Mitch ducked through the plastic sheeting and into the room at the muffled sound of the gunshots. He’d pulled on gloves, and already had a spare sheet of plastic tucked under one arm, just in case. He looked down at the officer’s body, and sighed, but when he started taking up the plastic on the floor, and Dane with it, Victor held out a hand, and stopped him.
“Leave him,” he said. “And go get Sydney.”
Mitch hesitated. “I don’t think...”
Victor spun on him. “I said, go get her.”
Mitch looked profoundly unhappy, but did as he was told, leaving Victor alone with the officer’s corpse.
UNIVERSITY OF MERIT
Serena ushered the detectives out, and returned to the kitchen to find Eli looking pale and bracing himself against the sink. Everything about him was coiled, the tension in his face something she hadn’t seen, not in her presence, since the accident, and it sent a thrill through her. He looked mad. At her. She watched as he slid the gun from his back and set it on the kitchen counter, but left his hand on top.
“I should kill you,” he growled. “I really, really should.”
“But you won’t.”
“You’re crazy. Those are my murders Stell’s investigating and you just let him in.”
“I didn’t know about you and Stell,” said Serena lightly. “Actually, it makes this even better.”
“Because the whole point was to show you.”
“That you’ve lost it?”
She pouted. “No. That I’m more use to you alive.”
“I thought you had a death wish,” said Eli. “And bringing back a man I’ve worked to avoid for a decade doesn’t put you on my good side, Serena. Don’t you think the cogs are turning in Stell’s mind, somewhere past that spell you cast on him?”
“Calm down,” she said simply. And sure enough, she could see the anger bleeding away, watched him try to cling to it as it thinned into nothing. She wondered what it felt like, to be under her influence.
Eli’s shoulders loosened, and he let go of the counter while Serena flipped through the file Officer Dane had left for them. She plucked up a piece of paper, letting the rest fall to the table. Her eyes wandered absently over the page. A man in his twenties, handsome but for a scar that squinted one eye and carved a line down to his throat.
“What about your sister?” asked Eli, pouring more coffee now that his hands had stopped shaking.
Serena frowned, and looked up. “What about her?”
“You said she was an EO.”
Had she? Had that been one of those confessions murmured in half sleep, the space where whispered thoughts and dreams and fears slipped out?
“Spin again,” she said, trying to hide her tension as she nodded at the folder. She didn’t like to think about Sydney. Not now. Her sister’s power made Serena ill, not because of the talent itself but because it meant she was broken the way Serena was broken, the way Eli was broken. Missing pieces. She hadn’t seen Sydney, not since leaving the hospital. She couldn’t bear the thought of looking at her.
“What can she do?” pressed Eli.
“I don’t know,” lied Serena. “She’s just a kid.”
“What’s her name?”
“Not her,” she snapped. And then the smile was back, and she was passing the profile in her hands to Eli. “Let’s try this one. He sounds like a challenge.”
Eli looked at her for several long moments before he reached out and took the paper.
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
Eli sat waiting for the call to go through, and watching Serena as she crossed the hotel suite to the kitchen. Finally the ringing stopped, and a brusque voice answered.
“Stell here. What is it?”
“It’s Ever,” said Eli, taking the stupid glasses off. Serena was busying herself with the coffeepot, but he could tell from the way she tipped her head, the way she made so little noise, tiptoeing through the motions, that she was listening in.
“Sir,” said the detective. Eli didn’t like the way he said the word with a faint uptick at the end. “How can I assist you?”
Eli didn’t know, when he dialed the number, if calling Stell was actually a good idea, or if it only seemed like one because it came from Serena. Now that he was talking to the detective, he realized that it wasn’t a good idea at all. That it was, in fact, a very bad idea. For nine and a half of the last ten years, he’d been a ghost, managing to stay off radars despite his growing tally of removals and his unchanging face (the pairing of anonymity with immortality was no small feat). He’d managed to avoid Stell, until Serena involved him, and even then, everything Eli did, he did alone. He didn’t trust other people, not with knowledge or with power, and certainly not with both. The risk here was high, probably too high.
And the reward? By indoctrinating an entire police force, he ensured both their support, with regard to Victor and his other targets, as well as sanction to continue his executions, his removals. But it meant tethering himself to the one person he knew he couldn’t trust, and couldn’t resist. The police wouldn’t be listening to him, not really. They would be listening to Serena. She met his eyes across the room, and smiled, holding out a mug. He shook his head, no, a small action that made her smile. She brought the cup to him anyway, nested it right into his empty hand, and curled her fingers and his around it.
“Mr. Ever?” prompted Stell.
Eli swallowed. Whether it was a good idea or not, he knew one thing: he couldn’t afford to let Victor get away.
“I need to set up a meeting,” he told the detective, “with your entire police force. As soon as possible.”
“I’ll call them in. But it will take time for them to get here.”
Eli looked at his watch. It was almost four. “I’ll be there at six. And pass the word to Officer Dane.”
“Will if I can find him.”
Eli’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
“I just got back from the scene at the bank with your boy Lynch, and there’s no sign of Dane. Must have stepped out for a smoke.”
“Must have,” echoed Eli. “Keep me posted.” He hung up and hesitated a moment, turning the phone over and over in his hand.
“What’s wrong?” asked Serena.
Eli didn’t answer. He was able to resist answering, but only because he didn’t know. Maybe nothing was wrong. Maybe the cop had gone on break, or cut out early. Or maybe... his senses tingled the way they did when Stell’s words tipped up. The way they did when he knew he was following Serena’s will instead of his own. The way they did when something was off. He didn’t question the feeling. He trusted it as much as the quiet that followed his kills.
Which is why Eli dialed Officer Dane’s number.
* * *
Victor paced the gutted room of the half-built high-rise and pondered the problem of Serena Clarke who, it seemed, was quite an influential person. No wonder Eli was keeping her around. Victor knew that he would have to kill her very, very quickly. He looked around the space and considered its potential and his options, but his attention drifted invariably back down to Dane’s body, which lay sprawled in the middle of the floor on its plastic sheeting. Victor decided to do what he could to minimize the signs of torture, for Sydney’s sake.
He knelt beside the corpse and began to straighten it up, align the limbs, do what he could to give the body a more natural appearance. He noticed a silver wedding band on Dane’s finger— he slid it off, and into Dane’s pocket—then placed the man’s arms at his sides. There was nothing he could do to make the body look less dead; that would fall to Sydney.
Several minutes later when Mitch returned, holding aside a curtain of plastic and showing Sydney in, Victor was quite proud of the job he’d done. Dane practically looked peaceful (aside from the shredded uniform and the blood). But when Sydney’s eyes snagged on the body, she stopped and let out a small sound.
“That’s bad, isn’t it?” she asked, pointing to the badge on the corpse’s chest. “Killing a cop is bad.”
“Only if it’s a good cop,” explained Victor. “And he wasn’t one. This cop was helping Eli track down EOs. If Serena hadn’t turned you over, this man would have.” So long as he was under Serena’s spell, he thought, but didn’t say it.
“Is that why you killed him?” asked Sydney quietly.
Victor frowned. “It doesn’t matter why I did it. What matters is that you bring him back.”
Sydney blinked. “Why would I do that?”
“Because it’s important,” he said, shifting his weight from foot to foot, “and I promise to kill him again right after. I just need to see something.”
Sydney frowned. “I don’t want to bring him back.”
“I don’t care,” snapped Victor suddenly, the air humming to life around them. Mitch shot forward, putting his hulking form in front of Sydney, and Victor caught himself before he lost control. All three seemed surprised by the outburst, and guilt—or at least a pale version of it—tightened in Victor’s chest as he considered the other two, the loyal guard and the impossible girl. He couldn’t afford to lose them—their help, he corrected himself, their cooperation—certainly not today, so he drew the energy back into himself, wincing as he grounded it.