When Iziah heard the gunshot, he started to cry. No doubt, that was the bullet meant for Nick.
The air was damp and sour, pressing in on him. Goosebumps traveled up his arms and down his legs. He was bound against a chair, his arms pulled back and his ankles tethered against the wooden legs. A sack had been shoved over his head, secured with more tape, and he could hardly breathe.
His head was ducked as he sobbed, his face contorted beneath the burlap and tears streaking his cheeks. When they first hauled him back, he’d expected the worst, but they just situated him in the chair and left, whispering vicious taunts in his ears.
He had hoped to hear an explosion of shouts as Nick made his escape, but the single gunshot told him otherwise. The worst part was that it was his fault. If he’d never gotten involved in the gang activity in the first place, he wouldn’t be in this horrible mess. He shouldn’t have allowed Nick to help him. He should have pushed the man away with all his might, saved him from becoming the prey of the Crimson Serpents. Nick had insisted that he would take care of things, but this was bigger than both of them.
His own selfishness revolted him. And now Nick had paid the price.
Iziah shivered, struggling to regain control. They couldn’t see him cry. Not again. Nick would never cry in front of them, so he wouldn’t either. Iziah wished he could wipe his face, but the chair dug into his arms, and his hands were going numb. While he sat in the silence, he decided he would kill himself the first chance he got. He didn’t trust himself not to give in if they tortured him for information.
Part of him wondered what Kanra was so riled up about, but it didn’t really matter. It had bought him some time. Iziah twisted his wrists against the tape, his chest heaving, but it seemed to constrict every time he moved.
He wondered if it was possible to hold your breath until you suffocated.
He was considering it when the door creaked. Iziah froze, listening. The cloth was thick enough that he couldn’t see through it. Someone slipped inside, and the door clicked shut. Whoever they were, it was obvious that they were being sneaky. Iziah shook with terror, trying to contain a whimper. Gray had told Ian to leave him alone, but it was obvious that Ian wasn’t the type to be reined.
Approaching footsteps, then something brushed the tape around his neck.
“Don’t touch me!” he yelped, jerking to the side.
“Shh! Be quiet, or you’ll get us caught!”
Iziah’s eyes widened, and something inside him melted with relief. “Shawn?”
“Yeah.” He began working at the tape around Iziah’s neck, then pulled the sack free. Iziah squinted a moment as his eyes adjusted. Shawn was white as a sheet, and he looked more scared than he’d ever been. His eyes flitted around the room as if he expected to be caught at any second. Iziah couldn’t blame him.
“W—what are you doing?” Iziah managed, confused. “They’ll kill you.”
“They don’t have to know.” Shawn pulled out his knife and hurried around the chair.
Iziah glanced toward the door. It was shut with dull light coming in beneath it. He heard voices outside the door, but it didn’t sound like anyone was near. Shawn began sawing through the tape around his wrists.
Iziah let out a bitter laugh. “I thought you said I deserved it.”
Shawn didn’t reply right away. Then he said, “No one deserves this.”
There was a moment of silence. Iziah looked over his shoulder, trying to see what Shawn was doing. “Is... Is Nick...?”
“I don’t know. I heard a gunshot, so...”
Grief struck at Iziah, and he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out all thought. Shawn cut through the remaining tape and pulled it from his wrists. Iziah breathed a sigh of relief. His hands looked strangely purple, and he rubbed his wrists, trying to regain circulation. A couple weeks ago, he never would have accepted help from Shawn. But now Iziah’s pride was diminished, and he lacked the will to fight. “Thanks.”
Shawn said nothing as he stooped down, working at the tape on Iziah’s right ankle. Sweat streamed down his forehead. “I’m gonna leave you the knife, but after that you’re on your own. If they catch you, you had it hidden in your sleeve. Okay?” Shawn looked up at him with a pleading look on his face.
Iziah forced a weak smile. “Understood.”
Shawn tried to chuckle.
Just then, the door swung open. Both boys froze with looks of terror spreading across their faces. Shawn scrambled away from Iziah, as if hoping that he could somehow keep from being associated with what was happening. Ian loomed in the doorway, his face silhouetted. “What the hell is going on here?” he growled.
Iziah wanted to pry at the tape on his ankles, but he didn’t dare move, his insides quivering. Shawn sputtered, “I—I...”
“You little bastard!” Ian hissed. “I’ll kill you!”
Shawn held out the knife in a shaking hand and let out a weak, “Stay back.”
Iziah blanched. Shawn had never been a good fighter. His only advantage came from his size, and Ian dwarfed both of them. The man charged forward, heedless of the weapon, and Shawn scrambled back. Ian knocked over Iziah’s chair on the way by, throwing him to the floor. Everything blurred.
Behind him, Iziah heard Shawn shout, “Wait! Wait! You don’t understand!”
Iziah’s heart pounded wildly inside his chest. He gasped for air, curling forward and prying at the tape on his ankles. Shawn had only cut through half the tape on his right ankle; the other was still firmly bound. Iziah ripped at it like an animal, quickly freeing his right ankle.
Shawn cried out in pain. Iziah twisted around to see what was happening. Ian had disarmed Shawn, and Iziah couldn’t spot the knife from this angle. Shawn was on hands and knees, scrambling toward the door. Blood ran from his nose. “No! Leave me alone!”
Ian grabbed his ankle and ripped him back, rage twisting his face. “GET BACK HERE, YOU STUPID BASTARD!”
Shawn clawed at the floorboards, but Ian dropped down on him, beating Shawn viciously. Shawn writhed and struggled, his face contorted. Iziah could almost feel the blows striking him, making his head split and his body ache. “Shawn!” he cried. The tape was numbing his ankle as he dug his fingers into the seam, trying to rip it loose. Ian called Shawn horrible names, his face red, spit flying from his mouth. Shawn wailed when the man grabbed the collar of his shirt, slamming him against the floor over and over.
Iziah tore the tape away from his ankle and scrambled to his feet, his legs wobbling after being bound for so long. Everything ached. All he wanted to do was run from this demon in human clothing, but he couldn’t leave Shawn to fend for himself.
Ian’s hands clamped down on Shawn’s throat, cutting off his terrified cries. The boy pried at his fingers, writhing, as his cheeks began turning purple. Tears streamed down his face.
Iziah leaped on Ian, locking his arms around his neck and jerking on him with all his might. Thrown off balance, the man fell back, roaring, and he pried at Iziah’s arms. Iziah gasped for air, choking, “Shawn, run!”
Ian screamed obscenities at them before Iziah tightened his grip, cutting him off to small choking sounds. Keeping an arm locked around Ian’s throat, Iziah pounded on his head with one balled fist, desperate to knock him unconscious. Then the man reached back and grabbed a handful of Iziah’s hair. Stinging pain ran through his scalp. Iziah tightened his grip, but Ian wrenched on his hair until Iziah thought the man would rip his head off. The man pulled Iziah off his back, and he swung at Ian wildly, his vision a blur of panic. One well-aimed punch struck his assailant in the eye, and he recoiled, cursing. Ian’s hand came up to touch his face, but, instead of a pained look, he wore a horrible, hate-filled sneer. Iziah pried at the man’s fingers, desperate to dislodge his grip, but Ian threw him to the floor. Iziah scrambled back, staring up at his assailant through wide eyes. Shawn lay where the man left him, holding his throat, sobbing with terror. Iziah wanted to scream at him.
Run, you idiot! RUN!
Before Iziah could stand, Ian pulled a pistol from underneath his jacket and pointed it at him. Sweat streamed down his red face as he hauled air into his lungs. One eye was beginning to swell. “You stupid asshole!” he hissed through his teeth.
Iziah didn’t move, staring at him, shaking all over. For a moment, he feared the prospect of taking a bullet to the skull. But then he realized it was probably the kindest thing they could do to him. It would be an easy way to go.
Something inside him trembled. He didn’t want to die, but this was what he deserved. All his stupid, asinine choices led to this moment. In the end, he was just an unlovable boy that had done all the wrong things.
Iziah took a deep, shuddering breath and said, “Go ahead. See if I care.”
Ian’s lips curled. For a moment, he didn’t move, his finger on the trigger. It was obvious he had guessed Iziah’s thoughts. A grin spread across his face. He shifted his hand, aiming at Iziah’s leg, and pulled the trigger.
Excruciating pain shot through Iziah, and he threw his head back, letting out an agonized scream. It felt as if a hot iron was being pressed against his leg. He bit his cry into a strained groan, face contorted, and looked down the wound. There was a growing splotch of blood on his pant leg, just above the knee. He was sure the bullet had snapped the bone. Sweat soaked his body as he gasped for air, clutching his leg.
Ian leaped on him, straddling his body and grabbing him by the throat. Iziah’s eyes widened in terror. The man’s face was twisted with rage, and he jerked Iziah forward until their faces were inches apart. “You worthless bastard!” he roared, wringing a strangled cry from Iziah. “You think you can play games with me?” The man slammed him down against the wooden floor, over and over.
Iziah thrashed, his head whipping back and forth, pain coursing through his body. His vision writhed. He could barely haul air into his lungs. Ian’s face was red and contorted, yellow eyes narrowed to slits. Iziah twisted desperately and managed to roll to his side, taking the brunt of the abuse with his shoulder.
“I’ll beat your stupid face in!”
At last, the man stopped and released his throat. Iziah coughed and gagged, his lungs heaving. Ian’s fist came out of nowhere, catching him across the cheekbone. Blinding pain shot through him. Tears filled Iziah’s eyes, and he threw his arms around his head as Ian pounded on him, hissing through his teeth, a vein popping in his temple. Iziah writhed, lurching with agonized sobs. Growling, Ian grabbed his wrists, pinning them against the floor above his head. Iziah squinted past the dark clouds flooding his vision, exhausted, tears of pain and frustration streaking his face.
“Aww,” Ian’s voice was mocking. “Crying for your bitch of a mommy?” A sadistic smirk spread across his face, and he squeezed Iziah’s injured wrist.
Iziah sealed his lips together, trying to contain a strained groan. Hot pressure pounded in his head until he thought it might explode.
The man leaned toward him. “You know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were a woman, Mallory.”
Iziah gave a rough jerk, trying to pull free, and agony wrenched through his leg.
The door suddenly slammed open, and a voice demanded, “What the hell is going on in here?”
Ian broke from his rage-filled trance and looked at the man looming in the doorway. Then he released Iziah and stood, pointing to Shawn. “Tell Gray that we have a traitor in our midst.”
Iziah curled to his side, clutching the bloody wound on his leg. His body screamed with pain. Already, a pool of blood was gathering beneath him. The world rocked and swirled.
“No...” Shawn protested weakly. “I’m not! I...”
Ian grabbed Iziah by the hair, and his other hand tangled in the collar of his shirt, hauling him to his feet. Iziah cried out in pain as a bolt of agony shot through his leg. He hung from the man’s grip, unable to stand. Pain lanced Iziah’s scalp, and he clawed at Ian’s sinewy hands. “Stop!” he wheezed.
“Be quiet!” Ian hissed, hauling him out of the room and back into the main area of the warehouse. Iziah gripped his arm, groaning, his blood dribbling to the floor. “I’m just about done with your shit.”
Through blurry vision, Iziah saw a group of people lugging crates out the open door and toward a waiting van. There was no way of telling what was inside, but the boxes looked heavy. Gray stood nearby, watching. When he saw Ian approaching, he turned, his brow furrowing. “What now?” he snapped.
Ian threw Iziah to the floor. Iziah gritted his teeth in pain.
“The shithead was trying to escape,” Ian snarled. “And he had help.”
The other man had hauled Shawn out of the room.
Gray issued an agitated sigh, looking down at Iziah through expressionless eyes. Then he lashed out, kicking him in the stomach. Iziah doubled over, moaning through his teeth.
“You listen to me,” Gray growled. “I’m not playing games. You’re going to tell us your friends’ names, or we’re going to make you wish you’d never been born.”
When Iziah didn’t reply, Ian wrenched him to his knees by the scruff of his shirt. Red spots flooded his vision, and he swayed, trying not to lean on his broken leg. “Did you hear what he said, bastard?” Ian gave him a jerk.
Iziah took a long breath, ducking his head and closing his eyes as tears streamed down his face.
Gray let out a faint snort. “Well, he’s stubborn, I’ll give him that. Too bad it won’t do him any good.”
Ian chuckled. His free hand slid underneath Iziah’s chin, pulling his head up. Iziah’s bloody lips trembled.
Shut down. Just shut down.
Ian’s fingers traveled up his face and invaded his mouth.
Then there was a gunshot.