The Hurting Game

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Chapter 5

During the next few days, nothing happened, and Iziah was grateful for the quiet. After the incident with the Crimson Serpents, he had braced himself for severe consequences, but he heard nothing about it.

For a while, he thought about leaving the city, just to be safe. But he had nowhere to go. Besides, Iziah had the Faceless behind him. The Crimson Serpents wouldn’t dare try anything. Bolstered by this rationalization, Iziah fought back his unease.

That evening, he sat at the bar with Matthias, quiet, his stomach sour. Matthias looked pale. His finger traced circles on the table in front of him. Iziah tried to assume a relaxed position but was continually glancing over his shoulder. Though nothing had happened, Iziah noticed little things. Someone peering through the window of the bar and disappearing when he made eye contact. The feeling of being watched as he walked home at night. Iziah told himself it was nothing, but he couldn’t shake off his apprehension. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the river of blood spilling from the Crimson Serpent’s wound.

Why had he gone for the throat?

“Have you noticed anything weird going on here lately?” Iziah asked, looking at Matthias.

Matthias gaze a disinterested shrug, dark circles under his eyes. “No. It’s been quiet.”

“No one...watching you or following you home?”
Matthias frowned. “What? No. Why would you ask that?”

“No reason. I was...just wondering.” Iziah smirked, leaning back.

“If you’re being followed, it’s probably one of the chicks from the bar.”

Iziah’s mind drifted to Harley. Neither of the boys had spoken to her since the incident, as if afraid people would see their shared unease. She sat at the bar, watching football casually with her elbows propped up.

“I wonder what they were doing when we interrupted them...” Iziah mused.

“What?” Matthias looked at him.

“I wonder what they were doing.” Iziah’s eyes drifted to his friend. “There was a fourth man there, carrying a briefcase. He was better dressed than the rest of them.”

“I dunno. Probably a drug deal. The Crimson Serpents have to get it from somewhere too.”

Iziah sighed, running a hand through his hair. “You’re probably right.”

“What? You’re agreeing with me?” Matthias raised his eyebrows and feigned shock.

Iziah’s lips twisted in a derisive sneer.

“Just forget about it. If you keep talking, someone’s going to overhear us, and then we’ll really be in trouble.”

Matthias had a point, but Iziah wasn’t sure this was the end of things, and talking kept the anxiety from bottling up inside him. Had Harley encountered anything strange since the incident? If Matthias hadn’t, maybe it was just Iziah.

“It’s pointless to worry,” Matthias continued, staring at the table. “They’ve probably forgotten about it already. You know how they are.”

Iziah frowned. He knew how the Crimson Serpents were, and they certainly didn’t let things go. Perhaps this incident was the exception. Perhaps they knew he was a skilled fighter and didn’t want to mess with him.

Harley walked up to their table, flicking a strand of hair over her shoulder. A few boys at the bar watched her go but turned away after a moment. “Hey,” she said, looking bored.

“Hey,” Matthias replied, looking hopeful. “Can I get you a drink?”

“Fine, fine.” She pulled up a chair and sat down.

Matthias, looking surprised, got up and hurried to the bar.

Iziah raised an eyebrow, then asked, “How have you been?”

“Fine,” she said, propping her legs on the table. “Kanra hasn’t been giving us dirty looks, so that’s a good sign. Did he say anything when you gave him the drugs?”

“Nah. He was too high to care.”


Iziah was quiet a moment, then prompted, “ one has been acting suspicious toward you?”

Her brow furrowed. “No. Why?”

“Nothing. I just wondered.”

Either someone was onto him or he was being paranoid. People probably gave him dirty looks all the time, but he didn’t notice because it flew under his radar. After being shaken, he was more in tune to what was happening. That was all.

Harley twiddled her thumbs. Matthias returned with two bottles. He passed one to Harley and sat down, looking eager.

“You’re looking hot this evening.” He gave her a coy smile.

She smirked, and Iziah rolled his eyes. He would have to hang out somewhere else tonight, unless he wanted to watch Matthias’ pathetic advances and goo-goo eyes. “You guys are boring.” Iziah stood. “I’m heading out.”

“Yeah? Jealous?” Matthias leaned back in his chair.

Iziah grinned. “I don’t want to lure her away from you. You know what a chick magnet I am.”

Iziah strode toward the door, pulling his jacket tight around him. It was noisy in the bar tonight. Usually he didn’t leave until eleven, and it was only nine. He glanced over his shoulder and noticed Kanra standing near the bar with his arms folded, watching Iziah. Iziah frowned as he walked out the door. It was biting outside, and his cheeks began turning pink. Iziah stuffed his hands into his pockets to warm them. Now he had to decide where to spend the next few hours. He could return to his apartment, but where was the fun in that?

Still, the events of the last few days disturbed him. Sleeping had been impossible. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the man’s blood spilling onto the pavement, his eyes staring at Iziah as he clawed for life.

Maybe it would be better to call it a night. Either way, he needed to hurry. It looked like it might rain soon.

Iziah pulled up his hood and hurried down the road.

Nicolas stayed late at the office after Katharine left. He had set up shop on the twelfth floor of a building in city center, under the alias of a lawyer. He had received a contract and was doing research. Usually Katharine took care of that, but she was gone, and he was too bored to go home. A wall of blackness lay outside his office window. His room was very plain, reeking of carpet cleaner. Below, he heard the unholy ruckus of traffic – tires squealing, horns honking. The light from the monitor stung his eyes, and he knew he should stop soon. His target was visiting town in the next few days, so he had plenty of time to prepare.

Nicolas leaned back in his chair and rubbed his hand against his face. A headache pounded in his temples.

His eyes wandered to the phone beside his computer and a number scrawled beneath it. He still had Martha’s number on hand. He’d thought about throwing it away, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. One of these days, he was going to call her.

He remembered the last day they’d had a proper conversation. They were in the hospital with Micah, during those last moments. Micah was having difficulty breathing, and his shrunken chest heaved. His clear blue eyes hung half-open. Nicolas sat on one side of the bed and Martha on the other, holding his hands, crying and yet trying not to look sad. They didn’t want Micah to be scared. He remembered pulling his boy into his arms for the last time. Micah clung to Nicolas for dear life, like he felt himself falling into the void. The boy was sixteen, and it was no use hiding it from him. He knew what was coming.

Martha stroked his head. The nurses and doctors had cleared away, leaving them to the steady beeping of equipment. There was an I.V. in one skinny, vein-laced arm. An old man’s appendage attached to a boy.

How could that be fair?

Micah was docile, pumped full of drugs to keep those last hours from hurting.

The sheer helplessness of the situation left Nicolas broken, with nothing to do but hope for a few more seconds with his boy. Trying to squeeze a lifetime of love into a few moments. Martha’s hands were on the boy’s shoulders, on his forehead, in his hair. Trying to capture a thousand embraces in a few minutes. Trying to photograph every moment and smile in her mind’s eye while there was time.

Then Micah wasn’t moving, wasn’t crying and whispering comforts to his sobbing parents. He was still as a doll in their embrace, eyes dull and blank, tears wet on his cheeks.

It was over.

Nicolas shook himself, stumbling out of his chair and heading for the door. He couldn’t think about it. After that day, he and Martha rarely spoke, strangers in the same house. There were no spoken accusations, but they saw it in each other’s eyes. Both were too stubborn to initiate restoration, and the more time that passed, the more they drifted apart. They sat side by side at the funeral, a million miles apart. Then, all at once, Martha announced that her work was taking her to Seattle, and then she was gone. There was no formal separation or divorce. Just nothing.

He stayed in their house for months, thinking she might return. But eventually, he sold the place and moved to an apartment. Nicolas wondered if she had met someone else in Seattle or if she was content being alone.

Nicolas locked the door and walked down the hall. His stomach growled, and he realized he hadn’t eaten. It was quiet in the building; most businesses were shutting down for the night. Nicolas pressed the button for the elevator, and, a few seconds later, the door opened. He slipped inside and pressed the button for the first floor. The elevator rattled, then slid downward. He took a long breath, leaning against the cold, metal wall. He didn’t have any groceries at home, so he would have to go out. Katharine told him about a place that sold fish and chips on the southern end of town. While that area wasn’t as clean as city center, he didn’t mind going there occasionally.

He couldn’t remember the address she’d given him, but he knew the general area.

Nicolas walked out of the building and headed toward his car.

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