t get away with gouging that much,” Darius replied. “It’s only a hair more than I was willing to pay. And you know if that cache of wine from The Time Before is real...”
“It represents a fortune,” Mykos admitted. “I’d like to have some bottles myself.”
“As would I,” Darius said. “Those would be the most valuable in my considerable collection. And getting them is not without extreme physical risk.”
“Yes, I know, but what about these inquiries? Crew battles are not our affair.”
“Aren’t they? We put down one five years ago, because it disrupted supply lines,” Darius countered mildly. “Zed Crew is a niche group that doesn’t tend to mix it up with anyone. Not even the police have had reason to look at them since Andreas took over.”
“If nothing else, I don’t want anything to interfere with them completing this particular job,” Darius said in a tone that brooked no argument.
“Very well,” Mykos said. “I’ll work our connections in Kacia and see what I can find out. You call him Andreas?”
“He asked me to,” Darius said with a shrug. “He’s quite cheeky.”
“I’m sure. Let me start these inquiries,” Mykos said. “Making them alone could cause whoever this is to back away.”
“True or we could find a combatant with a great deal of determination,” Darius countered. “I’d like to know which is the case as soon as possible.”
“Yes, Darius,” Mykos replied before sweeping from the room.
Darius found himself annoyed over this mysterious attack. He had hoped that his initial, private conversation with Andreas would set them on a path toward each other. Darius was convinced that he could seduce Andreas into giving himself over as a Dami, a trained sexual plaything. He had a highly sensual nature. Darius could tell that by the way Andreas enjoyed his coffee and how well he moved on the dance floor. And Andreas was drawn to Darius. Their chat had been pleasant, even amusing as they went over the parameters of the job. But there was something more pulsing between them. Had Andreas not been distracted by the events of that morning, their chat may have become more personal perhaps leading to a leisurely lunch together. Though known for extraordinary patience in his business dealings, on a personal level, Darius was loathed to be made to wait unnecessarily. Someone was interfering with the plans of a Cosi both business and personal. Darius was determined to know who would be so foolish.
In the car on the way home, Andreas was having similar thoughts. He hadn’t felt so out of sorts in quite a long time. It wasn’t just because his home had been ransacked, and he didn’t know where he would lay his head that night. It was Darius that got to him. Their conversation had been professional and above board. Yet something pulsed beneath the words. That deep, melodic voice wrapped around his body while those eyes seemed to penetrate his mind and soul. Andreas had to fight hard to keep Darius from hearing or seeing too much. He wasn’t sure how successful that effort was. What Andreas was certain of is that there would have been more to their conversation had he not been worried about what happened to his home. For some reason, Andreas was also certain that whatever Darius had in mind was merely delayed.
By the time the car pulled up to Club Zero, Andreas had to focus on the job at hand as well as who wrecked his place. Viktor and Hector were back when he entered the office. Both were grim faced.
“Let’s have it,” Andreas said.
“We saw the security tapes Mr. Turge provided,” Viktor said. “There were three of them, and they came in with guns drawn. I think they smashed up everything because they couldn’t find you, Andreas.”
Andreas found himself sinking into a chair.
“Did you get anything that would point to who did this?”
“No,” Viktor said. “No Crew signs or anything else.”
“Shit,” Andreas muttered. “What is going on?”
“We’re working every informant we have,” Viktor said. “Club Zero is taking precautions, and the safe house is set up for tonight.”
“For tonight?” Andreas repeated with a frown.
“We think you should keep moving until we figure things out,” Viktor replied. “This is bad, Andreas. These guys were heavy, well-armed clean up guys. The only thing they lacked is good intel on you.”
“And that’s weird,” Andreas observed. “Anyone with decent connections in Kacia would know how to find me. I guess that’s lucky. Can we get something to eat and get down to business?”
“Lord Galatea didn’t offer lunch?” Viktor asked, feigning surprise.
“Darius was all business.”
“Darius?” Viktor asked.
“He told me to call him that,” Andreas replied with a shrug. “Let’s get to it. This gig is for some real money.”
“What kind of money?” Eric asked.
Andreas handed Viktor his tablet. Viktor looked it over then passed it around.
“The Cosi are crazy for paying this kind of money for some old crates of wine,” Viktor muttered after placing a food order.
“Those crazies are keeping us in business,” Andreas said with a shrug. “I don’t know if I would drink it, but I’m glad to get it for them.”
The food arrived much to Andreas’ relief. He was starving. While they ate, he went over the lists of equipment, transportation and people they would need to secure the crates and get them safely to the Cosi. Over the next couple of hours, the Crew figured out where bribes needed to go, what kind of equipment to procure and who to tap for expert labor should it be required. Andreas thought they were well positioned for the job, but there was something in the data that Darius sent that made him wonder if the job could be done even more easily and discreetly. Discretion would insure that the Unsecured Lands weren’t overrun with treasure hunters making their lives more complicated. He studied the tablet as he ate and the others talked. An answer occurred to him as the meal wrapped up. He checked his jacket pocket and found that he still had the pass into Amara. More importantly, it had no expiration date or time.
“We’d better get you to the safe house,” Viktor said. “Whoever is after you will know that you’ll show up here at some point.”
“I know,” Andreas replied. “But I have a stop to make before I go there and lock myself away.”
“You aren’t safe anywhere in Kacia,” Viktor said.
“I know that, but where I’m going is completely off some thug’s radar,” Andreas replied. “Let me borrow your bike and helmet.”
“Andreas! They had guns and went directly to your door,” Viktor snapped.
“You think I’m not thinking about that?” Andreas demanded. “I just can’t sit still yet. I need to do this one thing. I’ll be back before dark.”
Viktor slammed his keys on the desk. “It’s the house on Xanthos. Be careful.”
A half an hour later, Andreas was back in Amara being escorted by the police to the head of Ancient Studies at the University of Amara. The elderly man, Dr. Phillip Jergen, was startled, but he confirmed having an appointment of sorts with Andreas. Over endless cups of tea, Andreas listened to the professor about his digs in the Unsecured Lands and the task the Cosi sent him to accomplish. Andreas made it clear that the Cosi would have their way no matter the consequences to the digs themselves. However, if Zed Crew could retrieve the crates under cover of the University’s caravan, it would prevent looters from trying their luck for treasure. In exchange, Zed Crew would donate their bribe money and equipment to the dig as well as speak highly of the project to the Cosi. As negotiations went, this one wasn’t difficult. The professor was worldly enough from his dealings with the literal fringes of society that he saw the wisdom of the deal. On a handshake alone, the professor gave him the paperwork necessary to join the dig’s caravan.
It was nearly dusk when the police escorted Andreas back to the Kacia’s border. A few minutes later, Andreas was heading up the street toward the safe house. He was just a block away when he saw a black van pull up to the front of the building. Three men clad in black raced from the vehicle into the house with guns drawn. Andreas smoothly turned the bike around and headed in a different direction as blasters fired behind him. He had not been seen. Andreas was shaken to the point of panic, but he had enough presence of mind to get to a cafe with net access. He nearly fainted from relief when Viktor answered the phone at the Club Zero office.
“Why are you calling me from a cafe?” He demanded.
“The safe house was hit,” Andreas said very quietly. “Was anyone from Zed there?”
“No,” Viktor murmured. “We’re all working on that gig. Only the owner and his wife were there. What are you going to do, Andreas?”
“I have enough cash to get out of sight for a little while,” Andreas replied grimly. “Have you come up with any reasons why this is happening?”
“Nobody knows anything,” Viktor muttered with disgust. “Or they haven’t heard the right price for talking.”
“Maybe we could get Darius to advance us enough cash to loosen some tongues,” Andreas mused.
“How do you know that he isn’t behind this?”
“Cosi don’t play games like this – not when they have a vested interest in our survival,” Andreas said patiently. “Besides, you know that I would know if he meant me harm.”
“I know. Sorry. Just a bit freaked out here.”
“So am I,” Andreas said with an uneasy laugh. “I’ll call you tomorrow. I need to get somewhere safe for the time being. Keep beating the bushes for answers.”
Andreas rang off. There were several nice hotels on the border of Kacia and Amara where the Calix would have hook ups with the lower classes. They were clean, safe and extremely discreet establishments. It would take a great deal of money to loosen any tongues there. He first picked up some food as he didn’t want room service to see his face. Andreas checked in the hotel closest to the border. Once there, he checked for an escape route, locked all of the locks, then wolfed down his food. Somehow, Andreas slept. It was a light and fitful sleep, but he slept.
The morning brought no answers for Andreas. He couldn’t stay in the hotel another night. Someone could tip his pursuers soon. That would make other hotels in the area out of the question. Andreas was running out of options. He decided to take a risk. He went to the communications console and put in a call to Cosimo Tower. The receptionist was beautiful but very snotty when she got a look at Andreas. He insisted that Lord Galatea would speak to him. She all but rolled her eyes when she put him on hold. He prayed she hadn’t hung up on him. Seconds later, Darius was on the screen.
“Forgive my intrusion on your day, milord.”
“Darius. Have you forgotten?” Darius asked mildly.
“No. It’s just that...I was nearly killed last night,” Andreas replied. “Whoever is after me has a lot of money, and I’m running out of places to hide.”
“Do you still have the pass to Amara?”
“Come to me immediately,” Darius said. “How close are you to the border?”
“I’m just on the other side at Octavius checkpoint.”
“Get across the border. My security will meet you there.”
“Thank you, Darius.”
“It will be my pleasure. Move now.”
The screen blinked out. Andreas threw on his clothes and jacket, then checked to make sure he still had the pass and the paperwork from the professor. At the last minute, Andreas decided to take the back stairs that led directly to the garage – the preferred method for Calix guests to leave. Just as the door to the landing closed, Andreas heard the elevator ping. Then, there was running down the corridor toward his room. Andreas ran down the rest of the stairs. He figured that they would have broken down the door and found him gone just as he swung onto the motorcycle. As he peeled out of the garage, Andreas saw that there were two black vans parked across from the hotel. One still had men in it. They spotted him as he roared toward the checkpoint. There would be no time to clear the pass. He could still be attacked while at the checkpoint itself, as it was considered part of No Man’s Land. Andreas gunned the engine and jumped the barrier at the checkpoint. The police would be on him before he could get much further. He just prayed that they wouldn’t shoot first.
The police barreled onto the scene just as the black vans smashed their way through the checkpoint. One police car blocked Andreas from moving forward while another got between him and the black vans that were still advancing. Andreas shut down his engine and put his hands on his head. The black vans stopped, but the occupants filed out and drew weapons. Andreas was still not safe. Cops on both side of the border were not known for honesty. He held his breath waiting for the ‘stray’ blast that would end his life.
Suddenly, a phalanx of sleek, powerful vehicles appeared blocking the vans and the police from Andreas. An energy shield enveloped the security vehicles and the motorcycle.
“Relax, Andreas,” a voice said from behind him.
Andreas put his hands down and removed his helmet. Darius was walking toward him with the air of a man in full command of a situation. His beautifully long, silken hair gently stirred in the breeze. His eyes were covered by sunglasses, making his face look cold. Andreas wondered if he should be worried as he came very close. Somehow, he found the courage to get off the bike and face him.
“What happens now?” Andreas asked, trying not to tremble.
Darius removed his sunglasses and gazed intently at Andreas.
“I will offer you my protection in my home while this contract on you is investigated,” Darius replied. “It is obvious that the only way you will be completely safe is in my custody.”
“I can’t argue with that,” Andreas said. “But what do you want in exchange for this protection? I don’t have very much.”
Darius smiled at him. It was a beautifully predatory smile that sent a chill down his spine.
“I want you, Andreas. Wasn’t that clear the other night?”
“You want me...as a lover?”
Darius shook his head. The smile, like his eyes, grew hotter.
“We will be lovers, but that isn’t enough for me, exquisite Andreas,” he said softly. “I want you to be my Dami. I want to own your body, mind and will for at least a year.”
Andreas felt like the ground dropped from beneath his feet. His body was reacting even as his mind was rebelling. He wanted Darius like he’d never wanted anyone before, but could he give himself so completely to someone he barely knew? Could he risk turning him down? What would he become if he accepted?
“Trust me, Andreas, and submit to me completely. Now.”
That voice made him hard and weakened everything that was trying to fight this. His final thought before he spoke was that Viktor would never let him hear the end of it.
“Yes, Darius,” Andreas said softly as he met the Cosi’s gaze. “I will be your Dami. I submit.”
“Good,” he murmured, taking Andreas by the hand.
They threaded their way through the vehicles until they could see the would-be hit squad. They were quite safe as the Cosi security team outgunned them and were on a hair trigger for any movement. Andreas couldn’t believe that they remained with all that firepower and the police still there. How much were these guys being paid or what were they facing if they failed? The security shield dropped.
“Attention,” Darius said in a booming and commanding voice. “Andreas Hesper is under my protection from now hence. He is my property and as such, you will have to take on the Cosi and me to get to him.”
Andreas inhaled sharply causing Darius to turn toward him. The Cosi’s eyes were hot as he dropped Andreas’ hand to grab him by the hair at the back of his head. Finally, those full, firm lips were on his. Then, that tongue was pushing inside his mouth, claiming him more forcefully than words could. The kiss was voracious and demanding. Andreas responded even as his knees weakened and he sagged against the larger man. Darius lifted his head and smiled down at him.
“Yes, Andreas. You are mine,” he murmured.
The hit squad peeled off back across the border. The police also departed.
“I’ll have the motorcycle brought to my garage,” Darius said. “Come with me. We’re going to my home. I think you’ve had enough today.”
Andreas looked at him gratefully then followed wordlessly to the private car that waited just beyond the perimeter. Darius guided a shell-shocked Andreas into the car then buckled him in.
“Try to relax, Andreas,” Darius murmured. “My staff is working on their connections in Kacia and beyond. And with you out of harm’s way, your Crew can focus on finding out who is behind all of this.”
“Why did you let them go?”
“They are little fish who probably only know a low level go-between,” Darius said. “We need to find out where this money is coming from.”
“And letting them go means whoever hired them knows that the Cosi are involved,” Andreas said. “What if they back off?”
“Doubtful,” Darius replied. “They kept coming despite our inquiries, and they crossed into Amara and faced off against the police.”
“Yeah,” Andreas sighed.
“This is all very inconvenient for me,” Darius said. “I had plans where you are concerned.”
“No worries, I’ve got a good handle on the wine gig,” Andreas assured him. “I think the research for it saved my life yesterday, because I wasn’t anywhere anyone would expect.”
“That’s good to hear, but I meant it was inconvenient for my seduction of you,” Darius said.
“But you got me to be your Dami in less than 48 hours.”
“I would have preferred to draw out the dance and have you walk into the arrangement – not run into it,” Darius said.
Andreas found himself exasperated and amused.
“But you have me.”
“I have your body,” Darius countered. “But your mind is in several different places. As it is, I’ll have to feed you and see that you’ve made contact with your Crew and otherwise relax you until I can have you.”
“You’re going to let me have contact with my Crew?”
“Of course,” Darius replied. “You will still run your Crew. Your mind is too agile to remain completely idle, and you have a job to complete.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that straight away?”
Darius glanced at him with that predatory smile.
“I wanted your surrender to be absolute. No conditions. No haggling.”
“You wanted my trust.”
“I must have your trust.”
“And all of this firepower and effort are ultimately aimed at your own pleasure,” Andreas chuckled. “Isn’t that a little self-absorbed?”
“Not at all,” Darius replied. “If I am allowed my pleasures, I am relaxed. If I am relaxed, I am better at my work.”
“So the fate of the world depends on your orgasms?” Andreas asked incredulously.
“Well, yes, it does. You are a cheeky one. I can’t wait to train you.”
Andreas smiled his most winning smile.
“I don’t know if that can be trained away. Many have tried.”
“We’ll see,” Darius murmured.
Andreas was relaxed by the time the car pulled into the garage adjacent to the tallest building Andreas had ever seen. The security had dwindled down to one car that escorted them deep into the garage to a guarded, private elevator. Once inside, Darius carefully looked him over.
“You haven’t been injured in any way, have you?”
“No,” Andreas assured him. “Just my heart about to jump out of my chest a few times today.”
Darius reached out to gently trace along his cheekbones while those eyes held his. Andreas swallowed hard as he realized that giving Darius pleasure might not be such an unreasonable priority.
Soon, Andreas was led through a corridor from the private elevator to an impressive, ornate set of double doors. The remaining guard took up a station alongside the doors as Darius keyed in a code to open them. Andreas walked into the most spectacular apartment with the most spectacular view of Amara he had ever seen. The living room and dining area were almost the same size as Club Zero’s main floor. Of course, everything was tastefully but expensively furnished and decorated. Considering the obvious taste Darius possessed, Andreas was deeply flattered that he was considered exquisite.
“Ah, Yannis, here you are,” Darius said to the tall, slender man who had just entered the room. He had a very dignified bearing and kind, brown eyes that missed very little. “Yannis, this is Andreas Hesper, my Dami. Andreas, this is Yannis, my Major Domo. He runs my home for me.”
Yannis appraised him and the body language between the men before smiling warmly.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Andreas. Please, do not hesitate to let me know what you require.”
“Andreas will stay in the Master suite with me, but I need to have an office set up for him in the guest suite,” Darius said. “He’ll also need appropriate clothing for the apartment and some toiletries, yes?”
“That would be good until I can get my things,” Andreas said.
“You can use my office to contact Zed Crew,” Darius offered. “Choose someone you absolutely trust to bring your things, and I’ll arrange the pass.”
“Thank you, Darius,” Andreas said softly and sincerely. “For everything.”
“I gained in this, too, my Dami,” he murmured. “Go, make your call.”
Viktor looked like he would keel over in relief upon seeing Andreas on screen well and safe.
“I heard they chased you into Amara and that the police got involved,” he said as he gaped at Andreas.
“Yes, that’s what happened,” Andreas replied. “But I had called Darius for help, and he intervened.”
“What did he do? Where are you?”
Andreas looked at Viktor levelly. “I am in Darius’ home under his protection. I can still run Zed Crew from here until we can figure out who is hunting me.”
“What does he want in return?”
“Me,” Andreas said simply. “I’ve given myself to him for a year...as a Dami.”
“Andreas! Are you insane?” Viktor shouted. “Do you know what they do to Damis? Do you want to be naked all the time with a collar and a leash sitting at his feet like some hound?”
“There was no choice! There was no where I could run,” Andreas snapped. “He’s the only one powerful enough to help me. I made a promise. I keep my promises no matter what.”
Andreas found it hard to believe that Darius would treat him that way especially when he clearly preferred seducing his submission. He didn’t bother to argue the point. Viktor wouldn’t have believed him, and he was too tired to think.
“Okay...let’s not fight. You look tired,” Viktor said. “What can I do?”
“I need you to gather the personal things I have left and bring them here,” Andreas replied. “Darius will transmit a pass for you. And I have some paperwork the Crew will need for the wine job. And your bike is here, so I guess I can have a car sent out and you can take it back.”
“You were still working that gig?”
Andreas smiled. “That’s why I wasn’t at the safe house.”
“That’s why you’re the boss,” Viktor said. “What do I tell the crew?”
“Tell them I’m under Darius’ protection. I think they’ll figure out the rest.”
“Okay, you go rest. I’ll come by tomorrow morning, okay?”
“Do I look that bad?”
“Yeah. You look dead on your feet.”
“Right. Stand by. I’ll get Darius.”
Darius was waiting near the office looking out the huge windows at the view below. Andreas wondered what was going on in that enigmatic head.
“My Second, Viktor, is waiting for the pass,” Andreas said quietly.
Darius gently took him by the chin to tilt his head up.
“Wait here,” Darius said quietly.
Andreas leaned heavily on the wall and stared absently out the window. Though his mind was still racing, his body felt like it was made of lead. He didn’t even notice that Darius had returned until the Cosi was looming over him. In that weakened state, Andreas found the man’s presence overwhelming.
“Darius...what...what will you have of me?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you want me to be...naked for this whole time I am with you?”
“Ah, yes....always naked...always ready to receive me,” he murmured with a ghost of a smile playing on his face.
“Yeah,” Andreas managed with a hard swallow.
“Do you want to be always naked and ready for me?” He asked huskily.
Andreas felt his face flush. It was in his head to say hell no, but his brain couldn’t make his mouth say the words as he looked up into the Cosi’s hot blue gaze. What was happening to him?
Darius gently took Andreas by the chin once again and gently tilted his head up.
“We will share a great deal of pleasure, sweet Dami,” Darius said. “I know you have a profoundly sensual nature. I am not willing to share that nature or your beauty with anyone. You are not permitted to be unclothed for anyone save me. Nor is anyone else to touch you.”
Andreas was deeply relieved.
“The morning has caught up with you,” Darius observed. “You probably didn’t sleep well the night before.”
“No. Not really.”
“Go find the Master Suite, and lie down,” he said. His voice was gentle.
“But...don’t you want....aren’t I supposed to...”
“I will have you until you can’t come anymore,” Darius promised. His voice became sultry. “Have you ever been wrung dry, Andreas? Have you ever begged to stop coming?”
Andreas felt his knees weaken as his mouth went dry. He shook his head and waited for the kiss and the crush of that hard body against his.
“I want you awake enough to enjoy all the torment you’ve courted,” Darius murmured as he ran his thumb along Andreas’ lower lip. “Take your rest. You’ll wake when you’re hungry.”
Andreas nodded. He all but stumbled into the living room.
“This way, Andreas,” Yannis said.
“Yannis, I don’t want to dirty his sheets...oh man, what a bed,” he murmured looking at the massive mattress with the handsome but imposing headboard. The bedding looked more expensive than everything in his apartment put together.
“Lord Galatea wishes for you to rest here, but I have a solution. Take off your shoes while I get a few things,” he said.
Andreas removed his boots with great relief then shucked out of his jacket. Yannis returned with an armful of linens and a blanket.
“These are unused guest linens,” he explained while spreading a sheet on top of the bedding. “Make yourself comfortable on this.”
Andreas had it in his head to refuse. He didn’t like being waited on like he was someone better than he was, but he was too tired and the bed looked too good. He climbed onto the sheet on his side. Yannis covered him with another sheet and then with a warm blanket.
“Thank you,” he sighed.
Andreas barely heard Yannis bid him to sleep well.