And then he saw him.
Victor ground to a halt, jarring Dominic backward. He glanced over his shoulder and asked what was wrong, the words mouthed, but never formed. And it didn’t matter, anyway, because Victor didn’t see his lips move. He didn’t see anything but the dark-haired man caught midstride as he wove through the crowd, away from them and toward the front door, hand reaching out for the handle. Victor wondered how could he know that man without seeing his face. It was the posture, the broad shoulders and the arrogant way he held them, the edge of his sharp jaw visible as he turned away.
Victor’s hand began to slip from Dominic’s arm. Eli Ever was right there. Half a room away. His back turned. His attention derailed and his body caught between seconds. Victor could do it. The bar was packed, but if he dropped every person at once, he’d have a shot—No. It took every ounce of focus for Victor to hold on to Dominic’s sleeve. He had waited. Waited so long. He wasn’t going to forfeit the planning, the lead, the control. It wouldn’t work, not here, not the way it had to work. He dragged his eyes from Eli’s back, and forced himself to search the rest of the room, but there was no sign of Mitch. His gaze swept through, and finally settled on the restrooms. A sign hung from the men’s room. OUT OF ORDER in bold letters, a hand-drawn set of lines beneath to emphasize the point. He urged Dominic forward, through the heavy air until they reached the door, and went in.
Mitchell Turner was sprawled on the linoleum, his face stuck to the floor by a small puddle of blood emanating from a gash on his temple. Victor let go of Dominic’s arm and winced as the room crashed into life around him all at once, a wave of color and noise and time. Dominic himself appeared a moment later, arms crossed, looking down at the body.
“Big guy,” he said quietly.
Victor knelt carefully beside Mitch, and reconsidered his decision to leave Sydney at the hotel.
“Is he…,” started Dominic as Victor reached out and brought his fingertips to the gunshot hole in Mitch’s jacket. His hand came away dry. He let out a breath and patted Mitch’s jaw. The man groaned.
“Mother … fucker…”
“I see you met Eli,” said Victor. “He’s always been a bit trigger happy.”
Mitch grunted as he sat up and touched his head, a bruise already blossoming beneath the drying blood. His gaze went to Dominic. “I see you’re still alive then. Good choice.”
He tried to stand, and got to one knee before pausing for breath.
“A little help?” he said, wincing. Victor’s lips twitched, and the air hummed faintly for a moment before vanishing, taking Mitch’s pain with it. The man got to his feet, swayed, and caught himself against the wall with a bloody hand before making his way to the strip of sinks to clean up.
“So he’s like, bulletproof?” asked Dominic. Mitch laughed, and then pulled his jacket aside to reveal the vest beneath.
“Close enough,” he said. “I’m not an EO, though, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Victor wet a handful of paper towels and did his best to clean Mitch’s blood off the floor and the wall while Mitch finished cleaning it off his face.
“What time is it?” asked Victor, tossing the ruined towels in the bin.
Dominic checked his watch. “Eleven. Why?”
Mitch snapped the faucet off. “Cutting it pretty close, Vic.”
But Victor only smiled. “Dominic,” he said. “Let’s show Mitch what you can do.”
SIXTY MINUTES UNTIL MIDNIGHT
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
SERENA toweled off her hair, holding strands up to the bathroom light to make sure Zachary Flinch hadn’t stained them. She’d had to shower three times to get the feel of brain and blood off her skin, and even now, raw from scrubbing, with her hair probably damaged from the rinse repeat of it all, she didn’t feel clean.
Clean was clearly not skin deep when it came to killing.
It was only the second execution she’d ever been to. The first had been Sydney’s. Serena cringed at the thought of it. Maybe that’s why she’d wanted to go, to wash the memory of her sister’s almost-murder from her mind, replace it with some fresher horror, as if one scene could paint over the other.
Or maybe she’d asked to go along because she knew Eli would hate it—she knew how much his removals mattered to him, how much they belonged to him—and that he’d resist. Sometimes those moments when he fought back, when she could see the spark of defiance, were the only ones that made her feel alive. She hated living in such a limp world, every glazed eye and simple nod a reminder that nothing mattered. She would start to let go, and then Eli would fight back and force her to tighten her grip. She wondered with a thrill if maybe one day he would even break free.
Finally satisfied that the blood didn’t stain, she dried her hair, pulled on a robe, and made her way into the living room, tapping the computer awake. She logged on to the police database, and filled out the “Middle Name” window of the search form with ELI, expecting it to return with no results, since Eli should have dispatched Dominic by now, but the search came back with two profiles. The first belonged to Dominic.
But the second belonged to Victor.
She read the profile three times, chewing her lip, then searched the room for her phone, which she’d lobbed onto the bed when she got in. She found it beneath a pile of clothes and towels, and was halfway through punching in Eli’s number, when she stopped.
Less than an hour until midnight.
It was a trap. Eli would know it, too, of course, but he would go anyway. Why shouldn’t he? Whatever Eli’s enemy was planning, there was only one way this night would end, and that was with Victor Vale in a body bag. And Sydney? Serena’s chest tightened. Her resolve had faltered the first time; she didn’t know if she had the strength to watch Eli try again. Even if it wasn’t really her sister, just a shadow of the little girl who’d clung to her side for twelve years, an imposter in her sister’s shape. Even then.
Her fingers hovered over the screen. She could drag the file to the trash. Eli wouldn’t find it in time. But it would only be a stay of execution. Victor wanted to find Eli, and Eli wanted to find Victor, and one way or another, they would succeed. She looked at Victor’s profile one last time, and tried to picture the man who had once been Eli’s friend, who had brought him back, made him what he was, saved her sister … and for a moment, as she finished dialing Eli’s number, she almost wished he stood a fighting chance.
FIFTY MINUTES UNTIL MIDNIGHT
THE THREE CROWS BAR
ELI stormed through the front door of the Three Crows as he dialed Detective Stell and told him to send a cop over to the bar to clean up an incident.
“It was an EO, right?” asked Stell, and the question, as well as the shade of doubt that lined the officer’s voice as he asked it, troubled Eli immensely. But he didn’t have time to deal with the detective’s resistance, not right now, not as the clock ticked down.
“Of course it was,” he snapped, and hung up.
Eli paused beneath the metal sculpted crows on the bar’s marquee, ran his fingers through his hair, and scoured the street for any sign of Dominic Rusher or Victor Vale, but all he saw were drunkards, and bums, and cars whizzing past too fast to see drivers or passengers. He swore and kicked the nearest trash can as hard as possible, relishing the blossom of pain even as it faded, whatever damage he’d done repairing, bone and tissue and skin knitting neatly back together.