Groggy. Ears ringing. About to vomit. Eyes slowly open and then slam shut as soon as the light creeps in. My body is unsteady even though I’m lying down. I’m cold beneath the blanket, like it’s not even there at all, and I’ve already instinctively curled myself into a ball to retain heat.
“Great, you’re finally awake,” the man says, his deep voice booming or the throbbing in my head making it seem so. “I was getting worried you’d die right here.”
The rain is thunder against the roof. His words are swept away in the ringing in my ears and a gust of wind that seems to shake the entire room. I don’t know how long I was out, but the storm went biblical in my absence and the only thing I know with utmost certainty is that Ally’s tattered shed is nothing but a pile of sideways rain and rotting wood.
“How do you feel?” he asks.
Like I’m about to throw up.
At least you’re still alive, Isabel whispers.
You hit your head when the Cruel Man attacked you. I don’t know what happened after that.
Me either, Rebecca says, her voice gravely, fatigued. Everything went black.
“I feel… sick,” I moan.
His hands wrap my arms around what feels like a bucket. My eyes are still closed; the vomit comes as soon as I open them to see what it is.
“Thanks,” I say, lying back.
“Thanks for not throwing up on my blanket.”
It’s a long minute or so before I feel confident enough to look around. We’re in a studio apartment, the only source of light coming from the windows across the room. The skies are predictably dark, the room following suit. The furniture is sparse: only a couch, which I’m occupying, a reclining chair, which he is occupying, and a coffee table that sits between them.
The man is smiling, but it’s an apprehensive smile, a concerned smile. He’s young, well-built, well dressed other than the blood soaked into his white shirt. It must have looked ominous when he brought me here, covered in red, unconscious, running from gunshots.
The memories rush back with the emotion that coursed through me. I’m suddenly furious, shaking from anger rather than unsteadiness, breathing heavily, fists clenched, dry-heaving into the bucket.
Use your anger to drive you, Ally mutters. Lean into it.
Isabel groans before muttering, Calm down, there’s nothing dangerous here. We’re safe.
I nearly jump off the couch when a phone buzzes on the table. It’s in the man’s hand and he’s texting back a moment later.
Wiping away what’s left of the bile, I ask, “Who’s that?”
“No one,” he says, sliding the phone into his pocket. My interrogating gaze lingers until he continues. “Look, if I had it out for you, I wouldn’t have brought you back here.”
“Who are you?”
He shrugs. “I’m also no one.”
“So, you’re no one and you’re texting no one,” I say, pushing myself up, ignoring the room spinning behind him. “Why did you save me, then?”
“I heard gunshots and saw you face down in the gravel, covered in blood. What else was I supposed to do?”
“Did you ever consider that I might have been carrying the gun?”
I expect him to recoil, for a sudden look of anxiety or fear to rush over his face, but he merely nods his head. “I figured. You weren’t bleeding, and you had a powder burn on your hand. A woman in need is still a woman in need, though.”
“So… chivalrous,” I say after searching for the right word to describe his stupidity. “The cops will be after me, you know. I’m surprised they’re not already here.”
“They won’t find us, don’t worry.”
“How do you know?”
“No one saw me carry you in, no one saw us leave the scene. You’ll be fine.”
There’s a long silence, or, rather, a long period in which the vibrations of his phone and the pounding wind and rain are all the cut the silence between us.
“So, why’d you do it?” he finally asks.
“It’s a long story, and you’d think I was crazy if I told you.”
You snapped is why you did it, Isabel mutters.
He shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “You mean torturing two people wasn’t bad enough?”
I feel the same way, Rebecca says.
“It was one, and it was a long time coming.” I say, feeling the vomit coming back and trying to stave it off for as long as I can. “I may have gone a little overboard.”
You didn’t go far enough, Ally says.
“You must have really hated her to lure her into the shed like that.”
“Wait, I didn’t—” my voice hangs, “—how did you know it was a her?”
His next words catch in his throat for a moment. “Lucky guess.”
I don’t believe him, Isabel whispers.
Suddenly uncomfortable, I slowly pull me knees to my chest, sliding to the furthest edge of the couch. “Who are you?”
“Like I said, I’m no one.”
“And how’d you know I was there?” I demand.
“Gunshots,” he says unconvincingly.
No way, Rebecca scoffs.
“There was no one within a quarter-mile when I pulled the trigger.” I’m sitting up, though unsteady, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. “Who are you?”
“Look, we both know you’re in no state to fight me.”
Get him Victoria! Ally cries.
I lurch forward, grasping for his throat. The room spins and my depth perception deserts me. One breath I’m flying, the next I’m on the carpet only feet from where I started, lying in a pool of my own vomit.
He pulls me back to the couch, muttering, “I gave you a bucket for a reason.”
“It doesn’t matter, it’s not your carpet.”
“What do you mean?” he says, though from the tone in his voice I can tell I’ve struck a chord.
“The man’s a host. You’re either Gerard or the Guilty Man, but either way you’re never coming back here.”
His face is blank, for a moment before a reluctant grin crosses over it. “The Guilty Man? I’ve never been called that before.”
“It’s your eyes,” I say. “You always look like something’s your fault.”
“Interesting. I’ve never noticed.”
I try to sit up before thinking better of it. “When I first saw you at the back of the crowd, I just thought you weren’t cut out for what you were doing.”
“Back of the crowd?” he says. “It’s remarkable you still remember that.”
“That night is etched into the back of my eyelids, no matter who’s they are. I see it everywhere, the crowd, the gem, my anchor, you looking from afar like you’re about to cry. And Gerard’s face as he pulls the trigger.”
“Amazing.” He leans back, chuckling to himself. “We don’t see this very often.”
We? Who is this guy? Ally demands.
“Tell me who you are,” I say.
“I’m the Guilty Man.”
“I meant your name, dammit.” He may have saved me, but I’m getting sick of him dodging my questions.
He shifts in his seat and looks away. “That, I can’t tell you, at least not yet. I will say that I’ve been with Gerard for a long time and you’re an unusual case.”
“Why do you always look like you’re so sad to see me, then?”
“Because it’s my fault you are where you are,” he says. “I hired you for the job and someone else blew it all up before we could pull it off.”
An image of the unconscious man from the night I died flashes through my mind. The ‘rat’. I want to feel sorry for him, but it’s at least partially his fault I am where I am.
“So, you hired me and you can’t tell me your name because then I could give it to them.”
“Exactly.” He forces a heavy breath. Ally groans in my head in disappointment. “I’m trying to look out for you as much as I can.”
“But if you get in their way, they’ll know who you are and you’ll be exposed.” I nod to myself as the pieces fall together. “That’s why you had to get off the train a couple days ago, because you couldn’t let the Cruel Man see you with me.”
He holds back the slightest of chuckles, no doubt impressed with my clever naming. “Exactly.”
“Where were you going?” I ask.
“I can’t tell you that, either,” he says. “The only reason I was able to intervene today is that they were both incapacitated.”
“So they’d recognize you? He knew you were on the train?”
“Yes, but at least I had a reason to be on the train that day,” the Guilty Man says. “The Immediate Family has Gerard’s brand on their souls that identifies them to each other, no matter whose body they’re in. As soon as they’re close enough, they know who I am. It was just coincidence that I bumped into you.”
“Seems nice to have that ability, given what I’ve been through lately,” I say, suddenly holding back a quickly building rage coming from Ally, who must be feeling just as disappointed as I am that we can’t see threats coming so easily.
He laughs. “Yes, funny how that works, isn’t it?”
“Why’d you betray him?”
“Gerard?” He considers for a moment, as though he’s wondering how much to tell me. “He’s unhinged. He’s too far gone in his own goals and destroys everything in his path.”
“But don’t you work for him?”
“Yes, but I’m different than the rest. Gerard is a monster. They’re monsters. The world would be a better place if they were gone.” He stands, starts pacing, and I notice he’s unable to look at me. “But the only way is to destroy his anchor, and we let it slip through our fingers.”
“Where is it now?”
“No idea. He knows one of his closest allies tried to kill him and now he won’t tell anything to anyone.”
“All I want is for this to end.” I’m almost pleading with him by the time I finish speaking.
“I know. I’m trying to make it right.”
“That doesn’t stop me from being hunted down and slaughtered.”
He leans forward, groans, his hands flexing on the back of the chair. “If you ever got your own anchor, you could put an enchantment on it so that they can’t use it to get to you, but right now you’re at Gerard’s mercy. They’ll be able to find you whenever they want.”
“Can they tell you’re here with me?”
“No. They can see this host here with you but can’t tell it’s me inside it without seeing me in-person.”
“Then you’re in danger,” I say. “They could be here any minute.”
He smiles. “Gerard isn’t the only one who knows soul magic. If they come within a thousand feet of this place I’ll know, and I’d leave this host before they ever got close enough to see me.”
Ally mutters something excitedly to herself, but it’s so quiet that I can’t understand what she says. Before I can ask, Rebecca interrupts us. Great, so this guy who is trying to ‘help’ you would abandon you the second anything happened and let an innocent man get killed for it.
I try to let what Rebecca said roll off my back, but it’s hard to ignore. “How do they use your anchor to find you?”
He shrugs. “They just hold it and say the right words.”
“What words are those?”
He tilts his head as though wondering if he should tell me. “Inveniet,” he finally says, holding his phone forward in the upturned palm of his hand. “Inveniet.”
I slowly lean back as I watch him, taking in the simplicity of what he’s doing. It’s hard to believe it’s that easy, Isabel mutters, and I can’t help but agree.
“So, you’ve been in a lot of hosts, I’m guessing?” I ask. “Do you take piece of them with you? Do you lose parts of yourself?”
He takes a deep, excruciating breath. “I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. No, I don’t. At first, yes, but I’ve been doing this for a long time.” He stops, possibly pausing to choose his words. “Putting another person’s soul into a body is complex. Gerard’s a master, but he can do it on purpose to leave random bits from each host.”
“So, that’s why I forget parts of my own life? And why I’ve got these voices in my head?”
Hey, we’re more than just voices, Isabel says. And it’s not our fault we’re here in the first place.
He looks riddled with guilt. “I’m sorry, Victoria, I truly am. Hopefully not too many more voices before all this is said and done.”
“And you jumped into my brother without hurting him, right? Why didn’t she just do that to me earlier today when I was torturing her?”
“Good question.” He shifts on his feet, thinking to himself. “Probably because she doesn’t have the restraint to do it right. She knows how to jump in and out without hurting anyone, but she’s not the kind to leave anything better than when she started.”
You can say that again, Isabel mutters.
A thought hits me and suddenly I’m clenching my fists all over again. “So, that means there are people out there she’s left but whose bodies didn’t die, and they’re just empty vessels wandering through life.”
“Exactly,” he says. “That’s what we’re dealing with here. Now you see why we have to stop Gerard and the hunters he’s sending after you. They kill innocent people, or leave them even worse than dead.”
“Speaking of hunters, who is Albert?” I ask.
His head twitches and his eyes narrow. “Albert?”
“The woman said he was the one who was torturing Javier.”
“Albert is another hunter, another one of the Immediate Family. Gerard hasn’t sent him after you and hopefully never does.” I can feel the sadness in his voice, the apprehension. To hear him speak, it seems as though he’s terrified of the possibility. Maybe I’m not stronger than Javier; maybe Gerard just hasn’t sent his biggest thug at me yet.
The Guilty Man thinks for a moment and then walks over to the kitchen counter, grabs a pen and piece of paper, and scribbles something down. “Take this,” he says when he returns, handing me a torn-off corner with a phone number scratched into it. “You can text that to get ahold of me.” He pulls his phone out of his pocket. “It’s a phone Gerard doesn’t know about. I usually keep it with me when I sleep and leave it there when I’m gone. Commit it to memory, because you can’t take that slip of paper with you when you die.”
“Then why do you have it today?” I don’t mean to pry at someone who seems like a lifeline, but it’s hard to trust anything at this point.
He looks down at the phone and then back at me. “Because I’ve got an important meeting with someone else I don’t want Gerard to know about.” He turns and walks back toward the kitchen, which is only a few paces away in such a small apartment. “Speaking of which, I’m already late. I will be back later, if you’re still here.”
He grabs a backpack off the countertop and opens the door. A rush of cool air blows in. “Nice to finally meet you, Victoria,” he says, smiling. “See you soon, hopefully.”
The door closes behind him and the apartment returns to silence, other than the rain on the roof. The smell of my vomit is lingering in the air, but it’s no matter; I’m exhausted and as soon as I memorize the phone number he gave me my eyelids grow heavy enough that nothing could keep me awake. As I drift to sleep, nestled in the warm embrace of the cushions and blanket, my heart is full, and, for the first time since I can remember, it is full of something other than hatred. It is full of hope.
I’m dreaming of Donavan and I at an amusement park when we were children. It’s one of my fondest memories of just the two of us. Our parents gave us each fifty dollars—I don’t know how they afforded it, but it must have taken weeks to save—and sent us on our way while they stopped and ate fair food.
We ran to the nearest rollercoaster. Donavan had to stand on the tips of his toes to get tall enough for the ride, and thankfully the operator was either too tired or too indifferent to care. Up and down, laughing around every corner, the wind in our hair. You could see the entire fair from the highest peak just before the cart fell, and it seemed to stretch on for miles. The last corner was tighter than the rest and it felt like you were going to get thrown out of the cart, like the cart itself was going to fly off the rails…
The door slams open and startles me from my dream. Hasty, wet footsteps accompany quick and heavy breaths.
“Hey, you’re back,” I say, groggily opening my eyes.
The man I see before me is not who I expect. “You’ll pay for what you did to Cat.” He raises his right arm, a black, .9mm pistol gleaming in the weak light of a stormy day.
“Whoa, what the—?”
The shot rings out before I can even put a hand up in defense. This one isn’t drawn out or tortuous like it has been before, but a pure, unadulterated revenge-killing, delivered swiftly and with hatred by the Cruel Man himself. My last thoughts are of Donavan. Of the times we shared, of why I was stealing for him in the first place. Maybe someday, when this is all said and done, I can hear his voice once again. Ally Jones is dead.
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