“I don’t need a bodyguard,” said Victor.
“I noticed that,” said Mitch.
Victor let out a cough of a laugh. “Yes, well,” he said, “I don’t want everyone else to notice, too.”
Mitch had been right. Victor Vale was a wolf among sheep. And it took a lot to make 463 hardened criminals look the part of prey.
“So what do you want then?” he asked.
Victor’s lips curled into that same, dangerous smile. “A friend.”
“That’s all?” he asked, disbelieving.
“A good friend, Mr. Turner, is very hard to find.”
Mitch watched Victor push off the bars and head into the cell, lifting a library book from his cot before settling onto it.
Mitch didn’t know what had just happened back in the cafeteria, but a decade in and out of prison had taught him this: There were some people you had to stay away from, people who poisoned everything in reach. Then there were people you wanted to stick with, the ones with silver tongues and golden touches. And then, there were people you stood beside, because it meant you weren’t in their way. And whoever Victor Vale was, whatever he was, and whatever he was up to, the only thing Mitch knew was that he did not want to be in his way.
TWO HOURS UNTIL MIDNIGHT
THE THREE CROWS BAR
ELI tapped his phone awake, tensing when he saw the time. Still no Victor, and Dominic seemed to be an installation at the bar. Eli frowned, and dialed Serena, but she didn’t pick up. When her voice mail kicked in, he hung up, eager to click End before her slow, melodic words could issue any instructions. He thought of Victor’s threat: It’s clever, using the police database to find your targets. I’m a bit insulted I haven’t shown up on there yet, but give it time. I just got here.
Eli logged on to the database, hoping for clues, but it was after ten, and the only flagged profile belonged to the man currently stationed at the counter, nursing his third Jack and Coke. Eli frowned and put the phone away. His bait didn’t seem to be drawing any fish. The seat beside Dominic emptied—it had been taken up and subsequently abandoned three times over the course of the hour—and Eli, tired of waiting, finished his beer and slid to the edge of the booth. He was about to make his way toward the target when a man appeared, approached the counter, and took the stool.
Eli stopped, and hovered at the edge of his booth.
He had seen the man before. In the lobby of the Esquire, and even though his presence here was less surprising—he fit in much better with the customers of the Three Crows than the suit-wearing clientele of the four-star hotel—his appearance still jarred Eli. There was something else about the man. He hadn’t thought of it when he saw him before, but here, on the heels of the presentation to the Merit Metro Police Department, it seemed obvious. No photos existed of Mitchell Turner, Victor’s partner in crime, but there had been generic thug descriptions: tall, burly, bald, tattooed. Dozens of men would fit the bill, but how many of them would cross Eli’s path twice in as many days?
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.