It’s cold and chilly, and every small gust makes me think Catarina or the Cruel Man are right behind me. I should have packed a scarf, both for warmth and to hide my identity. As it is, the hoody I grabbed from Albert’s accomplishes both tasks, though not well enough for me to feel comfortable.
The park is smaller than I remembered. You can forgive me for forgetting; it’s been a lifetime since I last set foot here. It’s a one-by-two block rectangle. The southern block is a turf playfield, while the northern is an elevated grassy area with a large, cone-shaped fountain near its center. The tree I’m leaning on is one of dozens that line a cement path that runs up the entire eastern edge.
I’ve instructed Vaughn to sit in one of the benches that surrounding the fountain, and while I’ve seen a handful of men stop, none seemed like the person I’m looking for.
There’s a worry tugging the back of my head. I was a few minutes later than I wanted, and it occurs to me that if he was early and I was late he may have just given up or gotten spooked at Albert’s absence and left.
It’s a small incline to the fountain, but I’m desperate so I pull my hood back and take the walk. Once I’m close enough, I can see the benches on the other side that I couldn’t see from my tree. There’s only one bench that has what I’m looking for: a lone, disheveled man.
I can see the man’s mouth moving, but he appears to be talking to himself, though I cannot hear what he’s saying. He’s scanning his surroundings as well, probably looking for Albert, a blank expression on his face that carries a hint of disappointment.
After circling around him, I’m directly behind his bench and within earshot of what he’s saying. “Must be the place, but Albert still isn’t here,” he says to himself, his voice wavering.
I approach from behind, casually catch his eye, and point at the bench. “Is this seat taken?”
His face is vacant and strangely relaxed, like he’s forgotten how to use it. “Not yet, m’lady, but I’m waiting for someone.”
“I can be a someone,” I say with a laugh, watching until he grins and slides away to give me space.
There’s a tense silence until I finally break it. “So, what’s your story?”
He turns to me, his head tilted and his eyebrows raised. “Not much, m’lady. Just a man on a bench.”
“Humor me,” I say. “What’s your name?”
He shrugs. “Friends call me Dan.”
“What brought you here, Dan?”
“Just enjoying the sunshine,” he says, raising his eyes to the gray and darkening sky. “Can’t a man enjoy a little slice of nature?”
I force a smile before turning away and taking Albert’s phone from my pocket. I’m getting nowhere like this and I’m completely exposed, so I force the issue.
“I’m sitting next to you, Vaughn.”
He grins and reaches for his pocket. “Looks like we’re both popular,” he says with a laugh before looking at his phone. “Who are you?” His eyes are wide with fear. “Where’s Albert? Why isn’t he with you?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
He straightens up and turns to me. “Tell you what? You don’t see him with me, do you?”
“I think he might be in trouble.”
Vaughn takes a deep breath and puts his hand on his forehead. “What kind of trouble?” he asks, his voice cracking on the last word.
“I think he may have been captured by Gerard.”
He cuts off a shriek at Gerard’s name. The crowd around us falls quiet and it feels as though every eye in the park is on us. Over Vaughn’s shoulder, two police officers walking side-by-side look over at us.
“I want to—!” I start, but he cuts me off.
“Please, don’t hurt me!” He jumps off the bench, but his feet tangle and he stumbles a few steps away.
“I’m trying to help Albert,” I say as I help him up, “but I need your help.”
“Vaughn…” His voice trails off, the features of his face returning to the relaxed, vacant look they had when he first arrived. When he looks at me, his eyes are eerily blank. I’d take him for asleep or perhaps dead if he didn’t open his mouth to talk.
“Now you’ve gone and done it,” he says, cold and hollow. “He ran back inside right when we brought him out for you.”
“Don’t act like you don’t know,” he says. “If you think Gerard is after Albert, you know exactly what we are.”
I’m talking to the voices inside his head. How many is hard to tell, but they seem to have near full-control over his body. “Okay, understood. Just to reiterate, we’re on the same side.” I give him my hand, help him back to the bench. “I’m working with Albert to bring down Gerard. He’s been torturing me for the last week.”
“Vaughn, too.” This tone is less cold, more forlorn. A different soul, I’d guess. “Albert is the glue holding him together. Losing him now might send Vaughn over the edge for good.”
“God damn waste of space,” the first tone says, practically cutting off the other. “If he weren’t so weak we might be at peace by now.”
Thanks for not being like this one, I say to my ladies, though when I think about it, Rebecca was just as bad before we made peace.
“He is a waste of space.” The forlorn tone pulls me from my internal dialogue. “But we feel bad for him. Can you imagine being killed over and over again for someone else’s sport? Oh—I suppose you can.”
“Can you make him come back out and help me get a few answers?”
“Not that easy, Miss,” the cold tone says as Vaughn looks toward the fountain. Beyond him, I can see the two police officers making their way toward us, but they’re still well out of earshot. “We can’t make him do anything.”
“Then ask him for the answers you don’t already have,” I plead, my eyes still on the officers.
“No-can-do,” the forlorn tone says. “He shut us out when you stupidly mentioned Gerard.”
Shut us out. I know how that goes. In fact, I nearly forgot I was doing it right now with Ally, who I realize I feel bad for even if I resent her for what she did. I ease the pressure on her so that if she wants to speak she can.
“I guess you’ll have to answer as best you can,” I say, leaning forward, my eyes darting from him to the officers, who by now are loitering in conversation close by, not within earshot but clearly keeping tabs on the both of us. We must make an odd couple, especially after he screamed and fell out of his chair.
“First off, who are you?” the forlorn tone asks, turning back to me. “Are you Samantha?”
“Samantha?” I haven’t met anyone with that name during this whole charade. “No. Victoria. Who’s Samantha?”
“Albert’s lover,” a whimsical tone laughs, before the forlorn reminds him, “Ex-lover! It just hasn’t been the same since Gerard turned on her, according to Vaughn at least.”
My heart sinks a little. Until now I thought my attraction was simply because I was so alone and he was the only person who could help. Now I see it might have been deeper, foolishly so. Getting attached to anyone at this point is just asking for even more pain, especially someone who I already know is using me.
“God dammit, shut up!” the cold tone growls before turning Vaughn’s vacant stare back to me. “Who is Victoria? Albert never mentioned anything about her.”
“Albert and Oswald hired me to steal Gerard’s anchor, but we failed,” I say, taking note of the police officers behind him, still in the same spot, but no longer feigning conversation, simply trying to listen in after Vaughn’s latest outburst.
“Ah, so you’re the girl who got caught,” the forlorn tone says, putting Vaughn’s hand on his chin. “He mentioned you a few times when he had to reschedule plans with us.”
“He was looking out for me, but he…” My voice trails into a mumble. “… he got into some trouble earlier today and I think he might need my help.”
Looking at you, Ally, Rebecca says.
Hey, blaming her more isn’t going to fix the problem, I say. We need to all work together to get out of this.
“Check out his apartment down by the market,” Vaughn says. “That one is secret.”
“I went there first. It was a wreck, so it must not have been a good secret.”
He gasps and shifts in his seat, his blank stare darting to the phone in my lap. “How do you have his phone?”
“I found it under the couch,” I say. “You called him as I was sitting in his living room. It was in a space under the floorboards.
“Wait she has Albert’s phone?” he says, eyes wide, talking out of the corner of his mouth. “How did you get his phone? Who are you?”
“Y—yes? I just—”
Vaughn shakes his head, then looks down. “Of course she has Albert’s phone,” the cold tone says to whoever was speaking. “You typed out the responses to her.”
He looks back at me, the vacant look gone. Could this be Vaughn himself coming back out from hiding? “Where is Albert?” he demands.
I’m annoyed that he wasn’t able to keep track of the conversation, but at least he’s back for the moment. It’s giving my flashbacks to Javier. There are fates crueler than my own, not that Gerard hasn’t been trying to do this exact thing to me the whole time, too.
“I was hoping you could help me, Vaughn,” I say after taking a deep breath.
He gasps when I say his name. “You know who I am? Who are you?”
Are you sure you can trust what this guy says? Ally questions. He can’t keep anything straight. I’ll admit I almost missed her. When there are three souls in the whole world who you feel like you can really talk to, you feel an absence when one is gone even if it’s always a pain.
“She was working with Albert, man,” the forlorn tone says. “Don’t you remember him mentioning her?”
“My name is Victoria.” I wait for a look of understanding that never comes. “I’m the one he hired to steal—” I hold back on Gerard’s name. “—the anchor.”
“And where’s Albert?” Vaughn asks.
“She’s looking for him,” the forlorn tone answers. “He’s missing.”
“Missing?” Vaughn pants. “Missing? How long?”
“Since earlier today,” I say.
I watch it wash over him. His eyes roll back in his head and for a moment I’m sure I’ve lost him again before they come back. “No…” he whispers, tears forming in his eyes. “It can’t be…”
“Pull yourself together,” the cold tone snaps. “That’s why he hasn’t been responding. He didn’t abandon you like you thought, and it’s your turn to help him.”
“Help him?” Vaughn says, nearly jumping off the bench. “I can help!”
“Start by telling me where he might be,” I say, looking from him to the officers over his shoulder. “And I already checked his apartment. That’s where I found his phone.”
There’s a hint of realization in his face before sadness sweeps over it. “I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault.”
“That we all got caught. Someone in the Family heard me talking about it and told—” He hesitates, his voice strained. “—Gerard.”
His voice chokes in his throat. An eternity seems to pass before he speaks again. “There were a bunch of us working to overthrow him, but only Oz and Albert knew all the details. Albert trusted me with things no one else knew, but then I let it slip to a few other people I thought I could trust. It didn’t even cross my mind that they would betray us.
“Then Oswald disowned me,” he continues, his voice cracking. “Almost did the same to Albert for telling me, but he was too important to kick out. Albert’s been trying to protect me from the killers ever since.”
“The killers?” I say. “You mean the hunters? Catarina?”
“Catarina, Thomas, everyone else.” He hesitates, the words stuck in his mouth. “Gerard’s dogs.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say.
“You’re sorry? I’m sorry!” He yells it. The police officers are still just outside of earshot of normal conversation and every outburst piques their interest a little more.
“Then make it up by telling me where Albert might be if he’s not at his apartment.”
He puts a hand on his chin, thinks for a moment. “The only thing I can think of is that he might be visiting Samantha.”
“Where’s she at?”
“Just tell her,” the forlorn tone says after Vaughn hesitates. “She’s trying to help.”
He nods and sighs, more to himself than to me. “She’s at Lakeview Psychiatric. It’s up north.”
“I think I can find the place,” I say.
“Her host’s name is Amanda Baker.”
“And why is she there?” I ask. “What happened to her?” There’s an unflattering jealousy within me, but it can’t stop me from my own curiosity.
“Don’t know. Gerard turned on her and I suppose she ended up like me, talking to myself until everyone around me thinks I’m nuts.” His eyes narrow, lock on my own. “But you know that’s not true, don’t you? And you know it’s way worse than they could imagine.”
“Yes, I do,” I say, my mind turning to Javier. “We all fight our own battles. If normal people knew what was going on in our heads, they’d think we’re insane. Then again, if we heard what was going on in theirs, we might think the same of them.”
He smiles in acknowledgment before speaking. “Gerard never said why he did it, not even to Albert, who he knew was in love with her.” He hesitates, then openly ponders, “I think that’s where all this started, really. Gerard betrayed Albert, so Albert plotted to take him down.”
I’m embarrassed to say that hearing “love” throws me off and I need a change of subject. “Can you tell me where Gerard is?”
“Albert said they moved headquarters a few days ago but didn’t tell me where. Didn’t want me to have any extra information in case they got to me again.”
It stings hearing him refer to Gerard’s move. I was so close to ending this, or at least confronting him face-to-face. “How long has it been since you last died?”
“Only a couple days,” he says, “Every second is a gift.”
“Even when you run away at the sound of Gerard’s name?” a more whimsical tone says.
“Even then,” Vaughn says, laughing.
“Gerard! Gerard! Gerard!” the whimsical tone screams.
Vaughn laughs, but it’s finally too much for the police officers to ignore. They’re only a few feet behind him by the final scream.
The female officer butts in before I can do anything. “Is everything all right here?” she asks.
My eyes dart from her to Vaughn and then back again. You can forgive me for being mistrusting of law enforcement even at the best of times, given my career choice in my natural life, and this is not the best of times.
“Yes, ma’am, everything is fine,” I say as Vaughn laughs at himself, apparently unaware of what’s happening around him.
The man steps forward, addresses me. “Has he threatened you? Do you feel safe?”
“Yes, I feel safe.” I say it quickly before realizing that doing so adds to their suspicion. After a pause, I gesture to Vaughn and say, “This is Dan, he’s an old friend of mine.”
His glare lingers on me, but the woman breaks the silence. “Can you repeat that name you were yelling?” she asks Vaughn.
“Gerard?” he says.
The woman smiles. “How do you two know each other?” she asks.
“We grew up together,” I say, forcing a smile meant to put her at ease.
The woman’s face twists darker at my grin, her lips narrowing, her forehead wrinkling. “No, really, how do you two know each other?” she demands through clenched teeth.
“Lady, I don’t know wh—”
She steps forward away from her partner, bends down toward Vaughn and I. “Dead boys and girls shouldn’t be talking to each other.”
Vaughn and I exchange looks. I can see it in his eyes as the realization hits us both. He looks back at her, slowly slinking away from her toward the ground, as though he’s about to run away on all fours.
The male officer bends down toward the rest of the conversation. “Catarina?” he laughs and points to his partner. “You mean Susan?”
He keeps laughing. It’s the only sound other than Vaughn’s heavy breathing and the pounding in my chest.
“I think we’re going to have to bring these two in,” the woman says.
Vaughn jumps from the bench and screams. “No!”
The male officer’s hand instinctively bolts to his gun while the woman—Catarina—lurches forward. Before the pistol clears the man’s holster, she has her arms wrapped around Vaughn’s neck and is dragging him to the ground, frightful gasps for breath escaping his throat.
“You just wait there,” the male officer says, eyes darting between me and the tangled mess of Catarina and Vaughn on the ground. “This man is not in his right mind. And didn’t you call him Dan?”
Vaughn is still struggling for breath. They’ve rolled to their sides, Catarina straddling him from behind, her legs wrapped around his mid-section and her arms locked around his neck, pulling backward so that his body is becoming a disgusting U-shape. He’s clawing fruitlessly at her hands and wrists, but it’s as though with every flail of his arms her grip only grows tighter.
“She’s going to kill him!” I scream, and the look on the man’s face tells me all I’d ever need to know: he’s holding back a smile, as though he’s self-conscious of how much he’s enjoying seeing his partner choke the life out of someone. He’s not the Cruel Man, that much is certain, but he’s only a few steps removed.
I can’t sit back and watch any longer. The man is so distracted by what he’s seeing that getting the jump on him is almost too easy. I lunge at him, my shoulder connecting at his waist, and drive him backward to the reflecting pool. He lets out a satisfying gasp of surprise as he realizes what is happening, what that helpless girl he thought he was saving is doing to him.
He rips the pistol from its holster as he’s falling. It flies from his grasp and splashes down in the fountain several feet away. The fists I deliver are swift, powerful, effective, and leave him writhing in pain.
I’m onto Vaughn and Catarina in the next breath, yanking her back by her hair and delivering a blow to her face that forces her hands from his neck. A few blows later, she finally manages to block one, catching my fist with one hand and clamping her other onto my arm to drag me down to the pavement.
“This is for last time, bitch!” she screams, delivering multiple blows I can do nothing but absorb to their full strength. Eye swollen, I see her rear back for one more, this one I know will be decisive.
Vaughn dives in from the side just as she finishes her windup. Stunned and vision blurred, I helplessly watch them brawl, unable to move. It’s as though the world around us has completely stopped and I am at the mercy of whatever happens between them.
Vaughn’s strikes are weak, feeble, tired, but his opponent is equally so. I’d almost admire her will if she weren’t trying to kill us both.
Somehow, after what seems an eternity, he momentarily pins her down. “Victoria!” he yells back at me. “Run! I’ll hold her off!”
The command reawakens something inside me. Time starts again, but quicker than normal, like it’s making up for having stopped a few moments ago. “No, I can’t leave you here!”
“It’s too late for me! It’s my fault you’re here, my fault Albert is on the run!”
He catches an unseen fist to the jaw that knocks him off-balance, but the follow-up misses its mark and he’s able to catch her arm at the wrist. He looks back at me only long enough to issue one final request. “Please, if you ever find my anchor, destroy it and set me free.”
I scramble to my feet and run down the path, shoving onlookers out of the way, every bone in my body begging me to go back but a cowardly hold on my soul urging me forward. I can’t die again. I can’t become like him or Javier or Samantha.
I hear splashing behind me, that of the male police officer scrambling for his pistol. It’ll only be a matter of seconds before he retrieves it and delivers a bullet to Vaughn’s chest, an understandable response given what’s happening to his partner, but one by a man who does not fully understand the game he’s been tied up in, nor its consequences.
I can barely live with myself as I run along the pavement, even as Isabel and Rebecca urge me onward. We’ve been through too many deaths, these ladies and I, and each fatal blow leaves us more fractured than before, more scarred, closer to what Gerard always wanted: a broken girl who he could torture until he grew bored. I want to go back but seeing the consequences in Vaughn are almost too much to bear.
The man’s firearm roars behind me just as expected, and I can at least be comfortable with the fact that Vaughn can momentarily be at rest.
My relief is gone as soon as it arrives. Something strikes me in the middle of my back. I miss my step, fall face down, and slide along the pavement in blinding pain. Crying out, I reach around my waist to the source and feel a wet, hot pool on my lower back. My legs are useless when I struggle to move them, and I cannot feel a thing below the source of the pain.
Footsteps rush up behind me, accompanied by the man’s heavy breathing. A second gunshot, this one much closer, rings out, and all goes black. Jordan Larson is dead.
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