Vengeful, page 2
She wasn’t moving. Her eyes were closed and blood slicked the side of her head, matting the dark hair against her scalp.
He felt for a pulse, and found one that fluttered, then seemed to fall away beneath his touch. The fire was getting hotter. The smoke was getting thicker.
“Shit shit shit,” muttered Perry, scanning the room as sirens wailed outside. A pitcher of water had spilled across a napkin, leaving it unburnt. He wrapped the cloth around his hand and then took hold of the candelabra. The damp fabric hissed and heat shot toward his fingers as he heaved the iron bar up with all his strength. It lifted, and rolled off Marcella’s body just as voices filled the hall. Firefighters came storming into the house.
“In here!” he wheezed, choking on the smoke.
A pair of firemen cut through the haze right before the ceiling groaned and a chandelier came toppling down. It shattered against the dining room table, which split and threw up flames, and the next thing Perry knew, he was being hauled backward out of the room and the burning mansion, and into the cool night.
Another firefighter followed close behind, Marcella’s body slung over one shoulder.
Outside, the trucks were splayed across the manicured lawn, and ambulance lights strobed across the slate drive.
The house was going up in flames, and his hand was throbbing, his lungs burned, and Perry didn’t give a damn about any of it. The only thing he cared about right then and there was saving the life of Marcella Riggins. Marcella, who had always flashed a wan smile and a pert wave to the cops whenever she was followed. Marcella, who would never, ever snitch on her crooked husband.
But judging by the gash in her head, and the house on fire, and the husband’s swift departure, there was a chance her position had changed. And Perry wasn’t about to waste it.
Hoses sent jets of water into the flames, and Perry hacked and spat, but pulled away from an oxygen mask as two medics loaded Marcella onto a stretcher.
“She’s not breathing,” said a medic, cutting open her dress.
Perry jogged after the medics.
“No pulse,” said the other, beginning compressions.
“Then bring it back!” shouted Perry, hauling himself up into the ambulance. He couldn’t put a corpse on the stand.
“Ox-sat levels tanking,” said the first, strapping an oxygen mask over Marcella’s nose and mouth. Her temperature was too high, and the medic pulled out a stack of cold packs and began to break the seals, applying them to her temples, neck, wrists. He handed the last one to Perry, who grudgingly accepted.
Marcella’s heartbeat appeared on a small screen, a solid line, even and unmoving.
The van pulled away, the burning mansion quickly shrinking in the window. Three weeks Perry had spent outside that place. Three years he’d been trying to nail Tony Hutch’s crew. Fate had handed him the perfect witness, and he’d be damned if he was giving her back without a fight.
A third medic tried to tend to Perry’s burned hand, but he pulled away. “Focus on her,” he ordered.
The sirens cut through the night as the medics worked, trying to force her lungs to breathe, her heart to beat. Trying to coax life out of the ashes.
But it wasn’t working.
Marcella lay there, limp and lifeless, and Perry’s hope began to gutter, die.
And then, between one compression and the next, the horrible static line of her pulse gave a lurch, and a stutter, and finally began to beep.
FOUR WEEKS AGO
“I won’t ask you again,” said Victor Vale as the mechanic scrambled backward across the garage floor. Retreating—as if a few feet would make a difference. Victor followed slowly, steadily, watched as the man backed himself into a corner.
Jack Linden was forty-three, with a five-o’clock shadow, grease under his nails, and the ability to fix things.
“I already told you,” said Linden, jumping nervously as his back came up against a half-built engine. “I can’t do it—”
“Don’t lie to me,” warned Victor.
He flexed his fingers around the gun, and the air crackled with energy.
Linden shuddered, biting back a scream.
“I’m not!” yelped the mechanic. “I fix cars. I put engines back together. Not people. Cars are easy. Nuts and bolts and fuel lines. People are too much more.”
Victor didn’t believe that. Had never believed that. People were more intricate perhaps, more nuanced, but fundamentally machines. Things that worked, or didn’t, that broke down, and were repaired. Could be repaired.
He closed his eyes, measuring the current inside him. It was already in his muscles, already threading his bones, already filling his chest cavity. The sensation was unpleasant, but not nearly as unpleasant as what would happen when the current peaked.
“I swear,” said Linden, “I’d help you if I could.” But Victor heard him shift. Heard a hand knocking against the tools strewn across the floor. “You have to believe me . . .” he said, fingers closing around something metal.
“I do,” said Victor, eyes flicking open right as Linden lunged at him, wrench in hand. But halfway there, the mechanic’s body slowed, as if caught in a sudden drag, and Victor swung the gun up and shot Linden in the head.
The sound echoed through the garage, ricocheting off concrete and steel as the mechanic fell.
How disappointing, thought Victor, as blood began to seep across the floor.
He holstered the gun and turned to go, but only made it three steps before the first wave of pain hit, sudden and sharp. He staggered, bracing himself against the shell of a car as it tore through his chest.
Five years ago, it would have been a simple matter of flipping that internal switch, killing power to the nerves, escaping any sensation.
But now—there was no escape.
His nerves crackled, the pain ratcheting up like a dial. The air hummed with the energy, and the lights flickered overhead as Victor forced himself away from the body and back across the garage toward the wide metal doors. He tried to focus on the symptoms, reduce them to facts, statistics, measurable quantities, and—
The current arced through him, and he shuddered, pulling a black mouth guard from his coat and forcing it between his teeth just before one knee gave way, his body buckling under the strain.
Victor fought—he always fought—but seconds later he was on his back, his muscles seizing as the current peaked, and his heart lurched, lost rhythm—
And he died.
FIVE YEARS AGO
VICTOR had opened his eyes to cold air, grave dirt, and Sydney’s blond hair, haloed by the moon.
His first death was violent, his world reduced to a cold metal table, his life a current and a dial turning up and up, electricity burning through every nerve until he finally cracked, shattered, crashed down into heavy, liquid nothing. The dying had taken ages, but death itself was fleeting, the length of a single held breath, all the air and energy forced from his lungs the moment before he surged up again through dark water, every part of him screaming.
Victor’s second death was stranger. There had been no electric surge, no excruciating pain—he’d thrown that switch long before the end. Only the widening pool of blood beneath Victor’s knees, and the pressure between his ribs as Eli slid the knife in, and the world giving way to darkness as he lost his hold, slipped into a death so gentle it felt like sleep.
Followed by—nothing. Time drawn out into a single, unbroken second. A chord of perfect silence. Infinite. And then, interrupted. The way a pebble interrupts a pond.
And there he was. Breathing. Living.
Victor sat up, and Sydney flung her small arms around him, and they sat there for a long moment, a reanimated corpse and a girl kneeling on a coffin.
“Did it work?” she whispered, and he knew she wasn’t talking about the resurrection itself. Sydney had nev
It was a rather overwhelming sensation.
“Yes,” he said. “It worked.”
Mitch appeared at the side of the grave, his shaved head glistening with sweat, his tattooed forearms filthy from the dig. “Hey.” He drove a spade into the grass and helped Sydney and then Victor up out of the hole.
Dol greeted him by leaning heavily against his side, the dog’s massive black head nestling under his palm in silent welcome.
The last member of their party slumped against a tombstone. Dominic had the shaken look of an addict, pupils dilated from what ever he’d taken to numb his chronic pain. Victor could feel the man’s nerves, frayed and sparking like a shorted line.
They’d made a deal—the ex-soldier’s assistance in exchange for taking away his suffering. In Victor’s absence, Dominic clearly hadn’t been able to keep his end of the bargain. Now Victor reached out and switched the man’s pain off like a light. Instantly, the man sagged backward, tension sliding like sweat from his face.
Victor retrieved the shovel and held it out to the soldier. “Get up.”
Dominic complied, rolling his neck and rising to his feet, and together the four of them began filling Victor’s grave.
* * *
That’s how long Victor had been dead.
It was an unsettling length of time. Long enough for the initial stages of decay. The others had been holed up at Dominic’s place, two men, a girl, and a dog, waiting for his corpse to be buried.
“It’s not much,” said Dom now, opening the front door. And it wasn’t—a small and cluttered single bedroom with a beat-up sofa, a concrete balcony, and a kitchen covered in a thin layer of dirty dishes—but it was a temporary solution to a longer dilemma, and Victor was in no condition to face the future, not with grave dirt still on his slacks and death lingering in his mouth.
He needed a shower.
Dom led him through the bedroom—narrow and dark, a single shelf of books, medals lying flat and photographs facedown, too many empty bottles on the windowsill.
The soldier scrounged up a clean long-sleeve shirt, embossed with a band logo. Victor raised a brow. “It’s all I have in black,” he explained.
He switched on the bathroom light and retreated, leaving Victor alone.
Victor undressed, shrugging out of the clothes he’d been buried in—clothes he didn’t recognize, hadn’t purchased—and stood before the bathroom mirror, surveying his bare chest and arms.
He wasn’t free of scars—far from it—but none of them belonged to that night at the Falcon Price. Gunshots echoed through his mind, ricocheting off unfinished walls, the concrete floor slick with blood. Some of it his. Most of it Eli’s. He remembered each and every wound made that night—the shallow cuts across his stomach, the razor-sharp wire cinching over his wrists, Eli’s knife sliding between his ribs—but they left no mark.
Sydney’s gift really was remarkable.
Victor turned the shower on and stepped beneath the scalding water, rinsing death from his skin. He felt along the lines of his power, turned his focus inward, the way he’d done years before, when he’d first gone to prison. During that isolation, unable to test his new power on anyone else, Victor had used his own body as a subject, learned everything he could about the limits of pain, the intricate network of nerves. Now, bracing himself, he turned the dial in his mind, first down, until he felt nothing, and then up, until every drop of water on bare skin felt like knives. He clenched his teeth against the pain and turned the dial back to its original position.
He closed his eyes, brought his head to rest against the tile wall, and smiled, Eli’s voice echoing through his head.
You can’t win.
But he had.
* * *
THE apartment was quiet. Dominic stood out on the narrow balcony, puffing on a cigarette. Sydney was curled on the sofa, folded up carefully like a piece of paper, with the dog, Dol, on the floor beside her, chin resting by her hand. Mitch sat at the table, shuffling and reshuffling a deck of cards.
Victor took them all in.
Still collecting strays.
“What now?” asked Mitch.
Two small words.
Single syllables had never weighed so much. For the last ten years, Victor had focused on revenge. He’d never truly intended to see the other side of it, but now, he’d fulfilled his objective—Eli was rotting in a cell—and Victor was still here. Still alive. Revenge had been an all-consuming pursuit. Its absence left Victor uneasy, unsatisfied.
He could leave them. Dis appear. It was the smartest course—a group, especially one as strange as this, would draw attention in ways that solitary figures rarely did. But Victor’s talent allowed him to bend the attention of those around him, to lean on their nerves in ways that registered as aversion, subtle, abstract, but efficient. And as far as Stell knew, Victor Vale was dead and buried.
Six years he’d known Mitch.
Six days he’d known Sydney.
Six hours he’d known Dominic.
Each of them was a weight around Victor’s ankles. Better to unshackle himself, abandon them.
So leave, he thought. His feet made no progress toward the door.
Dominic wasn’t an issue. They’d only just met—an alliance forged by need and circumstance.
Sydney was another matter. She was his responsibility. Victor had made her so when he killed Serena. That wasn’t sentiment—it was simply a transitive equation. A factor passed from one quotient to another.
And Mitch? Mitch was cursed, he’d said so himself. Without Victor, it was only a matter of time before the hulking man ended up back in prison. Likely the one he’d broken out of with Victor. For Victor. And, despite knowing her less than a week, Victor was certain Mitch wouldn’t abandon Sydney. Sydney, for her part, seemed rather attached to him, too.
And then, of course, there was the issue of Eli.
Eli was in custody, but he was still alive. There was nothing Victor could do about that, given the man’s ability to regenerate. But if he ever got out—
“Victor?” prompted Mitch, as if he could see the turn of his thoughts, the direction they were veering.
Mitch nodded, trying and failing to hide his clear relief. He’d always been an open book, even in prison. Sydney uncurled from the sofa. She rolled over, her ice blue eyes finding Victor’s in the dark. She hadn’t been sleeping, he could tell.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” answered Victor. “But we can’t stay here.”
Dominic had slipped back inside, bringing a draft of cold air and smoke. “You’re leaving?” he asked, panic flickering across his face. “What about our deal?”
“Distance isn’t a problem,” said Victor. It wasn’t strictly true—once Dominic was out of range, Victor wouldn’t be able to alter the threshold he’d set. But his influence should hold. “Our deal stays in effect,” he said, “as long as you still work for me.”
Dom nodded quickly. “Whatever you need.”
Victor turned to Mitch. “Find us a new car,” he said. “I want to be out of Merit by dawn.”
And they were.
Two hours later, as the first light cracked the sky, Mitch pulled up in a black sedan. Dom stood in his doorway, arms crossed, watching as Sydney climbed into the back, followed by Dol. Victor slid into the passenger’s seat.
“You sure you’re good?” asked Mitch.
Victor looked down at his hands, flexed his fingers, felt the prickle of energy under his skin. If anything, he felt stronger. His power crisp, clear, focused.
“Better than ever.”
FOUR WEEKS AGO
VICTOR shuddered back to life on the cold concrete floor.
For a few agonizing seconds, his mind was blank, his thoughts scattered. It was like coming off a strong drug. He was left grasping for logic, for order, sorting through his fractured senses—the taste of copper, the smell of gasoline, the dim glow of streetlights beyond cracked windows—until the scene finally resolved around him.
The mechanic’s garage.
Jack Linden’s body, a dark mass framed by fallen tools.
Victor pulled the mouth guard from between his teeth and sat up, limbs sluggish as he dragged the cell phone from his coat pocket. Mitch had rigged it with a makeshift surge protector. The small component was blown, but the device itself was safe. He powered it back on.
A single text had come in from Dominic.
3 minutes, 49 seconds.
The length of time he’d been dead.
Victor swore softly.
Too long. Far too long.
Death was dangerous. Every second without oxygen, without blood flow, was exponentially damaging. Organs could remain stable for several hours, but the brain was fragile. Depending on the individual, the nature of the trauma, most doctors put the threshold for brain degradation at four minutes, others five, a scant few six. Victor wasn’t keen on testing the upper limits.
But there was no use ignoring the grim curve.
Victor was dying more often. The deaths were lasting longer. And the damage . . . He looked down, saw electrical scorch marks on the concrete, broken glass from the shattered lights overhead.
Victor rose to his feet, bracing himself against the nearest car until the room steadied. At least, for now, the buzzing was gone, replaced by a merciful quiet—broken almost immediately by the short, clipped sound of a ringtone.
Victor swallowed, tasting blood. “I’m on my way.”
“Did you find Linden?”
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