Victor looked around the room. His gaze settled on the latest Vale self-help tome he’d been inking out. He took it up, flashed the spine at Mitch, where VALE was written in glossy caps. “This’ll do.”
Mitch continued muttering even as he took the book and got to work.
Victor turned his attention toward Sydney. He carried a tub of noodles to the couch, and sagged onto the leather cushions as he offered it to her. Sydney set aside the dead EO folder and accepted the food, fingers curling around the still-warm container. She didn’t eat. Neither did he. Victor stared past the windows and listened to the sounds of Mitch composing the post. His fingers itched to black out lines, but Mitch was using the book, so he closed his eyes and tried to find quiet, peace. He didn’t picture sprawling fields or blue skies or water drops. He pictured squeezing the trigger three times, blood blossoming on Eli’s chest in the same pattern it had on his, pictured carving lines into Eli’s skin, watching them fade so he could do it over again, over and over and over. Are you afraid yet? he would ask when the floor was slick with Eli’s blood. Are you afraid?
THREE AND A HALF HOURS UNTIL MIDNIGHT
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
“Do you really have a plan?” asked Sydney sometime later.
Victor dragged his eyes back open, and said the same thing he’d said in the graveyard, when she asked if Wrighton Penitentiary had let him go. The same words and the same tone and the same look. “Of course,” he said.
“Is it a good plan?” pressed Sydney. Her legs swung from the couch, boots grazing Dol’s ears with every pass. The dog didn’t seem to mind.
“No,” said Victor. “Probably not.”
Sydney made a sound, something between a cough and a sigh. Victor wasn’t terribly fluent in her language yet, but guessed it was a kind of sad affirmative, the pre-teen version of gotcha or okay. The clock on the wall said it was almost nine p.m. Victor closed his eyes again.
“I don’t get it,” said Sydney a few minutes later. She was scratching Dol’s ear with her shoe. The dog’s head rocked back and forth gently with the motion.
“What don’t you get?” asked Victor, eyes still closed.
“If you want to find Eli, and Eli wants to find you, why do you have to go through all this? Why can’t you just find each other?”
Victor blinked, and considered the small blond thing beside him on the couch. Her eyes were wide and waiting, but they were already losing their innocence. What little she’d clung to and brought with her down that road in the rain had faded in the face of Victor’s pragmatic execution, his promises and his threats. She’d been betrayed, shot, saved, healed, hurt, healed again, forced to resurrect two men, only to witness the reassassination of one of them. She’d gotten tangled up in this, by Eli and then by Victor. She was like a child, but not a child, and Victor couldn’t help but wonder if becoming an EO had hollowed her out the way it had him, had all of them—cut the ties of something vital and human. He wasn’t protecting her, not by treating her like a normal kid. She wasn’t normal.
“You asked me if I have a plan,” he said, sitting forward. “I didn’t, at first. I had options, yes, ideas, and factors, but not a plan.”
“But you have one now.”
“I do. But because of Eli, and because of your sister, I only have one shot to get it right. The first person to act sacrifices the element of surprise, and I can’t afford to do that right now. Eli has a siren on his side, which means he could compel the entire city. Maybe he already has. I have a hacker, a half-dead dog, and a child. It’s hardly an arsenal.”
Sydney frowned and reached for the folder of living EOs. She held it out to him. “So make one. Or at least, make yours stronger. Try. Eli sees EOs—us—as monsters. But you don’t, right?”
Victor wasn’t sure how he felt about EOs. Up until he fetched Sydney from the side of the road, he’d only ever known one EO, himself excluded, and that was Eli. If he’d had to judge based on the two of them, then ExtraOrdinaries were damaged, to say the least. But these words people threw around—humans, monsters, heroes, villains—to Victor it was all just a matter of semantics. Someone could call themselves a hero and still walk around killing dozens. Someone else could be labeled a villain for trying to stop them. Plenty of humans were monstrous, and plenty of monsters knew how to play at being human. The difference between Victor and Eli, he suspected, wasn’t their opinion on EOs. It was their reaction to them. Eli seemed intent to slaughter them, but Victor didn’t see why a useful skill should be destroyed, just because of its origin. EOs were weapons, yes, but weapons with minds and wills and bodies, things that could be bent and twisted and broken and used.
But there were so many unknowns. Whether the EOs were still alive was an unknown. What their powers were was an unknown. Whether they would be receptive was an unknown, and while Victor possessed a compelling argument, since the other side wanted them dead and he had use for them alive, the fact remained that to recruit an EO would mean introducing unpredictable and unreliable elements into his equation. Add to that the fact that Eli was probably busy eliminating Victor’s options, and it seemed more trouble than it was worth.
“Please, Victor,” said Sydney, still holding out the folder. And so, to pacify her, and pass the time, he took it, and flipped the cover back. The page with the blue-haired girl had been removed, leaving only two profiles.
The first profile belonged to a man named Zachary Flinch. Victor had read through the man’s page earlier that day, while waiting for Mitch’s call, so he knew it was a dead end. Everything about the suspected EO was too ambiguous—an EO’s ability seemed to have at least a tangential relationship to either the nature of death or the subject’s mental state, but it was still a guessing game—and the fact that everyone had left in the wake of the accident suggested trouble. More trouble than Victor had time for.
He turned to the second profile, the one he hadn’t gotten to yet, skimmed the page, and stopped.
Dominic Rusher was in his late twenties, an ex-soldier who’d had the misfortune of standing too close to a land mine overseas. The explosion had shattered many of Dominic’s bones, and left him in a coma for two weeks, but it wasn’t the coma or his newfound habit of disappearing that attracted Victor’s attention. It was the brief medical note at the bottom of the page. According to the military hospital records, Rusher had been prescribed 35 milligrams of methahydricone.
It was a high dose of a fairly ambiguous synthetic opioid, but Victor had spent one rather slow summer in prison memorizing the extensive list of painkillers currently available via prescription, their purposes, dosages, and official names, as well as their medical ones, so he recognized the drug on sight. Not only that, but he felt sure that unless Eli had dedicated the same amount of time, he wouldn’t recognize it.
Fate, it seemed, was smiling on Victor again.
With mere hours until his midnight meeting, he knew there was no time or place for building trust or loyalty, but perhaps these could be supplanted by need. And need, Victor had learned, could be as powerful as any emotional bond. The latter was neurotic, complicated, but need could be simple, as primal as fear or pain. Need could be the foundation of allegiance. And Victor had exactly what Dominic needed. He could supply, if Dominic’s power was worth it. There was only one way to find out.
Victor folded the profile and put it in his pocket.
“Grab your coat, Mitch. We’re going out.”
“Car or foot?”
“Absolutely not. Did you miss the memo about the cops? Last time I checked, that vehicle is stolen.”
“Well, we’ll just have to make sure we don’t attract attention, then.”
Mitch mumbled something unkind as he reached for his coat. Sydney ran to get hers from the bedroom where she’d abandoned it.
“No, Syd,” said Victor when she reappeared, already tugging on her large red coat. “You need to stay here.”
“But it was my idea!” she said.
“And it’s a good one, but you still have to stay.”
“Why?” she whined. “And don’t tell me it’s too dangerous. You said that about the cop, and then you dragged me in anyway.”
Victor scoffed. “It is too dangerous, but that’s not why you have to stay here. We stand out enough without a missing child, and I need you to do something for me.”
Sydney crossed her arms and considered him skeptically.
“If I’m not back by ten thirty,” he said, “I need you to hit the Post button on Mitch’s computer, and upload my profile to the database. He has the window up and ready.”
“Why ten thirty?” asked Mitch, buttoning his coat.
“Long enough for someone to see it, but hopefully not long enough for them to be prepared. It’s a risk, I know.”
“Not the biggest one you’re taking,” said Mitch.
“Is that all?” asked Sydney.
“No,” said Victor. He patted down the pockets of his coat. His hand vanished, and then came out with a blue lighter. He didn’t smoke, but it always seemed to come in handy. “At eleven, I need you to start burning the folders. All of them. Use the sink.” He held out the lighter. “One page at a time, you understand?”