“Victor mentioned the database when he called,” said Eli as they reached the car, “which means he has access to these files, too. Whatever he’s planning, I don’t need him adopting any more strays.”
“I want to come this time,” said Serena.
Eli frowned behind his mask. He always did this part alone. His murders, his removals, weren’t like golf or porn or poker, some stereotypically male hobby that he didn’t want to share. They were rituals, sacrosanct. Part of his covenant. Not only that, but the deaths were a culmination of days, sometimes weeks, of research and reconnaissance and patience. They belonged to him. The planning and the execution and the quiet after were his. Serena knew that. She was pushing him. Anger crackled beneath his skin.
He tried to spin the demand in his mind, to regain control. He knew he didn’t have time to savor these particular kills. Chances were, he wouldn’t even have time to wait for a demonstration. Today the rituals would be broken anyway, defiled.
He could feel Serena watching him struggle, and she seemed delighted by it. But not subdued. She took the file from him, and held up Zachary Flinch’s profile.
“Just once,” she said, the words tipping the scale.
Eli checked his watch. It was well after six. And there was no question she would expedite the process.
“Just once,” he said, climbing in the car.
Serena beamed, and slid into the passenger’s seat.
FIVE HOURS UNTIL MIDNIGHT
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
Sydney was perched on the couch with Dol at her feet and the folder of executed EOs open in her lap when Mitch came in. The sun was setting beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows, and she looked up as he pulled the carton of chocolate milk from the fridge. He looked tired as he leaned his elbows—they were dusted with something chalkish and white—on the dark granite counter.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“He went out.”
Mitch swore under his breath. “He’s crazy. The area is crawling with cops after that stunt.”
“Which stunt?” asked Sydney, shuffling the papers in the folder. “Killing the cop or answering Eli’s phone call?”
Mitch smiled grimly. “Both.”
Sydney looked down at the face of a dead woman in her lap.
“He can’t mean it,” she said quietly. “About meeting Eli at midnight. He doesn’t mean it, right?”
“Victor means what he says,” said Mitch. “But he wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t have a plan.”
Mitch pushed off the counter, and vanished down the hall, and a moment later Sydney heard the bathroom door shut, and the shower snap on. She went back to reading the profiles, telling herself it was only because there was nothing good on television. The truth was, she didn’t want to think about what would happen at midnight, or worse, what would happen after. She hated the what-ifs that crawled into her head the moment she lost focus. What if Eli won, what if Victor lost, what if Serena... she didn’t even know what to think about her sister, what to hope for, what to fear. There were these traitorous parts of her that still wanted to feel Serena’s arms around her, but she knew that now she had to run away from—not toward—her sister.
Sydney forced her eyes over the profiles in the folder, tried to focus on the EOs’ lives and deaths—tried not to picture Victor’s photo in among them, a black x across his calm, clear face—and guessed at what their powers were, even though she knew they could be anything. Victor had explained that it depended on the person, on their wants and wills and last thoughts.
The last profile was her own. She’d reprinted it after Victor took the first copy, and now her eyes wandered over the photo of her face. Unlike the other candid shots that filled the folder, hers was staged: head up, shoulders back, eyes leveled directly at the camera. It was a yearbook photo from last year, taken a week or so before the accident, and Sydney had loved it dearly because the camera had somehow, magically, caught her the moment before she smiled, and the proud upturn of her chin and faint crease in the corner of her mouth made her look just like Serena.
The only difference between this copy of the photo and the original was that this one had no x drawn through it. Eli knew by now that she was here, alive, and she hoped he felt sick when he’d heard about Barry’s body walking back into the bank, when he’d put the pieces together and realized that it was her doing, that a few shots fired into the woods didn’t equal a dead girl. Maybe it should have upset her, to see her own profile in the dead EO folder, and it had at first, but the shock had worn off, and the profile’s existence in the digital trash bin, the fact that they’d underestimated her, assumed she was dead, and most of all the fact that she wasn’t, made her smile.
“What’s got you grinning?”
Sydney looked up to find Mitch freshly showered and dressed, a towel draped around his neck. She didn’t realize how much time had passed. That happened to her more than she liked to admit. She’d blink, and the sun would be in a different position, or the show on TV would be over, or someone would be finishing a conversation she’d never heard them start.
“I hope Victor hurts him,” she said cheerfully. “A lot.”
“Jesus. Three days and you’re already taking after him.” Mitch sagged into a chair, ran his hand over his shaved head. “Look, Sydney, there’s something you need to understand about Victor—”
“He’s not a bad man,” she said.
“There are no good men in this game,” said Mitch.
But Sydney didn’t care about good. She wasn’t sure she believed in it. “I’m not afraid of Victor.”
“I know.” He sounded sad when he said it.
FIVE YEARS AGO
The third time Mitchell Turner went to jail, his curse followed him.
No matter where he went, or what he did (or didn’t do), people kept dying. He lost two cellmates at the hands of others, one cellmate at the man’s own hands, and a friend, who collapsed in the yard during the exercise period. So when the slim, polished form of Victor Vale appeared at the door of his cell one afternoon, pale in the dark gray prison uniforms, he figured the man was a goner. He was probably in for laundering, maybe a Ponzi scheme. Something heavy enough to make the right people angry and land him in max security, but light enough that he looked thoroughly out of place there. Mitch should have written him off but, still troubled by the death of his last cellmate, he became determined to keep Victor alive.
He assumed he would have his work cut out for him.
Victor didn’t speak to Mitch for three days. Mitch, admittedly, didn’t speak to Victor, either. There was something about the man, something Mitch couldn’t place, but he didn’t like it, in a primal, visceral way, and he found himself leaning vaguely away from Victor when the latter came near. The other inmates did it, too, on the rare occasions that first week when Victor ventured out among them. But even though it made Mitch uncomfortable, he followed the man, flanked him, constantly searching for an attacker, a threat. As far as Mitch could tell, his curse seemed firmly grounded in his proximity to people. When he was near them, they got hurt. But he couldn’t seem to figure out how close was too close, how near he needed to be to doom a life, and he thought that maybe, if for once his proximity could save a person instead of somehow marking them... maybe then, he could break the curse.
Victor didn’t ask him why he stayed so close, but he didn’t tell him not to, either.
Mitch knew the attack would come. It always did. A way for the old to test the new. Sometimes it wasn’t so bad, a few punches, a bit of roughing up. But other times, when men had a taste for blood or a bone to pick or even if they were just having a shitty day, it could get out of hand.
He followed Victor to the commons, to the yard, to the lunchroom. Mitch would sit on one side of the table, Victor on the other, picking at his lunch, while Mitch spent the entire time scanning the room. Victor never looked up from his plate. He didn’t look at his plate, either, not exactly. His eyes had an unfocused intensity, as if he were somewhere else, unconcerned with the cage around him or the monsters inside.
Like a predator, Mitch realized one day. He’d seen enough nature specials on the common room set to know that prey had eyes on the sides of their head, were constantly on guard, but predators’ eyes were forward-facing, close together, unafraid. Despite the fact that Victor was half the size of most inmates, and didn’t look like he’d ever been in a fight, let alone won one, everything about him said predator.
And for the first time, Mitch wondered if Victor was really the one who needed protecting.
FOUR AND A HALF HOURS UNTIL MIDNIGHT
THE SUBURBS OF MERIT
Zachary Flinch lived alone.
That much Serena could tell before she ever set eyes on him. The front yard was a tangle of weeds, the car on the gravel strip of a driveway had two spares, the screen door was torn, and a coil of rope tied to a half-dead tree had been chewed through by whatever was once tied there. Whatever his power, if he even was an EO, it wasn’t making him any money. Serena frowned, reconstructing his profile from memory. The entire page of data had been innocuous, except for the inversion—the Rebirth Principle, Eli had called it, a re-creation of self. It wasn’t necessarily positive, or even voluntary, but always marked, and Flinch ticked off that box with a bold red check. In the wake of his trauma, everything about his life had changed. Not subtle changes, either, but full flips. He went from being married with three kids to being divorced, unemployed, and under a restraining order. His survival—or revival, rather—should have been cause for celebration, for joy. Instead, everything and everyone had fled. That, or he had pushed them away. He’d been to a slew of psychiatrists, and been prescribed antipsychotics, but judging by the state of his yard, he wasn’t in a good place.