Vengeful, page 23
June glanced back, a wicked light in her eyes.
“I’m in the mood for music.”
* * *
IF the Palisades had been a dump, the Marina was worse. An underground bunker, half bar and half seedy jazz club, and every surface sticky. Small round tables, trimmed by rickety chairs, half of them empty. A low stage along the back wall, bare but for a few instruments and a standing mic.
June slung herself into a vacant seat and gestured to the chair across from her.
“What are we doing here?” asked Marcella, eyeing the whole situation with suspicion.
“Darling,” said June, with dramatic flair. “You must learn to blend in.” As she said the words, she changed, shedding the bohemian brunette for an older black man in a faded button-down, sleeves rolled to the elbows.
Marcella stiffened. The lights were low, but not that low. She glanced around. “Not exactly subtle.”
June chuckled, her voice smoky in the old man’s throat. “I thought you were done with hiding.” She flicked her hand dismissively at the half-empty club. “People can see an awful lot, and believe none of it.” The old man rocked backward in his seat, the front legs coming off the floor as his face vanished into the club’s deep shadow. When the chair tipped forward again, June was back to one of her usual selves, loose brown waves tumbling into her face. “Won’t you sit?”
Marcella lowered herself into the wooden chair as June went on. “Truth be told, I didn’t bring you for the music. Not directly. But if you’re interested in other EOs, I might have a treasure for you.”
She drew a phone from her pocket and scrolled through her texts, before turning the cell toward Marcella.
A single name stood out on the screen: Jonathan Richard Royce.
“Who is he?” she asked.
“A sax player,” said June, “a decent one at that. Or he was, until he went and got addicted to heroin. Finds himself in debt to Jack Caprese.”
Caprese, thought Marcella. That was a name she knew. Merit was carved up among four men: Hutch, Kolhoff, Mellis, and Caprese.
Hutch had the biggest portion, but Caprese had big eyes, and bigger teeth these days. And a bottomless appetite.
“He couldn’t break the habit,” continued June. “But he couldn’t afford it, either. So Caprese’s men go over to sort out the balance. Break a few fingers. Only Jonathan’s wife is home too. She pulls a gun, and it all goes sideways. Wife dies. According to medical records, so does Royce. For a few minutes, anyway. But in the end, he pulls through. So Caprese sends more guys around, and those end up dead too. Now no one wants to take credit for a botched kill, and no one wants it getting out that they failed, but for all that they still need Royce in the ground. So they outsource.”
“They called you.”
June smiled. “Yeah, they called me. But I couldn’t kill him.”
Marcella raised a brow. “What, you had a change of heart?”
“Hardly,” said June. “I mean I really tried to kill him. And I couldn’t.”
THREE WEEKS AGO
MERIT CITY LIMITS
JONATHAN Royce owned one good suit, and it didn’t even fit.
It had, once upon a time—when he was thirty pounds heavier—but now, it slumped and sagged, always on the verge of slipping off. Just like his wedding ring, staying on only because of a twice-broken knuckle. Jonathan had never been a large man, but these days he was all harsh angles, underslept and undernourished. It was ironic, really—Jonathan looked like an addict, even though he’d been clean since Claire’s death.
Everyone he knew had dabbled—drugs and music went hand in hand, and the jazz scene was no exception.
But heroin was a hell of a high.
Not the roller coaster peaks of cocaine, or the mellow que sera sera of good weed, but a dreamy wave, a blissful way out of your own life, and your own head, a summer midnight swim in the ocean bare-assed kind of freedom—at first. Jonathan had seen the addiction coming, watched it roll in like a tide, but he was already wet, and he couldn’t drag himself back to shore.
And just like a high tide, an undertow, it came and washed everything away.
Money. Joy. Safety. Sanity.
Every day, the tide a little higher. Every day, the water a little deeper. Every day, a little farther from shore. Easy to get swept away. All you gotta do is stop swimming.
Jonathan looped the tie around his neck, fumbling with the knot, his fingers aching.
It had been nearly a year, and the joints still hurt every day.
He wasn’t even surprised, the night Caprese’s men came to visit. He was already high. Claire was out with friends and Jonathan didn’t have their money and he knew it and they knew it and there was the hammer and his hands—but then there she was walking in, there was Claire, screaming, there was Claire, pulling out a gun—where had she gotten that gun?—and then there was noise and pain and darkness.
Jonathan should have left Merit, after that.
Should have bailed the moment he came to in that hospital room with two broken hands and three bullet holes in his stomach and chest. But Claire’s blood was still mingled with his on their kitchen floor, and he just couldn’t bring himself to go. It just didn’t make sense, that she was dead, that he was not—Claire didn’t deserve it, didn’t deserve this, to become a past tense, a footnote in someone else’s story—and Jonathan had the strange but unshakable idea that he hadn’t made it either. That he was a ghost, anchored to the place where it all happened, bound there until some grim business was done. So he stayed, and wore that one good suit he had to her funeral, dripped ash on it chain-smoking cigarettes in a cheap hotel room afterward, waiting for Caprese’s men to find him and finish the job.
Funny thing, but until that night when Caprese’s men showed up, Jonathan had never killed anyone before.
He thought it would be harder.
It should have been harder, should have been impossible, considering the number of men, the number of shots fired, but so much about that day was impossible. The blue-white shine, like a shield, knocking their bullets away. The cacophony of sound and violence, and when it was over, Jonathan, standing alone among the corpses.
In his rare metaphysical moments, Jonathan thought it was Claire, looking out for him. But in his masochistic moments, of which there were far more, he knew it was punishment, the universe mocking him for what he’d failed to do.
The clock chimed seven, and Jonathan knotted his worn-out tie. He slid on the jacket, picked up his saxophone case, and headed to work.
His breath fogged before him as he walked, this part of Merit already dark, like it couldn’t be bothered with streetlights. It was a half mile to the Marina, a patch of Merit they’d labeled Green Walk on the map, another bit of irony considering there was nothing but stone and asphalt in every direction.
The Ghost of Green Walk.
That was him. The man who couldn’t die.
He was already—
“Hey,” snarled a voice. “Give me your money.”
Jonathan hadn’t heard him coming, hadn’t really been listening. But he felt the barrel jab into his back, a single nervous thrust, and he turned to find a kid, maybe sixteen, gripping the gun in both hands like it was a bat.
“You deaf or stupid?” growled the kid. “Don’t you see this gun? I said, give me your fucking money.”
“Or I’ll fucking shoot you.”
Jonathan tipped his head back, looked at the sky. “So shoot.”
Half the time, they didn’t have the balls to fire. This one did. Not that it made any difference. The gun went off and the air glinted around Jonathan, like flint striking stone, that shine, like Claire’s arms around him, telling him it wasn’t his time, wasn’t his turn. The bullet ricocheted, flung into the dark.
“The fuck?” said the kid.
Jonathan sighed, and stepped over the writhing form, checking his watch.
He was late for work.
* * *
THE Marina was half-empty.
It was always half-empty. Jonathan recognized most of the people who did show up, but something was different. He knew the moment he stepped in, like the air was full of snow. It was the two women near the back, the one like something out of a catalogue, red lips and glossy black hair, the other younger, with a mane of brown curls and a dangerous smile.
They watched him the whole set.
Maybe once upon a time, he’d drawn that kind of attention. But that was back when his hands could do better, back when he fit into the suit, back when his smile came easy, mostly because he was already high.
Jonathan was checked out—he made it through his set, hit the notes by habit instead of passion, and then went to the bar, carried on a wave of weak applause and a strong tide of self-loathing.
“Club soda,” he said, sliding onto a stool. He could still feel eyes on him. Every now and then, Caprese sent someone around to try again, but it never took. Those two women didn’t look like Caprese’s usual killers, but maybe that was the point. He heard the neat click of the heels a second before the knockout appeared at his shoulder.
“Mr. Royce.” Her voice was warm and sleek and laced with smoke.
The brunette hopped up on a stool. “Johnny boy,” she said, and there was something about her accent, familiar, as if they’d met before, but he was sure he’d never seen her face.
“If Caprese sent you . . .” he muttered.
“Caprese,” said the dark-haired woman, turning the name over in her mouth. “He’s the one that killed your wife, right?”
Jonathan said nothing.
“And yet,” she continued, “Jack Caprese is still alive. Flourishing, I’ve heard. While you’re here in this shithole of a club, wasting away.”
“Oy,” chirped the other woman. “I like this place.”
“Who are you?” asked Jonathan.
“June,” said the brunette.
“Marcella,” said the black-haired beauty. “But when it comes to people like us, the real question isn’t who, is it? It’s what.”
The woman pressed a single gold nail against the bar and, as Jonathan watched, her finger glowed red, and the wood beneath began to warp and rot, wearing a hole straight through. The brunette—June—slid a coaster over the damage, only she wasn’t the brunette anymore. She was Chris, the Palisades bartender, even though Chris was still on the other side of the counter, back turned while he polished a highball glass. By the time he turned back, so had she.
Jonathan’s mouth went dry.
They had powers, like his shine. But the shine was a gift. The shine was a curse. The shine was his. There weren’t supposed to be others with him, here in this hell.
“What do you want?” he asked, voice barely a whisper.
“That,” said the beautiful woman, “is what I was just about to ask you.”
Jonathan stared down into his club soda. He wanted his life back. But he had no life, not anymore. He wanted death, but he’d been deprived of that, too.
That night, after Caprese’s men were all dead, and Jonathan wasn’t, when the room was silent and dark and the world was empty, he had put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger, and that should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t, because the shine was there again, like it or not, and that made him think of Claire, and how pissed she’d be, him throwing away a second shot. And thinking of Claire made him want to get high again, to float out to sea.
But the shine wouldn’t let him.
Jonathan had told himself that he wouldn’t try again.
He wouldn’t let her down.
But it was like a whole new kind of drug, using that shine. A fearsome reminder that he was still alive.
June was frowning, as if she could read Jonathan’s mind. But Marcella smiled.
“Why sit around sulking,” she said, “when you could hurt the people who hurt you?”
But he had hurt them—he’d killed the men who killed Claire, and the ones who came for him, and everyone else Caprese sent. Every single one—except—
“Caprese,” murmured Jonathan.
Was that why the shine wouldn’t let him rest?
Why he couldn’t get to Claire?
“I can help you get to him,” said Marcella. She leaned in, close enough for him to smell her perfume. “I’ve heard a little about your talent, but I’d love to know more.” She reached out and brought her fingers to rest against his arm. It was such a simple gesture, almost kind, right up until her palm flared red. The shine flashed along his skin, and she pulled back, considering her hand. “Hm,” she said, as if she hadn’t just tried to ruin him. “How do you do it?”
“I don’t do anything,” said Jonathan bitterly. “It just happens. Someone tries to hurt me—hell, I try to hurt myself—and it’s there. Shielding me.”
“Well, bully for you,” said June, leaning back on the counter.
Marcella made a small, displeased hum. “I don’t see how that helps me.”
Jonathan stared into his glass. “I can share it.”
Marcella’s blue eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
Jonathan shook his head. This was how the shine mocked him. How he knew it wasn’t a gift at all, but a curse, a shallow cut, not deep enough to kill, but more than enough to hurt. He’d just wanted to protect Claire, and he’d failed. Now, when he finally could, it was too late. She was already gone.
“Jonathan,” pressed Marcella.
“I can shield someone else,” he admitted, “so long as I can see them.”
Marcella smiled. It was a dazzling smile, the kind that made you want to smile back, even when there was nothing to smile about.
“Well, in that case,” she said, “let’s talk about revenge.”
THREE WEEKS AGO
SOMEWHERE OUTSIDE OF BRENTHAVEN
VICTOR’S steps rustled in underbrush.
It was almost dusk, the sky sinking into violent shades around him as he picked his way through the woods. Now and then the silence was punctuated by distant gunfire as, across the reserve, hunters picked off their prey before the last of the light failed.
Victor was hunting too. He trailed a broad man in an orange vest, the shock of color picking him out from the surrounding mottle of green and gray. The trees were sparse, surrounded by fields to every side. A few miles south, a small cabin, the full extent of the man’s footprint.
Despite his current attire, Ian Campbell had been a hard man to find.
He’d gone off the grid after his accident, a disappearance almost as complete as death.
But in this day and age, it was impossible not to leave a mark.
It had taken Mitch months to track this particular EO down. But he’d done it. Because he knew, just as Victor knew, that they were running out of options. The stack of paper had dwindled down to a few spare sheets, and as the leads shrank, the length of Victor’s deaths grew, the seconds ticking upward until they threatened to brush that lethal edge, the medically established threshold of no return.
A soft bleating sound alerted Victor to the likely object of Campbell’s attention.
An injured deer lay in the brush, its side opened by a scattering of buckshot. As Victor slowed to watch from the shadow of a nearby tree, Campbell crouched over the injured deer, making gentle noises as he laid a hand on the animal’s side.
And then, as Victor watched, the buckshot rose back up through muscle and skin, and rolled down the animal’s sides into the grass.
Victor’s breath caught.
The deer rose on unsteady legs, and then bounded away through the trees, unhurt.
Campbell watched it go. Victor watched Campbell.
“Is it a kindness,” asked Victor, his voice breaking the stillness, “to loose prey back into the world, simply to be shot again?”
Campbell, to his credit, didn’t jump. He straightened, brushing his palms against his jeans. “Can’t do much about the hunters,” he said. “But never could pass up a creature in pain.”
Victor laughed, a humorless, hollow sound. “Then you should have no qualms about helping me.”
Campbell’s expression narrowed. “Animals are innocent,” he said. “People are another matter. Most, I’ve found, don’t deserve the help.”
Victor bristled—it sounded like something Eli would say. His fingers twitched, the air beginning to hum, but Campbell surprised him by stepping forward instead of away.
“How are you hurt?” he asked.
Victor hesitated, unsure how to answer such a simple question with such a complicated answer. In the end, he said, “Mortally.”
Campbell gave him a long, measured look.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll do what I can.”
Victor’s heart stuttered, not from an episode, but from hope. A thing so rare he’d forgotten what it felt like. He had been prepared to use force.
“There are limits,” continued Campbell. “I can’t stop nature. Can’t change its course. I can’t rewind death, but I can undo a violence.”
“Then,” said Victor, whose deaths had been shaped by blood and pain, “you are well suited to this.”
Campbell held out his hand, and Victor, who had never been comfortable with contact, forced himself to still as the EO’s hand came to rest on his shoulder.
Campbell closed his eyes, and Victor waited. Waited for humming in his skull to disappear, waited for the crackle in his nerves to ease and the ticking clock to finally stop—
by V. E. Schwab / Adult / Fantasy / Science Fiction have rating 4.6 out of 5 / Based on41 votes