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.”
“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.