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Playing in the Dark (Glasgow Lads Book 4) by Avery Cockburn (12)

Chapter 13

As he hurried down the street toward Jamie’s flat, Evan pondered Ben’s eagerness to play spy. His boyhood bookshelves were loaded with novels, comics, and biographies about espionage. Judging by their overall condition and the creases in their spines, the books were several years old and thoroughly read.

Perhaps Ben’s enthusiasm for the spy world meant he would accept the truth about Evan. It could also mean he wouldn’t be fooled much longer.

MI5 had given Evan the green light to tell Ben about his profession, but common sense said to wait until they’d grown closer. One of Evan’s colleagues had had her cover blown by a resentful ex, a breach which had jeopardized her career and her safety. Evan was serious about Ben—and he sensed the feeling was mutual—but he didn’t yet know if he could trust his new lover with his life.

Jamie was waiting for Evan outside his flat. For this week’s undercover mission, the fullback was wearing a blue Captain Sulu T-shirt that read It’s OK to be Takei, his long, sandy hair flopping over his shoulders instead of in its usual ponytail. Like Evan, he wore a cap pulled down over his bloodshot blue eyes. He had just as much a need for disguise as Evan, if not more—his musical performance in a viral Warriors video the previous summer had made him internet-famous.

“All right, mate?” The brawny Glaswegian gave Evan a bro-type hand grasp. “You should know, I’m pure hungover.”

“I didn’t sleep much myself.”

“Aye, but you’ve got a better reason.” He lowered his voice. “Does Ben know, by the way? About your job?”

“My job as an architect?” Evan said reflexively. “Of course he knows.”

Jamie’s blank stare lasted longer than it should have. Then he blinked. “Right.”

Evan hated having to lie to his teammate, especially one who’d so generously taken part in his MI5 vetting process. But just because Jamie and Charlotte had signed a copy of the Official Secrets Act didn’t mean they could be trusted with the full truth.

Ben’s car turned the corner at the next junction. “That’ll be him,” Evan said, relieved the conversation was over. He tugged down his cap and fidgeted with the padding he’d worn under his flannel shirt to disguise his build. Evan would have deployed his glasses and beard if Ben hadn’t already seen them on “Gunnar.”

Jamie shoved his hands in his pockets and watched the red hatchback crawl down the narrow side street. “I hope it was worth it.”

“Sorry?”

“Whatever you had to do last year, when you left us. When you broke Fergus’s heart.” Jamie gave him a nervous sideways glance. “I hope you saved a lot of lives, or banged up a bunch of baddies, or whatever it is you do.”

Evan couldn’t answer—could never answer as long as he lived. And right then he realized that being known a peedie bit was worse than not being known at all. Because no one could ever know him completely. The wall around him could never truly disappear. At best—perhaps with Ben—it could become translucent, distorting, like a wall of ice.

The car gave a cheery beep as it pulled up beside them. Ben shut off the engine, then hopped out and struck a pose. In an instant, Evan’s mood turned right side up, like an inverted turtle flipped onto its feet by a kind passerby.

“What are you laughing at?” Ben regarded his cackling companions beneath the brim of his black fedora. “Too obvious?” He tightened the belt on his black trench coat, then swept off his sunglasses to reveal his regular pair underneath.

“Promise me you’re wearing something under that trench coat,” Evan said.

“Of course not.” Ben sidled up to the curb, eyes darting left and right. “You might need me to create a diversion whilst you recruit your new assets.”

Evan went up to Ben and tugged his lapels aside to see a bright red basketball jersey beneath. “Nice.”

“It’s the only sporty clothing my wardrobe contained.” Ben smoothed the front of the jersey, which featured a flaming ball falling through a hoop above a white 1. “It’s got sentimental value, possibly talismanic magic.” He gave a brief wistful smile, then asked, “Why do we need the disguises again? Not that I’m complaining.”

“Cos they hate us,” Jamie said. “When Evan was captain, Warriors pinched the best players from the gay-league teams, especially Glasgow Greens. That’s where I came fae.” He slipped on a pair of pitch-black sunglasses. “Words were said.”

Ben arched an eyebrow in Evan’s direction, and it felt as though he could see into his sordid soul. But he simply took off his trench coat and fedora, tossed them into the back seat, and said, “Let’s rock.”

On the drive to Edinburgh, Jamie and Evan outlined their “legend,” as Ben insisted on calling it: They were Stuart and Bruce, a couple of lads from Cumbernauld who’d recently discovered the joys of football.

“Gives us an excuse to ask other fans about the players,” Jamie said from the back seat. “We play dumb, see, which I’m naturally good at.”

“Are Stuart and Bruce boyfriends?” Ben asked.

“Just mates,” Evan said. “If we pretended to be boyfriends, we’d have to remember more fake details about each other.”

“But that’s what makes it fun.” Ben gasped. “We should all be boyfriends! We can say we’re in a triad. It’ll make us more interesting.”

“It’ll make us more memorable.” Evan looked out the car window at a passing sheep farm that reminded him of home but for the presence of trees. “We want them to forget us.”

“I understand.” Ben heaved a dramatic sigh. “As I’m sure you’ll understand if I drop you in Falkirk so you can take the train the rest of the way.”

Evan stared at him, then glanced back at Jamie to see if he’d heard right. “Ben, are you threatening us?”

“Just stating my transport fee.”

Evan checked the dashboard clock. There was no guarantee they’d get to Edinburgh on time if they caught a train now. “Fine. You’re our boyfriend.”

“Yaaas!” Ben slapped his palm against the steering wheel. “So. My name’s Wullie McTweedy, and the three of us met in the steam sauna at Club 212.”

As Ben spun his lust-to-love tale in a broad Glaswegian brogue, Evan’s sleep-deprived mind fought to store the details. It didn’t help that Ben kept editing his story on the fly.

“Wait,” Jamie said as they entered the roundabout for Edinburgh’s bypass. “Are we still doing the furry thing or not?”

“No,” Ben said. “Mind how Bruce got carried away that one time at the zoo gift shop?”

Evan glared at him. “A minute ago you said it was you who did that. We either keep our stories straight or we don’t keep them at all.”

“Sorry,” Ben said with no regret. “Just having a bit of fun.”

“This is serious,” Evan said. “If we don’t find new players soon, then this spring we’ll all be on the pitch longer than we should be, which means we’ll make mistakes that lose matches. Warriors could end up relegated.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Ben said.

“And many of us could end up injured,” Evan said. “Do you know what that means?”

Ben was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry,” he said, and this time it sounded sincere. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Evan felt a tweak in his chest and cursed his own gruffness. “It’s all right. I appreciate your enthusiasm.”

His phone buzzed in his pocket. As he reached for it, he realized it was the one in his left pocket: Gunnar’s phone, which had been silent for two weeks.

He pulled it out to see a text from the only person who had this number.

Jordan: ARM?

He was also the only person Evan knew who abbreviated the standard Scottish man-greeting All right, mate?

Evan slipped the phone back into his pocket without answering. The last conversation Jordan had started with ARM? had led to him offering Gunnar a temporary job at that hotel, not to mention the investment of thousands of pounds of law-enforcement money to try and catch him in a terrorist act. Evan needed to carefully consider his reply.

“Maybe we are taking this too seriously,” Jamie said. “We’re amateur footballers, for fuck’s sake. If we cannae have fun with it, what’s the point? Life’s got enough dire problems.” He rolled down his window. “Also, this is the first Sunday in months when the weather’s not turning our baws into wee marbles.”

Evan drew in a lungful of air that held the earliest hint of spring. Jordan’s text was the clearest reminder possible that there were more important things in life than sport. “You’re right. Let’s just enjoy the day.”

It’s only football, Evan thought. What’s the worst that could happen?

* * *

“So if the goalkeeper can use his hands,” Ben asked the fan to his right, “why can’t he just carry the ball down the field and chuck it into the opponent’s goal?”

From his left, he felt the nudge of Evan’s knee, probably a hint he was overdoing it. He gave Evan’s thigh a reassuring squeeze.

“He cannae touch it with his hands outside the penalty area.” The green-hatted supporter beside Ben pointed to one of several regions bordered by white lines, then gave him the once-over. “You new to the sport?”

“Oh aye, brand new, and I’ve hunners of questions.” He jutted his thumb at Evan and Jamie. “When I ask my boyfriends, see, they just laugh, but I think secretly they don’t know the answers theirsels.”

“Like what questions?” A hipster-looking fan on Green Hat’s other side leaned over. “My name’s Thom, by the way. Thom with an h.” He flashed what he must have thought a disarming smile. “This is Allan.”

“Hiya, Thom with an h.” Ben fluttered his lashes, hoping he looked more impressed than he felt. “Okay, so, why’s there nae orange card? Why do the refs go straight fae yellow to red? It seems pure unfair.”

“Ah.” Thom stroked his dark goatee with a thumb and middle finger, looking like he was trying not to laugh. “The red and yellow cards are based on traffic lights. It’s a universal thing, so players who speak different languages know what’s going on.”

“Ohhhh, that makes sense.” Ben turned to Evan and Jamie. “Youse could’ve just telt me that instead of rolling your eyes, ya bastards.”

“Cheers, mate,” Evan said to Thom. He put his arm round Ben’s shoulders and pulled him close to whisper, “Careful.”

Ben giggled and slapped Evan’s chest. “Not here, Bruce, we’re in public! Christ, you’re insatiable.” He turned back to his new acquaintances. “Anyway, this is my first real live match. I’ve seen a few on the telly, but—” One of the nearby players on the pitch put a hand to the side of his nose. “Oh God, please don’t,” he exclaimed, then realized he’d slipped into his own West End prep-school accent. He tried to make up for it after the player shot a wad of snot from the other nostril. “Och, that’s pure mingin’.”

“Guy’s gotta breathe somehow,” Allan said.

Evan asked him and Thom a question about one of the players—some sort of midfielder—which began a conversation Ben didn’t care to follow. This dull-as-dirt match hadn’t changed his belief that football was a lot of running about with fuck all to show for it. He half-wished he was home watching his recording of last night’s curling final.

The game was giving Ben far too much time to recall what his mum had said this morning, how being with Evan could get him cast out of the Bahá’í Faith. His chest hurt just thinking about it.

As usual, he’d come up with the perfect response an hour later in the shower: If I’m suffering, he’d imagined himself saying, it’s not because I’m gay, and it’s not because I’ve got a ‘spiritual affliction.’ It’s because humans who claim to believe in a big-hearted God somehow invented a small-minded rule which goes against all the rest of our beliefs. They’re too stubborn to admit they’re wrong, and too impressed with their own progressive values to admit they’re prejudiced.

Yes, that would’ve been brilliant. But in the moment, standing before his mother, he’d felt as small and helpless as a baby bunny glimpsing its first hawk.

It shouldn’t matter, anyway. He and Evan didn’t have a relationship. And after what had happened to Fergus, Ben couldn’t count on anything. He would just enjoy it while it lasted, live in the moment…like this moment here, with Evan’s thigh and shoulder against his, the warmth and subtle pressure slowly unraveling Ben from the inside out.

He cleared his throat and scanned his surroundings for a diversion. Near the stand, a footballer was warming up beside the pitch. The wind rippled the bright-yellow pinny he wore over his top, obscuring the logo of the club and its sponsors.

“Do all gay teams have alliterative names?” Ben asked, breaking into the others’ conversation. “Here we’ve got Glasgow Greens and Leith Legends. And of course there’s the famous Woodstoun Warriors.”

Thom’s posture stiffened. “Do not mention Warriors here.”

Oops. “I’ve never been to one of their matches,” Ben said, “but I hear their opponents’ supporters can be pure dicks.” He took in the park around them with a smile. “Not a relaxed atmosphere like this,” he added, hoping to smooth things over.

“I don’t get it,” said Allan. “Why do Warriors subject themselves to so much abuse? If they joined our league they’d have more fun—and they’d probably win the title every year.”

“They’re too good for us, Allan,” Thom said with a sneer. “They think they’re superior cos they play against straight teams. As if sharing a pitch with breeders has got anything to do with quality.”

Ben gave a nervous titter. “Now, now. Some of my best mates are breeders.”

Thom ignored him. “Warriors think they’re helping the cause, but all they’ve done is turn themselves into a circus act. You seen their calendar?” he asked Ben.

“Aye, it’s…nice.”

“It’s not ‘nice,’ it’s porn,” Thom said. “They’re tarting themselves up for money.”

He felt Evan’s thigh tense beside his. “I heard the profits all went to charity,” Ben said.

“Doesn’t matter. It’s the message it sends: ‘Ooh, we’re gay—objectify us, demean us, but also put us on a fucking pedestal.’” Thom turned sideways in his seat, clearly relishing the soapbox. “Warriors are an insult to the gay football leagues. By assimilating into straight culture, they make us look bad. People ask the Greens, ‘Why can’t you play against heterosexuals?’ Like we’re cowards hiding in our gay ghetto.”

“Pack it in, Thom.” Allan turned to Ben. “I think their publicity is brilliant. Gives queer kids someone to look up to, lets them know they’re just as good.” He pulled a fresh bag of crisps from the plastic bag at his feet. “I’ve no problem with Warriors now they’ve left us alone.”

Ben glanced at Evan, who wore a slight frown as he thumbed something into his phone. The bright sun made his screen unreadable from an angle, but whether he was texting someone or taking notes, the task seemed to consume his attention.

Ben turned back to Allan. “What do you mean, now they’ve left you alone?”

“Their captain.” Allan paused as he munched his crisps. “The old one. I cannae remember his name. Anyway, that bawbag used to scout the gay teams and steal all the best players.”

“Like Colin MacDuff,” Thom said.

“Aye, massive loss to us. Massive. And then there was Jamie what’s-his-name, though we don’t miss him as much. He was a bit slow.” Allan nudged Ben with his elbow. “Not just with his feet, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh…” Ben couldn’t bear to look at Jamie’s reaction. In the Bahá’í Faith, vicious gossip was one of the worst sins. He had to change the subject for everyone’s sake. “Is that a new flavor?” he asked, pointing to the crisps.

Allan lifted the bag to reveal a salt-and-vinegar label. “Only if you lived under a rock the last century.”

Ben felt his face grow hotter. You are making an absolute arse of this mission.

Thom snapped his fingers. “Evan Hollister!”

Ben jolted at the name. “Who?” he said with a squeak.

“Evan Fucking Hollister,” Thom repeated, “aka, the Poacher. He’d sashay up to our best players after a match and ask them to join his team. Right under our manager’s nose, the cheeky bastard. But then my boyfriend—Dean, our deep midfielder—actually tried for Warriors and got rejected for alleged lack of quality.”

Ben looked over to see Evan tug his cap farther down over his eyes. Jamie was chewing his gum harder than ever, knee bouncing as his heel tapped a staccato rhythm against the wooden stand.

“They are pretty selective,” Allan said. “That’s why they do so well.” He shoved another crisp into his mouth. “Just seems wrong. Being gay is about being inclusive, know what I mean?”

“Hmm.” Ben knew the discussion would probably dissipate if he let it. Yet he couldn’t resist an argument. “But why should Warriors lower their standards? If their purpose is to win, they should take only the best.” He continued, though Allan looked ready to interrupt. “One of my mates is in a world-class gay men’s choir. They’ve been to European championships. They reject ninety-eight percent of the lads who audition.”

“That’s different,” Allan said. “Football’s not our realm. It’s an incredibly homophobic culture. But this gay league gives us a safe space for us to enjoy the game we love.”

“What’s that got to do with Warriors?” Ben gestured to the pitch. “If this is just about having a laugh on a Sunday afternoon, who cares if this Edward guy takes all the good players?”

Evan,” Thom snapped. “And just cos we want football to be fun doesn’t mean we don’t care about winning. Doesn’t mean we don’t miss Colin and Jamie. They weren’t just players, they were our mates. And now they never even come round to see us play, cos Evan Hollister told them they were too good for us.” Thom sniffed. “Fucking snob.”

“Don’t call him that!”

Ben froze as he realized he’d said those words aloud. But the horse was out of the barn, so he might as well hop on and ride it.

“Look, I don’t know the man,” Ben said, “but clearly he’s trying to do what’s best for his team. And look how it’s turned out. Warriors are international legends after that charity match last summer. Now imagine some queer footballer kid out there in the world, thinking they’re alone, when one day they discover the Rainbow Regiment fandom. They make friends, they follow the team, they start believing in something that makes them believe in themselves. But you’d take that away because of your petty jealousy.”

“Wullie…” Evan murmured, but Ben ignored him.

“If you had your way,” Ben said to Thom, “Warriors would sink down into this tedious mediocrity”—he flapped his hand at the pitch—“just to make you and your precious Dean feel better. But mediocrity never changed the world.”

“Wullie…” Evan said again, slightly louder.

“And you.” Ben turned to Allan. “You moan about Warriors being exclusive, but they’ve got women and trans folk in their team, and a female manager. What have you got here? A fucking sausage fest.”

“Wullie.” Evan took his hand, which Ben now realized had been gesturing toward him and Jamie.

Allan had clearly noticed. “Why are you pointing at them when you talk?”

Ben shoved his hands between his knees. “I was pointing toward Glasgow. Which we are all from.” Oh God, he’d dropped the accent, too. “Which we-we’re all fae.”

“Cumbernauld, actually,” Jamie corrected. “It’s miles better.”

Thom was staring hard at Evan’s face. “It’s him.”

“Who?” Allan asked.

“Evan Fucking Hollister. Poacher prick extraordinaire.”

With a sigh, Evan took off his hat. “Look, I can explain.”

“This better be good.” Thom leaned over and lowered his voice to a growl. “Cos if I tell the rest of these Greens supporters who you are, you’ll be drawn and quartered faster than you can say, ‘I’m a whore to mainstream values.’”

Ben tried to remember whether they’d agreed on a cover story in the event of exposure. Evan’s hesitation told him they had not.

“He’s not here to poach,” Ben said. “He’s here to make you an offer.”

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