Syd took the small blue device, turning it over in her hands.
“This is really important,” he said. “We can’t be leaving evidence around, okay? You see why I need you here?” At last she nodded. Dol whined faintly.
“You’re going to come back, right?” she asked when they reached the door.
Victor looked over his shoulder. “Of course I will,” he said. “That’s my favorite lighter.”
Sydney almost smiled as the door shut.
“I get burning the papers, but why one page at a time?” asked Mitch as he and Victor were headed down the stairs.
“To keep her busy.”
Mitch thrust his hands into his coat. “We’re not coming back then, are we?”
THREE HOURS UNTIL MIDNIGHT
THE THREE CROWS BAR
Eli sat in a booth along the back wall of the Three Crows and waited for Dominic Rusher to show up. He’d checked with the bartender when he first arrived, and had been assured that Rusher came every night around nine o’clock. Eli had been early, but he had nothing else to do besides wait for midnight and whatever that would bring, so he’d ordered a beer and retreated to the corner booth, savoring the time away from Serena more than the booze.
The drink was mostly for appearances anyway, since regenerating negated its effect, and alcohol without inebriation was far less enticing (he’d been carded, too, and the novelty of that had long worn off). But the distance from Serena was important—vital, he’d found—to maintaining his slim hold on control. The longer he was with her, the more things seemed to blur, an intoxication Eli’s body didn’t overcome so easily. He should have killed her when he had the chance. Now, with the police involved, it was messy. Their loyalty was to her, not to him, and they both knew it.
A new city, that’s what he needed.
After midnight and Victor and this whole mess was sorted out, he’d find a new city. Start over. Away from Detective Stell. Away from Serena, too, if he could help it. He didn’t even mind the prospect of his old method, the time and dedication it took, the weeks of searching for the mere moments of payoff. Things had gotten too easy lately, and easy meant dangerous. Easy led to mistakes. Serena was a mistake. Eli took a sip of beer and checked his phone for messages. There were none.
Eli had hunted here once, a few years back, before Serena, when he was still a ghost, just passing through. The place was loud, and crowded, made for people who liked to surround themselves with chaos instead of quiet; ambient noise built of glass and shouting and music to which you could never discern the lyrics. It was an easy place to be invisible, to vanish, swallowed by the low light and the din of drunk and drinking and angry people. But even knowing that, Eli was neither bold enough nor foolish enough to perform a public execution. Serena might have secured him the police, but the people in the Three Crows weren’t much for cops or conformity. A problem could escalate into a disaster in a place like this, especially without Serena to soothe the masses.
Eli reminded himself again that he was glad to be rid of her influence, both over others and over him. Now he could, out of want and necessity, do this his way.
He checked the time. Less than three hours until... until what? Victor had set the deadline to rattle him, put him on edge. He was disturbing Eli’s calm, like a kid dropping rocks into a pond, making ripples, and Eli saw him doing it and still felt rippled, which perturbed him even more. Well, Eli was taking back control, of his mind and his life and his night. He drew his fingers through the ring left by his beer glass on the old wood table, before writing one word in the film of water.
TEN YEARS AGO
Victor posed the question from across the table. Eli had just died. Victor had just brought him back. Now the two were sitting in the bar a few blocks down from their apartment, buzzed from several rounds (or at least Victor was) and the fact they’d been lucky enough to survive an acute attack of stupidity. But Eli felt odd. Not bad, just... different. Distant. He couldn’t put his finger on it yet. Something was missing, though, he could feel the absence of it, even if he couldn’t deduce the shape. Physically though—and he supposed that mattered most, all things considered—he felt fine, persistently so, suspiciously so, given that for some time that evening he had been an inanimate object instead of a living being.
“What do you mean?” he asked, sipping his beer.
“I mean,” said Victor, “you could pick any name. Why pick Ever?”
“No,” said Victor, waving his drink. “No, Eli. You don’t do anything like that.”
“Without thinking. You had to have a reason.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I know you. I see you.”
Eli drew his fingers through a ring of water on the table. “I don’t want to be forgotten.”
He said it so softly he worried Victor wouldn’t hear, not over the chatter of the bar, but he clamped his hand down on Eli’s shoulder. For a moment he looked so serious, but then he let go and slumped back in his seat.
“Tell you what,” said Victor. “You remember me, and I’ll remember you, and that way we won’t be forgotten.”
“That’s shit logic, Vic.”
“And what happens when we’re dead?”
“We won’t die, then.”
“You make cheating death sound so simple.”
“We do seem awfully good at it,” said Victor cheerfully. He lifted his glass. “To never dying.”
Eli lifted his. “To being remembered.”
Their glasses clinked as Eli added, “Forever.”
TWO AND A HALF HOURS UNTIL MIDNIGHT
THE THREE CROWS BAR
Dominic Rusher was a broken man. Literally.
Most of the bones on his left side, the side nearest the IED, were pinned or screwed or synthetic, the skin pocked with scars beneath his clothes. His hair—for three years buzzed to military standards—had grown out, and now hung shaggy around his eyes, one of which was fake. His skin was tan and his shoulders strong, his posture still too straight to blend entirely with the bar’s regulars, and despite it all he was clearly broken.
Eli didn’t need the files to tell him any of that; he could see it as the man walked up to the counter, slid onto a stool, and ordered his first drink. Time was ticking past and Eli’s grip tightened on his own glass, as he watched the ex-soldier kick off his night with a Jack and Coke. He had to resist the urge to abandon the booth and the beer and shoot Dominic in the back of the head, just to be done with it. Eli did his best to smother the flare of impatience; his rituals existed for a reason, and he would—and had—compromised them on occasion, but would not abandon them, even now. To slay without cause would be an abuse of power, and an insult to God. The blood of EOs washed from his skin. The blood of innocents would not. He had to get Dominic out of the bar, had to get a confession, if not a demonstration, before he executed him. Besides, Dominic would make fine bait. So long as he was instilled at the bar, and in Eli’s sight, he was as useful alive as he was dead, because if Victor came looking for the broken man, and made his way here before midnight, Eli would be waiting, and he would be ready.
* * *
Victor drove, while Mitch lay sprawled across the backseat, as out of sight as possible given his mass. The city slid by, the greens and reds and office-window whites streaking past as Victor wove the car through the gridded streets, out of the downtown and into the old sector. They kept to the roads that curled through the side streets of Merit instead of the main grid that ran in and out of the city, avoiding any street that eventually led to a toll or a bridge or any other potential checkpoint. They watched their speed, pacing traffic when it went too fast because going slow would stand out just as much as speeding. Victor guided the stolen car through Merit, and soon the numbered avenues and lettered roads gave way to named streets. Real names, trees and people and places, clustered buildings, some dark, boarded, abandoned, and some bulging with life.
“Take a left,” said Mitch, consulting the card-sized, shifting map on his phone. Victor checked his watch and ticked off the time it was taking to get to the bar, subtracted it from midnight to figure out how long they really had. He couldn’t be late. Not tonight. He tried to find calm, find peace, but excitement rattled inside of him like loose change. He rapped his free hand on his leg and swallowed the whisper that this was a bad idea. It was better than sitting still. Besides, they had time. Plenty of time.
“Left again,” said Mitch. Victor turned.
They’d spent the first half of the drive going over the plan, and now that it was laid out, and all that remained was to execute it, they drove in a silence punctuated only by Mitch’s directions and Victor’s restless tapping, and the roads rolling away beneath them.
* * *
While Victor drove, Mitch wondered.
Wondered if he would survive the night.
Wondered if Victor would, too.
Wondered what tomorrow would bring if they both did.
Wondered what Victor would do to occupy his thoughts once Eli was gone. If Eli was gone.