And Sydney did.
* * *
THEY made an odd picture, knocking on the door to 3A: Mitch, towering and tattooed; Victor in head-to-toe black—less like a thief and more like a Parisian, groomed and elegant—and Sydney, sandwiched between them, in blue leggings and a large red coat. These clothes had appeared this morning, and still felt dryer-warm. They even fit a little better. She particularly liked the coat.
After several rounds of polite knocking, Mitch removed a set of picks from his coat pocket, and was busy saying something about how easy these school locks were in a way that made Sydney wonder more about his preprison life, when the door swung open.
A girl in pink and green pajamas looked at them, and her expression confirmed the oddness of the trio’s collective appearance.
The girl, however, was not Serena. Sydney’s heart fell.
“You selling cookies?” she asked. Mitch laughed.
“Do you know Serena Clarke?” asked Victor.
“Yeah, sure thing,” said the girl. “She gave me the apartment, like, yesterday. Said she didn’t need it anymore, and my roommate was driving me up the wall so Serena told me to take this one until the end of the year. I’m about to graduate anyway, thank God, I’m so done with this fucking school.”
Sydney cleared her throat. “Do you know where she went?”
“Probably with that boyfriend of hers. He’s a hottie, but kind of a dick, to be honest. He’s one of those time-suck guys that always wants to be with her—”
“Do you know where he lives?” asked Victor.
The girl in the pink and green pajamas shook her head and shrugged. “Nope. Ever since they started dating last fall she’s been so weird. I’ve hardly seen her. And we used to be tight! Like movies-and-chocolate-on-menstrual-time tight. And then he showed up and bam, it’s Eli this and Eli that—”
Sydney and Victor both tensed at the name.
“No idea then,” he cut in, “where we might find them?”
She shrugged again. “Merit’s a big city, but I saw Serena in class yesterday—that’s when she gave me the keys—so she can’t have gone far.” Her eyes flicked between them, and seemed to land on Sydney. “You look so much like her. You her little sister? Shelly?”
Sydney opened her mouth but Victor was already turning her away.
“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.”