Vicious, p.9
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       Vicious, p.9

           V. E. Schwab

  He begged Angie but the words were cut short by the strap and the dial turning up again and the sound in the air like cracking ice and shredding paper and static.

  The darkness blinked around him and he wanted it because it meant the pain would stop but he didn’t want to die and he was afraid that the darkness was death and so he pulled violently back from it.

  He felt himself crying.

  The dial went up.

  His hands ached where they gripped the table bars, cramped in place.

  The dial went up.

  He wished for the first time in his life that he believed in God.

  The dial went up.

  He felt his heart skip a beat, felt it grind and then double.

  The dial went up.

  He heard a machine warn, then alarm.

  The dial went up.

  And everything stopped.




  SYDNEY watched the lines in Victor’s face deepen. He must be dreaming.

  It was late. The night beyond the floor-to-ceiling glass was dark—or as dark as it could be, in a city like this—and she stood and stretched, and was about to go back to bed when she saw the piece of paper, and everything in her went cold.

  The newspaper article sat open beside Victor on the couch. The heavy bars of black on the page were the first thing that caught her attention, but the photo beneath was what held it. Sydney’s chest tightened, sudden and sharp, and she couldn’t breathe. It felt like she was drowning, again—Serena calling from the patio, a picnic basket hooked on the elbow of her winter coat, telling Syd to hurry up, or the ice would be all melted, which it was, underneath that brittle shell of frost and snow—but when she squeezed her eyes shut, it wasn’t the half-frozen water of the lake that folded over her, but the memory of the field a year later, the stretch of frozen grass and the body and her sister’s encouragement and then the sound of the gunshot, echoing in her ears.

  Two different days, two different deaths, overlapping, swirling together. She blinked both memories away, but the photo was still there, staring up at her, and she couldn’t tear her gaze away, and before she knew what she was doing, her hand was reaching out, stretching past Victor, toward the paper and the smiling man on its front.

  It all happened fast.

  Sydney’s fingers curled around the newspaper page but as she lifted it, her forearm grazed Victor’s knee and before she could shift her weight or pull back he shot forward, eyes open but empty, hand vising around Sydney’s small wrist. Without warning, pain tore up her arm and through her small body, crashing over her in a wave. It was worse than drowning, worse than being shot, worse than anything she had ever felt. It was like every one of her nerves was shattering, and Sydney did the only thing she could.

  She screamed.




  THE pain had followed him up again, and Victor came to, screaming.

  Angie was fumbling with his hands, trying to coax them free of the bars. He shot forward, clutching his head. Why was the electricity still running? The pain was a wave, a wall, wracking his muscles, his heart. His skin was tearing with it, and Angie was talking but Victor couldn’t hear anything through the agony. He curled in on himself and stifled another scream.

  Why wouldn’t the pain stop? WHY WOULDN’T IT STOP?

  And then, as sudden as a flipped switch, the pain was gone, and Victor was left feeling … nothing. The machines were off, the lights sprinkled across their fronts all dead. Angie was still talking, her hands running over skin, unbuckling the ankle straps, but Victor didn’t hear her as he stared down at his hands and wondered at the sudden hollowness, as if the electricity had gutted his nerves and left only shells.


  Where did it go? he wondered. Will it come back?

  In the sudden absence of pain, he found himself trying to remember how it felt, to drum up the sensation, a shadow of it, and as he did the switch clicked again, and the energy was there, crackling like static through the room. He heard the crinkle of the air, and then he heard a scream. He wondered for an instant if it was coming from him, but the pain was beyond Victor now, outside of him, humming over his skin without touching it.

  He felt slow, dazed, as he tried to process the situation. Nothing hurt, so who was screaming? And then the body crumpled to the lab floor beside his table, and the space between his thoughts collapsed, and he snapped back to his senses.

  Angie. No. He jumped down from the table to find her writhing on the floor, still screaming in pain, and he thought stop! but the electrical buzzing in the room continued to grow around him. Stop. She clutched her chest.

  Victor tried to help her up but Angie cried out even louder when he touched her and he stumbled back, confusion and panic pouring through him. The buzzing, he thought. He had to turn it down. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine it as a dial, tried to imagine turning some invisible device. He tried to feel calm. Numb. He was surprised by how easily it came to him in the midst of chaos, the calm. And then he realized how horribly quiet the room had gone. Victor opened his eyes, and saw Angie sprawled on the floor, head back, eyes open, red hair a cloud around her face. The humming in the air had faded to a tingle, and then to nothing, but it was still too late.

  Angie Knight was dead.




  THE hotel room was pain and noise and chaos.

  Victor came to, dazed, trapped between the school lab and the hotel room, Angie’s scream in his head and Sydney’s in his ears. Sydney? But the girl was nowhere to be seen, and he was being pinned back against the couch by Mitch, whose whole body was shaking visibly from the effort, but unbudging as the room hummed around them.

  “Turn it off,” growled Mitch under his breath, and Victor woke fully. His eyes narrowed, the humming died, and everything in Mitch slackened, all signs of pain gone. He let go of Victor’s shoulders, and slumped back onto a chair.

  Victor took a low, steadying breath, and ran his hand slowly over his face and through his hair, before his attention settled on Mitch.

  “Are you all right?” he asked.

  Mitch looked tired, unamused, but safe. It wasn’t the first time he’d had to intervene. Victor knew that when he had bad dreams, other people always suffered.

  “I’m swell,” Mitch said, “but not too sure about her.” He pointed to a nearby shape in too large sweats, and Victor’s gaze swiveled to Sydney, who sat on the floor, dazed. He’d shut down their nerves the moment he realized what was happening, or at least dulled them as much as he was safely able, so he knew she was physically all right. But she did look shaken. A pang of guilt, something foreign after a decade in jail, nudged his ribs.

  “Sorry,” he said quietly. He reached out to help her up, but thought better. Instead he stood, and made his way toward the hall bathroom.

  “Mitch,” he called back. “See she gets to bed.”

  And with that he closed the door behind him.




  VICTOR didn’t revive Angie. He didn’t try. He knew he should, or should want to, but the last thing he needed was more evidence of himself at the crime scene. He swallowed hard, cringing both at his ability to be so rational at a moment like this, and at the thought of the term. Crime. Scene. Besides, he could feel that she was dead. No charge. No energy.

  So he did the only thing he could think to do. He called Eli.

  “Where the hell are you, Vale?” A car door slammed in the background. “You think this shit is funny—”

  “Angie’s dead.”

  Victor hadn’t been sure whether or not he would say that, but the words had formed and spilled out before he could catch them. He’d expected them to hurt his throat, to lodge in his chest, but they flowed out unrestricted. He knew he should be panickin
g, but he felt numb, and the numbness made him calm. Was it shock, he wondered, this steadiness that came to him now, that had been so easy to summon with Angie dying at his feet? Or was it something else? He listened to the silence on the other end of the phone until Eli broke it.

  “How?” growled Eli.

  “It was an accident,” said Victor, maneuvering his cell so he could pull his shirt back on. He’d had to step around Angie’s body to reach it. He didn’t look at her.

  “What did you do?”

  “She was helping me with a test. I had an idea and it worked and—”

  “What do you mean it worked?” Eli’s tone went cold.

  “I mean … I mean it worked this time.” He let it sink in. Eli clearly understood, because he stayed quiet. He was listening. Victor had his attention, and he liked that. But he was surprised that Eli seemed more interested in his experiment than in Angie. Angie, who had always kept his monsters back. Angie, who was always getting in the way. No, she had been more than a distraction to both of them, hadn’t she? Victor looked down at the body then, expecting to feel some shade of the guilt that had washed over him when he’d lied to her before, but there was nothing. He wondered if Eli had felt this strange detachment, too, when he woke up on the bathroom floor. Like everything was real, but nothing mattered.

  “Tell me what happened,” pressed Eli, losing patience.

  Victor gazed around the room at the table, the straps, the machines that had once hummed but now appeared to have burned out, fuses blown. The whole place was dark.

  “Where are you?” he snapped when Victor didn’t answer.

  “The labs,” he said. “We were—” The pain came out of nowhere. His pulse quickened, the air thrummed, and a breath later Victor doubled over. It crackled over him, through him, lit up his skin and his bones and every inch of muscle in between.

  “You were what?” demanded Eli.

  Victor clutched at the table, biting back a scream. The pain was horrific, as if every muscle in his body had cramped. As if he were being electrocuted all over again. Stop, he thought. Stop, he begged. And then he finally pictured the pain as a switch, and snapped it off, and it was gone.

  His pulse dropped, the air thinned, and he felt nothing. Victor was left gasping, dazed. He’d dropped the phone to the linoleum. He reached down a shaking hand and lifted the cell back to his ear.

  Eli was practically shouting. “Look,” he was saying, “just stay there. I don’t know what you’ve done, but stay there. You hear me? Don’t move.”

  And Victor might have actually stayed put, if he hadn’t heard the double-click.

  The landline in their apartment had been provided by the university. It made a faint double-click when it was lifted from its spot on the wall. Now, as Eli spoke to him on his cell and instructed him to stay put, and as Victor tried to get his coat on, he could just make out that small double-click in the background. He frowned. A double-click, followed by three tonal taps: 9-1-1.

  “Don’t move,” Eli said again. “I’ll be right there.”

  Victor nodded carefully, forgetting how easy it was to lie when he didn’t have to look Eli in the face.

  “Okay,” he said, “I’ll be here.” He hung up.

  Victor finished pulling on his coat, and cast a last glance at the room. This was a mess. Aside from the body, the scene didn’t scream murder, but the contorted shape of Angie’s corpse showed it wasn’t exactly natural, either. He took a sanitary wipe from a box in the corner and cleaned the bars on the table, resisting the urge to wipe down every object in the room. Then it would look like a crime. He knew he was written on this lab, somewhere, despite how careful he’d been. He knew he was probably on the security footage, too. But he was out of time.

  Victor Vale left the lab, and then he ran.

  * * *

  AS he made his way toward the apartment—he needed to speak to Eli in person, needed to make him understand—he marveled at how good he felt physically. High from the chase, and from the kill, but free from pain. Then, at the edge of a streetlight, he looked down and saw his hand was bleeding. He must have caught it on something. But he didn’t feel it. And not just in the adrenaline-blots-out-minor-injuries way. He didn’t feel it at all. He tried to summon that strange humming air, tried to lower his own pain threshold a fraction, just to see how he was really faring, and ended up doubled over, bracing himself against a light post.

  Not so good, then.

  He definitely felt like he’d died. Again. His hands ached from gripping the handles on the table, and he wondered if any bones were broken. Every muscle in the rest of his body groaned, and his head hurt so much he thought he might be sick. When the sidewalk began to tip, he threw the switch back. Pain blinked out. He gave himself a moment to breathe, to regain himself, and straightened in the pool of light. He felt nothing. And right now, nothing felt amazing. Nothing felt heavenly. He tipped his head back, and laughed. Not one of those maniacal laughs. Not even a loud laugh.

  A cough of a laugh, an amazed exhale.

  But even if it had been louder, no one would have heard it, not over the sirens.

  The two squad cars screeched to a stop in front of him, and Victor hardly had time to process their arrival before he was thrown to the concrete, cuffed, and a black hood thrust over his head. He felt himself being shoved into the backseat of the cop car.

  The hood was an interesting touch, but Victor supremely disliked the sensation of being blindfolded. The car would turn, and his weight would shift, and without any visual cues or physical discomfort to orient himself, he’d nearly topple over. They seemed to be taking the turns purposefully fast.

  Victor realized that he could react. Fight back without having to touch them. Without even having to see them. But he restrained himself.

  It seemed unnecessarily dangerous to hurt the cops while they were driving. Just because he could turn his own pain off didn’t mean he wouldn’t die if they wrecked the vehicle, so he focused his attention on staying calm. Which was, again, too easy, given all that had happened. The calm troubled him; the fact that the physical absence of pain could elicit such a mental absence of panic was at once unnerving and rather fascinating. If he weren’t currently in the back of a cop car, he would have wanted to make a thesis note.

  The car turned hard, slamming him against the door, and Victor swore, not out of pain so much as habit. The cuffs dug into his wrists and when he felt something warm and wet run down his fingers, he decided to lower his threshold. Feeling nothing could lead to injury, and he wasn’t Eli. He couldn’t heal. He tried to feel. Just a little and—

  Victor gasped and tipped his head against the seat. Hot pain tore through his wrists where the metal dug in, and magnified, his threshold plummeting. He clenched his jaw and tried to find balance. Tried to find normal. Sensation was nuanced. Not on and off, but an entire spectrum, a dial with hundreds of notches, not a switch. He closed his eyes despite the darkness of the hood, and found a place between numb and normal. His wrists ached dully, something closer to stiffness than sharp pain.

  This was going to take some getting used to.

  Finally the car stopped, the door opened, and a pair of hands guided him out.

  “Can you take the hood off?” he asked the darkness. “Don’t you have to read me rights? Did I miss that part?”

  The person guiding him nudged him to the right and his shoulder clipped a wall. Campus police, maybe? He heard a door open, and felt a slight change in the sounds of the space. This new room had almost no furniture and smooth walls, he could tell by the echo. A chair screeched back, someone pushed Victor down into it, uncuffed one of his hands and recuffed them both to a place on a metal table. Footsteps faded, and were gone.

  A door closed.

  The room was silent.

  A door opened. Footsteps drew closer. And then at last the hood came off. The room was very, very bright, and a man sat down across from him, broad-shouldered, black-haired, and unamused. Victor lo
oked around at the interrogation room, which was smaller than he imagined, and a bit shabbier. It was also locked from the outside. Any stunt in here would be an utter waste.

  “Mr. Vale, my name is Detective Stell.”

  “I thought those hoods were only used for spies and terrorists and bad action movies,” said Victor, referring to the pile of black fabric now sitting between them. “Is it even legal?”

  “Our officers are trained to use their judgment in order to protect themselves,” said Detective Stell.

  “Is my eyesight a threat?”

  Stell sighed. “Do you know what an EO is, Mr. Vale?”

  He felt his pulse tick up at the word, the air buzzing faintly around him, but swallowed, willed himself to find his calm. He nodded slightly. “I’ve heard of them.”

  “And do you know what happens when someone shouts EO?” Victor shook his head. “Every time someone makes a 911 call and uses that word, I have to get up out of bed, and come all the way down to the station to check things out. Doesn’t matter if the call-in’s a prank by some kids, or the ravings of a homeless man. I have to take it seriously.”

  Victor furrowed his brow. “Sorry someone wasted your time, sir.”

  Stell rubbed his eyes. “Did they, Mr. Vale?”

  Victor gave a tight laugh. “You can’t be serious. Someone told you I was an EO”—he already knew who, of course—“and you actually believe them? What the hell kind of ExtraOrdinary am I supposed to be?” Victor stood but the cuffs were locked firmly to the table.

  “Sit down, Mr. Vale.” Stell pretended to examine his papers. “The student who called in the report, a Mr. Cardale, also said that you confessed to the murder of student Angela Knight.” His eyes flicked up. “Now, even if I want to overlook this EO business, and I’m not saying I do, I take a body pretty damn seriously. And that’s what we’ve got on our hands over at Lockland’s engineering school. So, is any of this true?”

  Victor sat and took a few long, deep breaths. Then he shook his head. “Eli’s been drinking.”

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