He stood in the drizzling rain watching the entrance to the seedy bar where his mark liked to party. He didn’t want to go in just yet. Too many memories to sort through. Disturbing ones. They were memories Lieutenant Bates knew about, but which had made no difference in the long run. He had been given this undercover assignment in spite of what he had endured on his first undercover job. Back then he’d been a rookie cop with no idea what he was getting himself into. He’d gotten shot, half drowned, and almost suffocated to death in a roll of heavy plastic sheeting. But he’d brought down a major drug trafficker and it was the reason he’d made detective so fast. Bates had told him he had complete confidence he could handle this job, reminding him that his partner back then had called him a natural. He’d said by comparison, this one would be a walk in the park. Deeks had called bullshit to his face. That hadn’t gone over too well, and here he was two weeks in, about to meet some of Fitore Sula’s associates. More bad guys. Just what he needed to improve his mood.
The morning after he’d been assigned this undercover, he’d stood staring into the dark corner of his closet where he’d hung the leather jacket presented to him by a sleaze named Ruben, one of the drug traffickers. He wasn’t sure why he kept it. Painful memories of a beautiful blond named Krista slashed to death in her own bed still woke him on bad nights. But the jacket would put him in the right mindset for this assignment, so he’d pulled it out, not surprised by the visceral response from his heart. He had experienced the sudden onset of rage. Blood red and dangerous. His fingers twitched once again as he ran his hand over the soft leather. The feel of it was seductive.
His old partner, on his first venture to the dark side, as he now thought of it, had called undercover work addictive. He wasn’t wrong. There was a subtle thrill that ran just below the surface when you were out on the edge of the law. The rules were upside down, the main one being…play the lie well or die. The reward was seeing dangerous low life bad guys taken off the streets, but the other reward was knowing you had fooled them, had lied to their faces and made them believe you were just like them. The scary part was you almost were. You became the snake in the grass, someone no one realized was a predator until it was too late. What you did to become that snake was the troubling part. Who you became led you down deep inside yourself, digging in the muck of your own experiences, your own dark thoughts and urges once confronted then hidden away so they couldn’t control you. He told himself the character he was now had been conjured out of thin air, just thrown together from movies, descriptive crime novels, and old television shows. But he knew that was a lie. The truth was uncomfortable and way too close to home. The core of his alias had come from an intimate relationship with violence and with the man he feared had passed his brutality on through the blood in his veins.
He was snapped out of those deep thoughts by a familiar voice and laugh. He swore, angry at this new and unwanted complication. Walking between two slightly unhinged Albanians was his childhood friend Ray.
“Of all the gin joints…” he hissed as he watched them go inside. “Dammit, Ray. I did not need this.”
He couldn’t go in now, not with Ray inside. Too dangerous. One look of recognition or rambling acknowledgement of who he really was and Fitore Sula would end his life, and not very pleasantly either. It sure as hell wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Deeks pulled his phone and called the Albanian, making an excuse he hoped would fly with the always suspicious and volatile arms dealer. Sula was a prolific swearer and let loose a few inventive expletives in his heavy accent before threatening him with bodily harm if he missed their meeting tomorrow. Max Gentry told him to go fuck himself, making the Albanian laugh, which was never good. Luckily the man liked Max, once telling him he reminded him of a cousin back home in Tirana. Once the conversation ended he returned to chewing his bottom lip and considering his options.
It was an hour before Ray came out alone. He followed him. They’d lost touch after he’d settled into college life. It was now clear they’d chosen different paths. If he was involved with Sula and his merry band of bastards, he had definitely gone over to the dark side. Now he had to pull him over to his side or have him arrested to get him out of harm’s way. Ray turned a corner into an alley and stopped beside a blue truck, fumbling briefly with his keys. When he opened the door, Deeks moved quickly up behind him, yanking him around and shoving him hard into the side of the truck.
“Hey, buddy. Long time no see,” he said roughly.
“Marty? What the hell, man? What are you doing here?”
“How do you know Fitore Sula?”
Ray pushed him away and wiped at his mouth, his expression wary. “How do you?”
“Asked you first.”
Ray began to look him over and his expression changed. His eyes narrowed as he took in the look of Deeks’ alias, Max Gentry. Growing up they had always been able to read each other, and now he saw sadness in his old friend’s eyes.
“I thought you had a chance to make it out, Marty. I really did, dude.”
“How do you know I didn’t?”
“Asking about Sula? Lookin’ just like your fuckin’ dad? You tell me?”
“You think I look like my dad?” The comparison shaking him.
“Yeah, you do. Can’t you see it?” He asked. “If you can’t, you’re blind, brother. Now tell me you’re not involved with that sicko Fitore, cause if you are I’ll beat your ass, Marty. I swear I will.”
“Before you try, tell me if you work for him,” Deeks said.
“Because I’m a cop…and I’m your friend.”
Various expressions crossed Ray’s face. Disbelief came with a snorting laugh, followed by something that looked like revulsion and a touch of betrayal.
“A cop? You’re shittin’ me, right?”
“No, Ray, I’m not,” Deeks said. “If you’re involved with Sula, you’ll go to jail, man.”
“I run into you after all these years and you threaten to arrest me?” Ray said. “Sounds like my kinda luck.”
“I can’t have you in the middle of this, brother,” Deeks said. “What can I say? It’s kinda my job to arrest criminals.”
“You think I’m a criminal?”
“You’re hanging out with an Albanian arms dealer, Ray. I’ve been a cop for a while now, so it’s not that hard to connect the dots”
“You don’t look like any cop I’ve ever seen.”
“I’m undercover,” Deeks replied. “We’re not supposed to look like cops.”
“So you did get out,” Ray finally said, smiling softly. “I’m happy for you, Marty. I really am, but this guy you’re after…Sula. If he finds out who you really are…”
“I know. I read his file. Saw a few crime scene photos, too.”
“So you know he’s a sick sonofabitch. Walk away, Marty. I’m tellin’ you, man. Walk away.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You always were stubborn,” he said. “At least that hasn’t changed.“
“It’s still me, brother.”
“Is it? Looks like you’re channeling your dad to me.”
“Dammit! Don’t say that, Ray. Max Gentry is just a made up guy,” Deeks felt the itch of anger at his own lie.
“That what you’re calling yourself? Don’t know where the name Max came from, but Gentry?” Ray laughed. “If I remember right, Gentry was the name of our old gym teacher. That asshole was almost as tough as our dads. Rode my ass all through junior year.”
“Kicked your ass a couple of times too,” Deeks smiled sadly at the memories.
“Knocked you on yours that one time,” he laughed. “I told you not to date his daughter.”
“Couldn’t resist that long dark hair and amazing smile,” he replied. “She was fun. Even laughed at my jokes.”
“She was a beauty,” Ray replied easily. “Got her looks from her mom, that’s for damn sure. You ever look her up after high school?”
“Too busy trying to pay for college,” Deeks replied. “Heard she married Eddie Tolan.”
“That hard ass? Now that’s just sad, brother.”
“Yeah…he was a douche just like her dad.”
“You married? Dating? What’s going on with you other than trying to get yourself killed?”
“Concentrating on my career right now,” Deeks replied.
“Is that what you call acting like your badass dad to bring down a bastard who’d just as soon kill you as look at you?”
“I’m doing my job, Ray.”
“Nah. You’re doing what you used to do when we got into it with some of the street gangs in the neighborhood.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you remember?” Ray asked, suddenly sounding like his boyhood self. “Remember that time we mixed it up with a few of the Westsiders? You remember. I know you do, Marty.”
Ray was wound up now, excited to be reminiscing about the old days, and Deeks felt the tug of the past. Talking about his childhood was the last thing he wanted to do right now, but Ray was on a roll and tough to shut down when he was telling a story. It made him smile.
“That one time you even scared me,” Ray said. “Those gangbangers were about to bust our asses, but you…you changed right in front of ’em. Your voice got deeper and you did something with your eyes that creeped me out. Them too. You were cold, man. Just like your old man when he was drunk. You became a mean sonofabitch just like him. And tonight…in those clothes…”
“I’m not like my dad.”
Just the thought shook him, and in that moment he wanted to hit Ray in the mouth to shut him up. It scared him, so he turned away until he could control his emotions.
“I know you’re not, brother. Most of the time you were just a smartass goofball,” Ray said. “That’s why seeing you like this is so weird. This isn’t you, Marty.”
“Yeah, well right now it has to be,” he said. “You’d be surprised at the things I’ve had to do to stay alive.”
“Not sure I want to know. I liked you better when you weren’t trying to be a fuckin’ badass.”
“And I liked you better when you weren’t having beers with bad guys.”
Ray looked away and hung his head before looking back up at him. “The first time I saw some of your dad in you was the day after he got sent up. I think you were twelve by then, and for some dumb reason you decided to beat the crap out of the biggest bully at school and got your ass suspended.”
Deeks felt a chill, the words calling up that chaotic time. “He made a crack about my mom. No way was I letting that go.”
“Seeing you like that scared the shit outa me, Marty. You lost yourself, brother. It took three of us to pull you off that big ugly shit. Now I think you’re doing it again…letting your worst instincts win out.”
“So what are you saying, Ray? You think I’m becoming my fucking dad?” Deeks felt the cold edge of darkness slide into place.
“No, man…but I think you need to be careful.”
“What? What do you mean? Careful I don’t get myself into a situation that I can’t win?”
“That…and trying so hard to survive you lose yourself in the process,” he replied. “I know what I’m talking about, Marty. It’s a slippery slope, brother. Our role models were rough assed bastards. We learned to be tough from them. My dad taught me not to take shit from anybody, and I don’t. Not even from Fitore Sula.”
“How’s that working out for you, Ray.”
“I’m still here, ain’t I?”
“You won’t be for long if you stay involved in the arms deal we’re working on. He has a shitload of weapons somewhere he’s trying to move. It’s my job to locate them and take down Sula and anyone working for him.”
“So now we’re back to you arresting me?” Ray mocked.
“I don’t want to, but I won’t have a choice if you stick around Sula.”
“If I walk away he’ll hunt me down, Marty. Gettin’ arrested will be the least of my problems,” Ray said, looking cornered and resigned to his fate.
For all his bluster and the good time vibe he usually gave off, there had always been a sense of defeat about Ray. He had never talked about his future when they were teenagers. He took life one day at a time, living full out because he didn’t believe he had a future. It was what his father had beaten into him since he was a little boy. His own had tried to do the same, but his dad had been out of his life by the time he was twelve. Ray’s dad never got sent to prison like his, and their fights became epic the older Ray got. He became the tough sonofabitch standing in front of him. But he was the oldest and closest friend he’d ever had, and the last thing he wanted to do was send him to jail.
“I don’t have to arrest you,” he said with a subtle smile.
“You don’t?” Ray asked, looking slightly confused. “Wait. I’m not stupid, Marty. What do I have to do? Come on…I know you, dude. There’s gotta be a stick at the end that carrot.”
“Become my informant,” Deeks said, and held his breath as he waited for the answer.
“You want me to be a snitch?”
“A paid snitch. Those jeans have seen better days, brother,” Deeks said. “I can pay you a hundred dollars a week. All you have to do is…”
“Yeah, but it’ll keep you out of jail.”
“Or I could just knock you on your ass and say sayonara,” he replied, looking as if he was considering it.
“So you’d rather work for a low life like Fitore Sula than for me?” Deeks asked, feeling disappointed.
“No, but he pays better.”
“You were there for me when I needed you, Ray. I’m trying to do the same for you now, man. You’re looking at a serious felony if you stay with Sula. You sign on as my confidential informant and you skate. No prison time. It’s a good deal, Ray. Take it.”
“In your mind, all the bad guys are your dad. Am I right?” Ray said. “You keep score? Every time you take someone like Sula down it’s like saying ’fuck you’ to your dad? I get that, but I’m not like you, Marty. I don’t trust the law. They never stopped what my dad was doing to me or to you either. If I hadn’t given you that gun, you wouldn’t be here. That gun saved your life and your mom’s.”
Deeks looked away briefly, then nodded to him in acknowledgement of their shared truth. “Sula’s not trying to save anyone’s life, dude. He profits off other people’s pain. Don’t help him do that.”
“So now you lay a guilt trip on me?” Ray said, looking pissed.
Deeks wasn’t sure what his old friend would decide. He looked trapped and not very happy about it, so he readied himself in case Ray decided to take a swing at him. The whole situation made him sad.
“I had a good life going till you showed up,” Ray said, and shoved him hard. “Guns are all I know.”
“And I’m not asking you to change that. I’m just trying to keep you out of prison.”
“By threatening to send me there?” Ray snorted. “You always did have a weird sense of humor.”
“You’re not giving me a choice are you?”
“No, I’m not. Sula and his crew are going down as soon as he meets with the phony buyer I introduced him to,” Deeks warned. “Be smart, Ray. You agree to be my CI and you won’t go down with them.”
“And you’re sure this’ll work? No higher ups gonna squelch this deal?”
“I can be very convincing, brother. I’ll sell you as a valuable asset.”
“Won’t be much of an asset if I get killed,” Ray said, sounding resigned to his fate.
“I’ll try and make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“You better, or I’ll come back and haunt you,” He warned. “Okay, okay…let’s do this thing. Where do I sign, brother?”
Deeks reached out to shake his hand, and Ray pulled him into a brotherly hug. “It’s really good to see you, Marty. Even if you did become a hardass prick.”
A guttural laugh and shout out broke them apart. They both turned to see four men standing in the entrance to the alley. Fitore Sula and his Albanian bodyguards stood watching them.
“You told me you could not meet me tonight,” Sula said as his men moved forward. “I do not like liars.”
“Maybe he like kissing Ray better,” the man named Mirko smirked as he walked up to them. “Do you like his ass or his…”
Before he could finish, Max Gentry grabbed the man’s fingers, snapping one as he shoved the muzzle of his gun up under his chin.
“I don’t think you want to finish that sentence,” Max growled.
“You broke my finger,” the man hissed.
“Apologize or I’ll break another one.”
He could smell the bodyguard’s sweat and sense that he was now surrounded by Sula and his men. His eyes went dark and cold as he waited for the Albanian’s response. He felt Ray move up behind his shoulder and realized how critical the moment had become. The loyalty test had come faster than he’d anticipated, and he swallowed the bile that had risen in his throat.
“Damn, Mirko. Did you ever piss off the wrong guy,” Ray said. “Max here is an old friend. And damn sensitive. Doesn’t like being disrespected…which you just found out the hard way. Bet it hurt, too.”
“This is over,” Sula said. “Mirko. Go get your finger fixed while Max tells me what he is doing here.”
Max slowly lowered his weapon and stepped back, staring at Mirko as the man berated him in Albanian.
“Ndalo! shko!” Sula ordered angrily, shoving his injured bodyguard away.
“Hope he wasn’t a right-handed shooter,” Max said as he tucked the Glock behind his back.
“He is not your concern now,” Sula said. “Tell me why you lie to me.”
“Didn’t. Took care of business sooner than I thought,” Max explained. “Was coming to see you when I ran into Ray. We go way back.”
“We grew up together,” Ray said. “I saved this idiot’s life when we were kids. He owes me.”
“He owes me too,” Sula said.
“How’s that?” Max asked.
“I did not let my men kill you.”
“Good thing they didn’t try or Mirko would be dead,” Max replied coldly. “He’s your brother-in-law, yeah? I’ve met your sister. If I remember right, she’s pregnant. She’s tough too. So, maybe I saved you.”
For some reason that made Sula laugh, and again Max wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. He said something in Albanian and his two remaining bodyguards nodded and took up positions on either side of Max.
“I asked Ray to check out this buyer you found,” Sula said. “He told me he had never heard of him. What do you say to that, Max?”
“Ray’s a loyal guy. He only works with people he knows,” Max explained. “Me, I keep an eye out for the new blood in town. The men I recommended came over the border a few months ago. They plan on taking over the drug trade in Zacatecas. And like I said, they need weapons. They claim they’re cheaper up here.”
“Heard rumors about those guys,” Ray said. “They got money that’s for damn sure. Heard the head dude likes to drive fancy cars. Flashy dresser too.”
It took all Deeks could do not to roll his eyes at Ray’s embellishments. Bates was gonna shit his pants when he told him. Maybe they could both kick his ass when this was over. But for now he breathed an undetectable sigh of relief. Ray was in.
“If these people are legitimate buyers, why did you not bring them to me?” Sula asked, suddenly angry with Ray.
With one guttural order in Albanian, Sula’s two men grabbed Ray and shoved him up against an overflowing dumpster. Knife blades shimmered in the reflected light from the business across the street. Sula had a reputation with knives and there was real fear in his old friend’s eyes. Deeks saw the scared kid he grew up with, the one who used to taunt his own father through the fear of what it would cost him. Because of Ray, he had a life and a mom, and the dark rage he usually managed to control settled into his chest, making his fingers twitch.
“Don’t even think about it, Fitore,” Max Gentry said, his voice low and deadly as he pressed the muzzle of his gun into the base of Sula’s skull. “Want to know why?”
“Don’t do nothing crazy, Max,” Sula laughed nervously.
“Ray’s family, Fitore. Even you understand what that means.”
My men will…”
“Your men want to live just like you do,” Max Gentry hissed out. “Drop the knife and we’ll all walk away. Move even an inch and I’ll kill you all.”
The two bodyguards shifted restlessly on their feet, looking to see what Sula wanted them to do. Their boss stood frozen in place with the knife still in his hand, and Ray looked as if he’d never seen Deeks before in his life.
“Hey, brother. Take it easy now,” Ray pleaded. “Let me explain to Fitore how it went down. I didn’t bring those guys to you cause they wanted nothing to do with me, okay? I hit on one of the women they were with when I first talked to them. I know…stupid, right? But hell, Fitore, she was sexy as hell. Can’t blame a guy for tryin’.”
“I will let it go this time,” Sula said, slowly closing his stiletto, and saving face. “Tell your old friend Max to do the same.”
“Brother? Let it go, man. I’m good. No harm,” Ray said, his voice slightly high with nervous energy.
Deeks slowly came back to himself and took a step back. He kept the gun trained on Sula and his men as they stepped away from Ray.
“I do not like being threatened,” Sula said. “We do this deal and then we are done. You are a little bit crazy, I think. I do not trust you.”
“Good plan,” Max said. “I’ll call you with a time and place. You bring the weapons and the buyers will meet your price.”
“It will be the last time I see you,” Sula said. “If I see you after that, I will kill you.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Max replied.
Sula stared at him, his expression intense, but cautious. Max had scared him, and that was definitely a good thing. He hoped he stayed that way. The Albanian finally nodded and he and his men turned and walked out of the alley. Ray let out a held breath and collapsed back against the dumpster. Max followed them and watched until they got in Sula’s car and drove away.
“Shit, man. I’m gonna need a drink after that,” Ray said, running his hand up through his hair. “But not with whoever the hell you just were.”
“Really, Ray? Would it have been better if I let him cut you up into little pieces?”
“Glad you didn’t, brother, but you…you went someplace else, man. Someplace dark and scary. Scarier than your old man. I saw glimpses of him when we were kids, but now…wow. That guy, the one I just saw? He’s been there all along, hasn’t he?”
Deeks tucked his weapon behind his back and shrugged, hesitant as he tried to answer that question.
“Honestly? I’m not sure. I know I was angry as a kid. Scared? Yeah…whenever my dad came home stinking drunk and started in on Mama. I felt so much anger I didn’t know what to do with it, especially when I was little.”
He stopped and brushed the hair out of his eyes, which he was surprised to realize were blurring with tears. Ray reached out and squeezed his shoulder and old feelings and memories flooded through him, the ones he still had nightmares about.
“The first time I fought back…I think I was nine…the bastard laughed at me. He’d sent Mama to the liquor store for more…” Deeks said softly, stopping at the stark reminder. “Like he needed more. The sonofabitch was so drunk I kept waiting for him to pass out. Didn’t happen, and it made me mad. I started shouting at him…accusing him…berating him…calling him all the bad words I’d learned in my short life…”
“Probably from me,” Ray said.
“Yeah. And I used every one,” Deeks said with a huffing laugh. “They were like a shield I could hide behind. I couldn’t stop screaming at him. I was totally out of control. It was the first time I felt that kind of rage. I didn’t know that’s what it was back then, but I do now.”
He stared at Ray and saw the recognition. “When I finally ran out of steam, want to know what he said? ’That’s my boy.’ He said that. The bastard admired me for what I’d become in that moment. Then he backhanded me across the room and laughed.”
“I felt different after that…liked there was someone else inside my head,” Deeks choked out. “That’s where Max Gentry came from. He didn’t have a name back then…he was…he was just there…waiting.”
“Try not to go there too often, brother. It’s bad for who you really are. Like I said…it’s a slippery slope, and you might not be able to climb back up out of the dark,” Ray said. “But I do owe you…so what the hell…I’ll buy drinks. You’re still my best friend, and I’ve missed you.”
“You’re gonna have to buy my Lieutenant a few drinks after he finds out you told Sula our guys like expensive cars and pricey clothes,” Deeks said. “Gonna play hell with the budget.”
“Can’t blame me for having a little fun at LAPD’s expense. You’re only paying me a hundred bucks a week, dude,” he laughed. “You get what you pay for, Marty.”
“Don’t call me that till this is over, okay?”
“I like Marty Deeks,” he replied softly. “Max? Not so much.”
“I don’t like him either, but you better get used to him if you’re gonna be working undercover with me.”
“Got it. Can we go get that drink now, brother? Maybe tell me what our old buddy, Marty, has been doing since I last saw him.”
“That’s gonna take some time, and a lot of beers.”
“Just like old times, brother.”
A/N: The whole story about Deeks’ first undercover assignment referenced here can be found in my previous story “The Collector,” found on fanfiction.net under Sweet Lu.