“Matrix can only do so much,” said Mitch. “We’ll have to guess. Pick one and hope we get there before Eli.”
Victor shrugged. “No need. They’re irrelevant now.” He didn’t care about the blue-haired girl, or any of them for that matter. He was more interested in what the dead proved about Eli than what the living offered him. He’d meant them only as bait anyway, to be dug up and used as lures, but Sydney herself—her gift, and the message they’d made with it—had rendered these EOs extraneous to his plans.
Sydney looked appalled by his answer. “But we have to warn them.”
Victor plucked Beth Kirk’s profile from her grip, and set it facedown on the counter.
“Would you rather I warn them,” he asked gently, “or save them?” He watched the anger slide from her face. “It’s a waste, going after the victims instead of the killer. And when Eli gets our message, we won’t even need to hunt him down.”
“Why’s that?” she asked.
Victor’s mouth quirked up. “Because he’ll be hunting us.”
AN EXTRAORDINARY DAY
ELI Ever sat in the back of the history seminar, tracing the wood grain of the desk and waiting for the lecture to end. The class was being taught in an auditorium at Ternis College, an exclusive private school half an hour or so outside Merit city limits. Three rows in front of him, and two spaces to the left, sat a girl with blue hair named Beth. It wasn’t such a strange thing, the hair, but Eli happened to know that Beth only started dying it that color after it had all gone white. The white was the product of trauma, a trauma that had nearly killed her. Technically it had, in fact. For four and a half minutes.
Yet here Beth was, alive and attentively taking notes on the Revolutionary War or the Spanish American War or World War II—Eli wasn’t even sure what the name of the course was, let alone which conflict the professor was currently teaching—while the blue strands fell around her face, and trailed across her paper.
Eli couldn’t stand history. He figured it probably hadn’t changed that much in the ten years since he’d taken it, just another one of Lockland University’s many prerequisites, meant to round every student into a smooth little ball of knowledge. He stared at the ceiling, then at the spaces between the professor’s half-cursive, half-print notes, then back at the blue hair, then at the clock. Class was nearly over. His pulse quickened as he pulled the slim dossier out of his satchel, the one Serena had put together for him. It explained, in painstaking detail, the blue-haired girl’s history, her accident—tragic, really, the sole survivor of a nasty crash—and her subsequent recovery. He brushed his fingertips over the photo of Beth, wondering where it had come from. He rather liked that hair.
The clock ticked on, and Eli slid the dossier back into his bag, and pushed a pair of thick-framed glasses up his nose—they were plain glass, not prescription, but he’d noticed the trend around the Ternis College campus and followed suit. Looking the part age-wise was never a problem, of course, but styles changed, almost too fast for him to keep track. Beth could choose to stand out if she wanted, but Eli did everything in his power to blend in.
The professor finished his lecture a few blessed minutes early, and wished them all a good weekend. Chairs scraped. Bags were hoisted. Eli rose and followed the blue hair out of the auditorium and down the hall, carried on a wave of students. When they reached the outer door, he held it open for her. She thanked him, tucked a cobalt strand behind her ear, and headed across the campus.
As he walked, he felt for the place in his jacket where his gun would be, a product of habit, but the pocket was empty. The dossier had told him enough to make him wary of anything that might succumb to magnetism, so he’d left the weapon in his glove box. He’d have to do this the old-fashioned way, which was fine. He didn’t often let himself indulge, but he couldn’t deny that there was something simple and satisfying about using his hands.
Ternis was a small school, one of those cozy private affairs made up of mismatched buildings and an abundance of tree-lined paths. Beth and he were both on one of the larger paths that bisected the campus, and there were enough students around to keep Eli’s pursuit from seeming at all conspicuous. He crossed the campus at a safe distance, enjoying the morning, taking in the crisp spring air, the beauty of the late afternoon sky and the first green leaves. One of them pulled loose from a tree and landed on the girl’s blue hair, and Eli admired the way it made both colors seem brighter as he slipped his gloves on.
When they were almost to the parking lot, Eli began to pick up his pace, closing the gap between them until he was within arm’s reach.
“Hey!” he called behind her, feigning breathlessness.
The girl slowed, and turned to look at him, but kept walking. Soon he was beside her.
“It’s Beth, right?”
“Yeah,” she said. “You’re in Phillips’s history section with me.”
Only for the past two classes, but he’d been sure to catch her eye both times.
“Sure am,” said Eli, flashing his best college-kid grin. “I’m Nicholas.” Eli had always liked the name. Nicholas and Frederick and Peter, those were the ones he found himself using the most. They were important names, the kind held by rulers, conquerors, kings. He and Beth passed through the parking lot, row after row of cars, the school shrinking in the distance behind them.
“Sorry, can I ask you a favor?” asked Eli.
“What’s up?” Beth tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear.
“I don’t know where my head was during class,” he said, “but I missed the assignment. Did you write it down?”
“Sure,” she said as they reached her car.
“Thanks,” he said, biting his lip. “I guess there were better things to look at than the board.”
She giggled shyly as she set the bag on the hood and unzipped it, digging around inside.
“Anything’s better than the board,” she said, pulling out her notebook.
Beth had just turned to face him with the notes when his hand closed around her throat, and he slammed her back into the side of the car. She gasped, and he tightened his grip. She dropped the notebook and clawed at his face, raking the black-rimmed glasses off, carving deep scratches across his skin. He felt blood trickle over his cheek but didn’t bother wiping it away. The car behind her began to shake, the metal trying to bend, but she was too new to her power and the car was too heavy, and she was running out of air and fight.
There had been a time when he spoke to the EOs, tried to impart to them the logic, the necessity, of his actions, tried to make them understand before they died, that they were already dead, already ash, held together by something dark but feeble. But they didn’t listen, and in the end, his actions conveyed what his words had failed to. He’d made an exception for Serena’s little sister, and look where that had gotten him. No, words were wasted on them all.
So Eli pinned the girl against the car, and waited patiently until the struggle slowed, and weakened, and stopped. He stood very, very still, and relished the ensuing moment of quiet. It always came to him, right here, when the light—he’d say the life, but that wasn’t right, it wasn’t life, only something posing as life—went out of their eyes. A moment of peace, a measure of balance being restored to the world. The unnatural made natural.