Vengeful, p.14

Vengeful, page 14

 

Vengeful
 



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  Eventually he got up and went downstairs, hoping to steal a few precious hours of stillness on the sofa.

  Mr. and Mrs. Russo were in the kitchen, and Eli heard them talking.

  “Something’s not right with that boy.”

  Eli hovered in the hall, holding his breath.

  “He’s too quiet.”

  Mrs. Russo sighed. “He’s been through a lot, Alan. He’ll find his way.”

  Eli returned to the boys’ room, climbed back into his bed. There, in the dark, the words repeated.

  Quiet. Weirdo. Creep.

  He’ll find his way.

  Act normal.

  Eli didn’t know what normal was, or even what it looked like. But he’d spent a lifetime studying his father’s moods and his mother’s silences, the way the air in the house changed like the sky before a storm. Now he watched the way the Russo boys roughhoused, noted the fine line between humor and aggression.

  He studied the confidence with which the oldest—a boy of sixteen—moved among his younger siblings. He studied the guileless innocence the youngest played up, to get what he wanted. He studied the way their faces twisted into a pantomime of emotions like annoyance and disgust and anger. Most of all, he studied their joy. The way their eyes lit up when they were gleeful, the varying tones of their laughter, the dozen ways their smiles shone or softened depending on the exact nature of their delight.

  Eli had never known there were so many kinds of happiness, let alone so many ways to express it.

  But his study was cut short when, just two weeks into his stay with the Russos, Eli found himself uprooted again, deposited with another family in another house.

  Act normal, the Russo girl had said.

  And so Eli tried again. Started fresh. It wasn’t a perfect imitation, not by far. But it was an improvement. The children at this new house still called him names, but the names had changed.

  Timid, quiet, weirdo had been replaced by strange, curious, intense.

  Soon came another family, and another chance.

  Another opportunity to reinvent, to modify, to adjust aspects of that act.

  Eli tested his theater on the families as if they were an audience, and used their feedback, the immediate, constant feedback, to tweak his performance.

  Slowly strange, curious, intense had been refined, honed into charming, focused, clever.

  Then something else changed.

  Another car pulled up, and took him away, but this time it didn’t drop him off with another of his father’s flock.

  This time, it took him to family.

  THE FIFTH HOME

  PATRICK Cardale did not believe in God.

  He was John’s estranged nephew, the son of a dead aunt that Eli had never met. Patrick was a professor at a local college, married to a painter named Lisa. They didn’t have children. No one for Eli to mimic. No curtain of normalcy or noise for him to slip behind.

  Eli sat on the sofa across from them. A captured audience. A solo act.

  “How old are you?” asked Patrick. “Twelve?”

  “Almost thirteen,” said Eli. It had been more than six months since Pastor Cardale’s accident.

  “I’m sorry it took us so long,” said Patrick, hands between his knees.

  Lisa put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll be honest, it wasn’t an easy decision.”

  Patrick shifted. “I knew you’d been raised a certain way. And I knew I couldn’t give you that. John and I, we didn’t see eye to eye.”

  “Neither did we,” said Eli.

  He realized he was making them uncomfortable, so he smiled. Not too wide, just enough to let Patrick know that he was okay.

  “Come on,” said Lisa, rising. “I’ll show you to your room.”

  Eli rose to follow her.

  “We can find you a church,” she added, leading him down the hall. “If it’s important to you.”

  But he didn’t need a church. Not because he’d given up on God—but because church itself was the one place Eli had never felt Him. No, God had stood with Eli at the top of the cellar stairs. Given him each of those families to learn from. Led him here, to this house, and this couple, this new chance.

  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.”

  “Are you so sure they’re all monsters?” challenged Stell.

  “Yes,” he said forcefully. There had been a time when Eli thought himself exempt from that label. Now he knew better. “EOs may look like humans, Stell, but they don’t think or act like them.”

  Victor would have enumerated any number of symptoms—diminished sense of consequence, lack of remorse, self-absorption, amplification of demeanor and aspect—but Eli said only, “They have no soul.” He shook his head. “You want to save EOs? Save them from themselves. Put them in the ground, where they belong. Unless that’s your plan, I have no intention of helping.”

  In answer, Stell set another folder in the fiberglass slot between, this one black.

  Eli cut a glance at the file. “Didn’t you hear me?”

  “This isn’t another dossier,” said Stell. “It’s your other option.”

  Eli glimpsed his own name printed on the front of the file. He didn’t reach for it, didn’t need to—he knew what it was. What it meant.

  “Take a day to think it over,” said Stell. “I’ll be back tomorrow for your answer.”

  He retreated, and the wall went solid again in his wake, turning the cell back into a tomb. Eli gritted his teeth. And then he swiped the black folder from the tray and carried it to the table where the thin manila file already waited.

  Eli sank into a chair and flicked back the cover. On top was an X-ray, black and white, seemingly innocuous. He flipped past, and saw an MRI, the body lit up in red and blue and green. And then he turned the page again, and his throat constricted at the sight of the first photograph. A man’s chest—Eli’s chest—pried open by metal clamps to reveal ribs, lungs, a beating heart.

  Every pre-med student did dissections. Eli had don
e a dozen his freshman year, peeled and pinned the skin of small animals out of the way to examine the organs beneath. The photos in the black folder reminded him of that. The only difference, of course, was that Eli had been alive.

  The pain itself was gone, but the memory of it etched along his nerves, echoed through his bones.

  Eli wanted to sweep the file from the table, tear it to shreds, but he knew he was being watched—he’d noted the cameras set into the ceiling, imagined Stell standing in some control room, a smug expression on his face. So Eli stayed seated, and turned through every page of the gruesome, graphic record, studying every photograph, every diagram, every scrawled note, every aspect of torture laid out in sterile detail, memorizing the black folder so that he would never have to look at it again.

  You’re not blessed, or divine, or burdened. You’re a science experiment.

  Maybe Victor was right.

  Maybe Eli was just as broken, just as damned, as every other EO. It was true, he hadn’t felt that presence the night he killed Victor. Hadn’t felt anything like peace.

  But that didn’t absolve him of his task.

  He still had a purpose. An obligation. To save others, even if he couldn’t save himself.

  XVI

  TWENTY YEARS AGO

  THE FIFTH HOME

  ELI ran his fingers over the cover of the book.

  It was massive, and heavy, and every single page detailed the marvels and miracles of the human body.

  “I thought we should get you tickets to a game,” said Patrick, “but Lisa insisted—”

  “It’s perfect,” said Eli.

  “See?” said Lisa, shouldering Patrick. “He wants to be a doctor. You’ve got to start young.”

  “From ministry to medicine,” mused Patrick. “John must be rolling in his grave.”

  Eli laughed, an easy sound, practiced to perfection. The truth was, he didn’t see the two avenues as separate. Eli had seen God the day he arrived, in the drawings on his wall; saw Him again now in the pages of this book, in the perfect fit of bones, the vast intricacies of the nervous system, the brain—the spark, like faith, that turned a body into a man.

 

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