Vengeful, p.36

Vengeful, page 36

 

Vengeful
 



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  June gave a dramatic sigh and dissolved into a middle-aged man with a groomed mustache and an attractive, if mildly forgettable face. “Better?”

  “Much,” said Marcella.

  June gave her a sweeping look. “You look like Snow White killed the queen and stole the mirror.”

  Marcella flashed a cool smile. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

  June settled back in her seat. “You would.”

  * * *

  ELI smoothed his hair back and buttoned his shirt.

  He’d dumped the fragments of the broken pen into the toilet tank. The tracking devices he slipped into the pocket of his suit jacket.

  It felt good to be back in real-world clothes, even if they were on the formal side. He’d donned a hundred different costumes in the service of his work. All he was missing was a weapon—a knife, a length of wire. But he could make do with his bare hands. He’d certainly done it before.

  Eli was just knotting the borrowed tie when he heard the commotion beyond the bathroom door, the radio chatter mixing with Stell’s gruff voice. Eli undid the knot and started again, working slowly as he listened.

  “No . . . God dammit . . . who was it? No . . . we continue as planned . . .”

  Eli waited until it was obvious there was nothing more to glean, then emerged, taking in the scene. Stell’s cheeks were ruddy. He had never had much of a poker face. And only one man could cause so much consternation.

  Victor.

  “Everything okay?” asked Eli.

  “Just focus on the task,” ordered Stell, pulling on his own suit jacket and running a hand through salt-and-pepper hair. More salt by the day, thought Eli. Some people really weren’t suited for this line of work.

  He wasn’t the only one who’d gotten dressed.

  The woman now wore a silk black jumpsuit, the kind that belonged on a catwalk, not a field agent.

  The young blond was still in his uniform, but the square-jawed soldier wore a black jacket over a crisp white shirt open at the throat.

  Eli hummed thoughtfully. “The invitation only admits two.”

  In answer, Stell produced a second card.

  “A replica?” wondered Eli aloud. If it was a copy, it was flawless.

  “No,” said Stell. “It’s the one Marcella sent to the district attorney. Lucky for us, he’s out of town.” He handed the spare invitation to the female soldier. “Holtz,” he said, nodding at the blond, “will stay outside.”

  “Always the short straw,” muttered the soldier.

  Stell checked his watch.

  “It’s time.”

  * * *

  THE black van was gone when Sydney got back to the Kingsley.

  She found the apartment door broken, ajar, and she drew her gun, clutching it in both hands as she stepped through.

  The first thing Syd saw was blood. Fat drops of it, leading down the hall, then a small pool on the hardwood floor smeared by the edge of a handprint.

  And the body.

  Dol.

  Syd scrambled to the dog’s side, sinking to her knees beside his still form. She knocked the playing card from atop his chest, ran her fingers through his fur. Closed her eyes, and reached, felt the thread of the dog’s life dancing away, dodging her grip. Every time, it was harder. Every time, she had to reach deeper. As Sydney worked, a terrible aching cold wound through her, and she felt her lungs seize, her breath trip, and then at last she caught the thread, dragged Dol back to life. Again.

  The dog’s chest heaved, and Syd sank back, gasping for air.

  Her attention drifted to the king of spades, now overturned, a note in Mitch’s tight script on the back.

  Went to find Victor.

  Syd got to her feet, and so did Dol, shaking off his death as if it were rain. He pressed himself against her side as if to ask, What now?

  Syd looked around. She didn’t have a phone.

  Didn’t have a clue where anyone had gone.

  But she did have something—the invisible tether that ran between her and the things she brought back.

  Sydney didn’t know if it would be enough, but she had to try. She closed her eyes and reached for another thread. Felt it go taut against her fingers.

  “Come on,” she said to Dol, stepping around the blood.

  When they reached the street, Syd paused, closing her eyes again. Felt her world tip ever so slightly to the left. As if to say, This way.

  She started walking.

  * * *

  “DRIVE faster,” said Victor, trying to ignore the buzzing in his skull, those first warnings of a building charge.

  It would wait. It had to wait.

  “Why?” demanded Mitch, even as he sped toward Merit. “Why are we going toward this mess instead of away?”

  Victor found a roll of paper towels in the backseat and pressed them to the shallow wound along his ribs. “Eli will be there.”

  “All the more reason to go the other way. You two can circle each other forever, but there’s only one way it ends, Victor, and it’s not in your favor.”

  “Thanks for the confidence,” said Victor, dryly.

  Mitch shook his head. “You and your vengeance . . .”

  But it wasn’t vengeance.

  Whatever’s happened to you, however you’re hurt, you’ve done it to yourself.

  Campbell had been right.

  Victor had to take responsibility. For himself. And for the monster he’d helped to create. Eli.

  “You’re going in like that?” Mitch was asking.

  Victor turned the card over in his hand. “I have an invitation.”

  But he looked down at himself. Mitch had a point.

  He’d lost his favorite trench coat, somewhere between the confrontation in Stell’s hallway and waking up in the cell. A thin slice ran along his black T-shirt. He’d done his best to rinse the blood from his hands with a bottle of water, but it was still under his nails.

  He had no weapons, and no plan.

  Only the knowledge—the certainty—that Eli would run, the first chance he got.

  And Victor would be there to stop him.

  XVII

  THE LAST NIGHT

  THE OLD COURTHOUSE

  ELI stepped through the doors into the grand foyer, wicking rain from his hair.

  The venue was already brimming with people, men and women in evening attire. The toast of Merit, it seemed, all in one place. The two soldiers had already entered, several people ahead, and had immediately dissolved into the crowd.

  Eli and Stell advanced, and were stopped by a pair of security guards with handheld metal detectors.

  “Law enforcement,” said Stell brusquely, displaying his sidearm.

  “Sorry, sir,” said the guard. “This is a weapons-free event.”

  The irony, thought Eli, spreading his arms as the baton drifted over him. Not so much as a beep. Stell reluctantly surrendered his gun. They passed a coat check station, and Eli shrugged out of his jacket and handed it to the clerk, watching the tracking devices drift away. That still left the problem of the collar, but between stepping out of the shower and into the suit, Eli had come up with a plan.

  They stepped into the courthouse’s grand atrium, a circular chamber surrounded by pillars and topped by a dome. Eli craned his head, admiring the building. It was a showpiece of classic architecture. High-ceilinged and hollow, equal parts elegant and austere.

  Wrought-iron sconces bloomed like metal bouquets on each of the pillars. Broad silver dishes—an echo of the scales in Justice’s hand—sat atop polished marble tables that seemed to rise straight out of the floor. A viewing balcony ran along the base of the dome, looking down on the atrium below, and in the atrium’s center, on a marble stand, a bronze statue of Justice herself rose toward the ceiling, nearly two stories tall.

  There was no sign of Marcella, not yet, but that didn’t surprise Eli. She would make an entrance, that much he could predict. Jonathan, he guessed, wouldn’t be far from her side, but J
une would be impossible to spot, at least until she made a move.

  Eli spotted the two EON soldiers, carving their slow security sweeps through the thickening crowd.

  The hall echoed with laughter, the light low, the air dancing with champagne flutes and jewelry and bodies clustering close. Bystanders. Moving pieces. Distractions.

  Stell was at his shoulder.

  “When the time comes,” said Eli, “will you be able to get the bystanders out?”

  “I’ll do my best,” said Stell. “Getting their attention might be difficult.”

  Eli scanned the space, thinking. The windows were high and narrow, useless, the crowd thick . . . but that could work in their favor. Panic was contagious. Like dominos, all you had to do was fell the first one.

  “I’ll be right back.”

  Stell caught his shoulder. “Where are you going?”

  “To get you a gun.” Eli nodded at Marcella’s security, all dressed in trim black suits. “Haven’t you noticed? The guests may not be allowed to carry, but her men certainly are.”

  Stell didn’t let go.

  “At some point,” said Eli calmly, “you have to let out my leash.”

  The director stared at him for a long, hard moment, and then his hand finally fell away. Eli turned and slipped through the crowd, trailing one of the security guards as they split off down a hall toward the bathroom. Eli followed him in, watched the guard vanish into a stall, waited for another man at the sink to finish washing up and leave. Eli slid the bolt in the man’s wake, and approached the stall door.

  It swung open, and Eli slammed his shoe into the guard’s chest, sent him reeling back into the wall. Eli caught him by the tie before he could fall, drew the guard’s holstered gun, and pressed it tight to his chest to muffle the shots.

  Eli eased the body back onto the seat.

  It had been a long time since he killed a human. But forgiveness would have to wait.

  He returned to Stell’s side, and presented the director with the stolen gun, low and easy, as if it were a handshake among friends. Stell looked at him with bald surprise. They both knew that Eli was the one holding the weapon, Eli the one with his finger near the trigger. But he spun the weapon in his hand, offering Stell the grip instead of the barrel.

  After a pause, Stell took the gun, and Eli turned and plucked a champagne flute from a passing tray. He might as well enjoy the party.

  * * *

  “LAST call for second thoughts,” murmured June. “Or second call for last ones.”

  Rain drummed on the roof of the town car as it pulled up outside the Old Courthouse.

  “Don’t be somber,” said Marcella. “It’s a party.”

  “It’s madness,” countered June.

  Marcella’s lips twitched. “Good thing there’s method in it.”

  It was a gamble, of course. A risk. An ambitious play.

  But she used to tell Marcus, the world wasn’t made for the faint of heart.

  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

  And if Marcella’s plan went up in flames, well, she’d take the whole damn city with her.

  As she stepped out of the car, the broad umbrellas appeared again, ushering her to the waiting bronze doors of the Old Courthouse.

  From inside, Marcella could hear the clink of ice and crystal glasses, the murmur and melody of an eager crowd. She brought her hand to the polished metal, splayed her fingers across the surface, gold nails gleaming, as June and Jonathan took their places behind her.

  Marcella smiled.

  “Showtime.”

  * * *

  MITCH’S car screeched to a stop in front of the Old Courthouse.

  Pain lanced through Victor’s side as he got out, but he didn’t dare turn it down, not with the episode building in his bones.

  “Victor—” started Mitch.

  He glanced back. “Remember what I said. Find Syd, and leave.”

  Victor climbed the short stone steps, pushed open the bronze doors, his free hand wrapped as casually as possible across his ribs. He handed his invitation to the suit at security, who hesitated at the blood flecking the cream paper.

  He looked at Victor, who stared coldly back, leaning on the man’s nerves as he did until the discomfort registered on his face.

  The security waved him through.

  Victor headed for the atrium, doubling back at the sight of the coat check. His eyes trailed over the jackets and shawls that had already been checked in, landing on a black wool trench on the left, with a high collar and black leather trim.

  Victor flagged the clerk. “I lost my ticket,” he said, “but I’m here to claim my coat.” He nodded at the trench.

  The kid—and he really was just a kid—wavered. “I . . . I’m sorry . . . I can’t return a coat without a valid claim—”

  Victor forced the kid’s mouth shut, watched his eyes widen in surprise, confusion, horror as he pinned him still. “I can break your bones without lifting a finger,” he said smoothly. “Would you like me to show you?”

  The kid’s nostrils flared in panic as he shook his head.

  Victor released his hold, and the clerk stumbled back, gasping, fingers trembling as he pulled the trench from the rack.

  He shrugged on the coat. He felt in the pockets and found a twenty. “Thanks,” he said, tucking the cash into the short glass jar.

  The atrium was crowded, full of bodies and noise. Victor made a slow circle of the chamber, hugging the outer edge as he wove between guests, scanning the crowd.

  And then, across the hall, through the crowd, a familiar face.

  One that hadn’t changed in fifteen years.

  Eli.

  For a moment, the gala seemed to fade into the background, the details and sounds retreating until only the singular man stood in sharp detail.

  Victor didn’t realize his feet had begun to move until a hand pulled him back, dragged him sideways behind the nearest marble pillar. Victor was already reaching for the assailant’s nerves when he saw the familiar tattoos spiraling up the man’s broad arm.

  “I told you to drive,” said Victor, but then he noticed a sly gleam in Mitch’s eyes, the strange set of his mouth, that familiar lilt present beneath Mitch’s casual hello.

  June.

  “Get off me,” ordered Victor.

  June didn’t let go. “You have to stop her.”

  “I’m not here for Marcella.”

  “You should be,” said June. “She’s got her sights on Sydney.”

  “Because of you.”

  “No,” protested June. “I never told her. But she knows, and now she wants her. And from what I’ve seen, Marcella—”

  As if on cue, the crowd parted, and a golden figure ascended the stone dais in the center of the room.

  Victor pulled free of June, looking to where Eli had been, but the man was gone. Shit. He scanned the crowd, searching the sea of dark suits until he caught movement. Most of the men and women were standing still, their attention transfixed on Marcella’s ascent. Eli slid through them like a shark, his own focus just as clear.

  Victor mirrored Eli’s progress, the two of them cutting matching lines toward the dais, and the statue, and the woman in gold.

  And then, at last, Eli noticed him.

  Those cold, dark eyes slid past Marcella and landed on Victor. Surprise flickered across Eli’s face, and then sank away, replaced by a grim smile as the barrel of a gun came up against the base of Victor’s spine, and Stell’s gruff voice sounded in his ear.

  “That’s far enough, Mr. Vale.”

  * * *

  MARCELLA had spent her life on display.

  But tonight, she finally felt seen.

  Every pair of eyes was focused on her as she took the dais, every pair curious and bright and waiting for the reveal, because they knew there was more. More than beauty, more than charm. Whether they knew it or not, they’d come to see power.

  When Marcella spoke, her voice carried, buoyed by the marble hall
and the stillness of the crowd, their faces upturned, like flowers hungry for the light.

  “I’m so glad,” she said, “that you could join me tonight.”

  As she spoke, Marcella made a slow circle around the dais, savoring her hold on the gathered audience, the most powerful people in Merit—or so they thought.

  “I know the invitation was a touch enigmatic, but I promise you, the best things are worth the wait, and what I have to offer you is better shown than told . . .”

  * * *

  JUNE took the stairs two at a time.

  She’d shed Mitch’s bulky frame for a slimmer one, and with the added quickness to her steps, she loped up to the balcony that overlooked the atrium with its sea of people. At their center, Marcella was making a slow circle around the base of the statue.

  June found Jonathan tucked in a shadow, watching the show. He rested his elbows on the wrought-iron rail, all his focus on Marcella’s luminous form.

  “Some of you have money,” Marcella’s voice rang out, “and some of you have influence. Some of you were born with power, and others built it from nothing. But you are all here because you are impressive. You are lawyers, journalists, executives, law enforcement. You lead this city. You shape it. You protect it.”

  “Do you see that man?” said June, pointing to the pale blond head moving through the crowd.

  “Victor Vale,” said Jonathan blandly.

  “Yeah.”

  If Victor wouldn’t help her willingly, June would force his hand.

  He was a creature of self-preservation.

  They all were.

  “If he gets too close to Marcella,” she said, “shoot him.”

  Jonathan drew his handgun from the holster under his suit jacket, his eyes never drifting from Marcella.

  “Don’t kill him,” added June. “Not unless you have to. She doesn’t want him dead.”

  Jonathan shrugged. His complacence had always annoyed her, but for once June was glad he didn’t ask questions.

  “Thanks, Johnny boy,” she said, slipping back down the stairs.

  * * *

  “STELL.” Victor gritted his teeth as, across the gallery, Eli continued his slow, methodical approach to the dais, where Marcella still held court.

  “You understand the importance of power,” she was saying. “What you don’t yet understand is that those ideas of power are outdated.”

 

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