Vengeful, page 29
Never one to waste a weapon, thought June.
“Who knows,” mused Marcella. “Maybe he’ll prove pliable.”
Victor struck June as many things—pliable wasn’t one of them. If anything, he seemed to be rather intransigent, cold smoke to Marcella’s fire. But opposites attracted for a reason. Would it be such a bad thing? June had always assumed she’d have to pry Sydney from Victor’s grasp, but maybe she wouldn’t have to. Maybe he would join them, three EOs becoming five. That was a nice number, wasn’t it? Five. Almost a family.
Marcella was still talking.
“I want you to make contact,” she was saying. “Arrange a meeting with our new friend. I’ll send you the details. Oh, and June?”
“Somebody convinced Victor to come to Merit, and it wasn’t me.”
“My money’s on EON.”
“That would probably be a good bet. Obviously, we can’t let them get to Victor first. So do try not to lose him.”
June swore again, and gunned the engine.
THE DAY BEFORE
THE Kingsley was a blade of a building, thrust up through the city’s skyline.
But Victor hadn’t chosen the place for the modern aesthetics. No, the selling point had been its underground parking, which mitigated the problems of exposure—a tattooed man with a shaved head, a giant black dog, and a short blond child would always stand out, even in a city like Merit—and the closed-circuit security, which Mitch would have hacked by the time they unpacked, and—much to Sydney’s apparent delight—a rooftop garden.
Mitch set their bags down inside the door.
“Don’t get comfortable,” said Victor. “We’re not staying long.”
Mitch and Sydney shouldn’t have come at all, but Victor had long given up trying to dissuade them. Attachment was a vexing thing, as pernicious as weeds.
He should have left, before it ever took root.
“I’ll be back,” he said, turning toward the door.
Sydney caught his arm. “Be careful,” she said.
What a nuisance, Victor told himself, even as he rested his hand on her head.
“Careful is a calculated risk,” he said. “And I’m very good at making those.”
Victor pulled away, forcing Syd to let go, and left without looking back.
He took the elevator to the street and stepped out, alone, into the afternoon sun, checking his watch. It was just after three. According to Mitch, the doctor’s shift at Merit Central ended at five. Victor would be there to meet him.
A more spiritual person might have seen the EO’s sudden appearance as a sign of divine intervention, but Victor had never put much stock in fate, and even less in faith. Dumont’s presence in the matrix was convenient to the point of suspicion, his location in Merit its own red flag.
No, Dumont was either a gift or a trap.
Victor was inclined to think the latter.
But he couldn’t afford to stake his life on it.
His latest episode had crossed the four-minute threshold. He’d come back, but Victor knew he was playing a dangerous game. The odds were terrible, the stakes monumental.
It was Russian roulette, except that a bullet would be a cleaner end.
He had considered that, a quick, clean death. Not a suicide, of course—a reset. But that would introduce another factor, another risk. If he died again—truly died—would Sydney be able to bring him back? And if she did, how much of his power would be left? How much of him?
Four blocks later, Victor turned the corner and stepped through the sliding glass doors into a gym. He would have preferred to meet in a bar, but Dominic Rusher was five years sober, and in a moment of distraction Victor had agreed to meet him here instead.
He’d always hated gyms.
He’d avoided sports in school, avoided the weight yard in prison, preferring to hone his strength in other ways. He had enjoyed swimming, once. The soothing repetition, the measured breath, the way physical mass had no bearing on skill.
Now, as he strode past the hulking, sweating masses lifting weights, he had a vivid memory of watching football players trying to swim, attacking the pool as if they could muscle it out of the way. The current worked against them. They sank like stones. Spluttered for air. Bested by something as simple and natural as water.
Dominic was waiting for him in the locker room.
At first glance, Victor hardly recognized the ex-soldier. If the last five years had whittled Victor down, they’d had the opposite effect on Dom. The change was startling—apparently, as startling as Victor’s own transformation.
Dominic’s eyes widened. “Victor. You look . . .”
“Yeah, like shit, I know.” He tipped his shoulder against the steel lockers. “How’s the job?”
Dom scratched his head. “Well enough, all things considered. But remember that EO I told you about? The one making a scene?”
“Marcella.” Victor hadn’t meant to hold on to that name, but something about it, about her, had stuck in his mind. “How long did she last?”
Dom shook his head. “They haven’t caught her yet.”
“Really?” Victor had to admit, he was impressed.
“But the thing is,” said Dom, “they don’t seem to be trying. And she’s not exactly keeping the lowest profile. She killed six of our agents, clipped a sniper—hell, every day she does something new. But orders are to hold.” He lowered his voice. “There’s something going on. I just don’t know what. Above my pay grade, obviously.”
“And Eli?” prompted Victor.
“Still in his vault.” Dom shot him a nervous look. “For now.”
Victor’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“It’s just a rumor,” said Dom, “but apparently some of the higher-ups think he should be playing a more active role.”
“They wouldn’t do something that stupid.”
But then, people did stupid things all the time. And Eli could charm almost anyone.
“Anything else?” he asked.
Dominic hesitated, rubbing at his neck. “It’s getting worse.”
“I’ve noticed,” said Victor dryly.
“Yesterday Holtz found me heaving my guts out in a closet. And last week I broke into a cold sweat in the middle of a training seminar. I’ve claimed hangover, PTSD, anything I can think of, but I’m running out of lies.”
And I’m running out of lives, thought Victor, pushing off the lockers.
“Good luck,” called Dom as he left.
But Victor didn’t need luck.
He needed a doctor.
* * *
SYDNEY stepped out into the sun on the rooftop garden of the Kingsley building.
It was a blue sky day, but the air was still cold. It made her think of the lake, her thirteenth birthday, the skin of ice over the melted water. Her fingers tightened on her cell. The text had come in while she was unpacking, three short words that made her nervous.
June: Call me. Now.
It rang, and rang, and when June finally answered, all Syd heard was music, too loud and fraying at the edges. June’s lilting voice broke through, telling her to hold on, and a second later the music dropped away, replaced by the low hum of an engine.
“Sydney,” said June, her voice high and clear. “Just the girl I need.”
“Hey,” said Syd. “We just got to Merit. What’s going on? Are you here?”
“On my way back,” said June. “Had a bit of work outside the city. Look,” she went on, “I need you to do something for me.”
There was a tension in June’s voice, an urgency Syd had never heard before.
“What is it?” she asked.
A short exhale, like static on the line. “I need you to tell me where Victor is.”
The words fell like a rock in Sydney’s stomach. “What?”
“Listen to me,” pressed the other girl. “He’s in trouble. There are some really dangerous people in Merit, and they know he’s here, and they’re looking for him. I want to keep him safe, I do—and I can—but I need your help.”
Safe. Syd’s mind tripped over the word. If Victor was in trouble—but why was he in trouble, and how did June know? Who was looking for him? EON?
She started to ask, but June cut her off.
June, who’d never even raised her voice.
“Do you trust me or not?”
She did. She wanted to. But—
“Where is he, Sydney?”
She swallowed. “Merit Central Hospital.”
THE DAY BEFORE
MERIT CENTRAL HOSPITAL
IT was seventeen minutes past five.
Victor leaned back against Dumont’s gray sedan in the hospital parking garage and scrolled through Dom’s texts as he waited for the doctor. The buzzing in his skull seemed to ratchet up as he skimmed the most recent times.
3 minutes, 49 seconds.
3 minutes, 52 seconds.
3 minutes, 56 seconds.
4 minutes, 04 seconds.
The stairwell door clattered open across the garage.
Victor glanced up and saw Dumont, dark skin, gray hair, head bowed over his tablet as he headed toward his car. Toward Victor.
Victor didn’t move, simply waited for the doctor to come to him.
The man looked up, brows furrowing. Victor thought he saw something cross the doctor’s face. Not surprise, exactly, but fear. “Can I help you?”
Victor studied him, fingers flexing. “I certainly hope so.”
Dumont looked around the parking garage. “I’m off work,” he said, “but you can make an appointment—”
Victor didn’t have time for this—he took hold of the doctor’s nerves, and twisted. Dumont buckled with a shocked cry. He clutched his chest, sweat breaking out along his brow.
Having made his point, Victor let go.
Dumont sagged back against his car. “You’re—an EO.”
“Just like you,” said Victor.
“I don’t—hurt people,” said Dumont.
“No? Then how does your power work?”
Dumont let out a shaky breath. “I can see—how people are broken. I can—see how—to put them back together.”
Relief swept through Victor. Finally, a promising lead.
“Good,” he said, stepping toward the doctor. “Show me.”
Dumont shook his head. Victor was about take hold of the doctor’s nerves again when the stairwell door swung open and a small huddle of nurses stepped out, talking animatedly. A car beeped nearby. Victor shifted to block their view.
“Not here,” muttered Dumont.
“Then where?” asked Victor.
The doctor nodded at the hospital. “My office is on the seventh—”
“No,” said Victor. Too many eyes. Too many doors.
Dumont rubbed his forehead. “The fifth floor is under renovation. It should be empty. That’s the best I can do.”
Victor hesitated, but the humming in his head was spreading to his limbs. He was running out of time.
“Fine,” he said, “lead the way.”
* * *
MEANWHILE, ACROSS TOWN . . .
SYDNEY tried to call Victor, but it went straight to voicemail every time.
What did June mean when she said he was in trouble?
They’d been careful. They were always careful.
Do you trust me or not?
In that moment, Sydney had. She hoped she hadn’t made a mistake.
Footsteps sounded behind her. Sydney’s hand went automatically to the gun she now kept tucked in her coat, thumb already resting against the safety.
But then she recognized the heavy tread, and turned to see Mitch striding toward her across the rooftop garden.
“There you are,” he said cheerfully.
She let go of the gun. “Hey,” she said. “Just admiring the view.” She tried to keep her voice light, but her head was still spinning, and she was afraid it would show on her face, so she turned her back on Mitch. “It’s weird, isn’t it? How cities change. Buildings go up, and come down, and it looks the same—and different.”
“Like you,” said Mitch, ruffling her pink wig. The gesture was light, easy, but there was a strain in his voice, and the silence, when it fell, was heavy. Syd’s mind was on Victor, but she knew Mitch’s was on her sister.
They’d never talked about what really happened to Serena. It had been too soon, and then too late. The wound had healed, as best as it could.
But now that they were back in Merit, the finished Falcon Price building glinting in the distance, the air was thick with everything they’d never said.
“Hey, Syd,” started Mitch, but she cut him off.
“Do you ever wish you were an EO?”
Mitch’s brow crinkled, caught off guard by the question. He didn’t answer right away. He’d always been careful like that, sorting out his words before he said them.
“I remember when I first met Victor,” he said at last. “These guys inside were giving me a hard time, and he just . . .” Mitch slid his hand through the air. “He made it look so easy. I guess to him it probably was. But watching it made me feel . . . small.”
Syd laughed. “You’re the biggest guy I know.”
He flashed her a smile, but it was sad at the edges. “Sometimes it feels like I’m in a fight, and all I’ve got are my hands, and the other guy has a knife. But that guy with the knife, eventually he’s going to face someone with a gun. And the one with the gun is going to go up against someone with a bomb. The truth is, Syd, there will always be somebody stronger than you. That’s just the way the world works.” He looked up at the shining skyscraper. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a human versus a human or a human versus an EO or an EO versus an EO. You do what you can. You fight, and you win, until you don’t.”
Sydney swallowed, and turned her attention back to the skyline.
“Any word from Victor?” she asked, trying to keep her voice light.
Mitch shook his head. “Not yet. But don’t worry.” His hand came to rest on her shoulder. “He can take care of himself.”
MERIT CENTRAL HOSPITAL
THEIR steps echoed on the stairs.
“What exactly happens at the apex of these episodes?” asked Dumont.
“Nerve impairment. Muscular seizure.” Victor ticked off the symptoms. “Atrial fibrillation. Cardiac arrest. Death.”
Dumont glanced back. “Death?”
“Do you know how many times you’ve died? Are we talking about three to four recurrences or a dozen—”
“One hundred and thirty-two.”
The doctor’s face went slack. “That’s . . . not possible.”
Victor considered him dryly. “I assure you, I’ve kept track.”
“But the sheer strain on your body.” Dumont shook his head. “You shouldn’t be alive.”
“That is both the cause and the crux of our problem, isn’t it?”
“Have you experienced cognitive impairment?”
Victor hesitated. “There’s a brief period of disorientation immediately after. And it’s getting longer.”
“It’s a miracle you’re still forming sentences.”
Miracle. Victor had always hated that word.
They reached the fifth floor, and Dumont pushed open a set of doors. He hit a switch and the lights came on, one shuddering wave at a time, illuminating a broad floor that was indeed in the process of being torn apart and put back together. Plastic sheeting hung in makeshift curtains, equipment covered in white tarps, and for an instant Victor imagined himself back in the half-built Falcon Price building, voices bouncing off concrete.
“There are some exam rooms this way,” said Dumont, but Victor refused to move.
They were standing in the middle of the tangled space. Victor would have preferred a clean line of sight to the exits, but the tarping made that impossible.
Dumont set his things down and shrugged out of his coat.
“How long have you been an EO?” asked Victor.
“Two years,” said the doctor.
Two years. And he’d only just shown up in their search matrix.
“Go ahead and sit down,” said Dumont, gesturing to a chair. Victor continued to stand.
“Tell me something, Doctor. When you were dying, what were your final thoughts?”
“My final thoughts?” echoed Dumont, considering. “I thought about my family . . . how much I’d miss them . . . how I didn’t want to leave . . .” He stumbled over the answer, as if he couldn’t remember. Perhaps he was simply nervous, but as he stammered, Victor was reminded of an actor forgetting their lines.
“And you said your power is to diagnose a person’s ailments?”
It didn’t fit.
An EO’s near-death experience was colored so strongly by their last moments, their will to survive, but also their dire, most desperate wishes. Dumont’s final moments, final thoughts, should have shaped his power, and yet—
The doctor managed a nervous smile. “I thought I was meant to be diagnosing you.”
Victor parroted the smile. “Yes, of course. Go ahead.”
But Dumont hesitated, patting his shirt pocket.
“Is something wrong?” asked Victor, fingers drifting toward his holstered gun.
“I don’t have my glasses.” Dumont turned away. “I must have left them downstairs. I’ll just go and—”
But Victor was already behind him.
He couldn’t afford to use his power—pain generated noise, and noise drew attention—so Victor settled for pressing the gun against the base of the doctor’s spine and wrapping his free hand over the doctor’s mouth. “The trouble with conventional weapons,” he said in the doctor’s ear, “is that the damage they do is so permanent. If you make a sound, you will never walk again. Do you understand?”
by V. E. Schwab / Adult / Fantasy / Science Fiction have rating 4.6 out of 5 / Based on41 votes