Vengeful (Page 26)

His room, when they got there, was comfortable and clean. A double bed, a closet, a desk. A pair of framed pictures hung on the wall over the desk, anatomical drawings, one of a hand, the other a diagram of a human heart. Eli stopped before them, studying the lines, startled by the intricacy, the elegance.

“You can take those down, if you don’t like them,” said Lisa. “Make the space yours. Put up posters or whatever boys your age do.”

Eli glanced toward her. “How long am I staying?”

Lisa’s eyes widened in surprise. Her face was an open book—that was the phrase people used. Eli had never really understood it until he looked at Lisa.

“As long as you want,” she said. “This is your home now.”

Eli didn’t know what to say to that. He’d been living in increments of days, weeks, which wasn’t really living, of course. Now, his future stretched before him, measured in months, years.

Eli smiled, and this time, it almost felt natural.

XV

FOUR YEARS AGO

EON

STELL sank into his office chair, and waited for the call.

His office, like the rest of EON, was composed of clean lines, spare and minimalist. Three thin screens drew a semicircle over his desk, and a vast grid on the wall live-streamed footage of each hall, access point, cell.

EON’s cells were state-of-the-art fiberglass cubes, each floating in the middle of its own concrete hangar. The majority of the screens on the wall were still dark, positioned as they were in half-completed wings, or looking onto empty cells, but on the central screen, Eli paced the confines of his unit like a lion tracing the edges of its cage.

To think, none of this would have happened without Eliot Cardale.

Eli Ever.

Stell took up a black business card, turned it absently between his fingers. The word EON, ghosted in spot gloss, showed up only when it caught the light.

EON had been Stell’s idea, yes, but it was at first a vague proposal, one motivated by his history with Vale and Cardale, by what he’d stopped, but also what he’d failed to. By the fact that ten years ago, Stell had put Victor in jail, and let Eli go free, and because of that choice—that failing to look beyond the obvious, to see through a single deceptive guise—thirty-nine people had died. It haunted him. Plagued him.

There had to be a way—to find EOs, to contain them. Maybe, one day, to use them. EOs were dangerous, yes, some catastrophically so, but what if, among the lost and the deranged, there were those who could be fixed, given purpose, made whole? What if death didn’t change a person’s nature, only amplified it?

By that logic, a wounded soldier might still want to serve.

That was the focus, the sharp point at the center of Stell’s idea. A world where skilled EOs could help stop crimes instead of start them. And where the rest could be contained, kept from committing more atrocities.

A short, bright ring signaled the incoming call.

The curve of screens on Stell’s desk lit up.

Stell brushed his fingers through the air, accepting the call, and seconds later a conference room appeared in front of him, five stern figures seated around a long wood desk.

The board of directors.

Three men and two women, all in dark suits—the standard uniform of government agencies and private ones alike. They looked like vague copies of each other. The same dark hair, the same narrow eyes, the same flat expressions.

“Director,” said a man in charcoal, “do you care to explain why you removed a valuable test subject from the lab and fired one of our most prominent—not to mention valuable—scientists?”

“He was dissecting an EO.”

The silence that followed wasn’t loaded; on the contrary, it was empty. The members of the board stared at him as if he hadn’t answered the question. As if they didn’t see the problem.

“Last time I checked,” said Stell, knitting his fingers, “I was the director of this institution. Are personnel changes above my pay grade?”

“Of course not, Director,” said a woman in navy. “You have an intimate understanding of the needs and challenges on the ground. However—”

“EON may be your operation,” cut in a man in black, “but we are its bank.”

“And as its bank,” said the man in charcoal, “we need to know our money is being well spent. In the interest of national security.”

That last sentence, like an afterthought. As if the five wolves in dark suits weren’t circling in search of profit.

“Haverty’s methods may have been questionable,” said the woman in navy, “but his research was promising. As for your EO, his ability made him uniquely qualified to undergo that research. Now you have deprived us of both scientist and subject.”

“Let’s discuss the EO,” chimed in a new voice, a woman in black. “Eliot Cardale, alias Eli Ever. What have you done with him?”

“He’s been relocated to a cell in the containment unit.”

“To what end?”

“To contain him,” said Stell. “Eli Cardale killed nearly forty people.”

A man in gray sat forward. “They were almost all EOs, though, weren’t they?”

“Is that supposed to make it better?”

The man waved the concern away.

“I simply mean, your subject already has a proven skill.”

“Killing EOs.”

“Tracking them down.”

“Isn’t that the point of your organization?” asked the woman in navy. “To find and contain EOs before they can cause harm?”

“It is,” said Stell through gritted teeth.

“Then,” said the man in black, “I suggest you put him to use.”

* * *

THE lights went down, and came back up, and Eli was still alone.

A night passed, and no one came to collect him. No one dragged him from the cell. He wondered if this was what Victor’s time in prison had felt like, after his arrest. The endless waiting. Entirely alone.

Eli leaned forward, elbows on his knees. He interlaced his fingers, but instead of praying, he stared over the tops of his knuckles at the farthest wall and listened, straining his senses for any clues. He was met only by the dampened silence of nested space.

“Just going to sit around and wait?” chided Victor, there again, haunting Eli. “How complacent.”

Eli rose and went to the fiberglass divide, rapped his knuckles on the surface, then pressed his hands flat against it, testing the material.

“I assure you,” said a familiar voice, “the cell is stronger than it looks.”

The wall cleared, like a curtain dropping all at once from a window, and there, on the other side of the glass, stood Joseph Stell. The last time Eli had seen the cop was at the Falcon Price project, standing over Victor’s dead body while a SWAT team dragged Eli away.

“Officer,” he said.

“Actually, it’s Director now.”

“Congratulations,” said Eli coolly. “Director of what?”

Stell held out his hands. “This place. Your new home. The department of ExtraOrdinary Observation and Neutralization.” He stepped up to the glass. “I think you’ll admit it’s quite an upgrade from your previous circumstances.”

“And as director, I assume you were responsible for those, too?”

Stell’s expression darkened. “I wasn’t adequately informed of the lab’s methods. Had I been, it wouldn’t have been allowed. As soon as I found out, you were extracted, and that branch of testing terminated. If it’s any consolation, so was Haverty.”

“Consolation . . .” echoed Eli, splaying his fingers across the fiberglass.

“I should warn you,” said Stell, “if you try to strike any of these walls, a warning will go off, and the surface will electrify. Try a second time and, well, we both know it won’t kill you, but it will hurt.”

Eli’s hand fell away. “How thorough.”

“I underestimated you once, Mr. Cardale. I don’t intend to do so again.”

“I was never a danger to you, Director Stell. Wouldn’t your energy and resources be better spent on EOs who represent a threat to the general public?”

Stell’s mouth twitched into a grim smile. “You killed thirty-nine people. That we know of. You are a mass murderer.”

The true number was closer to fifty, but Eli didn’t say so. Instead, he turned, surveying his cell. “And what did I do to deserve such accommodation?”

Stell produced a simple manila folder and slid it through the slot in the fiberglass. Eli turned back and took it up, flicking through the pages. It was a profile, much like the ones the Merit PD had developed under Eli’s instruction.

“You possess a unique and proven skill set,” said Stell. “You are here to assist in the tracking and capture of other—”

Eli laughed, short and humorless. “If you wanted me to help you hunt EOs,” he sneered, tossing the file onto the table, “you shouldn’t have put me in a cell.”

“Unlike you, we treat execution as a last resort.”

“Half measures, then.”

“Humane ones.”

“Hypocrisy in action.” Eli shook his head. “What you’re doing, what EON is doing, is nothing but a pale version of my own work. So why am I the one in the cell?” Eli stepped as close as the fiberglass would allow. “Disagree with my methods, Stell. Doubt my motives. But you’re a fool if you think what you’re doing is different. The only difference between us is that you naively insist on preserving what I know should be destroyed. You want to pretend that capturing EOs is a mercy. To what end? So you can sleep easier without their blood on your hands? Or so that you can grow your collection of specimens and play God with their bodies? Because I played God once, Stell, and it did not end well.” Eli rocked back on his heels. “I spent ten years trying to make amends for that, to undo the damage I wrought. Yes, I killed a great many EOs, but it wasn’t out of cruelty or violence, or spite. I did it to protect people—living, innocent humans—from the monsters I’d found in the dark.”

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