Sydney read them aloud. “Elise, Elington, Elissa... They all have ‘Eli’ in them.”
“Exactly,” said Mitch. “They’ve been flagged. Specifically for our friend, Eli. Which means—”
“He’s working with the cops,” said Victor. “Here in Merit.”
Sydney stared down at the photo of the girl with the blue hair. “How can you be sure?” she asked. “What if it’s a coincidence?”
Mitch looked smug. “Because I did my homework. I cross-checked the theory by pulling up some of their old profiles, ‘Persons of Interest’ now deceased, all of which had conveniently found their way into the digital trash bin. Which is its own red flag, by the way, but I found matches to Eli’s killings over the last four months.” He dropped the dead EO folder on the table. “Including your man Barry Lynch. The one you just spent the night digging up.”
Victor had started to pace.
“It gets better,” said Mitch. “The flagged profiles were created by one of two cops.” He tapped the top right corner of a page. “Officer Frederick Dane. Or Detective Mark Stell.”
Victor’s chest tightened. Stell. What were the odds? The man who’d had Victor arrested ten years ago, the one who’d been on EO duty at the Lockland precinct, and the one who, when Victor recovered from his multiple gunshot wounds, personally escorted him to the isolation wing of Wrighton Penitentiary. Stell’s involvement, along with Eli’s testimony, was the reason Victor spent five years in solitary confinement (he wasn’t declared an EO on the records, of course, only an extreme danger to himself and others, and it had taken him half a decade of deliberately not hurting anyone—at least not in a conscious or appreciable way—to get himself integrated).
“You listening?” asked Mitch.
Victor nodded absently. “The men flagging the profiles, they are, or have been, in direct contact with Eli.”
Victor toasted the air with his water, his thoughts miles away. “Bravo, Mitch.” He turned to Sydney. “You hungry?”
But Sydney didn’t seem to be listening. She had taken up the folder with the dead EOs, and was flipping through, almost absently, when she stopped. Victor looked over her shoulder and saw what she saw. Short blond hair and water blue eyes stared up at her beside a cleanly printed name: Sydney Elinor Clarke.
“My middle name is Marion,” she said quietly. “And he thinks I’m dead.”
Victor stooped over and swiped the page. He folded the paper and tucked it inside his shirt pocket with a wink.
“Not for long,” he said, tapping his watch. “Not for long.”
TIDINGS WELL BANK
Eli parked a block and a half from the yellow tape of the crime scene barrier, and repositioned the prop glasses on his nose before getting out. He could see, as he wound his way behind the eyes of the crowd of morbid spectators and the gathering photographers, to the back of the bank, and the crime was no longer in progress. People lingered, lights flashed, but the relative quiet—sirenless, gunless, shoutless—told him enough.
He stiffened when he saw Detective Stell, even though Serena promised it was safe. Still, the detective had come to Merit a few months before to investigate a string of killings in the area—Eli’s handiwork, of course—and even Serena’s assurances couldn’t entirely wipe away Eli’s doubt regarding the detective’s loyalty. Stell, who now had salt-and-pepper hair and a permanent crease between his eyes, met him behind the building, and lifted the tape so he could pass. Eli pushed the prop glasses up his nose a second time. They were a fraction too big.
“How Clark Kent of you,” said Stell drily. Eli was not in the mood.
“Where is he?”
“Dead.” The detective led the way into the bank.
“I told you I wanted him alive.”
“Didn’t have a choice. He started firing, or whatever you want to call it. Couldn’t aim worth a damn. Like that power of his was on the fritz. Didn’t stop him from making a mess, though.”
“No, he ordered those all out.” They reached a black sheet cast over a vaguely human shape. Stell nudged it with his boot. “Media wants to know why a madman who’s supposed to be dead enters a bank with a weapon, but doesn’t try to rob it, and doesn’t take any prisoners. All he does is kick everyone out, and fire at the air and scream and scream for someone named Eli Ever.”
“You should have never let that story run last week.”
“Can’t stop the press from using their eyes, Eli. You’re the one who wanted to make a scene.”
Eli didn’t like the man’s tone, had never liked it, never trusted the thread of combativeness that ran through it.
“I needed a demonstration,” Eli growled. He didn’t want to admit that there was more to it than that, that he’d wanted an audience. It had been Serena’s idea, he was sure, before it became his.
“A demonstration is one thing,” said Stell. “But did you need a spectacle?”
“It covered up the murder,” said Eli as he threw back the black sheet. “How was I supposed to know he wouldn’t stay dead?” Barry Lynch’s brown eyes gazed up at him, shallow and dead. He could hear the whispers from the other cops milling around, hushed voices wondering who he was, what he was doing there. He tried to look official as he stared down at the dead man.
“You dragged me out here for nothing,” he said under his breath. “Now that he’s dead.”
“Forgive me, but he was dead before, remember? And besides,” added Stell, “this time he left a note.”
Stell handed Eli a plastic bag. Inside was a crumpled piece of paper. He withdrew the paper and unfolded it gingerly.
It was a stick-figure drawing. Two people holding hands. A thin man in black and a girl, half his height with short hair, and wide eyes. The stick-girl’s head was cocked slightly, and a small red spot marked her arm. Three similar spots, no bigger than periods, dotted the stick-man’s chest. The stick-man’s mouth was nothing more than a faint grim line.
Beneath the drawing ran a single sentence: I made a friend.
Eli blinked, felt the cop’s hand on his arm. He slid free, folded the paper, and put it in his pocket before anyone could see or say otherwise.
“Get rid of the body,” he said to Stell. “Burn it this time.”
Eli went back the way he’d come. He didn’t stop, not until he was safely in his car. In the relative privacy of the side street in Merit, he pressed his hand against the drawing in his pocket, and a phantom pain started in his stomach.
Victor lifted the knife from the table. “You called the cops and you accused me of being an EO. I didn’t rat you out, you know. I could have. Why would you tell them something so silly? Did you know they have special people that come in if there’s an EO suspected? Some guy named Stell. Did you know that?”
“You’ve lost it.” Eli sidestepped. “Put the knife down. It’s not like you can hurt me.”
Victor smiled then. He looked like someone else. Eli tried to step back, but the wall came up behind him. The knife buried itself in his stomach. He felt the tip scratch at the skin of his back. The pain had been sharp, persistent, dragging itself out instead of flashing forward and dissolving.
“You know what I figured out?” Victor growled. “Watching you in the street that night, picking the glass from your hand? You can’t heal yourself until I take the knife out.” He twisted it, and pain exploded behind Eli’s eyes, a dozen colors. He groaned and began to slide down the wall, but Victor hoisted him up by the handle.
“I’m not even using my gift yet,” Victor said. “It’s not as flashy as yours, but it’s rather effective. Want to see it?”
Eli swallowed hard, and dialed Serena as he put the car in gear and headed for the hotel. He didn’t wait for her to speak.
“We have a problem.”
TEN YEARS AGO
Eli Ever sat on the steps of his apartment in the cold morning and ran his fingers through his hair before realizing they were covered in blood. Caution tape surrounded him in streamers of yellow, too bright against the dull winter dawn. Red and blue lights dotted the icy ground and every time he looked at them, he ended up spending minutes trying to blink the colors away.
“If you could tell us one more time...” said a young cop.
Eli touched his stomach, the echo of pain still there even though the skin had healed. He rubbed his hands together and watched blood flake off into the sidewalk snow. He wove a distress he wasn’t sure he felt back into his voice as he recounted everything from Victor’s panicked call the night before, confessing to Angie’s murder, to his sudden appearance in their living room, gun in hand. Eli left out the knives, having scrubbed and returned them to their drawers before the police arrived. It was odd, the way his brain had made space around the weedy panic, helping his hands and legs do what needed to be done even as a fading voice in the back of his mind screamed and his best friend lay shot full of holes on their living room floor. Something in Eli had gone missing— fear, that’s what he’d told Victor—right down the drain with the icy bath water.