Later that day, Nicolas got a call from Katharine. He and Iziah were playing chess, and the disturbance made him roll his eyes with annoyance. The boy was good at the game, and it required all his skills just to keep him at bay. It surprised him that Katharine was calling. Usually if she had something to tell him, she’d contact him through email. Then again, she must have wondered why he hadn’t come in for the last couple weeks.
Nicolas stood, picking up his phone, and glanced at Iziah. “Don’t you do any rearranging while I’m gone.”
Iziah let out a faint chuckle, leaning back and holding his ribs. Even after the bad night, he looked better than he had a week ago. The color was returning to his face, and he had put on some healthy weight. Plus, he was smiling, and Nicolas had learned long ago that morale was the most important element of recovery.
Nicolas walked out the door and into the hallway before answering the phone. It still seemed wrong, talking about his job in front of Iziah. The hall was quiet, dimly lit with an orange and red carpet. He flipped the phone open, closing the door, and said, “Hello?”
“Hey, Mr. Pierce,” said Katharine. “I haven’t seen you in a while. Are you ever coming back?” He heard the laughing tone in her voice.
“Sorry. I’ve been busy. What do you need?”
“Well...” She sounded hesitant. “You’ve had a couple jobs come in from disreputable sources, and I turned them down because I know you don’t want to be involved. But...I got a strange call from one of them yesterday.”
Nicolas frowned, moving away from the door. “What do you mean?”
“You know Gray Hanes?”
“Leader of the Crimson Serpents. Yes.”
“He asked if you were...harboring some fugitive in your apartment.”
Nicolas froze, his heart sinking. It wasn’t possible. They couldn’t have found him so quickly. “Really?” he managed, trying to keep his tone flat.
“Yes. He sent in several pictures and a physical description. I thought you might want to look at it.”
Hot rage swelled inside him. “No. I don’t want to see it. Tell him I have no idea what he’s talking about.”
Katharine was silent a long moment before she replied doubtfully, “Are you sure? He...sounds serious.”
“Well, I’m serious too. I’m a businessman, and he can stay out of my business. You understand?”
“Of course. But he wants you to meet him two days from now. Down in that area near the abandoned warehouses. He says that if you don’t, he’ll be forced to come for the kid himself.”
“Fine,” Nicolas growled through gritted teeth. “Send me the details, and I’ll take a look at it.”
“All right. That’s all.”
“Good.” He hung up the phone and leaned against the wall, rubbing his hand against his face. Somehow, they had discovered that Iziah was staying with him, and they weren’t about to let it go. So what the hell could he do? They were like sitting ducks. One of Iziah’s assailants – the one that escaped – must have identified Nicolas. He took a long breath, trying to push back his anger and clear his thoughts. Gray wanted to meet in two nights, so he had time to make a plan. Gray would expect him to turn Iziah over, whether for money or simply to save his own skin. There was no way that would happen.
He’d already lost Micah. He wasn’t going to lose Iziah without putting up a fight.
Nicolas knew he should go in and look at the email, but he felt sick. After everything they’d done to Iziah, they still wanted him dead? He was just a kid! He hadn’t know what he was doing when he killed the Crimson Serpent. It was self-defense taken a step too far.
How could he possibly tell Iziah? He’d be absolutely terrified, and Nicolas wouldn’t be able to blame him.
The Crimson Serpents must not have managed to find his apartment yet, so Nicolas had the upper hand. He was very good at covering his tracks.
For a moment, he considered trying to barter with them. But that wouldn’t guarantee Iziah’s safety. Even if they made a deal, Gray and the Crimson Serpents could cheat him and kill Iziah the moment they got the opportunity. The only way to end this was to kill them. Nicolas took a long breath as a sense of peace washed over him. Maybe he couldn’t help Iziah face his demons, but he could wipe the boy’s assailants off the face of the planet.
Nicolas knew he had to tell Iziah what was going on, but he wouldn’t tell the boy his plan. It still felt wrong, the fact that Iziah was living with a trained killer. It was the same reason he’d switched occupations when Martha came into his life.
Besides, the thought might disturb the boy, and he didn’t want to frighten him any more than he had to.
“Nick? What’s going on?”
Nicolas jumped, looking toward the door. It was cracked open, and Iziah peered out at him, concern etched into his face.
Nicolas rubbed his hand against his face, taking a long breath. It would be better if Iziah didn’t know, but he couldn’t withhold the information from him now. The kid knew something was going on. He straightened himself and walked back into the apartment. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
Iziah’s blood went cold as Nick showed him the email.
They knew he was here. They were going to take him away and torture him and murder him. Though he tried to keep the terror from showing in his expression, he felt the color draining from his face. He wanted to throw up. Everything inside him was screaming.
Nick watched him closely as he spoke. “He wants to set up a meeting to try to barter.”
Iziah didn’t reply.
“I’m going to meet with him.”
Iziah let out a dry, humorless laugh, leaning against the couch cushions as he threw his head back. “What? You think you can talk him out of this? He’ll kill you. And then he’ll kill me.”
“I’m not going to let that happen,” Nick growled.
“What can you possibly do?” Iziah demanded. “You know him. He’s a mob boss and a drug dealer, and the Crimson Serpents worship him. There’s no way out of this. We’re...we’re going to die.”
“No, we’re not.”
“Don’t you get it?” Iziah shouted, his fists clenched with rage. “We can’t get out of it! They have too much power! We’re caught in their web!”
Nick let out a sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose. He was silent for a long moment.
Iziah wanted to say something more, to curse him for his naivety, but he couldn’t speak. It was all he could do to prevent himself from being sick. The world swam around him, and he was shaking with terror.
“You remember when I asked you to trust me?” Nick said.
Iziah looked away. “That’s different.”
“Because this isn’t under your control.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t trust me with it,” Nick countered. He sat on the coffee table in front of Iziah, and Iziah ducked his head, desperate to regain his composure. “I know what it’s like to fight an uphill battle. You know that. And yes, I can’t protect you from everything, but I’m not going to let them hurt you. All right? I want you to take a step back and let me take care of this.”
Iziah buried his face in his hands, taking a long breath.
“We don’t need to throw our cards in just yet.”
That sounded reasonable. But Iziah couldn’t shake off the tremulous feeling that filled his entire body. All he could think about was being clamped down by so many hands while they beat him, violating his body, treating him like an animal.
“I know you’re scared,” Nick said.
“Yes, you are. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I am too.”
“I should leave,” Iziah looked around through wide eyes as his panicked brain struggled to regain control. Everything was falling apart around him. “I need to go before they kill you.”
Nick put his hand on Iziah’s knee. “No. You’re staying right here where I can keep an eye on you.”
Iziah wanted to cry and throw things, to do something that would relieve the tension inside him. But not with Nick watching. Not with those calm eyes searching his face. He folded his trembling arms, staring at the man’s hand and whispering, “I—I can’t do this.”
“I’m not strong enough for this. I...I just want all this to be over, and I—I can’t...”
“I’m going to take care of this,” Nick said firmly. “Not you. You don’t have to be strong enough. You understand?”
Iziah tried to nod, a lump in his throat.
“I’m going to go to the meeting and make sure they can’t come after you again. You’ll be safe.”
“Why would you want to help me? This is my fault, not yours.”
“I know that. But you’re family, whether you like it or not. And I’m not going to abandon you.”
Iziah stared at him a long moment, unable to speak. Unable to move. He wanted to thank him, but he didn’t think he could without falling apart. Finally, he choked out, “They’ll expect me to be with you that night... They might shoot you on the spot if I’m not there.”
“You’re not coming with me. It wouldn’t be safe.” Nick rubbed his chin, looking thoughtful. “I would send you somewhere else if I could, but I don’t trust any of my associates. You’ll have to stay here. If you turn out the lights and lock the doors, it should be fine. I’ll leave you with my gun, and you can hide if you hear anything suspicious.”
The thought sickened Iziah, and he didn’t understand why Nick was being so vague. “But...what are you going to do? You can’t make a deal with them. They would kill you and then come after me.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Iziah frowned at the man, fighting the urge to yell at him, before dropping his head. “Nick...” he murmured. “You’re risking your life for me. I don’t know how I could just...sit here and hope that you don’t get shot.”
Nick let out a faint snort, leaning back. “Don’t underestimate me, kid. I’m not going to get taken down by a few amateurs. Besides, there isn’t any choice. If they knew our address, they’d be here already, so it should be safe here. If worst came to worse and I didn’t come back, you could call the police and have them pick you up.”
A shudder ran down Iziah’s spine. “I don’t want to think about that.”
Nick offered a faint smile. “Just trust me, okay? We’ll figure this out.”
Iziah was silent a long moment before taking a deep breath and conceding, “All right. I trust you.”