Victor was still knocking dirt off his boots as they climbed the stairs to the hotel room—he didn’t like elevators—with Sydney taking the steps two at a time beside him.
“Why didn’t Barry come back the way he should?”
Sydney chewed her lip. “I don’t know,” she said, winded from the climb. “I’ve been trying to figure it out. Maybe … maybe it’s because EOs have already had their second chance?”
“Did it feel different?” pressed Victor. “When you tried to resurrect him?”
She wrapped her arms around herself, and nodded. “It didn’t feel right. Normally, it’s like there’s this thread, something to grab onto, but with him, it was hard to reach, and it kept slipping. I didn’t get a good hold.”
Victor was quiet until they reached the seventh floor.
“If you had to try again…” but his question faded as they reached their room. There were voices beyond the door, low and urgent. Victor slid the gun from his back as he turned the key and the door swung open on the hotel suite, only the back of Mitch’s tattooed head peering over the couch in front of a TV. The voices continued on the screen in black-and-white. Victor sighed, shoulders loosening, and put the gun away. He should have known it was nothing, should have felt the absence of new bodies. He chalked up the slipup to distraction as Sydney bobbed past him into the apartment and the people on the screen argued on in dapper suits and hushed voices. Mitch had a thing for classics. Victor had arranged on numerous occasions to have the TV in the prison commons, which was usually programmed to sports or old sitcoms, set to show old black-and-whites instead. He appreciated Mitch’s incongruities. They made him interesting.
Sydney tugged off her shoes by the door and went to scrub the grave dirt and the lingering feel of the dead from beneath her fingernails. The giant black dog looked up from the floor beside the couch as she passed, tail thumping. Somewhere after reviving the dog and before leaving to revive Barry, Victor had cleaned the lingering blood and grime off Dol’s fur, and the beast almost looked normal as it got to its feet and followed Sydney lazily from the room.
“Hey, Vic,” called Mitch, waving without looking away from the tuxedoed men on the screen. The laptop sat beside him, and hooked up to it was a small, very new printer that hadn’t been there when they left.
“I don’t keep you around to warm the couch, Mitch,” said Victor as he crossed into the kitchen.
“You find Barry?”
“I did.” Victor poured himself a glass of water and slumped against the counter, watching the bubbles flee to the top of the glass.
“He agree to deliver your message?”
“So where is he? I know you didn’t actually let him go?”
“Of course not.” Victor smiled. “I put him back for the night.”
Victor shrugged, and took a sip. “I’ll let him out in the morning to run his errand. And what have you been up to?” he said, tipping the glass toward him. “I hate to interrupt Casablanca for business but…”
Mitch stood and stretched. “You ready for the world’s biggest case of good news–bad news?”
“The search matrix is still sifting.” He held out a folder. “But here’s what we’ve got so far. Each one’s got enough markers to make them EO candidates.” Victor took it, and began to spread the pages out on the counter. There were eight in total.
“That’s the good news,” said Mitch.
Victor stared down at the profiles. Each page had a block of text, lines of stolen information—names and ages and brief medical summaries following brief lines on their respective accidents or traumas, psych notes, police reports, antipsychotic and painkiller prescriptions. Information distilled, messy lives made neat. Beside the text on each profile was a picture. A man in his late fifties. A pretty girl with black hair. A teenage boy. All of the photos were candids, the subjects’ eyes looking at or around the camera, but never directly at the photographer. And all of the photos had been x-ed out with a thick black Sharpie.
“What’s with the x’s?” asked Victor.
“That’s the bad news. They’re all dead.”
Victor looked up sharply. “All of them?”
Mitch looked sadly, almost reverently, at the papers. “Looks like your hunch about Eli was right. These are just the Merit area, like you asked. When I started getting hits, I opened a new search, and expanded the parameters to cover the last ten years and most of the country. I didn’t print those results—too many—but there’s definitely a pattern.”
Victor’s gaze drifted back down to the files, and stuck. He couldn’t tear his eyes from the thick black x’s on the photos. Perhaps he should feel responsible for unleashing a monster on the world, for the bodies that monster left in his wake—after all, he made Eli what he was, he urged him to test his theory, he brought him back from the dead, he took away Angie—but as he stared down into the faces of the dead, all he felt was a kind of quiet joy, a vindication. He’d been right about Eli all along. Eli could preach all he liked about Victor being a devil in stolen skin, but the proof of Eli’s own evil was spread across the counter, on display.
“This guy is doing damage,” said Mitch as he lifted another, much, much smaller stack from beside the printer, and set them on the counter, faceup. “But here’s a positive postscript for you.” Three pictures gazed, glanced, or stared up at Victor, unaware. A fourth was in the process of printing itself out with a soft buzzing sound. When the machine spit it out, Mitch paused the movie and delivered the sheet to the counter. None of the photos were crossed out.
“They’re still alive?”
Mitch nodded. “For now.”
Sydney reappeared just then in sweats and a T-shirt, trailed by Dol. Victor wondered absently if things brought back by the girl felt a connection to her, or if Dol simply possessed the usual unconditional affection inherent in most canines, and appreciated the fact that he was tall enough to look Sydney in the eyes. She patted his head absently and grabbed a soda from the fridge, climbing onto one of the counter stools, clutching the can in both her hands.
Victor was stacking the dead and set them aside. There was no need for Sydney to look at them right now.
“You okay?” he asked.
She nodded. “I always feel strange after. Cold.”
“Wouldn’t you rather have a hot drink, then?” asked Mitch.
“No. I like holding this. I like knowing at least I’m warmer than the can.”
Mitch shrugged. Sydney leaned forward to look at the four profiles while the program plodded on in the background.
“They’re all EOs?” she whispered.
“Not necessarily,” said Victor, “but if we’re lucky, one or two.”
Victor’s eyes skimmed the collage of private information that ran beside the photos. Three of the potentials were young, but one was older. Sydney reached over and took up one of the profiles. It was a girl named Beth Kirk, and she had bright-blue hair.
“How do we know which one he’ll go after first? Where do we start?”