Book 1: Guarding The Gods Chapter One
Urban Dictionary ~
The term mulligan: A Mulligan in a game happens when a player gets a second chance to perform a certain move or action; usually due to lack of skill or bitter luck. It is also referred to as a “do-over”.
Two weeks into the Black Ice and Ivory Tower European tour . . .
It felt like defeat to Zac Mulligan, as he boarded the plane to fly home to Los Angeles. The idea he was leaving the guys in Black Ice behind just as their new tour was kicking into high gear really hit close to home for Zac. He never left anything half done – especially a job, and that’s exactly what he was doing now.
This wasn’t his choice though.That was taken away from him by a simple twist of fate, when he put himself in between one of the men he was protecting and a psycho wielding a knife and seeking revenge. Situations like that can sometimes go horribly wrong and Zac found out just how bad when the blade of the knife cut into the palm of his left hand. Zac carefully cradled his wrapped-up injured hand in his lap at the memory of the assault.
A lengthy and specialized surgery followed the attack to repair the tendons in his hand in the hope of restoring full mobility. After dozens of stitches to hold everything together, and two days recovering in a Paris hospital, Zac was released from his doctor’s care. Now he was going home to heal and begin long-term physical and occupational therapy. This would no doubt keep him stateside for months.
Dagger Drummond and the guys in Black Ice guaranteed there’d be a place for Zac on their security team when he was recovered and ready to return to the tour. Zac didn’t know them well enough to disbelieve what they’d said. He was still in the process of getting to know the guys in both bands when he was injured and hadn’t quite reached a level of feeling “in the fold” with them. The band members continually proclaimed that those who worked for them were all part of their extended family. Zac had also heard stories from long time employees like Spumoni, the equipment manager for Ivory Tower, about the dedicated loyalty both bands showed their people, and he only hoped the stories were true. More than anything, Zac wanted to finish out the tour and earn the very generous contract price Black Ice had agreed to pay him for his security detail. It would be Zac’s way of proving his loyalty to them.
Zac already felt like he owed them a lot, since the management for the band had paid all his medical bills and travel expenses when he went home. They even sent him home with a large stipend for his living expenses while he was recovering back in California and was unable to work. Knowing all that heightened a need inside Zac to prove himself to the guys, get himself healed and back on the tour with them to keep them safe from assholes like Sebastian Keating.
At least Sebastian was no longer a threat. Zac shivered at the memory of seeing bullets from the security team tear into Sebastian’s body and his lifeless form as he fell to the ground. Zac was ex-millitary. He’d seen his share of dead bodies, people beaten within an inch of their lives, and others pleading for their lives, and it wasn’t something he’d ever become ambivalent about. A soldier didn’t shrug off shit like that. It stayed with you like a stain and somehow changed the core of your being. Sometimes Zac swore the ghosts of every man he’d killed remained with him and he was stuck carrying them around like baggage.
Zac was taught in basic training to maintain focus while in combat. It was the only way they could do their fucking jobs and have any chance of survival. There was always plenty of time after the fact to sort through the emotional aspect of what you had to do while in a gunfight. The shit that went down with Sebastian definitely warranted such tactics. Zac had taken the time to process his part in Sebastian’s elimination. He’d even spent a few hours or so discussing the attack with Fizzbo as a way to decompress after the fact. Even still, he had a sour taste in his mouth over what happened.
War wasn’t pretty and the fact Zac had survived three tours of duty with nothing more serious than a two inch scar when a bullet grazed his shoulder was a fucking miracle. His first two tours dumped him in Afghanistan and it was eight months each time of bloody combat hell. His third tour put him in Kuwait when he worked as part of the security force to protect the generals stationed on base. Working in Kuwait was somewhat of a gravy run. Although he was still “in country” he saw nothing more than the after effects of combat from the soldiers coming back to Kuwait for respite care.
When Zac had a little downtime, he tried to talk to the men coming back fucked up in the head as well as from visible physical injuries. Zac knew all too well what they’d gone through from his time in Afghanistan. Zac’s survival was a blessing he acknowledged every day, because not everyone was as fortunate as him. He’d lost a few of his close friends in Afghanistan; one who died while Zac did his best to hold the shattered pieces of his friend’s skull together to keep the chunks of bone and brain from falling into the dirt. Every once in a while Zac still had nightmares about that night and others like it, but it was getting better for him.
Part of his emotional healing began after he left Kuwait and was honorably discharged from the military. His security detail in Kuwait got him into the doors of a few private security jobs and that is what led him to the job at Ventura Security Group. Fizzbo and his boss were ex-military and he made a solid effort to hire returning soldiers from the middle east. It was his way of helping to smooth their transition back into society after living in a war zone. Zac still had to carry a gun while working for Ventura Security, but the chances of him actually having to use it were slim at best and that suited Zac just fine.
Zac glanced out the window of the plane. He could see glimpses of land appearing through the clouds and knew they must be getting close to American soil. There was no better feeling than to step back within the borders of the United States. Even now after all the years since his military career ended, Zac felt the tightness of pride swelling in his chest whenever he returned home.
Home. It certainly had a nice ring to it.
Zac smiled at the flight attendant when she leaned into his seat to let him know they’d started their final descent into JFK International Airport. He adjusted his seat and pushed his backpack on the floor out of the way using the toe of his boot. Settling back he bumped his bandaged hand on the armrest and pain shot through his arm. Amazing how it could be covered with that much gauze and bandages and still hurt like a motherfucker when he so much as brushed something up against it. Zac removed a small plastic bottle of pain meds from the inside pocket of his coat and popped two pills, using the last of his water in the plastic bottle he had to wash them down.
He had a two hour layover in New York before he caught his flight to Los Angeles. That would give him time to eat something and stretch his legs before the next flight. After exiting the gate, Zac spotted a coffee shop up ahead in the terminal that also sold sandwiches. He gave his food and coffee order to the barrister behind the counter and found an empty table to sit over by the windows and got comfortable.
Zac mindlessly watched the planes landing and some being pushed back from the gate to taxi out to the active runway. His thoughts went back to the conversation he had with Lincoln about his childhood friend Ben. He really did want to make an effort to find Ben while he was home, even if it meant he had to call in a few favors with a private investigator he knew in L.A, he’d do it. Ben was an east coast boy, though, so Zac guessed he’d probably stayed somewhere around the area he was familiar with. Hell, for all Zac knew Ben was living in New York City. At one point he remembered his mother telling him Ben had a graphic design job somewhere in New York City. It’d sure be ironic that he’d be sitting in the JFK terminal with Ben working downtown at that very moment.
He pulled his phone from his shirt pocket and turned it back on from the flight. It started pinging as soon as it came to life in Zac’s good hand. He set it on the table and started to read through the missed texts and phone calls. Lincoln and Dagger had both texted to see how he was doing on the trip, as well as his boss Fizzbo. That made Zac feel good. The Black Ice guys were all so compassionate and Zac was happy to know them.
Zac saw a missed call from his mother. He considered waiting to call her until after he was home in Los Angeles, but then he remembered his mother was still somewhat in contact with Ben’s parents.
“How’s your hand?” Zac’s mother asked before he’d barely had a chance to say hello.
Zac smiled at her motherly concern. It seemed not to matter one bit he was almost thirty years old now and no longer needed all that much “mothering.” It still felt pretty damned good that so many cared about his well being.
“I’m fine mom,” Zac answered his mother. “I’m in New York waiting for the next plane to take me back to the West Coast.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to come stay with me for a while before you fly home?” she asked in a soothing voice. “It’d give me a chance to take care of you.”
Smother him was more like it, but Zac grinned at the visual that came along with her invite. Ever since Zac returned from Afghanistan his mother had done her best to try and keep him close to home. She wasn’t happy at all when his new job with Ventura Security Group permanently put him in Los Angeles, but this job had the potential to move Zac in a direction he’d needed in order to save some serious money and his mother understood that. Her taking care of him now would mean a trip back to his hometown in New Hampshire and Zac wasn’t sure he wanted to do that. Not unless he knew Ben was living there. That’d change Zac’s mind pretty fast.
“Coming home does sound tempting, Mom,” Zac replied. “In fact, I’ve been thinking about some of my old friends from high school lately and thought I might try looking up a couple of them. Speaking of which, would you know where my friend Ben is living?”
“Ben Collins?” his mother asked.
“That’s the one,” Zac said. “I don’t know why, but I’ve been thinking about him lately and wondered what he was up to.”
“Oh, dear,” his mother sighed. “Ben no longer lives in this area, honey.”
“You still talk to his mom, right?” Zac questioned.
“Yes, of course,” she said. “I remember Kathy telling me Ben was in New York City for a while, but I’m pretty sure he’s moved since living there.”
“Any idea where?” he pushed. An odd pause fell between them and Zac wasn’t sure what that meant, but something definitely felt off.
“I think he moved to Boston,” she answered, “but, I’m not sure. Did I tell you his dad passed?”
“What? No, you never mentioned that, Mom.” Zac felt his body stiffen at the news. “How long ago did that happen?”
“A month maybe? Kathy called me with the news Ken had had a heart attack,” she explained. “It was right around the time you were getting ready to fly to Europe for the security job. I figured you had enough on your plate and didn’t need that bad news dropped into your lap.”
Maybe that’s why Ben had been on his mind, Zac thought. “Do you have Kathy’s phone number?” Zac asked.
“Are you going to call to offer your condolences for her husband?”
“Partly,” Zac answered. “But, I also want to see if she has an address for Ben.”
“Why the urgency to see Ben after all this time?” his mother asked.
Zac inhaled slowly. It wasn’t so much an urgency for Zac to find Ben. It was more of a deep need to see his face again; hear his voice, and maybe give himself some closure to that part of his life. Or, perhaps give him the opportunity to fix things and apologize for the way their friendship ended. Maybe then Ben wouldn’t occupy so much space inside Zac’s head. Although, to be fair that was a recent issue Zac was having. Working alongside the men in Black Ice and Ivory Tower exposed Zac to committed love between the guys and it had stirred emotions inside him for reasons he didn’t know. Funny how when he thought of something lasting his head took him to memories of Ben.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Ben,” Zac offered. “It’d be cool to catch-up with him, that’s all.”
“Ben has been through a lot over the last few years, Zac. I’m not sure it’d be a good idea for you to talk to him right now,” his mother said.
Zac pinched the bridge of his noise. His mother’s comments were growing odder by the second. “What’s going on, Mom?” he asked. “Is Ben okay?”
“Far as I know, he’s fine, Zac,” she said. “It’s just been a rough couple of years for him, that’s all.”
“Maybe seeing me again will make him feel better,” Zac offered, although he wasn’t sure he believed it.
“You could be right,” his mother said. You two were always so connected at the hip when you were younger. It was hard to see Ben without you being right by his side and vice versa.”
“We had a lot of fun,” Zac said. He nearly choked on the last word and a part of him wondered if his mother had a deeper meaning behind her comment about him being so close to Ben. “So, do you have a number for Ben’s mom?”
“I do. Let me get my address book,” she said.
Zac’s mother returned to the phone and gave him Kathy’s phone number, then Zac asked, “How’s dad?”
“You know I don’t keep in touch with him,” she answered. “You have his contact information. Call and ask him yourself. I’m sure he’d love to hear from you.”
“Mom, I don’t know what happened between you and I don’t really want to know, but you still share kids together.”
“After you talk to your father you might want to give your sister a call,” Zac’s mother said. “I’m sure it’s been a while since you’ve done that.”
Zac sighed loudly. “I’ll have plenty of time to do all of that while I’m back in the states healing.”
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Zac ate his lunch before he called Ben’s mother. No way could he talk to Kathy on an empty stomach. When she answered the phone and Zac said hello and explained who he was the silence made him think she’d hung up on him. The quiet was that deafening.
“Mrs. Collins?” Zac said again.
“Oh, please, Zac,” she said. “You’ve known me for how many years? Call me Kathy.”
Zac smiled as emotion begin to bite at his eyes. He’d known the Collins family for close to two decades and damn if it didn’t give him a warm feeling that she remembered him so clearly. It didn’t explain her pause before she spoke, but he wasn’t about to question that now.
“I’m sorry to call out of the blue like this,” Zac said. “but, I was talking with my mom and she told me about Mr. Collins, I mean Ken’s passing. I’m so sorry to hear that. I was out of the country for a while and wasn’t aware he’d passed. Please accept my condolences.”
“Thank you, Zac,” she said. “It was a shock to all of us, but we’re coping as best we can.”
“How’s Ben handling it?” Zac asked and held his breath as he waited for her response. He was unsure what he expected to hear from her, but if he could have crawled inside the phone to hear her better, he would have.
“I’m afraid he’s not doing as well as I’d like,” Kathy said.
The quiver in her voice told Zac exactly how she was feeling. “I’m really sorry to hear that,” Zac said truthfully.
“His relationship with his father was strained during the few years before Ken’s death,” Kathy said. “I think Ben blames himself for not fixing that before it was too late.”
Zac nodded even though he knew she couldn’t see him. The lump in his throat was growing by the second, but so was his resolve to see Ben. “Kathy? Would it be possible for you to give me Ben’s address or even a phone number where I could reach him? I’d really like to see him, if I could, or at least give him a call.” Another extended pause came through his phone had Zac’s stomach knotted tightly. He was about to shelf his request when Kathy finally spoke.
“I, ah . . . honestly, I’m not sure that’s such a great idea,” Kathy said. “I don’t even know if he’d want you to see him right now.”
“Maybe I can help him,” Zac said hopefully.
“I’m worried about him, Zac,” her voice cracked. “He won’t come home, so I can help him get through this, and he refuses to talk to anyone about it. He’s sort of isolated himself from everyone.”
“He might talk to me,” Zac added.
“I don’t know what happened between the two of you after graduation, and I’d never ask. I just know how upset he was after you left for boot camp without saying good-bye,” Kathy said. “I’m concerned you might upset him more than he already is right now.”
“That’s part of the reason why I’d like to see him,” Zac confessed. “I owe him an apology for a lot of things.”
Hearing how hurt Ben was cut another slice into his heart. He hadn’t meant to walk away like he had. At the time he thought he was making it easier on both of them by avoiding an actual good-bye scene. Especially, since Zac wasn’t sure he’d make it out of the service alive. How did you say good-bye to your best friend knowing you might never see them again? At eighteen, Zac couldn’t bear the thought of walking away from Ben after everything they’d shared that last summer. And having a drawn out and emotional good-bye with one last hug, or one last . . . kiss; Zac knew he wasn’t strong enough to handle it.
Shit! Don’t think about that, Zac thought.
“Well, if anyone could get through to him, it’d be you, Zac,” Kathy said.
Zac rubbed at his forehead. He was probably the last person Ben wanted to see right now, but still Zac needed to do whatever he could to help. “Where is he, Kathy?”
“He’s been staying at the family cottage,” Kathy answered.
“The same one you had on Cape Cod back when we were kids?” Zac asked.
“Yes, he’s been working there instead of commuting into Boston,” Kathy replied. “He says being at the ocean clears his head, but I don’t think he’s telling me the whole truth. Listen, if he lets you inside could you please call and let me know how he is? And, please don’t push him too hard to talk. He’s really fragile right now.”
“Of course,” Zac said.
Zac thanked Kathy again for the information and ended the call. How quickly his plans were changing. Instead of flying back to L.A., Zac would now be flying to Boston and then doing a road trip down memory lane to find Ben. The idea of being back on that beach and cottages stirred more than memories for Zac. He wasn’t sure it was the best place for him to have a reunion with his childhood . . . friend, although if he were to be completely honest with himself, he’d have to admit Ben was always much more than a friend.
Zac’s next call was to his boss, Fizzbo, to make sure the security team knew his whereabouts. The gruff sound of Fizzbo’s voice filtered through the ear piece before the first ring of the phone was completed.
“Did you make it home already?” Fizzbo asked.
“Not quite,” Zac replied. “Slight change of plans.”
“You know damned well how much I hate any deviation from a plan, Zac,” Fizzbo grumbled. “What’s going on and why aren’t you on a plane to L.A. like we discussed?”
“Well, you know I have to let my hand heal for another ten days before I start PT,” Zac explained. “That being said, I decided to take a side trip and see an old friend before flying home.”
“Side trip you say?” Fizzbo was sounding crankier by the second. “Your doctor cleared you to fly home. I’m not sure he’d be okay with additional travel outside of that.”
“My friend is living southeast of Boston on the Cape,” Zac said and cleared his throat. “I found out from my mom today that his dad died a couple of weeks ago. I’d like to try and see him before I go back to the west coast.”
“Sounds honorable,” Fizzbo said.
Zac wasn’t sure if his boss was being snarky or not, but he wasn’t going to focus on it. His gut was telling him he needed to see Ben to try and get some kind of closure. If nothing else, Zac hoped for answers on why a piece of himself remained with Ben after all these years.
“I’ll call you again once I make it back to L.A.,” Zac said and ended the call.
Zac studied his phone screen. He read Lincoln’s text wishing him safe travels and an almost duplicate text from Dagger. These guys were special; no doubt about it. There was far more to them that went way beyond the music they played and the men they shared their beds with. Their hearts were bigger than their bank accounts and that made Zac smile. He opened up the text option on his phone and began typing a message to Lincoln.
“I think I found my friend,” Zac typed.
“That was quick,” Lincoln answered a minute later.
“Our mother’s are still friends. He’s living on Cape Cod near Boston. I’m going to stop there first and surprise him before I fly back to L.A.”
“Surprise him? Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Lincoln typed back.
“He could hang-up if I call. I think I have a better shot at talking to him if I go to the source,” Zac explained.
“Okay, you know best. Good luck, and let us know what happens,” Lincoln replied.
“Will do,” Zac typed and closed the text screen.
He had some arrangements to make if he was going to change his flight and fly to Boston instead of Los Angeles. He also needed to rent a car. Was he crazy for doing this? Probably. But that never stopped Zac from jumping into the fire before, and the fact that Ben was as close as a drive away from where he stood now seemed to be a good sign. It’d be a helluva lot easier to drive from Logan Airport to the Cape, versus flying home only to have to turn around from Los Angeles and fly back to Boston a few days from now. Feeling comfortable with his decision, Zac was ready to revisit his past.