Nicolas ate his breakfast in the car that morning. He was stiff and exhausted, a kink in his neck, legs numb and aching. He squinted against the dull sunrise. His eyes stung and all he wanted to do was sleep. His vision was cloudy. The car sat in the parking lot outside Iziah’s apartment. Last night, when he came to visit, Iziah was wild-eyed and scared looking. There had been blood on his shirt. The door was unlocked, and, after he let himself in, Nicolas started to scold him for being careless. That was when Iziah started shouting, throwing things, taking wild punches. Nicolas had tried to reason with him, but it was no use, so he decided to keep watch from his car.
A frown worked its way across his face as he chewed the fast food breakfast sandwich thoughtfully. What got into Iziah last night? He’d thought about throwing him to the floor and holding him there until he calmed down, but it didn’t seem like a good idea after what Iziah had been through. Nicolas shifted. His legs were numb from his stay in the car, and curses rose to his lips. The couch in Iziah’s apartment would have been more comfortable. It kept occurring to him that he could just leave. Iziah hadn’t asked for help, so there wasn’t any reason why he shouldn’t. But...memories of Micah stopped him. All he saw when he looked at Iziah was Micah’s best friend.
Nicolas’ laptop sat on the passenger seat, open, and he looked through his emails. There was nothing new, so he didn’t have a job for the next few days.
He leaned back in his chair, watching pink light spread across the sky. Nothing moved in this part of town. Half-empty parking lots, cheap motels, and apartments were all around him. The only time this place came to life was in the evening, when people would drink and party. Even then, those didn’t last long. He didn’t like the quiet. City center was more to his liking just because it wasn’t quite as lonely.
An hour drifted past. He wondered what Iziah was doing. There had been blood on his shirt when he went to check on him. At first he thought someone had attacked Iziah, but the apartment wasn’t any more destroyed than usual, and there weren’t any signs of forced entry. Besides, Iziah hadn’t looked upset right away. Had he done it himself?
Unease came through Nicolas. He hoped Iziah was coping better than that.
Maybe he should check.
Drinking the last of his coffee – which tasted more like dirt than anything else – he decided he had to do something, because sitting here in the car seat was becoming unbearable.
He was about to climb out of the car when a van pulled in nearby. It was gray, with an electrical company logo. The van sat there a moment before shutting off. Then a group of men climbed out, dressed in matching gray jumpsuits with the logo on the breast. There were five of them. Nicolas’ frown deepened. Something about this didn’t seem right. Not only was it early, that was a lot of guys for an electrical job. Nicolas took another drink of coffee, trying to assure himself that his nerves were just raw from stress. Besides, he had stayed awake most of the night.
One of the men pulled out a bag while another tucked something into his jumpsuit. Nicolas squinted but couldn’t make out what it was. This definitely wasn’t right. They headed toward the stairs, and Nicolas tensed. There were only three rooms on that floor, and one was Iziah’s.
Nicolas flipped his phone open and dialed Iziah’s number, setting it to speaker as he reached into the back seat for his equipment. The phone rang for several seconds. Nicolas’ eyes flitted between the men and his bag as he pulled out the gun and loaded it.
“Come on, come on, pick up...”
Iziah was getting out of the shower when he heard a knock on the door. After taking the Ambien, he was still drowsy, and the floor rocked beneath him. The cold shower helped, but last night left him feeling sick. He’d been up for hours, packing his things and cleaning the place, getting ready to leave. When he heard the knock on the door, he rolled his eyes. Nick had returned even after his hissy-fit last night? Iziah dressed himself quickly before walking out. His hair was wet and tangled, but the swelling in his face was gone, and the bruises were fading. Besides the gaunt, haunted expression, he looked half normal.
Iziah rubbed his hand against his face. After the fight, his ribs were sore, and his head throbbed so bad that he saw spots.
The phone started ringing, and it was Nick’s caller I.D.
The apartment was tidy, his clothing picked up and the garbage thrown away. He didn’t have much to pack, but it was just so scattered.
Iziah stumbled toward the phone, grumbling. He picked it up and headed toward the door. “I’m coming, Nick. Cool it.”
“I hear you knocking, okay? I was just in the shower.” Iziah walked to the door, turning the knob that held the dead-bolt in place. One hand curled around the doorknob and started to twist.
“Iziah, don’t open that door!”
His brow furrowed, and he stopped. “What do you...”
“Go hide, right now,” Nick said urgently. “I’ll be there in a second.”
Something slammed into the door, forcing it open and bashing into Iziah. Iziah stumbled back, the phone slipping from his hand and dropping on the floor with a clatter. Then, familiar yellow eyes were level with his. The man grinned, his pasty white skin folding on either side of his mouth. Iziah froze. Uncomprehending.
A group of men poured in, one punching Iziah square in the chest and knocking him to the floor. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move.
The door slammed shut and locked behind them. The man with the yellow eyes ordered, “Pull the shades.”
They’d come back. They were here. And death wasn’t the worst of the possibilities before him.
Something snapped in Iziah, and he came to life, scrambling back against the wall. The man started forward, and Iziah stared up at him through wide eyes. He wanted to scream, but when he opened his mouth all that came out was a hoarse whisper. “N—No... Please...”
The man smiled. “I thought I told you no one wanted you around. You were supposed to disappear.”
Iziah scanned frantically for a means of self-defense, but something in his brain wasn’t working. He couldn’t move. It felt like his throat was swelling shut. One of the men grabbed him by the collar of his hoodie and jerked him to his feet.
“You even got cleaned up for us. How considerate.”
The hoodie was bunched up in the man’s hand, lifting Iziah’s shirt enough to expose a few inches of skin. Iziah started shaking.
Fight! Struggle! MOVE!
“P—Please...” he whispered. “Please, I beg you...”
One of the men was closing the shades, but the other four loomed around him. “You ought to be flattered.” The man smiled, his eyes placid. “I don’t usually come back for seconds.”
Iziah’s eyes widened, and he began to thrash, prying at his assailant’s hand and shouting, “No! No! Let me go! Help!”
The men converged, hands gripping his arms and tangling in his clothing. Two arms locked around Iziah’s chest, compressing his lungs and squeezing his broken ribs. Iziah let out an agonized scream. Tears welled up in his eyes. Blinded by panic, he thrashed with all his might, bucking and twisting. “NO! NO! GAWD, NO! NICK! HELP ME! PLEASE HELP ME!” His lungs heaved with each shriek. A hand half of the size of Iziah’s face clamped over his mouth. The man leaned back, heaving him off his feet. His heart-beat pounded in his ears. Iziah kicked at them violently, his legs flying as he hung from the man’s grip. Agony. His wrist was on fire.
“Stop struggling, bastard!” a man hissed.
Iziah managed to wrench his uninjured arm free and pried at the hand over his mouth, desperate for a gasp of air. He felt them hauling him across the room. Iziah issued heaving, muffled screams through the man’s hand, his face contorted in terror. A hand tangled in his hair and jerked his head to the side, slamming it against the kitchen counter.
Everything was disconnected. Black clouds closed in around him, and he felt his strength draining. For a moment, he thought he would black out. Blood streamed down his face and into one eye, blinding him. The word concussion drifted through his mind, but it held no meaning. Dark chuckles from his assailants filled his ears. He felt himself going slack in their grips, the hand over his mouth pinning him to his captor’s chest. Nausea washed over him, and for a moment he thought he might vomit. Their touches revolted him. Tears streaked his face as sobs began to wrack his body.
Three men gripped Iziah, keeping him from slipping to the floor. The man with yellow eyes stood in front of him. Iziah’s vision was a cloudy blur, but he saw the glint of a knife. Horrified, he struggled weakly, but they clamped him down.
“Get the rope,” the man ordered, yellow eyes flitting to the side. Then he grinned at Iziah. “It should be a bit more fun this time. Just relax.”
Iziah began to wriggle, his sobs muffled, but a hand clamped onto his neck, pushing his head back and giving a warning squeeze. He pulled air through his nose, pathetic, terrified whimpers escaping his throat.
“Easy.” The man brushed a silky, disgusting hand over the side of Iziah’s face, making him freeze, unable to breathe. “If you cooperate, maybe we’ll be a bit more gentle this time. Maybe.” A grin.
The color left Iziah’s face. Everything inside him screamed.
Then there was a gunshot.