“We’re just friends,” he said, guiding her down the path. Mitch followed.
“Well, if you see them,” called the girl, “thank Serena for the apartment. Oh, and tell Eli he sucks.”
“Will do,” called Victor as the three made their way back to the car.
* * *
“This is hopeless,” whispered Sydney, sliding onto the couch.
“Hey now,” said Mitch. “A week ago, Eli could have been anywhere in the world. Now, because of you, we have him narrowed down to a city.”
“If he’s still here,” said Sydney.
Victor paced the line of the couch. “He’s here.” The thorn dug deep beneath his skin. So close. How badly he wanted to walk out into the streets and shout his old friend’s name until he came out. It would be so easy. Fast, efficient... and foolish. He needed a way to lure him out without leaving the shadows himself. He was catching up to Eli, but he wanted to be a step ahead before he turned to face him. He had to find a way to make Eli come to him.
“What now?” asked Mitch.
Victor looked up. “Sydney wasn’t the first target. I’m willing to bet she won’t be the last. Can you make me a search matrix?”
Mitch cracked his massive knuckles. “What kind?”
“I want a way to find potential EOs. See if there are others he’s gotten to. And if there are any he hasn’t found yet.”
“Worried for their safety?” asked Mitch. Victor had been thinking more about using them as bait, but he didn’t say it, not in front of Sydney.
“Limit the search to the last year, keep it in-state, and look for flags,” he said, trying to summon Eli’s thesis work. He’d prattled on about markers once or twice, in the spaces between other topics. “Search police reports, work evaluations, school and medical records. Search for any sign of near death experience— it will probably be classified under trauma—psychological instability in the aftermath, odd behavior, leave of absence, discrepancies in records made by shrinks, uncertainty in records made by cops...” He began to pace again. “And while you’re at it, get Serena Clarke’s school records, her class schedule. If Eli’s tied himself to her in some way, then it might be easier to find her than him.”
“Aren’t all those records classified?” asked Sydney.
Mitch beamed and flicked open his laptop, settling in at the counter.
“Mitchell,” said Victor. “Tell Sydney what you were in prison for.”
“Hacking,” he said cheerfully.
Sydney laughed. “Seriously? I had you pegged as more of a beat-someone-to-death-with-their-own-arm type.”
“I’ve always been big,” said Mitch. “That’s not my fault.” He cracked his knuckles again. His hands were larger than the keyboard.
“And the tattoos?”
“It’s best to look the part.”
“Victor doesn’t look the part.”
“Depends on what part you’re going for. He cleans up well.”
Victor wasn’t listening. He was still pacing.
Eli was close. Eli was in this city. Or had been. What on earth could Sydney’s sister do, that he had found her so valuable? If Eli was executing EOs, why had he spared Serena? Victor was glad he had, though. She had given him a reason to stay in Merit, and he needed Eli tethered. Mitch’s large fingers were a blur across the keyboard. Window after window unfolded on his sleek black screen. Victor couldn’t stop pacing. He knew the search would take time, but the air was humming, and he couldn’t will his feet to stop, couldn’t force himself to find stillness, to find peace, not now when Eli was finally in reach. He needed freedom.
He needed air.
Sydney followed him into the street.
Victor hadn’t heard her, not for a block, but when he finally glanced back and saw her there, her expression turned cautious, almost scared, as if she’d been caught breaking a rule. She shivered and he gestured to a nearby coffee shop. “Care for a drink?”
“Do you really think we’ll find Eli?” she asked several minutes later as they made their way down the sidewalk, gripping coffee and cocoa respectively.
“Yes,” said Victor.
But he did not elaborate. After several long moments of Sydney’s fidgeting beside him, it was clear that she wanted to keep talking.
“What about your parents?” he asked. “Won’t they notice you missing?”
“I was supposed to stay with Serena all week,” she said, blowing on her drink. “And besides, they travel.” She glanced over at him, then trained her gaze on the to-go cup. “When I was in the hospital last year, they just left me there. They had work. They always have work. They travel forty weeks a year. I had a watcher, but they let her go because she broke a vase. They made time to replace the vase, because apparently it was a focal piece in the house, but they were too busy to find a new watcher, so they said I didn’t need one. Staying alone would be good practice for life.” The words spilled out, and she sounded breathless by the end. Victor said nothing, only let her settle, and a few moments later, she added, calmer, “I don’t think my parents are an issue right now.”
Victor knew far too well about those kinds of parents, so he let the matter fall. Or at least, he tried to. But as they rounded the corner, a bookstore came into view, and there in the front window, a massive poster announced the newest Vale book, on sale this summer.
Victor cringed. He hadn’t spoken to his own parents in nearly eight years. Apparently having a convicted offspring—at least one that didn’t show any inclinations toward being rehabilitated, especially not with the “Vale system”—wasn’t great for book sales. Victor had pointed out that it wasn’t that bad for book sales, either, that they might be able to capitalize on that niche— morbid curiosity buyers—but his parents hadn’t been impressed. Victor wasn’t terribly distraught about the falling-out, but he’d also been spared their window displays for nearly a decade. To their credit, they sent a set of books to his cell in isolation, which he’d cherished, rationing the destruction to make it last as long as possible. When he finally integrated he found that the penitentiary library had, not surprisingly, stocked a complete set of Vale self-help books, and he’d corrected those in his trademark fashion until Wrighton caught on and denied him access.
Now Victor wandered into the store, Sydney close behind, and bought a copy of the newest book, entitled Set Yourself Free, and subtitled From the Prison of Your Discontent. It felt like a pretty obvious jab. Victor also bought a handful of black Sharpies from the turnstile by the checkout counter, and asked Sydney if she wanted anything, but she simply shook her head and clutched her to-go cup of cocoa. Back out front, Victor considered the storefront window, but he feared the Sharpies weren’t big enough and besides, he didn’t intend to get picked up for vandalism of all things, so he was forced to leave the window untouched. It was a shame, he thought, as they walked on. There had been an excerpt, blown up large and pasted on the window, and in a passage studded with overwrought gems—his favorite being “out of the ruins of our self-made jails...”—he had seen the perfect opportunity to spell out a simple but effective “We... ruin... all... we touch.”
He and Sydney continued on their stroll. He didn’t explain the book, and she didn’t ask. The fresh air felt good, the coffee infinitely better than even bribery and pain could get him in prison. Sydney blew absently on her hot chocolate, small fingers curled around it for warmth.
“Why did he try to kill me?” she asked quietly.
“I don’t know yet.”
“After I showed him my power, and he was about to kill me, he called it a grim task. He told me he didn’t have a choice. Why would he want to kill EOs? He said he was one, too.”
“He is an ExtraOrdinary, yes.”
“What’s his power?”
“Self-righteousness,” Victor said. But when Sydney looked confused, he added, “He heals. It’s a reflexive ability. In his eyes, I think that makes it somehow pure. Divine. He can’t technically use his power to hurt others.”
“No,” said Sydney, “he uses guns for that.”
Victor chuckled. “As for why he seems to think it’s his personal duty to dispose of us”—he straightened—“I suspect it has something to do with me.”
“Why?” she whispered.
“It’s a long story,” said Victor, sounding tired. “And not a pleasant one. It’s been a decade since I had a chance to philosophize with our mutual friend, but if I had to guess, I’d say Eli believes he’s somehow protecting people from us. He once accused me of being a devil wearing Victor’s skin.”
“He called me unnatural,” said Sydney softly. “Said my power went against nature. Against God.”
“Charming, isn’t he?”
It was after lunch and the people had almost all slunk back into their offices, leaving the streets strangely bare. Victor seemed to be leading them farther and farther away from the crowds, onto narrower streets. Quieter streets.