“Only I get a call from the officers just now. There was no body. No signs of a body, either.” Serena’s boots slowed, and stopped. “I don’t know what’s going on,” said Stell, “but that’s the second time things haven’t lined up and—”
“And you didn’t call Eli,” she cut in softly.
“I’m sorry if that was wrong…”
“Why did you call me instead?”
“I trust you,” he answered, without hesitation.
“I trust you,” he said again, and Serena’s heart fluttered a little, both at the officer’s small display of evasion, the defiance of it, and at her own control over him. She started walking again.
“You did well,” she said as she reached the wooden walls of the construction site. And there, through the gap in the broken gate, she saw Mitch’s hulking form. “I’ll take care of it,” she whispered, “trust me.”
“I do,” said Detective Stell.
Serena hung up, and pushed the metal gate open.
TEN MINUTES UNTIL MIDNIGHT
THE FALCON PRICE PROJECT
MITCH thought he heard something from the building behind him, but when he strained to listen, the sounds that made it into the yard were so broken and faint that they could have been wind through the plastic sheeting, or a loose pipe. He might have gone to see, but Victor’s orders had been explicit, and even if he felt like challenging them, it was at that moment that the front gate that surrounded the bones of the high-rise groaned inward again, and a girl stepped into the yard.
She looked like Sydney, thought Mitch. If Sydney had grown a foot taller and several years older. The same blond hair curled down into eyes that were somehow bright and blue, even in the dark. It had to be Serena.
When she saw Mitch waiting, she crossed her arms.
“Mr. Turner,” she said, stepping forward, her black boots weaving effortlessly through the debris of the construction yard. “You have an impressive resilience to death. Is this Sydney’s work?”
“Call me a cat,” said Mitch, pushing up off the planks. “I’m still working through my own nine lives. And just so you know,” he added, raising his gun, “I like to think there’s a special place in hell for girls who feed their little sisters to wolves.”
Serena’s face fell. “You should be careful, playing with guns,” she said. “Sooner or later you’re going to get shot.”
Mitch cocked the gun. “The novelty wore off when your boyfriend played target practice with my chest.”
“Yet here you are,” said Serena. Her voice had a slow, almost lazy sweetness to it. “Clearly his message wasn’t impactful enough.”
Mitch tightened his grip on the gun, and leveled it at her.
Serena only smiled. “Let’s point that in a safer direction,” she said. “Place the gun against your temple.”
Mitch did everything he could to keep his hand still, but it was as if it no longer belonged to him. His elbow softened, his arm bent, and his fingers turned, shifting position until the barrel of the gun came to rest against the side of his head.
“There are worse ways to die,” said Serena. “And worse things to do than die. I promise I’ll make it quick.”
Mitch looked at her, this girl so much like Sydney, and yet so much less. He couldn’t look at her eyes—at once brighter than her sister’s, but empty in a bad way, a dead way—so he watched her lips as they formed the words.
“Pull the trigger.”
And he did.
* * *
SYDNEY and Dol were halfway toward the glowing center of the high-rise’s ground floor when she heard the sound of footsteps—not hers, or the dog’s, but heavier—and froze in her tracks. She’d only been with Victor and Mitch a few days, but it had been long enough to grow familiar with the sounds they both made. Not just their voices, but the way they sounded when they weren’t speaking, the way they breathed and laughed and moved, the way they filled a space, and traveled through it.
Mitch was huge, but his steps were careful, as if he knew his size and didn’t want to accidentally crush anything. Victor was almost silent, footfalls as smooth and hushed as everything else about him.
The steps Sydney heard now through several layers of plastic sheeting were louder, the proud clip of nice shoes. Eli had worn nice shoes. Despite the cold and the fact that he was dating a college girl, and the fact that he looked like a college boy, he’d had on leather shoes beneath his jeans when she met him. Shoes that made a sharp sound when he walked.
Sydney held her breath, and slid Serena’s gun from her coat pocket, clicking the safety off. Serena had showed her once, how to use a gun, but this one was a little too big for her grip, too heavy and ill-weighted from the silencer screwed on to the end. She looked behind her, and wondered if she could find her way back through the maze of plastic curtains and into the lot before Eli would …
Her thoughts trailed off as she realized that the footsteps had stopped.
She checked the curtains to every side for moving shadows, but there were none, so she crept forward, through another plastic sheet, the light brighter here, only a few curtains between her and the source. Victor should be here by now. She couldn’t hear him, but that was because he was so quiet, she told herself. He was always quiet. And safe.
Sydney, look at me, he’d said. No one is going to hurt you. Do you know why? Because I’ll hurt them first.
Safe. Safe. Safe.
She pulled aside the last curtain. She just had to find Victor, and he would keep her safe.
Eli was sitting in a chair in the middle of the room, a table made of wooden planks on cinder blocks displaying what looked like a set of kitchen knives, all gleaming beneath the light of a lamp. The lamp had no shade, and the bulb lit the whole room, from curtain to curtain, and Eli in between. A gun dangled loosely from his hand, and his eyes were far-off, unfocused.
Until he saw Sydney.
“What’s this?” he asked, standing. “A little monster.”
Sydney didn’t wait. She raised Serena’s gun and fired once at Eli’s face. The weapon was heavy and her aim was off, but even though the blowback knocked the gun from her grip, the bullet still found Eli’s jaw and sent him reeling, clutching his face, blood and bone between his fingers. She spun, and tried to run away, but his hand shot out and caught her sleeve, and even though he couldn’t keep hold, the sudden change of course sent her stumbling to her hands and knees on the concrete.
Dol lunged forward as Sydney rolled onto her back and Eli straightened, jaw cracking and snapping and healing, leaving only a smear of blood on his skin as he raised his gun and pulled the trigger.
* * *
One small sound after Mitch pulled the trigger, the sound made by the internal spring driving the firing pin to bypass the bullet and hit the mechanical stop. Because there were no bullets.
The gun was empty.
Mitch should know; he had checked it three times to make sure.
Now he watched the surprise spread across Serena’s face, watched it turn to confusion, and begin to shift into something harder, but it never made it there, because that’s when the darkness parted. The shadows behind Serena Clarke stirred and drew apart, and two men stepped into being out of nothing. Dominic stood, holding a red gas canister while Victor took a single stride up behind Serena, brought a knife to her throat, and drew it cleanly across.