Vicious, p.26
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       Vicious, p.26

           V. E. Schwab
 
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  Eli bowed his head, and crossed himself. His nerves were just beginning to smooth when his phone rang.

  “What?” he snapped into the cell, heading for his car in the lot across the street.

  “Victor posted to the database,” said Serena. “That Falcon Price site. Ground floor.” He heard the sound of the glass patio door sliding open. “It’s right here, across from the hotel. Did you take care of Dominic Rusher?”

  “No,” he growled. “But Mitchell Turner’s dead. Is the deadline still midnight?” His anger was cooling as he walked, focus knitting him closed the way his body knit together his skin. Things were on schedule. Not his schedule, but a schedule.

  “Still midnight,” said Serena. “What about the police? Should I call Stell? Have him send his men over to the high-rise?”

  Eli rapped his fingers on his car and thought of Stell’s question, his tone. “No. Not before midnight. Turner’s dead, and Victor’s mine. Tell them to be there at twelve, no sooner, and order them to stay outside the walls until we’re done. Tell them it’s not safe.” He got inside, his breath fogging the windows. “I’m on my way. Should I pick you up?” She didn’t answer. “Serena?”

  After another long pause, she finally said, “No, no. I’m not dressed yet. I’ll meet you there.”

  * * *

  SERENA hung up.

  She was leaning on the balcony, and she barely noticed the biting chill of the iron rail under her elbows because she was too busy looking at a trail of smoke.

  Two floors down and several rooms over, the smoke curled through a pair of open doors, wafting up toward her. It smelled like burning paper. Serena knew because in high school she and her friends would always light a bonfire on the first night of summer vacation and pitch their essays and exams in, casting the old year into the flames.

  But nice as the Esquire rooms were, none of them had fireplaces.

  She was still wondering about the smoke when a large black dog wandered out onto the balcony. It stared out through the bars of the railing for a moment before a girl’s voice called it back.

  “Dol,” called the girl. “Dol! Come back in.”

  A shiver ran through Serena. She knew that voice.

  A moment later the small blond girl who so many people had mistaken for Serena’s twin bobbed onto the porch, and tugged at the dog’s neck.

  “Come on,” coaxed Sydney. “Let’s go in.”

  The dog turned and obediently followed her back inside.

  Which hotel room? Serena began to count. Two floors down. Three rooms over.

  She spun on her heel, and went inside.

  XXXI

  FORTY MINUTES UNTIL MIDNIGHT

  THE THREE CROWS BAR

  DOMINIC took hold of Victor and Mitch, and led them in silence and shadow out of the restrooms, through the bar, and into the alley that ran beside it.

  Victor gave a nod and Dominic let go, the world springing back into life around them. Even the deserted alley was a cacophony compared to the heavy quiet of the in-between; Victor rolled his shoulders, and checked his watch.

  “That was … weird,” said Mitch, whose mood seemed to have soured considerably since being shot.

  “It was perfect,” said Victor. “Let’s go.”

  “So I passed?” asked Dominic, still flexing his hands. Victor could see the fear in his eyes, the desperate hope that the pain would stay away. He appreciated how transparent Dominic’s desires were. It kept things simple.

  “The night’s not over yet,” he said. “But you’re doing well so far.”

  Mitch grumbled about the hole in his jacket as they made their way to the mouth of the alley. Victor knew that it was the first thing Mitch bought when they got out, a well-made coat, lined with dark-dyed goose down that now leaked in small puffs as he stepped off the curb.

  “Look at the bright side,” said Victor. “You’re alive.”

  “Night’s still young,” said Mitch under his breath as they crossed the street.

  He said something else, or started to, but it was cut off by the sudden shriek of sirens.

  A squad car tore around a corner and down the street toward them in red and blue and white and blaring ripples of noise. Mitch spun, and Victor tensed, and time slowed. And then, time stopped. Victor felt the hand come down on his arm a breath before the sound and color went out of the night. The cop car froze, suspended between moments through the film of Dominic’s shadows. Dominic’s other hand rested on Mitch’s wrist, and all three of them now stood in the darkness of his in-between world, frozen as if they, too, were caught in time. Victor might have admitted—if he could admit, if his words could take shape and sound—how useful Dominic Rusher was turning out to be, but since he couldn’t, he simply nodded in the direction of the parking lot, and the three men waded through the thick air across the street.

  Victor knew that they had a predicament.

  Dominic, while much improved, was in no condition to drag them across the city. They needed the car. But they couldn’t use the car until they stepped out of the shadows, and the moment they did that, reality would resume and the squad car would continue down the street to the Three Crows. Victor led the way to the stolen sedan, the other two in a trailing line behind, and when they got there he gestured for them to kneel in the gap between their vehicle and the next on the side of the cop cars’ frozen approach, which had before been a convertible and was now a considerably larger truck. He took one last breath, and said a quiet curse, which was as close as Victor came to praying, and then he nodded at Dominic, whose hand vanished from his shoulder, stripping the stillness and plunging his world back into chaos.

  The cop car careened up to the bar’s entrance, where it slammed to a stop, sirens blaring. Victor held his breath and pressed his body against the metal side of their sedan and peered through the narrow space between his front bumper and the truck’s as the sirens cut abruptly off, and left his ears ringing.

  Two officers got out, and met at the front doors.

  One cop vanished inside, but the other stayed on the curb and confirmed their arrival on a radio. Something about a body. They were here for Mitch’s body. Which was problematic, since there was no body, a fact that would soon become readily apparent.

  Go inside, he begged the second cop.

  The cop didn’t move. Victor freed his gun and trained it on the officer, tracking up until it was level with the man’s head. He had a clear shot. He drew in a breath, and held it. Victor didn’t feel guilt, or fear, or even a sense of consequence, not like normal people. All those things had been dead—or at least dulled to the point of uselessness—for years. But he’d trained his mind to reconstruct those feelings from memory as best he could, and assemble them into a kind of code. Nothing so elaborate as Eli’s set of rules, just a simple wish to avoid killing bystanders, if possible. It didn’t feel wrong, resting his finger on the trigger, but his mind provided the word wrong. He lowered the gun a fraction, knowing that sacrificing a kill shot would also sacrifice the certitude of their escape.

  He let out his breath just as the radio crackled, and even if Victor couldn’t make out the message, he could hear the officer’s response—“What kind of problem?”—and, a moment later, “What do you mean? According to Ever and Stell … forget it. Hold on.”

  And just like that, the second cop turned toward the door. Victor lowered his weapon and his eyes drifted skyward, where thick gray clouds weakened the black of the night. He’d never been one for God, never had Eli’s zeal, never needed signs, but if there were such things, if there was Fate, or some higher power, maybe it had an issue with Eli’s methods, too. The second officer followed the first inside, and Victor, Mitch, and Dominic were on their feet, and in the car before the front doors of the bar had even swung shut.

  A yellow ticket flapped against the windshield, pinned beneath a wiper blade, and Victor leaned out the window, plucked it free, and crumpled it, dropping the paper to the ground. The wind instantly caught it
, and the ticket bounced away.

  “Littering,” said Mitch as Victor started the car.

  “Let’s hope that’s not the worst crime I commit tonight,” said Victor as they pulled out of the lot, away from the Three Crows and the squad car and back into the heart of the city as the minutes ticked away toward midnight. “Call Sydney. Make sure everything’s okay on her end.”

  An ambulance soared past them toward the bar. It wouldn’t be necessary.

  “If I didn’t know better,” said Mitch, dialing. “I’d think you care.”

  XXXII

  THIRTY MINUTES UNTIL MIDNIGHT

  THE ESQUIRE HOTEL

  BURNING the papers took longer than Sydney expected, and by the seventh or eighth page, the novelty of ruining something had faded, replaced by a tedious sense of obligation. She stood at the sink, boosted up by Victor’s book, and fed one page at a time to the flame of the small blue lighter, waiting until each was a layer of ash in the sink before she began the next sheet, and strongly suspecting Victor had given her the task just to keep her busy. She didn’t mind so much. It was better than sitting still, staring at the clock and wondering when they’d be back.

  If they’d be back.

  Dol stood beside her, nearly able to rest his nose on the counter by the remaining papers, and whimpering faintly every time she touched the lighter’s flame to a page. She’d wait as long as she dared before dropping the burning paper into the sink—a little longer each time—and then watch as the crossed-out faces of Eli’s victims blackened and curled, watch as the fire ate away their names, their dates, their lives.

  Sydney shivered.

  The room was freezing with the balcony doors open, and Dol had already wandered out once, unsettled by the fire, but she had to leave them that way, because of the smoke. It drifted out from the charred remains, and Sydney spent the whole task waiting for the alarms to go off. She had to resist the urge to burn the folder’s remnants in one go and be done with it, but her concern about the alarms kept her slow, methodical. The amount of smoke created by a single page appeared too little to disrupt the systems, but lighting the whole folder at once would surely trigger something.

  Dol soon lost interest, and wandered out once more onto the balcony. Sydney didn’t like him out there, and called him back, nearly singeing her fingers when she forgot to let go of the latest page.

  A phone rang in Sydney’s pocket.

  Victor had bought it for her. Or rather, Victor had bought it, and then given it to Sydney after he saw what she could do. The phone was, in Sydney’s eyes, an invitation to stay. She and Mitch and Victor all had the same models, and somehow that made Sydney happy. It was like belonging to a club. She’d wanted to belong to a club in school, but she’d never been great at sports, didn’t care about student government (it was a joke in middle school, anyway), and after resurrecting the science class’s hamster, she was a bit shy about participating in the after-school nature club. High school clubs would be more fun anyway, she’d reasoned.

  If she could stay alive that long.

  The phone rang again, and Sydney set the lighter aside and dug the device from her pocket.

  “Hello?” she answered.

  “Hey, Syd.” It was Mitch. “Everything okay there?”

  “I’m almost done with the papers,” she said, taking up the lighter and setting fire to another page. It was the blue-haired girl. The same blue, almost, as the lighter itself. Sydney watched as the girl’s face curled into nothing. “Are you going to think up more ways to keep me busy?”

  Mitch laughed, but he didn’t sound very happy.

  “You’re a kid. Just watch some TV. We’ll be home later.”

  “Hey, Mitch,” said Sydney, softer. “You … you’re coming back, right?”

  “As soon as I can, Syd. Promise.”

  “You better.” She lit another page. “Or I’ll drink all your chocolate milk.”

  “You wouldn’t dare,” said Mitch, and she could almost hear the smile in his voice before he hung up.

  Sydney put her phone away, and lit the last page. It was hers. She touched the lighter to the corner and held the paper up so the fire ate its way along one side before swallowing the photo, the paper-thin version of the girl with short blond hair and water blue eyes. It burned right through her and then there was nothing. She let the fire lick her fingers before she dropped the page into the sink, and smiled.

  That girl was dead.

  Someone knocked on the hotel door, and Sydney nearly dropped the lighter.

  The knocking came a second time.

  She held her breath. Dol stood, made something like a growl, and put himself squarely between her and the hotel door.

  The knocking came a third time, and then someone spoke.

  “Sydney?”

  Even on her toes, Sydney wouldn’t be able see out of the peephole, but she didn’t need to. She knew the voice, knew it better than her own. She lifted her hand and brought it over her mouth to stifle the surprise, the reply, the sound of breathing, as if she couldn’t trust her lips with anything.

  “Sydney, please,” came Serena’s voice through the door, smooth and soft and low.

  For a moment, Sydney almost forgot—the hotel and the shooting and the broken lake—and it was like they were home and playing hide-and-seek, and Sydney was too good and Serena had given up, or gotten bored, and was imploring her little sister to give up, too, to come out. If they’d been at home, Serena would have said she had cookies, or lemonade, or why didn’t they go watch that movie Sydney had been wanting to see? They could make popcorn. None of it was true, of course. Even then, Serena would say anything to coax her little sister out, and Sydney wouldn’t mind, not really, because she’d won.

  But they weren’t at home.

  They weren’t anywhere near home.

  And this game was rigged, because her sister didn’t have to lie, or bribe, or cheat. All she had to do was say the words.

  “Sydney, come open the door.”

  She put aside the lighter and stepped down from Victor’s book, and crossed the room, pressing her hand against the wood for a moment before her traitorous fingers drifted over to the doorknob, and turned. Serena stood in the doorway wearing a green pea coat and a pair of leggings that vanished into heeled black boots. Her hands were braced against the frame to either side. One hand was empty, and the other held a gun. The hand with the gun slid down the door frame with a metallic hiss before coming to rest at her side. Sydney cringed away from the weapon.

  “Hello, Sydney,” she said, as she tapped the gun absently against her leggings.

  “Hello, Serena,” said her sister.

  “Don’t run,” said Serena. It never occurred to Sydney to do so. She couldn’t tell, though, if the thought had been there and bled away at her sister’s words, or if she was brave enough to have never considered running, or if she was simply smart enough to know she couldn’t outrun bullets twice, especially without a forest and a head start.

  Whatever the reason, Sydney stayed very, very still.

  Dol growled as Serena stepped into the hotel room, but when she told him to sit, he did, back legs folding reluctantly. Serena strode past her little sister, surveying the ashes in the sink, and the carton of chocolate milk on the counter (Sydney had silently resolved to drink it—at least some of it—if Mitch didn’t come back soon), before turning back to Sydney.

  “Do you have a phone?” she asked.

  Sydney nodded, her hand drifting of its own accord to her pocket and retrieving the one Victor had given her. The one that matched his, and Mitch’s. The one that made them a team. Serena held out her hand and Sydney’s hand held out itself, depositing the device into her sister’s palm. Serena then walked to the balcony, where the doors were still open to vent the smoke, and lobbed the phone over the railing and into the night.

  Sydney’s heart sank with the rectangle of falling metal. She’d really liked that phone.

  Serena then shut th
e balcony doors and perched on the back of the couch, facing her sister, her gun resting on her knee. She sat the way Sydney did, or rather, Sydney sat the way she always had, with only half her weight, as if she might need to dash up at any second. But where Sydney’s perching looked coiled, Serena somehow made the act look casual, even lazy, despite the weapon.

  “Happy birthday,” she said.

  “It’s not midnight yet,” said Sydney quietly. You can come up and stay through your birthday, Serena had promised. Now she smiled sadly.

  “You used to stay up until the clock turned, even though Mom told you not to because she knew you’d be tired the next day. You’d sit awake and read and wait and when the clock struck midnight you’d light a candle you’d stashed under the bed, and make a wish.” There was a coat draped on the back of the couch, the red one Sydney had thrown off after Victor told her she had to stay behind, and now Serena fiddled with one of the buttons. “It was like this secret birthday party,” she added softly. “Just for you, before everyone else could join in and celebrate.”

  “How did you know?” asked Sydney.

  “I’m your big sister,” said Serena. “It’s my job to know things.”

  “Then tell me,” said Sydney. “Why do you hate me?”

  Serena held her gaze. “I don’t.”

  “But you want me to die. You think I’m somehow wrong. Broken.”

  “I think we’re all broken,” said Serena, tossing her the red coat. “Put that on.”

  “I don’t feel broken,” Sydney said quietly as she tugged on the too-big sleeves. “And even if I am, I can fix other people.”

  Serena considered her sister. “You can’t fix the dead, Syd. EOs are proof of that. And besides, it’s not your place to try.”

  “It’s not your place to control people’s lives,” snapped Sydney.

  Serena raised a brow, amused. “Who taught you to sing so loud? The little Sydney I knew could barely chirp.”

 
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