* * *
The sun streamed in but the room was cool. Eli shivered, and sat up. The bed was empty beside him. He found his pants, and spent several minutes searching for his shirt before he remembered he’d left it by the front door, and padded out into the apartment. Serena was gone. His gun was still on the table, and he tucked it into the back of his pants and went into the kitchen to make coffee.
Eli was fascinated by kitchens. By the way people ordered their lives, the cabinets they used, the places they kept food, and the food they chose to keep. He’d spent the last decade studying people, and it was amazing how much could be gleaned from their homes. Their bedrooms, and bathrooms, and closets, of course, but also their kitchens. Serena’s coffee was in the lowest cabinet over the counter, just beside the sink, which meant she drank a lot of it. A small black, two-to-four-cup coffeemaker sat tucked along the tile backsplash, another clue she lived alone. The apartment was far too nice for an underclassman, one of those lottery-only wins, and Eli wondered absently as he pulled out a filter if she’d used her talents to get this, too.
He found the coffee cups to the left of the sink, and tapped the coffeemaker, eager for it to brew. As soon as it did, he filled his cup and took a long sip. Now that he was alone, his mind was making its way faithfully back to the topic of how he was going to eliminate Serena, when the front door opened and she walked in, flanked by two men. One was a police officer, and the other was Detective Stell. Eli’s heart lurched in his chest, but he managed a careful smile over his mug as he leaned against the counter to hide the gun in the back of his pants.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Morning...” said Stell, and Eli watched confusion spread through his features beneath a glazed calm, which Eli quickly recognized as Serena’s doing. It had been nearly ten years, during which the Lockland case had gone stone cold, and during which Eli had constantly thought of Stell, casting backward glances to see if he would follow. Stell hadn’t, but he clearly recognized him now. (How could he not? Eli was a photograph, unchanging.) Yet neither he nor the officer reached for their weapons, so that was promising. Eli looked to Serena, who was beaming.
“I have a present for you,” she said, gesturing to the men.
“You really shouldn’t have,” said Eli slowly.
“This is Officer Frederick Dane, and his boss, Detective Stell.”
“Mr. Cardale,” said Stell.
“I go by Ever now.”
“You two know each other?” asked Serena.
“Detective Stell was on Victor’s case,” offered Eli. “Back at Lockland.”
Serena’s eyes widened in recognition. Eli had told her about that day. He’d left out most of the details, and now, staring at the only man who’d ever even had reason to suspect him of foul play, potentially of ExtraOrdinary play, he wished he’d given her the entire truth.
“It’s been some time,” said Stell. “And yet you haven’t changed, Mr. Card... Ever. Not at all—”
“What brings you to Merit?” cut in Eli.
“I transferred a few months ago.”
“Change of scenery?”
“Followed a rash of killings.”
Eli knew he should have broken up the path, the pattern, but he’d been on a roll. Merit had attracted an impressive number of EOs, by virtue of its population and its many dark corners. People came to the city thinking they could hide. But not from him.
“Eli,” said Serena. “You’re ruining my surprise. Stell and Dane and I, we’ve had a good long chat, and it’s all been arranged. They’re going to help us.”
“Us?” asked Eli.
Serena turned back to the men and smiled. “Have a seat.” The two men obediently sat down at the kitchen table.
“Eli, can you pour them some coffee?”
Eli wasn’t sure how to do that without turning his back and his gun on the cops, so he reached for Serena instead, and pulled her close. Another small act of defiance. The motion had the easy movement of a lover’s embrace, but his grip was tight. “What are you doing?” he growled into her ear.
“I was thinking,” she said, tipping her head back against his chest, “about how tedious it must be, trying to find each EO.” She wasn’t even bothering to lower her voice. “And then I thought, there must be an easier way. It turns out the Merit Police Department has a database for persons of interest. Of course, it’s not meant for EOs, but the search matrix, that’s what it’s called, right?” Officer Dane nodded. “Yes, well, it’s broad enough that we could use it for that.” Serena seemed thoroughly proud of herself. “So I went to the station, and I asked to talk to someone involved with EO investigation—you told me, remember, that some of them were trained for it—and the man at the desk led me to these fine gentlemen. Dane is Stell’s protégé, and they’ve both agreed to share their search engine with us.”
“There’s that us again,” said Eli, aloud. Serena ignored him.
“We’ve got it all figured out, I think. Right, Officer Dane?”
The lanky man with dark, close-cropped hair nodded and set a thin folder on the table. “The first batch,” he said.
“Thank you, Officer,” said Serena, taking up the file. “This will keep us busy for a little while.”
Us. Us. Us. What on earth was happening? But even as Eli’s thoughts spun, he managed to keep his hand away from the gun against his back and focus on the instructions Serena was now giving the cops.
“Mr. Ever here is going to keep this city safe,” she told them, her blue eyes shining. “He’s a hero, isn’t he, Officers?”
Officer Dane nodded. At first Stell only looked at Eli, but eventually, he nodded, too.
“A hero,” they echoed.
THE FALCON PRICE PROJECT
Dane whimpered faintly from the floor.
Victor leaned back in the foldout chair, locking his fingers behind his head. A switchblade dangled loosely from one hand, the flat of the blade skimming his pale hair. It wasn’t strictly necessary, but his talent was most effective when it amplified an existing source of pain. Officer Dane curled in on himself on the concrete floor, his uniform torn, blood streaking across the floor. Victor was glad Mitch had put some plastic sheeting down. He’d gotten a little carried away, but it had been so long since he’d stretched, so long since he’d let go. It cleared his head. It calmed him.
Dane’s hands were still firmly bound behind his back, but the tape over his mouth had come off, and his shirt clung to his chest with sweat and blood. He’d given up the database’s access codes, of course, and quickly at that—Victor had tested them on his phone to be sure. Then, with a bit more encouragement, he’d told Victor everything he knew about Detective Stell: his earlier days in Lockland, his transfer on the heels of a killing streak—Eli’s work, no doubt—and Dane’s own training. All cops these days, it turned out, learned an EO protocol, whether they were skeptics or believers, but at least one man in every precinct knew more than the basics, studied the indicators, and took charge of any investigation where an EO was even suspected.
Stell had been that man ten years ago at Lockland, and he was that man again here, and grooming Dane to follow. Not only that, but somehow, Eli had convinced the detective in charge of the investigation against him to help him.
Victor shook his head in wonder as he tortured the details out of Dane. Eli never ceased to amaze him. If he and Stell had been working together since Lockland, that would have been one thing, but this was a new arrangement—Stell and Dane had only been assisting Eli since last fall. How had Eli conned the Merit PD into helping him?
“Officer Dane,” said Victor. The cop cringed at the sound of his voice. “Would you mind telling me about your interactions with Eli Ever?”
When Dane didn’t answer, Victor stood and rolled the man onto his back with the tip of his shoe. “Well?” he asked calmly, leaning on the officer’s broken ribs.
Dane screamed, but once the screams had given way to gasps, he said, “Eli Ever... is... a hero.”
Victor let out a choked laugh, and put more weight on Dane’s chest. “Who told you that?”
The officer’s expression shifted. It was stern, but remarkably level when he answered. “Serena.”
“And you bought it?”
Officer Dane looked at Victor as if he couldn’t quite grasp the question.
And then Victor got it. “What else did Serena say?”
“To help Mr. Ever.”
“And you did.”
Officer Dane looked confused. “Of course.”
Victor smiled grimly.
“Of course,” he echoed, pulling the gun from his belt. He rubbed his eyes, swore quietly beneath his breath, then fired two quick shots into Officer Dane’s chest. This was the first person he’d killed since Angie Knight (if you didn’t count that one man in prison, back when he’d been perfecting his technique, and Victor didn’t), and certainly the first intentional murder. It wasn’t that he shied away from killing; people simply weren’t any good to him dead. After all, pain didn’t have much effect on corpses. As for Dane’s murder, it was unfortunate (albeit necessary), and the fact that a modicum of regret was all that Victor felt on the matter might have bothered him more, or at least been worth a moment of introspection, had he not been so preoccupied with bringing the dead man back.