And then a bell rang through the building, taking the quiet with it, and Eli was left with only a body and the sudden urge to run.
* * *
ELI crossed the parking lot as his mind spun over what to do next. The peace he’d felt in the stairwell had been replaced by a prickling energy and the voice in his head that whispered go. It wasn’t guilt, or even panic, more like self-preservation. He reached his car, and slid the key into the door, and that’s when he heard the steps behind him.
Go growled the thing in his head, so clear and so tempting, but something else held him in place. He turned the key in the car door, locking it with a small click.
“Can I help you?” he asked, turning toward the man. He was broad-shouldered and tall, with black hair.
“My name is Detective Stell. Were you coming or going?”
Eli pulled the key from the door. “Coming. I thought I should tell Professor Lyne. About Victor, that is. They were close.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
Eli nodded, and took a step from the car before frowning. “I’ll leave my bag here,” he said, unlocking the door and tossing the backpack—folders and hard drive and all—into the backseat. “I don’t feel up to class today.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Detective Stell automatically.
Eli counted the steps back to the pre-med labs. He got to thirty-four before he heard the sirens, and looked up sharply. Beside him, Stell swore and picked up his pace.
They’d found Lyne’s body, then.
Run run run, hissed the thing in Eli’s head. It sang in the same tone and speed as the sirens.
And he did run, but not away. His feet carried him toward the building’s entrance, and through, following the emergency response team as it made its way to the base of the stairs. When Eli saw the body, he made a strangled sound. Stell pulled him away, and Eli let his legs go out beneath him, knees hitting the cold floor with a crack. He winced even as the bruises bloomed and faded under his pant legs.
“Come on, son,” Stell was saying, pulling him back. But Eli’s gaze was leveled on the scene. Everything was playing out as it should, as it needed to, the loose threads being snipped. Until he saw the janitor, leaning against the wall, watching, frowning in the way people frown when they’re puzzling out a riddle.
Shit, thought Eli, but he must have said it aloud, because Stell tugged him to his feet and said, “Shit indeed. Let’s go.”
There were too many deaths too fast. He knew he’d be a suspect. Had to be. Run, said the thing in his head, urgent, and then pleading, plucking his muscles and nerves. But he couldn’t. If he ran now, they’d follow.
So he didn’t run. In fact, he played the part of victim pretty well. Devastated, angry, traumatized, and above all, cooperative.
When Detective Stell pointed out that everyone around him was either dead or close to it, Eli did his best to look heartbroken. He explained Victor’s jealousy, both over his girlfriend, and over his rank in the class. Victor had always been a step behind. He must have snapped. People do.
When Detective Stell asked Eli about his thesis, he explained that it had been his, until Victor usurped it, went behind his back and started working with Lyne. And then he leaned in, and told Stell that Victor hadn’t been himself the past few days, that something was different, wrong, and that if he survived—he was still in ICU—they should all be very careful.
Eli’s thesis was waived, in light of the trauma. Trauma. The word haunted him through his police questioning and his academic meetings all the way to the school-sanctioned single apartment they’d moved him into. Trauma. The word that had helped him crack the code, helped him pinpoint the origins of EOs. Trauma became a kind of hall pass. If only they knew how much trauma he had sustained. They didn’t.
He stood in the new apartment with the lights off, and let his backpack—they’d never searched the car for it—fall to the floor beside him. It was the first time he’d been alone—truly alone—since he’d left the party in search of Victor. And for a moment, the gap between what he should feel and what he felt snapped shut. Tears began to stream down Eli’s face as he sank to his knees on the hardwood floor.
“Why is this happening?” he whispered to the empty room. He wasn’t sure if he meant the sudden and ferocious sadness or Lyne’s murder or Angie’s death or Victor’s change or the fact that he was still here in the middle of all of it, unscathed.
Unscathed. That was exactly what it was. He had wanted strength, begged for it as the ice water leached the heat and life from his body, but he’d been given this. Resilience. Invincibility. But why?
EOs are wrong, and I am an EO, so I must be wrong. It was the simplest of equations, but it wasn’t right. Somehow, it wasn’t right. He knew in his heart with a strange and simple certainty that EOs were wrong. That they shouldn’t exist. But he felt with equal certainty that he wasn’t wrong, not in the same way. Different, yes, undeniably different, but not wrong. He thought back to what he’d said in the stairwell. The words had spilled out on their own.
But it’s a trade, Professor, with God or the devil …
Could that be the difference? He’d seen a demon wearing his best friend’s skin, but Eli didn’t feel like there was any evil in himself. If anything, he felt hands, strong and steady, guiding him when he pulled the trigger, when he snapped Lyne’s neck, when he didn’t run from Stell. Those moments of peace, of certainty, they felt like faith.
But he needed a sign. God had seemed, in the past few days, like a match-light next to the sun of Eli’s discoveries, but now he felt like a boy again, needing sanction, approval. He pulled a pocketknife from his jeans, and clicked it open.
“Would You take it back?” he asked the dark apartment. “If I were no longer of Your making, You would take this power back, wouldn’t You?” Tears glistened in his eyes. “Wouldn’t You?”
He cut deep, carving a line from elbow to wrist, wincing as blood welled and spilled instantly, dripping to the floor. “You’d let me die.” He switched hands and carved a matching line down his other arm, but before he’d reached his wrist, the wounds were closing, leaving only smooth skin, and a small pool of blood.
“Wouldn’t You?” He cut deeper, through to bone, over and over, until the floor was red. Until he’d given his life to God a hundred times, and a hundred times had it given back. Until the fear and the doubt had all been bled out of him. And then he set the knife aside with shaking hands. Eli dipped his fingertips in the slick of red, crossed himself, and got back to his feet.
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
ELI parked on the street.
He hadn’t trusted hotel garages since an incident with an earth-shaking EO three years earlier. It had taken him two full hours to heal, and that was only after he managed to dig himself out of the rubble. Besides, the check-ins and checkouts, tickets and tolls and barricades … garages made quick exits impossible. So Eli parked, crossed the road, and passed through the hotel’s elegant entry, a stone and light marquee announcing Merit’s pride, THE ESQUIRE. It had been Serena’s choice, and he hadn’t been in the mood to defy her. They’d only been there a couple days, since the mishap with Sydney. He’d really hoped the girl would bleed to death in the woods, that maybe one or two of the bullets he’d fired after her would find skin instead of wood and air. But the drawing in his pocket—and the dead-undead-dead-again Barry Lynch suggested otherwise.