By the time Mitch got out of jail, he looked more the part than ever. The imposing teen had graduated into a towering adult, flecked with the first of many tattoos. Once out, he lasted a month and a half before the curse caught back up with him. He’d gotten a job in food distribution, mostly because he could unload four times the weight of any other guy on the truck, and because he liked physical work. He might be mentally cut out for a desk job, but he doubted he’d fit behind most desks. And everything was going smoothly—shitty apartment and shitty pay but all legally valid—until a man was beaten to death a few blocks from where his crew was unloading peaches. The cops took one look at Mitch and booked him. No bloody knuckles, and two coworkers to swear he had his arms full of fruit the whole time, and none of it mattered. Mitch went straight back to prison.
Good behavior and a staggering lack of evidence got him out in a matter of weeks, but Mitch, in a rare display of cynicism, decided that if he was going to go to back to jail (and given his curse, it was a matter of when, not if), he might as well commit a crime, since serving time on behalf of others wasn’t an entirely satisfying use of his life. And so, Mitch set out to plan the one crime he’d always wanted to commit, for no better reason than it was the subject of books and movies, an archetypal affair involving brains far more than bulk.
Mitchell Turner was going to rob a bank.
* * *
Mitch knew three things about robbing a bank.
The first was that, because of his easily identifiable appearance, he couldn’t actually go into the bank. Even if he disabled the security cameras, the people inside would pick him out of a hundred-person lineup (with his luck, even if he wasn’t in it). The second was that, given the advances in security-based technology— many of which he’d learned about through observation in prison, but knew to be far more evolved in the private sector—a large component of the heist’s success would lie in hacking the bank’s systems and codes to disable the vault, which could be done remotely. The third was that he would need help. And thanks to the two prison stints he’d served so far, Mitch had developed a fairly extensive list of acquaintances, many of whom would be stupid, desperate, or otherwise willing enough to take up some guns and set foot inside the bank.
What Mitch didn’t count on was that while his hacking would succeed without a hitch, the partners with guns would fail spectacularly, be promptly arrested, and drop his name faster than a hat. And somehow, upon seeing Mitchell Turner in all his physical prowess, the police would pin the gun-laden part of the robbery on him, and the hacking on the three smaller men caught in the actual heist and clearly discernible, even masked, on the security footage. And so Mitch’s third strike landed him not in a prison for tax-frauders and info-leakers, but in Wrighton, a maximum security facility where the majority of the inmates had actually committed crimes, and where his size, while impressive, was no guarantee of safety.
And where, three years later, he would come to meet a man named Victor Vale.
SIX HOURS UNTIL MIDNIGHT
MERIT CENTRAL PRECINCT
Eli stood against the pale gray wall of the police conference room, and readjusted the mask on his face. It was simple, partial, black, running from his temples to his cheekbones, and Serena had teased him for it, but as more than half of Merit’s police force accumulated in the room and took him in (the other half would listen in) he was thankful for the disguise. His face was the one thing he couldn’t change, and as bad an idea as this was, it would be infinitely worse if the entire force had a chance to memorize his features. Serena stood at the podium and smiled her slow smile and spoke to the gathering men and women.
“What happens at midnight?” she had asked as they drove to the station.
Eli had gripped the steering wheel, knuckles white. “I don’t know.” He hated saying those words, not just because they were true or because admitting them meant Victor was a step ahead, but because he couldn’t not say them, because the confession crawled its way up his throat before he thought to swallow. Victor had hung up on him with only the promise of midnight, and Eli had been left fighting the urge to throw the phone against the wall.
“The man behind me is a hero,” Serena was saying now. Eli watched the eyes of the people in the room glaze slightly at her words. “His name is Eli Ever. He has been protecting your city for months, hunting down the kinds of criminals you do not know about, the kind you cannot stop. He has been working to keep you and your citizens safe. But now he needs your help. I want you to listen to him, and do as he says.”
She smiled and stepped away from the podium and its microphone, urging Eli forward with a nod and a lazy smile. Eli let out a low breath, and stepped forward.
“A little over a week ago, a man named Victor Vale broke out of Wrighton Penitentiary along with his cellmate, Mitchell Turner. If you’re wondering why you didn’t hear about the break on the news, it’s because it was not on the news.” Eli himself didn’t know about it until he got Victor’s note, until he heard his voice, until he contacted Wrighton. They’d refused to tell him more, but had been happy to inform Serena, when he handed her the phone, that they’d been ordered to keep the escape quiet, due to suspicions about one of the convict’s nature, suspicions that had been put aside until the man in question, a Mr. Vale, incapacitated a good chunk of the Wrighton staff without laying a finger on them.
“The reason you did not hear about the prison break,” continued Eli, “is because Victor Vale is a confirmed EO.” Several heads cocked at the term, torn between Serena’s order to listen to him and their own varying degrees of belief. Eli knew that all precincts were given a mandatory day of training on EO protocol, but most of them didn’t take it seriously. They couldn’t. Decades after the term was coined, EOs were still largely a thing of myths and online forums, kept that way by incidents like the one at Wrighton. Fires smothered instead of spread. It was better for Eli, that cases involving EOs were so readily tamped out instead of made public—it gave him an unobstructed path—but he was constantly amazed by how eager the officials were to have incidents forgotten, and how eager the people involved were to forget. Sure, there would always be believers, but it helped that the vast majority of EOs didn’t want to be believed in, and those that did, well, they’d saved Eli the trouble of hunting them down.
But who knows, maybe in another world EOs would have come to light by now, and the huddle of uniforms before him would have listened without a shred of disbelief, but Eli had done his job too well. He’d had a decade to cull the crop, cut the numbers down, and keep the monsters largely the stuff of stories. And so out of the crowd, only Stell, who stood at the back of the room, gaze trained on Eli, took in the words without surprise.
“But now,” he continued, “Victor Vale and his accomplice, Mitchell Turner, are in Merit. In your city. And it is imperative that they are not allowed to escape. Imperative that they be found. These men have abducted a young girl named Sydney Clarke, and earlier today, they killed one of your own, Officer Frederick Dane.”
The audience stirred at that, shock and anger spilling suddenly across their faces. They hadn’t heard the news—Stell had been told, but he still looked gray with shock—and it got their attention. Serena could compel them, but this kind of report would do something different. Agitate them. Motivate them.
“I’ve been led to believe that these men are planning something tonight. By midnight. It is crucial that we find these criminals as soon as possible. But,” he added, “for the hostage’s safety, we must take them alive.”
Ten years ago, Eli had faltered, and let a monster live. But tonight, he would correct his error, and end Victor’s life himself.
“We have no photographic record for you,” he added, “but you’ll find physical descriptions arriving on your phones. I want you to blanket the city, block off the roads out, do whatever you have to do to find these men before anyone else dies.”
Eli took a single step back from the podium. Serena came forward, and put a hand on his shoulder as she addressed the room.
“Eli Ever is a hero,” she said again, and this time the collected Merit Police Department nodded and stood and repeated.
“Eli Ever is a hero. A hero. A hero.”
The words echoed and followed them out. Eli followed Serena through the precinct, as the words sank in. A hero. Wasn’t he? Heroes saved the world from villains, from evil. Heroes sacrificed themselves to do it. Was he not bloodying his hands and his soul to set the world right? Did he not sacrifice himself every time he stripped away an EO’s stolen life?
“Where to now?” asked Serena.
Eli dragged his thoughts back. They were cutting through the precinct garage to a side street where they’d parked the car; he pulled a thin folder from his satchel, and handed it to her. Inside were the profiles for the two remaining EOs in the Merit area, or at least suspected EOs. The first was a man named Zachary Flinch, a middle-aged miner who’d suffocated in a tunnel collapse the year before. He’d recovered... physically. The second was a young soldier named Dominic Rusher, who stood too close to a buried mine and landed himself in a coma two years prior. He’d come to, and vanished from the hospital. Literally. No one saw him leave. He sprang up in three different cities—no path, no trail, just there and gone and there—before appearing in Merit two months earlier. And as far as Eli could tell, he hadn’t vanished again, yet.