Eli had long since abandoned the notion of coincidence.
If this man was Turner, then Victor couldn’t be far away.
He scanned the bar, searching for Victor’s blond hair, his sharp smile, but he didn’t see anyone who fit the bill, and by the time he turned his attention back to the counter, Mitchell was talking to Dominic Rusher. His hulking form leaned in over the ex-soldier like a shadow, and while the noise in the bar drowned out the conversation itself, Eli could see his lips moving quickly, could see Dominic stiffen in response. And then, mere moments after he sat down, Mitchell stood back up. Without ordering, without another word. Eli watched him scan the bar, watched the man’s eyes pass blankly over him and settle on the sign that read RESTROOMS in neon yellow light. Mitchell Turner made his way, stepping between Dominic and the rest of the room, his massive form for a moment—a blink—hiding the man from view. By the time he’d finished the stride—crossed from one side of the ex-soldier to the other—Dominic was gone.
And Eli was on his feet.
The bar stool that had, for the better part of an hour, held his target was now suddenly empty, and there was no sign, to any side, of Dominic Rusher. Not possible, Eli’s brain might have thought. Only Eli knew it was entirely possible, it was too possible. Where the man went took a backseat in Eli’s thoughts to the question of why he went, and that was a question with only one answer. He’d been spooked. Warned. Eli’s gaze swiveled across the room until he saw the door to the men’s room swing shut behind Mitchell Turner.
He dropped a bill on the table beside his empty glass, and followed.
NINETY MINUTES UNTIL MIDNIGHT
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
Sydney perched on the desk chair, arms wrapped around her knees, attention flicking between the clock on the wall, the clock on the computer (the wall clock was a full ninety seconds faster), and the Post button glowing green in the open program on Mitch’s screen. Just above the button was the profile they’d constructed. Victor Vale was typed in across the top, with Eli listed as his middle name. Where his date of birth should be, the current date was written. The space reserved for last known whereabouts was filled with the address of the Falcon Price high-rise project. Every other space—those reserved for background information, history, police notation—was filled with one word, repeated in every slot: midnight.
To the left of the profile was the photo, or the place where the photo would have been. Instead, the bold lettering of the book spine ran vertically, reading VALE.
The book they’d used for the picture, the one Victor had bought on their walk the day before, sat beneath the stack of papers Sydney was supposed to start burning soon, the blue lighter a spot of color resting on top. She slid the massive text out from under the folders, and ran a thumb over the book’s cover. She’d seen it before, or one just like it. Her parents had a set in their study (spines uncracked, of course). Sydney opened the book, and turned to the first page, but it was a wall of black. Flipping through, she saw that every one of the first thirty-three pages had been systematically blacked out. The Sharpie nesting into the fold between pages thirty-three and thirty-four suggested that the only reason the remaining pages had been spared was because Victor hadn’t gotten to them yet. It was only while flipping back through those thirty-three pages toward the front of the book that Sydney noticed two words exempt from the blackout.
For and ever.
The words were several pages apart, separated and surrounded by a sea of black. Not only that, but the word ever had been altered, part of a larger word, the for- preceding it blotted carefully out, which meant Victor was not trying to piece together the word forever from the text.
He clearly wanted it to be two separate words. Distinct.
She ran her fingers over the page, expected them to come away stained, but they didn’t. Dol whined faintly beneath the desk chair, where he’d somehow crammed himself—or at least a good part of his front half—and Sydney shut the book and looked back at the clock. It was after ten thirty according to both the wall and the computer. Her index finger hovered over the screen.
She knew what it would mean to hit the button.
Even without knowing Victor’s plan, she knew that if she clicked Post there would be no going back, and Eli would find Victor, and at least one of them would die, and tomorrow everything would be horrible again.
She would be alone.
One way or another, alone. An EO with a wounded arm and a sister who wanted her dead, with a sick, strange gift and absent parents, and maybe she would be running or maybe she would be killed, too—none of it sounded terribly appealing.
She considered not posting it. She could pretend the computer had crashed, could steal them another day. Why did Victor have to do this? Why did he and Eli have to find each other? But even as she asked it, she knew the answer. She knew because her own pulse still quickened defiantly at the thought of Serena, because even as reason told her to run as far from her sister as possible, the gravity of want drew Sydney back. She couldn’t break the orbit.
But she could keep from falling. Couldn’t Victor, just for a little while? Couldn’t they all stay aloft? Alive? But then Mitch’s warning echoed in her head—there are no good men in this game— and when she closed her eyes to block it out, she saw Victor Vale, not as he was in the rain that first day, or even as he was when she accidentally woke him, but as he was this afternoon, standing over that cop’s body, pain crackling in the air around him as he ordered her to bring the dead man back.
Sydney opened her eyes, and hit the Post button.
SEVENTY-FIVE MINUTES UNTIL MIDNIGHT
THE THREE CROWS BAR
Victor was leaning back against the cold brick side of the bar’s alley wall, consulting Dominic Rusher’s profile, when a man matching the photo staggered out of nothing and into the narrow run between the buildings. Victor was impressed, especially considering the door to the bar had never opened, but did his best to hide it in the interest of maintaining the upper hand.
Dominic, for his part, took one look at Victor—he had a black eye and a blue one, and according to his file, the blue was fake— then staggered forward in pain, clutching his side, and crumpled, one knee cracking against the concrete. It wasn’t Victor’s doing. The man was in bad shape, and whatever disappearing stunt he’d pulled with the shadows hadn’t helped his condition.
“You know, Mr. Rusher,” said Victor, closing the folder, “you really shouldn’t be mixing methahydricone with alcohol. And if you’re this bad on 35 milligrams, a drink’s not going to help.”
“Who are you?” gasped Dominic.
“Where’s my friend?” asked Victor. “The one who warned you?”
“Still in there. He just said there was a man—”
“I know what he said. I told him to say it. There’s a man who wants to kill you.”
Victor didn’t enjoy persuasion nearly as much as coercion. It took so much longer.
“Because you’re an EO,” he said. “Because you’re unnatural. Something to that extent. And I should clarify, the man doesn’t just want to kill you. He will kill you.”
Dominic struggled to his feet and met Victor’s gaze. “Like I’m afraid to die.” There was a stubborn intensity in his eyes.
“Well,” said Victor, “how hard can it be, right? You’ve done it once. But being afraid and being unwilling are different things. I don’t think you want to die.”
“How do you know?” he growled.
Victor dropped the profile on top of a trashcan. “Because you would have done it. You’re a mess. You’re in constant pain. Every moment of every day, I’m guessing, but you don’t end it, which speaks either to your resilience or your stupidity, but also to your wish to live. And because you came here.” He gestured to the alley. “Mitch told you to come here if you wanted to live. You could have left and taken your chances, though how far you’d get given your condition, who knows. The point is, you didn’t leave. You came here. So while I have no doubt you would face death again with all the honor of a soldier, I don’t think you’re eager to.” Even as he spoke, he was picturing the game board, pieces shifting to accommodate a talent he’d only glimpsed, but already knew he wanted. “I’m giving you a choice,” he added. “Go back inside and wait to die. Or go home and wait to die. Or stay with me and live.”
“Why do you care?”
“I don’t,” said Victor, simply. “Not about you, that is. But the one who wants to kill you? I want him dead. And you can help me.”
“Why would I?”
Victor sighed. “Aside from the obvious self-preservation?” He held out his empty hand, palm up, and smiled. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
When Dominic didn’t take his hand, Victor brought it to rest on the man’s shoulder. He could both feel and see as the pain left Dominic’s body, watch it slide from his limbs and his jaw and his forehead and his eyes, which then widened in shock.
“What... what did you...?”
“My name, Mr. Rusher, is Victor Vale. I am an EO, and I can take away your pain. All of it. Forever. Or...” His hand slid from the young man’s shoulder, and a moment later Dominic’s face crumpled as the pain swept back, redoubled. “I can give it back, and leave you here, to live in agony, or die at a stranger’s hands. Not the best death for a soldier.”