Vicious, p.24
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       Vicious, p.24

           V. E. Schwab
 
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  The moving green dot on his phone reached the red still dot that marked the Three Crows Bar, and Mitch sat up.

  “We’re here.”

  * * *

  VICTOR parked in the lot across from the bar, even though it was crowded and narrow, and would prevent a quick exit, especially under pursuit. But with a stolen car and the cops on high alert, he didn’t dare do anything that might stand out. He wasn’t about to get picked up for a parking ticket on a stolen car. Not tonight. He shut off the engine, stepped out, and examined the huddle of bricks across the street that declared itself to be the Three Crows Bar, a trio of metal birds perching on the sign above the front doors. To the left of the bar was an alley, and as the two men crossed the street, Victor could make out the bar’s side entrance set into the stained brick wall. When they reached the curb, he made his way toward the alley, and Mitch made his way toward the bar. Behind his eyes, Victor saw the pieces of his game lining up on the city-shaped board, chess and Battleship and Risk. His move.

  “Hey,” he called, as Mitch’s hand gripped the front door. “Be careful.”

  Mitch smiled crookedly, and went inside.

  XXV

  FIVE YEARS AGO

  WRIGHTON PENITENTIARY

  “YOU want more milk?”

  It was the first thing Victor Vale ever said to Mitchell Turner.

  They were sitting in the cafeteria. Mitch had spent three days wondering absently what Victor’s voice would sound like if he ever decided to talk. If he even could talk. Over the course of lunch, Mitch had actually taken to imagining that he couldn’t, that beneath the collar of his prison-issued shirt some ghastly scar carved a smile across his throat, or that behind his curling lips there simply was no tongue. It sounded weird, but prison was boring, and Mitch found his imagination going to strange places more often than not. So when Victor finally opened his mouth and asked with perfect elocution if Mitch wanted another carton of milk, the latter was caught between surprise and disappointment.

  He scraped his words together. “Uh. Yeah. Sure.” He hated how stupid he sounded, how slow, but Victor only chuckled, and pushed up from the table.

  “Keeps the body strong,” he said before making his way across the cafeteria to the food counter. The moment he was gone, Mitch knew he should have followed. He’d spent three days shadowing his new cellmate, but the question had caught him off-guard, and now in its wake, he had a sinking feeling that he’d just sacrificed his chance to break the curse. He craned his neck in search of Victor only to have someone slam him forward toward the table, and swing an arm around his shoulder. From across the room, the gesture might have looked friendly, but Mitch could see the sharpened metal in Ian Packer’s hand, the edge angled toward his cheek. Mitch was twice the man’s size but he knew the damage Ian could do before he’d be able to wrestle him off. Besides, Packer was one of those people who, despite his size, had power here, sway. Too much in a place this small.

  “Hey, hey,” said Packer, his breath foul. “Playing puppy dog?”

  “What do you want?” growled Mitch, keeping his eyes on the tray in front of him.

  “Been wanting you to play watchdog for my group for a year, been so kind and patient with your pacifistic shit”—Mitch was surprised (and a little impressed) that Packer knew the word pacifistic—“and suddenly this pointy prick shows up and you’re all over the role.” He tutted in Mitch’s ear. “I should fuck him up just for wasting your time and talent, Turner.”

  A small carton of milk landed on his tray, and Mitch looked up to find Victor standing there, surveying the situation with mild interest. Packer’s grip tightened on the sharpened metal as his attention flicked to the new man, and Mitch’s heart sank. Another cellmate lost.

  But Victor only tilted his head curiously at Packer.

  “Is that a shiv?” he asked, bringing his shoe to rest on the bench, his hand to rest on his knee. “We didn’t have those in isolation.” Isolation? thought Mitch. “I’ve always wanted to see one.”

  “Oh, I’ll show it to you close, you little fuck.” Packer’s arm vanished from Mitch’s shoulders. He lunged for Victor, who did nothing more than set his foot back on the floor and curl his fingers into a fist, and Packer, halfway to him, buckled to the ground, screaming. Mitch blinked, confused by what had happened … and not happened. Victor had never even touched the guy.

  The room broke into motion at the sound of the scream, the inmates on their feet and the guards on their way, as Mitch sat and watched and Victor stood and watched and Packer howled and writhed on the floor, hand bloody from clenching the sharpened sliver of metal as he twisted and screamed. There was a moment, before anyone else reached them, when Mitch saw Victor smile. A wolf’s smile, thin and sharp.

  “What’s going on?” shouted a guard as he and another reached the table. Mitch looked to Victor, who only shrugged. The smile was gone, a faint crease of concern between his eyes.

  “No idea,” he said. “Guy comes over to talk. One minute he’s fine and the next”—Victor snapped his fingers, and Mitch flinched—“just starts convulsing. Better get him checked out before he hurts himself.”

  The guards pinned the writhing Packer to the floor, and pried the blade from his shredded hand as his screams faded into groans and then into nothing. The convict had fainted. Somewhere between Packer attacking Victor, Victor dropping him with a look, and the guards reaching the scene, Mitch had extricated himself from the table bench, and now stood a few feet behind his cellmate, sipping his milk, and watching the events unfold, marveling in part at the scene, and in part at the fact that for once he hadn’t been blamed.

  But what the hell had happened?

  Mitch must have whispered the question, because Victor honored him with a pale raised brow before turning back toward the cell blocks. Mitch followed.

  “Well?” asked Victor as they made their way down the concrete halls. “Do you feel I’m wasting your time and talent?”

  Mitch considered the impossible man beside him. Something had changed. The discomfort, the aversion that he’d felt for three straight days had faded. Everyone else still seemed to bend away as they passed, but Mitch felt only wonder and, admittedly, a touch of fear. When they reached their cell, and he still hadn’t answered, Victor stopped, rested his back against the bars, and looked at him. Not at his hulking shoulders or his meaty fists with their scarred knuckles, or the tattoos that ran up his neck, but at his face. He looked him in the eyes, even if he had to look up a bit to do so.

  “I don’t need a bodyguard,” said Victor.

  “I noticed that,” said Mitch.

  Victor let out a cough of a laugh. “Yes, well,” he said, “I don’t want everyone else to notice, too.”

  Mitch had been right. Victor Vale was a wolf among sheep. And it took a lot to make 463 hardened criminals look the part of prey.

  “So what do you want then?” he asked.

  Victor’s lips curled into that same, dangerous smile. “A friend.”

  “That’s all?” he asked, disbelieving.

  “A good friend, Mr. Turner, is very hard to find.”

  Mitch watched Victor push off the bars and head into the cell, lifting a library book from his cot before settling onto it.

  Mitch didn’t know what had just happened back in the cafeteria, but a decade in and out of prison had taught him this: There were some people you had to stay away from, people who poisoned everything in reach. Then there were people you wanted to stick with, the ones with silver tongues and golden touches. And then, there were people you stood beside, because it meant you weren’t in their way. And whoever Victor Vale was, whatever he was, and whatever he was up to, the only thing Mitch knew was that he did not want to be in his way.

  XXVI

  TWO HOURS UNTIL MIDNIGHT

  THE THREE CROWS BAR

  ELI tapped his phone awake, tensing when he saw the time. Still no Victor, and Dominic seemed to be an installation at the bar. Eli frowned, and dialed Ser
ena, but she didn’t pick up. When her voice mail kicked in, he hung up, eager to click End before her slow, melodic words could issue any instructions. He thought of Victor’s threat: It’s clever, using the police database to find your targets. I’m a bit insulted I haven’t shown up on there yet, but give it time. I just got here.

  Eli logged on to the database, hoping for clues, but it was after ten, and the only flagged profile belonged to the man currently stationed at the counter, nursing his third Jack and Coke. Eli frowned and put the phone away. His bait didn’t seem to be drawing any fish. The seat beside Dominic emptied—it had been taken up and subsequently abandoned three times over the course of the hour—and Eli, tired of waiting, finished his beer and slid to the edge of the booth. He was about to make his way toward the target when a man appeared, approached the counter, and took the stool.

  Eli stopped, and hovered at the edge of his booth.

  He had seen the man before. In the lobby of the Esquire, and even though his presence here was less surprising—he fit in much better with the customers of the Three Crows than the suit-wearing clientele of the four-star hotel—his appearance still jarred Eli. There was something else about the man. He hadn’t thought of it when he saw him before, but here, on the heels of the presentation to the Merit Metro Police Department, it seemed obvious. No photos existed of Mitchell Turner, Victor’s partner in crime, but there had been generic thug descriptions: tall, burly, bald, tattooed. Dozens of men would fit the bill, but how many of them would cross Eli’s path twice in as many days?

  Eli had long since abandoned the notion of coincidence.

  If this man was Turner, then Victor couldn’t be far away.

  He scanned the bar, searching for Victor’s blond hair, his sharp smile, but he didn’t see anyone who fit the bill, and by the time he turned his attention back to the counter, Mitchell was talking to Dominic Rusher. His hulking form leaned in over the ex-soldier like a shadow, and while the noise in the bar drowned out the conversation itself, Eli could see his lips moving quickly, could see Dominic stiffen in response. And then, mere moments after he sat down, Mitchell stood back up. Without ordering, without another word. Eli watched him scan the bar, watched the man’s eyes pass blankly over him and settle on the sign that read RESTROOMS in neon yellow light. Mitchell Turner made his way, stepping between Dominic and the rest of the room, his massive form for a moment—a blink—hiding the man from view. By the time he’d finished the stride—crossed from one side of the ex-soldier to the other—Dominic was gone.

  And Eli was on his feet.

  The bar stool that had, for the better part of an hour, held his target was now suddenly empty, and there was no sign, to any side, of Dominic Rusher. Not possible, Eli’s brain might have thought. Only Eli knew it was entirely possible, it was too possible. Where the man went took a backseat in Eli’s thoughts to the question of why he went, and that was a question with only one answer. He’d been spooked. Warned. Eli’s gaze swiveled across the room until he saw the door to the men’s room swing shut behind Mitchell Turner.

  He dropped a bill on the table beside his empty glass, and followed.

  XXVII

  NINETY MINUTES UNTIL MIDNIGHT

  THE ESQUIRE HOTEL

  SYDNEY perched on the desk chair, arms wrapped around her knees, attention flicking between the clock on the wall, the clock on the computer (the wall clock was a full ninety seconds faster), and the Post button glowing green in the open program on Mitch’s screen. Just above the button was the profile they’d constructed. Victor Vale was typed in across the top, with Eli listed as his middle name. Where his date of birth should be, the current date was written. The space reserved for last known whereabouts was filled with the address of the Falcon Price high-rise project. Every other space—those reserved for background information, history, police notation—was filled with one word, repeated in every slot: midnight.

  To the left of the profile was the photo, or the place where the photo would have been. Instead, the bold lettering of the book spine ran vertically, reading VALE.

  The book they’d used for the picture, the one Victor had bought on their walk the day before, sat beneath the stack of papers Sydney was supposed to start burning soon, the blue lighter a spot of color resting on top. She slid the massive text out from under the folders, and ran a thumb over the book’s cover. She’d seen it before, or one just like it. Her parents had a set in their study (spines uncracked, of course). Sydney opened the book, and turned to the first page, but it was a wall of black. Flipping through, she saw that every one of the first thirty-three pages had been systematically blacked out. The Sharpie nesting into the fold between pages thirty-three and thirty-four suggested that the only reason the remaining pages had been spared was because Victor hadn’t gotten to them yet. It was only while flipping back through those thirty-three pages toward the front of the book that Sydney noticed two words exempt from the blackout.

  For and ever.

  The words were several pages apart, separated and surrounded by a sea of black. Not only that, but the word ever had been altered, part of a larger word, the for- preceding it blotted carefully out, which meant Victor was not trying to piece together the word forever from the text.

  He clearly wanted it to be two separate words. Distinct.

  For.

  Ever.

  She ran her fingers over the page, expected them to come away stained, but they didn’t. Dol whined faintly beneath the desk chair, where he’d somehow crammed himself—or at least a good part of his front half—and Sydney shut the book and looked back at the clock. It was after ten thirty according to both the wall and the computer. Her index finger hovered over the screen.

  She knew what it would mean to hit the button.

  Even without knowing Victor’s plan, she knew that if she clicked Post there would be no going back, and Eli would find Victor, and at least one of them would die, and tomorrow everything would be horrible again.

  She would be alone.

  One way or another, alone. An EO with a wounded arm and a sister who wanted her dead, with a sick, strange gift and absent parents, and maybe she would be running or maybe she would be killed, too—none of it sounded terribly appealing.

  She considered not posting it. She could pretend the computer had crashed, could steal them another day. Why did Victor have to do this? Why did he and Eli have to find each other? But even as she asked it, she knew the answer. She knew because her own pulse still quickened defiantly at the thought of Serena, because even as reason told her to run as far from her sister as possible, the gravity of want drew Sydney back. She couldn’t break the orbit.

  But she could keep from falling. Couldn’t Victor, just for a little while? Couldn’t they all stay aloft? Alive? But then Mitch’s warning echoed in her head—there are no good men in this game—and when she closed her eyes to block it out, she saw Victor Vale, not as he was in the rain that first day, or even as he was when she accidentally woke him, but as he was this afternoon, standing over that cop’s body, pain crackling in the air around him as he ordered her to bring the dead man back.

  Sydney opened her eyes, and hit the Post button.

  XXVIII

  SEVENTY-FIVE MINUTES UNTIL MIDNIGHT

  THE THREE CROWS BAR

  VICTOR was leaning back against the cold brick side of the bar’s alley wall, consulting Dominic Rusher’s profile, when a man matching the photo staggered out of nothing and into the narrow run between the buildings. Victor was impressed, especially considering the door to the bar had never opened, but did his best to hide it in the interest of maintaining the upper hand.

  Dominic, for his part, took one look at Victor—he had a black eye and a blue one, and according to his file, the blue was fake—then staggered forward in pain, clutching his side, and crumpled, one knee cracking against the concrete. It wasn’t Victor’s doing. The man was in bad shape, and whatever disappearing stunt he’d pulled with the shadows hadn’t helped his con
dition.

  “You know, Mr. Rusher,” said Victor, closing the folder, “you really shouldn’t be mixing methahydricone with alcohol. And if you’re this bad on 35 milligrams, a drink’s not going to help.”

  “Who are you?” gasped Dominic.

  “Where’s my friend?” asked Victor. “The one who warned you?”

  “Still in there. He just said there was a man—”

  “I know what he said. I told him to say it. There’s a man who wants to kill you.”

  “But why?”

  Victor didn’t enjoy persuasion nearly as much as coercion. It took so much longer.

  “Because you’re an EO,” he said. “Because you’re unnatural. Something to that extent. And I should clarify, the man doesn’t just want to kill you. He will kill you.”

  Dominic struggled to his feet and met Victor’s gaze. “Like I’m afraid to die.” There was a stubborn intensity in his eyes.

  “Well,” said Victor, “how hard can it be, right? You’ve done it once. But being afraid and being unwilling are different things. I don’t think you want to die.”

  “How do you know?” he growled.

  Victor dropped the profile on top of a trashcan. “Because you would have done it. You’re a mess. You’re in constant pain. Every moment of every day, I’m guessing, but you don’t end it, which speaks either to your resilience or your stupidity, but also to your wish to live. And because you came here.” He gestured to the alley. “Mitch told you to come here if you wanted to live. You could have left and taken your chances, though how far you’d get given your condition, who knows. The point is, you didn’t leave. You came here. So while I have no doubt you would face death again with all the honor of a soldier, I don’t think you’re eager to.” Even as he spoke, he was picturing the game board, pieces shifting to accommodate a talent he’d only glimpsed, but already knew he wanted. “I’m giving you a choice,” he added. “Go back inside and wait to die. Or go home and wait to die. Or stay with me and live.”

 
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