“No,” hissed Dominic through gritted teeth. “Please. What do I have to do?”
Victor smiled. “One night’s worth of work for a lifetime without pain. What are you willing to do?” When Dominic didn’t answer, Victor clicked the dial up in his mind, watched the man wince, buckle.
“Anything,” Dominic gasped at last. “Anything.”
* * *
Mitch stood at the bathroom sink, pushing the sleeves of his coat up to wash his hands. He turned the faucet on, and heard the door open over the sound of the water. His form filled the mirror, edge to edge, so he couldn’t see the man behind him, but he didn’t need to. He could hear Eli Ever cross the threshold, and slide the bolt on the bathroom door, locking the world out. Locking them in.
“What did you tell him?” came Eli’s voice behind him.
Mitch turned the water off, but stayed at the sink. “Tell who?”
“The man at the bar. You were talking to him, and then he disappeared.”
The paper towels were out of reach, and Mitch knew better than to make any sudden movements, so he wiped his hands on his coat, and turned to face the other man.
“It’s a bar,” he said with a shrug. “People come and go.”
“No,” snapped Eli. “He literally disappeared. Vanished.”
Mitch forced a laugh. “Look, man,” he said, walking past Eli toward the door as if he didn’t notice the thrown bolt. “I think you’ve had a few too many—”
He heard Eli draw the gun from his coat, and his words cut off as his steps slowed, then stopped. Eli cocked the weapon. Mitch could tell it was an automatic by the metallic grating of the top half as it was shifted back and primed. He turned slowly toward the sound. The gun was in Eli’s hand, the silencer already screwed on, but instead of being trained on Mitch, it hung at Eli’s side. And that made Mitch more nervous, the casual way he held the weapon, fingers barely gripping it, not only comfortable with the gun, but in control. He looked like he felt in control.
“I’ve seen you before,” said Eli. “At the Esquire downtown.”
Mitch cocked his head and tugged one corner of his mouth up. “Do I look like I’d be caught in a place like that?”
“No. Which is exactly why I noticed you.” Mitch’s smile faded. Eli raised the gun, and took him in over the sight. “Someone swiped the visuals from the prison files and the police logs, but I’m willing to bet your name is Mitchell Turner. Now where is Victor?”
Mitch thought to feign ignorance, but in the end he decided not to chance it. He’d never been that great at telling lies, anyway, and he knew he’d have to make the few he needed count.
“You must be Eli,” he said. “Victor told me about you. Said you had a thing for killing innocent people.”
“They’re not innocent,” growled Eli. “Where is Victor?”
“Haven’t seen him since we reached the city and split ways.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“I don’t care.”
Eli swallowed, fingers drifting toward the trigger. “And Dominic Rusher?”
Mitch shrugged, but slid a step back. “Kid just vanished.”
Eli took a step forward, settled his finger against the trigger. “What did you tell him?”
A smile twitched at the corner of Mitch’s mouth. “I told him to run.”
Eli’s eyes narrowed. He twirled the gun in his hand, the barrel fetching up against his palm, and swung the handle hard against Mitch’s head. His face cracked sideways, and blood poured from the gash above his eye, running into his vision as Eli brought his boot up, hard, and sent him sprawling backward to the bathroom floor. Eli spun the gun again, and trained it on Mitch’s chest. “Where is Victor?” he demanded.
Mitch squinted through the blood. “You’ll see him soon enough,” he said. “It’s almost midnight.”
Eli bared his teeth, and bowed his head, and Mitch thought he could see him mouth the words forgive me before he looked up, and pulled the trigger.
* * *
Victor checked his watch. It was almost eleven p.m., and Mitch still hadn’t come out.
Dominic stood nearby stretching, rolling his head and shoulders and swinging his arms forward and backward and side to side, as if he’d just set down a heavy burden. Victor supposed that in many ways he had. After all, Victor knew pain enough to know how much Dominic had been in, and was frankly impressed by the man’s threshold. But while he might be able to function in pain, his powers clearly didn’t flourish under it. So Victor had taken it away. Taken it all away. He had, however, left as much sensation as possible, which was tricky, given how tightly the two things were intertwined, but he didn’t need his newest asset accidentally bleeding out just because he didn’t notice he’d cut himself.
Victor’s attention flicked between his watch and the ex-soldier, who was busy examining himself. People took their bodies and their health for granted. But Dominic Rusher seemed to savor every painless flexing of his hands, every stride. He clearly understood what a gift he’d been given. Good, thought Victor.
“Dominic,” he said. “What I’ve done can be undone. And for the record, I do not need to touch you to do it. That was for effect. Do you understand? What I’ve taken can be given back in a blink, from a city away, or a world away. So do not cross me.”
Dominic nodded solemnly.
In truth, Victor could only influence a person’s pain threshold if they were within eyesight. The farthest he’d gotten in prison was dropping a man from across the football-field-sized yard with only a finger gun. Once he’d managed to crumple an inmate at the other end of the cell block, only his hand visible through the bars, but still. Out of sight, and his accuracy quickly vanished. Not that Dominic needed to know any of that.
“Your power,” asked Victor. “How does it work?”
“I don’t exactly know how to explain.” Dominic looked down at his hands, and flexed and stretched them as if working out a lingering stiffness. “Yea, though I walk in the shadow of the valley of death—”
“Biblical allusions aside, please.”
“After the mine blew, it was bad. I couldn’t... it was inhuman, that pain. It was animal and everywhere. And I didn’t want to die. God, I didn’t, but I wanted quiet and dark and... it’s hard to explain.”
He didn’t have to. Victor knew.
“I felt torn apart. I was. Anyway. They brought me back but they couldn’t seem to pull me through, not all the way. I spent weeks in a coma. All that time, I could feel the world. I could hear it. Swore I could see it, too, but it was like everything was far away. Murky. And I couldn’t reach out, couldn’t touch any of it. And then I woke up, and everything was so sharp and bright and full of pain again, and all I wanted was to find that place, that dull, quiet place. And then I did. I call it walking in shadows, because I don’t know any other term. I step into the darkness and can move from one place to another without being seen. Without time passing. Without anything. It looks like teleporting, I guess, but I have to physically move. I could cross a city in the time it takes you to blink, but it would take me hours. I’d have to walk the whole way. And it’s hard. Like walking through water. The world resists, when you break its rules.”
“Can you take others with you?”
Dominic shrugged. “I’ve never tried.”
“Well then,” said Victor, taking hold of Dominic’s arm, ignoring the moment when the man winced intrinsically away. “Consider this your audition.”
“Where are we going?”
“My friend is still inside,” said Victor, nodding toward the bar. “He should have come out after you. But he didn’t.”
“That big guy? He said he’d cover me.”
Victor frowned. “From who?”
“The one who wants to kill me,” said Dominic, frowning. “I tried to tell you, that guy sat down next to me and said there was a man who wanted to kill me, and that he was in the bar.”
Victor’s grip tightened on Dominic’s sleeve. Eli. “Take me inside. Now.”
Dominic took a steadying breath, and put his hand over Victor’s. “Don’t know if this is even going to—”
The rest of the words dropped away, not fading out but plummeting into silence as the air around them shuddered, and split to allow the two men through. The moment Dominic and Victor stepped through the seam, everything hushed and darkened and stilled. Victor could see the man whose arm he was touching, just as he could see the alley around them, but all of it was cast in a kind of shadow, less like night and more like the world had been photographed in black and white and then the photo had aged, worn, grayed. When they walked, the world rippled thickly around them, the air viscous. It pressed in on them, weighed them down. When they reached the door to the bar, it resisted Dominic’s pull before finally—slowly—giving way.
Inside, the photo world continued. People caught middrink, mid-pool-shot, midkiss, midfight, and mid-a-dozen-other-things, all stuck between one breath and the next. And all the sound caught, too, so that the space filled with a horrible, heavy quiet. Victor kept his hand on Dominic’s arm like a blind man, but he couldn’t take his eyes from the room. He scanned, searching the frozen faces of the crowd.