The Hurting Game

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Chapter 2

When Nicolas arrived at his apartment in the evening, he knew something was wrong. He wore a plain leather jacket and jeans over his tall, imposing form, his brown hair combed back and lines of exhaustion in his face. A heavy bag was slung over his shoulder, containing a sniper rifle and several packs of bullets. The hallway of the twelve-story building was silent. Through a window at the end of the hall, Nicolas saw the orange and purple hues of the setting sun. He wiped a last trace of dirt off his nimble, calloused fingers.

The hit had been tricky, since his employers expected him to get rid of the body. Unlike the scummy gangsters roaming the streets, Nicolas cleaned up after himself.

Throughout the years, he told himself he would never take this job again. Yet here he was. Strange how so much had changed. He supposed he’d just gone back to doing what he did best. His time in the military had left him with an affinity for weapons. Even after years of living a normal life, this still felt like second nature to him.

As he approached his door, he immediately realized that someone had broken in. Working as a hit man had tuned his senses. Nicolas stopped, listening. No sound came from inside the apartment. Setting down his bag, Nicolas pulled a pistol from the holster under his arm and strode to the ajar door, his eyes narrowed. There weren’t any marks on the door frame. The intruder must have used something small, like a credit card. The lights were on around the corner, casting shadows across the dark apartment.

Scowling with annoyance, Nicolas opened the door and slipped inside. It was silent a moment, then he heard a faint rustling. Someone was in the kitchen. His keen eyes distinguished a faint shadow drifting about the room, cast by the dim kitchen light. A thief? Someone who knew who he was? For years, he’d successfully evaded police and gangsters, but one could never be too careful. His heart accelerated inside his chest, and anger pulsed through his body. He slunk to the corner. Something that sounded like plastic rustled, and there was a faint, metal clacking.

Taking a deep breath, Nicolas lunged around the corner and leaped on the figure in his kitchen. His vision blurred as his body took over, knocking the intruder to the ground and straddling him.

In less than two seconds, he had a hand clamped on the boy’s throat and was pointing the pistol at his forehead. As his vision cleared, his features twisted in rage.

“What the hell, Iziah?”

Iziah stared up at him with a shocked look on his face, sprawled beneath Nicolas. Though he hadn’t seen the kid in months, Nicolas recognized him immediately. He was a good-looking boy with scrappy clothes, messy hair, and a mischievous smile. There was a cut across his lips that hadn’t been properly dealt with.

Sandwich makings were scattered across the counter next to a stack of letters from the VA. A half-made sandwich lay in the middle of it.

Iziah blinked, then his brow furrowed, and he ripped Nicolas’ hand away from his neck. “Get off me, you brute!”

Nicolas glared at the boy, then climbed off him and stood, putting the gun away. “What the hell are you doing here?” He’d gone to extreme lengths to keep his address a secret, but, in an attempt to offer Iziah an alternate means of living, he’d told it to him.

Iziah got to his feet and straightened his ratty clothes, then leaned against the counter nonchalantly, shoving his hands into his pockets. They’d known each other for years, but they were hardly friends. Years back, before Nicolas’ life fell apart, Iziah lived across the street from his family. His son, Micah, just...brought Iziah home one day to play Xbox, and they were friends ever since. Micah said they met at school and that Iziah was in the foster system. Iziah was fourteen at the time, Micah a year younger. The boy lived across from them for about a year and became like a member of the family...until he was moved to a different foster home.

Nicolas had liked the kid then – even thought of him as a son – but now something in his arrogant stance made the hit man bristle.

Iziah shrugged, giving him a mocking smile. “I wanted to talk, but you weren’t here, and I got hungry.”

Nicolas scoffed. “You can’t just break into someone’s apartment.”

“I didn’t break into someone’s apartment, I broke into a friend’s apartment.” Iziah turned to the half-made sandwich and began arranging bits of turkey in it. “So how have you been, Nick? I haven’t seen you in my end of town in a while.”

Nicolas rolled his eyes. Iziah had an apartment on the dirty end of town. Nicolas rarely went there because he didn’t want to be associated with the petty criminals populating that area. He was about to reply when he remembered that he’d left his gun outside the apartment. He mumbled, “There’s tomato in the fridge if you want that too,” walking back to the door and retrieving his bag.

Iziah let out a hearty laugh. “You must have just finished a job, huh?”

Nicolas rolled his eyes, pushing a hand through his hair in irritation. He’d never told Iziah about his occupation. Iziah found out either by spying or asking around. Nicolas walked back in and dropped the bag on the couch, then looked at Iziah. The boy was cutting tomato and loading up his sandwich, looking down at it in excited concentration. He was thinner than usual, his cheeks sunken. Nicolas watched him with curiosity, approaching the counter and leaning against it. Iziah had never sought him out during his years on the street.

The boy glanced at him, and Nicolas couldn’t help but remember when Iziah had walked to their house in the middle of the night, shaking in the cold, asking to sleep on their couch because he had been locked out by his foster parents. Back then, he had been shy and anxious. Once, Nicolas went to clap him on the back, and Iziah flinched, as if afraid Nicolas was going to hit him. But the boy had connected with Nicolas and his family more than anyone else. What changed?

“What happened to your lip?” Nicolas asked.

“Got into a fight with someone from the Crimson Serpents.”

“You should get it taken care of.”

“Nah. It doesn’t hurt.” Iziah grinned at him. “Besides, I think it makes me look tough.”

Nicolas snorted, repressing the urge to tell him he was too scrawny and pretty-faced to ever be intimidating. “So, are you just here for the sandwich?”

Iziah picked up his sandwich and took a large bite, chewing contemplatively before answering. “I wanted to ask about Martha.”

Nicolas froze, feeling like he’d taken a punch to the gut. Images of Martha, his beautiful wife, flashed before his eyes. The family eating dinner at the table. Playing card games on the floor. Going out to see a movie and coming home later than expected.

First, the kid had broken in and raided his fridge, and now he wanted to talk about his wife? “Look, I’m tired. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Oh, come on! I want her new address. Or even her phone number.”

“I don’t know where she’s living right now. I think she headed north toward Seattle. So if you’re going to look for her, try there. Just leave me out of it.”

Nicolas grabbed the boy’s skinny arm and pulled him across the room, heading toward the door. Iziah didn’t resist, taking another bite of his sandwich. The boy frowned. “What happened between you two?”

“That’s not your business.”

“Was it because of what happened to Micah?”
Nicolas’ hand was on the doorknob, and he stopped a moment, sighing. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. “What do you want?”

“I wanted to talk to her. You know, for old time’s sake. She was always nice to me.” Iziah chewed a bite of sandwich casually, his gaze on Nicolas.

Nicolas was quiet a moment. He suspected there was more to it than that, but he conceded, “Fine. Just a second.”

He released Iziah’s arm and walked to the kitchen, grabbing a spare piece of paper and writing down Martha’s phone number. He’d found it long ago but never used it. He scowled with frustration. What a coward he was.

After he’d written it down, he returned to Iziah. “Here.”

“Thanks.” Iziah stuffed the scrap of paper into his pocket reverently and grinned. “Those were some cool moves back there. I wonder, did you miss this sort of thing while you were with your family?”

Nicolas opened the door and didn’t reply.

“Geez, you’ve gotten boring, huh?” Iziah stared at him with a look of mischief, then walked out the door and down the hall.

A faint smile touched Nicolas’ face, and he said, “Hey.”

“What?” Iziah glanced back.

“You break into my apartment again, I’ll beat you to a pulp.”

Iziah laughed, then headed around the corner.

Once he was gone, Nicolas closed the door and walked into the kitchen. Deli meat and cheese and lettuce were scattered across the counter. The mayonnaise jar was open, and a knife covered in the substance lay on the counter. Shaking his head, he started to clean up the mess. What sort of person broke in for a sandwich and a phone number? Iziah had always been a little strange, and Nicolas wasn’t sure if it was due to bad experiences in foster care or his time with the Faceless. Once things were put away, he sat on the couch, letting out his breath. The contract had left him exhausted. Now he just had to wait for ten-thousand dollars to be transferred to his bank account.

Closing his eyes, he relaxed, drifting into boredom.

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