“Wake up! Wake up!”
Daven groaned into his pillow as two pairs of little hands rapped a relentless beat on his back. He turned his head to the left and opened one eye. He caught a glimpse of a brown-skinned little girl, her hair in long braids, peering at him. Zena caught him looking and she giggled, reaching for her brother, Aram, who knelt on Daven’s right side.
Daven buried his face into his pillow again listening to Zena and Aram whisper to each other.
“He’s awake,” Zena said. “Should we tell him?”
“We should wait for him to wake up.”
Aram’s tone was more somber. The kid was too serious for a five year old. It worried Daven sometimes.
“Mommy will be mad if we wait,” Zena said.
She was the carefree one at seven years old, impatient and energetic. She made him laugh even when he was having a bad day.
Daven contemplated lying there for a few minutes while the two conspired, but he wanted to know what they wanted to tell him. So, he turned on his back with a dramatic yawn, and smiled when they both moved to hug him. He was engulfed in sweet strawberry shampoo and sloppy kisses on his face. The love they showered on him healed the deep ridges in his heart like nothing else could.
Daven wrapped an arm around each one and sat up to lean his back on the headboard. Zena settled against his right side, and Aram on his left side.
“Uncle Daven, are you awake now?” Aram asked, peering at him, rubbing his palm on Daven’s stubble. “You yawned, are you still sleepy?”
“Am wide awake, thanks to you,” Daven said, pressing a kiss on Aram’s soft cheek.
“I told you he was awake,” Zena said, proud of her all-knowing status.
He turned to look at her and was treated to a toothless smile. Zena had lost her two front teeth.
“Uncle Daven, Mommy said to wake you up.”
“She did? And why did Mommy want you to wake me up?”
“She said you need to eat breakfast before you meet a guest,” Aram said, resting his head on Daven’s left shoulder. “Do you know who the guest is?”
“No,” Daven said with a frown.
“Me too,” Aram said, rubbing Daven’s jaw. “Zena do you know?”
“No,” Zena said, bouncing against him. She pursed her lips and placed both her hands on Daven’s right jaw. “Do you know, Uncle Daven?”
“No, I don’t, Zena. Did you eat breakfast?”
“Yes!” Zena said, smiling again.
God, he loved her toothless smile. Zena’s yes came out as ‘yeth’ because of it, and that tickled the hell out of him.
“I see you got my alarm,” Naomi said, drawing his attention to the door.
Naomi Noland was his younger brother’s ex-wife. She was beautiful: her smooth brown skin reminded him of rich caramel. Her dark eyes warm and welcoming no matter the situation. Her tall slender frame hid a temper more deadly than a rumbling volcano, and a passionate love for her children to match. She divorced his brother when she caught him cheating with the nanny. Then, she cried hard two years after the divorce when Mike died in a tragic car accident on the California State Highway.
Naomi dealt with Mike’s death by showering Zena and Aram with all of her attention and love.
He, on the other hand, had chosen the path to hell.
Daven hugged the children to him.
“Come on, Uncle Daven, I won’t let you sleep the day away.” Naomi insisted. “Zena, Aram, go on downstairs. Anika is going to take you to school.”
Anika was Naomi’s best friend and neighbor across the street.
“Uncle Daven, will you be awake when we get back?” Aram asked.
“Of course, little man. Go on now, take care of your sister at school, okay?”
“Promise you’ll be awake?” Zena asked.
“I promise,” Daven said.
“Can we go for ice cream after school with Uncle Noland?” Zena asked, looking to her mother for permission.
“We’ll see,” Naomi said, coming to the bed.
She helped Zena down, then Aram.
Daven smiled when Aram took his sister’s hand. After another round of goodbyes, the kids hurried out of his bedroom, heading downstairs.
“That was cold, Naomi,” Daven said with a wide yawn, fighting the urge to reach for his covers.
Naomi perched on the edge of his bed. She flipped the dark hair on her shoulder back, and smiled at him.
“You came into my house four weeks ago. You wouldn’t talk, looked like shit, no offense.”
“None taken,” Daven said, scratching his jaw.
“All you have done since is sleep through the day and night,” Naomi continued. “Tell me I shouldn’t be worried, Daven.”
“You shouldn’t worry, Naomi.”
“I’m going to smack you. Your parents are going nuts looking for you. You won’t let me call them. If you were me, wouldn’t you be worried?”
Daven groaned and rubbed his eyes. He had known the questions would come. When he arrived at Naomi’s doorstep he’d been too tired to deal with the real world. The moment Naomi showed him into this room, he had fallen on the comfortable bed, and given into the months-worth of constant sleep depravation.
“Was it worth it?” Naomi asked.
Daven met her gaze, knowing what she was asking.
“It was what I felt I needed to do,” he answered.
Working with the MSF was a spur of the moment decision. He had wanted to be pushed to the limits, to be in a place he didn’t need to think at all. Thanks to his rush decision, he had jumped headlong into a fucking mess.
“I worried,” Naomi said. “The worst time was when you were in Syria. I thought you were going to die.”
Daven took her hand, and gave it a small squeeze.
“Which was why I accepted the post to run the station in Dadaab.”
“Won’t you quit?” Naomi asked. “I need you to quit, Daven. My kids don’t have any other family. You’re it. Can you please stop putting your life in danger?”
Daven stared into Naomi’s pleading gaze. Her expression enough to convince him to give in and move back to the States, find a nice hospital and work shifts. At thirty-four, he was a fully-qualified surgeon with enough experience to land a prestigious placing. However…
He patted Naomi’s hand and pushed the covers away. Shifting his legs to the side of the bed, he stood and stretched his arms above his head.
“Who is the guest you want me to meet?”
“Are you going to keep brushing away this topic?”
“I’m not ready to think beyond the next hour,” Daven answered.
He rather liked the idea of going with the flow at the moment. Smiling at her deep frown, he adjusted his pajama pants.
“You’re too pretty for a frown, Naomi. I’m going to brush my teeth. Then we can go have breakfast. I’m starving.”
Daven winked at her and entered the private bathroom attached to his bedroom. Taking a piss, he flushed the toilet. He frowned at the water swirling down the vortex in the toilet bowl, his piss quickly replaced with clean water. Daven moved to the sink, turning on the water to wash his hands. The scent of lavender from the soap filled his nostrils, and he bent over the sink to wash his face; clear his head.
Closing his eyes, the scent of death permeating the air: animals, humans alike…vultures flying in the sky above anticipating a feast…filled his senses. The memory momentarily overpowered the scent of lavender. His heart plummeted and he splashed water on his face to wash away the soap.
Daven slammed his palm on the tap, turning the water off. Grabbing the hand towel folded neatly on the sink, he wiped his face and stared into the mirror above the sink. He barely recognized the man looking back at him. His brown skin was lighter now, no longer under the hot tropical sun. The dark shadows under his eyes were receding, thanks to uninterrupted sleep. He would have frightened a crow weeks ago. His hair was in thick dreadlocks, long mistreated, and too long they reached his shoulder blades. Turning away from his unimpressive appearance, Daven dropped the hand towel into a laundry basket and left the clean bathroom.
He stopped at the bathroom door and watched Naomi arrange pillows on his now neat bed. She had placed a set of clean clothes at the foot of the bed. She straightened up and met his gaze.
“I thought you might like to change out of those old clothes.”
Daven chuckled, removed his t-shirt came to place it on the bed. Taking the blue one Naomi had bought, he rubbed the smooth fabric on his cheek. It smelled new. Giving her an appreciative smile, he wore the t-shirt and dropped his pajama bottoms.
“I’m flattered you don’t bat an eyelash at changing in front of me,” Naomi said, taking his old t-shirt from the bed.
“Should I?” Daven asked, wearing the new blue jeans she laid out for him over his boxers.
“Not at all,” Naomi chuckled and took his pajama bottoms between her index finger and thumb.
“I think this might need to be burned. You’ve lived in them for weeks.”
“Hey,” Daven protested.
“Your opinion doesn’t count,” Naomi said, dumping his clothes in a laundry basket in the corner of the room.
She wiped her hands on the soft fabric of her red pencil skirt and urged him to the door.
“Come on, we should get food in your stomach. I made waffles, eggs and bacon,” Naomi said.
His stomach growled in anticipation.
Naomi’s house was in a quiet suburb. He had teased her about wanting to be a suburban wife when she first bought it. Now, he rather admired her for choosing to live here. Her children were protected, growing up in a community where they would make friends, fall in love…feel secure.
Daven followed Naomi into a large sunny kitchen downstairs. The sink was piled with dishes from breakfast with the kids.
Naomi urged him to sit. A minute later, she placed a steaming mug of coffee before him.
“Thanks,” he murmured, inhaling the delicious coffee scent. Dark roast, so wonderfully prepared. He took a sip and moaned in appreciation, then got to work doctoring it with sugar. “You make the best damn coffee.”
Naomi smiled and brought him a plate full of waffles, eggs and bacon.
Slave to his appetite, Daven focused on eating, his gaze following Naomi as she wore an apron and dish-washing gloves. She worked on reducing the dishes at the sink, occasionally glancing at him as though to make sure he was still sitting at her kitchen table.
Rays from the morning sun danced along the clean counters in Naomi’s kitchen. Kissing the mint leaves growing in small red pots along the windows. Highlighting the colorful drawings stuck on the fridge: priceless messy crayon drawings depicting a house and four people living in it.
“Why four?” Daven found himself asking.
Naomi glanced at him, and he pointed at the drawings on the fridge.
She smiled and rinsed out the last of the plates.
“I’ve taught the kids to think of you as part of the family, Uncle Daven. They didn’t get to know their father as I would have wanted them to. So, they have you.”
Daven ate the last bite of his waffles, his gaze on the pictures on the fridge. He’d never thought of himself as a father figure. His lifestyle wasn’t meant for a man with a family. But for Zena and Aram, he thought about Zena’s toothless smile…he could consider it.
“I have one last thing to do,” he said, placing his fork on his empty plate. Sipping his coffee, he sat back and met Naomi’s gaze. “One last thing, and then I will find an easier job here.”
Naomi gripped the dish towel she held tight, her eyes shining with tears. She cleared her throat and looked away, wiping her hands on the dish towel.
“What about your loft in Manhattan?” Naomi asked, her voice raw with emotion.
“It’s nice to have, but I won’t be close to Aram and Zena,” Daven said. “I’ll find a place close by and put the loft up for rent.”
“You can stay with us,” Naomi offered, her tone too hopeful. “There’s more than enough room. This house is too big—,” She broke off. “Unless of course you don’t want to—
“I’d love to,” Daven said.
“I promise not to interfere with your personal life,” Naomi said. “You are planning on getting one, right? It would be really nice to see you fall in love, Daven.”
“One step at a time, Naomi,” Daven said, reaching for his coffee.
Naomi chuckled and placed the dishcloth on the counter. She took his empty plate. Placing her right hand on his shoulder, she squeezed.
“One step at a time,” she said in agreement, giving him a watery smile. “Are you ready for your visitor now?”
“What kind of visitor is this?”
Naomi touched his hair.
“Your hair needs serious maintenance, baby.”
Daven grinned leaning his elbows on the table.
“Should I cut them off?” Daven asked, touching his dreadlocks. He’d gotten used to the weight of them, and as his hair grew out, he simply tied them back.
“No,” Naomi went to wash his plate. When she was done, she removed the apron and hang it on a hook beside the sink. “I don’t think I’ve known you without them. They look good on you. Let me spoil you today, hmm…my hairdresser’s coming over. She works wonders with hair. After, I’ll take you to my spa.”
Daven chuckled, amused by Naomi’s attempts to pamper him.
He let her do it because it felt good to have someone else make decisions.
“Look Uncle Daven,” Aram said, tugging on Daven’s blue t-shirt, late afternoon. “Look, look, ice cream.”
Daven carried Aram in his arms as they walked through the Stoneridge Shopping Center. Zena walked beside Naomi, holding her mother’s hand.
“Shall we?” Daven asked Naomi.
“We shall,” Naomi gave him a small smile. “Although, not too much ice cream. We don’t want to spoil dinner.”
“Can we take some home?” Zena asked, when they detoured to the ice cream shop.
“What a great idea,” Daven said, smiling at Aram. “We can save ice cream for tomorrow in the fridge.”
“You’re bad for the rules,” Naomi stated, when they got out of the shop twenty minutes later.
Daven carried a tub of pistachio ice cream in a bag in his left hand, and Aram with his right. Aram was busy licking his ice cream cone, happy to make a mess of his shirt and Daven’s arm.
“We should sit at the food court,” Naomi suggested. “Aram is going to get you pretty messy.”
“I love it,” Daven said, watching Aram eat his ice cream with relish. “He’s enjoying it, why stop him.”
They chose a table at the edge of the food court. Zena sat in her own chair, while Daven settled Aram on top of the table. Bad manners, Naomi pointed, but Daven ignored it wanting to watch Aram.
“It’s good to see you smiling.” Naomi handed him napkins.
Daven wiped off the ice cream on his arm, and off his t-shirt. Grinning when Aram took a big bite of his ice cream. Gosh, he hoped the kid wouldn’t get a cold out of this.
“Are you hungry?” Naomi asked, glancing around the busy food court. “Zena? Want something to eat?”
“Can I get fries?” Zena asked.
“How about a fruit salad, baby?” Naomi asked. “You like pineapples, don’t you?”
“Okay,” Zena said. “What about Uncle Daven?”
“I want a huge messy hamburger. Zena can share my fries,” Daven said.
“Great, Zena and I will get you food, and you can watch the little munchkin,” Naomi said nodding to Aram.
Daven watched Naomi and Zena head to the nearest burger place. He watched over Aram who was finishing his ice cream. His gaze wandering to the other patrons in the food court. Two teenagers in the corner, gazing into each other’s eyes like the world was ending later. Their young love was delightful to watch. An older couple behind them. They were staring out the windows, Daven wondered what they saw. He jerked when squishy cold touched his jaw and he turned to find Aram had finished his ice cream.
“You don’t want the cone?”
Aram shook his head and held it out to him.
Daven smiled and took the offending messy cone, placing it on the table behind Aram. He grabbed two clean napkins and worked on cleaning strawberry ice cream off Aram’s cheeks.
“There you go, little man,” he murmured, when Aram’s face was clean. “You have to look good for the ladies to take notice. Your Mama is going to have a hard time keeping them off you for sure.”
Aram gave him a wide smile and Daven laughed.
In the shadows, Kian watched Daven Noland interact with his nephew.
Daven was so gentle with the little boy. He should have looked silly at it—tall, big man, dark hair in dreads down his back talking to a small boy in earnest—instead, Daven looked strong and dependable.
Kian narrowed his gaze.
The woman coming back with a little girl, and the boy Daven smiled at were a weak point. He watched the woman settle the little girl in the chair next to Daven. Together, they moved the boy into his own chair. Daven helped the woman arrange the food on the table, grinning when the little girl sneaked a French fry from Daven’s pile.
Kian watched the little family for the next half hour. Their reality unreal to him.
Daven smiled. A lot. The woman mothered the children and Daven. She passed ketchup, forks, napkins, wiping small mouths and even pressing the corner of a napkin to Daven’s lips. Her soft brown skin gorgeous in the afternoon sun. She was the reason Daven smiled and the kids laughed and looked to her for approval. Her spirit gentle and giving.
Just like Alora, Kian remembered. She was gentle too.
Looking away from the cozy family scene, Kian concentrated on the reason why he had found Daven Noland. Yui would not have given up. He refused the assignment, so she would have sent operatives after Daven. A set of four, in case one plan failed, there would be contingency plans.
For Daven, the cause of death would need to be as natural as possible. Any obvious accidents would point to murder considering the high profile nature of his testimony at The Hague. Gunshots, poisoned darts were out, that left flat out accidents, and undetectable poisons.
Food poisoning was easiest.
Kian’s gaze settled on a janitor moving from one table to the next. Not unusual, the mall employed several. He checked the schedule on his phone. This one in particular was assigned to work the food court, keep restrooms clean, and clear out tables and trash. Kian put his cell phone into his pocket, and sipped the strawberry milk shake he held.
The Janitor moved closer to the little family, his work meticulous, too neat. Kian kept in the shadows watching the man work. Every step the janitor made designed to end up at Daven’s table.
This was the first operative.
In truth, if Kian did nothing here, he could continue living as he had these past three years. Traveling from city to city, to different countries, seeking what…he didn’t know, yet. Escaping his real life, ignoring the bonds that tied him to a deadly organization and a grandfather he didn’t know how to hate but wanted to.
Escaping Yui was the highest excitement he wanted, not seeing his grandfather face-to-face his only vow.
Daven Noland was a speck to dust off. An assignment he didn’t want, but clearly other operatives could handle. This operative was two minutes away from the happy family. Kian watched the man reach into his overall pocket. No doubt to reach for his chosen weapon. A vial, perhaps. The man wasn’t fast enough, Kian caught sight of the small bottle. Years ago, he’d have been the one to punish such a sloppy mistake.
The goal was to slip the contents of the vial into Daven’s drink. The liquid in the small jar designed to react while Daven was on the road, or at home, away from the scene. All the operative would need to do was follow his victim to get proof the plan had worked.
Kian sipped his milk shake and started to turn away.
“Finish your fruit, baby,” Naomi urged Zena
“But I want Uncle Daven’s fries,” Zena insisted.
“If you finish your fruit, I’ll give you a whole bunch,” Daven promised.
Zena sighed and took her plastic spoon. She dug into the fruit and took a huge bite, determined to finish.
“What is it you have to do before you move here?” Naomi asked Daven. “Should we start looking for a job anyway?”
Daven let Aram down, and watched him circle around to his sister’s side.
“I have a meeting at the UN offices in New York,” Daven said, though it wasn’t really New York but The Netherlands. He didn’t want to worry Naomi with his problems.
“There are sensitive matters to discuss, and then, I will hand in my resignation. The process might take a little over a month.”
“What if you open your own practice?”
“That’s a lot of work, Naomi.”
“You can’t tell me you’ve never thought of it.”
Naomi stopped Aram from wandering away, grabbing his arm and bringing him back to the table. She sat him on her lap and gave him a small slice of chicken from her salad.
“It would be perfect. You set your hours, and you won’t have to deal with the bureaucracy in hospitals,” Naomi continued.
“Tempting,” Daven said, uncapping his water cup so that he could drink his water directly.
“Mommy, what is a biro-ocrasy?” Aram asked.
“A bureaucracy,” Naomi said it slow.
“It’s when annoying people in suits want to drive you crazy,” Daven explained.
He pushed his fingers into his hair and made a funny face making Aram and Zena burst into happy laughs.
“Look Mommy, Uncle Daven is crazy,” Zena said.
“More than you know,” Daven kissed her cheek.
He froze when a weight fell on his back, and cold, wet trailed down his neck into his t-shirt. He used his body to protect Zena, and turned his head to see a grinning man in ripped jeans and a faded t-shirt raising his arms in apology.
“I’m sorry,” the man said. “I tripped. Didn’t see the table there…”
Assured there was no danger to Zena, Daven sat up, glancing at Naomi who still held Aram in her arms.
“Are you okay?” he asked her.
“I’m fine, but you—,”
Daven felt it then, the slick wetness down his back, he was sure it was in his hair too. He stood up, and stared at the milkshake cup on the floor. Damn, his luck was rotten, pretty sure he was drenched in strawberry milkshake.
The culprit moved closer, touching his shoulder.
“That looks gross,” the man said.
“No shit.” Daven cursed.
Naomi glared at him.
“I can have it dry cleaned for you?” the man responsible suggested.
Daven took a closer look at his assailant. The man didn’t look like he had an extra penny to spend, what with the ripped jeans and old t-shirt. Daven couldn’t see his eyes, thanks to the cap drawn down so low over his face.
“I think I can handle it from here,” Daven said.
Daven glanced up and for the first time noticed the janitor at the next table. The floor around their table was wet with strawberry milkshake. In the fall, the young man must have hit Daven’s cup of water too as it had spilled. Their food was scattered. Their table was clearly going to take more than a minute to clean.
“I’m sorry about the mess,” Daven felt compelled to say to the janitor.
To his surprise, the man grabbed his cleaning cart and walked off in a hurry, disappearing around the corner in seconds despite an obvious limp.
“Guess he’s upset,” Naomi said, getting up too. She took her handbag. “Daven, why don’t you go clean up? I’ll find something for you to wear.”
“Thanks,” Daven said, taking the napkins she handed him.
Naomi gave his assailant an unhappy gaze, taking Aram’s and Zena’s hands.
“Come on kids, let’s go get Uncle Daven a t-shirt to wear.”
“Uncle Daven’s shirt is wet,” Zena said. “Will he catch a cold?”
Daven used the napkins to wipe strawberry shake off his neck.
“Not if we hurry,” Naomi said, and led the way to the nearest clothing store.
Daven turned to head to the bathroom and to his eternal surprise, the man who had drenched him followed.
“You don’t have to come along,” Daven said, entering the bathroom and going straight to the sinks.
He removed the t-shirt, and turned on water at one sink. Wetting the napkins, he did his best to wipe off sticky strawberry milkshake from his back.
One down, three to go, Kian calculated, watching Daven wash at the sink. Locking the bathroom door, Kian ignored the spectacular sight of Daven without a shirt, and focused on the closed cubicles. Three of them. On silent footsteps, Kian walked up to the first cubicle. The door was open, so he entered and closed the door. Closing the lid on the toilet, he climbed up and swung himself up to the top of the cubicle frames. The second one was empty, but in the third…a woman stood, her fingers twirling high-grade fishing line.
Bad choice, unless she planned to stage Daven’s death.
Balancing on the frame, Kian jumped in right behind her, his descent silent. Before she could react to his presence, he caught her in an unrelenting chokehold that put her out in three seconds flat. Her weight sagged against him. Kian reached behind, closing the toilet lid, he sat her on the toilet making sure she was balanced and wouldn’t fall.
Two more operatives to go.
Opening the bathroom stall door, he stepped out of the cubicle to find Daven drying the tips of his dreads with the hand dryer. His sexy body devoid of strawberry milkshake. Kian wondered what Daven would say if he had offered to lick it off. The man looked good enough to eat, and Kian didn’t mind having a taste.
“Are you still here?” Daven asked, glancing at him through the mirrors over the sink.
“Of course, I have to make sure you clean up.”
Kian moved to take the soiled t-shirt Daven had left on the counter.
“Don’t,” Daven said. “I’ll take it home.”
“Haven’t you done enough?” Daven asked.
Kian stopped. His gaze sweeping back to the last cubicle.
Yes, what was he doing?
This was enough to get Raja Securities coming after him. The remaining two operatives would call for backup. While none of them knew who he was, the fact that an unknown was interfering with their assignment was enough trouble. He should leave.
“I’m sorry,” Kian said, giving Daven a slight smile. He placed the t-shirt on the counter.
“Yeah,” Daven replied, starting the hand dryer again to finish drying his hair.
Kian went to the bathroom door, unlocking it.
Instinct had him raising his arms up in defense when a kick came flying at him. The force of it enough to push him back. He managed to stop his fall inches away from the first cubicle wall. Daven stopped drying his hair, staring at him in shock.
“Don’t move,” Kian ordered Daven.
As long as Daven stayed in one position, he would not get hurt. Kian ignored Daven’s alarmed expression and focused on his assailants.
They were two, the first operative must have alerted them.
Kian had sunk a knife into a vital point in the janitor’s upper thigh, the man wouldn’t be able to fight for a few months. The woman in the cubicle was out for the next several hours. These two, with their open attack, Kian had no choice but to put them down for good.
Raja Securities never sanctioned the use of guns, especially in open places like malls. The two men entered the bathroom and locked the door. They produced long thin daggers, ready for full combat.
Kian carried no weapons. It was easier to live un-noticed if you carried as little as possible. He broke his defensive stance and walked up to Daven. Meeting panicked green eyes, he smiled as he reached for Daven’s trousers. Undoing Daven’s belt, he removed it in a swift tug before Daven could ask.
Their assailants came at him at once, their intent to murder him then Daven drowning the room.
The three men moved fast. Too fast for Daven to see clearly. The two holding the blades attacking the strawberry shake man, over and over. A swift deadly dance, one touch of those blades enough to draw blood. He held his breath as one cut strawberry shake man’s left arm. Strawberry shake man was using the belt to deflect the daggers, he was good at it too.
Shit, were these idiots playing some kind of make-believe video game.
What was it these days? Pokémon-Go?
Daven threw the napkins he held in the trash bin. His gaze on the red on strawberry shake man’s arm. The blood was real. He knew blood, and the stuff trailing along on Strawberry shake man’s arm was fucking real.
The fight blocked him from the door, so he couldn’t escape. He prayed Naomi would keep waiting at the food court. God, don’t let her send Aram in…
A soft grunt, and one of the assailants lost his blade. In the next instant, Strawberry shake man held the blade. He sunk it first into one man’s chest, then into the other’s neck.
Daven’s instinct was to rush forward to stop the blood flowing out of the first man’s chest. Strawberry shake man pushed Daven back and Daven lost his balance and sat on the floor.
Strawberry shake man dragged the dying men into the first cubicle and closed the door. He picked up Daven’s belt and held it out to Daven.
“Don’t forget your t-shirt,” Strawberry shake man said, his tone flat, as though he hadn’t just stabbed two men.
“Who are you?” Daven asked, not moving, his gaze on the closed cubicle doors.
“Someone who is taking risks to save you,” Strawberry shake man said. “If you want to keep living, you will do as I say.”
“You’re mad. I need to call the cops.”
“That’s fine, but first think of the woman and the children. You need to get them out of here.”
The kids! Naomi!
Daven got up from the floor. He grabbed his t-shirt off the counter and ran to the door.
Daven ran into Aram first outside the bathroom door.
“Uncle Daven, I brought your t-shirt. Can I pee?”
Daven bent down and picked up Aram.
“We need to go.”
“But I’m going to pee myself,” Aram said, his tone urgent. “I have to go. I don’t want to pee—
“Let him pee,” Strawberry shake man said behind him, his tone amused.
Daven spared him a glare.
“Are you insane?”
A shrug came in return, and then a nod toward the ladies’ bathroom.
Daven winced when the scary man walked into the ladies bathroom without concern. When no one screamed out their wrath, the man declared the bathroom empty. Daven took Aram in with a sigh.
“Why are we using the girl’s bathroom?” Aram asked as Daven took him to one of the cubicles.
“They are cleaning the boys’ bathroom.”
“Do I have to squat like a girl to pee?”
Daven dropped Aram’s trousers and briefs and sat him on the porcelain bowl.
“Why can’t girls stand like boys to pee?” Aram asked, as he did his business.
“Because they’re not boys,” Daven answered, sure Naomi wouldn’t thank him if he explained the differences further.
Kian stood at the door listening to Daven answer innocent child questions. That damnable gentle way Daven had with the boy annoyed Kian. He couldn’t remember experiencing such gentleness as a child. Hell, irritating his grandfather earned him extra hours on the practice grounds. Running, doing push-ups, or whatever the hell the task master thought up.
Kian shifted his feet, his left arm stung. He lifted his arm to study the cut. He wiped the blood away with his palm. The cut was not deep. He looked up and paused when he noted the security camera mounted in the corner.
Damn surveillance, Kian cursed under his breath.
Looking into the ladies bathroom, he sighed when he found Daven still in the cubicle talking to the boy. Oh well, he’d stopped the first wave. Yui would assume the mission was still underway, for now. Reinforcements would come later in the night.
Kian left the two in the bathroom and made his way to the security office, hoping the mall’s data was not stored offsite. This was turning into a nuisance.
Daven returned to Naomi and Zena minutes later in a state of confusion. The Strawberry shake man had disappeared. As though Daven dreamed him up. Worried for his sanity, he’d had Aram wait for him at the door so he could check the first cubicle in the men’s bathroom. If it weren’t for the two men propped on the toilet seat, Daven would have thought he was crazy.
“Are you are alright?” Naomi asked.
“Fine,” Daven answered looking around the food court.
“What an exciting afternoon for Uncle Daven,” Naomi teased.
“I chose your new shirt, Uncle Daven,” Zena said, her toothless smile lighting up her face.
“Did you?” Daven touched the light blue t-shirt he now wore. “You have good taste.”
“Mommy said so too,” Zena said. “Let’s go home, I wanna watch cartoons.”
“Me too,” Aram seconded his sister.
Daven figured the faster they left the mall the better. He wondered if he should call nine-one-one about the men in the bathroom. His recent past, however, made him pause. The Strawberry shake man had said something about ’if-he-wanted-to-keep living’. Daven shuddered. The mercenaries he’d ran into at the refugee camp came to mind.
Had they come looking for him?
“I’ll drive,” Daven said, when they were outside.
Naomi threw him the keys, and she worked on settling the kids in the backseat.
The drive back to Silver Close was uneventful. Daven listened to Naomi talk and sing with the kids. His attention on the vehicles following them as he drove into Naomi’s driveway, he studied the cars that passed after.
“You don’t seem fine.” Naomi noted when he got out of the car. “Did we push too hard today?”
“No.” Daven shook his head watching Aram and Zena race into the house. “It was nice to be out and about. Thanks for the t-shirt.”
“That strawberry milkshake thing was weird,” Naomi said, getting the shopping bags they accumulated at the mall out of the trunk. “That guy came out of nowhere. I swear I didn’t see him trip.”
Daven thought about the unbelievable fight in the bathroom mall.
“Unreal,” he murmured.
Naomi chuckled and headed to the house.
“I’m going to take a walk.”
Daven called after her.
“I’ll be with the kids. The fridge is stocked, in case you get hungry again. Feel free, Daven.”
She entered the house in the next instant.
A minute passed, and then he turned.
Daven froze when he saw the Strawberry shake man standing at the end of the driveway. That stupid cap pulled low so that it was hard to see his face. The silly grin on the man’s lips aggravated Daven.
Closing the distance between them with a short jog, he growled.
“You! Who are you?” Daven gripped the man’s t-shirt and shook him. “What do you want from me?”
“My name is Kian. I’m your assassin.”