The instant Harper Shrike returned home to his uptown loft atop Sanctuary Towers in west Chicago, he sensed something was off.
He stood frozen on the yawning black threshold of his apartment. Beneath the muted jingle of his pocketed keys, he thought he’d heard the floorboards creak.
Bringing up the light from the fan-shaped sconces on the wall, he scanned the room. As far as he could tell, the sleek, modern interior was exactly as he had left it: all bare white walls and smooth, angular furniture, casting equally smooth, angular shadows.
But there was an unfamiliar quality to the stillness filling the loft now, a sense of wrongness he couldn’t name. It struck him as stiff, somehow. Occupied, the word occurred to him, though he frowned, rejecting it almost at once, his scientist’s mind demanding something less abstract—something he could better quantify—rationalize.
It wasn’t until he felt his hackles prick that he identified it: the silence felt haunted.
But this revelation almost made him laugh aloud. It had been years since he last believed in ghosts, and even longer since he had let that belief control him. Dismissing his unease, Harper slung his leather satchel atop the couch at the center of the room and headed for the wine cooler in the kitchen.
He was midway through pouring himself a glass of cheap Chianti when he heard the soft, triple-click of a loaded handgun from behind.
Slowly, Harper set aside the bottle and began to reach casually toward the hidden silent alarm trigger under the lip of the kitchen counter.
“Don’t,” A long-forgotten voice growled in warning, and Harper stiffened. “Please. It’s not your life I’m here to take.”
Harper scowled, feeling a distant, bitter twist of irony. It seemed he was wrong about ghosts after all.
Catching up the half-glass of Chianti between his fingers, Harper turned to face the gaunt young man about his age standing behind him, holding a gun between his eyes.
“Hello Valentine,” he said evenly.
Ever since they were kids growing up on opposite sides of the cul-de-sac, Nikola Valentine had always had a distant, haunted look to his winter-sky gray eyes. What Harper remembered of him was neither much nor pleasant, except that Valentine had been a shabby, sallow-cheeked boy prone to alternating fits of implacable indifference and violent tantrums, a living contradiction of both absent and moody. At any given time, he was either the calm, or the storm, without the patience or self-command for anything in-between.
It was a younger, mousier part of Harper—one still living on that long-ago cul-de-sac on Rosewood Drive—that wanted to feel relief in recognizing the familiar dull-eyed detachment, the familiar calm from their childhood, staring back at him now.
But older Harper knew better. Older Harper could see, as plainly as the gun in the other man’s hand, that time had tempered Valentine’s calm, galvanizing it with purpose, forging it into something harder, colder—deadlier. The years had honed it into a lightening rod for his storm, and now Harper couldn’t tell which was the more dangerous: an unstable Valentine, or one with a mission.
He had the uneasy notion he wouldn’t be wondering for long.
“It’s been a while, Shrike,” Valentine spared the loft a lazy side-glance. “You’ve done well for yourself.”
“Genetics pays better than one might think,” Harper conceded with a shallow nod.
Flicking the pistol, Valentine ushered Harper into the living room, where they sank into opposing sofas, facing each other.
“You’ve been following the news?”
“As ravenously as the rest of the world,” Harper frowned, “but here’s where I’m confused: if half the reports are true—why the gun? It seems…Theatrical.”
Valentine shrugged. “It gets the point across more efficiently than a practical demonstration.”
“Is that why you’re here? A practical demonstration?" Not even Harper could tell whether it was eagerness or dread he heard in his own question.
“I’m here,” Valentine bristled back, “because I need your help.”
Harper’s eyes fell to the gun, still trained on his heart. “Funny way of asking for it.”
“I wasn’t sure how much you’ve heard, or believed.”
“A body count that high is hard to disbelieve,” Harper raised an eyebrow. “Remind me again, how many school children where in Grand Central Station that day?”
“That was never supposed to happen,” Valentine said coldly, “It wasn’t my fault.”
“No, I suppose it was the other Nikola Valentine with the abnormal ability to conduct 10,000 volt currents with his bare hands.”
“You don’t understand.”
Valentine’s gaze unfocused, eyes traveling out the broad, westward window, where the glittering web of city lights sprawled into the furthest edges of the night.
“They make it sound like I control it,” he muttered. “They make it sound like I wanted to kill.”
Almost before he could stop himself, Harper took the bait. “Well? Didn’t you?”
Valentine snapped around. “The only person I’ve ever intended to kill is myself.”
Harper scoffed, thinking of the newscast footage, all the mounds of charred debris that had once been living, breathing human bodies. “That I find hard to believe.”
Valentine’s response was immediate: he laughed once, cold and harsh, then turned the gun to his own temple and fired.
A fine, steaming red mist sprayed Harper’s entire left side. He breathed the sharp fumes of gunpowder, tanged with the hot, metallic scent of blood even as his ears rang with a searing note like resonating glass. Harper sat, rigid in shock, seeing Valentine’s body slump aside as if he were watching a muted, slow motion playback.
Then, before Harper’s ears had fully cleared from the blast, Valentine straightened, shook himself, and turned his dull eyes on Harper. Only the man’s expression remained dead.
“You see my predicament,” said Valentine, his voice coarse, but plaintive. “My own body won’t let me die.”
At that point, all the details Harper had been mentally cataloguing from the moment their eyes first met began to accrue, mapping the edges of the puzzle pieces he hadn’t previously been able to fathom into a larger truth. His eyes widened.
“…You’re an involuntary defense mechanism,” Harper concluded softly, unable to completely tamp the wonder in his voice—a scientist’s wonder, profound and involuntary. Using his cuff, Harper dabbed the blood from his wine glass. “And you expect me to disarm you.”
There was no question in Harper’s mind now that this was Valentine’s purpose. He drank deeply before going on. “That’s why you’ve come. After twenty years of radio silence, you show up on my doorstep, but only after I’ve earned my doctorate. You know, I seem to recall a time when we were almost close—”
“You can run tests,” Valentine interrupted urgently, “take my DNA, study it, cure cancer for all I care—only help me end this—”
Harper cut him off with a soft tsk.
“And what happens when I try to inject you with an antibody, hmm? How far does your ‘involuntary defense’ go? Far enough to fry me, the way it did the whole S.W.A.T. team at Central Station?”
Valentine looked like he’d been struck.
“…What are you saying?”
Harper stifled a sigh. The scientist in him was practically throwing itself at the walls of his mind, railing to take Valentine’s offer, to discover, to solve—to understand. To reinvent understanding itself.
To rewrite the books with his name.
But there was an even stronger part of Harper that couldn’t shake the images of Central Station. Nikola had said so himself that he couldn't control it, and the idea of being locked up in the confines of a lab with a force so demonstrably volatile, so violent, was enough to make Harper blanch. It would be safer to face down a hurricane. Real storms, at least, had eyes, hidden places like souls where the outer calamity never reached.
But when it came to Valentine, there was no way of knowing what was waiting for Harper at his core.
“I’m saying that I refuse to endanger my life to try and take yours.” Harper traced the glass rim with his forefinger, eliciting a note that was somewhere between music and a distant, piercing shriek. “I’m saying no, Valentine.”
Hand trembling, Valentine swung the pistol higher. “And if I don’t like your answer? What’s stopping me from killing you?”
Harper stared down the barrel and forced himself to take a steady sip of wine. “Like you said: it’s not my life you’re here to take…or was all of that just a lie?”
Harper did not like to gamble. But gambling was as much a science as any other discipline, with its own set of rules, models, and criterias—one where luck was like any other quantifiable factor, as much a part of the cosmic equation as mass and speed.
But luck was temperamental. By its nature, it was unpredictable, a necessary, question-shaped hole in the equation where rules and statistics didn’t apply—where any outcome was possible.
And as he witnessed a rage as deep and black as thunder consume Valentine from the inside out, the storm overtake him, contorting the other man’s sallow face with an inhuman hate, Harper was forced to consider the possibility that his luck had run out. That he had gambled, and lost.
The storm, Harper thought, and braced himself, truly wondering if he was about to die.
For what seemed like an agonized infinity, neither of them moved or spoke. The whole world hung suspended between them, frozen in a silence like the pregnant stillness separating one heartbeat from the next—except the next never came.
Then, the gun began to sink.
“I’m tired of killing.” Valentine said, the same listlessness Harper remembered from their childhood descending over him again.
To hide the way his whole mind seemed to slump in relief, Harper took another sip of wine. Harper didn’t like to gamble, true. But when he did, he was usually good at it.
Valentine stood. “You always were a coward, Shrike.”
Harper did not bother trying to deny this—not even to himself.
Before he departed, Valentine paused on the brink of the darkness beyond the open door and spoke over his shoulder.
“Tell me,” he said, “If the world knew what you’ve refused me, would it be so quick to paint me as the villain?”
The question lingered between them even as the door fell shut.
Harper waited until Valentine’s muffled footfalls diminished into silence before setting aside his wine and lunging for his work satchel. A moment later, he fished out a small, unmarked box and removed the plastic lid, fumbling slightly, hands trembling and heart pounding, still charged with the adrenaline of staring down a gun barrel. Inside, slotted neatly into the packaging, rows of blank microscope slides glittered back at him.
Harper extracted a glass strip, careful to pinch it by the edges of its infinitesimal width. Then he straightened his own arm, assessing the flecks of Valentine’s blood peppered there by the gun blast. He took a moment to admire the color of it—a vicious color, a red so profound it could have passed for the wine he’d just set aside.
Using the slide, hardly daring to breathe, Harper began scraping Valentine’s blood from his skin.
“The thing about villains,” Harper murmured, fumbling for a slide cover, “they make heroes out of anyone.”