It was the smell that finally tipped him off. Everything else has been normal as Smitt walked up from his car, nothing to raise a mental flag that perhaps his apartment was not as secure as it seemed. Even the minor bit of trash he’d stuck near the doorway had been undisturbed. Whoever had broken in was good, damned good, which gave Smitt a very short list of immediate suspects. The scent wafting in his nose was of expensive cologne; a pungent aroma that had clearly been left on purpose. They wanted him to know that they were here, which could only mean it was too late for him to get away.
A quick glance to the rear showed him an empty hallway leading back to his front door. He could try and make a run for it, no counter-measures were perfect and he might slip away. For a half-second he was tempted; then he changed his mind. This was as much a chance to gain information as it was to be pumped. So far he hadn’t made any headway with the apartment trio; this might be his best shot at changing that.
Smitt stormed into the living room, unsurprised to find the young man who lived in the solitary apartment, Dig Bixby according to his mail, sitting at Smitt’s dining room table. He’d helped himself to a glass of scotch and greeted the homeowner’s entrance with a smile.
“Mr. Smitt, what a pleasure to see you. Please, come in and have a seat.”
“How kind of you to welcome me into my own home.” Smitt scanned the area, checking for anything that seemed out of place. This kid was good, but he’d only been gone for twenty minutes; there was no way they had time to locate and remove every weapon squirreled away throughout the apartment.
“I strive to be the epitome of hospitality. In fact, I’m such a gracious host that I even allowed you to walk in under the power of your own legs. Truly, I am magnanimous.” Nicholas couldn’t quite pinpoint why, but the further he slipped into this mocking, biting tone, the more familiar it felt.
“If that’s your idea of a threat, you need to step it up a notch. I’ve been put under the gun by people way scarier than you.”
“Dear Mr. Smitt, you say that with such certainty. It would only be polite to at least allow me to show you how fearsome I can be before making judgment. I might surprise you.”
Smitt let out a weary breath and sat down across the table from the kid. “So, what’s the deal? You’ve got the big guy stashed in the apartment and the girl covering the exit with a gun?”
“Right strategy, but you flipped the positions,” Nicholas informed him.
“Meaning it’s just you and the girl in here with me?” Smitt felt a surge of confidence at that prospect. He might not need to play games after all. This guy looked spry, but there was no way he could match the years of experience Smitt had earned in hand-to-hand combat.
“Yes, though ‘the girl’ as you called her was really unneeded. I could easily deal with you alone, she’s here at her own behest. Seems you’ve quite thoroughly pissed her off.” Had he been wearing sunglasses (though why would he when it was late at night) he’d have tipped them down ever-so-slightly.
“My ex-wife can attest that I usually have that effect on women.”
“Can she? That’d be quite a feat for someone who doesn’t exist.” Nicholas took a long drink from the scotch in front of him, savoring the weakly suppressed surprise coursing across Smitt’s face. “No, you’ve never been married, Smitt, though you went to a lot of trouble to dummy up the fake paperwork to appear that you had been. You even created a fake family for her, a nice pairing to the imaginary parents you invented for yourself. Quality work all around, must have set you back a fair bit. All that effort to create an imaginary identity so that you could hide your real one; you must have some people you dearly want to protect, Mr. Smitt. You know, what the hell, we’re all friends here. Why don’t I just call you Ryan Sumter, since that’s your real name?”
Smitt felt the creeping sensation of cold terror beginning to clutch at his gut as he stared down this intruder who’d easily broken through his layers of protection. Whoever he was, Dig Bixby wasn’t just good: he was connected. The hacker Smitt had paid off had been top-quality; no one should have been able to unravel the cocoon of digital lies shielding Smitt’s real history. This guy, this kid, had done it in the span of weeks. Maybe less, depending on how long they’d known Smitt was watching. His eyes darted about, figuring out what the best avenue of attack would be. Odds of a peaceful resolution were pretty much out the window. In the meantime, he had to stall.
“Nice work, I’m impressed. But now you’ve got me at a disadvantage, since I don’t know what to call you. Seems impolite, really.”
A thin, dangerous smile slowly sliced its way across the young man’s face. “You can call me Nicholas, Nicholas Campbell. And yes, that is my real name.”
“Sure it is. Alright, Nicholas Campbell, why don’t you tell me what it is you want? I’m pretty sure you didn’t violate my privacy and break into my home just to steal some mid-range scotch.” Smitt was pinning every hope he had on goading the kid into a specific action. If it worked, he had a shot. If not… well Smitt didn’t want to dwell on that.
“What, this?” Nicholas raised the glass a few degrees. “Don’t be ridiculous. I brought this from home. No offense, but I’d sooner drink anti-freeze than the sort of rot-gut liquor you stock.” He punctuated the sentence by taking another sip.
As soon as the glass was raised, Smitt sprang. He slammed the table forward, catching Nicholas just below his bottom rib. Without waiting to confirm the hit, Smitt rolled out of his chair and scrambled to a nearby wine rack. In a silver tub at the bottom was a clear vase filled with corks, which Smitt grabbed and slammed to the ground. It shattered, sending glass and cork everywhere. His hand frantically searched the remains, getting sliced up as they combed the debris. It should be here, it had to be here.
“Ahem. If you’re going to surprise attack me, you should work on not telegraphing so much. I had plenty of time to catch the table with my free hand.” Nicholas stared down at the older man, glass of scotch still in hand as he wore a look of unmasked condescension. “Also, we stripped every weapon you had stashed, so you can stop rummaging through the glass.”
Smitt pulled himself slowly off the ground, eyes unwavering from the eerily calm young man in front of him. Without a word, he darted forward, throwing his meaty fist toward that smug expression. His eyes couldn’t track what happened; all Smitt registered was a pain in his arm, a sensation of spinning, then the hard edge of the table digging into his gut as he was pinned against it.
“What did I tell you about telegraphing? Now, Ryan, or Smitt, or however you identify after all these years, we’re going to have a long talk. You’re going to tell me everything I want to know, in more detail than I could ever use, because by this point you’ve realized your situation. You can’t beat me physically, and that means you can’t get away. If I were an amateur, I’d threaten you with torture, but we’re both experienced enough to know the fruitlessness of such actions. Besides, why would I bother? I know who you are, Ryan. I know who you love. And I know where they sleep.”
Nicholas set the empty glass down on the table, inches from Smitt’s nose. His face was dripping on the table, though whether it was sweat or tears was hard to determine.
“So, let’s talk.”