The apartment was a disaster. Iziah obviously didn’t believe in cleaning up after himself. Nicolas sat on a springy, uncomfortable chair in the corner, a cigarette in his mouth. The paint was peeling, and the carpet looked like it had been there since the 70s. Furthermore, it was freezing cold. Nick pulled his sweater tighter as he looked around. Either the kid didn’t know how to operate a thermostat or he didn’t pay his heating bill.
Iziah was curled up on the couch with his back to Nicolas, small and frail-looking in the midst of the mess. He didn’t move except for the rising and falling of his chest. Nicolas couldn’t be sure if he was asleep.
He felt awkward just sitting here, but he couldn’t leave Iziah alone for the night. If the boy had told him to leave, Nick would have sat in his car and kept an eye on things. There was no way of knowing if Iziah’s attackers would return. He wanted to know who assaulted him, but it seemed too soon to ask. He let out a growl of rage and took a final drag from his cigarette. He hated the helplessness of this situation. If only he’d been able to protect Iziah. Now, there was nothing he could do. It was up to Iziah to deal with this, and Nicolas could only watch it unfold.
Just like with Micah.
He hated this damn helplessness!
Nicolas rubbed his hand against his face. He wanted to take Iziah to his apartment and figure out a plan. It wasn’t safe here. This was the first place his enemies would look, and the apartment was nestled in the middle of shady territory.
But he knew forcing Iziah to leave would backfire. He had to convince him somehow. Let him think it was his idea.
“Hey, Iziah...?” Nicolas whispered.
No response. Relief came through Nicolas. Sleep was probably the best thing for Iziah right now. But the couch couldn’t be comfortable, aside from the plummeting temperature of the apartment. Bored, Nicolas searched for a blanket. The closet was practically empty, and he couldn’t find any spares, so Nick pulled one off his tangled, messy bed. When he returned, Iziah was curled into a tight ball against the cold. Careful not to wake him, Nicolas tucked the blanket around the boy’s body and sat down. He’d locked the door, so he could afford to doze. After all, he would hear if someone tried to get in.
A wave of something between frustration and amusement washed through him. He had to work tomorrow, and here he was staying up with some kid that didn’t even want him here.
Nicolas shook his head, settled back, and pulled out another cigarette.
Shawn sat in one of the clubs the Crimson Serpents frequented. It was near their hideout – Warehouse three – on the rough end of town. The building was two stories, and he sat at a table on the first floor. There was a bar and a DJ nearby. Half the room was filled with tables and chairs, and the other half was a dance floor of sorts. It was rarely used for anything but fist fights. The room was dimly lit by strange blue lights. Shawn heard the second floor was much nicer, but he’d never been up there. Few people were allowed, and it required a fee. Gray and some of his partners went there when they came to the club.
Shawn swirled the cheap drink in its cloudy glass, watching a group of girls. He felt restless and squirmy. As much as he tried, he’d never been fully accepted by the Crimson Serpents, and he had few friends to show for his years of involvement. There were moments of fun, when the crime gave him a rush, but most of the time he was bored. Gray rarely gave him assignments, so he ended up sitting around most of the time. But it gave him access to drugs and helped him lose some weight, so he hadn’t abandoned it.
He leaned forward, propping his elbows on the table. It was good to be out of the house. His father’s drinking habit was worsening, and that made him more violent in the evening. Here, he was out of reach of his father’s anger.
Several men entered, walking past his table. They spoke to one another in loud, obnoxious tones. One bumped into Shawn, and he looked up, frowning. The group didn’t acknowledge him, settling around the next table. Shawn glared. After a moment, he recognized them. They were members of the Crimson Serpents and “friends” with Gray. Ian glanced his way, shooting a vicious smile, and discomfort ran through Shawn. He didn’t like Ian, from his nasty, lecherous grin to his yellowish eyes. His skin was strangely smooth, and he was taller than his companions. Ian and his group of cohorts took care of the really dirty work.
Shawn shook himself. He didn’t like to think about it.
The Crimson Serpents were about up-front crime and drug dealing. That was all.
Shawn took another sip, his nose wrinkling. It was late, and his vision was getting cloudy. He knew he should head home soon. His mother was pressuring him to get a job and figure out his life, and she didn’t like it when he slept late.
But he didn’t feel like leaving as he watched a girl saunter across the room.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gray walk toward the table where the men sat. While half the people in the room were either drunk or high, Gray seemed very aware. His brow was furrowed, lips pressed tight together. He stood next to the table, and Ian said, “Finally brought our pay?”
“I’m afraid not,” he replied coolly. “The Mallory kid is still alive.”
“He’s checked into the hospital records. He didn’t die, you idiot.”
A frown wrinkled the man’s face, and his yellowish eyes narrowed.
Shawn glanced their way in shock. They wanted to kill Iziah? He knew Gray wanted vengeance, but he hadn’t thought he would go that far. Shawn thought they would just thrash Iziah or get him arrested.
“Damn...” Ian rubbed his hand against his face.
“So, as I’m sure you know, the pay is suspended until you can get the job done.”
Gray walked away, and Ian glowered at the table. Then he looked up and gave a twisted smile. “I suppose we had a little too much fun with that one.”
The men laughed.
“Guess we’ll have to try again,” one said.
Ian laced his fingers behind his head. “Not that that’s a bad thing. Good looking kid.” He grinned. “He was a smooth little whore... Next time, let’s take some rope.”
Shawn felt sick. The drink turned sour in his stomach, and he walked away so he didn’t have to listen to the obscenities the men were spewing. Shawn didn’t stop until he was outside, gulping the clean, night air. Dark buildings surrounded the street, either abandoned or used for shady business. A thin slit of a moon hung in the sky. Shawn leaned against the wall, rubbing his hand against his face. Gray sent Ian and his cohorts after Iziah? And he survived?
Nausea washed through him. If he had known, he wouldn’t have told them Iziah’s name... Would they have found him if Shawn hadn’t spoke up? At the very least, he’d expedited the process.
Anger coursed through him. He thought they would just throw him around and let him off with a warning! Not...molest him and leave him to die! And now they were going back to finish the job. Shawn glanced over his shoulder, hoping they hadn’t noticed his unease. The thought that they took things so seriously scared him. He didn’t want to get involved, but...he felt like he’d done something out of line.
Shawn touched the cut on his forearm, glowering. Hate and guilt raged back and forth inside him. Whatever he decided, he didn’t want to stay any longer. It didn’t feel as safe as he had thought.
Shawn hurried toward his car, trying to shut out thought.