by Lynn Kelling
As he approaches his twenty-second birthday, the three-year anniversary of the brutal attack in an alley that nearly cost him his life in a few different ways, Jaye Larson thinks he’s left behind the ghosts from his years spent incarcerated, but when he’s delivered a mysterious letter with terrifying implications, old monsters rear their ugly heads. His normal new life in remote Zus, Alaska, with his lover, Dixon Rowe, the heart of a found-family that supports Jaye in ways he’s never before dreamed possible, is threatened by old deals and ties he begins to fear may never be broken. While old alliances strive to draw Jaye backward, Dixon and the rest of their family are called to step up to keep him steady. When the letter turns out to be just the first clue in a chain leading both Jaye and Dixon back inside the walls of the Federal Corrections Institute of Sheridan, Oregon, all of them are left facing carefully-held secrets and terrible new truths that refuse to be ignored. (M/M)
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Chapter 13: Dixon, the Bad Guy
After kissing Jaye goodbye, Dixon left early the next morning. With a mug of home-brewed coffee in hand, he parked the Expedition at the station, then went for a walk through town to clear his head.
He’d told Jaye not to come in for the follow-up call he assumed would be coming that day. The less contact Jaye had with Cash, the better. Though it was a relief to know what form Cash’s hook was taking, the truth was it still dug gruesomely into Jaye and Dixon had little hope of dislodging it.
He understood the strength of the ties Jaye must have to the Disciples after everything they went through together, but it didn’t mean he had to like it. Witnessing Jaye’s anguish after receiving the news about Tony had been maddening. Just in waiting by Jaye’s side during that call, Dixon felt it getting away from him. It was all so far out of his control. He couldn’t stop Cash from luring Jaye in, he couldn’t stop Jaye from feeling responsible for Tony, and it seemed he couldn’t help inviting a member of the crew to Zus that had made a cold, calculating thug out of sweet young Jaye, sexually traumatizing him, making him a target for assault just from being close to Cash, and nearly breaking his mind. He didn’t accept that the Disciples should only be praised for saving Jaye’s life. They’d done a fair share of their own damage.
And now they’d never be free of them. If Tony came to live in Zus, it would be a permanent reminder of that part of Jaye’s life and identity. He’d never get away from it, or be able to forget about it.
Though Jaye didn’t like to talk about it, Dixon knew the kinds of things he’d suffered. He knew Tony had been there for some of the forced sex. He’d stood by, watched, and done nothing to help. He’d probably gotten off on it.
That wasn’t someone Dixon was eager to welcome into his town.
However, he wasn’t heartless. He appreciated the hopelessness of Tony’s situation. Being an ex-con was hard enough without adding in a lack of support or family on the outside to help in finding their feet. Most companies flat-out refused to hire convicted felons, so adding in Tony’s likely limited physical abilities, it just made things that much harder. All of those factors did appear to equate to a dire existence for him, giving him plenty of reason to hurry his exit from the world, by his own hand.
Dixon knew he had to think of it in terms of Jaye. It had been the same kind of thing when they’d met. Jaye had been desperate. He’d needed help, but was almost too proud to ask for it. Tony was even worse off, from what they were hearing. Tony needed help too. Dixon just wished it wasn’t them expected to give it.
Marcus’s brutal treatment and mind games with Dixon had always happened in private, away from others. The isolation had been a tool in his weaponry, making it seem that much more impossible for Dixon to reach out to anyone else for advice or assistance. Still, he tried to imagine some of Marcus’s buddies witnessing several incidents between them, standing there off to the side in their bedroom while Dixon was sexually humiliated and verbally and emotionally abused. Maybe he’d be on his hands and knees on the bed, a leash around his throat, getting fucked and whipped, being called every degrading name under the sun, and Marcus’s buddies watched, touching themselves a little, egging him on now and then, telling him to give it to Dixon harder. Then he imagined one of those buddies falling on hard times, coming to Dixon for help.
He stopped walking, tried to slow his breathing, closed his eyes as a cold gust blew against him, like nature itself was trying to cool his temper.
He wanted to hit something.
If Tony moved to Zus, every time he saw Jaye, would he see him only as Johnny? As the teenage kid who’d sold his ass for the privilege of getting to wake up the next day, locked in a hellhole? Would Dixon be forced to bear witness to Jaye’s mental torment for the rest of their lives, without any hope of peace?
He had to talk to someone. Someone who would sympathize. Sesi was out. Sesi had likely already talked to Brekken about everything, which meant…
He dug out his phone and rang the number.
“Dixon? What’s up?”
“You busy, Grant?”
“Nah. Brekken’s out on a flight up north for a tour. I’m holding down the fort here.”
“Good. I think I need to talk to you, if you have a minute.”
“It’s kind of you to pretend you don’t know.”
“Ahh. I see. The kid with the unfortunate name. Jinx.”
“Right on the money.”
“So? Fill me in. What’re you thinking?”
“What am I thinking?” he echoed, then let out a cold laugh. He was walking down the middle of a little-used side-road. The near-permanent white of the winter snowfall was finally melting, but the grass hadn’t started to grow yet, which made for a muddy, colorless landscape. He was impatient for spring and the signs of life renewing itself. “I’m thinking this asshole is guilty by association. I’m thinking he was in prison for a reason. I’m thinking every time Jaye interacts with him, it’s going to be a blatant reminder that he agreed to let some thug piece of shit rape him every day as a show put on for his buddies. I’m thinking I’m more likely to strangle this kid than help him.”
“But saying no makes you the bad guy? Right?”
“What the fuck am I supposed to do here, Grant?” Dixon asked with real desperation. “I think out of anyone, maybe, you know how hard it is for me to say no to something when everyone else expects me to say yes, for appearance’s sake or whatever the fuck.”
“You get a say, Dixon. You get to say no. You can say no.”
“But it’s fucking…” he laughed again, sounding even more crazy. “It makes me the bad guy.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Yes, it does! To Jaye it does. To his whole fucking gang. To this merciless dick, Cash. To this guy I want to never meet, who had his hands smashed to a pulp with weights and now probably can’t even wipe his own ass without help.”
“He’s more than Johnny, okay?! He’s not Johnny! And if this kid moves here, and becomes his responsibility, he will fucking always be Johnny! He will always have to live in the shadow of that, and…” He blew out a breath. He growled and yelled out his anger.
Grant fell quiet, and it felt like an opening. Dixon took it because part of him had to.
“If this was a friend of Marcus’s, expecting me to help him out, I’d tell him to go fuck himself.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
God, it hurt. Because it was true.
Dixon dropped the plastic thermos holding his coffee in the gravelly mud. He crouched down in the middle of the road and held his head in his hand. Nearby, an elderly woman came out of her raised mobile home, looking over at him with concern.
“Okay, first off, you need to talk to Jaye about this. You need to tell him everything you just said, if not more. Let it all out. You can’t filter this shit to spare him. He’s a tough little brat. He can take it. You believe me?”
“Yeah.” Dixon sighed, feeling a little less likely to implode.
“And second, if your answer is no, let it be no. You can’t lie and say it’s yes and let this happen if you’re against it, because it will tear you two apart. I see how much you love him, Dixie. I do. Don’t let this be the thing that kills that. What was Jaye’s mindset like last night after hearing all of this?”
Dixon laughed again, but in a more heartfelt way, because it really was ridiculous.
“He, uh,” he cleared his throat. “I think he was concerned about me.”
“Come on, I’m not a child.”
“It’s hard to explain. We have this thing.” Dixon stood, putting his back to the older woman who had started to approach. He waved her off and gave her a polite smile. Then, he started to walk again. “Sometimes, our situation, it’s stupid. We know it’s stupid. The age difference. The whole ex-con/cop thing. So we make fun of it by, uh, role-playing.”
“And I was in a mood. A bad one. And he came onto me in this really insane way, acting like he hadn’t met Kris yet, or gotten locked up, that he was just an innocent kid who liked me, and I don’t know, Grant. I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. But he was trying to pull me out of it. He was trying to get me to stop worrying about everything and — ”
He stopped talking as the emotion choked him.
He fought it down, using everything in him, all of the tricks he’d picked up thanks to Marcus, to hide from Grant that he was as upset as he was.
“I know how much you love him, Dixon. I know that. And I know how much he loves you. He would do anything for you. Including saying no to Jinx, or Tony, or whatever his name is.”
“Saying no is selfish.”
“You get to be selfish! This is your life! You’ve been sacrificing yourself for other people for years. Don’t sacrifice yourself for someone you don’t even know. Hell, maybe Jaye would be grateful if you insisted he say no. Maybe this is something he doesn’t know how to say no to without you to back him up. Jaye hasn’t said one way or the other yet, or is he totally in for helping Jinx?”
“He wants to see Tony before he decides. He says he wants to go back to Sheridan and evaluate the situation. I think he wants to see how far gone Tony is before committing.”
“Good. That’s good, right? That buys you time. Even if he goes, that gives you plenty of opportunity to talk this out more. It means Jaye is still weighing his options. So breathe, brother. Breathe.”
He did. He let out a breath and took a deeper one.
“I’m a fucking mess, aren’t I?” Dixon asked.
“No, you’re a good man who survived years of abuse and is still learning to stand up for himself when the time comes. You’re allowed to have a hard time with this. You’re allowed to need help, and time, and understanding.”
“I am. Thank you. Thank you for letting me rant, and lose my shit and everything.”
“Just remember, there is no right or wrong answer here. All you can do is what you’re able to do. Know where your boundaries are. Track down and guard those sons of bitches.”
“Okay. You’re a lifesaver, Grant.”
“Go get ‘em, tiger.”
Dixon smiled and hung up.
Three hours later, his phone was ringing. He sat there, looking at it with his hands folded in front of his mouth, while leaning on the desk. He almost didn’t pick it up.
He accepted the charges.
“Trooper Dixon Rowe. Thought I’d check in, see if anything had been decided. He there?”
“All right. And?”
“And no decision has been made, but…” Dixon pulled himself up straighter, spoke a little louder. “He thinks he wants to pay a visit, see things for himself before he makes the call.”
“I thought he might. Hoped he might, actually.”
“Selfish reasons of which you probably wouldn’t approve.”
“You don’t fucking touch him.”
“Oh, I know. Always was easy on the eyes, though. I ain’t trying to be a dick to you, Trooper. I’m really not. But put yourself in my shoes for a minute. Pretend you did something in your life, made a rash decision the courts deemed unacceptable, and landed in here. Imagine you had someone who made you smile, made the shit you waded through daily a little less awful. Imagine you had a chance to see them, one last time.”
“You’re fucking playing me. I wish you’d knock it off.”
“Am I, Trooper? You think this is me being insincere?”
The bitch of it was, he didn’t think that. He actually suspected Cash was letting on to sides he might not show any other person on the face of the earth, just in the off chance it helped his case.
“You’re fucking crafty, man,” Dixon said.“I’ll give you that. Jaye’s sharp. More common sense than I’ve seen in anyone his age, but you? No wonder he turned out the way he did.”
“Look, I’ll make an offer, okay? Since I saw this coming. No bullshit. I’ve got funds to cover your airfare and hotel costs. Yours and Jaye’s. Pay the visit and see.”
Dixon took a moment to think about that.
“I’m gonna say one more thing, before we wrap this up. Just hear me out. You don’t need to respond. Just listen.”
The water ran in the pipes in the ceiling. In the next room, someone was on another call and he picked up bits of what they were saying about a bear on someone’s property.
“Jaye, Tony — they’re out of the life. We get it. But that don’t mean we don’t still have their backs if needed. You know what I’m talking about, right? Keeping my boys safe? Making sure people like Marcus Slater don’t get the upper hand no more. More than evens the playing field, don’t you think? Ain’t about favors. It’s about looking out for your own. You need some help, say the word. Don’t need to bother Jaye about it at all. Keeps him safe, right?”
A chill ran up Dixon’s spine. At first, he was too stunned to speak.
“I think it’s good for him, you know,” Cash added. “To need to step up and watch out for his own, too. To be the one kicking ass for a change in a way that builds him up, keeps him on the right side of the law. Makes him the hero.”
“How the hell do you know about Marcus?”
“Oh, come on, Dix. You think I’m stupid or something? You know, the way I see it, I saved him. He saved you. Maybe it’s time to man up and do for someone else. Pay that back a little. Help out a guy who’s got nothing and no one. Don’t cost you nothing, really. Think about it.”
“The hell it doesn’t.”
“I’ll send information along on those tickets, all right? You know where I’ll be.”
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