Vengeful, page 26
TWO WEEKS AGO
A long chandelier rippled across the ceiling, spilling soft light over crystal and marble and clean linen.
Stell adjusted his tie, grateful he was still dressed from the meeting at Capstone.
“You have a reservation, sir?” asked the maître d’.
“I’m meeting someone,” said Stell, cautiously. “I’m early but—”
“You can wait at the bar,” said the maître d’, nodding to a curve of glass and oak.
Stell ordered a whiskey several shelves higher than his usual brand and scanned the guests—some of the most powerful and prominent people in Merit. The district attorney. The mayor’s wife. Corporate heads, and politicians, and more than one star athlete.
He saw her as soon as she arrived.
It was impossible not to see her, even in Canica’s low light.
She was dressed in red—not exactly subtle, but nothing about her would have ever merited that word. Her black hair curled in loose waves around her face. Her lips were the same shade as the dress, her eyes a striking blue.
Stell had seen photos, of course.
None of them did Marcella Riggins justice.
Stell could sense other heads turning as she made her way to a table in the center of the restaurant. He took up his glass from the bar and followed.
When she saw him, a smile broke the sharp line of her red lips.
“Joseph,” she said, wielding his first name like a weapon. “So glad you decided to come.”
Her voice was warm, tinged with smoke.
“Ms. Riggins,” said Stell, sinking into the chair opposite.
“Morgan,” she corrected as a glass of red wine was laid at her elbow. “Given all that’s happened, I no longer feel inclined to use my husband’s name. But please, call me Marcella.”
She spoke with an airy confidence, one gold nail toying with the rim of her glass, and Stell realized that it wasn’t Marcella’s beauty that had failed to translate in any of the photos he’d seen. It was something else.
Something he’d seen before.
In Victor Vale. In Eli Ever.
A rare kind of strength. A dangerous will.
Someone this powerful belongs in the ground.
Suddenly he understood Eli’s stance, the stubborn resolve behind his declaration. Stell’s hand drifted toward his holstered gun.
If you don’t kill her, you’ll wish you had.
His fingers brushed the safety.
But Marcella only laughed. “Come on, Joseph,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve noticed, weapons don’t really work on me.”
Stell had seen the footage, of course—Marcella on the shattered balcony, the sniper’s shots skating off the air around her. He’d also seen the image of the thin man in the dark suit. The one, he realized, who was now sitting several tables over, wearing sunglasses, despite the restaurant’s low light. The set of the man’s shoulders, the angle of his face, suggested he was staring directly at them.
Another EO, Stell wagered.
“Don’t mind Jonathan,” said Marcella. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, Joseph,” she added congenially. “But, well, we’re still getting to know each other.”
A fresh whiskey appeared at Stell’s elbow. He didn’t remember finishing his first, but the glass was empty. He lifted the new tumbler, took a sip, and stopped, recognizing the taste.
It was a brand Stell kept in his apartment. One that he only poured when he had something in particular to celebrate.
Marcella smiled, knowingly. Her long legs uncrossed and recrossed, high heels glinting like knives at the edge of his sight.
“Tell me,” she said, twirling the wineglass stem between her fingers. “Do you have the place surrounded?”
“No,” said Stell. “Believe it or not, I’m not eager for anyone to know I’m sitting down with a terrorist.”
Marcella pursed her lips. “It will take more than harsh words to wound me, Joseph.”
The way she used his name, as if he were the wineglass between her fingers, something to be toyed with. “You wanted to meet,” he said curtly. “Tell me why.”
“EON,” she said simply.
“What about it?”
“You seem to target us because of what we are, not who. That kind of indiscriminate attack is shortsighted, to say the least.” Marcella leaned back in her seat. “Why make another enemy, when you could have an ally?”
“An ally,” echoed Stell. “What could you possibly offer me?”
A slow, crimson smile. “What do you want? Less violence? Safer streets? Organized crime really has gotten out of hand lately.”
Stell raised a brow. “You think you can change the course of the mob?”
Marcella’s smile shone. “Haven’t you heard? I am the mob now.” She rapped her nails on the linen tablecloth. “No, you want to deal in kind, don’t you? A more relevant currency? You want . . . EOs.”
“You would hand over your own?”
“My own what?” Marcella scoffed. “Who are they to me?” Stell looked past her again to the man in the dark suit. Marcella read his expression. “I’m afraid June and Jonathan are not up for trade. They belong to me. But surely there are others, ones that have eluded your grasp?”
Stell hesitated. Of course, some EOs were harder to catch than others, but there was only one that had proved, so far, impossible.
“There is an EO,” he said slowly, “one who seems to be targeting their own kind.” He didn’t elaborate, didn’t share Eli’s theory regarding their motivations. “So far they’ve killed seven other EOs.”
Marcella’s eyes widened in mock surprise. “Isn’t that your job?”
“I don’t approve of needless death,” said Stell. “Regardless of whether the victim was human, or not.”
“Ah, a man with morals.”
“My morals are the only reason I agreed to this meeting. Because I’m tired of burying good soldiers—”
“And because you haven’t figured out how to stop me,” said Marcella. Stell swallowed, but she waved him away. “This is a last resort. Why else would you sit down with a terrorist?”
“Do you want a ceasefire, or not?” asked Stell tightly.
Marcella considered her wine. “This EO—am I to search in the dark, or will you give me a starting mark?”
Stell drew a notepad from his pocket and scribbled down a list. He tore the sheet off. “The last five cities where the killer struck,” he explained, sliding the paper across the table.
Marcella slipped the sheet into her purse without reading it. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“You have two weeks,” countered Stell.
It was long enough to produce results, but not long enough for Marcella to waste time. She was right—and she was wrong—this wasn’t the last resort. Stell did have a way to stop her. But it wasn’t the one he wanted. Two weeks would give him time to think, to plan, and if he couldn’t find another option, then two weeks was how long he had to decide which was worse—letting Marcella walk free, or Eli.
“Two weeks,” mused Marcella.
“That’s how long this service buys you,” said Stell. “If you succeed in producing the killer, then perhaps we can continue to find common ground. If you fail, then I’m afraid your value to EON will not merit your continued freedom.”
“A man who knows what he wants,” said Marcella with a feline smile.
“There is another term—you will stop drawing so much attention to yourself.”
“That’s going to be hard,” she teased.
“Then stop drawing attention to your power,” clarified Stell. “No more public demonstrations. No more grand displays. The last thing this city needs is a reason to fall apart.”
“We certainly wouldn’t want that,” said Marcella coyly. “I’ll find your target for you, Joseph. And in exchange, you will stay out of my business, and out of my way.” She lifted her glass. “Do we have a de
TWO WEEKS AGO
ELI studied the footage again, and again.
The mission at the National should have been simple.
But nothing about Marcella Riggins was proving simple.
“You should be celebrating,” said Victor’s ghost. “Isn’t this what you wanted?”
Eli didn’t answer. He focused on the footage from the scene, advanced the surveillance one frame at a time, watching as the glass shattered, the bullet—which should have taken Marcella in the back of the head—ricocheted, sparking off an invisible shield.
Eli paused the footage there, rapping his fingers thoughtfully on the table.
The odds of a single EO possessing more than one power were slim to none. No, it was far more likely, he surmised, that this particular skill belonged to the third, as yet unidentified EO, the one lurking like a shadow at the very back of the room.
Three EOs, working together—that itself was unusual. The vast majority were loners, isolated by either necessity or choice. Few looked for others, let alone found them.
“We did,” observed Victor.
It was true. Both Eli and Victor had arrived at the same conclusion—that there was strength in numbers, potential in the complementary pairing of powers.
Now, apparently, so had Marcella.
Eli rolled the footage forward and watched her step through the hail of bullets onto the balcony. Watched as every single shot ricocheted. Watched as she raised her own gun in the general direction of the sniper.
There was something so brazen about the gesture . . .
Under pressure, an EO might fight back.
But they didn’t do this.
Didn’t use their powers with such obvious relish.
EOs were broken by definition, made reckless by the absence, the emptiness, the knowledge that their lives were over. It drove them to steal, to ruin, to self-destruct.
Marcella wasn’t self-destructing.
She was preening. Baiting them. Daring them to try again, try harder.
She had taken out her husband—and that made sense, an act of revenge. Of closure. But then, she’d taken out his competition. That wasn’t the mark of someone with nothing to lose. No, that was the mark of someone with something to gain. That was ambition. And ambition plus power was a very dangerous combination.
What would she do, if left unchecked?
The phantom in his head was right—he’d asked for a sign that he was needed, that this was right.
Marcella couldn’t be allowed to continue in this manner.
And soon Stell would realize, if he hadn’t already, that Eli was the only one who could put her down.
Footsteps sounded from beyond the fiberglass, and he looked up from the computer as Stell appeared on the other side of the wall.
“There you are,” said Eli, rising to his feet. “I’ve gone through all the footage from the failed execution, and we’re obviously going to need a much more tailored approach, especially considering there are . . .” Eli trailed off as Stell set a new case file in the tray.
“We got a hit on a suspected EO two hours south of Merit.”
Eli frowned. “And Marcella?”
“She isn’t the only target we’re tracking.”
“But she’s the most dangerous,” said Eli. “And in the last three days she’s collected two more. What are we going to do about—”
“We aren’t going to do anything,” said Stell shortly. “Your job is to analyze the files I give you. Or have you forgotten that you exist at the mercy of EON?”
Eli clenched his teeth. “There are three EOs working together in Merit, and you’re just going to ignore them?”
“I’m not ignoring anything,” countered Stell. “But we can’t afford another failed op. Marcella and her partners need to be handled cautiously. You have two weeks to devise that more tailored approach you spoke of.”
Eli drew up short. “Why two weeks?”
Stell hesitated at that. “Because,” he said slowly, “that is how long I’ve given her to prove her worth as an asset.”
Eli reeled. “You made a deal? With an EO?”
“The world is not black and white,” said Stell. “Sometimes there are other options.”
“Where were mine?” snapped Eli. “The lab or the cell—those are the only ones I was given.”
“You killed forty people.”
“And how many has she killed already? How many more lives will she destroy by the time you see fit to put her down?” Stell didn’t answer. “How could you be so stupid?”
“You will remember your place,” warned Stell.
“Why?” demanded Eli. “Tell me why you would make a deal with her.”
But Eli knew. Of course he knew. This was how far Stell was willing to go to keep him in this cage, contained, controlled.
“What did you mean,” he said through gritted teeth, “when you said her worth as an asset?”
Stell cleared his throat. “I’ve given her a mission. A chance to succeed where you have failed.”
Eli stilled. No. The open file. The unsolved case. Victor.
“The hunter is mine,” he growled.
“You’ve had two years,” said Stell. “Perhaps it’s time for fresh eyes.”
Eli didn’t realize he’d approached the fiberglass until he slammed his fist against it.
This time, the gesture wasn’t calculated. It was pure rage, a moment of violent emotion turned to violent action. Pain flashed through him, and the wall hummed in warning, but Eli’s hand was already falling away.
Stell’s mouth twitched, a grim smile. “I’ll leave you to your work.”
Eli watched the director go until the wall went white, and then he turned and slumped back against it, sliding to the floor.
All of his patience, his subtle pressures. The ground beneath him shuddered, threatened to break. One misstep, and it would crumble, and he would lose Victor and Marcella both, and with them, justice, closure, and any hope of freedom. It might already be too late.
He studied the back of his hand, where a single smear of blood marred the knuckles.
“How many will die for the sake of his pride?” mused Victor.
Eli looked up and saw the phantom standing over him again.
He shook his head. “Stell would rather let the city burn than admit that we are on the same side.”
Victor stared at the wall as if it were still a window. “He doesn’t know how patient you are,” he said. “Doesn’t know you like I do.”
Eli cleaned the blood from his hand.
“No,” he said softly. “No one ever has.”
TWO WEEKS AGO
FIRST AND WHITE
JUNE whistled softly as she rinsed the blood from her hands.
Marcella had swept out of the penthouse in her red dress, Jonathan trailing like a shadow at her heels. She didn’t say where she was going, or when she’d be back, didn’t ask June to come with, which was fine with her. Jonathan might be a lap dog, but June preferred to work alone.
Which, mind you, wasn’t the same as being alone. Too much silence, too much space. But idle hands and all that—which is how June ended up wrists deep in someone else’s blood.
She hadn’t taken a new job in more than week. Hadn’t needed to. Hutch had been the final name on her personal list, and Marcella had been working up a roster of obstacles, as she called them—men and women most likely to resist her rapid ascent—so whenever June got bored, she just went out and knocked a few off the list.
Marcella didn’t seem to mind.
Some people were matches, a bit of light and no heat. And some were furnaces, all heat but little light. And then, once in a blue moon, there was a bonfire, something so hot and bright you couldn’t stand too near without burning.
Of course, even bonfires eventually went out, smothered by their own ashes. But in the meantime, June had to admire the other woman’s ambition, and had to admit she was actually enjoying herself.
The only thing missing was Sydney’s soft laugh, her bright smile . . .
June snapped the water off, dried her hands, met her gaze in the reflection.
No. Not hers. Not her hazel eyes. Not her red hair. Not her freckles.
But she’d found herself taking this aspect—brown waves, green eyes, sharp chin—more and more often. It felt strange, holding on to one face long enough for other people to remember it.
Was it worth it? Syd had asked her that night, when she confessed to giving up her face, her life, herself. And it was, it was, but that didn’t stop June from craving the light of recognition in someone’s eyes. The comfort of being seen, being known.
She could be anyone, these days, a million outfits at her disposal, but she tried not to get too attached to any one of them. After all, people died, and when they did, their shape vanished from her closet. (Sometimes she didn’t even know they were gone until she went looking.)
Only one shape was guaranteed to be there, and it was the one she wouldn’t wear.
June heard the door swing open, the signature click of Marcella’s heels on the marble floor. June went to find her, and passed Jonathan on his way to the balcony, a cigarette between his teeth. Marcella shrugged out of a white trench coat.
“What have you been up to?” asked June, leaning against the wall.
“Making connections,” said Marcella. She drew a folded piece of paper from her purse. “Since you have a knack for finding people—”
“I have a knack for killing people,” corrected June. “Finding them is simply a prerequisite.”
“Well, I have a job for you.” Marcella held out the slip. “Did you know that there’s someone out there killing EOs?”
“Yeah,” said June, taking the folded slip. “It’s called EON.”
Marcella persisted. “I’m talking about an EO. Someone like us, killing people like us. Which I find rather vexing.”
June unfolded the paper, her gaze flitting over the list.
by V. E. Schwab / Adult / Fantasy / Science Fiction have rating 4.6 out of 5 / Based on41 votes