“Afternoon, Mr. Hill.”
It took Eli a moment to remember that he was Mr. Hill, and then he smiled, and nodded at the woman behind the front desk. Serena was better than a fake ID. He hadn’t had to present any ID, in fact, when they checked in. Or a credit card. She did come in handy. He didn’t like being so dependent on someone else, but he managed to twist it in his mind, to assure himself that while Serena made things easier, smoother, she was sparing him effort that he was more than capable of exerting, if necessary. In this way, she wasn’t essential, only terribly convenient.
Halfway to the elevator, Eli passed a man. He made a quick mental profile of the stranger, half out of habit and half out of a gut feeling of wrongness, a kind of sixth sense acquired over a decade of studying people as if they were all spot-the-difference pictures. The hotel was expensive, sleek, the majority of its clientele in suits. This man was wearing something that might pass for a suit, but he was massive, tattoos peeking out from his pushed-up sleeves and collar. He was reading something as he walked, and never looked up, and the woman behind the desk didn’t seem concerned, so Eli shelved the man’s face somewhere in mental reach, and went upstairs.
He took the elevator to the ninth floor and let himself in. The suite was pleasant yet sparse, with an open kitchen, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a balcony-aided view over Merit. But no Serena. Eli tossed his satchel onto the couch and sat down at the desk in the corner where a laptop sat on top of a daily paper. He woke the device and, as the Merit Police database loaded, pulled the folded drawing from his pocket and set it on the desk, smoothing its corners. The database gave a small chirp, and he entered through the digital back door Officer Dane and Detective Stell had set up for him.
He then scrolled through the folders until he found the file he was looking for. Beth Kirk stared at him, blue hair framing her face. He stared back at her for a moment, and then dragged the profile into the trash.
TEN YEARS AGO
ELI was sitting in the school-sanctioned single apartment, eating Chinese takeout from LIDS, when the report came on the news. Dale Sykes, a custodian at Lockland University, had been involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident while walking home from work the night before. Eli speared another piece of broccoli. He hadn’t meant to do it. That is to say, he hadn’t set out in his car with the intent to kill the janitor. But he had unearthed Sykes’s rotation schedule, and he had gotten in his car at the same time that Sykes clocked out of his once-a-week night shift, and he had seen him crossing the road, and he had sped up. But it was a series of circumstances lined up in such a way that any one of them could so easily have shifted in a matter of seconds and spared the man’s life. It was the only way Eli could think of to give the janitor a chance, or rather, to give God a chance to intervene. Sykes wasn’t an EO, no, but he was a loose end, and as Eli’s car drove over him with a thud-thud, and that moment of quiet filled Eli’s chest, he knew he’d done the right thing.
Now he sat slumped in a chair at the kitchen table while the story played out on-screen, and looked over his Chinese food at two stacks of paper. The first was made up of his own thesis notes, specifically early case studies—Web site stills, testimonies, and the like. The second stack held the contents of Lyne’s blue folder. Eli’s theory on the causation of EOness was there, but Lyne had added his own notes on the circumstances and factors used to identify a potential EO. To near death experiences the professor had added a term Eli had heard him use before, Post-Traumatic Death Disorder, or the psychological instabilities resulting from the NDE, and another one that must be new, Rebirth Principle, or the patients’ desire either to escape the life they had before, or to redefine themselves based on their ability.
Eli had crinkled his nose at the second one. He didn’t like recognizing himself in these notes. He had a good reason for reading them, though. Because what he’d felt when he drove over Dale Sykes was the same thing he felt when he tried to end Victor’s life. Purpose. And he was beginning to figure out what that purpose was.
EOs were an affront to nature, to God; that he knew. They were unnatural and they were strong, but Eli would always be stronger. His power was a shield against theirs, impenetrable. He could do what ordinary people couldn’t. He could stop them.
But he had to find them first. Which is why he was combing through the research, pairing Lyne’s methods with the case studies, hoping one of them would give him a place to start.
Victor had always been better at these kinds of puzzles. He could take one look and see the connective threads, no matter how thin. But Eli persisted, scouring his files as the news in the background came and went and came again, and finally he found it. A lead. From a newspaper article Eli had saved on a whim. A man’s family had been killed in a freak accident, crushed to death. It had happened only a few months after he himself had nearly died in a building collapse. Only his first name—Wallace—was given, and the paper, which came from a city about an hour away, called him a local. Eli stared at the name for several minutes before digging up a screenshot of an online forum, one of those sites where 99.5 percent of the people are hacks looking for a little attention. But Eli had been thorough, and printed it off anyway. He’d even found a list of members who belonged to the site. One of them, a Wallace47, had only posted once on a buried thread. It was dated last year, between his own accident and that of his family’s. All it said was No one is safe near me.
It wasn’t much, but it was a start. And as he tossed his takeout container in the trash and snapped the television off, Eli wanted to go, to run, not away, but toward something. He had a goal. A mission.
But he knew he had to wait. He counted down the days until graduation, all the while feeling the attention of the professors, the counselors, and the cops on him like the sun in summer. At first it was glaring, but eventually, as the months wore on, it lessened until, by the time he took his exams, most even forgot to look concerned when he entered the room. When the year finally ended, he packed casually, did a last, lazy pass through his place, and locked the door. He slid the key into a school-sanctioned white envelope and dropped it off in the mailbox outside residential services.
And then, and only then, when the campus of Lockland had vanished in the distance, Eli shrugged off the name Cardale in favor of Ever, and went out to seek his purpose.
* * *
ELI didn’t enjoy killing.
He did quite like the moment after. The glorious quiet that filled the air as his broken bones healed and his torn skin closed, and he knew that God approved.
But the killing itself was messier than he anticipated.
And he didn’t like the term. Killing. What about removal? Removal was a better word. It made the targets sound less like humans, which they weren’t really … semantics. Regardless, it was messy. The profusion of violence on television had led Eli to believe that killing was clean. The small cough of a gun. The quick jab of a knife. A moment of shock.
The camera cuts away and life goes on.
And to be fair, Lyne’s death had been easy. So had Sykes’s, really, since the car had done the work. But as Eli peeled a blood-soaked pair of latex gloves from his hands, he found himself wishing the camera would cut to a more pleasant moment.