Vicious, p.25
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       Vicious, p.25

           V. E. Schwab
 
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  “Why do you care?”

  “I don’t,” said Victor, simply. “Not about you, that is. But the one who wants to kill you? I want him dead. And you can help me.”

  “Why would I?”

  Victor sighed. “Aside from the obvious self-preservation?” He held out his empty hand, palm up, and smiled. “I’ll make it worth your while.”

  When Dominic didn’t take his hand, Victor brought it to rest on the man’s shoulder. He could both feel and see as the pain left Dominic’s body, watch it slide from his limbs and his jaw and his forehead and his eyes, which then widened in shock.

  “What … what did you…?”

  “My name, Mr. Rusher, is Victor Vale. I am an EO, and I can take away your pain. All of it. Forever. Or…” His hand slid from the young man’s shoulder, and a moment later Dominic’s face crumpled as the pain swept back, redoubled. “I can give it back, and leave you here, to live in agony, or die at a stranger’s hands. Not the best death for a soldier.”

  “No,” hissed Dominic through gritted teeth. “Please. What do I have to do?”

  Victor smiled. “One night’s worth of work for a lifetime without pain. What are you willing to do?” When Dominic didn’t answer, Victor clicked the dial up in his mind, watched the man wince, buckle.

  “Anything,” Dominic gasped at last. “Anything.”

  * * *

  MITCH stood at the bathroom sink, pushing the sleeves of his coat up to wash his hands. He turned the faucet on, and heard the door open over the sound of the water. His form filled the mirror, edge to edge, so he couldn’t see the man behind him, but he didn’t need to. He could hear Eli Ever cross the threshold, and slide the bolt on the bathroom door, locking the world out. Locking them in.

  “What did you tell him?” came Eli’s voice behind him.

  Mitch turned the water off, but stayed at the sink. “Tell who?”

  “The man at the bar. You were talking to him, and then he disappeared.”

  The paper towels were out of reach, and Mitch knew better than to make any sudden movements, so he wiped his hands on his coat, and turned to face the other man.

  “It’s a bar,” he said with a shrug. “People come and go.”

  “No,” snapped Eli. “He literally disappeared. Vanished.”

  Mitch forced a laugh. “Look, man,” he said, walking past Eli toward the door as if he didn’t notice the thrown bolt. “I think you’ve had a few too many—”

  He heard Eli draw the gun from his coat, and his words cut off as his steps slowed, then stopped. Eli cocked the weapon. Mitch could tell it was an automatic by the metallic grating of the top half as it was shifted back and primed. He turned slowly toward the sound. The gun was in Eli’s hand, the silencer already screwed on, but instead of being trained on Mitch, it hung at Eli’s side. And that made Mitch more nervous, the casual way he held the weapon, fingers barely gripping it, not only comfortable with the gun, but in control. He looked like he felt in control.

  “I’ve seen you before,” said Eli. “At the Esquire downtown.”

  Mitch cocked his head and tugged one corner of his mouth up. “Do I look like I’d be caught in a place like that?”

  “No. Which is exactly why I noticed you.” Mitch’s smile faded. Eli raised the gun, and took him in over the sight. “Someone swiped the visuals from the prison files and the police logs, but I’m willing to bet your name is Mitchell Turner. Now where is Victor?”

  Mitch thought to feign ignorance, but in the end he decided not to chance it. He’d never been that great at telling lies, anyway, and he knew he’d have to make the few he needed count.

  “You must be Eli,” he said. “Victor told me about you. Said you had a thing for killing innocent people.”

  “They’re not innocent,” growled Eli. “Where is Victor?”

  “Haven’t seen him since we reached the city and split ways.”

  “I don’t believe that.”

  “I don’t care.”

  Eli swallowed, fingers drifting toward the trigger. “And Dominic Rusher?”

  Mitch shrugged, but slid a step back. “Kid just vanished.”

  Eli took a step forward, settled his finger against the trigger. “What did you tell him?”

  A smile twitched at the corner of Mitch’s mouth. “I told him to run.”

  Eli’s eyes narrowed. He twirled the gun in his hand, the barrel fetching up against his palm, and swung the handle hard against Mitch’s head. His face cracked sideways, and blood poured from the gash above his eye, running into his vision as Eli brought his boot up, hard, and sent him sprawling backward to the bathroom floor. Eli spun the gun again, and trained it on Mitch’s chest. “Where is Victor?” he demanded.

  Mitch squinted through the blood. “You’ll see him soon enough,” he said. “It’s almost midnight.”

  Eli bared his teeth, and bowed his head, and Mitch thought he could see him mouth the words forgive me before he looked up, and pulled the trigger.

  * * *

  VICTOR checked his watch. It was almost eleven p.m., and Mitch still hadn’t come out.

  Dominic stood nearby stretching, rolling his head and shoulders and swinging his arms forward and backward and side to side, as if he’d just set down a heavy burden. Victor supposed that in many ways he had. After all, Victor knew pain enough to know how much Dominic had been in, and was frankly impressed by the man’s threshold. But while he might be able to function in pain, his powers clearly didn’t flourish under it. So Victor had taken it away. Taken it all away. He had, however, left as much sensation as possible, which was tricky, given how tightly the two things were intertwined, but he didn’t need his newest asset accidentally bleeding out just because he didn’t notice he’d cut himself.

  Victor’s attention flicked between his watch and the ex-soldier, who was busy examining himself. People took their bodies and their health for granted. But Dominic Rusher seemed to savor every painless flexing of his hands, every stride. He clearly understood what a gift he’d been given. Good, thought Victor.

  “Dominic,” he said. “What I’ve done can be undone. And for the record, I do not need to touch you to do it. That was for effect. Do you understand? What I’ve taken can be given back in a blink, from a city away, or a world away. So do not cross me.”

  Dominic nodded solemnly.

  In truth, Victor could only influence a person’s pain threshold if they were within eyesight. The farthest he’d gotten in prison was dropping a man from across the football-field-sized yard with only a finger gun. Once he’d managed to crumple an inmate at the other end of the cell block, only his hand visible through the bars, but still. Out of sight, and his accuracy quickly vanished. Not that Dominic needed to know any of that.

  “Your power,” asked Victor. “How does it work?”

  “I don’t exactly know how to explain.” Dominic looked down at his hands, and flexed and stretched them as if working out a lingering stiffness. “Yea, though I walk in the shadow of the valley of death—”

  “Biblical allusions aside, please.”

  “After the mine blew, it was bad. I couldn’t … it was inhuman, that pain. It was animal and everywhere. And I didn’t want to die. God, I didn’t, but I wanted quiet and dark and … it’s hard to explain.”

  He didn’t have to. Victor knew.

  “I felt torn apart. I was. Anyway. They brought me back but they couldn’t seem to pull me through, not all the way. I spent weeks in a coma. All that time, I could feel the world. I could hear it. Swore I could see it, too, but it was like everything was far away. Murky. And I couldn’t reach out, couldn’t touch any of it. And then I woke up, and everything was so sharp and bright and full of pain again, and all I wanted was to find that place, that dull, quiet place. And then I did. I call it walking in shadows, because I don’t know any other term. I step into the darkness and can move from one place to another without being seen. Without time passing. Without anything. It looks like teleporting, I guess
, but I have to physically move. I could cross a city in the time it takes you to blink, but it would take me hours. I’d have to walk the whole way. And it’s hard. Like walking through water. The world resists, when you break its rules.”

  “Can you take others with you?”

  Dominic shrugged. “I’ve never tried.”

  “Well then,” said Victor, taking hold of Dominic’s arm, ignoring the moment when the man winced intrinsically away. “Consider this your audition.”

  “Where are we going?”

  “My friend is still inside,” said Victor, nodding toward the bar. “He should have come out after you. But he didn’t.”

  “That big guy? He said he’d cover me.”

  Victor frowned. “From who?”

  “The one who wants to kill me,” said Dominic, frowning. “I tried to tell you, that guy sat down next to me and said there was a man who wanted to kill me, and that he was in the bar.”

  Victor’s grip tightened on Dominic’s sleeve. Eli. “Take me inside. Now.”

  Dominic took a steadying breath, and put his hand over Victor’s. “Don’t know if this is even going to—”

  The rest of the words dropped away, not fading out but plummeting into silence as the air around them shuddered, and split to allow the two men through. The moment Dominic and Victor stepped through the seam, everything hushed and darkened and stilled. Victor could see the man whose arm he was touching, just as he could see the alley around them, but all of it was cast in a kind of shadow, less like night and more like the world had been photographed in black and white and then the photo had aged, worn, grayed. When they walked, the world rippled thickly around them, the air viscous. It pressed in on them, weighed them down. When they reached the door to the bar, it resisted Dominic’s pull before finally—slowly—giving way.

  Inside, the photo world continued. People caught middrink, mid-pool-shot, midkiss, midfight, and mid-a-dozen-other-things, all stuck between one breath and the next. And all the sound caught, too, so that the space filled with a horrible, heavy quiet. Victor kept his hand on Dominic’s arm like a blind man, but he couldn’t take his eyes from the room. He scanned, searching the frozen faces of the crowd.

  And then he saw him.

  Victor ground to a halt, jarring Dominic backward. He glanced over his shoulder and asked what was wrong, the words mouthed, but never formed. And it didn’t matter, anyway, because Victor didn’t see his lips move. He didn’t see anything but the dark-haired man caught midstride as he wove through the crowd, away from them and toward the front door, hand reaching out for the handle. Victor wondered how could he know that man without seeing his face. It was the posture, the broad shoulders and the arrogant way he held them, the edge of his sharp jaw visible as he turned away.

  Eli.

  Victor’s hand began to slip from Dominic’s arm. Eli Ever was right there. Half a room away. His back turned. His attention derailed and his body caught between seconds. Victor could do it. The bar was packed, but if he dropped every person at once, he’d have a shot—No. It took every ounce of focus for Victor to hold on to Dominic’s sleeve. He had waited. Waited so long. He wasn’t going to forfeit the planning, the lead, the control. It wouldn’t work, not here, not the way it had to work. He dragged his eyes from Eli’s back, and forced himself to search the rest of the room, but there was no sign of Mitch. His gaze swept through, and finally settled on the restrooms. A sign hung from the men’s room. OUT OF ORDER in bold letters, a hand-drawn set of lines beneath to emphasize the point. He urged Dominic forward, through the heavy air until they reached the door, and went in.

  Mitchell Turner was sprawled on the linoleum, his face stuck to the floor by a small puddle of blood emanating from a gash on his temple. Victor let go of Dominic’s arm and winced as the room crashed into life around him all at once, a wave of color and noise and time. Dominic himself appeared a moment later, arms crossed, looking down at the body.

  “Big guy,” he said quietly.

  Victor knelt carefully beside Mitch, and reconsidered his decision to leave Sydney at the hotel.

  “Is he…,” started Dominic as Victor reached out and brought his fingertips to the gunshot hole in Mitch’s jacket. His hand came away dry. He let out a breath and patted Mitch’s jaw. The man groaned.

  “Mother … fucker…”

  “I see you met Eli,” said Victor. “He’s always been a bit trigger happy.”

  Mitch grunted as he sat up and touched his head, a bruise already blossoming beneath the drying blood. His gaze went to Dominic. “I see you’re still alive then. Good choice.”

  He tried to stand, and got to one knee before pausing for breath.

  “A little help?” he said, wincing. Victor’s lips twitched, and the air hummed faintly for a moment before vanishing, taking Mitch’s pain with it. The man got to his feet, swayed, and caught himself against the wall with a bloody hand before making his way to the strip of sinks to clean up.

  “So he’s like, bulletproof?” asked Dominic. Mitch laughed, and then pulled his jacket aside to reveal the vest beneath.

  “Close enough,” he said. “I’m not an EO, though, if that’s what you’re asking.”

  Victor wet a handful of paper towels and did his best to clean Mitch’s blood off the floor and the wall while Mitch finished cleaning it off his face.

  “What time is it?” asked Victor, tossing the ruined towels in the bin.

  Dominic checked his watch. “Eleven. Why?”

  Mitch snapped the faucet off. “Cutting it pretty close, Vic.”

  But Victor only smiled. “Dominic,” he said. “Let’s show Mitch what you can do.”

  XXIX

  SIXTY MINUTES UNTIL MIDNIGHT

  THE ESQUIRE HOTEL

  SERENA toweled off her hair, holding strands up to the bathroom light to make sure Zachary Flinch hadn’t stained them. She’d had to shower three times to get the feel of brain and blood off her skin, and even now, raw from scrubbing, with her hair probably damaged from the rinse repeat of it all, she didn’t feel clean.

  Clean was clearly not skin deep when it came to killing.

  It was only the second execution she’d ever been to. The first had been Sydney’s. Serena cringed at the thought of it. Maybe that’s why she’d wanted to go, to wash the memory of her sister’s almost-murder from her mind, replace it with some fresher horror, as if one scene could paint over the other.

  Or maybe she’d asked to go along because she knew Eli would hate it—she knew how much his removals mattered to him, how much they belonged to him—and that he’d resist. Sometimes those moments when he fought back, when she could see the spark of defiance, were the only ones that made her feel alive. She hated living in such a limp world, every glazed eye and simple nod a reminder that nothing mattered. She would start to let go, and then Eli would fight back and force her to tighten her grip. She wondered with a thrill if maybe one day he would even break free.

  Finally satisfied that the blood didn’t stain, she dried her hair, pulled on a robe, and made her way into the living room, tapping the computer awake. She logged on to the police database, and filled out the “Middle Name” window of the search form with ELI, expecting it to return with no results, since Eli should have dispatched Dominic by now, but the search came back with two profiles. The first belonged to Dominic.

  But the second belonged to Victor.

  She read the profile three times, chewing her lip, then searched the room for her phone, which she’d lobbed onto the bed when she got in. She found it beneath a pile of clothes and towels, and was halfway through punching in Eli’s number, when she stopped.

  Less than an hour until midnight.

  It was a trap. Eli would know it, too, of course, but he would go anyway. Why shouldn’t he? Whatever Eli’s enemy was planning, there was only one way this night would end, and that was with Victor Vale in a body bag. And Sydney? Serena’s chest tightened. Her resolve had faltered the first time; she didn’t know i
f she had the strength to watch Eli try again. Even if it wasn’t really her sister, just a shadow of the little girl who’d clung to her side for twelve years, an imposter in her sister’s shape. Even then.

  Her fingers hovered over the screen. She could drag the file to the trash. Eli wouldn’t find it in time. But it would only be a stay of execution. Victor wanted to find Eli, and Eli wanted to find Victor, and one way or another, they would succeed. She looked at Victor’s profile one last time, and tried to picture the man who had once been Eli’s friend, who had brought him back, made him what he was, saved her sister … and for a moment, as she finished dialing Eli’s number, she almost wished he stood a fighting chance.

  XXX

  FIFTY MINUTES UNTIL MIDNIGHT

  THE THREE CROWS BAR

  ELI stormed through the front door of the Three Crows as he dialed Detective Stell and told him to send a cop over to the bar to clean up an incident.

  “It was an EO, right?” asked Stell, and the question, as well as the shade of doubt that lined the officer’s voice as he asked it, troubled Eli immensely. But he didn’t have time to deal with the detective’s resistance, not right now, not as the clock ticked down.

  “Of course it was,” he snapped, and hung up.

  Eli paused beneath the metal sculpted crows on the bar’s marquee, ran his fingers through his hair, and scoured the street for any sign of Dominic Rusher or Victor Vale, but all he saw were drunkards, and bums, and cars whizzing past too fast to see drivers or passengers. He swore and kicked the nearest trash can as hard as possible, relishing the blossom of pain even as it faded, whatever damage he’d done repairing, bone and tissue and skin knitting neatly back together.

  He shouldn’t have killed Mitch Turner.

  He knew that. But it wasn’t as though the man were innocent, not truly. Eli had seen the police records. Turner had sinned. And those who ally themselves with monsters are little better than monsters themselves. Still, he had felt no silence, no moment of peace, following the act, and Eli’s chest tightened at being denied the calm, the assurance that he had not strayed.

 
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