Victor didn’t ask him why he stayed so close, but he didn’t tell him not to, either.
Mitch knew the attack would come. It always did. A way for the old to test the new. Sometimes it wasn’t so bad, a few punches, a bit of roughing up. But other times, when men had a taste for blood or a bone to pick or even if they were just having a shitty day, it could get out of hand.
He followed Victor to the commons, to the yard, to the lunchroom. Mitch would sit on one side of the table, Victor on the other, picking at his lunch, while Mitch spent the entire time scanning the room. Victor never looked up from his plate. He didn’t look at his plate, either, not exactly. His eyes had an unfocused intensity, as if he were somewhere else, unconcerned with the cage around him or the monsters inside.
Like a predator, Mitch realized one day. He’d seen enough nature specials on the common room set to know that prey had eyes on the sides of their head, were constantly on guard, but predators’ eyes were forward-facing, close together, unafraid. Despite the fact that Victor was half the size of most inmates, and didn’t look like he’d ever been in a fight, let alone won one, everything about him said predator.
And for the first time, Mitch wondered if Victor was really the one who needed protecting.
FOUR AND A HALF HOURS UNTIL MIDNIGHT
THE SUBURBS OF MERIT
ZACHARY Flinch lived alone.
That much Serena could tell before she ever set eyes on him. The front yard was a tangle of weeds, the car on the gravel strip of a driveway had two spares, the screen door was torn, and a coil of rope tied to a half-dead tree had been chewed through by whatever was once tied there. Whatever his power, if he even was an EO, it wasn’t making him any money. Serena frowned, reconstructing his profile from memory. The entire page of data had been innocuous, except for the inversion—the Rebirth Principle, Eli had called it, a re-creation of self. It wasn’t necessarily positive, or even voluntary, but always marked, and Flinch ticked off that box with a bold red check. In the wake of his trauma, everything about his life had changed. Not subtle changes, either, but full flips. He went from being married with three kids to being divorced, unemployed, and under a restraining order. His survival—or revival, rather—should have been cause for celebration, for joy. Instead, everything and everyone had fled. That, or he had pushed them away. He’d been to a slew of psychiatrists, and been prescribed antipsychotics, but judging by the state of his yard, he wasn’t in a good place.
Serena knocked, wondering what would scare a man enough to throw his life away after he’d beaten death itself to keep it.
No one answered the door. The sun had dipped below the horizon, and when she exhaled it made small puffs of steam in the dusk. She knocked again, and could hear the sound of the television within. Eli sighed and pressed his back against the peeling paint of the siding by the door.
“Hello,” she called. “Mr. Flinch? Could you come to the door?”
Sure enough, she could make out the shifting of feet, and a few moments later Zach Flinch appeared in the doorway wearing an old polo and a pair of jeans. Both were a size too big, making it look like he’d withered since putting them on. Over his shoulder she could see the coffee table littered with empty cans, the takeout boxes stacked on the floor beside it.
“Who are you?” he asked, dark rings beneath his eyes. There was a gruff tremor in his voice.
Serena clutched his dossier to her chest. “A friend. I just have a few questions.”
Flinch grunted, but didn’t shut the door in her face. She held his gaze so he wouldn’t see Eli standing a couple feet to his right, still wearing his black hero’s mask.
“Is your name Zachary Flinch?” she asked.
“Is it true you were involved in a mining accident last year? A tunnel collapse?”
She could feel Eli getting impatient, but she wasn’t done. She wanted to know.
“In the wake of your accident, did anything change? Did you change?”
Flinch’s eyes widened in surprise, but even as they did, he answered with a nod, his face caught between confusion and complacence. Serena smiled softly. “I see.”
“How did you find me? Who are you?”
“Like I said, I’m a friend.”
Flinch took a step forward, over the threshold. His shoes tangled in the stray greenish brown weeds that were trying to reclaim the porch. “I didn’t want to die alone,” he muttered. “That’s all. Down there in the dark, I didn’t want to die alone, but I didn’t want this. Can you make them stop?”
“Make what stop, Mr. Flinch?”
“Please make them go away. Dru couldn’t see them either till I showed her but they’re everywhere. I just didn’t want to die alone. But I can’t take it. I don’t want to see them. I don’t want to hear them. Please make them stop.”
Serena held out her hand. “Why don’t you show me wha—”
The rest of the word was cut off by the gun as Eli swung it up to Zach Flinch’s temple and pulled the trigger. Blood streaked across the siding of the house, flecking Serena’s hair and dotting her face like freckles. Eli lowered the weapon and crossed himself.
“Why did you do that?” She spat, livid.
“He wanted to make them stop,” said Eli.
“But I wasn’t done—”
“I was merciful. He was sick. Besides, he confirmed he was an EO,” said Eli, already turning toward the car. “A demonstration was no longer necessary.”
“You have such a complex,” she snapped. “You always have to be in control.”
Eli gave a low, mocking laugh. “Says the siren.”
“I just wanted to help.”
“No,” he said. “You wanted to play.” He stormed away.
“Eli Ever, stop.”
His shoe caught in the gravel, and stuck. The gun was still in his hand. For the briefest moment, Serena’s temper got the best of her and she had to bite her tongue to stop herself from making him put the weapon to his own temple. The urge eased, and she stepped over Flinch’s body and descended the stairs, coming up behind Eli. She wrapped her arms around Eli’s waist and kissed the back of his neck.
“You know I don’t want this kind of control,” she whispered. “Now put the gun away.” Eli’s hand slid the weapon back into its holster. “You’re not going to kill me today.”
He turned to face her, wrapped his hands, now empty, around her back, and pulled her close, his lips brushing her ear.
“One of these days, Serena,” he whispered, “you’re going to forget to say that.”
She tensed in his grip, and knew that he could feel it, but when she answered, her voice was even, light.
His hands fell away as he turned toward the car and held the door open for her.
“Are you coming with me?” he asked as they pulled out of the gravel drive. “To find Dominic?”
Serena chewed her lip, and shook her head. “No. Have your fun. I’m going back to the hotel to wash the blood out of my hair before it stains. Drop me off on your way.”
Eli nodded, the relief written across his face as he gunned the engine, leaving Flinch on the porch, one lifeless hand trailing in the weeds.