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 All the Merit cops would have to go on was a stick-figure drawing, Eli’s own memory (ten years out of date, since unlike him, Victor had aged), and descriptions from the penitentiary staff.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.”
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.