Burn Card

an excerpt

The locker room of the crime lab smelled like an odd combination of flower-scented body sprays and manly deodorant. Coed, so there were separate showers. It was essentially a room full of rows of metal clothes lockers divided by wooden benches.

Mid-morning, only a dozen or so officers and criminalists working for the Las Vegas crime lab were in sight, most having just finished an off-hours shift or overtime. This was a place to wind down from a long shift or rev up for a new one.

Only three hours into his usual dayshift, Cody Baxter was neither finishing nor preparing for a new day. But he was changing his clothes. He pulled a fresh black T-shirt out of an open locker and tossed it onto the bench behind him. It was identical to the shirt he was wearing except that the one he had on was torn, dirty, and splattered with what looked like dull, dark stains of a faintly deep red substance.

His locker was directly across from the main entrance to the room. He contemplated going and shutting the door, but he decided it took too much energy. Let the gawkers look.

Using his open locker door as a partial shield, Cody dropped to the bench, his jeans-clad legs slightly parted, balancing his small, wiry frame in a ready stance. A guy couldn't work with body fluids, debris, and dead bodies and not get dirty occasionally. While his compact, toned body was nothing to be ashamed of, he preferred to draw as little attention as possible when he occasionally needed to change his shirt. He was a private kind of guy, liking it best when people ignored him and let him do his job. The less attention, the better.

Lord knows he'd had enough attention this morning to last him for a long while. Even now, a copy of the offending paper lay on the end of the bench, the pages folded back to reveal the smiling candid snapshot of him and media darling Gil Turko.

The T-shirt just cleared his head, forcing spikes of dark hair to stick up at all angles. A recently abused muscle spasmed. Breath caught in mid inhalation, Cody waited for the twinges to pass, the lean muscles of his abdomen clenched while his arms were left encased in the soft cotton of the shirt, his movements briefly frozen.

He flinched, worked his shoulder to loosen it up. "Ah! Damn it." He let out a long, tired breath. "Whoa. That hurt." Folding the soiled shirt, he laid it in the bottom of his locker. He jerked only a little when an unexpected hand lightly touched his bruised arm.

"Hey, you need to see a medic before we go back out? You're moving slow, bud."

Working the shoulder more vigorously, he ignored a fresh stab of pain. Cody shook his head and grunted an unconvincing, "Nah."

"You sure? You took down two big guys, Cody. One of them had at least six inches and a hundred pounds on you." Eric Wren propped a foot on the bench beside Cody and leaned his arm on his knee, a casual stance that had the added benefit of blocking Cody from the view of the busy traffic in the hallway.

Tall, dark chocolate brown, with a wrestler's build, Eric was barrel-chested, with a voice as deep as his skin was dark. "Everyone here knows you're a feisty little bad ass. No one tangles with you if they can help it but," he poked a finger into an array of newly blossoming bruises on Cody's collar bone, "that has to hurt."

"It's not so bad, really." He gave Eric a wry grin. "It was more painful to listen to all the teasing about my picture in the paper this morning." He carefully slipped the clean shirt over his head and pulled it into place, unconsciously smoothing out the wrinkles as he tucked it into his waistband. "I can handle this better. It's business, not personal."

"Yeah, well, you pick a rich celebrity for a boyfriend, you're going to get a little of the limelight shining on you. You and Gil have been together for what, three years now?" Eric didn't wait for Cody to nod in agreement, but Cody did anyway. "I think you'd be used to it by now."

"I am used to it." Cody grabbed the paper from the bench and stared at the grainy photo of his lover. Gil Turko was a handsome man, his towering body a mountain of trim bands of toned muscle evident even under the tux he wore. His face was Latino dark, all sharp planes and broad bones with piercing brown/black eyes and jet-black hair he wore slightly longer than Cody's neatly trimmed cut.

"It's just" - Cody tossed the paper into his locker and firmly shut the door firmly - "it was my birthday. It was a great, intimate night. I didn't want to share any part of it with work. Not even the morning after." He gave Eric a ruefully, embarrassed glance. "You know what I mean?"

"Yeah, I do. But you were at the biggest fundraiser of the year for Children's Hospital and Gil is one of the major forces in raising money for it. Besides that, he's got a great mug. All those years of football, wrestling and skulking around the world as a special services operative never marred his pretty profile." Eric straightened and threw an arm around Cody's shoulders. His smile was completely without any hint of remorse when Cody grimaced and tried unsuccessfully to shrug him off. "Face it, dude, the camera loves him and so do the media."

"Yeah, well, not as much as I love him." Cody narrowed his eyes and smiled back at his friend. "I have some other, better bruises to prove it. Wanna see them?" He made a move to undo his jeans.

Eric instantly released Cody's shoulder, hands waving protectively in front of him. "TMI, Cody, TMI! I trust you."

Laughing, they both stopped short as a new man filled the doorway, files in one hand and a preoccupied look on his tanned, lined face. Grant Hewlett, section supervisor and their boss, peered up at them over his half frame glasses, clear, steady eyes sharply evaluating both men.

"Word has it you had physical contact with a couple of hecklers at the latest homicide scene, Cody. Are you all right?"

"I'll be fine."

"Good." Staring at Cody, Grant nodded, pursed his lips, seeming to think hard about something Cody couldn't see. Grant straightened marginally and nodded again. "Rodriguez called off for nights. Flu. You're next up on the float list. Go home. Rest up and be back for the graveyard shift. You can take the next day off to make up for it."

"I can finish out my day shift now, then come back for graveyard." Cody darted a look at Eric, hoping the man would keep silent about the extent of Cody's bruises. He was fine. He could do his job. "It's no big deal."

"It is to me. We're skeleton enough on nights without staffing it with tired people. Go home. Take a nap."

"Yes, sir." He tried to keep disappointment out of his voice but he caught Grant's eyes narrow, and he flushed, feeling like he did when his dad had caught him in a lie. "I'll leave as soon as I finish the report on what happened."

"You do that, Cody." Grant gave Eric a hard look then moved back out into the hall and began to walk away adding, "You see to it that he does, Eric. Leave, I mean."

"Yes, sir."

Both men waited until Grant was out of hearing range then sighed loudly. Cody walked back to his locker and began stowing his gear. "Well, damn. Happy birthday to me."

"Luck of the draw. I'd trade with you, but I don't think Grant was in the mood to be messed with about this."

"Nah, it's okay. I'll go soak in the hot tub for a while and ease away a few of these sore muscles."

"Hey, you didn't tell me. What's a guy get for his twenty-eighth birthday from his rich and famous boyfriend?"

"Among other things, a new watch. It's got everything but a full keypad on it, I swear." Cody raised his wrist and admired the gleaming gold watch. It sported a heavy mesh band that hugged his smaller than average wrist perfectly. "It's even got an emitter in it."

"You're kidding?"

"No, I'm not."

"He actually put a tracker on you?"

"You know how much he obsesses about safety, my safety."

"Yeah, but a tracker? Gil lojacked you?"

"It's not on. I have to activate it." He flashed his watch at Eric again, fingering a third stem in the side of the watch. "This button here." He flashed it on, showed Eric how a red glow highlighted the watch dial. It buzzed and vibrated for a half a second, then he shut it off.

Eric raised his eyebrows, suspicion written all over his face. Cody frowned back. "He isn't spying on me, you jerk. I turn it on if I need it."

"Simmer down. I didn't think he was. I'm just stunned." Eric laughed and leaned against the lockers. "You let the man lojack you! Holy shit! You must be in love."

"You're an ass." Cody shut his locker and walked toward the hallway.

Eric hurried to match Cody's determined stride. Once he reached Cody's side he murmured in a sing-song whisper, "And your ass is lojacked!" Eric had to dance out of the way to avoid a hard jab to his ribs.

"A huge, irritating jackass."

On the up side of things, he was going home in the middle of the day with nothing to do. Maybe Gil would be available for a little afternoon delight. Cody's day just got brighter.