“I’m sorry,” he said, letting out a low breath. Mitch took a small step to the side, but didn’t abandon Sydney.
“Too far, Vic,” he growled in a rare display of boldness.
“I know,” said Victor, rolling his shoulders. Even with the energy grounded, the desire to hurt someone still coiled inside him, but he willed it to stay contained, just a little longer, just until he could find Eli. “I’m sorry,” he said again, turning his attention to the small, blond girl still half-hidden behind Mitch. “I know you don’t want to do this, Sydney. But I need your help if I’m going to stop Eli. I’m trying to protect you, and Mitch. And myself. I’m trying to protect all of us, but I can’t do it alone. We have to work together. So will you do this for me?” He held his gun up for her to see. “I won’t let the cop hurt you.”
She hesitated, but finally crouched beside the body, careful to avoid the blood.
“Does he deserve a second chance?” she asked softly.
“Don’t think of it that way,” said Victor. “He only gets a moment. Just long enough to answer a question.”
Sydney took a breath and pressed her fingertips to the clean spots on the officer’s shirt. An instant later Dane gasped and sat up, and Sydney scrambled back to Mitch’s side, gripping his arm.
Victor looked down at Officer Dane.
“Tell me again about Ever,” he said.
The officer met his eyes. “Eli Ever is a hero.”
“Well, that’s discouraging,” huffed Victor. He fired three more shots into the officer’s chest. Sydney turned and buried her face in Mitch’s shirt as Dane thudded back against the plastic-covered concrete, as dead as before.
“But now we know,” said Victor, toeing the body with his shoe. Mitch looked at him over Sydney’s pale hair, his face caught for the second time in as many minutes between horror and anger.
“What the fuck was that about, Vale?”
“Serena Clarke’s power,” said Victor. “She tells people what to do.” He slid his gun back into his belt. “What to say, what to think.” He gestured to the body. “And even death doesn’t seem to sever the connection.” Well, the officer’s death, amended Victor silently. “We’re done here.”
Sydney stood very still. She’d let go of Mitch and now had her arms wrapped around her ribs, as if for warmth. Victor came over to her, but when he reached out to touch her shoulder, she cringed away. He sank to one knee in front of her so that he had to look up a fraction to meet her eyes.
“Your sister and Eli, they think they’re a team. But they’re nothing compared to us. Now come on,” he said, straightening. “You look cold. I’ll buy you a hot chocolate.”
Her icy blue eyes found his, and she looked as though she had something to say, but she didn’t get the chance, because that’s when Victor heard the phone ring. It wasn’t his phone, and he could tell by the look on Mitch’s face, it wasn’t his, either. And Sydney must have left hers back at the hotel because she didn’t even reach for her pocket. Patting down the officer, Mitch found the device and drew it out.
“Leave it,” said Victor.
“I think you want to take this one,” said Mitch, tossing him the cell. In the place of the caller’s name, there was only one word on the screen.
Victor flashed a sharp, dark smile, cracked his neck, and answered the call.
“Dane, where are you?” snapped the person on the other end. Everything in Victor tensed at the sound, but he didn’t answer. He hadn’t heard that voice in ten years, but it didn’t matter because the voice, like everything else about Eli Ever, hadn’t changed at all.
“Officer Dane?” it said again.
“I’m afraid you just missed him,” said Victor at last. He closed his eyes when he spoke, savoring the moment of quiet on the other end. If he concentrated, he could almost imagine Eli tensing at the sound of his voice.
“Victor,” said Eli. The word was a cough, as if the letters lodged in his chest.
“I admit, it’s clever,” said Victor, “using Merit’s police database to find your targets. I’m a bit insulted that I haven’t shown up on there yet, but give it time. I just got here.”
“You’re in the city.”
“You won’t get away,” said Eli, the bravado dampening shock as it found its way back into his voice.
“I don’t plan to,” said Victor. “See you at midnight.” He hung up, and broke the phone in two, dropping both parts onto Dane’s body. The room filled with quiet as he considered the corpse, and then looked up.
“Sorry about that. You can clean up now,” he said to Mitch, who was staring slack-jawed at him.
“Midnight?” growled Mitch. “Midnight? As in tonight?”
Victor checked his watch. It was already four. “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”
“I get the feeling that’s not what Thomas Jefferson meant,” muttered Mitch.
But Victor wasn’t listening. His mind had spent the morning spinning, but now that it was set, now that there were only hours standing in his way, the violent energy quieted and the calm finally settled over him. He turned his attention back to Sydney. “How about that hot chocolate?”
* * *
Mitch crossed his arms and watched them go, Sydney’s short blond hair bobbing as she followed Victor out. When she’d taken hold of his arm, her fingers had been ice, and underneath the chill, she’d been shaking. That bone-deep kind of shiver that had less to do with cold, and more to do with fright. He wanted to say something, wanted to know what the hell Victor was thinking, wanted to tell him that he was playing with more lives than his own. But by the time he found the one word he should have said, one small, simple, powerful word—STOP—it was too late. They were gone and Mitch was alone in the plastic-shrouded room, so he did his best to swallow the word and the sinking feeling that went with it, then turned to the officer’s body, and got to work.
A LONG TIME AGO
Mitchell Turner was cursed.
Always had been.
Trouble followed him like a shadow, clinging to him no matter how much good light he tried to stand in. In his hands, good things broke and bad things grew. It didn’t help that his mother died and his father bailed and his aunt took one look at him and waved him on, leaving Mitch to bounce between houses more like hotels, checking in and out, never putting down roots.
Most of his problems stemmed from the fact that people seemed to think size and intelligence were inversely proportional. They looked at him, at his hulking frame, and assumed that he was stupid. But Mitch wasn’t stupid. In fact, he was smart. Very smart. And when you were that big, and that smart, it was easy to get into trouble. Especially when you were cursed.
By sixteen, Mitch had dabbled in everything from back-alley boxing to running books to roughing up thugs who owed money to people who liked money. And yet it wasn’t any of those things that landed him his first stint in prison. In fact, he was innocent.
Mitch’s curse, his maldición, as a Spanish foster mother had called it, was that bad things had a way of happening around him. The woman had never known its dark extent (she used the term to refer more to broken plates and baseballs through windows and tagged cars), but Mitch suffered from a cosmic case of wrong place, wrong time, and given his many, mostly illegal extracurricular activities, he didn’t alibi out very easily.
So when a fight went wrong two streets over and left a man dead, and Mitch’s knuckles were still raw from the back-alley match he’d won the night before, it didn’t look good. He got off that time, but it was barely two weeks before it happened again. Another person died. It was uncanny and disturbing, and, though Mitch hated to admit it, a little thrilling. Or it would be, if Mitch didn’t keep getting caught in the middle. It was becoming a problem, this trail of bodies, because even though he didn’t make any of them, it certainly looked that way to the police, and by the third death, Metro PD seemed to think it would be easier to lock him up. Just in case. A hoodlum. A drain on society. Only a matter of time. The kinds of phrases tossed around by men playing catch with his life.
And just like that, with a curse and a rap sheet he didn’t earn, Mitchell Turner went to jail.
* * *
He didn’t mind it so much, prison. At least he fit in. In the real world, people took one look at him and tightened their grip on their purses, quickened their pace. Cops took one look and thought guilty or going to be. But in prison people took one look and thought I want him on my side, or I don’t want to mess with him, or he could crack my skull in his elbow, or any number of far more useful thoughts. His size became a status symbol, even if it denied Mitch the perks of worldly conversation, and even if the staff considered him with skepticism when he checked out a book and was surprised when he used a word with more than two syllables. He spent most of his time trying to hack the prison computers’ various safety settings and firewalls, more out of boredom than a desire to cause any real trouble. But at least his curse left him alone.