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The Assassin

By Lee Suilan







2018 © the Assassin, Lee Suilan

Cover Art, 2018 © Woo Liang



License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy.

Names, characters, places and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Story also found on Gay Authors.org.



Warning: This eBook contains scenes with adult language, violence and explicit sex scenes between adult males. It is intended for mature audiences only. If you are offended by such content, please remove this eBook from your files.

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Contents



One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Other Books

One



Sixth Autumn

Tones of orange, yellow and green colored the trees growing on the hills surrounding the valley. The air cool, calling for a warm wool scarf around the neck, a warm coat, perhaps thick socks, but the weather wasn’t there yet.

Kian stared at his bleeding right index finger. His hands were numb from the cold. His upper arms burned, his shoulders ached, and he wished he had on warmer clothes.

“Faster.”

Kian winced at the command. Biting his bottom lip, Kian glanced at the man sitting on a boulder to his left. Dark eyes captured his, the promise of pain so clear in the older man’s gaze if he failed to heed the order. Kian swallowed hard and brought his attention back to the bow he held.

“We don’t have all day.”

Kian took an arrow from the quiver on his back and fitted it on the string on his bow. He lifted his arms, taking aim, drawing the arrow back with a wince, the string digging into his skin. Tears stung the back of his eyes. He bit his lip hard and focused on hitting the circle drawn in the pile of hay ahead.

He let the arrow go, his hundredth in the last two hours. He struck the middle of the circle with precision. He glanced at his master for approval.

“Again,” the old man said. “Do it faster, Kian.”

A hot flash of resentment swept deep inside him. Kian bit his lip harder, drawing blood. He reached for another arrow, and fitted it on his bow. This time, he aimed at his master, aimed and let the arrow fly not caring that the string cut deeper into his fingers.

He stood still when his master caught the arrow with a deft sweep of his hand.

“Anger,” his master mused. “Good. Focus it. Use it to hone your skills. Again.”

Kian sighed in exasperation.

He was six years old. All he wanted was to sit on the river bank and catch fish like the other boys from the village across the river did. Perhaps jump in for a swim. When he was tired, he would lie on his back on the bank and watch the clouds. Instead, he was stuck with his grandfather, training over and over.

Kian reached for another arrow and let it, along with his resentment, fly at the pile of hay.

***

Fourteenth Winter

Kian hadn’t eaten in two days, one hour and thirty minutes. Kian’s stomach growled, hunger pangs making him weak. Kian took another step forward, biting the wool scarf wrapped around his face, every breath labored. He was freezing. The snow kept falling: unrelenting fat flakes, piling faster than he could descend the mountain. The terrain was steep. His progress slow as he navigated along a thin ledge to get to the lower ranks of the mountain. He took another step, his foot coming down on unsteady ground. He lost his delicate balance and fell hard. Fingers digging into the snow, he fought to stay on the precarious path as he rolled. A sharp rock dug into his left side, and stopped his fall…right at the edge. Kian lay still, glad for the extra padding in his hiking jacket, the rock hadn’t damaged him, yet. One glance below and he froze. It wouldn’t be in his best interest to fall unless he wanted to look like minced meat. There was a bed of jagged rocks below. Closing his eyes, Kian pressed his face into the fresh snow, his heart pounding hard.

Adrenaline coursed through him, the feeling welcome…familiar.

At fourteen, the only son in his family, heir to his grandfather’s seat in their clan, he spent every minute of his days in danger. His grandfather thought training him, and pushing him to the limit would give him survival skills.

Staring at the jagged rocks below, Kian thought, after all his grandfather put him through, falling to his death now would be a disgrace.

Kian let out a soft breath, and rolled to his right fast, careful to keep rolling until he got to the wall of the mountain. He used gagged rocks jutting out to help him up. Once steady on his feet, he continued his descent. Patting his left breast, he nodded in relief at the feel of the white crystal rock he retrieved from a cave at the top of the mountain. His grandfather’s newest challenge.

Kian hoped the crystal was worth the trouble.

His stomach growled and Kian sighed.

If he hurried, he might find Alora cooking rabbit stew in the kitchen, but only if he hurried….

***

Seventeenth Summer

Kian spat out blood, gasping for air, his fingers digging into the thick arm locked around his neck. The hulk of a man behind him was determined to crush his throat, stop him breathing. Kian closed his eyes and wondered at the gift his grandfather had given for his seventeenth birthday.

Did others get such violent gifts?

Kian opened his eyes, his gaze taking in the mass of men shouting encouragement to his opponent. He was in a ring at an underground club. The club owner was taking bets on the sidelines. Kian’s grandfather sat untouched at the balcony area above the ring…watching…assessing…

Kian gave up on the thick arm around his neck. Instead, he jabbed his fingers into his opponent’s eyes, his attack fast, the strength and force enough to surprise. His opponent loosened his chokehold. Kian dropped down, escaping the man’s arms. He got to his feet, punched his fists into the man’s left side, twice. It wasn’t enough to bring the ugly bastard down. His attacker lurched toward him, strong arms grabbing Kian’s hips. Kian was lifted into the air. Kian knew if the big man dropped him, he would break a bone. He didn’t need that kind of pain. Using the momentum, moving with speed honed from years of climbing mountains in winter, Kian maneuvered until he was straddling the big guy’s shoulders.

Locking his arms around the man’s head, he slammed his palm over his opponent’s mouth and nose. Kian tightened his thighs around the big guy’s neck, contracting his muscles tight; he clung, refusing to move. Rough nails dug into his arms, his fingers, Kian closed his eyes and listened to his opponent scramble for air. He refused to move until the big guy stumbled and collapsed to his knees. Kian jumped off and watched the man fall on the floor, face down.

The change in tide silenced his audience.

Kian stood staring at the man on the floor. His opponent wasn’t dead; he hadn’t gone that far, but it was close enough. Shouts of surprise and outrage filled the tent and Kian looked up at his grandfather. He got a single nod from the old man. With that, Kian turned and left the ring.

Two hours later, Kian was back in the clan compound in the valley. He sat on the floor in his room, unable to hide his smile. His grandfather’s gift for winning the fight was an iPod with one song: Coldplay’s Yellow.

“Enjoy it while you can,” Alora said as she bandaged Kian’s right upper arm.

Alora had come to stay in the compound three years ago. She hated his grandfather. Kian still didn’t know why.

“Why are you always so angry?” Kian asked, focusing his gaze on Alora.

She was pretty. He didn’t know too many women but he imagined Alora’s smile was one of a kind. From the books he read, her figure would be considered stunning. She had perfect curves; her plain green dress clung to perfection. Her dark hair was her most fascinating feature. She kept it in a tight ponytail. Some days though, she let the thick mass fall down her back, and he got the strong urge to sink his fingers into it.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Alora was saying, finishing with his bandage.

She gathered her medicines, placing them back in the basket she brought with her.

Kian noticed her trembling fingers and took her left hand.

“What’s wrong Alora?”

She met his gaze. Her brown eyes filled with tears.

Kian frowned. His vision blurred and he blinked to clear it. Alora’s tears slid down her cheeks. His breath caught when he recognized guilt in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “You don’t deserve this because you suffer more than others realize. But…Raja must end with you. Without you, your grandfather has no future. You have to die.”

His vision was getting worse, he was dizzy and he couldn’t seem to hold on to Alora’s hand. She got up fast, taking her basket with her, she ran out of his room.

Darkness took over.

When Kian woke up, he lay on his bed, a damp cloth on his forehead.

His grandfather sat on a stool on the right side of his bed, his arms crossed against his chest, eyes closed. His long grey hair held back in a tight braid. Wrinkles defined the old man’s face; each year seemed to add more. Kian wondered at the strength that seemed to surround the man, while others got weaker, his grandfather remained a force to contend with.

“What do you read on my face, Kian?”

Kian averted his gaze to the familiar ceiling.

“You are upset.”

“Getting upset is useless,” Seiko Raja said. “You would have died today. Alora used a powerful poison. The fates chose not to take you. I wonder if you have learned your lesson.”

Kian closed his eyes at the mention of Alora.

“Where is she?”

“She’s gone,” Seiko said.

Gone, meaning, Alora was dead.

Pain filled Kian’s heart. He liked Alora. Her eyes were kind when she talked to him. Everyone else in the compound stayed away, as though he were a demon. Alora…she talked to him, teased him. She showed him a soft side that didn’t exist around him.

“She poisoned you, meant to kill you, Kian. Compassion is the last thing you should feel for her,” Seiko said. “How many more must I remove from your side before you learn not to care?”

“She said she was sorry,” Kian whispered.

He wanted to think her smiles were genuine.

“They all say they are sorry,” Seiko said. “Never forget, everything comes with a price. Alora paid hers.”

Kian returned his gaze to his grandfather.

“Why did she hate you?” Kian asked.

Seiko held his gaze for a moment, and then got up.

“As I’ve said, everything comes with a price. It is time you learned the price you have to pay for being my grandson,” Seiko said. “Get dressed.”

***

Kian followed behind his grandfather to the helicopter waiting in an open clearing outside the compound he had called home for seventeen years. He never left the compound unless it was at night, and in the company of his grandfather.

Most times, they blindfolded or drugged him, only for him to wake up at their destination, like in the fighting ring the night before. This was the first time his grandfather was allowing him to walk on his own power to the helicopter, and during the day.

Kian couldn’t help the wide smile as the pilot took the helicopter up over the luscious green valley he loved. His gaze swept over the clear river that divided his home from villages nearby. He laughed when he saw boys running along the edge of the river, chasing after goats. He too loved that simple freedom.

The scenery was beautiful, the valley vast and gorgeous, the mountain an assuring shadow. Through the years, Kian came to love Mount Asani despite his dangerous adventures on its slopes. Those adventures made him stronger, gained him favor with his grandfather. He stole a glance at Seiko. His grandfather sat straight in his seat, his gaze thoughtful as he stared down at their compound. Kian read nostalgia in his grandfather’s features, perhaps a sadness.

Kian frowned, worried about what would make his grandfather sad. His frown disappeared as the scenery changed, giving way to winding roads, houses and farms, and then turning into vast tall buildings, and crisscrossed roads. Kian smiled. Cities, Kian had only read about them, seen them in photographs, but never been in one. Adrenaline surged through him fast…skipping…eager.

The helicopter stopped on top of one of those tall buildings. His grandfather urged him up, and he jumped out of the helicopter on light feet, straightening to his full height when he was clear of the chopper’s blades. Seiko came up behind him, touching Kian’s shoulder. Seiko led the way forward into the building, entering an elevator, which they rode down to the seventh sub-floor.

Kian followed his grandfather down a short corridor and stopped when double doors opened into an elegant room with only one occupant. The woman behind the desk in the middle of the room was blond. She stood up with a wide smile.

“Welcome to Raja Securities - Tokyo.”

“Are they ready?” Seiko asked.

“Yes, Sir,” the woman said.

Kian gave her a small nod, wanting to ask her name, but his grandfather was already heading to the door behind the woman.

Seiko opened the door and took a step back.

“You asked why Alora hated me,” Seiko said. “First, you have to understand what Raja Securities does from the ground up. Only then will you have the answer you want.”

Kian peered into the dark room. He took a tentative step in and paused.

“Grandfather?”

“You have to go through a vetting process to enter Raja Securities.” Seiko reached for the door. “I hope to meet you on the ground floor. Make me proud.”

Seiko slammed the door closed, the lock hissing as it engaged.

Kian stood still in the ensuing darkness.

His enthusiasm disappeared. He took in a calming breath as lights came on and he was staring at three figures in black, their faces covered with dark hoods.

His grandfather’s grand schemes still at play, Kian thought.

This test…like so many others he lived through.

There was no time to be angry, or to sulk, not with a pair of star-shaped daggers flying straight at his head.

***

Twelve hours, Kian thought as he walked up the stairs to the ground floor.

It took him twelve hours to get through the seven sub-floors of hell, each floor hiding its own set of challenges. Dark men with swords and poisoned star-shaped knives trying to kill him, changing walls trying to squeeze the life out of him, wild beasts stalking him through an Amazon forest, he had particularly hated the sinking sand. His arms were wrapped in dark cloth ripped off one of his attackers to survive the sinking sands ordeal. His last challenge was out of control, three floors of fifty highly trained men doing their best to murder him.

His grandfather’s sense of humor was too dark.

Kian pulled open the door to the ground floor and stopped short when an army of thousands of men and women met him. They were all dressed in black, their hair held in severe ponytails, their eyes deadly. Kian froze, wondering if he had to fight them too.

“Kian.”

His grandfather’s voice boomed into the wide hall. Kian glanced up to find his grandfather standing on a staircase landing above the ground floor. Kian returned his gaze to the men and women facing him, their gazes enough to make him wary.

“Congratulations on setting an unprecedented record. Our record before was forty-eight hours. You are the first to ever finish a Raja trial in twelve hours. Welcome to Raja Securities. You are now one of us,” Seiko Raja said. “Kian, you are now the heir to this powerful organization.”

“Organization…”

Kian froze when the thousands of men and women with deadly gazes all bowed in his direction in a frightening practiced move.

He gaped as he realized he was waiting-leader to an army of assassins.



Twenty-second Spring

“Assassin for hire, have you heard of such idiocy, Ryuho? In this century?”

Ronald Michaels burst into a wild laugh and threw the note on his desk.

“Idiots! My security is now dreaming up enemies when I have enough as it is.”

Kian smiled, placing the tray of food he held on the desk. He arranged files, and closed the laptop Ronald was using. He moved it to the side, and arranged the tray before Ronald.

“This looks delicious,” Ronald said, taking the cup filled with macha tea. “You’re a wonderful chef, Ryuho, the only source of peace around me.”

Kian took a step back giving Ronald his space.

“You remain a man of few words,” Ronald noted with a small smile for Kian.

Ronald picked up his spoon and took a bite of the raisin-oatmeal Kian prepared. The recipe was old. Kian had learned how to make it from a woman he met two years ago. She loved oatmeal, and thought it the best meal for breakfast no matter the situation. Her end saddened him. She taught him many things. Her ex-husband had placed a contract on her head not wanting to share the company they owned together. Kian had used oatmeal to end her. She was Kian’s tenth assignment.

Kian watched Ronald eat oatmeal now with a measure of weariness. This assignment was harder than most.

Ronald Michaels was a skilled physician and brilliant research scientist. He ran a private research facility in the middle of Tibet, working with a poor rural community in the surrounding caves, providing them with food and medicine supplies.

Kian had not seen anything that would warrant his death. Nothing at all in the three months he worked for the doctor.

Kian watched Ronald drink his macha tea, waiting…always waiting.

Ronald’s cell phone buzzed and he answered it without much thought for Kian’s presence.

“I’ve told you I won’t accept a negative answer.”

Ronald shook his head as though the person on the other end could see him.

“I need the funds, Kiyo. We’re close to a breakthrough. The human tests are underway, there’s no turning back.”

Kian closed his eyes in disappointment. He had hoped the order was wrong. It seemed his grandfather’s information source was on point. Any human tests Ronald was conducting meant a great deal of suffering to the rural community Ronald was ‘helping’. The contract on Ronald was adamant about taking him out only when there was proof of abuse. Kian opened his eyes, taking in the empty room. There were no security cameras in Ronald’s office. A blessing for Kian.

“I’ll expect to see the funds by this afternoon,” Ronald was saying to his caller. “Don’t delay this, Kiyo.”

Ronald placed his cell phone on the table, and sipped his macha with a small appreciative sigh.

Kian slid a sharp thin sliver of metal from his left sleeve into his hand. He closed the distance to Ronald’s chair with quiet steps and sunk the rod into the base of Ronald’s head. The kill was fast, painless, and undetectable until the autopsy.

Kian ensured Ronald stayed upright in his seat. He arranged the laptop before Ronald, making sure it was on. He took the tray when he left Ronald’s study. Kian went into the kitchen and washed the dishes as was expected of Ronald’s chef.

Kian left the house fifteen minutes later, taking the van he used for groceries. He stopped at the main gates, smiling at the handsome dark haired guard he seduced a month before. The young man winked at him, and opened the gates without questioning Kian’s unscheduled grocery run.

Kian drove out of the compound at a sedate speed, his twentieth assignment complete.

***

Twenty – eighth Summer

The silence changed.

Senses alert, Kian lay on his bed, eyes closed, listening. The silence shifted, movement: deliberate, quiet steps. His bedroom door was open, the man sleeping on the bed on his left side sound asleep. The steps approached without hesitation, not even pausing when they reached his bedroom door. His fingers gripped the knife under his pillow.

“Looks like you had a good time last night,” said Yui, Raja Securities top executive assistant, her voice barely above a whisper.

Kian did not relax his hold on the knife under his pillow, but he did open his eyes to see Yui sit in the armchair by the wall.

“You know how to choose the best hotel rooms. Barely any windows in this one,” Yui noted. “Tiny slots in the bathroom: can’t fit there. I guess your hasty retreat would be down the corridor, to the fire escape. Bad move though, do you need another training session—?”

“State your business,” Kian cut her off, her presence annoyed him.

He removed the knife from under his pillow and placed it on the bedside table. Yui sat still, her gaze on the knife. Kian watched her take in a calming breath. When she spoke again, her voice was steady.

“Your grandfather is looking for you.”

Kian sat up, leaning against the headboard. His gaze on his passed out companion. Blonde, sculpted body, athletic, he couldn’t remember the guy’s name. He had not wanted to know. He dosed the poor man after their long shower at around four o’clock this morning. The poor guy wouldn’t wake up until two in the afternoon.

“You have a new assignment,” Yui said.

“Leave.”

Kian threw the sheets aside and slid out of bed, naked.

Yui scowled at him.

“You can’t hide forever.”

“I’m not hiding very well seeing as you keep finding me.”

Kian stretched his arms above his head.

“Kian.”

“Tell grandfather to stop looking for me.”

“Your grandfather is not at his best.”

“He never was,” Kian said, heading to the bathroom.

He closed the door and went to turn on the shower. He was taking a piss, waiting for the shower to heat up, when the door opened. Flushing the toilet, he gave Yui a scalding glare and entered the shower stall.

“I’m not leaving today,” she stated. “Your assignment is simple. Find Dr. Daven Noland, terminate the target.”

Using plain soap, Kian concentrated on washing his hair, scrubbing it hard to get rid of any scents he might have picked up from his lover. He scrubbed his body with equal vigor, and then stood under the scalding hot water for a minute. Turning off the water, he pushed back his hair and sighed when the stall opened and Yui held out a towel.

Taking the large towel, Kian wiped his face, negligently running the towel over his body.

“Dr. Daven Noland has been working with the MSF.” Yui elaborated. “The Médecins Sans Frontières.”

Kian wrapped the towel around his hips and walked to the mirror. He hadn’t shaved in a week. Rubbing his beard, he decided it suited him, for now. He grabbed his toothbrush, put toothpaste and concentrated on brushing his teeth.

“Dr. Noland has worked a number of refugee camps. His last assignment was running the MSF center in the Dadaab camp for six months,” Yui continued. “Security deteriorated. Dr. Noland ordered his medical staff evacuated after a severe militia attack. As we understand, he witnessed an incident he shouldn't have in the course of his work in Somali. He is now due to appear next month as a witness at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. This cannot happen.”

Kian rinsed his mouth letting the water run in the sink to wash the foam away. He reached for mouthwash, taking a healthy swig; he swished the stinging liquid in his mouth, and then spat it out. Once again, letting the water run to wash away the mixture of spit and mouthwash. Slapping the tap closed, he walked around Yui, entering the bedroom. He got fresh underwear from his duffel bag, wearing clean black boxer briefs with a fast practiced move. His lover was still asleep, sprawled on the bed, dead to the world.

Kian picked up the black t-shirt and the pair of jeans from the night before. He wore them as Yui continued.

“Dr. Noland crossed one of our clients, Kian. The contract on him is worth a small nation. The grid has him landing in New York weeks ago, but he has since disappeared. We can't find him.”

Kian wore his boots and grabbed his duffel bag from the chair in the corner of the dim bedroom. He got his knife from the bedside table, and jacket from the armchair Yui had used. The knife he stuffed into a sheath in his boot. Stuffing his jacket into the bag, he checked his money clip. He had enough for a bus ticket out of the city, after that he would need more. Slinging the bag over his shoulder, he left the bedroom. Kian wished he could have made coffee, but that wasn’t going to happen with Yui here. He retrieved a coffee can from the counter in the tiny kitchen the hotel provided and stuck it into his duffel bag. He would have to make do with a to-go cup from the shop down the street.

“Dr. Noland is the son of an Egyptian Math professor, and an American businessman. His father is Killian Noland, a major decision maker in the Wagon-Colt Consortium, and a major investor in Raja Securities, without his knowledge of course. Killian is a difficult man. Your Grandfather has gone to great lengths to hide their connections. The status of the contract may change, but as it is now, it remains a sensitive matter. If Killian discovers the contract on his son, he will work to discover who we are. If that happens, Raja Securities suffers a setback. Your Grandfather insists you handle this assignment fast.”

Kian glanced around the small living room, making sure he had forgotten nothing. Satisfied, Kian met Yui’s dark gaze.

“Don’t follow me.”

“Are you listening to me?”

“Next time you enter my room without an invite, I’ll use the knife.”

“I’ll find you, again.”

Kian left the hotel room he had called home for two days without another word. He ignored the exit Yui pointed out at the end of the corridor, taking the elevator down to the main lobby instead. Once downstairs, he turned into the service corridor and left the quaint hotel through the laundry room. Kian stepped into the middle of Kuala Lampur, quickly disappearing into the crowded Petaling Street.

***

Yui stepped out of the hotel minutes later, unhappy. She glared at the two men she had brought with her.

“Your man's a ghost. We lost him the moment he came out of the hotel. He dumped the duffel bag you tagged in the laundry room, the jacket too.”

“Damn it.” Yui sighed, not ready to face Kian’s grandfather. Seiko was desperate to see his grandson. The deadliest type of desperation. To the point, Yui knew that Seiko would be happy to accept Kian’s dead body if they returned him so. She sighed again.

“Looks like we have to find another way to engage Kian’s interest. Call headquarters, assign operatives from tier 1 on the MSF target.”

***

“Effortless,” Kian scoffed, as though any assignment Yui gave him was easy.

Raja Securities was full of hidden agendas. Nothing was effortless, or simple. Every assignment had an impact on alliances, money routes and assets.

Kian sipped his coffee, his gaze on the television screen mounted on the wall in the small coffee shop. The owner of the shop was busy behind the counter chopping onions for lunchtime. Too busy to care about a stranger drinking coffee in his little shop among ten other customers. No CCTV in the little shop to capture his whereabouts.

Kian smiled, already plotting on how to make Yui’s next search for him harder. The television above him tuned to a news station.

‘…Dr. Daven Noland has worked with the MSF, traveling across the globe with the organization. His stance on increasing funding to provide better facilities and stronger security measures in war-torn regions…”

Kian dropped enough money to cover his coffee next to his empty cup and got up. Adjusting the collar on the black jacket he had borrowed from a stall nearby, he pulled the cap he wore lower over his face, and left the little shop.

Time to move onto the next continent, he thought.

***



Two



“Wake up! Wake up!”

Un-fucking-believable.

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?”

Daven grinned.

“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.

Daven nodded.

“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…

“Daven—

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?”

Naomi sighed.

“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.

Naomi grinned.

“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?”

Daven chuckled.

“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—,”

Naomi grimaced.

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.

“Daven.”

Naomi glared at him.

“Sorry.”

Daven sighed.

“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.

Kian smiled.

“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.”

“But—

“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.


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