End Of A Nightmare

by Tarlan

Dustin Yarma/Joe Dolan | Rated A | 2002 | 10,500 words

 

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Dustin sat on the patio, giving no outward appearance of there being anything wrong as he watched his ex-girlfriend drive off with Minnow. However, inside he was shaking.

His life was a mess.

He knew the girl's death was an accident but there was no way to prove it and he was certain he could not rely on Minnow to tell the truth. Most likely, if he went to the Police, Minnow would either deny his own involvement or make up some story of how he had tried to stop Dustin. It would be his word against Minnow's. He couldn't even try to push all the blame onto Minnow and say that the other man was responsible for her death. After all, what would it accomplish? No one was going to employ a murderer, or an accomplice to murder.

Dustin sneered inwardly at his own weakness. By going along with Minnow's cover-up he had embroiled himself deeply into this sordid affair and he could see no easy way out. The only way he could keep even a semblance of his former life was to carry on playing Minnow's game. In time, he hoped the man would grow bored with him and move on, though Dustin had a feeling Minnow would be picking over his bones by then.

Minnow already had Dustin's girlfriend and half of Dustin's business. With the money he was now earning Minnow was well able to afford his own house, his own car... his own life, but the man had made no attempt to step away. Slowly, he was taking over Dustin's whole life, and was starting to dictate to him whom he could or could not see.

Dustin reflected for a moment on the events that had brought him to this point. It had been his greed and selfishness, and his vanity, that had led him to this place. He had panicked on seeing the girl lying dead on the beach, unable to recall anything about her, just snatches from a night of alcohol and 'recreational' drug abuse. He wasn't to know that it was all a ruse concocted between Minnow and the girl to blackmail him, both of them disgusted by his rich boy attitude and wanting to teach him a lesson. However, he had found the girl, had faced his blackmailers and then, in a moment of sheer lunacy, he had vented his anger on Minnow.

It had been an accident, the champagne bottle striking her instead of Minnow, but the end result was the same. Dustin could still feel the reverberation of the bottle along his arm as it struck her skull, could still hear the dull thud as it connected with bone and tissue. He could still see her lifeless body falling to the soft sand, eyes open but unseeing. He had turned with horror to see sadistic pleasure replace surprise on Minnow's face.

There were so many 'if only' phrases that passed through his head. If only he had not been drinking when he confronted them; if only he had gone to the Police instead of confronting them; if only he had confronted them in public with his friends by his side.

What friends? It was amazing how those friends had disappeared like cockroaches into the woodwork as soon as there was any trouble.

He shied away from that thought. The sun was shining brightly, the orange juice was freshly squeezed and had a rich, tangy taste that reflected that Californian sunshine. The view from this patio showed a clean, sharp-edged world, away from all the smog that filled downtown Los Angeles. The air was warm but fresh, with hardly a hint of the fumes from too many cars in too small an area. He could see across the valley here, make out the dots of other expensive condos: white within their small oases of green. It was this view that had sold him on this property, a view that reminded him that he was no longer one of the poor white trash.

It would be so easy to blame what he had become on his roots. He had grown up with nothing, envious of the wealth displayed around him and determined to be one of the beautiful people living high above the smog. He had been ambitious, and he was clever, traits that he used to claw his way into the world of Hollywood, but he had not been content with just the wealth, he had enjoyed the power too. However, these last few weeks had sent him tumbling from the pedestal on which he had placed himself.

Dustin sighed.

For his greed he had Minnow taking all the material possessions he thought he had owned. For his selfishness, he had Minnow taking all that he had most coveted and for his vanity he had Minnow...

Dustin choked on that thought, remembering last night when Minnow had returned drunk from some party and climbed into Dustin's bed, trying to force himself upon him.

Dustin picked up the glass of juice and took another sip, wanting to replace the foul taste of bile in his mouth as he remembered waking to find those hands touching him so intimately. He had tried to move away but he had been trapped on his stomach with Minnow's heavier body covering him, pinning him down. He had bucked up hard, trying to dislodge the man but it had only added to Minnow's pleasure. In the end he had squeezed his eyes tightly shut, burying his face into the pillow as he felt the thickened shaft rubbing hard in the groove between his asscheeks. It was over in moments, though it felt far longer. He had endured the grunts and moans of pleasure, had felt Minnow stiffen before a disgusting wet warmth flooded over his lower back, seeping down between his asscheeks.

Minnow had rolled off him, and had staggered to his feet before walking away without a word, leaving Dustin to deal with the aftermath.

His skin still felt raw from where he had scrubbed himself so hard, trying to scour away the touch of that man upon his flesh.

Of course, the big question was why? Why had Minnow come to him last night? Why had he allowed the man to abuse him that way? He could have cursed him, shoved at him, bit him. He could have crept into Minnow's room later and killed the fucking bastard. Why didn't he?

Because he owns you.

Dustin closed his eyes, a single tear tracking down his face at his own impotence.

Don't I own him too?

Dustin knew that he could go to the Police and tell them the truth. No doubt he would lose everything: his job, his house, his wealth, his position in life... his freedom. But what did Minnow have to lose?

The same things.

No. To someone like Minnow, going to prison would be just a new phase in his existence, and then there was the fear of prison itself. No doubt Minnow would fit in very well there; but Dustin had no doubt that, for him, it be a living hell. Films like 'The Shawshank Redemption' and 'American Me' floated into his head and he could see it all now - the other inmates lining up, waiting for their turn to ream his rich, pretty-boy ass.

There was no doubt in Dustin's mind. He was trapped in this game - and Minnow knew it.

hr

There was the usual pile of letters in his in-tray when he reached his desk. Dustin eyed them, distastefully, before turning to check his schedule for the day. He sighed, realising there would be little free time today but maybe that was for the best. At least he would not have time to dwell on last night - and to worry about what would happen this coming night.

"What if he wants more?"

Dustin jumped in his seat, eyes wide in terror as the thought he had refused to dwell upon was spoken out loud.

"Jesus, Dustin. Didn't mean to scare the shit out of you." Frank Di Cabra, the co-producer on a movie that had been green-lighted only a few days earlier, slumped into the seat opposite. "Just wanted to know what we should do if he asks for more."

"Frank, it's all settled. We cut a deal with his agent yesterday. The contracts are signed and a copy is probably lying on your desk as we speak."

Dustin closed his eyes, pushing away the disgusting image of a lust-filled Minnow and replacing it with the lead actor he had signed up for Di Cabra's latest film. After that there should have been no more time to think about anything except the job. However, the smallest of innocent gestures or remarks were enough to send him hurtling back to the previous night: a hand casually placed on the small of his back while directing him to a restaurant table, or small details from the plot of a proposed film. Worst of all was having a sense that someone was watching him as he ploughed through that pile of mail in his inbox, and looking up to find Minnow staring at him from the threshold with a strange look in his eye. He had turned and left immediately, again without a word, but the sight had left Dustin shaking once more.

When evening came, Dustin found he was searching for any excuses to stay later at the office, and then he began ringing around the numbers of so-called friends, trying to find even one interested in finding a nightclub, or going for a meal. No one - not even Jarred - had time for him, being too busy with the small dramas in their own lives; or possibly everyone was avoiding him since Minnow had become a permanent fixture in his life, both business and social.

"Dustin." He froze as he heard the hated voice calling his name. "Time to go home."

"I'm sure you can make your own way without me."

Minnow grinned, his eyes raking over Dustin's body in a way that left nothing to the imagination, leaving Dustin feeling totally humiliated as the other man mentally undressed him. Anger rose within him, partly in self-disgust at allowing himself to be intimidated, and partly at Minnow's audacity.

"What's wrong, Minnow? Darcy not putting out for you?"

"Maybe I prefer *everything* you got."

Dustin looked away, eyes closed, shame burning in his face as he heard Minnow's derisive laugh. The laughter faded slowly as Minnow wandered off, leaving Dustin alone with his worst nightmare realised.

Dustin wandered from club to club alone, no longer getting the same adrenaline kick from the loud music, flashing lights and gyrating, half-naked bodies of wanna-be film stars. It seemed so shallow to him now. He felt physically sick when he realised Minnow had done no more to him than he had done to a hundred actresses so desperate for that first break that they would compromise their dignity and respect with a few sweaty minutes of meaningless sex. Only, in his case, he was desperately trying to keep a hold on the life he had made for himself in this town, not wanting to slump back into the gutters of his childhood. Yet, even those gutters were starting to look inviting now.

Eventually, he found a small, less frequented bar and slid onto one of the many empty barstools. A beer was placed in front of him and he nodded his thanks to the bartender and then took a sip of the cold liquid. Dustin brushed off the attentions of a woman who sidled up to him, and she went away in a huff, calling him a 'fag' but he hadn't the strength to remonstrate with her. He finished his beer far more quickly than he hoped, and he checked his watch, aware that he was still trying to find a reason for not going home.

Home? He snorted softly. It had ceased to be his home on the day Minnow walked through the front door, but there was nowhere else for him to go. As he was about to rise from the barstool, resigned to his fate, another beer was set down in front of him. Dustin stared at it in confusion then looked up at the bartender and followed the man's eyes as they darted to the far end of the bar.

The man seated on the furthest barstool raised his own beer in salute and Dustin felt a momentary flare of anger, believing it was just another pick-up attempt but the man merely turned away. With his anger deflated by more confusion, Dustin took a cautious sip of the beer, casting odd glances down at the buyer but gaining no response. Finally, curiosity won out, and he slid from his stool and walked slowly to where the man was seated alone.

On the way over, he assessed the stranger, noting the physical differences and similarities between them. Both of them were tall and lean, their bodies holding not an ounce of unwanted fat and yet neither of them was skinny. He could see biceps ripple as the man raised his beer to his lips, could see a well-toned chest outlined by a soft-green T-shirt and watched as the man took slow, even breaths. However, where he was dark-haired, this man was a dark blond, the meagre lights in the bar glinting off the light-coloured strands. The man turned to face him as Dustin approached, revealing a strong, handsome face with lips curled just slightly into a welcoming smile.

Dustin indicated the beer. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. Grab a seat."

Dustin sat down warily and stared straight ahead into the mirror behind the bar. He frowned at his own reflection, wondering if that face looking back at him could possibly be his own. He looked terrible, as if the weight of the world sat upon his features. Circles of fatigue darkened his eyes, their usual brightness dulled by the events over which he had been given no control. His mouth was down-turned, like one of those sad-faced clowns he had once seen at a circus - and he looked so pale. His eyes flicked to the reflection of the other man and saw that they seemed to have yet another similarity - until the man smiled gently, his whole face transforming at once into something beyond handsome; into something Dustin could only describe as beautiful.

"Not a flattering mirror."

"I don't know." Dustin bit his lip, realising what he had just admitted and gained a small chuckle from his new companion. Quickly, he changed the subject, holding up the beer to illustrate his next question. "Why?"

"Because you looked like you needed a beer - and maybe someone to lean on."

"And you want to be that someone?"

"That's up to you."

"Damn right it is."

Dustin looked away, suddenly ashamed at his outburst but the man made no angry retort, just gave another small laugh before sipping at his own beer once more. In recompense, when the stranger had but a mouthful left, Dustin caught the eye of the bartender and asked him to set them up with two fresh beers. The stranger gave him a gentle smile, his eyes flashing in thanks, and they carried on drinking together in silence. Slowly, Dustin found himself relaxing in this man's company as no pressure was put upon him to talk, or do anything else but sit and drink quietly. The additional benefit was that no one else approached him; no hookers looking for a means to buy more coke, and no desperate people looking for either a sugar daddy or a way to that first elusive acting contract.

"My name's Dustin. Dustin Yarma."

"Joe Dolan."

They shook hands and then fell back into a strangely companionable silence but Dustin found he had to snap himself awake from time to time as the night wore on. He had not slept after Minnow's visit last night, and he had no intention of going home to his bed knowing Minnow might be waiting there for him. What he wanted was to be safe. He thought he would feel safe among the gyrating masses in the clubs but, instead, he had felt even lonelier, like a man standing outside a window, looking in. Shivers had raced down his spine as he realised that someone could murder him or abuse him in their midst, and none of them would give a damn. He didn't want to be alone anymore.

"You need a place to stay?"

"What?"

"It's not a proposition. You just look as if you need some company... and some sleep."

Dustin knew he was rich enough to afford a classy hotel room anywhere in LA, and yet he found this man's offer far more inviting. Something clicked inside, some warning system triggered and he realised that he knew nothing about this man except for his name. For all he knew, Joe Dolan could be a psychopath looking for a victim, or he could be another Minnow, and then Dustin realised, with disconnected horror, that he really didn't care as long as he didn't have to be alone anymore.

"Sure."

Together, they slid from their respective barstools and left the bar, walking a few blocks along grimy streets that Dustin had not seen since moving among the beautiful people. The small motel was a little seedy looking but Joe led him into a surprisingly clean but nondescript room containing just a few items of furniture.

"You can have the bed. I'll sleep in the chair."

Dustin looked at the large bed and then back at the uncomfortable chair, hating the selfishness and fear that filled him. Joe had turned away, reaching into a cupboard to withdraw a blanket and spare pillow, which he threw onto the chair. Dustin watched him, seeing the fatigue in the handsome face as Joe slipped out of his jacket and laid it over the back of another chair, realising that Joe had made the offer in all seriousness. He felt incredibly guilty at keeping this man from his comfortable bed and, ruthlessly, he pushed aside the lingering memory of Minnow's naked body thrusting on top of him.

"There's room for... for both of us to take half the bed each."

"Okay."

Dustin swallowed hard, strangely elated at the relief so plainly written on Joe's face, and he watched as Joe stripped off his shoes, socks and pants. He was relieved when Joe went no further, slipping into one side of the bed still clad in T-shirt and boxers. Quickly, he did likewise, stripping until he was standing in his dress shirt and boxers, and then he realised that the dress shirt would not be the most comfortable sleeping attire. Joe must have noticed his dilemma and spared him having to make the decision to sleep bare-chested.

"There's a spare T-shirt in that top drawer."

"Thanks."

Minutes after slipping into the bed beside Joe, the light was put out. He spent several minutes listening to Joe get comfortable and then he heard the man's breathing slow and knew, instinctively, that Joe had fallen asleep. He closed his own eyes, surprised at how safe he felt lying by this man's side, and let sleep overtake him.

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The sound of the shower brought Dustin out of a, thankfully, dreamless sleep. He watched the door warily once the shower stopped, and almost smiled at the vulnerability in the man who stepped back into the room toweling his damp hair. Joe pulled the towel aside and gave a wry grin, his short blond hair standing up in fluffy spikes and Dustin was struck, again, by how beautiful this man was.

"You're looking better."

Dustin found a smile coming to lips easily. Strangely enough he did feel better. Whether it was the much-needed sleep or the easy companionship he could not tell but he was grateful.

"So. What do you do for a living, Joe?"

"At the moment... just this and that."

"Before?"

Joe looked a little uneasy for a moment and Dustin could see him weighing up his words before making a decision, and then he sighed. "I was a grifter."

"A what?"

"A grifter. A con artist."

"Was?"

"Call it a revelation, but my eyes were opened to the pain inflicted by my... profession when I became a victim of my own kind. Never realised what an ugly person I was until then."

The words struck a chord with Dustin, making him realise that he had a lot more in common with this man than he had previously supposed. He appreciated the honesty, knowing how hard it must have been for Joe to admit to being the kind of person that used to prey upon others for financial gain. However, he gave Dustin no time to dwell upon this revelation, mentioning instead that there was a spare set of towels in the bathroom. Dustin accepted this invitation to use the facilities gratefully, aware that he reeked of cigarette smoke and a trace of body odor. He showered quickly, not as embarrassed by the covert appraisal when he stepped back into the room as he felt he ought to have been, even though his dignity was barely covered by a thin white towel. He accepted the offer of another clean T-shirt and dressed quickly.

Ten minutes later they were seated in a booth in the restaurant attached to the motel ordering breakfast. As they ate, Dustin found himself telling Joe all about the past few months leaving out none of the details no matter how much he wished he could pretend they had not happened. He started off haltingly, but soon his words were flooding from him. All through his confession, Joe remained silent, offering no condemnation but no sympathy either and yet Dustin got the impression that he was not shocked at anything. At least, that was the case until Dustin told him about Minnow's nighttime visit, and his inference of the previous day.

"Bastard."

Dustin gave a hoarse, bitter laugh. "I deserve it."

"No. No one deserves that. No one. Not even you."

Dustin turned his head away in shame, hearing a little disgust in his new friend's voice but a hand laid on his arm pulled him back to face Joe.

"What you did was wrong. You panicked, thinking only of yourself, your money, and your position... and he used that against you. But I do believe you never meant to kill her when you discovered the sting. You're not a cold-blooded murderer, Dustin."

"I can't go to the Police."

"No. Least, not yet."

Dustin looked up into warm green eyes that were so similar to his own, seeing an idea forming in there that sent a shiver of pleasure down his spine. Some sixth sense had told him he could trust this man and he hoped, to God, that it was not wrong as he listened to Joe explain the plan he was formulating to turn the tables on Minnow.

hr

Despite Joe's assurances, Dustin found his heart was hammering in his chest when he arrived at the office having stopped on the way to purchase and pull on a clean dress shirt and tie. His secretary raced up to him, concerned that he had missed one meeting and was late for the next but he brushed aside her agitation and stepped into his office, his professional smile firmly in place. After a few moments his clients forgot their anger at his lateness and became deeply embroiled in a debate over whom they would like to see playing the lead in their latest film. Dustin forgot all his own worries, finding he was back in his element as he discussed aspects of the script that made him lean towards particular actors. Half an hour later he was arranging for copies of the script to be sent to a small list of male leads that they had all agreed upon, and asking for his secretary to set up the necessary auditions.

The rest of the day passed quickly, filled with meetings, auditions, and script reading of other green-lighted projects. However, there were moments when he was reminded of the new friend he had made. He would hear a soft mid-western drawl on the table nearby during his lunch appointment, or see features on certain actors as he flicked through the portfolios and find himself noting that some were so similar to his mental image of Joe.

Of Minnow, Dustin saw no sign but, as the last of the daylight faded, he sensed he was being watched once more and looked up into the hateful face. However, there was a difference in Minnow's expression this time. Gone were the lascivious looks and the lust-filled eyes, instead Minnow was fidgeting nervously, eyes darting around the office, mouth set in a tight line. He had a hunted look.

"Where were you last night?"

"None of your business, Minnow."

"I checked your usual haunts. The clubs, bars. Even called a few of your so-called friends. Where were you, Dustin?"

"You hardly expected me to go home, did you? After what you did to me." Dustin snorted in disbelief as Minnow's eyes narrowed. "I stayed in a motel, okay?"

Minnow held his stare for a moment longer and then he looked away.

"We have a problem."

"We?"

Minnow stepped into the office and sat down in the seat opposite. "Someone saw us fighting on the beach that night. They saw you kill that girl."

"Don't tell me. Now I have two blackmailers."

Dustin could not keep the bitterness from his voice and was a little concerned when he saw an idea light up the pale blue eyes of his nemesis. He knew from the look cast in his direction that Minnow had probably latched onto his ill thought out words and was considering a partnership with this new blackmailer. Dustin felt a moment of nausea wash over him, part of him hoping that Joe had made his first move on Minnow. Another part feared that this new blackmailer might be either unconnected with Joe or that he was about to be betrayed by a man his instincts had told him to trust.

"Go home, Dustin. You look like shit."

"If you think--"

"Don't flatter yourself. I'm staying with the lovely Darcy tonight."

Minnow waggled his eyebrows suggestively, hoping to get a rise out of Dustin over the fact that he had stolen his girlfriend, but Dustin refused to rise to the bait. To be honest, any feelings he had once held for Darcy had vanished after she made it clear that she had moved on to a - seemingly - more advantageous match. He had never realised that she had been using him just as much as he had used her, never truly noticing that she had used his powerful position and, though it felt vain to admit it, even his good looks to promote herself within the industry. When his life starting falling to pieces, with Minnow snatching away more than half of his business, she had turned out to be as mercenary and shallow as his blackmailer; so Minnow was welcome to her.

When Minnow didn't get the expected rise out of Dustin, his expression turned into an ugly sneer of contempt. There was something about that look that increased the fear that was already gripping Dustin; a coldness in the pale eyes that promised him worse things to come.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Dustin. And don't be late again. It upsets the clients."

Dustin shuddered as Minnow closed the office door behind him, his head falling into hands as he wished, ardently, that he could reach the end of this nightmare.

hr

The house was quiet and dark when he arrived home and yet Dustin felt the need to check every room, and every closet, foolishly afraid that Minnow was lying in wait for him. Eventually, he settled down in the lounge; an opened bottle of wine lying before him on the coffee table. Any thought of food had fled after the meeting with Minnow but he picked at the sandwich he had made, knowing it was stupid to drink on an empty stomach.

It was a strange dichotomy, his thoughts and emotions oscillating between disgust and intrigue as they dwelt upon two men: Minnow and Joe.

Dustin took a sip of wine, letting it coat his lips and licking it off as he wondered what it would have been like if Joe had snuggled up intimately close to him last night. Would he have felt the same burning shame? The same sense of violation? Some how he doubted it. Dustin knew that there would be a world of difference between sex with Minnow and sex with Joe for, despite Joe's confession of having been once been a con artist, Dustin knew, implicitly, that this disrespect for others had never extended into the bedroom. Joe would never have forced himself on anyone, his gentler nature not requiring that false sense of power over another.

The chime of his doorbell broke through his thoughts and Dustin rose to his feet, checking the security camera before opening the door.

"Joe?"

"May I?"

"Sure."

Dustin stood aside and let Joe in, quietly shutting the door behind him. He led Joe into the modern, yet stark lounge, offering a glass of wine and indicating a seat. Some of Dustin's fears rose as he watched Joe sip at the wine, wondering why the man had turned up on his doorstep even as another part of him was pleased to see him. Joe looked across at him and sighed before putting down the glass.

"I shouldn't have come here. I'll leave."

"No. No, please stay. I'm just a little on edge." Dustin took a seat opposite, chewing nervously on his lower lip before he noticed the childhood gesture and put a halt to it. "I was just a little surprised to see you here."

"I wanted to see... I wanted to make sure you were okay." Joe frowned, sandy eyebrows pulling together. "I contacted Minnow."

Dustin felt a surge of relief flood through him. Although Joe had mentioned he had a plan, until this moment he had not been sure if the new blackmailer Minnow had spoken about had been Joe or if someone else had been on the beach that night.

"He said someone had approached him. I think he plans to persuade you to join forces with him in blackmailing me."

"I know. He contacted me an hour ago, made that suggestion." Dustin looked away, unsure what he could say but Joe's soft voice brought him back. "He's taken the bait, so all I have to do now is reel him in, and then you'll be free of him."

"Do I deserve to be free?"

"It wasn't murder, Dustin. And even if it was, you still wouldn't deserve what that man has done to you. I already told you that."

Joe had placed his wineglass on the coffee table that lay between them, and he had moved forward in his seat, green eyes fixed earnestly upon Dustin. Dustin could see by the set of the well-shaped mouth and the intense look in his eyes that Joe meant every word he said. He found his own eyes dropping to Joe's mouth, momentarily mesmerised by the slight pout of those lips, seeing a glint of white teeth as those lips curled into a gentle smile. The realisation that he had been caught staring struck Dustin, sending a fresh wave of embarrassment through him but any self-defence mechanism triggered by that knowledge was disarmed by the gentleness in the eyes that held his own.

"It doesn't have to be like that... between men. It can be very... very liberating."

"Liberating?" Dustin found himself quietly echoing Joe's word, wondering how anyone could describe being pinned down in that way as liberating.

"Not having to hold back on your strength, not having to explain or get embarrassed describing what you want. Having strong arms holding you for a change, instead of being the one to do all the holding." Joe tilted his head to one side. "We can take it slow. Stop whenever you say."

Dustin took a gulp of his wine, swallowing hard, part of him terrified but the other part whispering seductively to take this chance. He had never willingly taken up a man's offer, though plenty had been made to him in the past, not through lack of interest but through fear of being branded a Gay. He blinked hard. That seemed so trivial now, denying part of his nature to avoid becoming stereotyped as the 'Gay Hollywood Executive' when he had a far different sword hanging over his head: murderer.

Joe seemed to sense that Dustin had reached a decision for he rose to his feet and stepped around the low-lying table, offering his hand. Taking Dutch courage from one last swallow of wine, Dustin set his glass down on the table and placed his hand in Joe's. He led Joe to his bedroom and sent a wry smile back to Joe when he realised how strange it was for a single man to be locking himself into his own bedroom. He listened to the lock clicking into place and then he turned, unsure what to do next, but he was surprised to see a similar flash of fear cross Joe's face too. It gave him the courage he needed to step forward, knowing that Joe was feeling just as tentative even though he had been the one to make the opening gambit.

Dustin reached out, the back of his hand grazing Joe's cheek lightly, feeling only the slightest rasp of bristles that told him Joe must have shaved before coming here tonight. He felt a little awe as Joe leaned into his hand, eyelashes flickering closed, lips bestowing a kiss on the fingers that trailed across his mouth. Joe's hand came up and grabbed Dustin's at the wrist, preventing him from drawing away, and his fingers were licked and kissed before one was drawn in the velvet heat of Joe's mouth.

Dustin felt the scrape of strong, white teeth along the length of his captured finger, felt the moistness of an agile tongue curling around it. He closed his own eyes, breathing becoming ragged as he imagined what that mouth and tongue could do to the rest of his body. His finger was released and Dustin opened his eyes to see a reflection of himself in the desire-darkened pupils. He did not resist when Joe turned him to face the floor-to-ceiling mirror that concealed the entrance to his walk-in wardrobe, finding his eyes darting from the beautiful face of his soon-to-be lover to his own reflection.

Nimble fingers quickly teased open the buttons of his dress shirt before pulling apart the material, exposing the smoothness of his hairless, lightly-tanned chest. He watched, mesmerised by the play of strong muscle as Joe drew off his pale green T-shirt, discarding it without a second thought to drop unnoticed to the floor at their feet. Dustin could feel the heat of Joe's skin through the thin cotton of his dress shirt as Joe pressed up behind him. The pale ivory of Joe's arms seemed so vulnerable against his own tanned flesh as Joe's splayed hands snaked around his waist, one trailing across his abdomen, the other smoothing upwards along the ribcage bringing tantalisingly light strokes across one nipple. He watched the pink-brown flesh pucker, the tiny bud peaking as licks of desire flickered through his body, slowly igniting every nerve ending.

Dustin sighed as clever fingers loosened the zip of his pants, easing the pressure of his trapped, hardened flesh against the restrictive material. His silk boxers were pushed aside, exposing the length of his straining erection. Dustin wiggled to aid gravity as his pants floated to the floor, stunned for a moment by the hardness pressing against his ass and then pleased as Joe gave a soft gasp before burying his face against the nape of Dustin's neck. Dustin gave his own soft gasp as he felt Joe's open, wet kisses travel before his mouth latched onto the soft flesh at the base of his throat.

He gazed back at the image in the mirror and was amazed at how beautiful they looked together. Light and dark; hair of spun-gold and sun-kissed brown. The light reflecting off the blond hair formed a halo around them, and Dustin felt like a blessed man being worshipped by an angel. Joe raised his head, their eyes meeting in the mirror and holding, promises of pleasure flowing between them as any remaining fear seeped away.

Dustin stepped out of the clothes pooled at his feet and turned in Joe's arms. He sought out the plump lips, swollen by the kisses bestowed upon his flesh, and covered them with his own. He wasn't sure if there would be a difference between kissing a man or a woman, but if there was it was so subtle that it barely registered. Part of him wondered if that would be still remain true in the morning, when a fine stubble would erase the smoothness of this face.

A bubble of laughter rose within him. The night had barely began and already he was looking forward to more discoveries in the morning. He felt Joe's mouth curve beneath his, the lips softening further, parting before the onslaught of his invading tongue. Dustin could taste the wine he had offered Joe, and he could taste the uniqueness of this man beneath it. His senses were filled with the slight pungency of aftershave, but then his body sang with desire as the underlining musk of maleness and of growing passion assailed him, intermingling with his own scent.

At some point, Joe had discarded the rest of his own clothing and Dustin could feel Joe's fingers scrabbling at his boxers, pushing down the last remaining barrier between their bodies. He eased back slightly, hips swaying as the boxers were drawn away completely and then stepped out of them and closer to his intended lover, grinding their hips together, trapping their hard erections between firmly muscled abdomens. They fell sideways onto the bed, still locked in each others arms, hips thrusting rhythmically in a dance as old as time until a gasp heralded a warmth flooding between them, his own cry of joyful release following soon after.

As he lay there in the afterglow, limbs heavy and sated, Dustin could not help but compare this shared passion with other times, and found those earlier experiences wanting. Liberating, Joe had called it, but it was a freedom that extended beyond the physical to the very depths of his soul. Was it always like this with another man? Dustin knew the answer was no. He had only to think of Minnow's hard body pressing him down into the sheets to know that what he had shared with Joe was something special.

They cleaned each other in silence, not needing words as all they wanted to say was shown in the gentle, almost worshipping touches given freely. Dustin reached into the bedside cabinet and withdrew a packet of cigarettes, offering one to Joe and they lay side-by-side, propped up on the pillows as they smoked, the bluey-grey plumes dancing between them. A shy smile met his from time to time and, eventually they stubbed out the remains of their cigarettes before snuggling down together.

Dustin sighed, realising one other truth as mind and body sank into much needed, restful sleep, that it did feel good to be cradled in strong arms.

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Joe left not long after daybreak, not wanting to risk discovery should Minnow return early, but not before Dustin was able to discover how different it was to kiss a man. His lips still burned pleasantly from the rasp of bristles, and he licked those lips in pleasure, remembering the possessive mark he had left on the ivory flesh, to match the one that marked his own throat.

He looked into the bathroom mirror as he shaved, and grinned, feeling truly happy for the first time in years. Sleeping so safe and soundly in Joe's arms had removed the dullness and the dark circles from his eyes. He felt wonderfully alive.

"You look well and truly fucked, Dustin. Who was she?"

The electric shaver dropped heavily to the floor, shock replacing pleasure as Minnow moved up close behind him. Pale blue eyes were narrowed in anger, reflecting back from the mirror as Minnow looked over Dustin's shoulder before they lowered to the image of passion marking Dustin's throat.

"No one you know."

"But maybe someone I'd like to get to know... like Darcy."

"Fuck Darcy... and fuck you, Minnow."

"Is that an offer?"

"Get out."

Minnow's eyes widened at the vehemence in Dustin's voice, the smug look faltering for a moment.

"You've got everything you want from me so far, but no more. You want the car... take it. You want the cushy executive job... it's yours. You want Darcy? Well, that's no loss to me. But that's it. Touch me again and I swear I'll kill you."

"The worm turning?"

Dustin stared back, unmoved as Minnow widened his arms, palms open as he backed away. As the door closed behind him, Dustin sagged, arms trembling as they supported him on the bathroom counter. He looked back into the mirror, seeing all signs of last night's joy erased by that sneer of lust-filled contempt from Minnow. He closed his eyes and forced away Minnow's cruel face, focussing instead on a memory, on the breath-taking image of Joe wrapped around him as they stood half-clad in front of his bedroom mirror. The image brought him comfort, strengthening his resolve to keep strong for the days ahead. He had to trust Joe, had to believe that Joe would free him from Minnow's grasp.

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As the days passed by, Dustin was intrigued to notice an ever-increasing hunted look appear on Minnow's face. Gone were the snide asides, the lascivious looks and sexual innuendo that had haunted him by day and night, replaced instead by anger filled glances.

Dustin had not seen Joe since that one night together, and he missed him, wanting to feel those strong warm arms wrapped around him once more, holding him as they made love, cradling him as they slept. He wanted to hear the soft voice, wanted to see his reflection in warm green eyes that were so similar to his own. His fingers recalled the silkiness of the blond hair and the smoothness of the pale flesh, remembering how they had skimmed along the soft flanks, cupping firmly rounded asscheeks before pulling Joe's hips tightly against his own.

His greatest moment of fear was when the girl's body was discovered, washed up on the shore several miles away. He felt guilty for his lack of compassion, knowing he was responsible for her death but, equally, he knew it had been an accident. He had not intended on harming her, let alone killing her. He had merely wanted to show her and Minnow that the ruse was over, and to tell both of them to take what they had and get out of his life. Instead, it had backfired on him.

The only glimmer of hope was that, though the Police could not rule out foul-play, the coroner's report had stated that the condition of her body could be explained away by her hitting her head before she fell into the sea. The case was likened to the death of Natalie Wood and the amount of alcohol found in the girl's bloodstream had given credence to a possibly similar fatal accident. Only no one had stepped forward to say she had been partying with them on the night she disappeared but, again, it was not ruled out that no one may have known who she was, nor noticed when she disappeared. Her picture was placed within the article, the Police hoping that someone would recognise her and come forward.

Dustin felt terrible as he read the grief-filled words of her mother, his hand reaching for the phone, wanting to end this nightmare once and for all by confessing. He jumped as the phone's soft beep filled his office, and he snatched up the receiver.

"Dustin Yarma."

"Dustin? It's Joe." Dustin blinked several times in shock at this incredible timing, almost missing the remainder of Joe's words. "I heard the news on local radio and I wanted to make sure you're okay."

Dustin swallowed hard, lost for a moment as the soft voice echoed along the ether to caress his hearing.

"I nearly phoned them... you know, the--"

"It won't bring her back. You mustn't lose sight of the fact that, right or wrong, she and Minnow brought this upon her; but you and she will be the only ones to pay if you go to *them*." There was a silence. "Don't you think you've already paid enough... for an accident?"

"No." Dustin heard a sigh.

"There were three people on the beach that night - and two of them had, callously, conceived of a plan to destroy the third... you. They set the wheels in motion, they used you... and Minnow abused you. You're not the same man who was on that first beach, and no court in this world ought to convict you of murder, but when has justice ever truly been fair?"

Dustin could think of nothing to say though he knew, instinctively, that it was the truth. He knew he wasn't a murderer but he also knew that 'innocent until proven guilty' would not be applied to him, especially as Minnow would deny his own nefarious role in this sordid affair. The girl had paid for her part in this with her life, and though he might carrying on living, his own life would be destroyed should he confess - and Minnow would walk away, scot-free, with everything he wanted.

"You're right."

"I know I am. Just trust me, Dustin. Trust me."

Dustin could only murmur his agreement, holding the handset close to his ear long after the soft voice was replaced by the disengaged tone. He closed his eyes, letting his image of Joe flood out all the bad memories, thankful for the timely intervention that had prevented him from acting rashly.

Eventually, he replaced the handset, the rest of the day passing swiftly as he became immersed, once more, in the day to day work of the business. It was not until much later that he realised that there had been no sign of Minnow hanging around and taunting him at every opportunity. He half expected to hear that hated voice as he cleared his desk for the night but Minnow made no appearance.

Dustin arrived home to an empty house but he jumped when the door chime sounded. Cautiously, he opened the door when the person identified himself as a Police detective.

"Mr. Yarma? Mr. Dustin Yarma?"

"Yes."

"I would like you to accompany me downtown for questioning regarding the death of a young woman. Be advised that you are not under arrest, but I must warn you that anything you say can be held against you in a court of law. And you do have the right to have an attorney present."

"Can I get my jacket?"

"Certainly. I hope you don't mind if I accompany you."

"Ahh.. no. No."

Dustin let the door open wider and pulled his jacket from the back of the chair where he had placed it earlier. He checked that he had a phone and credit card on him, and then, meekly, he walked to the waiting car, closely followed by the detective. The ride downtown was carried out in silence, and Dustin wondered what he ought to say when questioned. Should he tell them everything? Should he tell them about the blackmail and about the accident? Could he dare hope that they would believe him?

He was led into a stark room that contained a few chairs set around a table and no other item except a tape recorder.

"Please sit down, Mr. Yarma."

Dustin sat down and waited, trying not to look nervous, but he did notice that the detective made no attempt to switch on the recorder. A photo was taken out of a folder and placed before him, and he recognised the girl as the one on the beach.

"Do you know this woman?"

"No. But I have seen her before."

The detective nodded. "Yes. Her work colleagues recall you asking after her on the night she disappeared." The policeman licked his lips and frowned. "I have to inform you that we arrested a man this evening, in connection with her death. This man has made certain accusations against you." Another photo was pushed across, this time it was a police mugshot showing the familiar and hated face of Minnow holding up an identity number. "Do you know this man?"

"Yes."

"David Carp, otherwise known as Minnow, is wanted in connection with a series of blackmail attempts. Were you being blackmailed by this man?"

Dustin bit into his lower lip, almost to the point of drawing blood as he debated internally on what to say, but he decided that it would be better to tell the truth. He had lived with with the knowledge too long, and no longer had the strength to hide the shame that went hand-in-hand with the truth.

"Yes."

"May I ask the nature of the blackmail in question?"

Dustin took a deep, shuddering breath. Perhaps it was being able to tell his story to Joe that made it easier to speak out now.

"He told me I had killed a woman, several weeks ago, while I was drunk."

"This woman?"

"Yes."

"You do realise that withholding information on a crime constitutes a criminal offence?" His words tailed off as the detective stared hard at Dustin, but Dustin could not hold his knowing gaze. "But then, there had been no death... no murder committed... at that time." The detective shook his head. "But your presence at her work place implies that you uncovered this ruse, and found the so-called victim very much alive."

"Yes."

The detective sighed heavily but was nodding his head in a way that told Dustin that none of this information was new to him. Dustin looked away feeling, once more, like a small child brought before his domineering father.

"Were you also aware that David Carp is wanted in connection with several mysterious deaths?"

Dustin looked back up, startled by this new information.

"No. I wasn't aware of that."

"It seems that once Mr. Carp has taken all he can from his victim - material goods, money, social position... even one man's wife - then he permanently disposes of this victim..." He let the words hang for a moment to ensure Dustin understood what he meant, "...and moves on, leaving no evidence behind. Interpol wants him in connection with similar cases across Europe and South America."

Dustin was shocked. He knew Minnow was a cold and calculating bastard but he had always assumed he was a small time opportunist that had hit big when he found Dustin sleeping off a drunken binge on that beach. Although there had been one or two moments when he had seriously doubted Minnow's sanity, Dustin had never dreamed that his life could have been in danger, that Minnow would have killed him once he had taken all that he wanted from him. He had just assumed that Minnow would keep on taking until he had everything, or until he became bored, and then he would wake up one morning to discover that Minnow had moved on.

"Officer Lyon, would you mind getting Mr. Yarma a glass of water." The detective waited until they were alone in the room and then he leaned forward. "Carp has accused you of murdering this woman... a blow to the head with a champagne bottle. Certainly, that would fit with the forensic evidence."

Dustin opened his mouth to speak but the detective held up his hand.

"We had a tip-off from a Private Detective hired by the girl's family when she was listed as missing. He gave us everything we have on David Carp, including the identity of his latest blackmail victim... You." The detective grinned. "It may be callous but I really don't care which of you swung the bottle, and though I still ought to arrest you for perverting the course of justice by withholding information, from all accounts, I think you've paid a high enough price already."

The compassion in the detective's eyes spoke volumes, making Dustin aware that he, quite possibly, knew every sordid detail, including Minnow's sexual abuse. Officer Lyon came back in and placed the water in front of Dustin but Dustin could only stare at it in shock. He raised his eyes when the detective spoke once more, his tone gentle.

"Go home, Mr. Yarma. And say thanks to your guardian angel."

"I don't understand?"

"It's easy. There were no witnesses, so it would be his word against yours. Even if you made a full confession... which would be really stupid... there is no jury in this land that would believe you didn't do so under duress. So go home."

His legs threatened to fold beneath him when he tried to stand so he sat back down, not noticing the detective sending a silent message to the police officer. They filed out, leaving him alone - or so he thought. Another presence filled the room, a hand pushing on his shoulder when he tried to stand again. He looked up and subsided back into the seat, horror filling him as his eyes met the compassionate green of Joe Dolan.

"You?"

Joe sat down opposite, taking the seat that the detective had vacated.

"I want you to listen to me."

Shock was quickly turning to anger as Dustin realised that it had been a set up from the very start. Joe Dolan was the Private Detective - and Joe had betrayed him.

Oh God, he thought, remembering the wonderful feel of Joe lying in his arms, their bodies moving together in such perfect harmony. Was it all a lie?

"Dustin. I never once lied to you... I just omitted a few facts."

"You used me. No better than Minnow--"

"I was hired by the girl's father. Her name was Katie Simmons. She was 19 years old and desperate to become a film star. She still had a favourite teddy bear she liked to sleep with." Joe looked at Dustin sadly. "She was a real person, Dustin. Just a kid really, who got suckered into Carp's plans. You know he was planning on disposing of both you and her anyway... once he'd got bored playing the Hollywood executive."

Dustin looked down at the desk, unable to meet the eyes of the man he had fallen for from the moment they met.

"One of her work colleagues remembered your car licence plate. Personalised plates can make it very easy to find someone if you have the connections. I followed you from nightclub to nightclub that night. Even followed you into that small bar and took a seat close by but you were so wrapped up in your own world that you never noticed me. I'll admit that my original intention had been to get close to you so I could find out what you knew about my client's daughter."

Joe took a deep breath.

"It's funny, but I think I would have disliked you had I met you before Carp came into your life. People I'd spoken with considered you to be an arrogant bastard... selfish, conceited... but the man I met in that bar was none of those things. The man I met was caught in a trap, but he was on the verge of doing the right thing, of going to the Police and taking the full consequences."

"How do you know that?"

"Blurting out a full confession to a complete stranger was a bit of a give-away" Joe grinned but his smile faded. "Maybe I knew because I'd just been through my own life-changing experience."

Dustin was unable to hide the intrigue invoked by those words.

"My father was a grifter, so was my mother, though she died when I was young. I was too young to really remember her so, for most of my life there was just me and my Pa. As I got older, my involvement in his cons grew more dangerous. We had this one con that we'd worked successfully several times. He would pretend to be a drug or arms dealer, whatever was needed, and I would be the go-between. I'd get close to the mark, get them to trust me, lead them to the meeting and then the rest of the plan would come into operation. I'd yell 'it's a set-up' and shoot the dealer - my Pa - and get shot in return. The mark would run for his life as the Police stormed in, leaving a suitcase of cash behind. The Police, of course, were part of the set-up. Only trouble was, last con we ran together, my Pa didn't get up again. I'd killed him.

"There weren't many people at the funeral and I followed my Pa's last request and came here to LA to find his estranged brother. Turned out that my Uncle Lou was his twin brother, and he was a grifter too. He pulled me into an identical set-up, this time diamonds rather than drugs or guns. Except, when the time came to shoot my Uncle, I froze. One of the mark's henchmen fired instead, killed my Uncle outright. All hell broke loose and I ran for it.

"And I ran right into my father. Turned out he had used me as a pawn in a new con, one of revenge. Seems he blamed my Uncle Lou for my mother's death; a con gone wrong. He'd let me believe I'd killed him, let me cry over his grave and, dutiful son that I was, his dying wish sent me to, unknowingly, set up the new mark - my own Uncle. Trouble is, I kinda liked Lou and found out that he had also been in love with my mother, and he still had the engagement ring he intended to offer to her.

"There's a little more to it than that but, basically, until then, I'd never realised what it was like to be duped. How much it hurt to be used by someone you thought you could trust. Someone you thought you might love.

"My share of that con was 750,000 dollars but I walked away without a single cent of that blood money; walked away from my Pa, and from that life. Had a choice of abandoning a lifetime's experience or using it for some good, so I chose to become a private detective and help people."

"So I was just another mark for you."

"To start with, yes, but within ten minutes of knowing you, all that changed. When you told me what happened I believed you, and I wanted to make the real criminal pay - for both you and for Katie." Joe reached across the table and touched Dustin's hand, but Dustin could not find the strength to pull away from that touch. "I asked you to trust me. Please trust me now, Dustin."

"I need time to think."

"Okay."

Joe pulled his hand back and Dustin could read the sadness in the eyes that tried to hold his. He watched, almost dispassionately, as Joe walked away, closing the door behind him. A few minutes later, Dustin walked out of the Police station, refusing an offer of a lift back to his home. Instead, he grabbed a cab and went to work, wanting to bury himself in the trivia of his day to day life so he didn't have to think about his personal life for a while. However, it didn't quite work out like that.

Throughout the day, Joe's words came back to haunt him, along with the memory of Joe's warm flesh against his own. He found reminders all around him, the brightness of his former life paling into insignificance as he focused on the blazing passion found with Joe. It had been so long since he had felt loved for himself rather than for what he represented, for Dustin was astute enough to know that what they had shared was special, and that it was not just sex.

Darcy called, her words full of remorse before making suggestions that they should meet up as if nothing bad had ever stepped between them. This time he saw through her, and recognised that she was only interested in retaining her current position by being attached to someone with power. He set her aside politely, no longer interested in such a shallow relationship when he had experienced something far deeper and far more meaningful.

Daylight faded and Dustin knew he could go back to the house but, even though Minnow would never darken his doorstep again, Dustin knew that it would be a long time before he would call that place home again. Unless Joe was there waiting for him.

He called a cab to pick him up at the office and take him home but, partway to his destination, Dustin changed his mind. The cab set him down outside the small bar where he had first met Joe. He walked into the dim interior and took a seat at the bar, glancing along to where a familiar lean figure sat staring into an almost empty beer glass. The bartender set a beer down in front of him and then, following his request, set another one down in front of Joe.

Joe looked up at the bartender in surprise and then followed the man's eyes to where Dustin was sitting. Their eyes met, sadness lifting as they offered each other a small welcoming smile. Dustin waited as Joe slipped from his barstool and came up to him. He gave Joe a wry smile.

"You still taking strangers home to that motel room of yours?"

"Only the handsome ones with a good sob story."

"How about I tell you the story of a boy that wanted to climb away from his white trash roots, but lost himself in the process."

"Sounds like a good sob story."

Dustin placed a ten-dollar bill on the bar and stood up. He reached out and caressed Joe's cheek, seeing the love reflecting back from the suspiciously bright eyes.

"Then lead on."

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THE END

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