Third Comes Vengeance by Lilith Vincent
My harsh breathing echoes off the walls and the air feels heavy and damp. Water is dripping, and there’s broken concrete beneath my bare feet. All other sound is muted. Like a coffin. Like a crypt. I strain for the sound of traffic, voices, music. Anything.
I’m so alone.
The last thing I remember is Acid pressing a cloth over my mouth and struggling with Thane. I lift my head and stare around me. There’s a thin shaft of daylight from a vent high in the wall, but most of the room is in darkness. The ghosts of four murdered women cluster around me, and I can feel their sorrow and hear the echoes of their screams. There are ropes around my arms, waist, and legs, intricately crisscrossing my body, like whoever did this took their time, their heart full of sadistic delight.
Lorenzo described this place as he sat, hollow-eyed, over a glass of vodka. An underground room, their sisters all alone and tied to chairs.
Then a killer entered and ripped them apart.
There’s a sharp pain in my heart. Acid is probably recording me right now, and when this is all over, he’ll deliver the video to my men. A sob rises in my throat as I picture Lorenzo in front of his laptop with a pen in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other. Shoulders slumped. Defeated. A gun lays on the table nearby, tempting him.
“No,” I moan, yanking my body this way and that, trying to loosen the ropes.
How could Acid look Lorenzo in the eye day after day, week after week, year after year after what he did? There was always something crafty about Acid, but I assumed he had to be that way to survive in one of the roughest parts of Coldlake. All this time he’s been concealing a psychotic hatred of the men he takes orders from.
I twist my wrists, but I’m bound so tightly I can barely move. My only hope of getting out of here is that one of Lorenzo’s guards survived Acid and Thane’s attack and recognized my kidnappers. They’ll be able to tell my men who took me, which will give them a place to start looking.
But where are my men? They all disappeared in the middle of the night without telling me, and the only clue I have is Cassius’ cryptic text, I’m in position. That sounds like they were watching something, or about to attack someone. The Black Orchid Killer? My father?
Whatever happened next, something went wrong. Every single one of Lorenzo’s men turned pale as they received a text that read, Orchid Protocol. I have no idea what Orchid Protocol is, but the guards did. It was a signal to take me from Lorenzo’s home to a different location. The safest place for me in Coldlake was Lorenzo’s own fortress-like house, with its high walls, armed guards, and security cameras. I don’t understand why they needed to get me out of there.
Lorenzo, where are you?
Are you still alive?
Is Nicole alive?
Why did she answer the phone when I called you?
If that even was Nicole. Whoever it was, she was whispering and slurring her words. A girl who was drugged and afraid, and she was trying to warn me about something.
It’s a trap.
And then… Blond. Scary.
The blond, scary man is dead.
Or was it Dad?
Could it be that her father was leading my boyfriends into a trap? Other than disliking my men, Mr. De Luca has no reason to personally go after them. Or was the woman on the phone referring to my dad? That makes more sense. Dad absolutely wants the Coldlake Syndicate destroyed.
And I’m stuck in a basement, tied to a chair while God knows what happens out there to my men.
“I’m going to kill you, Acid,” I seethe.
A deep chuckle emanates from the darkness, and all the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
I lift my chin and stare around the room. “Is that you? Where are you?”
A figure steps forward into the light, dragging a chair with him. He straddles the seat, one muscular, tattooed forearm resting along the back of the chair. When he smiles, his emerald eyes glimmer.
“How are you going to kill me, your highness?” he purrs in a voice like black velvet. He’s wearing black boots and jeans, and a tank top that fits loosely across his muscular shoulders. The green eyes of the skull tattoo on his throat flame in the dim light.
A second figure strolls out of the darkness. Lean but broad through the shoulders with narrow hips, long legs, and careless black hair. There are silver rings decorating his fingers, fine silver chains around his neck, and cuffs on his ears. The shirt he’s wearing is made from fine fabric, soft and expensive-looking, unbuttoned low on his smooth chest. Abstract tattoos decorate his skin, and the nails on one of his hands are painted black. Those dark eyes of his are soulless black holes in his face.
He hunkers down beside my chair and tugs on a few of the ropes that bind my arms and legs. Testing them.
“Struggle for me,” he murmurs.
I stare at him, perplexed. “What?”
His gaze travels lovingly over the ropes. Blood red ropes. Beautiful, twisting knots and loops.
“Struggle for me. Try to get away.” He wants to watch me pull against my bindings because he gets sick pleasure from seeing me at his mercy.
“Go smash your dick with a hammer,” I snarl at him.
Acid bursts out laughing. “Nice try, Thane.”
This is Thane? I’ve never met him, but he and Vinicius work together and I heard his voice once. He called Lorenzo the night a woman’s body was found in the canal. He sounded unemotional as he relayed what he’d learned from the police scanner, but as I gaze into those dead eyes, I see his inhumanity is on a whole other level.
“You’re supposed to be on our side,” I tell him, then look at Acid. “So were you.”
The smile drops from Acid’s face. “Strife is on Strife’s side. Always has been. Always will be.”
My eyes are slowly adjusting to the darkness. I peer into the shadows, searching for the video camera and whatever they’re going to use to kill me. Whatever they have planned, it will be lurid and violent.
“Why did you kill Salvatore, Vinicius, Cassius, and Lorenzo’s sisters?”
Acid and Thane exchange glances, both of them smiling. All the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
“Why do you think?” Acid asks, turning back to me.
“Because you’re petty assholes. Nine years ago, you thought that with Salvatore’s father gone, you’d be able to take control of this area of Coldlake. Then the Coldlake Syndicate was formed and you discovered you’d be answering to Lorenzo. The four of them are too powerful for you to take on, and so you lashed out at their sisters instead.”
“Ah, she’s got us all figured out, Thane,” Acid says with a smirk. Thane has moved back to prop his shoulders against the wall, his expression blank.
I’m talking about the vicious murder of four innocent women, and Acid’s smiling. “Lorenzo nearly killed himself when Sienna’s body was found. Cassius obliterated everything around him in grief and fury. Vinicius never got his lost twin sister back. Family is everything to Salvatore and you ripped his apart. You almost destroyed them over a few shitty square miles and a bar.”
Acid rubs a hand over his jaw. “You really love those men, don’t you?”
All four of them burn brightly in my heart. I want to scream and cry. I want to struggle, but I won’t give them the satisfaction. There’s probably a camera trained on me right now, and if one of my men ever sees this, I want them to know that I held it together as long as I could and I never, ever begged for mercy.
There’s no point begging. Mercy has long fled this place. Only pain and death remain.
Thane speaks in a flat, cold voice. “Strife isn’t just a bar. Strife is who we are.”
“Pieces of shit is what you are,” I snarl. If I’m going down, I’m going down swinging. “So tell me, what kind of death do you have planned for the Princess of Coldlake? You had better make this good. I want to go down in history with the grisliest death this city has ever seen. How about tying me to a throne and electrocuting me slowly? Hammering a crown of nails into my head, one by one? What’s it going to be?”
Acid gazes at me in disbelief. “Damn, girl. You’ve got a sick mind.”
The Black Orchid Killer has a sick mind. I’m just riffing to hide my terror.
Acid and Thane exchange glances, like they’re not sure what to say next, and the first trickle of doubt runs down my spine. The Black Orchid Killer would know exactly what he wanted to do next. He’s had more than a year to plan my grisly death. I barely know Acid and I don’t know Thane at all, but I do know they’re from the streets. They’re accustomed to the swift, messy justice of baseball bats and stolen guns.
So what’s really going on here?
I close my eyes and think back to the night Acid was shot and Lorenzo and I saved his life. The moment Acid woke up, he was intent on finding out who I was and what I was doing with Lorenzo. He delights in irritating Lorenzo, but even though they piss each other off, I sensed grudging respect between the two of them. Acid is curious. Smart. Opportunistic. What will he get out of torturing me to death? It seems like a lot of bother without any material gain. Surely I’m much more useful to him alive.
Relief floods through me so fast that I start to laugh, and my eyes pop open. “Oh, thank God. You’re not going to kill me. You really had me going there for a moment.”
Thane’s heavy brows lift. “You sure about that, baby?”
I stop laughing. That’s Salvatore’s pet name for me. That’s what Mom called me. “Don’t call me baby, asshole.”
“Touchy, touchy, your highness,” Acid mocks. “I guess that’s how we’ll start torturing you, by carving ‘baby’ into your pretty flesh.”
How crude. Even that feels nothing like what the Black Orchid Killer would do. “Lorenzo told me about the—” I’m about to say videos but catch myself just in time. No one knows about the videos except for the five of us and the killer. “Lorenzo told me how their sisters were killed. If you wanted to do that stuff to me, you’d be getting on with it, not sitting here having a chat.”
“We’re getting there.”
“Yeah? How are you going to do it?”
Acid shrugs. “Chop you up. Stick a flower in your mouth. Chuck you in the river.”
He gives me a baffled look. “Then nothing. Job done.”
I smile and shake my head. “You’re not the Black Orchid Killer. Either of you.”
They don’t know anything about the Black Orchid Killer’s MO. If they really were the killer, I’d be screaming and bleeding right now and they’d be gloating over the pain my men will be in when they find my body. We wouldn’t be sitting here bantering.
Acid and Thane exchange glances and Thane shrugs.
“Fine, we’re not the Black Orchid Killers,” Acid admits. “But we weren’t trying to make the Syndicate think we were, anyway. I didn’t drop a black flower on the street for anyone to find when we snatched you.”
“So why pretend to me?”
He gives me a smile that I may have found charming if I didn’t hate his guts. “You jumped to the conclusion. We’ve got time to kill so I thought I’d play along.”
I glare from one man to the other. If they’ve got time to kill then they’re waiting for something or someone. To ransom me to the Syndicate? Like they’ll give Acid a cent when they can storm in here and take me back. I can’t wait. “You’re so screwed, Acid. My boyfriends are crazy when it comes to me. Lorenzo’s going to personally take you apart, piece by piece.”
Acid leans forward and whispers. “Lorenzo’s dead, your highness.”
The relief I felt a moment ago is suddenly doused with ice-cold dread. “Shut your mouth. No, he’s not.” I start to struggle against the ropes out of sheer desperation. Thane’s eyes light up.
Acid smiles wider. “Cross my heart and hope to…well. Just cross my heart. I don’t want to go dying now that everything’s turning out just how I want it.”
“Just because something went down tonight, doesn’t mean anyone’s dead.”
Acid spreads his hands. “You have your proof. We all do. Orchid Protocol.”
I stop struggling. “How do you know about Orchid Protocol?”
“Lorenzo set it up a few weeks ago and told his best friends down here at Strife all about it. If something happened to him, it would trigger an alert: Lorenzo’s dead, go save his princess.”
I want to punch Acid right in his smiling mouth.
“With any luck,” Acid continues, “one or more the Coldlake Syndicate will be dead along with our dear boss, and then the Strife men and I will decide whether to exchange you for Lorenzo’s territory and power, or…”
Acid smiles wider. “Or hand you over to your father. A cool million in exchange for his baby girl sounds pretty great to me.”
I killed a man recently, but I didn’t want to do it. I was protecting Vinicius and myself from a dangerous gang leader. As I look into Acid’s handsome, smirking face, I want to inflict serious bodily harm on him. “Your plan won’t work because Lorenzo isn’t dead.”
Acid rubs a hand over his jaw. “If he were alive, do you really think you’d be sitting here with us right now?”
Despair washes over me. Lorenzo is too dangerous to die. The others wouldn’t let it happen. He wouldn’t let it happen.
Acid laughs softly. “Long live the Coldlake Syndicate.”