Serena knocked, wondering what would scare a man enough to throw his life away after he’d beaten death itself to keep it.
No one answered the door. The sun had dipped below the horizon, and when she exhaled it made small puffs of steam in the dusk. She knocked again, and could hear the sound of the television within. Eli sighed and pressed his back against the peeling paint of the siding by the door.
“Hello,” she called. “Mr. Flinch? Could you come to the door?”
Sure enough, she could make out the shifting of feet, and a few moments later Zach Flinch appeared in the doorway wearing an old polo and a pair of jeans. Both were a size too big, making it look like he’d withered since putting them on. Over his shoulder she could see the coffee table littered with empty cans, the takeout boxes stacked on the floor beside it.
“Who are you?” he asked, dark rings beneath his eyes. There was a gruff tremor in his voice.
Serena clutched his dossier to her chest. “A friend. I just have a few questions.”
Flinch grunted, but didn’t shut the door in her face. She held his gaze so he wouldn’t see Eli standing a couple feet to his right, still wearing his black hero’s mask.
“Is your name Zachary Flinch?” she asked.
“Is it true you were involved in a mining accident last year? A tunnel collapse?”
She could feel Eli getting impatient, but she wasn’t done. She wanted to know.
“In the wake of your accident, did anything change? Did you change?”
Flinch’s eyes widened in surprise, but even as they did, he answered with a nod, his face caught between confusion and complacence. Serena smiled softly. “I see.”
“How did you find me? Who are you?”
“Like I said, I’m a friend.”
Flinch took a step forward, over the threshold. His shoes tangled in the stray greenish brown weeds that were trying to reclaim the porch. “I didn’t want to die alone,” he muttered. “That’s all. Down there in the dark, I didn’t want to die alone, but I didn’t want this. Can you make them stop?”
“Make what stop, Mr. Flinch?”
“Please make them go away. Dru couldn’t see them either till I showed her but they’re everywhere. I just didn’t want to die alone. But I can’t take it. I don’t want to see them. I don’t want to hear them. Please make them stop.”
Serena held out her hand. “Why don’t you show me wha—”
The rest of the word was cut off by the gun as Eli swung it up to Zach Flinch’s temple and pulled the trigger. Blood streaked across the siding of the house, flecking Serena’s hair and dotting her face like freckles. Eli lowered the weapon and crossed himself.
“Why did you do that?” She spat, livid.
“He wanted to make them stop,” said Eli.
“But I wasn’t done—”
“I was merciful. He was sick. Besides, he confirmed he was an EO,” said Eli, already turning toward the car. “A demonstration was no longer necessary.”
“You have such a complex,” she snapped. “You always have to be in control.”
Eli gave a low, mocking laugh. “Says the siren.”
“I just wanted to help.”
“No,” he said. “You wanted to play.” He stormed away.
“Eli Ever, stop.”
His shoe caught in the gravel, and stuck. The gun was still in his hand. For the briefest moment, Serena’s temper got the best of her and she had to bite her tongue to stop herself from making him put the weapon to his own temple. The urge eased, and she stepped over Flinch’s body and descended the stairs, coming up behind Eli. She wrapped her arms around Eli’s waist and kissed the back of his neck.
“You know I don’t want this kind of control,” she whispered. “Now put the gun away.” Eli’s hand slid the weapon back into its holster. “You’re not going to kill me today.”
He turned to face her, wrapped his hands, now empty, around her back, and pulled her close, his lips brushing her ear.
“One of these days, Serena,” he whispered, “you’re going to forget to say that.”
She tensed in his grip, and knew that he could feel it, but when she answered, her voice was even, light.
His hands fell away as he turned toward the car and held the door open for her.
“Are you coming with me?” he asked as they pulled out of the gravel drive. “To find Dominic?”
Serena chewed her lip, and shook her head. “No. Have your fun. I’m going back to the hotel to wash the blood out of my hair before it stains. Drop me off on your way.”
Eli nodded, the relief written across his face as he gunned the engine, leaving Flinch on the porch, one lifeless hand trailing in the weeds.
FOUR HOURS UNTIL MIDNIGHT
Victor made his way back toward the hotel, a bag of takeout beneath one arm. It had been a pretense, really, this errand, a chance to escape the confines of the hotel room, a chance to breathe and think and plan. He ambled down the sidewalk, careful to keep his pace casual, his expression calm. Since the meeting with Officer Dane, the call with Eli, and the midnight ultimatum, the number of cops on the streets of Merit had gone dramatically up. Not all in uniform, of course, but all alert. Mitch had carved out any photographic evidence from the system, from Lockland University profile pictures down to the mug shots that were logged at Wrighton. All the Merit cops would have to go on was a stick-figure drawing, Eli’s own memory (ten years out of date, since unlike him, Victor had aged), and descriptions from the penitentiary staff. Still, the police weren’t to be discounted. Mitch’s size made him terribly conspicuous, and Sydney stood out for being a child. Only Victor, arguably the most wanted of the group, had a defense mechanism. He smiled to himself as he strode within reach of a cop. The officer never looked up.
Victor had discovered that pain was a spectacularly nuanced sensation. A large, sudden quantity could cripple, of course, but it had many more practical applications than torture. Victor found that, by inflicting a subtle amount of pain on those in a determined radius, he could induce a subconscious aversion to his presence. People didn’t register the pain, yet they leaned ever so slightly away. Their attention, too, seemed to bend around him, lending Victor a kind of invisibility. It served him in prison, and it served him now.
Victor made his way past the abandoned Falcon Price site and checked his watch again, marveling at the structure of revenge, the fact that years of waiting and planning and wanting would come down to hours—minutes, even—of execution. His pulse quickened with the thrill of it as he made his way back to the Esquire.
* * *
Eli dropped Serena off on the Esquire curb with the sole instruction to pay attention and let him know if she noticed anything unusual. Victor was going to send another message, it was only a matter of when, and as the clock ticked away the minutes until midnight, Eli knew that his level of control would depend almost entirely on how quickly he got the memo. The later it got, the less time he’d have to plan, prepare, and he was sure that was Victor’s intent, to keep him in the dark as long as possible.
Now he idled on the painted pavement of the drop-off square in front of the hotel, sliding the mask free and dropping it onto the passenger seat before reaching for Dominic Rusher’s profile. Rusher had only been in the city a few months, but he already had a history with the Merit Police, a list of misdemeanors consisting almost exclusively of drunk and disorderly conduct charges. The vast majority of the trouble had emanated not from Dominic’s shitty hole of an apartment in the south part of the city, but from a bar. One particular bar. The Three Crows. Eli knew the address. He pulled away from the hotel, just missing Victor and his bag of takeout.
* * *
Two cops stood in the Esquire’s lobby, their full attention on a young blonde with her back to the hotel’s revolving front doors. Victor wandered in unnoticed and headed for the stairs. When he reached the hotel room he found Sydney reading on the couch, Dol lying beneath her feet, and Mitch drinking straight from a carton at the counter while tapping out code one-handed on his laptop.
“Have any trouble?” asked Victor, setting the food down.
“With the body? No.” Mitch set the carton aside. “But it was close with the cops. Jesus, Vale, they’re everywhere. I don’t exactly blend in as it is.”
“That’s what parking garage entrances are for. Besides, we just have to make it a few more hours,” said Victor.
“About that...” started Mitch, but Victor was busy scribbling something on a scrap of paper. He slid it toward him.
“What’s this for?”
“It’s Dane’s ID and pass code. For the database. I need you to prepare a new flagged profile.”
“And who are we flagging?”
Victor smiled, and gestured to himself. Mitch groaned. “I take it this has to do with midnight.”
Victor nodded. “The Falcon Price high-rise. Ground floor.”
“That place is a cage. You’re going to get trapped.”
“I have a plan,” said Victor simply.
“Care to share?” Victor said nothing. Mitch grumbled. “I’m not using your photo. It took me ages to scrub it from the systems.”