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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/979904
Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Thriller/Suspense · #979904
After helping an injured man, Paris finds herself running for her life with him.
Paris slurped down the last of her coffee with a shuddering wince. It was cold, there was grime in the bottom of it, and it had to be at least five hours old. Too lazy to make her own, however, and too tired to think about it, she gulped down her hourly caffeine fix dutifully. She hadn't planned on staying so late. Of course, she'd never been good at planning.

Paris shuddered again and spit into the trashcan next to her desk, trying to rid the terrible taste from her mouth.

Whoever made that stuff should be burned at the stake!

Paris was a secretary for Vernon Greene, of the Greene, Hallow, and Bradley law firm. She wasn't working late to please her boss. In fact, she was typing out a story onto the computer at her desk. Though she wasn't a very good writer, sometimes ideas filled her head and she had to do something with them or she knew she'd go crazy. So here she was at ten past one in the morning, typing frantically. She didn't have a computer at home, and rather than wasting money she didn't have on buying one, she worked here. Greene knew what she did and graciously allowed it, as long, he said, as Paris wasn't goofing off during working hours.

The computer suddenly gave a burp and shut off. The ancient monitor whined shrilly. Paris jumped to her feet, whacking it, hoping beyond hope that it would come back on.

She'd been typing for the past three hours. She had been caught up in her writing, and had not saved it once. Paris felt a hollow despair as the ideas and the words deserted her, disappearing like a wispy shadow. Paris sighed and shut off the monitor with an angry jab as she stood to her feet, stretching her long, slim legs, which ached from disuse. She put on her tennis shoes, grabbed her backpack, and exited through the glass double-doors. On her way out, she locked up, heading out into the icy silence of the night, and the heavy darkness that seemed ready to crush her.


# # # #


Gage Slater didn't want to look back. He was afraid, if he did, that he'd trip and fall.

If that happened and his pursuers caught up with him, he was going to die. In the most literal sense. Gage swore as he raced into an alley: he'd taken a wrong turn. He was in a dead end. "Idiot," he whispered harshly. He heard the running footsteps of his pursuers coming closer, their sharp steps like explosions in the piercing silence.

A ladder. He needed a ladder. Even a fire escape. Gage saw neither, but he was used to improvising, so this didn't bother too much. He looked around, desperately forcing his mind to search for a way out, even as his pursuers came close enough for him to hear their soft breaths. Not good. When they found this alley he was toast.

His experienced eyes roved over his moonlit surroundings, and saw his way of escape. To his left there was a trashcan. About nine feet above that was a window ledge. A big jump, but one he could make. If he followed the ledge, he would get to another, where he could climb onto the roof and get down the other side of the building.

He'd lost two seconds thinking about it. Gage leaped onto the trashcan with feline agility, jumping up to grab the ledge, not willing to lose another second.

You should have been a gymnast, old boy, he thought to himself caustically.

Now standing upright on the first ledge, Gage saw that the second was farther away than he'd hoped. To his left and above him another nine feet, it would take a strong sideways jump to land him on it.

Gage shifted his weight. With a scrape, a loose brick wobbled under his feet. Gage was going to fall if he didn't make the jump now. Leaning to the right first, he then sprung left, and up, his hands reaching out for the ledge. If he didn't make it...

He smiled acidly as he jumped. His mind supplied him with boundless gruesome images of what might happen. His fingers touched the ledge, and locked down on it. Arms aching with fire, Gage hissed a breath in when his body jarred downward, his weight and the force he'd put into the jump making it hurt even more. But he was there. He'd made it. And his triumph erased the pain.

Again, Gage swung his lower body up to the ledge.

"There he is!" screamed a man. "Shoot him down!"

No. He was too close. Gage landed his feet awkwardly on the ledge, and pulled up in desperation. If he could get to the ledge, it was only a few feet to the roof.

An explosion filled the narrow space.

A burning, tearing agony surged from Gage's arm to his shoulder, and his body tensed up, suddenly weak, his hands releasing their grip on the ledge.

More than eighteen feet from the ground, Gage plummeted down. As he hit, and right before unconsciousness mercifully swallowed him up, he heard the voice of a man, twisted with sadistic glee. "This isn't the end of it, Gage."


# # # #


Paris' car was a rattling, grating piece of junk that should have been made into scrap metal a decade ago. She loved it, though. The seats were thick and when you sat down into them you sank. The air conditioner worked when it mattered most, but not much more, and the car had plenty of space. She wouldn't have given it up for anything.

Paris backed out of her parking slot at the law firm. Hers was the worst, the one with the bump that left any car parked there tilted up at an angle. With a thump, the car clattered onto level ground, and she did an illegal u-turn in the parking lot. Yawning, Paris pressed down on the gas pedal, her mind oozing sweet thoughts of home and deep sleep.


# # # #


Gage flickered to and from consciousness like a candle in the wind. When he awoke, he'd see the men above him. The first one, tall as far as he could tell, with mostly dark hair going gray, was dragging him somewhere. The man had both of his arms, and Gage's head hung limply between them. Pain surged through him. Please stop! He wanted to scream. His entire body sizzled with agony. He didn't know what he'd broken in the fall, didn't care as long as this just stopped. "Please..." he slurred. Unconsciousness took him again. Blackness slammed down on his vision.

Peace.

When he opened his eyes again, he had stopped moving. The pain was worse than ever now that he'd settled down. His muscles were just realizing the extent of the damage inflicted on them, and they protested when he tried to reposition himself. More than protested. Gage's whole body locked up in an agonizing spasm. He moaned.

Suddenly, somewhere near him, Gage heard a soft scrape. Someone was still here.

Gage remembered the tall man's words: "It's not over yet, Gage."

What more could they do to him? There was no possible way to feel more pain than he was feeling right now... Was there? The thought filled him with an empty kind of dread.

"No..." His plea trailed off into silence. He fell into the dark oblivion once again, well aware that he shouldn't be fading in and out like he was, but not caring. If he woke up again, it would only be to his own death. The last thing he was aware of was of the damp cold of the concrete he was on, and the smell of rot.


# # # #


Paris hummed along with the radio. She had soft rock on. It was the only station that was coming in on her car radio, and it wasn't too bad.

Babying the car, Paris took it the quick way home, between the office buildings and the other looming structures, going no more than twenty miles per hour through the maze of streets and alleys. It was dark here, and more dangerous, but her life was so dull that she didn't expect any of the crazy stuff to happen to her.

Bumbling from one thought to the next, Paris fought to keep her heavy eyes open. She saw something curious on the road, and pulled the car to a stop. A mirror? Was that a mirror in the road?

Trying to adjust her blurred vision, Paris leaned forward in the seat to get a better view of the object in the road. As her eyes adjusted, she realized it was not a mirror at all, but just her headlights reflecting off of a puddle. She mumbled to herself, "Boy that was dumb, Paris!" And she started to drive again, slowly. With her lights out of the way as she passed the puddle, she was able to see it more clearly for what it was.

There were long, dragging marks of the same liquid marking the road in a trail that led down an alley and into the darkness.

With horror, and a surge of adrenaline that brought her to a buzzing awareness, Paris realized the puddle was blood. It was still fresh. For a moment she couldn't breathe. Her heart wanted to explode inside of her. She got out.

Uh...Reality check? When did you get so dumb?

She followed the trail, afraid of what she might find. She gripped her backpack so hard her hand ached, but still she went on. Why oh why did she have to be such an idiot?


# # # #


The man worked quickly. He was careful not to let Gage's blood stain his clothing; it would be conspicuous when he made his exit. The man lifted Gage's body off of the ground. Still unconscious, Gage groaned. The man almost felt sorry for the boy. He was so talented.... So innocent.

But it was his job.

His feelings didn't matter: he did what he was told and that was how he got paid. Sympathy meant poverty. Ruthlessness, in this twisted world, was what paid the most. And so many people were looking for his services.

Gage suddenly opened his eyes. He looked up at the man, who carefully showed no emotion, and they met straight with the man's hooded ones, digging painfully deep. The man stared until Gage's gaze broke as he groaned in pain. He cried out, and there was so much pain in his posture and in his voice that the man turned away. The trunk of his car was already open. The river was only a few miles down the road. He could see it from here. The death would be quick, and impersonal; the kid's body would wash up on the shore, pumped full of Meth. The police would take it for what it looked like. A drug hit.

Gage's pleading eyes locked with the man's. God, this kid was so young. He couldn't have been twenty-three yet.

"What are you gonna...?" Gage knew what was going to happen to him, the man could tell.

"Please..."

The man dropped Gage's body into the trunk hard. He lifted the lid and slammed it on Gage's scream.


# # # #


Paris turned the corner in time to see the body fall into the trunk. She wanted to scream, but her throat was closed up. She wanted to move, but her brain didn't listen to her body's commands. She just stood there, completely still, illuminated by the wavering moonlight.


# # # #


The man stiffened when he heard the soft footsteps. Just as he slammed the trunk closed, a woman stepped around the corner. She was tall but with a clumsy and uncoordinated look about her, with twig-like arms and slender legs. Overall, he thought, she could have gained ten pounds and been the better for it.

He took out his gun. He was going to finish this. If it meant he had to kill her, then so be it.

She just stood there.

"Go away," the man said huskily. "This isn't your business." He wanted the least amount of mess possible. Another body would only complicate things.

The girl still didn't move.

"Go!" he said, jerking the gun.

Still, she stood there, like she was in shock or something.

He was going to have to kill her.


# # # #


Paris had only been fourteen when the man tried to mug her. She'd been walking home from school late on a Friday. She always walked home on Fridays, because her mom and dad always went out to dinner when they got off work at the end of the week. So it was nothing new to wander the same dark alleyways every week at dusk.

When the man had jumped out at her, wrapping a strong, crushing arm around her chest, Paris had known what was going to happen.

She'd acted on impulse then, out of fear for her life.

Now she acted the same way, out of fear for someone else's.

Since that Friday twelve years ago, Paris had always had a knife in her purse. It had been given to her by her father, but she'd never had to use it, keeping it there for a sense of security more than anything. Now she grabbed it, hiding it under her backpack.

The man got out of the car. He was holding a gun. Paris' hand shook. The knife wasn't going to get her anywhere.

She shouldn't have stopped. She should have stayed in her car and called the police, or better yet, just driven by.

The man looked at his gun. After a long moment, he put it down, and stepped forward. He probably thought it would be too noisy. Paris didn't move. She stayed still until he was just inches away.

"What are you doing to that man?" Paris whispered when he was close.

"Same thing I'm going to do to you," said the man.

"What's that?" Paris' hand tightened on the knife's handle. The man was close enough now. Her hand around the blade trembled.

Paris couldn't do it.

Suddenly she saw the blinding flash of light reflecting off of metal. The man arced a hand toward her, deftly switching his car keys to his left hand.

Paris simply reacted. She dropped the pack, slamming the blade into the man's chest. He stopped, shocked as his ribcage hit the hilt. He stared at the blade, touching it with quivering fingers, then slumped to the ground. In the second it took for Paris to realize what she had just done, she knew she had to get away. Her car was way too far away, and her mind had melded all the alleys together, so that she wasn't even sure which way she had come from. Grabbing up the man's fallen keys, Paris jumped into his car, slamming her foot down on the gas pedal and getting out of there.


# # # #


She drove out of the alley and back to the Law Offices of Greene, Hallow, and Bradley. It was only a few minutes. When she got there she was marginally calmer. Very calm considering the fact she'd just killed a man and taken his car. What was that, homicide and auto theft? No, manslaughter. Self-defense. Though she barely listened to Greene, she'd need his services soon.

Paris got out of the car, suddenly shaking uncontrollably. A moonlit face, twisted with pain, appeared in front of her. She shook the image away. You had to do it. She leaned up against the car for support, not daring to trust her legs. When she thought they might hold her, Paris popped the trunk, walking over and staring at the man inside.

"Are you okay?"

There was no reply. The man was unconscious, and under him, the shaggy cloth was stained and saturated completely with his own blood. He's going to bleed to death, girl, do something! Paris lifted him out. That got a reply. The man opened his eyes, staring at her with half-lidded uncertainty. She couldn't carry him, so he fell to the ground.

Paris went over, unlocked the firm's front door and raced inside, glancing around frantically for a first aid kit. Somewhere.... There! Down the hall when she entered the firm, right beside the bathroom door, and true to her memory, was a first aid kit.

Paris grabbed it off the wall, and raced outside. The man was on his stomach against the pavement, trying to lift himself up. "Come on," she said. "We need to get you in there."

She lifted him to his feet and he helped as much as he could. Opening the door with one hand, Paris pushed him in with the other, laying him down gently this time. The kit was open on the floor in a moment. She just needed to stop the bleeding for now. She could worry about everything else later. Taking some gauze, Paris unwrapped it, checking the man's pulse quickly and trying to find the worst cuts. Most of the smaller ones had congealed, but the larger ones oozed red. There were so many. The white tile floor was streaked with blood that thickened and moved between the cracks. Paris felt sick.

"What did you do to deserve this?" she mused aloud. She placed a thick pad over a long cut on his leg, wrapping a strip of gauze over tightly.

I can't do this. This man needs a doctor, not an amateur. But Paris realized that if she brought him to the hospital, she would have to answer a lot of questions, ones she thought were better left alone for the time being. Like why she killed someone.

So she continued to work silently.


# # # #


In the silence, between the two buildings, the man got to his feet. The knife stuck out of his chest, though he didn't dare touch it. He was still breathing. The knife apparently hadn't hit anything vital. The man pulled out his phone, dialing a number, and when someone answered, he said simply, "I need help." He gave directions and shut the phone, leaning against the wall, each second stretching out into an agonizing eternity.


# # # #


When she was sure that the man wasn't in imminent danger of bleeding to death, Paris sat back against the wall.

When she was little, she'd loved to help people; she told her mom and dad from age four to age sixteen she was going to become a doctor. Now she thought, You'll never take me alive!

When she'd bandaged the worst cuts, she'd cringed more than he had. Doctor was definitely off her list of dream professions. A daycare lady, maybe. That sounded good. Nonviolent.

The man opened his eyes. He tried desperately to get up, but fell back to the ground, clenching his teeth to hold in a scream.

"Where am I?" asked the injured man. "Who are you?"

Paris said, "You're in a building. I'm Paris, and stop trying to get up, I just bandaged you and I'm not going to do it again. I'm not going to kill you. Who are you?"

The man frowned, looking over her. "I'm Gage," he said after a long time. "What happened? That man was going to kill me."

It was Paris' turn to be silent. The question made her face the stark reality: she'd killed a man. A man who would have killed her, but still a human being, someone who felt pain. Paris felt sick. "He won't hurt you," she whispered.


# # # #


Gage heard the pain in the woman's voice, and could only speculate what caused it. Looking up at her, moving his head as little as possible, he tried to get a better look at the woman who'd helped him, but it hurt too much. Paris. That was a beautiful name.

Maybe he was biased, though. Once, a long time ago, he'd been to the city with his parents. He'd stared at the Eiffel tower at night, bathed in the eerie glow of blue moonlight, glowing like some ethereal object of worship. He smiled, and let his eyes drift closed.

Paris' voice broke in. "Why'd that guy try to kill you?"

Oh. Complicated question. Gage hurt too much to reply. He just shook his head. Give me some time... It wasn't unconsciousness that slowly overtook him. This time it was simple exhaustion. He closed his eyes, and drifted off into a nightmare that plagued him till morning.


# # # #


Paris awoke with a start to find that she had fallen asleep beside the man. Now that it was daytime, and she wasn't running on adrenaline, she took a better look at him.

He was definitely cute. Nice, sharp face, tan skin...

Um, sorry? There is a man in touble, with a million cuts and scrapes and maybe internal bleeding, and you're observing that he's cute when he may be dead. Great.

At the thought, Paris fumbled to check Gage's pulse, making sure that he hadn't died during the night. He was alive. Amazingly. And he stirred when she touched him. He awoke groggily, looking straight into her eyes. Paris was taken aback by their color. Gage had brown hair and a dark complexion, so she'd expected, naturally, that he'd have brown eyes too. But he didn't. They were blue. Such a light blue they may have been ice, with silvery streaks radiating outward.

"'Morning," he mumbled. He pulled himself very slowly to a sitting position.

"Uh, good morning." Paris looked at her watch. It was just about six: five fifty-eight. Very early, considering that she'd fallen asleep around one. For some strange reason she couldn't account for, she was wide awake.

Wait. Six. Paris lurched to her feet. "We have to get out! Bradley always comes in at six!" Greene was out with the flu, and Hallow was on vacation, but no matter what, Bradley always arrived punctually at six. He'd be there in moments. Paris grabbed Gage's arm, forgetting his condition for a moment.

Gage cried out, hissing something unintelligible through his teeth as Paris released him.

"I'm so sorry. I forgot... I'm... such an idiot. I'm sorry."

"'At's okay," Gage muttered. He stood up, testing his legs and his balance. Finally, he was upright. "Well, that's step one," he said dryly. "At least I can walk."

"We need to go," Paris repeated.

"Gimme a minute," Gage said. He took a step and gasped. Paris winced at the expression on his face. Obviously seeing her worry, Gage wiped his face clean of expression. "Okay, then. Let's get out of here."

Paris saw the rusty, dried blood stains on the wall where Gage had sat. Bradley would freak if he saw those! Paris grabbed a piece of paper from the desk nearest her, wet it in the bathroom, and started to wipe the blood up. Gage waited. Done after about a minute, she ran out to the car she'd stolen, and started it up. Gage swung into the passenger seat. A big mistake, it seemed. This time, he bore the pain he apparently felt without a sound.

Men.


# # # #


"He's still alive?" In the corner of the brightly lit room, the assassin sat stiffly as a fat man reamed him out. His ribs were bandaged tightly, and though it hurt to breathe, he kept a look of smug professionalism on his face.

"Yes," replied the assassin coldly. "However, he's injured, and we've got the word out to look for him at any hospital. If he shows up, then we'll be notified, and I can take him out."

The fat man's fleshy mouth was twisted into a grotesque line. He sipped expensive champagne from a crystal glass, dabbing at his lips with a kerchief. "I don't like incompetence, Liam. I will give you one more chance, and if you screw it up, I will kill you myself. What that boy knows could bring my whole reputation crashing down. Kill him, Liam. Soon."

"I will."

"Good. Now leave. I can't stand your kind. Tell me when he's dead, and you'll receive the second half of your payment."

Leaving a still full glass of champagne on the table, Liam got up, taking a last look at his effeminate, round employer. Hiding his disgust, he walked out of the room.


# # # #


Stopping her car at the dingy apartment she called home, Paris led Gage inside. "Sorry about the mess," she apologized, cheeks flushing as she saw his eyes roam around. He avoided a can of opened tuna, half eaten and raw on the living room floor, walking into her kitchen.

Suddenly, Paris heard a menacing hiss, and a growl. Diego! She'd forgotten to warn Gage! Diego was her fat yellow tabby, and he was as violent as he was ugly. Once, when Greene had been over, Diego had latched onto the poor man's hand and had not let go until Paris hit him with a broom. Apparently, Greene had gotten too near to Diego's food. "Gage!"

But when she ran into the kitchen she was met with a sight right out of the twilight zone. Diego was purring! Gage was sitting on the floor, and the fat feline was stretched out next to him, belly up.

"Nice cat," Gage told her. Gage withdrew his hand and Diego purred louder, grabbing at his newest friend with dull, house-cat claws. His manner fairly screamed, "Pet me!" Smiling, Gage obliged.

Paris simply couldn't form a comprehensible thought. "Wha--?"

Gage picked up Diego when he got up. The ball of yellow fur nuzzled Gage's chin.

"Diego hates everyone," Paris finally blurted out.

"I'd never have guessed."

Paris was dumbfounded. The cat only stood her because she fed him, and here he was, mingling with a complete stranger. The nicest Diego had ever been to any one person was to let that person stroke her once on the back before he pulled away. That had been Paris' landlady, Emma. Everyone liked Emma. But... "How are you doing that?"

"Hmm?"

"He's never let anyone rub his belly! He practically mauls any stranger who dares to get close to him. How are you doing that?"

Gage seemed confused. "He came to me." He shrugged. "Maybe he likes raw meat." Gage had been too still. Diego rubbed at him, begging for attention. "Crazy cat."

Still, Paris couldn't believe what she was seeing. "Um... Are you hungry? I can make some eggs."

"Nah. But thanks. I think I'll play with Diego for a while. I like cats."

Greene had liked cats too. At least, until one played piranha with him. Paris wasn't hungry either, so she just sat in speechless amazement, watching Gage. Finally, satiated, Diego stretched and got up, walking jauntily out of the kitchen.

Paris shook her head. "You are the first person who has ever touched Diego uninvited and come away unharmed."

Gage smiled, but it faded when he tried to get up. "Well... there's always a first time. I am kind of hungry. What do you have?"

"Peanut butter, jelly, bread, chicken; I can make one of two sandwiches. Can you guess what they are?"

Gage chose peanut butter and jelly, and Paris made one for herself, meeting him on the cluttered couch when she was done. She got up the courage to ask him what she'd been wondering since she found him. "This may not seem like a good time, but... What happened to you?"


# # # #


Paris Sullivan, 2450 Lakeside drive, apt #410. Liam had found the papers in the car the girl had left behind, along with a photo of four people, one of whom he had identified as Paris. He now had a picture and a home address. If she was there with Gage, then that would make his job vastly simpler. However, if she wasn't, he could find something to direct him to where she was. Either way, he had her.

Liam started the car up. The engine sputtered slowly to life. He didn't need the keys; the stupid girl had left them in the ignition. Yes, this was way too easy. Liam enjoyed having to actually look to find his prey, and the simplicity so far was disappointing. Well, sometimes they had to be easy. Besides, he was being well paid for this. Liam thought of Gage, and was pleased to find that he was himself again. He'd had some time to think last night, and he'd realized that Gage didn't matter to him any more: the boy had gotten himself deep into something bad, and he would die because of it. Liam whistled cheerfully as the excitement he usually felt about his work returned. He was looking forward to this. He started off to the girl's house.


# # # #


Gage sat on the sunken couch, stretched out as much as he could be. He didn't know how many Tylenol he'd taken, but it didn't matter. At least he could lay still without pain shooting through him. What had happened to him? He mulled over Paris' question. Should he tell her?

No. It might put her in danger.

Yeah, real funny. She's been in danger since the moment she stood up for you. Tell her and maybe she'll understand why.

"I can't tell you a lot."

Paris settled into the cushions. The couch gave a loud creak, and moved like it was going to collapse. Gage shifted, but remained seated. Paris said, "Please. Just tell me something."

Gage nodded, not meeting her eyes. "I... learned something. It concerns someone who everyone trusts, and if they knew what I figured out then he'd be dead, politically, socially, whatever. Maybe literally. I think..." His voice trailed off as he searched for the right words. "I think he hired someone to kill me because he knows I won't sit on it."

"Sit on what?" Paris looked at Gage expectantly.

I shouldn't have done this! I can't tell her what. I can't tell her who, either. She may know him! This is so stupid. Thank her and leave, now.

Gage got up, his mind reeling, body screaming at the pain that tore through him. "Look. I really shouldn't be doing this. You shouldn't have helped me. You're in trouble now, too. I have to leave." Getting out of the old, caved-in couch, he began to walk toward the door. He stumbled sideways after a few steps when he lost his sense of balance, feeling unusually lightheaded, like his body was the only thing anchoring him to consciousness.

"Gage!" Paris was on her feet, her angular face displaying all her emotions; confusion, worry, surprise. "What are you doing?" Paris asked, following behind him questioningly.

"I'm sorry. I..." His vision darkened. It seemed like someone had a controller and had turned the brightness way down. It only flickered like that for a moment, and he walked when he knew he could. He made it to the door, sure that what had just happened was simply a result of too little sleep, too much Tylenol, and standing up too fast. He felt fine when he began walking down the stairwell to the bottom, and made it three steps before a wave of weakness washed over him. His legs refused to support him, and everything was suddenly starry. Then there were no stars, only night.

Paris grabbed him before he plummeted to the bottom.


# # # #


Wind; warm and humid, cooling his sweaty face and beckoning him to consciousness. Gage slowly awoke to find himself laying on hard, textured metal. His mind supplied, like a waffle. He smiled. Where am I anyway? What happened? As his eyes adjusted, he remembered. After seconds in which years seemed to stoop between, Gage accumulated enough strength to open his eyes a slit. Though fuzzy, he recognized the panicked figure above him.

"Paris," he tried to say. But though his mind was in working order, his voice seemed to be a different story. The whisper that came out might as well have been in his mind. After a few moments of angry helplessness, Gage felt less like an entity and more like a human. "Paris. What happened?" He mumbled. She had been sitting to his left, leaning forward over him, her long legs stretched out in a position Gage found hard to believe could have been comfortable. Gage looked to her face and saw it twisted with fear she had never needed to learn to disguise. Gage had learned even when he was little to keep a straight face no matter what. Paris was looking away from him, but jerked his way when he spoke, her face flooding with relief at his soft voice.

"Gage, you're awake! I thought that..." Paris pulled her legs up beneath her, examining Gage. "What happened to you?"

He didn't know. It had just been like his mind had crashed on him. He shook his head, sitting upright experimentally, braced to fall. He felt kind of sick, and dizzy, but it faded. The worst of it was over; he was fine now. Whatever had happened before was gone. He concluded it was probably just the results of a concussion or something. Well, sitting was getting boring. Gage got to his feet.

Too quickly--he nearly fell against the railing. Daggers seemed to slice into his head, dismissing the pain in his ribs and legs as a mere ache. Silver fireworks exploded in the blackness of his closed eyes, threatening to take him again. His hands clenched around his head, willing the pain to stop. Paris' scared voice was a meaningless drone. Finally, the pain lessened. Gage stood upright, staring into Paris' wide emerald eyes. "I'm fine," he said.

She was silent. Looking down three floors to the bottom, she said solemnly, "You need to see a doctor."

"No, I don't." Gage leaned against the wall, not entirely sure of his legs. "Look, I'm really fine. This kind of thing isn't new."

Again, Paris gave him a hard examination. She seemed to take his word for it, because she finally nodded, leaning over the railing and breathing the wet air in deeply. Gage still hadn't gotten used to the humidity here, even after living more than half his life in this city. He was from Nevada originally, where the air was hot almost all of the time, and so dry it sucked the moisture out of a person's body.

He had loved it there, loved the red mountains and the blazing sunsets, fiery red and orange, sinking into a molten maroon as the sun went deeper and deeper down; but being only a teenager, he hadn't been able to do anything when his father apologetically announced that he had been laid off. Again. Gage had followed, just like always. He took a breath of the air with displeasure, feeling, like he often did, like he was breathing dirty water from a mop bucket. Upright, he leaned against the wall, watching Paris. So maybe he didn't completely disagree with Paris' suggestion. He hated being under someone's care. Always, he'd done things for himself, and being so vulnerable was becoming increasingly annoying. Maybe he should listen to her; listen to someone, for once.

And he'd been rude. Paris had seemed genuinely worried, and he'd dismissed her. Gage knew he should apologize. Of course, he wasn't too great at that, either. "Hey, Paris," he began.

She didn't reply. She was staring down at the parking lot, a perplexed look on her face. Her hands gripped the rusty bannister, the skin stretched tight over her knuckles.

Gage stepped forward, but saw nothing. A car had pulled in, a dirty blue station wagon that had probably seen better days a few decades ago, but there wasn't anything to alarm him. "What's wrong?"

"That's..." Paris looked closer, as if trying to confirm her suspicions. She nodded, and looked more confused. "That is my car."

"Oh, crap," Gage muttered. "We need to go." While Paris was looking at him questioningly, the door opened, and Gage saw a familiar form emerge. Though he couldn't see the face very well from the fourth floor, he recognized the confident stride. The man was dressed differently, and was walking stiffly, but Gage knew it was the man who had tried to kill him--would have killed him, if Paris hadn't helped.

"What if it's just someone returning it--?"

Despite her optimistic words, Paris followed when he started toward the staircase. She didn't see the man walking up to the apartment, and Gage was at least glad for that.

"Is there a fire escape here? Or a back way out?" he asked.

Paris looked surprised. "No one cares about safety codes here."

They would have to use the stairs. Yup. Gage thought wryly. Definitely screwed. Taking Paris' hand, he led her to the stairs. "Just follow me," he said.

She nodded wordlessly.

Okay, what now? Gage's mind scrolled desperately through every option he could think of. He heard echoing metal clangs from somewhere far away; footsteps. The assassin was coming up. "Come on."

Gage led her down the first staircase to the third floor, and then to the second, and when he heard no one, he contemplated going all the way to the ground floor. No. They'd gone too slow. They would have to wait. Gage pulled Paris into a dark corner, hoping the assassin would pass. If he did, they could go down while he went to Paris' apartment. Casual, jogging footsteps made it to the top of the stairs. The assassin stopped, looking around. At the apartment doors? How did he know where Gage was? In the dark nook, Gage felt an electric jolt of fear when cold, gray eyes seemed to meet with his own, and he shivered even though he knew he couldn't be seen.

The assassin walked to the base of the third floor staircase.

When he was gone, Paris started rambling. "He's dead. I killed him. I saw him fall...I thought I..." She looked to him. "Didn't I?"

"He doesn't die easy," Gage told her. "Come on. Maybe we can get to the bottom floor before he realizes we're not in your apartment."

Paris nodded.

"Okay then." Gage said. "Let's go. And be quiet."

Paris trailed behind him, cringing with each step she took, like the nearly inaudible clang her soft footsteps made on the staircase was too loud for her ears. Gage wanted to calm her; she was so worried. She wasn't fine, but scared to death, and he felt for her. "Shh," he whispered. "We'll be out of here soon."

Paris nodded, just slightly calmer, believing him. Gage wasn't sure if he believed himself. Upstairs, a voice said, "Miss Sullivan, open up. I need to talk to you about your cat." The voice sounded like a sullen neighbor's, like a person who was annoyed with having a rowdy feline next door. The voice was innocent, insistent. Paris shuddered hard. "I would have opened it," she said.

Who wouldn't have? Gage thought. Walking on, he noticed only a moment later that Paris wasn't moving. "Paris," he said. "You're fine now."

She still stood there.

"Come on!"

He hadn't meant to sound so harsh. The strain and the constant ache in his body was wearing away his patience. The words he spoke were an angry growl.

Paris lurched forward, tripping on a step. The sound the thin metal made reverberated, slicing the tense silence. She caught herself before she fell the three remaining steps, but she'd already done enough. There was a harsh exclamation upstairs, and they both heard rushed footsteps, heading back down. "I'm sorry!" Paris cried.

"Just run."

The steps got faster. Gage seized Paris' arm and ran with her. She almost tripped up once, taking Gage with her. Only two seconds were lost, but it was too long; their pursuer appeared on the staircase behind them. Paris screamed. Sunlight burst on them as they landed on flat ground and ran to the stolen car. Paris' bad habit of leaving the keys in her car was what saved them. Gage swung into the driver's seat, twisting the key, and Paris reeled into the car only a second later.

Leaving a cloud of dust behind him in the crumbling lot that looked like mudcracked desert ground, he streaked out before Paris even closed her door.


# # # #


Liam swore as he inserted the key into the ignition. The car gave a cough like a terminal patient and died. He twisted the key again, this time with no response at all. A third try did not yield even a hiccup. Liam tore the key out and threw it into the passenger seat beside him. He looked at his cell phone, sitting where he'd laid it, on the dash. He knew he should call his employer and confess his failure, but he didn't. The next call he made to the man would be to announce his victory.

He picked up the phone for a different reason, dialing the police.

After he hung up, every police radio in the city crackled, telling the highway patrol to look out for the pine green sedan.

Liam smiled. There were a few good things after all about having a high profile employer. He leaned back in the seat of the dead car, smiling.


# # # #


In the passenger seat of the forest green sedan, Paris looked out the window, watching the city streak by, blurred to her eyes like a wet painting. The radio droned softly, and the local hero Senator Feldman spoke of how much the crime rate had risen recently in all of the cities, how much he abhorred violence, and the measures he planned on taking in the future to help diminish that rising percent. Paris sighed, and wondered if, for all the hot air these people spewed, they would ever actually catch the criminals who hurt people like Gage. "Where are we going?"

"A friend's place, I think," Gage replied.

"You do need to see a doctor, you know."

"Yeah. Probably. Izzy knows a few things about that kind of stuff. He'll help."

Paris thought that sounded fine, but... Izzy? No one named Izzy could be anything other than a total doof. Like an overgrown buck-toothed lizard. Izzy.

Gage seemed to see her grin at the mental picture that formed in her mind, because he said, "What's so funny?"

"Nothing." They drove on in silence. Paris watched the running colors of her town fade as they left, and all she could see was a blur of green trees. "Gage?"

"Hmm?"

"You didn't tell me. What happened to you? I mean.... You said that you heard something."

"I guess eavesdropped would be the right word. I was..." Gage stopped for a while, seeming suspiciously interested in the road ahead. "I was visiting this guy, and I heard some men talking. Well, I listened. You know the saying curiosity killed the cat? I should have left." He smiled, but it was twisted with acid. "I've never been too good at heeding well-intentioned advice. Ask my mom."

He was avoiding her question. He'd begun to tell her something, and then he had subtly switched subjects. Paris sat up with a jolt. "God, will you stop that! What did you hear? You're conveniently passing out every single time I ask! I can take it, whatever it is. That man came to my apartment. He's after me as much as he is you! So please, don't play pouty with me. Tell me clear and simple what is going on." She stopped, burned out. She knew that whatever Gage knew was bothering him deeply. His eyes were haunted; she assumed that if he wasn't so serious that they'd look more like a winter sky and less like cold, depthless wells. She knew that he was worried for her safety.

At this particular moment, however, she didn't care. Logic and reason cowered and let anger take control. She had every right in the world to know this! She'd dragged Gage out of death, and he was holding back? She almost died back there...

A shudder seized her body. She'd been so afraid. While she was thinking, Gage was watching. She noticed when she looked up into those silvery blue eyes of his.

"Paris, I can't tell you. This man... Everyone knows him, and if they don't know him then they know about him. You wouldn't believe me." Paris tried to break in, but he shook his head, cutting her off. "No. I'll tell you sometime, when this is all over. Okay?"

Paris was silent for a long time. Her anger boiled down, and she nodded. "Okay."

Continuing to drive, Gage smiled. "Thank you."

"Okay..." Paris said, disconcerted after a while by the silence. "So, on a lighter note: tell me a bit about yourself."

Gage laughed. "That's not a lighter note."

Paris squinted at him. His lips were pressed tightly together, eyes staring straight ahead, concentrated on the road but at the same time somewhere else. Curiosity battled against common sense, and the former won. "Why?"

Gage glanced at her. "I'm not quite your model citizen."

"So, tell me."

Seeing his hesitation, Paris added, "We just narrowly got away from an undead assassin! Tell me!"

Gage grinned. "Undead? Like dawn of the dead undead?"

Paris laughed. Peeking at Gage from the corner of her eye, her own smile grew wider. Gage seemed truly relaxed for the first time since she had seen him. "Yeah, like that. So, what, were you abused? Bad divorce... Dad run away?"

"Nah. None of that. That would be too cliche, and I've never been normal in my life. My mom left my dad for a rich lawyer. Before the two were married, my mom stole five grand from him, and he was the one who prosecuted her. My dad liked me, but we were broke, so I... kind of used drastic measures to get us things to eat."

Paris didn't like where this was going. "Like?"

"Pickpocketing. Taking stuff from stores. That kind of thing. Minor. I stopped when I was thirteen, when an uncle I'd never met died and willed my dad his house and fortune. Lucky us, huh? Apparently he was feeling guilty for slugging my dad a decade ago and knocking out one of his teeth." Gage looked at her, measuring her reaction, maybe. He added, "My dad died of TB less than a year later."

Paris' eyes dropped to her feet. "Where did you go?"

"I went on my own. I was old enough to leave, so I rented an apartment and took a job. So... tell me about you."

"Me? I'm boring! My parents are still alive, I work as a secretary for three fat lawyers, and I have a brother named John!"

"A brother? Is he your only one?"

"Oh, No, I had five. Beside John, there were Peter, Paul, London, and Xander."

"See? You're not too normal. You ever been married?"

"No one would marry me." Paris told him. Wasn't it obvious?

"No way! You're a great person!"

"Me? I look like an anorexic wannabe supermodel. I'm a stereotype. People only see what they look for, Gage." Paris smiled at him, but it was tinged with a regretful sadness.

Both of them were silent the rest of the way to Izzy's.

# # # #

"Gage! Come on in, you crazy boy!" Izzy was about six feet tall and muscular, with white-blond hair and a huge smile that he displayed the moment he saw Gage stop the car. Gage got out, and Izzy enveloped him in a tight hug. Paris saw Gage wince. Izzy did too. "What's wrong?"

"Let's go inside. I'll explain there."

Izzy nodded. "Fair enough."

Gage told his friend the whole story over a big mug of coffee, excluding only the mysterious offender's name, settled on a leather couch in Izzy's little house. When he was done, Izzy just stared at him, shock evident in his slack face.

"You've not got the best luck, boy, but this is incredible!"

"Yeah. I'm always finding ways to get myself into trouble, aren't I?" Gage mumbled.

"You can say that again!" Izzy suddenly frowned deeply, as if he had committed some terrible sin. He stood, addressing Paris apologetically. "I didn't catch your name! I'm so rude! I'm Israel O'Malley."

"Paris." Despite the circumstances, she found her body relaxing in the company of this strange, happy, eccentric man. "It's nice to meet you."

"Beautiful name. Beautiful city. Paris." Izzy grinned, taking his seat again. "It's a wonderful day for a picnic."

"Izzy..." Gage moaned.

"After I fix you up, my friend, how does a picnic sound?"

Paris stood. "It sounds great!"

"Good," Izzy said. "I have an excellent selection of music. Would you like to listen while I fix up our accident-prone little guy here?"

Paris caught Gage's sullen glare, and she grinned. "Can you handle him?"

"I'll ground the bloody bugger if I can't!" It was funny, because Izzy was about in his late thirties, nowhere near old enough to play Dad. Izzy grabbed Gage's arm and began to drag him away.

Gage mouthed, "Help!"

# # # #

Paris had fallen alseep to beautiful Celtic music when Izzy bustled in two hours later, a satisfied look on his face. "Our boy will be fine. He had a couple broken ribs, one bloody concussion, and it would seem that he hasn't slept much in days, but he'll be good as new soon. Would you like to come with me to get some picnic things? Gage is sleeping. I tried to talk the boy into just resting forever, but he wouldn't listen. I force fed the little goat a sleeping pill!"

Paris smiled, getting to her feet, following Izzy out to his spacious, doorless green Wrangler. "I know a really awesome store. My best friend works there. They have lots and lots of great stuff for pennies," Paris said.

"Save me some money. Great. Lead the way, Paris!"

They arrived sooner than Paris would have expected, due to Izzy's crazy driving. Paris got out, her uneven hair wild and windblown. Izzy's own pale mop was twisted in knots. Paris skipped across the lot, Izzy following behind her, yelling, "I can't keep up with you, girl, slow down!"

# # # #

Liam sat in the large parking lot of Great's. Jasmine Dell worked there. She and Paris Sullivan had been friends since the first grade. If the panicked girl went anywhere, it would be here. Jasmine didn't get off until five, though, a good three hours away.

Liam looked up to see an olive green Jeep swing into the lot, parking with a screech. He was about to look back down, but then he saw the occupants. One was just a man, with whitish hair and cold eyes, but the other was Miss Paris Sullivan. Liam knew this was his chance. He knew what he would do. Casually getting out of the police car he'd hitchhiked in, adjusting the patrolman's hat over his eyes, he walked up to the store as they entered. Once he thought he heard a muffled noise, and turned, wondering if the policeman he'd locked in the trunk was awake, but it was just some kids playing.

# # # #

Paris stood at the counter, leaning over the plastic bag rack as she chatted with Jasmine. The strain around her eyes had worn away completely to reveal calm, deep emerald eyes, and she laughed as she glanced at Izzy. It was good that she was calm now. It had hurt him to see her so tense and afraid when she'd arrived with Gage. He let her stay with her friend, and wandered off to shop.

Walking away, Izzy heard Jasmine giggle. "What is he, Irish? He's hot!"

"I'm Jewish, if you must know." Izzy said tolerantly. "My mother, however, was Irish, the good Lord bless her soul." He winked at Jasmine as he walked away, and he heard her giggle again. He shook his head. In the refrigerated aisle, he took some cheese and a salad, shivering in shirtsleeves. On his way out, he bumped into a man, and looked up to see a policeman, with angry eyes that were calm like ice at the same time. Careful, premeditated. Like his. "Sorry, officer."

"Do you own that Wrangler out there?" asked the cop, walking forward.

Izzy backed up. "Mine. What did I do?" He wished he'd brought his pistol, but he'd left it in his jacket at the house. The little thing couldn't kill anyone, and only had two shots loaded, but it was what he had.

"We seem to have a warrant out on it. I'd appreciate it if you would follow me outside, please. I'd like to speak with you."

Izzy knew subconsciously that something was wrong, but he couldn't find any reason not to go, so he followed the officer out, prepared for anything but what happened. Right outside of the door in the shadows, the cop pointed at the Jeep. "That one?"

"Yup."

The cop nodded. From nowhere, a gun was in his hand. The cop swung it before Izzy could duck, and it slammed into his skull. Rainbow colors exploded in front of his eyes, and he felt a sickening pain in his head, right before he didn't feel anything at all.

# # # #

"Hey, I think your boyfriend abandoned you," giggled Jasmine, pointing as she saw the fair-haired man leave.

Paris turned in time to see a young officer race in. His hat covered most of his face, and his uniform fit loosely. There was blood on his hands. "I need help!" he cried. "Call 911! There's been a man mugged! He's hurt."

Oh, no! Izzy! Paris raced outside with the cop. "Where is he?"

The cop pointed into the dark nook to the right of the door, and Paris walked in. "Izzy? Izzy, what happened?" There was silence. Paris' eyes adjusted to the darkness, and she saw nothing there.

She heard the soft footsteps behind her, but didn't mind them. Suddenly there was an arm around her face, preventing her from screaming, even breathing. The innocent, frightened voice the cop had put on before was gone, and the one Paris heard was familiar when it said, "Get into the car. If you scream then I'll kill you right here."

She nodded, somehow walking to the police car before collapsing into the open passenger door.
When she looked into the back to see a pool of blood around Izzy's body, prone on the backseat, she did scream. Liam was out of the parking lot, though, so it didn't matter. Paris had never fainted in her life, but the sight of Izzy, added to all the things she'd seen in the last tweny-four hours, was more than she could take. Her world crumpled into blackness.

# # # #

Gage was awakened out of a drugged sleep three hours later by the shrill sound of Izzy's cell phone. He'd slept? What...? Izzy! That pill. The sly idiot. The phone rang again, and he picked it up. "I would have slept anyway, Iz," he said dryly, his vision blurred from whatever Izzy had given him.

"This isn't Izzy," said the voice on the other end. "He is here, though. You took your precious time answering."

Gage recognized the voice, saw the time, and a wave of ice washed through him. Sitting upright, alert now, Gage demanded, "Where are Paris and Izzy?"

The assassin was not going to be interrupted. "Would you like Paris to live?"

"Yes!"

"Then I'll see you at the warehouse, won't I?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yes you do. You've been there before. A long time ago, but still. It's a place I don't suspect you'd forget."

It wasn't. It was the place where Gage's best childhood friend had committed suicide. "What will you do to them?"

"Nothing, if you come. As soon as I see your car, they will be let free, and then you'll come in."

Gage knew he could not let anything happen to Paris, and Izzy was like a father to him. He got out of bed, taking Izzy's brown leather jacket and putting it on. The warehouse was only about ten miles away. Gage wished that there was a last call he could make, but the only two people he cared about, he realized, were the ones he would die to save.

The car was in the driveway where it had been when they arrived, and Gage got in, driving out onto the tree-shadowed road, feeling a numbing sense of regret and resignation sweep over him like the dark clouds that were coming in on the horizon.

# # # #

It was unusually dark when he pulled into the big drive. The warehouse was made of old, rust-streaked tin, and there were piles of gravel in front of it, and even an old machine. All of it had been abandoned decades ago. Barrels of bright-colored waste had been put far inside the building, watching him like tens of fluorescent eyes.

Above Gage, the sky had become a solemn, steel gray in anticipation of the coming storm. He got out of the stolen car, standing beside it until he saw Paris walk out of the huge open door. In the shadows was the assassin, and he laid a limp body on the ground. Izzy. Seeing his friend so vulnerable, Gage felt a molten rush of anger. His hand gripped the car door.

The phone rang again. The assassin said, "Glad to see you could make it. Your friends are going to leave, but as they do, I want you to walk toward me. I have a gun trained on Paris' beautiful head right now, and if you deviate one step fron the plan, she dies." And he hung up.

With semiconscious Izzy's arm around her shoulder, Paris began to walk. Once, she stopped, looking toward the car. She seemed frozen. She turned her head away, and it sunk to her chest as she hurried off. They disappeared behind a pile of gravel, and Gage heard an engine start and pull away as he walked forward. An image of Izzy stopped him halfway. He saw the man leaning over him for his fourteenth birthday, smiling, filling Gage's heart with joy, even though his father had just died.

Walk. You started this. End it. Gage forced himself to take another step, and another. How did I get myself into this? Why does it have to end this way? I'm such an idiot... Gage prayed, if there was a God, that he would keep Izzy and Paris safe.

Finally he was near enough to see the assassin's face. He walked forward more, stopping about twenty feet from the man.

A cold wind blew through, twisting the leaf-laden branches of the trees and making them seem alive. The clouds had deepened to black, and hung like they would fall down. The storm would be big. Gage shivered. He stuffed his hands inside the spacious leather jacket.

The assassin looked him over when he stopped. "I'm Liam," he said. "I'm glad you came."

Gage was careful to keep his face expressionless. Inside, he was burning, melting, dying. Terrified of what would happen, wondering how it would feel.

Oblivious to Gage's thoughts, Liam looked at Gage, genuine curiosity in his eyes. "Are you really willing to give your life for a girl who you barely know?"

Yes. God, yes. "She almost gave hers for mine."

"Did you tell anyone anything that you heard?"

This had been why he hadn't told either of them the specifics. "No."

Liam nodded. "Kneel." Gage fell to his knees. He felt like he was dying already, and emotion was building up inside of him, threatening to burst the stony dam with which Gage kept it inside.

"I don't like doing this. You're right, for what it's worth. I wouldn't be able to do what you're doing." But he was still going to kill him. Liam leveled the gun.

Two tears leaked unbidden out of Gage's eyes. He clenched his teeth, and closed his eyes tight, lowering his head. Waiting.

# # # #

"I can't do this!" Less than a minute out of the parking lot, Paris slammed on the brakes of the police car, wrenching the wheel hard left, so that the car skidded into a crude U-turn. It ground on the gravel that led down to a slope on the side of the road, but Paris pressed the accelerator, and the car sped out, back towards the warehouse.

In the seat beside her, Izzy gripped the bar on the side of the door, muttering a husky string of cursewords that Paris knew she had no hope of understanding. He had begun to wake just a bit ago, but Paris didn't expect anything coherent out of him for a bit. He opened his eyes, blinking several times, grabbing Paris' gaze as she drove. "What did I miss?" he asked. After a moment of intense scrutiny, he said, "Something's wrong. What happened?"

Paris couldn't look at him. She whispered, "I left him behind. I was afraid that he would kill me... and... I'm so stupid!" There were tears in her eyes suddenly, and she wiped at them angrily, pressing harder on the accelerator. The speedometer needle jumped to fifty, and continued rising steadily.

"Whoa. Remember that I've been out for a while. Who? I don't quite remember--"

"The assassin got me, and you. He called Gage, told him that he'd let us go if Gage came. He's going to kill him! Gage knew that and he came!"

There was no color in Izzy's face. He looked to Paris like he wanted to speak, but it took him a few tries. "Please tell me we're going back."

Paris just nodded. She didn't look at him, knew she'd be babbling tearstained apologies if she met his eyes, so she just looked at the road. The car was doused in blackness as she drove under the canopy of trees that shaded the back road that they had come in by. She slowed down. Vision was almost impossible, but the smell of age and rust that drifted in the windows told her she was close. When the trees parted, she saw washed-out gray light from the sky. Ahead was the warehouse, and in front of it she saw the assassin, standing stiffly with his hands outstretched, holding something that glimmered dully. The assassin heard the car coming, glancing their way briefly.

Paris jerked the car to a stop. Just as Izzy stumbled out, they heard the sound of an explosion that seared the damp air. The assassin ran into the building. The rain began at that moment, falling hard and sudden, biting into Paris' bare arms like frozen knives. Their vision was limited, and they could not even see Gage fall.

Paris ran forward, and Izzy followed her. The rain just got harder as they got closer, but they could see Gage clearly when they stopped. "Oh, God." Izzy choked.

The assassin had hit him in the chest, and already there was blood everywhere, bright red, mixing with puddles of rain and spreading out. Gage's eyes flickered, and he shivered. Paris cried out and knelt down in the mud. Izzy did nothing. The look on his face was not grief, but anger. "Reach into the coat," he ordered. "The right pocket."

Paris sobbed, looking into eyes she didn't know, a fiery amber filled with a calm hatred that seemed somehow so much worse than rage.

"Do it."

The assassin was escaping into the warehouse. Paris plunged her hand into the big pocket of Izzy's coat. She felt the warmth of Gage's blood, and bit her lip. Her fingers touched something cold, sliding down it until they found a grip. She pulled Izzy's gun out, unable to stop the tears that flowed down her cheeks. Izzy took the gun.

"Now get Gage to the car, and go as fast as you can to the nearest hospital."

"What are you going to--"

"Now!"

Paris nodded, unable to speak. Izzy ran into the building.

Paris drove the car up to Gage because she knew she couldn't carry him, and she put him into the passenger seat. When she touched him, he was cold. Gravelly mud smeared the seats, mingling with Gage's blood.

Paris went as fast as the car could go out of the parking lot, wiper blades laboring tirelessly, but not helping a bit. Each time they arced over the windows, a thousand new raindrops took the place of the ones before. Turning on the sirens and lights of the police car, Paris navigated by memory.

# # # #

It was even darker inside of the building than out. The dark was almost a living thing, thick with the odor of rot and chemicals, and each creak on the floor was like a cry for help.

As Izzy walked around the building, his footsteps were no more than a soft whisper on the grimy floor. Somewhere, a second set of footsteps echoed, but though Izzy tried, he couldn't place them. Maybe... Somewhere to his left? There were so many rooms, nooks, and holes in this place the sound could have come from anywhere. Izzy held his gun out, ready, this time, for anything the assassin could try.

A creak to his left made Izzy spin in that direction. As his eyes got used to the darkness, he was able to make out blackish shadows. None were moving, but he was sure the assassin was near. He probably wouldn't be much of a problem. Izzy thought it was very unprofessional to head back in here. The only escape was the unstable ladder that led down the back. Izzy knew this place well. Following Gage's friend's suicide, he often had to drag the boy out of here. Izzy had gotten worried when Gage stayed here for hours, doing nothing but sitting and thinking. Izzy sighed. Gage didn't deserve what had happened to him. His mother had been in jail, his father taken by a wasting disease, and his best friend had killed himself by jumping off of the rafters here. That was a lot for one boy to have to bear. A surge of familiar anger rose in Izzy at the world in general, and at God, if there was one, for heaping the world's troubles on the shoulders of such a fragile boy. Izzy had loved the boy that Gage had been, optimistic, and even though one could see the tragedy he had endured in the depth of his young eyes, his smile lifted a person's spirits even more because of it. Slowly, his optimism was replaced by a weary resignation, and Izzy could see that Gage was terrified of it. Terrified of not caring. He'd endured more than anyone Izzy knew, and God had dropped one last thing on Gage's shoulders carelessly, and it had killed him not to be able to help. Even when he had ordered Paris off, he had known that Gage would probably not survive this final injustice.

At the house, Izzy had seen Gage battling with himself, fighting two impossible decisions. It was clear he wanted to tell everything he had seen and bring the offender to justice, but at the same time, he didn't want to hurt anyone else with what he knew. Izzy felt sick just thinking about it, and he cursed the God who had let this happen.

Feeling his hands shake, Izzy calmed himself. It would do no good to lose it in here. One slip could mean his death, because though Izzy thought the assassin was impulsive, he knew the man was a good aim, and had a good ear. But so did Izzy.

A groan of something heavy on metal sent Izzy to the back of the warehouse, toward...

The staircase. Maybe the assassin wasn't as impulsive as Izzy had imagined. Right at the top of the staircase was a grimy window, and outside of it was the ladder. Izzy saw the window, and he waited. After a minute that took years and painful memories, he saw a faint shadow pass across the window. Taking aim, Izzy fired. The glass shattered, letting a whistling breeze blow in, but the assassin rolled out of the way just in time.

Izzy's shot had given away his position, and the assassin got up, firing.

# # # #

Paris cold hardly see because of the tears that filled her eyes, blurring the thick darkness around her. She was almost hysterical when she stopped slammed the car to a stop in a handicapped space in the ER. She opened the back door as she screamed for help, rain pouring down her face, hiding the frantic tears. The light of the car illuminated Gage's pale, still face, and the blood that completely covered his chest and spilled onto the seats. She tried to pull him out, but her wet hands slipped on the blood-soaked jacket.

"Help! Someone!" Paris ran to the automatic doors, screaming as they opened.

A few doctors broke away and ran outside. When they saw Gage, they took over, pushing her away from the door.

"We have a chest wound. No breath sounds in his left lung--"

She heard, "I've got a faint pulse! We need to get him--"

A doctor ran out with a gurney and several men lifted Gage onto it, still yelling stats as they raced back in. The rain was falling harder now, but Paris didn't feel the pain, didn't see the blood that was washed from her hands and hair swirl around her on the ground.

A hand was on her suddenly, and she turned to see a young woman, dressed in a clean, flowery shirt. "Here. Follow me. I'm going to get you something to eat."

"I've eaten," Pais muttered tonelessly. Had she? When? Oh, yeah. Breakfast. Why didn't she feel hungry?

"You look like you're starving," the woman said compassionately. "I work here. I'll get you something from the cafeteria--it's not the best, but it's better than nothing. I'm sure we have some low-fat stuff. Come on."

"See, Gage, a stereotype. I'm a stereotype."

The woman led Paris inside, looking worried. "Are you okay?"

Paris saw the doctors slam through a door to a trauma room, already streaked with scarlet.

"No."

# # # #

Izzy slipped on the slick floor as he tried to scramble for cover. As he fell, Liam heard another explosion. It was near enough to him, but too far away to have been intentional. Apparently Izzy had misfired. Liam shot several times at the man who was no more than a shadow in the dark. He stepped aside, trying to stay away from the light from the window. He had this. The car that the girl, Paris, had stolen from him was right outside. If he could just get Izzy in the open, if only for a second...

# # # #

Out of bullets, Izzy crawled between the barrels. Though his gun was empty he still carried it, and was shuffling on his hands and knees to get a clear view of the staircase. Though he was at a disadvantage without bullets, everything was going as planned. When he'd ducked out of the assassin's way, the bullet he had fired was not accidental. Finally, he was close enough. Cocking his arm back, Izzy tossed the gun toward the staircase.

On the ground, mixing with the grime and dust, liquid spread like fingers stretching out. Izzy's last bullet had been used to puncture one
of the orange barrels in the back. He had known for a long time of their existence--about six years--and even though it was pretty dark he could almost make out the warning sign on the crude tags. It was a little flame.

If the assassin fired, the barrels would explode, and the old wooden staircase would be the first thing to go. The warehouse was so old, though. It might only take minutes for the rotten frame to burn. Izzy would have to get out fast.

As soon as the empty pistol clattered to the ground, shots sounded. Nothing happened. Izzy was sure he'd thrown the pistol in the right place.

Suddenly, a little flame sprang up, eating the liquid, tracing it hungrily to its source. Izzy began to run. So close...

He was about at the door when the first barrel exploded. Izzy was knocked to the ground by the force of it. Falling hard, he lost his breath, and the air he dragged in made him choke and gasp as it burned his lungs. The fire lit the room up with a bright red light, gone as fast as it had appeared. Another barrel followed, and another. The second floor collapsed into the raging fire that searched for more fuel, and Izzy heard a scream that made his skin tingle. He didn't feel happy that the assassin was dead, but he had known that he wouldn't. No matter what, he just couldn't have let the assassin get away from hurting Gage so much. The man was professional, like Izzy was, and knew what could happen. Izzy felt a surge of respect for the professional that the assassin had been. Izzy was no longer in that kind of life. He figured that no matter what, the most courageous thing a person like that could do was give it up.

Smoke made the darkness thicker and the light waver. There was a loud crash that made Izzy spin toward the front.

In the midst of a spreading fire, Izzy felt suddenly, inexplicably cold. The explosion had damaged the pulley that kept the door open. The sound he heard was it crashing down.

# # # #

"So. I'm Debbie. Who are you?"

Paris looked up at the woman, her mouth full of cheeseburger. Nothing in the cafeteria was appealing, so they had gone to the MacDonalds across the street. Debbie had been surprised when Paris had ordered two double cheeseburgers, and she had ordered the same. "Paris," she muttered when she swallowed. Debbie had calmed her down a bit, but still it was hard to concentrate on eating.

"That's pretty." Paris was aware of Debbie's scrutiny. Her name fit with the whole supermodel bit, and, not for the first time in her life, she wished she was named Sarah or Barbara.

"I work as a nurse at the hospital there, you see. My shift was just ending when you came in. Fat gives you a warm fuzzy feeling, huh?"

"What?"

"Eating something like this--a salad never cuts it."

Paris didn't get it but she nodded.

Approaching with tact, Debbie inquired gently, "So, was he your boyfriend?"

Gage? Well... Maybe. No! "I don't know. I know him." Maybe I like him. Love him?

"What happened?" Debbie was sounding more like an interrogator and less like a nurse.

"I was...walking with him. Some guy jumped out. Gage jumped in front of me and..."

"You're lying. It's okay. You don't have to tell. It's just the police are probably going to come and ask questions."

"Oh." Paris ached to ask Debbie just one question. It passed her lips as just a mumble. "Is Gage going to be okay?"

The hesitance she saw in Debbie's eyes was an answer. They both finished their burgers and left. Suddenly they were stopped by a call. Apparently, Debbie recognized the voice, because she turned around. "Mike?"

"Where's the girl came in with that guy...? the one with--" Seeing Paris, the man broke off. "Oh," he whispered.

"What is it?" Paris demanded.

"He's, um, you might want to sit down."

"Oh, God!"

"Alive!" the man boomed.

Paris looked at him, afraid she'd drifted off and he was talking about someone else. "Huh?"

"Mike!" Debbie yelled. "What are you doing? This is no time for jokes. This isn't a party. So stop it."

Mike muttered an apology, thinking that his joke was very funny, still. "He's alive, but that's all I can say. He's breathing on a ventilator, and he's in a coma at the moment."

Paris didn't hear anything but one word. Alive...

"Can I see him?"

# # # #

The building was collapsing. The rotten wooden frame had practically fallen already, and Izzy was feeling dizzy, but at the same time was agonizingly alive with pain in his lungs. He was sure that he'd breathed in way too much smoke. Tears came to his burning eyes. The tin of the building was already so hot it would sear anything that touched it: Izzy had to get out.

There were windows. Where? Izzy's vision swam. He wiped at his eyes. His mind was as murky as the air around him. He knew this place! He could get out! Think!

There was one by the door. If he could find it he could get out. Izzy was tempted to run his hands along to find the window, but he knew that would be stupid. By memory, he stepped quickly to where he thought it was. The fire was spreading, coming his way. Taking his shirt into his hands, he slammed his fist into the window--the glass was old, fragile. He only made a little crack in it. Izzy began to realize then just how gone he was. He tried again, his vision blackening. And again. On his third try, he was rewarded with fresh air and a burst of rain. Almost blinded by the smoke, he lurched out of the window, taking in huge breaths of air. He coughed hard trying to rid his body of everything he'd breathed in. Somewhere that seemed miles away, he saw the car.

Gage...

He would make it there. No matter what, he would be there to see if his friend was dead or alive.

That was what kept Izzy conscious all the way to the car, and then to the nearest hospital.

# # # #

Paris saw the car coming into the drive where she sat with Mike and Debbie, and she thought that it was the assassin. She jumped to her feet, nearly falling over with relief when it was Izzy, and not the assasssin, who stepped out. She ran to him, throwing her arms around his shoulders. "Izzy!"

He smelled strongly of smoke. Stepping back, Paris saw that his skin was grayish, and his clothed were definitely smoke-blackened. She didn't have much time to think anything more. She hadn't noticed how he was breathing until then--which was hardly at all. Izzy almost fell to the ground, refusing help when Mike came over. He insisted he was fine. Or would be.

Mike advised him to take deep breaths.

After a few minutes, Izzy seemed to be back to himself. He got up and fell into the bench the three had been sitting on. When he spoke, he whispered, though. "He's gone. How's Gage?"

Debbie mouthed to Paris. "You have weird friends!"

Paris said, "Gage is alive. He's in a coma, though. Debbie thinks he'll make it."

Izzy nodded. "If he's still alive, then he'll make it. He's too stubborn to give up." Izzy looked Mike square in the eye and said, "Do you have some spare clothes?"

Mike replied, "Got some in my locker. I'll bring them to you."

"Yeah... thanks."

# # # #

The police came soon, questioning Izzy and Paris separately. Izzy had taken a shower--three actually, when Mike had sneaked him into the locker room--and there was little hint that he'd almost died in a fire.

Izzy asked for a smoke in a husky, ragged voice, and the policeman questioning him said no. Izzy had smiled to himself. He didn't smoke, anyway.

He and Paris had thought up their story: They'd been hunting together out of town when Gage had surprised them, and Izzy had misfired. It was believable, as the clothes Mike had loaned him were hunting colors, and the policeman put it down as an accident, after a little convincing crying and careful seduction on Paris' part.

As the secretary of a lawyer, Paris knew they could be tried for manslaughter if Gage died. Izzy seemed certain he would wake up, but the news from the doctors was that Gage's chance of living was very small. Still, Izzy whispered, "He'll make it."

Paris hoped so.

They spent the night at Mike's later, because he lived close to the hospital. They spun an elaborate lie for Mike and Debbie, and both of them believed it willingly, swearing themselves to silence. As far as the police were concerned, Izzy and Paris were off the hook.

Now, they just had to wait.

# # # # ( Three Months Later )

Reporter Trisha Cole stood outside of a large house, where ivy grew wild and summer flowers bloomed bright. She smoothed her charcoal miniskirt, and spoke to the camera.

"Everyone's heard of Senator Ronald Feldman. Trusted and held up as an example of old-time ethics and possessive of a gentle charm, the good Senator is the last person anyone would expect to see charged with murder. But he was. Several weeks ago, the police got an anonymous letter detailing where a body could be found. The police went to the scene to find Darla Feldman, Senator Ron Feldman's wife, dead, murdered by Feldman's own gun. Apparently, the woman was killed when the Senator arrived home to find her with another woman. In his rage, Feldman stole his gun from a rack, killing his wife and her lover. The woman was found with Darla. The anonymous letter details this, and so far the police have found nothing to contradict it. There is no clue as to where the letter came from. At his arraignment, Feldman pled guilty to all charges, to the surprise of his lawyers. He will probably serve life in prison."


Gage sat on the sofa with Izzy and Paris, watching the flickering television. Paris leaned unabashedly against Gage, relaxed on him. Diego sat on Gage's lap, snarling when either Paris or Izzy got too close.

Everything was pretty much back to normal. Gage's road to recovery had been all uphill, and there had been times when both Izzy and Paris thought he wasn't going to make it. But he was back. He was alive, against all of the doctor's grim predictions. Just the other day, he'd gotten out of the hospital, and already he was pushing himself. This was a rare moment of silence, but every time Feldman was mentioned on the news, the three crowded around.

They had found the note Gage had written when they had returned to Izzy's house. Right before he'd gone to the warehouse, Gage had scribbled a letter to them, and they had sent it off anonymously.

Paris smiled contentedly, nestled into Gage's side. When she looked into his eyes now, she didn't see the pain he had suffered, but the chance for a future. He seemed much younger now that the burden of his secret was gone, and Paris had found he was a load when you got him going--playful and sarcastic in a dark kind of way. Things were fine now.

Izzy watched the two, grinning. Finally, he spoke up.

"So, how about that picnic?"



Notes: Written when I was 14 in two parts. Combined into a single part for portfolio space in 2019. I have chosen to disable reviews. While feedback is amazing and always appreciated, I recognize the many flaws in these and am keeping them as an archive of my early work rather than a piece I am actively trying to rewrite and improve.
© Copyright 2005 § Roseille ♥ (concrete_angel at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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