Black Heart Page 2

“Barron,” I say, about to start up a conversation we’ve already had about a million times, the one where we tell each other that she’s fine and she’ll contact us soon. “Do you think—”

Up ahead the boy with the braids steps into a pool hall.

“In here,” Barron says, with a jerk of his head. We duck into a deli across the street. I’m grateful for the warmth. Barron orders us two coffees, and we stand near the window, waiting.

“You ever going to get over this thing with Lila?” he asks me, breaking the silence, making me wish I’d been the one to do it, so that I could have picked another subject. Any other subject. “It’s like some kind of illness with you. How long have you been into her? Since you were what, eleven?”

I don’t say anything.

“That’s why you really wanted to follow her and her new hire, right? Because you don’t think that you’re worthy of her, but you’re hoping that if she does something awful enough, maybe you’ll deserve each other after all.”

“That’s not how it works,” I say, under my breath. “That’s not how love works.”

He snorts. “You sure?”

I bite my tongue, swallowing every obnoxious taunt that comes into my mind. If he doesn’t get a rise out of me, maybe he’ll stop, and then maybe I can distract him. We stand like that for several minutes, until he sighs.

“Bored again. I’m going to make that phone call.”

“What if he comes out?” I ask, annoyed. “How am I going to—”

He widens his eyes in mock distress. “Improvise.”

The bell rings as he steps out the door, and the guy at the counter shouts his customary “Thanksforcomingcomeagain.”

On the sidewalk in front of the deli, Barron is flirting like crazy as he paces back and forth, dropping the names of French restaurants like he eats off a tablecloth every night. He’s got his phone cradled against his cheek, smiling like he’s buying the line of romantic nonsense he’s selling. I feel sorry for the girl, whoever she is, but I am gleeful.

When he gets off the phone I will never stop making fun of him. Biting my tongue won’t be enough to keep me from it. I would have to bite off my whole face.

He notices me grinning out the window at him, turns his back and stalks to the entranceway of a closed pawnshop half a block away. I made sure to waggle my eyebrows while he was looking in my direction.

With nothing else to do, I stay put. I drink more coffee. I play a game on my phone that involves shooting pixelated zombies.

Even though I’ve been waiting, I’m not really prepared when the boy with the braids walks out of the pool hall. He’s got a man with him, a tall guy with hollow cheekbones and greasy hair. The boy lights a cigarette inside his cupped palm, leaning against the wall. This is one of those moments when a little more training would help. Obviously running out of the deli and waving my arms at Barron is the wrong move, but I don’t know the right one if the boy starts moving again. I have no idea how to signal my brother.

Improvise, he said.

I walk out of the deli as nonchalantly as I can manage. Maybe the kid’s just hit the street for a smoke. Maybe Barron will notice me and come back over on his own.

I spot a bus stop bench and lean against it, trying to get a better look at the boy.

This isn’t a real assignment, I remind myself. It doesn’t matter if he gets away. There’s probably nothing to see. Whatever he’s doing for Lila, there’s no reason to think that he’s doing it now.

That’s when I notice the way that the boy is gesturing grandly, his cigarette trailing smoke. Misdirection, a classic of magic tricks and cons. Look over here, one hand says. He must be telling a joke too, because the man is laughing. But I can see his other hand, worming out of his glove.

I jump up, but I’m too late. I see a flash of bare wrist and thumb.

I start toward him, not thinking—crossing the street, barely noticing the screech of a car’s brakes until I’m past it. People turn toward me, but no one is watching the boy. Even the idiot guy from the pool hall is looking in my direction.

“Run,” I yell.

The hollow-cheeked man is still staring at me when the boy’s hand clamps around the front of his throat.

I grab for the boy’s shoulder, too late. The man, whoever he was, collapses like a sack of flour. The boy spins toward me, bare fingers reaching for skin. I catch his wrist and twist his arm as hard as I can.

He groans and punches me in the face with his gloved hand.

I stumble back. For a moment we just regard each other. I see his face up close for the first time and am surprised to notice that his eyebrows are carefully tweezed into perfect arches. His eyes are wide and brown beneath them. He narrows those eyes at me. Then he turns and runs.

I chase after him. It’s automatic—instinct—and I’m wondering what I think I’m doing as I race down the sidewalk. I risk a look back at Barron, but he’s turned away, bent over the phone, so that all I see is his back.


The boy is fast, but I’ve been running track for the last three years. I know how to pace myself, allowing him to get ahead of me at first when he starts sprinting, but catching up once he’s winded. We go down block after block, me getting closer and closer.

This is what I’m supposed to do once I’m a federal agent, right? Chase bad guys.

But that’s not why I’m after him. I feel like I am hunting my own shadow. I feel like I can’t stop.

He glances back at me, and I guess he sees that I’m gaining on him, because he tries a new strategy. He veers abruptly into an alley.

I take the corner in time to see him reaching for something under his hoodie. I go for the nearest weapon I can find. A plank of wood, lying near a stack of garbage.

Swinging it, I catch him just as he gets out the gun. I feel the burn of my muscles and hear the crack as wood hits metal. I knock the pistol against the brick wall like it’s a baseball and I’m in the World Series.

I think I’m as surprised as he is.

Taking slow steps, I hold up the plank, which is split now, a big chunk of the top hanging off by a splinter, the remainder jagged and pointed like a spear. He watches me, every part of him tense. He doesn’t look much older than I am. He might even be younger.

“Who the hell are you?” When he speaks, I can see that some of his teeth are gold, flashing in the fading sun. Three on the bottom. One on top. He’s breathing hard. We both are.

I bend down and lift the gun in one shaking hand. My thumb flicks off the safety. I drop the plank.

I have no idea who I am right now.

“Why?” I say, between breaths. “Why did she pay you to kill him?”

“Hey,” he says, holding up both his hands, the gloved and ungloved one, in a gesture of surrender. Despite that, he seems more stunned than scared. “If he was your friend, then—”

“He wasn’t my friend.”

He lowers his hands slowly until they rest at his sides, like he has made a decision about me. Maybe that I’m not a cop. Maybe that it’s okay to relax. “I don’t ask why anyone wants anything. I don’t know, okay? It was just a job.”

I nod. “Let me see your throat.”

“No marks.” He pulls the neck of his shirt wide, but there’s no scarring there. “I freelance. I’m too pretty for all that bullshit. No one puts a collar on Gage.”

“Okay,” I say.

“That girl—if you know her, you know what she’s about.” He reaches into his mouth, pulling out a loose tooth—a real one—black with rot at the top. It sits like a flawed pearl in the palm of his glove. Then he grins. “Good thing murder pays so well, right? Gold’s expensive.”

I try to hide my surprise. A death worker who loses only a single tooth with each hit is a very dangerous guy. Every curse—physical, luck, memory, emotion, dream, death, and even transformation—causes some kind of blowback. As my grandfather says, all work works the worker. Blowback can be crippling, even lethal. Death curses rot a part of the worker’s body, anything from a lung to a finger. Or, apparently, something as minor as a tooth.

“What’s a death worker need a gun for anyway?” I ask.

“That gun’s real sentimental. Belonged to my gran.” Gage clears his throat. “Look, you’re not going to shoot. You would have done it already. So can we just—”

“You sure you want to double-dog-dare me?” I say. “You sure?”

That seems to rattle him. He sucks on his teeth. “Okay, all I know is what I heard—and not from . . . her. She never said anything, except where I could find him. But there’s rumors that the guy—he goes by Charlie West—bungled a job. Killed a family in what was supposed to be a simple smash and grab. He’s a drunk coward—”

My phone starts to ring.

I reach down and tug it out of my pocket with one hand, then glance down. It’s Barron, probably just having realized that I ditched him. At that moment Gage vaults himself at the chain-link fence.

I look at him go, and my vision blurs. I don’t know who I’m seeing. My grandfather. My brother. Myself. Any of us could be him, could have been him, coming from a hit, scrambling to get over a fence before getting shot in the back.

I don’t yell for him to get down. I don’t fire a warning shot or any of the stuff that I could do—that a federal agent trainee watching a murderer escape should do. I just let him go. But if he’s got the role that I was supposed to have, then I have no idea how to be the person left in the alley. The good guy.

I wipe off the gun on my green shirt, then tuck it in the waistband of my jeans, against the small of my back, where my jacket will cover it. After I’m done, I walk to the mouth of the alley and call Barron.

When he arrives, he’s with a bunch of guys in suits.

He grabs me by the shoulders. “What the hell were you doing?” his voice is low, but he sounds honestly shaken. “I had no idea where you were! You didn’t answer your phone.”

Except for that last time, I hadn’t even heard it ring.

“I was improvising,” I say smugly. “And you would have seen me if you hadn’t been busy hitting on some girl.”

If his expression is any indication, only the presence of other people keeps him from strangling me. “These guys showed up at the murder scene right after the cops,” he says, giving me a loaded look. As mad as he is, I understand what he’s trying to communicate. I didn’t call them, his expression says. I didn’t tell them anything about Lila. I didn’t betray you. I didn’t betray you yet.

The agents take down my statement. I tell them that I followed the hit man, but he got ahead of me and over the fence. I didn’t see where he went from there. I didn’t get that good of a look at him. His hood was up. No, he didn’t say anything. No, he didn’t have a weapon—or at least nothing other than his bare hand. Yes, I shouldn’t have followed him. Yes, I know Agent Yulikova. Yes, she will vouch for me.

She does. They let me go without patting me down. The gun remains tucked in the back of my jeans, rubbing against the base of my spine as Barron and I walk back to the car.

“What really happened?” Barron asks me.

I shake my head.

“So, what are you going to do?” he asks, like he’s challenging me. Like there’s even a question. “Lila ordered that hit.”

“Nothing,” I say. “What do you think? And you’re not doing anything either.”

Girls like her, my grandfather once warned me, girls like her turn into women with eyes like bullet holes and mouths made of knives. They are always restless. They are always hungry. They are bad news. They will drink you down like a shot of whisky. Falling in love with them is like falling down a flight of stairs.

What no one told me, with all those warnings, is that even after you’ve fallen, even after you know how painful it is, you’d still get in line to do it again.


WALLINGFORD PREPARATORY on a Sunday night is full of exhausted students trying to do the homework we were sure would be easy, back on Friday when the weekend stretched before us, full of lazy hours. I yawn as I walk in, as guilty as anyone. I still have a paper to write and a big chunk of Les Misérables to translate.

My roommate, Sam Yu, is lying on his stomach on his bed, headphones covering his ears, head nodding in time with music I can’t hear. He’s a big guy, tall and heavy, and the springs of his bed groan when he turns over to look at me. The dorms are full of cheap cots with frames threatening to break every time we sit on them, chipboard dressers, and cracked walls. It’s not like the Wallingford campus doesn’t have beautiful wood-paneled chambers with soaring ceilings and leaded glass windows. It’s just that those spaces are for professors and donors. We might be allowed in them, but they’re not for us.

I shoulder my way into our closet and step up onto a sagging box. Then, reaching under my jacket, I pull out the gun, and tape it with a roll of duct tape high on the back wall, above my clothes. I arrange a jumble of old books on the shelf just below it to block it from view.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Sam says.

He clearly watched the whole thing. I didn’t even hear him get up. I must be losing my touch.

“It’s not mine,” I say. “I didn’t know what to do with it.”

“How about getting rid of it?” he says, his voice dropping to a harsh whisper. “That’s a gun. A gun, Cassel. A guuuuuuuun.”

“Yeah.” I climb down, hopping off the box and landing with a thud. “I know. I will. I just didn’t have time. Tomorrow, I promise.”

Read Daily Updated Light Novel, Web Novel, Chinese Novel, Japanese And Korean Novel Online: NovelFull
Prev page Next page