Release Date: Apr 6, 2009
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Publisher Link: http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/
Amazon Kindle: Zero at the Bone
Blurb: After witnessing a mob hit, surgeon Jack Francisco is put into protective custody to keep him safe until he can testify. A hitman known only as D is blackmailed into killing Jack, but when he tracks him down, his weary conscience won't allow him to murder an innocent man. Finding in each other an unlikely ally, Jack and D are soon on the run from shadowy enemies. Forced to work together to survive, the two men forge a bond that ripens into unexpected passion. Jack sees the wounded soul beneath D's cold, detached exterior, and D finds in Jack the person who can help him reclaim the man he once was. As the day of Jack's testimony approaches, he and D find themselves not only fighting for their lives... but also fighting for their future. A future together.
Jack came into his house, sighing with relief at the cool blast of the air conditioning (he kept his thermostat set at "meat locker") and tossing his keys on the hall table. His relief was short-lived.
There was a man sitting in his living room, looking at him.
Jack froze, his hand hanging in mid-air where it had started on its way to smooth his windblown hair. The spit dried up in his mouth.
The man looked relaxed, but Jack knew that he wasn´t. He was wearing jeans, a white t-shirt and a black sport coat. His hair was barely more than stubble all over his skull, and his eyes were hidden by sunglasses. Across his lap, he was holding a silver handgun with a silencer on it.
He stood up, his lanky frame unfolding with near-audible creases and crackles. Jack wondered how long he´d been waiting.
Jack´s jaw felt stiff when he tried to speak; his face was numb in a way that made him think of shoveling the driveway in January. "Who are you?" he croaked. The man didn´t answer. He crossed the living room in even, deliberate strides and grabbed Jack by the upper arm. He pulled him forward and sat him down in his Eames chair. The man stepped back and stood before him, all quiet menace and deadly intent. Jack stared up at him, nothing in his mind but blankness. The circuit-breakers in his brain had tripped and stopped the flow of emotions. "How´d you find me?" he asked. It was less a stall question and more legitimate curiosity. Jack had half-assumed that the Dominguez Brothers would find a way to get to him, but he´d been so impressed by the thoroughness of his relocation that he didn´t know how on earth anyone could have found him here.
Still, it didn´t exactly surprise him that someone had.
Jack took slow, even breaths. I´m going to die any second. The thought was surprisingly bereft of power. The idea of death didn´t have much potency when confronted with the inescapable fact of it. It was a done deal. No use being afraid of it. It was almost a relief not to have to dread it anymore.
The man who´d come to kill him was just standing there, staring off into space at some point above Jack´s head, his gun held loosely at his side. The man raised his free hand and rubbed at his forehead, then began to walk slowly back and forth in front of Jack´s chair. Jack´s eyes tracked him, his body glued to the chair as if he´d been strapped in. Something in the man´s posture, his body language...a tiny, wriggling specter of hope worked its way into Jack´s mind.
He doesn´t want to do it.
Jack held his breath, watching his killer pace. Don´t be stupid. He´s gonna do it whether he wants to or not.
The man didn´t look at him. He paced, those dark, blank lenses swiveling back and forth like the unfeeling eye of a security camera. Jack´s brain made a random cross-connection and he found himself thinking of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Open the pod bay doors, HAL. That´s what this man´s shuttered stare reminded him of. The all-seeing cyclopean gaze of HAL. I´m afraid I can´t do that, Dave.
Don´t just sit there like some dumb sheep waiting to get slaughtered. Do something, for Christ´s sake. If you can´t do something, at least say something.
Jack swallowed hard, hearing a click in his dry throat. "Don´t do this," he said. Nice one, asshole. Like this guy´s never heard anyone beg for their life before. Jack squared his shoulders a little. I´m not going to beg. No matter what else happens, I´m not going to beg. "You don´t have to do this."
The man stopped pacing, then sat down on the couch facing him. He stared down at the gun in his hand. Jack watched him, trying to read something of his expression, which was damned difficult while his heart was pounding so hard it was making his vision shake. The circuit-breakers were resetting. Terror was creeping into Jack´s body, robbing him of whatever fortitude he´d been able to muster. God, I don´t wanna die. Not like this. Not like this.
The man had his head down now, the gun clasped in both hands. Jack felt his tenuous self-control fading. He was shaking uncontrollably. Please, just don´t let me piss myself. I know I´ll do it when the bullet goes through my head anyway, but not when I´m still in charge. Gimme that, at least.
The man stood up and took two steps towards where Jack was sitting immobile, in his favorite chair. He raised the gun and pointed it at Jack´s head. Jack sucked in a breath and closed his eyes, his mouth curling into a tortured ribbon of terror. His breath puffed in and out through clenched teeth like he´d just run a mile and he waited. What´s it going to feel like? Will it hurt? Any minute now...will I feel it at all, or will I just be dead? I hope it doesn´t hurt. Any minute now...
Five seconds passed. Ten. Fifteen. Jack cautiously opened one eye. His killer was still standing over him, the gun pointed at Jack´s head, but he hadn´t fired. With effort, Jack looked past the gun barrel...it seemed to fill the whole world...and saw the man´s clenched jaw and his lips, clamped tight in a thin white line.
He doesn´t want to do it. The thought recurred, stronger this time. Jack stared at the mouth of the gun´s barrel, that dark circle of death, and a sudden calm descended on him. All at once, he knew exactly what to do. Talk. Play him. Get him to talk to you. Tell him your name. Make yourself a person.
"You´re not going to do it," he said, amazed at how calm he sounded. He´d stopped shaking.
His would-be killer´s head turned slightly, cocked, interrogative. He still did not speak.
Jack shook his head. "You would have already done it." He lifted one hand, palm forward...it´s okay, I´m not a threat. "What´s your name?" he asked. Great. Now you sound like a five-year-old on the recess playground trying to make friends with the coolest kid in the class and hoping he doesn´t pound you for your trouble.
His killer didn´t respond, verbally or otherwise. He didn´t appear to have heard him. "My name´s Jack Francisco. I, uh...guess you know that, though. I´m a doctor, did they tell you that? Maxillofacial surgeon." The man took a step backwards. A little thrill of triumph ran down Jack´s overtaxed nerves. I´m getting to him. "I´m from Baltimore." The man raised both hands to his face, his gun still clutched in his right. "Hey...it´s okay," Jack said. "You don´t have to do this. Do you even know why you´re here? Or why I´m here? I saw somebody get killed, and now..."
"I know," the killer suddenly snarled, the first words he´d spoken. He´d snatched his hands away from his face and turned the blank dark-matter lamps of his sunglasses directly onto Jack. He could almost feel their high beams on him, like the rays of a black hole that sucked warmth from him instead of laying it on. "I fuckin know what you saw," he repeated.
Jack swallowed hard. Don´t lose it now. You´ve got him talking. "Look, I don´t know what your bosses told you..."
"They ain´t my bosses," the killer said, his lip still curled in a half-sneer, his voice a cornered-animal growl. "Fuckin druglords." He shook his head. "Ain´t takin no orders from the likes a them." The pacing started up again. "Don´t own me. Motherfuckers. Ain´t doin no job on their say-so." Jack watched him. The man didn´t really seem to be addressing him anymore.
Jack´s brain was twirling too fast; the thoughts kept getting tossed off in all directions like kids that didn´t keep their grip on a playground merry-go-round. He managed to snag one with his numb fingertips. He doesn´t want to do it, and he´s chafing against being made to do it. Use it. Get under his skin. Jack shifted in his chair a little. But don´t piss him off.
Right. "So, you work for the Dominguez brothers?" he said. "They pay you well to do their dirty work?"
The killer paused in his pacing and, incredibly, chuckled. "You playin me, Francisco?" he said.
Hearing his name spoken aloud by the man who´d been sent here to get it carved on a headstone gave Jack an unpleasant shiver. Amateur, he scolded himself. "I just want to know if you´re going to kill me, or what."
The killer...Jack´s mind was starting to think of him as HAL...swung around, his gun rising to target Jack´s head again. "Could jus do ya right now," he said. "Don´t wanna waste yer time or nothin."
Jack recoiled. "No rush." HAL nodded, then resumed his pacing. Talk to him. The more you talk, the harder it´ll be for him to execute you. The longer you stall, the less likely he´ll be to pull that trigger. "So you don´t work for them, then."
"Then why are you here?"
"Ain´t none a yer business."
"Are you going to kill me?" Jack asked.
HAL sighed. "I dunno."
"You could just leave. I...I won´t tell anyone you were here. I won´t call the police or the Marshals or anything. I swear."
He sniffed. "Think I care who you fuckin call? Ain´t the problem."
"Oh," Jack said, feeling abruptly out of his depth. This man wasn´t afraid of the law. "The Brothers? Guess they´d be mad if you don´t kill me."
HAL shook his head, taking a seat on the couch again. "You ain´t got no idea, doc," he grumbled.
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