A few days later, Iziah was sent on a run to get a drug sample. He found out about it last-minute from Kanra. The job would pay well, so he looked forward to it. Matthias and a girl named Harley were going too, and he suspected the only reason Kanra was letting him go was due to Iziah being one of their best fighters. The leader of the Faceless had always disliked him. Iziah had the tendency to disobey orders, and Kanra was not the type that liked having his authority questioned.
Before he left, Kanra gave him a stern warning. “If you screw this up, you’re going to be very...very sorry. I’m not playing around with you anymore.”
Iziah smirked at the petty threat. Didn’t Kanra understand that this was all just a game? A fight against boredom? All these teens came here to escape reality, not to find it.
Matthias, who looked tired and morose after working a swing shift, explained that the drugs were in a drop spot between territories, a dozen blocks away. This shipment came from one of their contacts in the Crimson Serpents. They left their hangout around nine and headed down the sidewalk. Fog drifted through the quiet, empty streets, clinging to their skin and dampening their clothes. Broken-down, silent buildings and apartments lay all around, silent. Most people on this end of town were a few blocks down, in the clubs and bars.
Iziah led the way, swinging his arms and enjoying the cool night air. Matthias and Harley walked behind, Matthias looking as suave as he could manage and Harley wearing a disinterested expression. Her blond hair was dark at the roots, and she wore a sporty halter top that revealed a spray-tanned stomach. She had painted her lips a dark, sultry red. There was a flower tattoo on the side of her neck. Judging by her designer clothes, she came from a family with money.
The boys had met her months back, and Iziah wasn’t sure what to think of her. She always expected someone to buy her drink. Iziah didn’t have that kind of money, but he had to admit that she looked good in that halter top.
Matthias spoke to her, telling stupid jokes and trying to flirt. “So what’s your last name? Quinn? Or Davidson?”
Harley brushed him off, pulling out a cell phone and typing a text. The harsh light illuminated her face.
On occasion, they passed drug addicts and homeless slumped along the road, watching them through dull, accusing eyes. The three kept their distance.
Relaxed, Iziah twirled his switchblade in his fingers. The streetlamps were spaced apart, and, in some places, it was so dark Iziah couldn’t see where he was placing his feet. The air reeked of garbage.
This area seemed familiar to Iziah, and he realized they were close to the home where his biological parents lived. He’d only been there five years of his life, but he remembered this part of town. He didn’t have many memories from back then, and the ones he’d retained were broken and blurred. He remembered being hungry and dirty, rats crawling over the sleeping bag where he slept. His parents often had nasty, shady-looking people over. When he disturbed them, he got a beating, or they locked him in the closet. A shiver ran down his spine. He remembered pounding on the door and pleading to be let out. Remembered being trapped in the darkness until his throat was parched and his stomach throbbed with hunger. He was nothing but an inconvenience to them.
He was lucky the CPS found him before he wasted away in that closet. But while things had gotten better...nothing really changed. Every home was a repeat of the first, devoid of love and security. He wouldn’t have believed in such things if not for his time with Micah’s family. He was just a neighbor, but Nick had become almost like a father to him.
Iziah shook himself and began whistling.
Love and acceptance weren’t necessities. It was selfish to expect it from people. After all, why should they love him? What made him special?
“Will you stop whistling?” Matthias snapped. “We don’t need to draw any more attention to ourselves than we have to.”
Iziah laughed. “That’s what you think.”
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot I was talking to a diva.”
Iziah cast Matthias a mocking glance. He couldn’t resist the urge to push further. “What’s wrong? Afraid?”
“No.” Matthias reddened, eyes flitting to Harley. “I just don’t like this end of town, that’s all. Especially not when we’re so close to Crimson Serpent territory.”
“Ha! They’re not worried about their borders. They’re probably out vandalizing schools and terrorizing seniors. They’ll never know we were here.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.”
The boys turned a corner, crossing the road. They were almost to the drop spot, nestled along the edge of Crimson Serpent territory. It was silent, except for the sound of the wind.
“How is your arm doing?” Iziah glanced back at Harley, stuffing his hands into his pockets.
She had participated in a fight with the Crimson Serpents and lost. The deepest cut had been dealt to her arm, and it was now wrapped in gauze.
She looked at him and shrugged. “All right. It stings a bit.” A moment of silence. “I’ve never seen anyone handle a knife as well as you. You ought to give me some tips so I can teach that girl a lesson.”
There was a coy tone to her voice, and Iziah smiled, winking at her. “Maybe. From what I saw, you gave her quite a pounding.”
“Hah...” She laughed lightly. “That’s not all I can do.”
Smirking, Iziah stopped next to a pile of bricks, digging through them until he found a small paper bag. They hadn’t been jilted. Kanra would be happy once their stocks were resupplied. Matthias liked the stuff, but Iziah hadn’t tried it. The incident with Shawn’s father had soured him. After being moved from the house across from Nick’s, he’d been placed with the Davis family. Their boy, Shawn, had made Iziah’s life hell, and Iziah just took it until he finally crossed the line.
After peering into the paper bag, he stood and handed it to Harley with an impish smile. “See? No problem.”
Harley grinned, tucking it into her jacket, but Matthias was glaring. “There’s no harm in being cautious.”
Iziah shrugged as he strode down the street, giving Matthias a mocking smile. “Maybe if you’re a pussy.”
Harley chuckled, following, and Matthias scowled at the concrete.
Thunder rolled in the distance, so faint it could have been traffic. The black clouds above looked as if they might dump down rain at any moment. Iziah ran a hand through his hair, sighing.
“Another storm?” Harley looked up at the sky in disgust.
They were rounding a corner when Iziah heard voices nearby. Warning alarms blared in his mind, but, before he could stop them, they came face-to-face with four large, shady-looking men. One wore a nice jacket and expensive clothes while the others were dirty and haggard, wearing red bandannas. The well-dressed man had a briefcase. Iziah, Matthias, and Harley froze under their rivals’ glares.
They weren’t in Crimson Serpent territory, but they were close enough. Iziah stuffed his hand into his pocket and gripped his knife.
The well-dressed man slunk into the shadows.
“What the hell are you doing here?” one of the gangsters demanded.
“Nothing,” Matthias said quickly, wide-eyed. “J—Just passing through.”
The Crimson Serpents advanced and began to encircle them. “You with the Faceless? Huh?”
“What if we were?” Iziah demanded. “We’re not on your turf.”
Harley bristled, her fists clenched, glancing between them. There wasn’t a hint of fear in her eyes, and, for a moment, Iziah thought she might leap at them.
One of the men sneered through rotting teeth. “You must be here to pick something up. Whatcha got?”
“Nothing,” Mathias said, pale-faced.
The gangster snorted and took a step forward, giving Matthias a shove. “You know what we do to people we find hanging around our turf?”
“You don’t scare us,” Iziah snarled. “Now go away.”
“Shut up, bastard!” The gangster lashed out at him, but Iziah dodged, flicking open his knife. For a long moment, no one moved.
One of their rivals looked at Harley and grinned. “Hey, baby. What are you doing on this rough end of town?”
Her lips twisted in a dark scowl. “I’ll take you apart, asshole.”
Iziah stepped protectively between the men and his friends. “I’m not going to say it again. Go away.”
The gangster with the rotted teeth looked at them through narrowed eyes and hissed, “Get them.”
The Crimson Serpents leaped forward, and the gangster with the rotted teeth suddenly grabbed Iziah by the throat and wrenched him off his feet. Iziah choked, kicking and flailing, his vision blurred with panic.
“You’re going to pay, you stupid bastard!”
Iziah tried to slash at him, but without his feet on the ground, he lacked leverage. The man’s hand clamped onto his wrist, and he slammed Iziah against the wall. Pain lanced the back of his head.
Somewhere in the chaos, he heard Harley and Matthias, shouting, struggling.
His assailant’s teeth gritted, sweat beading on his forehead. His fingers dug in beneath Iziah’s jaw with agonizing force. Lungs heaving for oxygen, Iziah kicked his attacker as hard as he could. The man cried out and released Iziah. Iziah dropped to the ground, staggering, before lunging forward, his knife flashing. The gangster tried to dodge, but there were no rules here. Iziah’s knife slashed him across the throat. The wounded man reeled back, letting out gasping, choking sounds as his hands clutched his neck. Blood spilled from the gash. More than Iziah expected.
More than he could fathom.
Instantly, he knew he’d made a mistake. A wave of nausea washed over him, and the ground rocked beneath his feet. The gangster stumbled and fell, trying to haul himself up but slipping in his own pool of blood.
Out of the corner of his eye, Iziah glimpsed Matthias in a head-lock and Harley defending herself fiercely with a knife. But their attackers, hearing their companion’s choked cries, turned.
The man assailing Harley froze. “Holy shit!”
Taking advantage of the moment, Iziah charged, knocking him away from Harley. His heart exploded into action. All at once, he didn’t want this fight. This wasn’t fun. This wasn’t a game. He dove at the gangster putting Matthias in a headlock and sliced him across the shoulder blades. The gangster howled, flinging his arms back, and Matthias slipped free. Matthias’ face was purple as he gasped and sputtered for air.
The dying man’s struggles were weakening as the scarlet pool grew. His shocked eyes stared at Iziah.
“Run!” Iziah bellowed before bolting down the street. Matthias and Harley ran after him, the other two men not far behind. Adrenaline coursed through his body, giving him an impossible speed. Blood stained his knife, his hand, his sleeve. His throat felt swollen, making it difficult to pull air into his lungs. Behind, he heard his friends gasping.
The Crimson Serpents didn’t give chase for long. Perhaps they realized they weren’t a threat, or perhaps they went back to see what had become of their companion.
Still, Iziah, Matthias, and Harley didn’t slow their pace until they reached the bar.
Iziah arrived first, gasping for air. His head spun, and there was a stitch in his side. Harley and Matthias’ hurried footsteps approached. Iziah looked behind them before staggering to the wall of the bar and vomiting. His abdomen heaved several times after he’d emptied the contents of his stomach.
“Whoa, easy man.” Matthias’ hand came down on his shoulder.
It was a moment before Iziah could speak. His throat stung. He wiped his mouth and turned, eyes watering. “Are you guys...alright?”
They nodded, although they looked quite pale. Bruises were forming on Matthias’ neck. Matthias was shaking all over, and his fists were clenched.
“Why would you pick a fight with them?” Matthias demanded, his face contorted in rage. “What made you think that was a good idea?”
“I—I don’t know... I didn’t mean to, they were threatening us and... I’m really sorry.”
“That man,” Harley whispered. She was eerily calm, sweat beading on her face and glistening on her slender neck. “He won’t survive, will he?”
Iziah shook his head, and for a moment he thought he might retch again. His legs shook so hard he could barely stand. He looked down at the bloody knife in his hand. It was an accident! An act of self-defense. Maybe he enjoyed the scuffles between gangs, but not real violence!
She continued, “The Crimson Serpents are going to be angry. There will be hell to pay.”
“Damn it...” Matthias buried his face in his hands. “This will give them reason to incite a real gang war. And Kanra...he’ll kick us out! Or worse, turn us over to the Crimson Serpents!”
Iziah wiped his bloody knife on his jeans and took a gulp of air to steady himself. Putting the knife in his pocket, he said, “You guys, what are we going to tell Kanra?”