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CLARENCE DIDN’T WANT to talk to us about what had happened. In fact, he adamantly denied anything was wrong, claiming he’d scratched his neck while shaving.
“Mr. Donahue,” I said as gently as I could, “this was made by a surgical tool. And it didn’t happen until Keith visited.”
“No, no,” Clarence managed in a weak voice. “It has nothing to do with him.”
Dorothy stuck her head in just then, carrying a glass of juice. We’d called for her shortly after my arrival tonight. For blood loss, the remedies were the same for Moroi and human alike: sugar and fluids. She offered the glass to him with a straw, her lined face filled with concern. I continued my pleas as he drank.
“Tell us what your deal is,” I begged. “What’s the arrangement? What’s he giving you for your blood?” When Clarence remained silent, I tried another tactic. “People are being hurt. He’s giving out your blood indiscriminately.”
That got a reaction. “No,” said Clarence. “He’s using my blood and saliva to heal people. To heal sick humans.” Saliva? I nearly groaned. Of course. The mysterious clear liquid. Now I knew what gave the celestial tattoos their addictive high. Gross.
Adrian and I exchanged glances. Healing certainly was a use for vampire blood. The tattoo I wore was proof of that, and the Alchemists had worked long trying to duplicate some of the blood’s properties for wider medicinal use. So far, there was no way to synthetically reproduce it, and using real blood simply wasn’t practical.
“He lied,” I replied. “He’s selling it to rich teenagers to help them with sports. What did he promise you for it? A cut of the money?”
Adrian glanced around the opulent room. “He doesn’t need money. The only thing he needs is what the guardians wouldn’t give him. Justice for Tamara, right?”
Surprised, I turned back to Clarence and saw Adrian’s words confirmed on the old Moroi’s face. “He… he’s been investigating the vampire hunters for me,” he said slowly. “He says he’s close. Close to finding them out.”
I shook my head, wanting to kick myself for not having figured out sooner that Clarence was the blood source. It explained why Keith was always unexpectedly here – and why he got so upset when I showed up without warning. My “fraternizing with vampires” had had nothing to do with it. “Sir, I guarantee the only thing he’s investigating is how to spend the money he’s been making.”
“No… no… he’s going to help me find the hunters who killed Tamara…”
I stood up. I couldn’t stand to hear any more. “Get him some real food, and see what he’ll eat,” I told Dorothy. “If he’s only weak from blood loss, he just needs time.”
I nodded for Adrian to follow me out. As we walked toward the living room, I remarked, “Well, there are good and bad sides to this. At least we can be confident Keith’s got a fresh supply of blood for us to bust him with. I’m just sorry Clarence had to get hit so – “
I froze as I entered the living room. I’d simply wanted to go there because it would be a familiar place to discuss our plans, one that was less creepy than Clarence’s bedroom. Considering how my imagination often ran wild while I was in this old house, I’d found that few things came as a surprise. But never in my wildest dreams had I imagined the living room would be transformed into an art gallery.
Easels and canvas were set up all around the room. Even the pool table was covered by a big roll of paper. The pictures varied wildly in their content. Some simply had splashes of color thrown on them. Some possessed astonishingly realistic depictions of objects and people. An assortment of watercolors and oil paints sat around amidst the art.
For a moment, all thoughts of Clarence and Keith disappeared from my head. “What is this?”
“Homework,” Adrian said.
“Didn’t you… didn’t you just start your classes? How could they have assigned this much?”
He walked over to a canvas showing a swirling red line traced over a black cloud and lightly tested to see if the paint was dry. Studying it, I tried to decide if I really was seeing a cloud. There was almost something anthropomorphic about it.
“Of course they didn’t give us this much, Sage. But I had to make sure I nailed my first assignment. Takes a lot of tries before you hit perfection.” He paused to reconsider that. “Well, except for my parents. They got it on the first try.”
I couldn’t help a smile. After watching Adrian’s moods oscillate so wildly in the last couple weeks, it was nice to see them on the upswing. “Well, this is kind of amazing,” I admitted. “What are they? I mean, I get that one.” I pointed to a painting of a woman’s eye, brown and long-lashed, and then to another one of roses. “But the others are open to, um, slightly more creative interpretation.”
“Are they?” asked Adrian, turning back to the smoky painting with the red streak. “I figured it was obvious. This one is Love. Don’t you see it?”
I shrugged. “Maybe I don’t have an artistic enough mind.”
“Maybe,” he agreed. “Once we bust your buddy Keith, we’ll discuss my genius art all you want.”
“Right,” I said, growing serious again. “We need to search his place for evidence. I figured the best way to do that is if I lure him out and you break in while he’s gone. To get through the lock – “
Adrian waved me off. “I can pick a lock. How do you think I got into my parents’ liquor cabinet in middle school?”
“Should’ve guessed,” I said dryly. “Make sure you look everywhere, not just in obvious places. He could have compartments hidden in the walls or in furniture. You want to find vials of blood or metallic liquid or even the tool that pierced Clarence.”
“Got it.” We hashed out a few more details – including who he should call when he found something – and were about to leave when he asked, “Sage, why’d you pick me to be your partner in crime in this?”
I thought about it. “Process of elimination, I guess. Jill’s supposed to be kept out of trouble. Eddie’d be a good asset, but he needed to go back with her and Lee. Besides, I already knew you didn’t have any moral qualms about breaking and entering.”
“That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” he declared with a grin.
We headed out to Keith’s after that. All the lights were on in the first floor of his building, dashing a last-minute hope I’d had that maybe I wouldn’t have to lure him out. I would’ve actually liked to help with the search. I dropped Adrian off and then drove to a twenty-four-hour restaurant that was outside the opposite side of town. I figured it would be perfect for keeping Keith away from his home. The driving time alone would provide Adrian with extra searching time, though it meant Adrian had to wait outside for a while until Keith left. Once I finally arrived, I got a table, ordered coffee, and dialed Keith’s number.
“Keith, it’s me. I need to talk to you.”
“So talk,” he said. He sounded smug and confident, no doubt happy at pulling off the last-minute tattoo sale.
“Not on the phone. I need you to meet me.”
“At Amberwood?” he asked in surprise. “Isn’t it after hours?” It was indeed, but that was a problem for later.
“I’m not at school. I’m at Margaret’s Diner, that place out by the highway.”
Long silence. Then: “Well, if you’re already out past curfew, then just come here.”
“No,” I said firmly. “You come to me.”
“Why should I?”
I hesitated only briefly before playing the card I knew would get him, the one thing that would make him drive out here and not raise suspicions about the tattoos.
“It’s about Carly.”
“What about her?” he asked after a moment’s pause.
“You know exactly what.”
After a second’s pause, Keith relented and hung up. I noticed that I had a voice mail from earlier in the day that I hadn’t heard come in. I called and listened.
“Sydney, this is Wes Regan from Carlton College. Just wanted to go over a couple things with you. First, I’m afraid I have some bad news. It doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to retroactively admit your brother from auditor status. I can enroll him next semester for sure if he stays in good standing, but the only way he can keep taking classes now is if he continues to do so as an auditor. He won’t be able to get financial aid as a result, and in fact, you’ll actually need to pay the auditing fee soon if he’s going to stay in the classes. If he wants to drop altogether, we can do that too. Just call me and let me know what you’d like to do.”
I stared at the phone in dismay when the message was over. There went our dreams of sliding Adrian into fully enrolled student status, not to mention his dreams of getting financial aid and moving out of Clarence’s. The next semester probably started in January, so Adrian was facing four more months at Clarence’s. Adrian would also be facing four more months of bus-riding and taking classes without college credit.
But were the credits and financial aid really the most important things here? I thought back to how excited Adrian had been after only a couple classes, how he’d thrown himself into the art. His face had been radiant when he stood in his “gallery.” Jill’s words also echoed through my mind, about how the art had given him something to channel his feelings into and made the bond easier for her to cope with. Those classes were good for both of them.
How much was an auditing fee? I wasn’t sure but knew it wasn’t as much as tuition. It was also a onetime cost that I could probably slide into my expenses without raising the attention of the Alchemists. Adrian needed those classes, of that I was certain. If he knew financial aid wasn’t an option this semester, there was a good chance he’d just drop them altogether. I couldn’t allow that. He’d known there might be “a delay” while the financial aid came together. If I could keep him going to Carlton a little longer, then maybe he’d get invested enough in the art that he’d stay on, even when the truth came out. It was a sneaky thing to do, but it would benefit him – and Jill – in the end.
I dialed back Wes Regan’s office, knowing I’d get his voice mail. I left him a message saying that I’d drop off a check for the auditing fee and that Adrian would stay on until he could be enrolled next semester. I hung up, saying a silent prayer that it would take a while for Adrian to find out any of this. The waitress kept giving me the evil eye over just having coffee, so I finally ordered a piece of pie to go. She had just set the carton down on my table when an irritated Keith entered the restaurant. He stood in the doorway, looking around impatiently until he saw me.
“Okay, what’s going on?” he demanded, making a big show of sitting down. “What’s so important that you felt the need to break school rules and drag me halfway across town?”
For a moment, I froze up. Looking into Keith’s eyes – real and artificial – triggered all the conflicting feelings I’d had about him this last year. Fear and anxiety over what I was trying to pull off warred with the deep hate I’d long carried. Baser instincts wanted me to make him suffer, to throw something at him. Like the pie. Or a chair. Or a baseball bat.
“I – “
Before I could say another word, my phone chimed. I looked down and read a text message from Adrian: GOT IT. CALL MADE. ONE HOUR.
I slipped the phone into my purse and exhaled. It had taken Keith twenty minutes to get here, and during that time, Adrian had been dutifully searching the apartment. He’d apparently been successful. Now it was up to me to delay Keith until reinforcements showed up. One hour was actually a lot less time than I’d expected. I’d given Adrian Stanton’s phone number, and she would’ve dispatched whatever Alchemists were closest. I’d figured that would mean Los Angeles, but it was hard to say with the scope of our jobs. If there were Alchemists on the east side of the city, they’d get here very quickly. It was also possible they could cut time by simply flying a private jet in.
“What’s that?” asked Keith irritably. “A text from one of your vampire friends?”
“You can stop the act,” I said. “I know you don’t really care about me ‘getting too close’ to them.” I hadn’t intended this to be the topic that distracted him, but I’d take it.
“Of course I do. I worry about your soul.”
“Is that why you called my dad?” I asked. “Is that the reason you wanted me out of Palm Springs?”
“It’s for your own good,” he said, putting on that holier-than-thou air. “Do you know how wrong it was that you even wanted this job in the first place? No Alchemist would. But you, you practically begged for it.”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling my anger rise. “So Zoe wouldn’t have to do it.”
“Tell yourself that if you want. I know the truth. You like these creatures.”
“Why does it have to be so cut-and-dried? In your view, I either have to hate them or be in league with them. There’s a middle ground, you know. I can still be loyal to the Alchemists and on friendly terms with vampires and dhampirs.”
Keith looked at me like I was ten years old. “Sydney, you’re such an innocent. You don’t understand the ways of the world like I do.” I knew all about his “ways of the world” and would’ve said as much if the waitress hadn’t come by to take his drink order just then. When she was gone, Keith continued his spiel. “I mean, how do you even know you’re feeling the way you do? Vampires can compel, you know. They use mind control. Spirit users like Adrian are really good at it. For all we know, he’s been using his powers to endear himself to you.”
I thought of all the times I’d wanted to shake some sense into Adrian. “He’s not doing a very good job, then.”
We bickered back and forth about this, and for once, I was glad of Keith’s obstinacy and refusal to see reason. The longer he argued with me, the more time the Alchemists had to get to his apartment. If Stanton had told Adrian one hour, she probably meant it. Still, it was best to be safe.
My breaking point came when Keith said, “You should be glad I’m looking out for you like this. This is about more than vampires, you know. I’m teaching you life lessons. You memorize books but don’t understand people. You don’t know how to connect to them. You’re going to carry this same naive attitude with you into the real world, thinking everyone means well, and someone – some guy, probably – will just take advantage of you.”
“Well,” I snapped, “you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?”
Keith snorted. “I have no interest in you, rest easy.”
“I’m not talking about me! I’m talking about Carly.” So. Here it was. The original purpose of our meeting.
“What’s she have to do with anything?” Keith kept his tone steady, but I saw it. The slightest flicker of anxiety in his eye.
“I know what happened between you guys. I know what you did to her.”
He became very interested in stirring ice around with his straw. “I didn’t do anything to her. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about! She told me. She came to me afterward.” I leaned forward, feeling confident. “What do you think my dad would do if he found out? What would yours do?”
Keith looked up sharply. “If you’re so certain something terrible happened, then why doesn’t your dad already know? Huh? Maybe because Carly knows there’s nothing to tattle on. Anything we did, she wanted to, believe me.”
“You are such a liar,” I hissed. “I know what you did. You raped her. And you will never suffer enough for it. You should’ve lost both of your eyes.”
He stiffened at the reference to his eyes. “That’s harsh. And has nothing to do with any of this. What the hell’s happened to you, Sydney? How’d you turn into such a bitch? Maybe making you associate with vampires and dhampirs has caused more damage than we realized. First thing tomorrow, I’m going to call Stanton and ask that they pull you now. No waiting until the end of the week. You need to be away from this dark influence.” He shook his head and gave me a look both condescending and pitying. “No, you need to be re-educated, period. It should’ve happened a long time ago, as soon as they caught you busting out that murderer.”
“Don’t change the topic.” I spoke haughtily, though he’d again woken a sliver of fear in me. What if Adrian and I failed? What if the Alchemists listened to Keith and hauled me away? He’d never have to worry about me again in a re-education center. “This isn’t about me. We were talking about Carly.”
Keith rolled his eyes in annoyance. “I’m done talking about your slutty sister.”
That was when my earlier impulse to throw something at him won out. Lucky for him, it was only my coffee and not a chair. Also lucky for him: the coffee had cooled considerably. There was still a lot of it left, and it managed to splash everywhere, drenching his unfortunate choice of a white shirt. He stared at me in astonishment, sputtering to get his words out.
“You bitch!” he said, standing up.
As he started moving toward the door, I realized that my temper might have just blown the plan. I hurried over and caught hold of his arm.
“Wait, Keith. I-I’m sorry. Don’t go.”
He jerked his arm away and glared at me. “It’s too late for you. You had your chance and blew it.”
I grabbed him again. “No, no. Wait. There’s still lots we have to talk about.”
He opened his mouth with some snippy remark and then promptly shut it. He studied me for several seconds, his face growing serious. “Are you trying to keep me here? What’s going on?” When I couldn’t muster a response, he pulled away and stormed out the door. I quickly ran back to the table and tossed a twenty on it. I grabbed the pie and told the bewildered waitress to keep the change.
The clock in my car told me I had twenty minutes until the Alchemists were supposed to show up at Keith’s. That was also the time it would take to get back there. I drove right behind him, making no effort to hide my presence. It was no secret now that something was going on, something I’d lured him away from home for. I blessed every red light that stopped us, praying he wouldn’t arrive too early. If he did, Adrian and I were going to have to delay him.
It wouldn’t be impossible, but it also wasn’t something I wanted to do.
We finally made it back. Keith pulled into his building’s tiny lot, and I parked uncaringly in a fire zone out front. I was only steps behind him as he ran to the door, but he hardly seemed to notice. His attention was on the lit-up windows of his building and the dark silhouettes barely discernible beyond the heavy drapes. He burst in through the door, and I followed a moment later, nearly running into him as he came to a complete standstill.
I didn’t know the three suited men there with Adrian, but I knew they were Alchemists. They had that cold, polished feel that we all strove for, and their cheeks were emblazoned with gold lilies. One was going through Keith’s kitchen cupboards. Another had a notepad and was talking to Adrian, who was leaning against the wall and smoking. He smiled when he saw me.
The third Alchemist was kneeling on the floor in the living room near a small storage cupboard in the wall. A tacky painting of a shirtless woman’s back lay nearby, which apparently had been used to hide the compartment. Its wooden door had clearly been forcibly opened, and various contents were strewn haphazardly around – with a few exceptions. The Alchemist was going to great pains to sort one pile of objects: metal tubes and needles used to drain blood, along with vials of blood and small packets of silvery powder. He looked up at our sudden entrance and fixed Keith with a cool smile.
“Ah, so glad you’re here, Mr. Darnell. We were hoping we could take you with us for some questioning.”
Keith’s face fell.
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