Vengeful, page 31
Every action had been his own design, every step his own making.
If there was a way out of this, he would find it.
If there wasn’t, he would make one himself.
The bar’s only door swung open, and a few moments later Victor heard a voice, the words lost in the crowd, but the accent unmistakable.
He looked up.
There was a small, brunette woman with fox-sharp features leaning across the bar. He’d never seen the person before, but Victor knew it was her—the woman from the strip club. The concerned Samaritan from the alley, too. And of course, most recently, the doctor who’d helped him escape EON. It wasn’t just the accent that Victor recognized. It was the look in the woman’s eyes—behind her eyes, really—as she glanced toward him, the mischievous smile that lit her face. If it was her face.
They were an EO—that much was obvious.
He watched as the shapeshifter took up their drink and headed toward him.
“Is this seat taken?” Again, that lilting voice.
“That depends,” said Victor. “The Glass Tower—was that the first time we met?”
A wry smile cut across the vulpine face. “It was.”
“But not the last.”
“No,” said the EO, sinking into the chair across from him. “Not the last.”
Victor curled his fingers around his glass. “Who are you?”
“Think of me as a kind of guardian angel. You can call me June.”
“Is that your real name?”
“Ah,” said June wistfully, “real is a murky thing, for someone like me.”
The woman sat forward, and as she did, she changed. There was no hinge, no transition—the brunette girl dissolved, replaced by strawberry curls and dark blue eyes in a heart-shaped face.
“Do you like it?” asked June, as if she were asking his opinion of a new dress, not a distorted reflection of the only girl Victor had ever loved. “It’s the best I can do, considering the real one is dead.”
“Change,” said Victor tersely.
“Aw,” June sulked. “But I picked her just for you.”
“Change,” he ordered.
The blue-eyed gaze leveled on him, a challenge, a dare. Victor rose to meet it. His fingers twitched as he took hold of her nerves, turned the dial in her chest—but if the woman felt any pain, it didn’t register on her face. Her power—somehow it was shielding her.
“Sorry,” said June with a wan smile. “You can’t hurt me.”
A faint emphasis on the last word.
Victor leaned forward. “I don’t need to.”
He splayed his hand across the worn wood table, pinning her body to the chair.
A faint crease formed between June’s eyes, the only hint of struggle as she fought his hold.
“There are so many nerves in a human body,” said Victor. “Pain is only one of the possible signals. A single instrument in a symphony.”
A smirk fought its way onto the girl’s mouth. “But how long do you think you can hold me? An hour? A day? Until your next death? I wonder, which one of us will give up first?”
They were at an impasse.
Victor let go.
June exhaled, rolling her neck. As she did, the girl with the strawberry curls fell away, replaced by the brunette she’d been wearing before. “There. All better?”
“Why have you been following me?” asked Victor.
“I have a vested interest,” said June. “And I’m not the only one. There’s an EO in this city who would very much like to meet you. Perhaps you’ve heard of her.”
The EO currently treating Merit like her own personal playground. The one who, against all odds, had yet to burn out.
“I see,” said Victor slowly. “So you’re just the messenger.”
A flicker of annoyance crossed June’s face. “Hardly.”
“And why,” he asked, “would I want to meet with Marcella?”
June shrugged. “Curiosity? The fact you’ve got nothing to lose? Or maybe—you’ll do it for Sydney’s sake.”
Victor’s expression darkened. “Is that supposed to be a threat?”
“No,” said June, and for once there was no mischief, no malice, in her voice. Her expression was open, honest. She hadn’t changed faces, but the difference was just as striking. “I do care what happens to that girl.”
“You don’t even know her.”
“Everyone’s got secrets, Victor. Even our darling Syd. How do you think I found you today at Merit Central? She looks out for you, and you should be doing the same for her. I know you’re sick. I’ve seen you die. And we both know Sydney’s got a long life ahead. What happens when you’re not around to protect her?” The earnestness dissolved, replaced once more by that wry twist of the lips, that sly glint of light behind the eyes. “She’s a powerful girl, our Syd. She’ll need allies when you’re gone, and we both know you already killed her first choice.”
Victor looked down into his drink. “Is that what Marcella is, then? An ally?”
“Marcella,” said June pointedly, “is powerful.”
“What exactly is her power?”
“Come see for yourself.”
June swiped the battered paperback and pen.
“Tomorrow,” she said, scribbling the details on the inside cover. “And just so you know,” she added, rising. “When Marcella makes an offer, she only does it once.” She nudged the book back toward him.
“Don’t waste it.”
THE NIGHT BEFORE
FIRST AND WHITE
JUNE hummed softly as the elevator rose.
When she reached the top floor, she found two men in dark suits standing outside the penthouse door. They were new, and one had the poor sense to try to stop her as she passed.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
June looked down at the hand on her shoulder. When she looked back up at the man, she was him, down to the last hairy knuckle and acne scar.
“I go where I please,” she said, her accent coming through in his deep voice.
The security pulled back as if burned.
“I’m . . . I’m sorry,” he said, genuine fear flashing across his face. That—that was a pleasant change. She’d gotten surprise, shock, even awe once or twice, but never such a simple thing as fear. They hadn’t known who she was, but they knew what. An EO. And it clearly scared the shit out of them.
Maybe Marcella was right. Maybe EOs shouldn’t be the ones hiding.
“Not to worry,” said June, cheerfully, shifting back into the brunette. “Honest mistake.”
They scrambled to open the door, and she stepped into the penthouse, marveling a little at the strange comfort of returning.
We really need a dog, she thought. Something to greet you when you get home.
She reached the open living room, where Jonathan sat slumped on a leather sofa, palms pressed against his eyes.
“Johnny boy, why so glum?” Her steps slowed at the sight of a large red-brown stain on the floor. “Well, that’s new.”
“Yeah,” said Jonathan, looking up, “she’s been busy.”
“I can see that. And where is our fearless leader tonight?” Jonathan didn’t answer, didn’t need to. Marcella’s voice streamed from her office.
“Why would I want flowers?”
“They’re lilies,” said a man’s voice. “I thought they’d make an elegant centerpiece.”
“I’m the elegant centerpiece.”
“Without something to soften the space, I’m afraid it will look awfully austere.”
“This is the beginning of a new age,” snapped Marcella, “not a fucking sweet sixteen. Get rid of them.”
The man hesitated. “. . . If you’re sure . . .”
June heard the telltale click of heels on marble. “Well, perhaps you do know best . . .” There was a shuffle, a gasp, and June stepped through the door just in time to see the man crumble in Marcella’s grip
“Oh, I’ve missed this,” said June pleasantly as what was left of the man fell to the floor. She considered the ruined heap, adorned only by a few tattered bits of silk and a silver cufflink. Marcella was burning hotter, faster, and—as far as June could tell—she still had yet to find her limit.
Marcella leaned back against her desk and took up a cloth, wiping her hands. “I’ve always hated having to repeat myself.” She glanced up. “Shouldn’t you be watching over our new arrival?”
“I’ve had enough babysitting for one day,” said June. “I delivered your message.”
“He’s a tough one to predict, but I think he’ll come.”
“I certainly hope so,” said Marcella. “I am glad you made it back in time.”
“For what?” asked June.
Marcella handed her a card.
June took it up, turned it over, eyes flitting over the paper. She shook her head, baffled and amused. “Jesus, Marcella, anyone ever told you that you’re batshit crazy?”
Marcella pursed her lips. “Several times,” she said. “It’s an insult men love to aim at ambitious women. But aren’t you forgetting, June—this was your idea.”
“It was a joke and you know it.” June flicked the card away. “How many people did you send that to?”
Marcella ticked them off on her fingers. “The mayor, the chief of police, the district attorney, the director of EON.” She waved her hand. “And a few hundred of the most powerful—well, formerly most powerful—people in this fine city.”
June shook her head in disbelief. “Drawing this kind of attention is a very bad idea. You’re putting a target on our backs.”
“There’s already one there. Haven’t you noticed? They’re going to come for us, one way or another, June, and if we stay hidden, no one will ever know we were there. So let them see us. Let them see what we can do.” Marcella smiled, that radiant, seductive smile. “Admit it, June. There’s a part of you that wants to stand in that light. No more running. No more hiding.”
Marcella didn’t understand that June would always be hiding. But the woman was right about one thing.
People had tried to bend June. Tried to break her. Tried to make her feel small.
Perhaps it was time for them to understand how small they were. June could never be herself, not the self she was before, but she could be someone. She could be seen.
And when EON came calling, well, they wouldn’t catch her.
Which left only one question, really.
Who was she going to wear?
THE LAST MORNING
SYDNEY crashed to her hands and knees on the ice.
She tried to get away, but Eli grabbed the collar of her coat, dragging her backward.
“Come now, Sydney,” he said. “Let’s finish what we started.”
She sat up, gasping for air.
Syd didn’t remember falling asleep. She’d spent most of the night tossing and turning, restless. It wasn’t the Kingsley—she’d spent five years getting used to strange new places. It was Victor—or rather, his absence.
The apartment felt wrong, too empty without him.
He had a way of taking up space, and even when he started to move like a ghost, coming and going, he never stayed gone. There was always that thread connecting him to Sydney, and whenever he was out late, she’d lie in bed and feel it spool away beneath her hand, and then draw tight when he returned.
But Victor hadn’t come back last night.
Dumont had been a trap, and Victor had almost been caught in it. He’d gotten away, and wouldn’t come back until it was safe. He’d gotten away—and Sydney knew he’d had help. She checked her phone again, saw the notes from last night.
Syd: thank you
June: of course ;)
Syd got up and wandered out of her room, found Mitch at the table twisting a pair of wires and fitting them into a small black box. Sydney was always amazed that such big hands could do such precise work.
“What’s that?” she asked.
Mitch smiled. “Just a precaution,” he said, holding up the device. She realized she’d seen it before, or something like it, spotted them in the corners of doorways wherever she and Mitch and Victor played house.
“Have you heard from him?”
Mitch nodded. “This morning,” he said. “And as soon as he gets back, we’re leaving.”
Sydney’s chest tightened. She couldn’t leave Merit. Not yet. Not before she tried—
She ducked back into her room and got dressed, pulled on the boots and the bomber jacket, and then went to the dresser, where she’d hidden the small red tin. She tucked the box deep in her pocket and started out into the apartment and toward the front door.
“Come on, Dol,” she called.
The dog drew up his lazy head.
“Syd,” said Mitch. “We need to stay inside.”
“And he needs a walk,” protested Sydney.
Dol, for his part, didn’t seem excited.
“I took him out earlier on the rooftop,” said Mitch. “The building’s gardener won’t be happy, but it’ll have to do. I’m sorry, kiddo. I don’t like being cooped up either, but it isn’t safe—”
Sydney shook her head. “If EON knew where we were, they would have already come for us.”
Mitch sighed. “Maybe. But I’m not willing to take the chance.”
There was a steadiness to his words, a stern resolve. Sydney chewed her lip, considering. Mitch had never prevented her from leaving before, not physically. She wondered if he would.
She didn’t want to make him do that. She sighed, shrugging out of her coat.
Mitch relaxed, visibly relieved. “All right. I’ll start lunch. You hungry?”
Syd smiled. “Always,” she said. “I’m going to take a shower first.”
Mitch was already in the kitchen, turning on the stove, as she slipped down the hall, tugging the coat back on. She went straight past the bathroom and into Mitch’s bedroom, sliding the window open as Dol padded into the room behind her.
“Stay,” she whispered.
The dog opened his mouth, as if to bark, but his tongue simply lolled.
“Good boy,” she said, swinging her leg over the sill. “Keep Mitch safe.”
Syd was about to climb down the fire escape, but then she hesitated, digging out the playing card she always kept with her—the one Victor had plucked from the fallen deck so long ago, and then slipped like a secret into her palm.
The king of spades.
It was battered now, edges worn from five years of back pockets, a rough crease along the middle.
In their game, a face card meant freedom.
Syd told herself she wasn’t breaking the rules—and if she was, well, she wasn’t the only one.
She dropped the card on the floor, and tugged the window shut behind her.
THE LAST MORNING
VICTOR stood on the street, the stolen paperback open in his hand.
He’d lingered in the bar until just after midnight before checking into a nearby motel, the kind that clearly wasn’t eager to draw police attention. After a few restless hours on creaking springs, he’d gotten up again, and walked the thirty-four blocks through the waking heart of Merit to the address June had scribbled inside the battered front cover.
119 Alexander Place. 12 p.m.
It was, of all things, an art gallery. Large glass windows looked out onto the curb, revealing glimpses of the paintings inside. It was almost noon, and Victor hadn’t decided yet if he was going in.
He weighed the options in his mind, along with June’s words.
It could simply be another kind of trap. Or it could be an opportunity. But in the end, it was sheer curiosity that propelled him forward. For the EO who had managed to evade EON’s net. For the woman who had held her ground instead of running.
It was larger than it looked from the street—a series of broad, blank rooms, linked together by archways. Abstract paintings dotted the walls, blotches of color against the white. In his black attire, Victor felt like an ink spill. Ideal for slipping through crowds on the street, but far more conspicuous in such a stark environment. So he didn’t bother trying to blend in, didn’t pretend to admire the art, simply set off to find Marcella.
A handful of men and women stood scattered through the rooms, but none of them were real patrons. Victor glimpsed holsters beneath fitted suits, fingers resting on the open mouths of handbags. Hired guns, he thought, wondering if June was hidden among them. He didn’t spot anyone with her tells.
But he did find Marcella.
She was in the largest gallery, facing away from him, her black hair pulled up, a silk blouse dipping low between her shoulder blades. Still, he knew it was her. Not because he’d seen a photograph, but because of the way she stood, with all the casual grace of a predator. Victor was used to being the strongest person in the room, and it was both familiar and unsettling to see that confidence on someone else.
They weren’t alone in the room.
A thin man in a black suit leaned against the wall between two paintings. His dark hair was slicked back, his eyes hidden behind a pair of sunglasses. The white walls made the gallery unnaturally bright, but not bright enough to merit shades—meaning they served an alternate purpose.
“I’ve never understood art,” mused Marcella, loud enough for Victor to know she was addressing him. “I’ve been to a hundred galleries, stared at a thousand paintings, waiting to feel inspired or awestruck or enamored—but the only thing I ever really felt was bored.”
As Victor watched, she reached out and pressed one gold nail to the surface of the painting. Under Marcella’s touch, the canvas rotted, and crumbled, pieces drifting to the floor.
“Don’t worry,” she said, turning on one metal heel. “I own the building, and everything in it.” She raised a brow. “Except for you, of course.” She gave him a cursory look. “Do you like art, Mr. Vale? My husband did. He always had a fondness for beautiful things.” Marcella lifted her chin. “Do you think I’m beautiful?”
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