Vicious, p.10
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       Vicious, p.10

           V. E. Schwab
 
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  “Is that so?” Stell sounded unconvinced.

  Victor watched a drop of blood fall from the cuffs to the table. He was careful to keep his eyes on the one, two, three drops as he spoke. “I was at the labs when Angie died.” He knew the security cameras would show as much. “I needed to get away from a party, and she came and picked me up. I didn’t want to go home, and she said she had work to do … it’s thesis time and all … so I went with her to the engineering school. I left the room for a couple minutes, just to get a drink, and when I came back … I saw her on the floor and called Eli—”

  “You didn’t call 911.”

  “I was upset. Distraught.”

  “You don’t seem distraught.”

  “No, now I’m pissed off. And in shock. And cuffed to a table.” Victor raised his voice, because now seemed like an appropriate time to do so. “Look, Eli was drunk. Maybe he still is. He told me it was my fault. I kept trying to explain that it had been a heart attack, or a malfunction in the equipment—Angie was always messing around with voltage—but he wouldn’t listen. He said he’d call the police. So I left. Made my way home to talk to him. And that’s where I was heading when the cops showed up.” He looked up at the detective, and gestured to their current situation. “As for this EO stuff, I’m as confused as you are. Eli’s been working too hard. His thesis is on EOs, did he tell you that? He’s obsessed with them. Paranoid. Doesn’t sleep, doesn’t eat, just works on his theories.”

  “No,” said Stell across the table, making a note. “Mr. Cardale neglected to mention that.” He finished writing, and tossed the pen aside.

  “This is insane,” said Victor. “I’m not a murderer, and I’m not an EO. I’m a pre-med student.” At least the last one was true.

  Stell looked at his watch. “We’ll keep you overnight in a holding cell,” he explained. “Meanwhile, I’ll send someone over to see Mr. Cardale, test his blood alcohol level, and get his full statement. If, in the morning, we have proof that Mr. Cardale’s testimony is compromised, and no evidence ties you to the death of Angela Knight, we’ll let you go. You’ll still be a suspect, understand? That’s the best I can do right now. Sound good?”

  No. It didn’t sound good at all. But Victor would make do. The hood stayed off as an officer led him to the cell, and on the way he made careful note of the number of cops and the number of doors and the time it took to reach the holding area. Victor had always been a problem-solver. His problems had certainly been growing bigger, but the rules still held. The steps to solving a problem, from elementary math to breaking out of a police station, remained the same. A simple matter of understanding the problem, and selecting the best solution. Victor was now in a cell. The cell was small and square and came complete with bars and a man who was twice his age and smelled like piss and tobacco. A guard sat at the end of a hallway reading a paper.

  The most obvious solution was to kill the cellmate, call the guard over, and kill the guard. The alternative was to wait until morning, and hope that Eli failed a breathalyzer, that the security cameras were limited to the entryways, and that he’d left no material evidence in the lab to link him to the death.

  Picking the best solution really depended on your definition of best. Victor examined the man slumped against the cot, and got to work.

  * * *

  HE took the long way home.

  The first touches of dawn warmed the sky as he walked, rubbing the dried blood from his wrists. At least, he consoled himself, he hadn’t killed anyone. Victor was, in fact, quite proud of his restraint. He thought, for a moment, that the chain-smoking cellmate might be dead, but he was still breathing, the last time Victor had checked. Admittedly, he hadn’t wanted to get too close. As he made his way home, he felt a trickle of wet on his face and touched the place below his nose. It came away red. Victor wiped his face on his sleeve, and made a mental note to be more careful. He’d pushed himself a lot in one night, especially considering he’d died first.

  Sleep. Sleep would help. But it would have to wait.

  Because first, he had to deal with Eli.

  XXVI

  TWO DAYS AGO

  THE ESQUIRE HOTEL

  VICTOR stood in the bathroom and waited for the hotel to quiet around him. Beyond the door he heard Mitch lead Sydney back to bed, muttering an apology on his behalf. They should never have picked her up, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that she would come in handy. She had secrets, and he planned to learn them. Still, he really hadn’t meant to hurt her. He prided himself on control, but for all his efforts, he hadn’t found a way to fully manage his power during sleep. Which is why he didn’t sleep, or at least, not much.

  He ran cold water over his hands and face, waiting for the faint electrical buzz to stop. When it didn’t, he turned it inward, wincing as the humming vanished from the air around him and reappeared in his bones, his muscles. He clutched the granite counter as his body grounded the current, and several long moments later, the shudder passed, leaving Victor tired, but stable again.

  He met his gaze in the mirror and began to unbutton his shirt, exposing the scars from the bullets of Eli’s gun one by one. He ran his fingers over them, touching the three spots where he’d been shot the way a man might cross himself. One tucked under his ribs, one above his heart, and one that had actually hit him in the back, but at close enough range that it passed right through. He’d memorized their position so that when he did see Eli, he could repay the gesture. Hell, if the bullets lodged, there was a chance Eli would heal around them. It gave Victor a modicum of pleasure to think of that.

  Perhaps the wounds would have earned him some respect in prison, but by the time he’d integrated, they were long faded. Besides, Victor had found other ways of asserting himself at Wrighton, from the subtle discomfort inmates felt when they displeased him to the instant agony he used more sparingly, the kind of pain that left them gasping at his feet. But he didn’t only cause pain; Victor also took it away. He’d learned to gift painlessness, to trade it. Amazed by the lengths men would go to avoid any form of suffering, Victor had become a dealer in a drug only he could provide. Jail had, in some ways, been pleasant.

  But even there Eli had haunted him, tarnished his enjoyment by clinging to his thoughts, whispering in his head, ruining his peace. And after ten years of waiting, it was Victor’s turn, to get into Eli’s head and do some ruining.

  He rebuttoned his shirt, and the scars vanished again, from view but not from memory.

  XXVII

  TEN YEARS AGO

  LOCKLAND UNIVERSITY

  VICTOR hoisted himself up onto his windowsill, thankful that he’d left it cracked, and that they lived on the first floor and thus he was only forced to contend with the five steps’ worth of height leading from the street up to the building’s entrance. He paused on the sill, straddling it as morning light seeped into everything around him, and listened for sounds within the apartment. The place was quiet, but Victor knew Eli was home. He could feel him.

  His heart fluttered gently with the thrill of what would happen next, but that was all it was, a flutter. No pounding panic. This new calm was becoming unsettling. Victor struggled to assess it. The absence of pain led to an absence of fear, and the absence of fear led to a disregard for consequence. He knew it was a bad idea to break out of the cell, just as he knew what he was about to do was a bad idea. A worse idea. He could track his thoughts better now, marveled at the way they circled round to solutions that bypassed caution and favored the immediate, the violent, the rash, the way a crippled man favors his good leg. Victor’s mind had always been drawn to those solutions, but he had been impeded by an understanding of right and wrong, or at least what he knew others saw as right and wrong. But now, this … this was simple. Elegant.

  He paused long enough to smooth his hair in the mirror, distressed by how grungy death and half a night in a cell had made him look. Then he met his own eyes—the new calm had made them a fraction paler—and his reflection smiled. It
was a cold smile, a slightly foreign one, bordering on arrogant, but Victor didn’t mind. He rather liked that smile. It looked like something Eli would wear.

  Victor stepped out of his room and made his way gingerly down the hall to the kitchen. On the table were a set of knives and a notebook, half a page filled with Eli’s tight script and dotted with blood. As for Eli himself, Victor could see him on the living room couch, head bowed forward in thought, or maybe prayer. Victor paused a moment to watch him. It seemed odd that Eli couldn’t sense Victor’s presence the way Victor sensed his. That was the problem with an inward ability like healing. Self-absorbed to the last, he thought as he took up a large knife and dragged its tip along the table, eliciting a high scratch.

  Eli spun up from the couch in a fluid motion. “Vic.”

  “I’m disappointed,” said Victor.

  “What are you doing here?”

  “You turned me in.”

  “You killed Angie.” The words snagged slightly in Eli’s throat. Victor was surprised by the emotion in his friend’s voice.

  “Did you love her?” he asked. “Or are you just mad I took something back?”

  “She was a person, Victor, not a thing, and you murdered her.”

  “It was an accident,” he said. “And it’s your fault, really. If you had just helped me…”

  Eli ran his hands over his face. “How could you do this?”

  “How could you?” asked Victor, lifting the knife fully from the table as he spoke. “You called the cops and you accused me of being an EO. I didn’t rat you out, you know. I could have.” He scratched his head with the tip of the knife. “Why would you tell them something so silly? Did you know they have special people who come in if there’s an EO suspected? Some guy named Stell. Did you know that?”

  “You’ve lost it.” Eli sidestepped, keeping his back to the wall. “Put the knife down. It’s not like you can hurt me.”

  Victor smiled at the challenge. A quick step forward, and Eli tried to step back on instinct but met the wall and Victor met him.

  The knife slid in. It was easier than he imagined. Like a vanishing act, one moment the metal glinted and the next it was gone, buried in Eli’s stomach to the hilt.

  “You know what I figured out?” Victor leaned into him as he spoke. “Watching you in the street that night, picking the glass from your hand? You can’t heal yourself until I take the knife out.” He twisted it, and Eli groaned. His feet went out from under him and he began to slide down the wall, but Victor hoisted him up by the handle.

  “I’m not even using my new trick yet,” he said. “It’s not as flashy as yours, but it’s rather effective. Want to see it?”

  Victor didn’t wait for a response. The air buzzed around him. He didn’t worry about a dial. Up. That’s all he cared about. Up. Eli screamed, and the sound made Victor feel good. Not in a sun-is-out-and-life-is-wonderful way, of course, but in a punishing way. A controlling way. Eli had betrayed him. Eli deserved a little pain. He would heal. When this was over, he wouldn’t even have a scar. The least Victor could do was try to make an impression. Victor let go of the knife handle and watched Eli’s body collapse to the floor.

  “A note for your thesis,” he said as his friend lay there, gasping. “You thought our powers were somehow a reflection of our nature. God playing with mirrors, but you’re wrong. It’s not about God. It’s about us. The way we think. The thought that’s strong enough to keep us alive. To bring us back. You want to know how I know?” He turned his attention to the table, looking for something new and sharp. “Because all I could think about when I was dying was the pain.” He cranked the dial up in his mind, and let the room fill with Eli’s screams. “And how badly I wanted to make it stop.”

  Victor turned the dial down again, and heard Eli’s screams fade as he reached the table. He was looking over the various blades when the room exploded with noise. A very sudden, very loud noise. Drywall crumbled a foot away, and Victor turned back to find Eli clutching his stomach with one hand and a gun with the other. The knife was on the floor in a satisfying amount of blood, and Victor wondered with a scientific curiosity how long it would take Eli’s body to regenerate itself. Then the second shot rang out, much closer to Victor’s head, and he frowned.

  “Do you even know how to use that?” he asked, thumbing a long, thin knife. Eli’s hands were shaking visibly around the gun’s grip.

  “Angie is dead—,” said Eli.

  “Yes, I know—”

  “…but so are you.” It wasn’t a threat. “I don’t know who you are, but you’re not Victor. You’re something that’s crawled into his skin. A devil wearing him.”

  “Ouch,” said Victor, and for some reason, the word made him laugh. He couldn’t stop laughing. Eli looked disgusted, and it made Victor want to stab him again. He felt behind him for the nearest knife, and watched Eli’s fingers tighten on the gun.

  “You’re something else,” he said. “Victor died.”

  “We died, Eli. And we both came back.”

  “No, no, I don’t think so. Not entirely. Something’s wrong, missing, gone. Can’t you feel it? I can,” said Eli, and he actually sounded scared. Victor was disappointed. He’d hoped that maybe Eli felt it, too, this calm, but apparently he felt something else entirely.

  “Maybe you’re right,” said Victor. He was willing to admit that he felt different. “But if I’m missing something, then so are you. Life is about compromises. Or did you think because you put yourself in God’s hands that He would make you all you were and more?”

  “He did,” growled Eli, pulling the trigger.

  This time he didn’t miss. Victor felt the impact, and looked down at the hole in his shirt, glad he’d bothered to turn his pain off. He touched the spot and his fingers came away red. Distantly, he knew this was a bad place to be shot.

  Victor sighed, looking up. “That’s a little self-righteous, don’t you think?”

  Eli took a step closer. The wound in his stomach had already healed, and the color was back in his face. Victor knew he needed to keep talking.

  “Admit it,” he said, “you feel different, too. Death takes something with it. What did it take from you?”

  Eli lifted the gun again. “My fear.”

  Victor managed a dark smile. Eli’s hands were shaking, and his jaw was clenched. “I still see fear.”

  “I’m not afraid,” said Eli. “I’m just sorry.”

  He fired again. The force nudged Victor back a step. His fingers closed around the nearest knife and he swung, digging it into Eli’s outstretched arm. The gun clattered to the floor, and Eli lunged back to avoid another blow.

  Victor meant to follow it up, but his vision blurred. Just for a moment. He blinked, desperate to refocus.

  “You may be able to turn the pain off,” said Eli, “but you can’t stop the blood loss.”

  Victor took a step forward but the room leaned. He braced himself against the table. There was a lot of blood on the floor. He wasn’t sure how much of it was his. When he looked up again, Eli was there. And then Victor was on the ground. He pushed himself to his hands and knees but couldn’t seem to force his body farther up. An arm buckled beneath his weight. His eyes unfocused again.

  Eli was talking, but he couldn’t quite make out the words. And then he heard the gun scraping across the floor as it was lifted, cocked. Something hit him in the back, like a soft punch, and his body stopped listening. Darkness crept in at the edges of his sight, the kind he’d wanted so badly when the pain on the table had been too much.

  A thick darkness.

  He began to sink into it as he heard Eli moving around the room, talking into his phone, something about medical attention. He was twisting his voice to sound panicked, but his face, even the blur that was his expression, was calm, composed. Victor saw Eli’s shoes walk away before everything faded.

  XXVIII

  TWO DAYS AGO

  THE ESQUIRE HOTEL

  MITCH led Sydney back
to her room, and closed the door behind her. She stood in the dark for several minutes, dazed by the echo of pain, and the photo in the newspaper, and Victor’s pale eyes, dead before he came back to himself. She shivered. It had been a long two days. She’d spent the night before under an overpass, tucked into the place where two concrete corners met, trying to stay dry. Winter had dissolved into a cold, wet spring. It had started raining the day before she’d been shot, and hadn’t stopped since.

  She tucked her fingers into the cuff of the stolen sweatshirt. Her skin still felt strange. Her whole arm had been on fire, the gunshot wound a blazing center in a web of pain, and then the power had been cut. That was the only way Sydney could think of it, like the thing connecting her to the pain had been severed, leaving in its place a pins-and-needles numbness. Sydney rubbed at her skin, waiting for the feeling to come back. She didn’t like numbness. It reminded her of cold, and Sydney hated being cold.

  She pressed her ear to the door and listened for signs of Victor, but the bathroom door stayed firmly shut, and finally, as the prickle left her skin, she crawled back to the too-big bed in the strange hotel, curled in on herself, and tried to find sleep. At first it wouldn’t come, and in a weak moment she wished Serena were there. Her sister would perch on the edge of the bed, and stroke her hair, claiming the gesture made thoughts quieter. Sydney would close her eyes and let everything hush, first her mind and then the world as her sister’s touch dragged her down into sleep. But Sydney caught herself, twined her fingers in the hotel sheets, and remembered that Serena—the one who would have done those things—was gone. The thought was like cold water, sending Sydney’s heart into rapid fire all over again, so she decided not to think of Serena at all, and instead tried a counting trick one of her sitters had taught her. Not counting up, or counting down, just counting one-two-one-two as she breathed in and breathed out. One-two. Soft and steady, like a heartbeat, until finally the hotel room sank away, and she slept.

 
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