“We were cellmates,” he said. “There are a lot of very bad people in jail, Syd, and only a few decent ones. Mitch was one of them.”
“Are you one of the bad ones?” asked Sydney. Her watery blue eyes stared straight at him, unblinking. She wasn’t sure if the answer mattered, really, but she felt like she should know.
“Some would say so,” he said.
She kept staring. “I don’t think you’re a bad person, Victor.”
Victor kept digging. “It’s all a matter of perspective.”
“About the prison. Did they … did they let you out?” she asked quietly.
Victor left the shovel planted in the ground, and looked up at her. And then he smiled, which she noticed he seemed to do a lot before he lied, and said, “Of course.”
A WEEK AGO
PRISON was less important than what it afforded Victor. Namely, time.
Five years in isolation gave him time to think.
Four years in integration (thanks to budget cuts and the lack of evidence that Vale was in any way abnormal) gave him time to practice. And 463 inmates to practice on.
And the last seven months had given him time to plan this moment.
“Did you know,” said Victor, skimming a book from the prison library on anatomy (he thought it particularly foolish to endow inmates with a detailed sense of the positions of vital organs, but there you go), “that when you take away a person’s fear of pain, you take away their fear of death? You make them, in their own eyes, immortal. Which of course they’re not, but what’s the saying? We are all immortal until proven otherwise?”
“Something like that,” said Mitch, who was a bit preoccupied.
Mitch was Victor’s cellmate at Wrighton Federal Penitentiary. Victor was fond of Mitch, in part because Mitch was thoroughly unconcerned with prison politics, and in part because he was clever. People didn’t seem to catch on because of the man’s size, but Victor saw the talent, and put it to good use. For instance, Mitch was presently trying to short out a security camera with a gum wrapper, a cigarette, and a small piece of wire Victor had secured for him three days before.
“Got it,” said Mitch a few moments later, when Victor was thumbing through the chapter on the nervous system. He set the book aside, and flexed his fingers as the guard came down the aisle.
“Shall we?” he asked as the air began to hum.
Mitch took a long look around their cell, and nodded. “After you.”
TWO DAYS AGO
ON THE ROAD
THE rain hit the car in waves. There was so much of it that the wiper blades did nothing to clear it away, only managed to move it around on the windows, but neither Mitch nor Victor complained. After all, the car was stolen. And obviously stolen well; they’d been driving it without incident for almost a week, ever since they swiped it from a rest stop a few miles from the prison.
The car passed a sign that pronounced MERIT—23 MILES.
Mitch drove and Victor stared out past the downpour at the world as it flew by. It felt so fast. Everything felt fast after being in a cell for ten years. Everything felt free. For the first few days they had driven aimlessly, the need to move outweighing the need for a destination. Victor hadn’t known where they were driving. He hadn’t decided yet where to start the search. Ten years was long enough to plan the details of the prison break down to the minutiae. Within an hour he had new clothes, within a day he had money, but a week out and he still didn’t have a place to start looking for Eli.
Until that morning.
He’d picked up The National Mark, a nationwide paper, from a gas station, flipping absently through, and fate had smiled at him. Or at least, someone had smiled. Smiled straight up from a photo printed to the right of a news article titled:
CIVILIAN HERO SAVES BANK
The bank was located in Merit, a sprawling metropolis halfway between Wrighton’s barbed-wire walls and Lockland’s wrought-iron fences. He and Mitch had been heading there for no other reason than the fact that it was somewhere to go. A city full of people Victor could question, persuade, coerce. And a city that was already showing promise, he thought, lifting the folded paper.
He had bought the copy of The National Mark, but taken only that page, slipping it into his folder almost reverently. It was a start.
Now Victor closed his eyes, and tipped his head back against the seat while Mitch drove.
Where are you, Eli? he wondered.
Where are you where are you where are you where are you?
The question echoed in his head. He’d wondered it every day for a decade. Some days absently, and others with such an intense need to know that it hurt. It actually hurt, and for Victor, that was something. His body settled back into the seat as the world sped by. They hadn’t taken the freeway—most escaped convicts knew better than that—but the speed limit on the two-lane highway was more than satisfactory. Anything was better than standing still.
Sometime later, the car hit a small pothole, and the bump jarred Victor from his reverie. He blinked, and turned his head to watch the trees that bordered the road zip past. He rolled down the window halfway to feel that speed, ignoring Mitch’s protests about the rain splashing into the car. He didn’t care about the water or the seats. He needed to feel it. It was dusk, and in the last dregs of the day Victor caught sight of a shape moving down the side of the road. It was small, head bowed and clutching at itself as it trudged down the narrow shoulder of the highway. Victor’s car passed it before he frowned and spoke up.
“Mitch, go back.”
Victor turned his attention to the massive man behind the wheel. “Don’t make me ask again.”
Mitch didn’t. He threw the car into reverse, the tires slipping on the wet pavement. They passed the figure again, but this time going backward. Mitch shifted the car again into drive, and crawled up alongside the shape. Victor rolled down his window the rest of the way, the rain pressing in.
“You all right?” he asked over the rain.
The figure didn’t respond. Victor felt something prickle at the edge of his senses, humming. Pain. It wasn’t his.
“Stop the car,” he said, and this time Mitch put the vehicle promptly—a little too promptly—into park. Victor got out, zipped his coat up to his throat, and began to walk alongside the stranger. He was a good two heads taller.
“You’re hurt,” he said to the bundle of wet clothes. It wasn’t the arms crossed tightly over the form’s chest that gave it away, or the dark stain on one sleeve, darker even than the rain, or the way the figure pulled back sharply when he reached out a hand. Victor smelled pain the way a wolf smelled blood. Tuned to it.
“Stop,” he said, and this time the person’s steps dragged to a halt. The rain fell, steady and cold, around them. “Get in the car.”
The figure looked up at him then, and the wet hood of the coat fell back onto a pair of narrow shoulders. Water blue eyes, fierce behind smudged black liner, stared up at him from a young face. Victor knew pain too well to be fooled by the defiant look, the set jaw around which wet blond hair curled and stuck. She couldn’t be more than twelve, thirteen maybe.