Autumn Breeze

an excerpt

Chapter One

I took a deep breath as I knocked on Trendon Patrick's door. Glancing up and down the row of lavish new townhouses on Cedar Springs Road, I shook my shoulders, trying to loosen them up. When he opened the door, I was shocked how handsome he was. I'd seen his photos. Numerous photos. But I hadn't expected him to be so slim and elegant...and commanding.

Actually, I'm not sure what I was expecting. He had prematurely gray hair cut very short in a boyish style that accentuated his crystal blue eyes...and his white silk shirt was unbuttoned just enough to show me his creamy skin and perfect tan.

Wow. I shook my head.

He dressed in a very European style that was different from the men I knew here in Dallas. He wore what we, back home in New Orleans, used to call stovepipe white jeans with black boots underneath them. His shirt was tucked in, and his jeans were tight enough that I could see he had a fearsome package.

I knew this already, because he'd told me so on the phone--a couple of times--but still, he was not what I expected.

"Sean Mercado?" he asked. I nodded.

His lazy charm and captivating smile hypnotized me as he took my hand in both of his and looked deeply into my eyes.

We stood there for at least a minute. Just like that.

"Will you walk into my parlor?"

No. He didn't really say that!

Oh yes, but he did.

And just like the fly in the poem, I willingly stepped into this spider's web.

"Come in," he said when I didn't move fast enough. He kept holding my hand. I could feel that his skin was soft, flawless.

His townhouse was amazing, but I couldn't keep my gaze away from the beauty of this man to fully appreciate my surroundings. His face was smooth, except for the laugh lines around his eyes. He'd told me he'd given up smoking and a sudden pull of his mouth showed the unmistakable lines around his lips.

He led me to the kitchen where he gave me an obvious once-over. "I knew you'd be handsome but're something else."

I smiled. "Thank you. So are you."

His eyes narrowed for a second. He could tell I was being truthful. He dropped my hand and picked up a bottle of champagne that had already been opened. I tried to tamp down my anxiety. I hadn't expected it to already be open. I watched him pour me a glass.

"You did say champagne makes you horny," he said, his disarming smile shocking me. Why was I so surprised by anything he said or did? The man had invited me to his home without even a single date just by hooking up with me on GrippR, the hot new gay social dating app.

"So I did." I accepted the glass. He didn't pour any champagne into his since his glass was three-quarters full.

Damn. I had to make an executive decision. Once we clinked, I sipped. I had to hope he wasn't planning on killing me...yet.

He began to talk. His kitchen door was open, leading to an astonishingly verdant secret-ish garden in the back. He beckoned me outside. I kept smacking my tongue against the roof of my mouth. Nope. Couldn't taste anything but champagne.

Outside, his lavish tastes had lent themselves to a fire pit, luxurious outdoor furniture and--he pulled me to him and kissed me. I'd expected a full court press but we hadn't even exchanged a dozen words yet. I let him kiss me, feeling the tug of his hard cock against my hip. I extracted myself from his embrace.

Not yet, spider boy. I had to play him right. I had to be smart. I had to give him enough that he'd want a second date. And a third...

Trendon Patrick held a chair for me by the fire pit. He was talking about the lecture he'd just attended on vulnerability.

"This lecturer is brilliant. She talks all about how we've come to expect the worst in people. Do you think this is true, Sean?"

"Yes, I do."

He nodded. "I sensed that. She said something profound today. She said when we numb ourselves to what we sense threatens us, we sacrifice an essential tool for navigating uncertain times--joy."

I almost spat out my mouthful of champagne.

This man was crackers. Brilliant, bad, dangerous...

Joy. He had to be kidding me. If that didn't take the cake.

Fuck joy. Fuck the champagne and the goddamned second date. I wanted to run like the wind. But I couldn't.

I, the human fly, had already begun to spin and squirm in his sticky, invisible thread.

Is he telling me to be afraid of him? Is it a challenge? Or is he really telling me about an actual lecture on vulnerability?

"I'd like to take you to one of her lectures," he said.

Fantastic! He's already setting up a second date. Boy he's a fast worker.

"I would really like that," I said. "I've never heard of somebody lecturing on vulnerability before but it makes sense. I'd say it's the biggest disease of our times."

"Couldn't agree with you more." He went off and running about how afraid we are to really connect. He was good, that's for sure. I knew he was smart. He was also a narcissist. He smiled at me.

"I Googled you," he suddenly said.

I was uneasy now and I was sure it showed.

"You are who you say you are. I'm quite...intrigued that you are a gay U.S. Marshal. I had no idea there were any."

"Not many of us," I said. I picked up my glass and sipped.

"You're not drinking much."

I shook my head. "I have a case tonight. I did mention that."

He nodded. Oooh, I noticed the predatory gleam in his eye. His phone rang in the kitchen. He excused himself and went inside. I sat out there alone taking deep breaths. Man, the whole time we'd been together I'd felt smothered. I couldn't breathe. He was very intense company.

I saw him flitter through the house. "Be right back," he called out to me.

That gave me the opportunity to take a small sample of my drink. A tiny vial I was able to slide into the inner lining of my jacket. I had three more vials waiting.

I didn't think I needed them, but Trace Thatcher, my immediate liaison on this case, had insisted I start bagging and tagging immediately. It would be good practice.

Once I was done, I kept my eye on the hallway. No sign of Trendon. I walked back into the house. It would be a reasonable thing for me to want to look around.

I was astonished that there was simply no trace of the man's domestic partner. All remnants of him were gone. On the mantelpiece above the impressive fireplace I could see that a few photo frames were missing, judging by the dusty spaces around them. Yes, I shouldn't have been surprised. But human cruelty never stopped shocking me.

As Trendon Patrick's current life partner, Hooper Jardine, lay clinging to life in a local hospital, the victim of Trendon's lengthy, sustained poisoning attack, Trendon was already on GrippR, lining up dates.

I didn't have long. I slipped the bug Trace had given to me between two tiles on the other side of the mantel. Hopefully, Trendon would never notice it. I heard him coming back into the house. Too late for me to go outside. I fixed my gaze on the painting over the mantel.

When he tracked me to the living room, he smiled.

"Sorry, love. Didn't mean to abandon you." He came straight over to me and kissed me. "What do you think of my latest acquisition?" he asked.

I acted woozy from his embrace. "Me, or the painting?" I asked.

He laughed then. "You are delightful, Sean." He was all over me then. His mouth roamed my face and throat. I let him do what he wanted. My brain disconnected. If I allowed it to connect I would just flip out. I had to do whatever it took to make him act the way we hoped...

That he would soon act so obsessed with me that we had to be together and then...

He would start to kill me.

Trendon Patrick wasn't a bad kisser. For such a practiced seducer I thought he was rather hurried and a bit...pushy, but maybe the guys he'd been with up until now had gone for that sort of thing.

He pushed me onto the sofa and got between my legs as I sat there. He kept rubbing my cock in my pants. I had to force myself not to shove him away.

Don't think about Nicholas.

Shit! Why did I have to go and think about him?

Trendon began unzipping my fly, and thank God my cell phone chirped.

"Is that work?" he asked, looking pouty.

I checked the readout. "It is."

"Let me look at it," he said. Before I could respond, he had my cock out of my underpants and he was examining it. He seemed to really like it. He held it in his hands reverently and rubbed it over his face and mouth. He even treated it to butterfly kisses with his eyelashes.

I was appalled. Disgusted. I hoped to fucking hell I'd stay hard even though I was thoroughly creeped out.

But I drew the line at letting him take a photo of me like that.

"Ah-ha! Your vulnerability's showing, Sean." He grinned at me. "I'm taking you to her new lecture tomorrow afternoon, okay?"

"I can't wait." I stood and let him slobber over me as I tucked myself back in my pants. My heartbeat pounded in my head as I walked outside and got into my car. I kept a smile on my face and drove away.

Around the next block, I pulled over, opened my door and threw up on the street. I began to cry. I wept. I sobbed. I didn't know if I could go through with this.

My phone rang. It was my darling Nicholas.

"You're out of there?"

He heard my wracking sobs and I heard the distress in his voice. "Come home to me," he said, but I couldn't drive. I couldn't see for the tears tearing down my face.

"You did great, baby. Trace said you got a second date."

I gulped. "Any news on Hooper Jardine?"

"Oh God...I wanted to tell you in person."

"Tell me now." I couldn't take it. I really didn't think I could take bad news.

"He's permanently blind, but without any recent visits from Trendon, he's starting to get better."

"Can we stop him visiting?"

"Not yet. We're working on it. He'll probably go back tonight, according to what he's told people, but at least the room is wired now. I'm proud of you, Sean. Can you please come home?"


Nicholas was at my place waiting for me. I was proud of me, too. I was proud of the U.S. Marshals and the Texas Ranger Division for partnering up on a terrible wrong being done to the gay men of two of the oldest law enforcement agencies in the country.

Trendon Patrick had been flying under the radar for six long years, during which time he'd forged relationships with twelve agents stretching from Georgia to Texas and killed them. The connection between all the cases and Patrick hadn't been established at first until Hooper Jardine had told his commanding officer about his GLBT status and how he was certain his boyfriend was trying to kill him.

That's where I came in. The Texas Rangers had dug in and done some homework, and the name Trendon Patrick kept coming up over and over again. He had become rich many times over procuring insurance policies in his lovers' names; they all died mysterious deaths with flu-like symptoms.

Trendon Patrick's preferred method of killing was antifreeze in his partners' food and drinks.

He was probably the most significant serial killer of gay men in the history of the U.S. and up until now nobody had ever heard of him. He had no idea his last two victims had been exhumed and their vital organs tested. Like Hooper, all had extreme levels of ethylene glycol, a key toxic ingredient in antifreeze.

Each time he disappeared, he reinvented himself physically and gave himself a slight name change. He'd gotten away with his life of crime because many of his victims' families had been ashamed of their loved ones' homosexuality.

But so far, Hooper Jardine was holding strong. I was proud to be involved in a sting operation to save other men from a predator like Trendon Patrick.

I drove home like a maniac, into my lover's arms.

Nicholas stood in my doorway and held me. He gave me welcome kisses.

"It's all right," he said. But it wasn't. His cell phone rang as I clung to him.

"Baby." He held me tighter. "It's him."

"Who? The boogeyman?"

He looked at me and slowly nodded. For that was what Trendon Patrick was. A man who craved and yet hated law enforcement.

"You have a date with" I hated this.

"I'll call you when I'm done," Nicholas said.

We kissed each other. I had to let him go. We'd agreed to keep whatever transpired between each of us and the killer private. I knew because our case managers had told us that Trendon was "dissembling" and escalating his dating habits.

I'd just left him, and now my lover was heading over to his lair.

My beautiful French Canadian was posing as a Texas Ranger. His ID had been altered by the marshals' computer whizzes.

We were both going in, knowing the stakes were high.

Nicholas Fournier, the hottest mofo on two legs, turned and gave me one last kiss and went on his way. I leaned against the doorjamb and reminded myself why I was doing this.

And that the possibility was real that either Nicholas or I might...



My official marshals' partner, Jubilee Mason, was waiting for me at our temporary headquarters for Operation Lime Jell-O, a house six blocks from Trendon's home on Cedar Springs Road.

Cedar Springs Road contained the hub of Dallas' gay venues and it sickened all of us that Trendon was peeing on his own doorstep. A gigantic operation was in place at the house that had attracted a bit of attention from wary neighbors who reported us to the police thinking all the coming and going was some kind of drug deal.

Naturally, they knew nothing about what was going on but Trace was able to talk to the two patrol officers who came a-knocking. We hadn't had any trouble since but we were careful to come and go quietly and be friendly with any neighbors we did meet.

Jubilee let me into the house. He looked at me, hugged me, relieving me of the champagne sample. Everything Nicholas and I brought into the team would be booked into evidence.

"Great job, Marshal," Trace said over Jube's shoulder.

My partner smiled at me. "You okay?"


"I know it's hard." Jube sighed. He'd wanted to volunteer as a prospective date but he was a risk because he was well known thanks to his bank robbery takedown that had made him a bit of a local hero. Kieran, his life partner, would have jumped in with both feet, too, but their quest to adopt their foster son Juan had brought them both some scrutiny. In the court of public opinion, they deserved to legally parent Juan and it looked like local authorities were beginning to see the light.

So...all of this meant they had to work the operation in different ways.

Besides which, I was closer to the age Trendon favored in his men, and Nicholas posing as a Texas Ranger had been too delectable for Trendon to pass up.

He already had a secret spouse near death in the hospital who was a mighty Ranger. How could he resist a possible second? This psychopath was enjoying his power over the gay men of Texas law enforcement.

Jube took me into the kitchen and handed me a Corona from the fridge. He must have known I seriously needed to take the edge off my anxieties. The irony of a man who genuinely cared for me putting a beer into my hand an hour after a sociopath put champagne into it as he sized me up for slaughter wasn't lost on me.

We walked into the living room where I could hear Nicholas talking to Trendon via the bug I'd planted in Trendon's living room. There was a lot of laughter and flirtatious chatter going on. Dang. Trendon was a lot more animated with Nicholas than he had been with me.

Arrggh! He was kissing my man!

Jubilee took me away from the audio surveillance into what we'd begun to call the war room.

Trace and a few other marshals were there. Kieran was home with Juan but would trade off at midnight with Jube. We'd discovered that Trendon had a voracious sexual appetite and started hunting the gay clubs late at night for random sex. He refused to fuck with a rubber and surprisingly was able to lure a lot of men home, but his "relationships" were relegated to law enforcement.

Jubilee introduced me to a guy named Sam Watters from the Texas Ranger Division, universally known as the Texas Rangers.

They were the second oldest law enforcement agency in Texas after the U.S. Marshals and had dominated the Wild West with takedowns of some of the most notorious gangsters of the time including Bonnie and Clyde, bank robber Sam Bass and gunslinger John Wesley Hardin.

They were one of the first paramilitary units in the whole country and now... Now they had a sexual predator trying to decimate their small, tight unit.

"Let's start," Trace said. "The bug you planted is working well. We're able to hear Trendon Patrick's conversations in the kitchen, the bathroom off it, and of course the living room. We just took possession of a foreclosed unit four doors down from his townhouse that will be a safe house for any of our men who need it. We'll have a surveillance team set up there within the hour.

"We hope the detection device you left will soon be joined by the one Nicholas will plant elsewhere in the house." He paused. "Preferably the bedroom."

I kept a straight face. A slug of beer certainly helped.

Sam Watters spoke. "I want to thank you, Marshal, for what you are doing to help Hooper. We're worried that he isn't dying fast enough for Trendon's financial comfort. We now have the cooperation of the hospital staff, which has told him Hooper is worse than he is."

Jubilee spoke. "We don't know how he slipped antifreeze to Hooper in the hospital two days ago because the man can't eat and, as you know, we had no physical evidence. We have full visual surveillance of the room now so we hope to catch him in the act. That will help our case."

I knew we were called Operation Lime Jell-O because Hooper had told us that Trendon frequently fed it to him before he was hospitalized. Conversations with bereaved family members of other victims told the same story.

We had another marshal working undercover directly in touch with Trendon. We'd been handed a gift when a straight guy named Paul Corrington had come forward to our team leader and mentioned that Trendon had befriended him at their local gym. Paul had initially been flattered that Trendon thought he was a financial advisor because he was a day trader.

Conversations over stair master and treadmill sessions led to Trendon repeatedly hitting on him. Appalled and embarrassed, Paul had withdrawn from Trendon until he learned of our operation. He had revealed that Trendon had told him he was about to come into a huge amount of money and asked Paul what suggestions he had for investing it.

"Paul was the one who called while you were there," Trace said. "Trendon seems convinced that Hooper is on his way out. He told Paul on the phone it would be twenty-four to forty-eight hours and he'd be a very rich man. We've now learned he has a two-million dollar life insurance policy out on Hooper."

"Besides the million-dollar policy he's already got?"

He looked disgusted. "This guy has ice water in his veins."

I couldn't have put it better myself.

It was hard for all of us that we couldn't just move Hooper to a secret location away from his "life partner" because Trendon had full legal custody over him. Even Hooper's parents couldn't stop him. At the most aggressive point of his poisoning by Trendon, Hooper, in a feverish delirium, had signed a form giving Trendon complete power of attorney over all his affairs--and his entire life.

For Trace it read like a slave contract, and being an African-American man, it especially disturbed him. He'd once sued the marshals for discrimination and won. He'd been forced to retire after winning a landslide victory and I knew that Jubilee Mason was the one who'd brought him back to our Marshals' family.

There was no question we were a family. A cohesive, determined unit working together to deal with the worst kind of deviant.

Trendon had fought the hospital staff over life-saving remedies and had insisted on a DNR status--Do Not Resuscitate--but now that we knew Hooper was the victim of attempted murder, we had the hospital's full cooperation. It helped that Trendon had no clue that we were onto him.

And that his narcissism and resulting lack of any feeling for his partner meant that he didn't visit the hospital as much. He told the ward nurses he was working hard.

Yeah...working hard on fucking up as many more lives as possible. I'd read the case notes carefully. The crap he'd spouted to me about fear was his thing. He'd become obsessed with the work of Dr Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston. She was fast becoming an intriguing and authoritative lecturer on the subject of invulnerability.

Her favorite topics were courage, shame, and authenticity.

What Trendon had said to me was straight out of one of her lectures. She warned against society's trend toward ambient fear.

One of her catchphrases was "Our joy becomes foreboding."

Yeah. I thought about how Trendon used the word joy with me. In his slick, clever way he had been trying to pave the way for my trust, my vulnerability.

My weakness.

And then, joy would become foreboding.

How sick, how evil he was to encourage other men to drop the cloak of fear, to lose their inhibitions, only to be the very thing they feared.

Terror and death.

"You okay?"

I glanced up at Trace and smiled. I was so grateful they were all being so kind to me. It wasn't just that I was putting myself in the line of fire, but that I knew our target was a ruthless killer.

"He's capitalizing on the fact that most people have become accustomed to disappointment as a lifestyle," I said. "I find that frightening."

The others all looked at me.

I felt foolish at first. Fuck. Vulnerable.

It was Trace who rescued me. "I think that's his MO, Sean. He's figured out gay men live in fear and shame because of society. They get used to...disappointment, as you put it." He put his hand on a folder on his desk.

"Each of the twelve victims he's killed so far thought they'd met Prince Charming. They thought they'd given up kissing frogs, that they were no longer alone. He took five years to court his first victim and five months to court and then begin killing Hooper Jardine.

"He's a typical serial killer in that the passage of time between kills is getting shorter and shorter. His thirst for absolute control, his urge for the hunt, the new victim, is getting stronger and stronger."

"And of course, he's dissembling as mentioned before," Jubilee added. "He's stepping up his disguises, but not being very clever. We couldn't figure out how he was getting into the hospital room, but Hooper deteriorated two days ago. Well, today we received this."

He slid a black and white photo to me. I gaped at it. Trendon was wearing a hospital orderly's gown and paper cap but even I could tell it was him.

"Slipped under the radar because by now he's figured out that Hooper has undergone a battery of tests. They haven't let on they know it's antifreeze poisoning but he's already begun to stay away from the place so that if it's ever discovered he can say he wasn't there."

"Oh, my God." My thoughts raced. "He might be planning to sue the hospital if Hooper dies. He could get...millions."

"You got it," Trace said, a heavy dose of bitterness to his voice. "We've now got a new team of hospital staff posted to his room. We've passed the word onto Trendon that Hooper's actually developed acute leukemia and is vulnerable to infection."

Vulnerable. There was that word again.

The lecture I'd watched of Dr Brown's had illustrated a perfect point in how we all brace ourselves for horror. She described a cozy scene of a family of four driving to Grandma's on a snowy Christmas Eve. She asked the audience to imagine the warmth inside the car, the dog in the back, Christmas presents, the family singing and laughing...then asked them to tell her what happens next.

Sixty percent of the audience said "Car crash."

In her research that was a standard figure. Another ten to fifteen percent had, in her words, "Equally fatalistic but much more creative answers. I had people saying when they get to Grandma's they're all dead. A serial killer's on the loose. And I had one dude who suggested a shark attack."

The audience laughed but the truth was, we were all victims of such...creative fears.

Trace went on, "Sean, whatever disappointment you personally feel...whatever qualms you have about your abilities...I guarantee a conviction of this sadist will make you feel proud of who you are. Who we all are. Don't you just love that he has no clue that we're onto his game?"

"Yes," I said. I'd fallen victim to the very things Dr. Brown spoke of so eloquently. I worried that I wasn't good enough to trap this guy. I worried, frankly, I was vulnerable to his discovery of what Nicholas and I were up to. He could kill us without thought if he guessed we were investigating him. I banished the idea from my mind.

My cell phone rang. It was the serial killer himself. Everyone held their breath as I took the call.

He was singing to me, an old song, "You and me, and a dog named Boo." Why the hell was he singing that? And then I remembered. His favorite thing to give his new partners was a puppy.

None of which were ever seen again after his husbands were killed.