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MARCUS DISAPPEARED TO WHEREVER it was he was hiding out, and I drove home. What he’d said to me still seemed outlandish. I kept telling myself none of it could be true. It made things a lot easier to handle.
Back at Amberwood, I found the usual buzz of evening student activity. It felt comforting after my shocking outing, far removed from fanatics and cryptic spells. My phone buzzed with a text message the minute I stepped into my dorm room. It was from Jill: Come see us when you’re back. I sighed. No rest for the wicked, it would seem. I left my purse in my room and then trudged down to the second floor, unsure of what I’d find.
Jill opened her door, looking immensely relieved to see me. “Thank God. We have a situation.”
“We always have a situation,” I said. I stepped inside and saw Angeline sitting on the floor, back against the wall and a miserable expression on her face. “What happened?”
She looked up quickly. “It wasn’t my fault.”
The sinking feeling in my stomach increased. “It never is, is it? I repeat: what happened?”
When Angeline refused to say, Jill spoke up. “She gave Trey a concussion with an algebra book.”
Before I could even start to parse that, Angeline leapt to her feet. “The doctor said it wasn’t a concussion!”
“Wait.” I glanced between them, half hoping they’d burst into laughter at the joke they must be playing on me. “You did something to Trey that actually required medical attention?”
“I barely touched him,” she insisted.
I sat down on Jill’s bed and resisted the urge to crawl under its covers. “No. You can’t do this. Not again. What did the principal say? Oh, God. Where are we going to send you?” After Angeline’s brawl with a motivational group, it had been made very clear that further fighting would get her expelled.
“Eddie took the blame,” said Jill. A small smile crossed her face as she spoke. “There weren’t really many witnesses, so Eddie said they were playing around in the library and tossing the book back and forth. He claimed he got careless and threw the book too hard . . . and that it accidentally hit Trey on the head.”
Angeline nodded. “That’s kind of what really happened with us.”
“No, it wasn’t,” protested Jill. “I saw it. You got mad when Trey told you it shouldn’t be that hard to understand that x always has a different value.”
“He implied that I was stupid!”
Variables didn’t seem like too hard a concept to me, but I could tell under Angeline’s bravado that she really was flustered. I always had the impression that back among the Keepers, Angeline had been a queen among her peers. Here she was constantly trying to keep up academically and socially adrift in a world very different from the one she’d grown up in. That would make anyone insecure. And while I questioned if Trey had ever said she was stupid, I could understand how some of his snarky commentary could be perceived that way.
“Did Eddie get in any serious trouble?” I asked. I doubted he’d get expelled for something like this, but it would be just my luck that he’d get the punishment he’d saved Angeline from.
“Detention,” said Jill.
“He accepted it very bravely,” added Angeline.
“I’m sure he did,” I said, wondering if either girl knew they were wearing mirror expressions of adoration. “Look, Angeline, I know the tutoring process must be frustrating, but you have to watch your temper, okay? Trey’s just trying to help.”
She looked skeptical. “He’s got kind of an attitude sometimes.”
“I know, but people aren’t exactly lining up to fill his position. We need you here. Jill needs you here. Eddie needs you here.” I saw some of her indignation fade at the mention of her friends and duty. “Please try to work with Trey.”
She gave a weak nod, and I stood up to leave. Jill hurried after me into the hallway. “Hey, Sydney? How was your outing with Marcus?”
“It was fine,” I said, certainly not about to dredge up Marcus’s alarming revelations. “Informative. And I learned how to play Skee-Ball.”
Jill almost looked offended. “You played Skee-Ball? I thought you were supposed to be learning about the Alchemists’ secret history.”
“We multitasked,” I said, not liking her tone.
I left before she could comment further and texted Eddie when I reached my room. I heard what happened. Sorry. And thanks. His response was quick: At least it wasn’t a concussion.
I braced myself for snark when I went to meet Adrian the next day. Jill had probably told him about my arcade trip, which would probably elicit a comment like, “Nice to know you’re so dedicated to crack the Alchemists. Way to keep your eye on the ball.”
When I pulled up in front of Adrian’s apartment building, he was already waiting out front for me. As soon as I saw his grim face, my heart stopped. I jumped out of the car, just barely pausing to grab the keys as I went.
“What’s wrong?” I exclaimed, jogging up to him.
He rested a hand on my shoulder, but I was too worried to care about the touch. “Sydney, I don’t want you to freak out. There’s no lasting damage.”
I looked him over. “Are you okay? Were you hurt?”
For a moment, his somber expression turned puzzled. Then, he understood. “Oh, you think it’s me? No, I’m fine. Come on.”
He led me around the back of his building, to the private parking lot used by residents. I came to a halt, my jaw dropping as I took in the terrible, ghastly scene. A couple other residents were milling around, and a police officer stood nearby taking notes. Around us, seven parked cars had their tires slashed.
Including the Mustang.
I ran over to its side, kneeling and examining the damage. I felt like I was in the middle of a war, kneeling by a fallen comrade on the battlefield. I was practically on the verge of shouting, “Don’t you die on me!”
Adrian crouched beside me. “The tires can be replaced. I think my insurance will even cover it.”
I was still horrified. “Who did this?”
He shrugged. “Some kids, I guess. They hit a few cars one block over yesterday.”
“And you didn’t think that was worth mentioning to me?”
“Well, I didn’t know they were going to come here too. Besides, I knew you’d flip out and want to set up twenty-four-hour surveillance on this place.”
“That’s not a bad idea.” I glanced up at his building. “You should talk to the landlord about it.”
Adrian didn’t seem nearly as concerned as he should have been. “I don’t know that he’d go for it. I mean, this isn’t really a dangerous neighborhood.”
I pointed at the Mustang. “Then how come this happened?”
Even though we could take Latte to Los Angeles, we still had to wait around to finish up with the police and then get a tow truck. I made sure the tow truck driver knew that he better not get a scratch on the car, and then I watched mournfully as it was hauled away. Once that sunny splash of yellow disappeared around a corner, I turned to Adrian.
“Ready to go?”
“Do we have enough time?”
I looked at my cell phone and groaned. We’d burned up a lot of time handling the vandalism aftermath. And yet, I hated to wait until tomorrow, seeing as I’d already lost time yesterday while dealing with Marcus. I called Ms. Terwilliger and asked if she’d cover for me if I came in after curfew.
“Yes, yes, of course,” she said, in a tone that suggested she couldn’t understand why I’d even bothered calling her. “Just talk to more of those girls.”
Ms. Terwilliger had given me six names. We’d already taken care of Wendy Stone. Three of the girls lived relatively close together, and they were our goal tonight. The last two were closer to the coast, and we hoped to reach them tomorrow. Adrian tried making conversation with me throughout the drive, but my mind was still on the Mustang.
“God, I’m an idiot,” I said, once we’d almost reached our destination.
“That’s never a term I’d use to describe you,” he said promptly. “Articulate. Well dressed. Smart. Organized. Beautiful. I’d use those terms, but never ‘idiot.’”
I nearly asked why “beautiful” had come after “organized” and then remembered the actual concern. “I’m obsessing about that car when girls’ lives are on the line. It’s stupid. My priorities are messed up.”
My eyes were on the road, but I could tell he was smiling. “If your priorities were really messed up, you would’ve followed that tow truck. Yet here you are, off to help perfect strangers. That’s a noble thing, Sage.”
“Don’t rule yourself out,” I said. “You’re pretty noble too, going on all these outings with me.”
“Well, it’s not the same as Skee-Ball, but it’ll have to do. How was that anyway? Did you really learn anything?”
“I learned a lot – some pretty unbelievable stuff, actually. I’m still waiting to get some proof, though.”
Luck was with us initially. The first two girls were home, though their reactions were similar to Wendy Stone’s. This time, I’d had the foresight to bring the newspaper article, in the hopes it would make a stronger impression. That ghastly picture at least gave them pause, but I left not knowing if they’d really take me seriously or use the agate charms.
Our good fortune ran out when we reached the last name. She too was a college student, meaning we had another campus visit. Her name was Lynne Titus, and she lived in a sorority house. I admit, as I knocked on the door, I was fully prepared to find a group of girls dressed in pink, having a pillow fight in their living room. But when we were shown in, we discovered an orderly home not all that different from Wendy’s building. Some girls were coming and going, while others sat around with textbooks and papers.
“Lynne?” asked the girl who’d let us inside. “You just missed her.”
I knew this shouldn’t be a surprise. These girls had lives. They wouldn’t all be waiting around for me to come by and talk to them. I glanced uneasily at a window, taking note of the purpling sky. “Any idea when she’ll be back?”
The girl shook her head. “No, sorry. I don’t know where she went.”
Adrian and I exchanged looks. “You’re free from your curfew,” he reminded me.
“I know. But that doesn’t mean I want to spend all night waiting for Lynne.” I did some mental calculations. “I suppose we could wait a couple of hours. Three at most.”
Adrian seemed supremely delighted by this, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was more excited at hanging out on a college campus . . . or at spending time with me. “What’s fun to do around here?” he asked our hostess. He glanced around at the quiet academic environment. “No raging parties here, huh?”
The girl put on a disapproving expression. “We’re a very serious sorority. If you’re looking for parties, I guarantee there’s one going on just down the street. Those girls have one every night.” Adrian shot me a hopeful look.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “Can’t we find some nice museum?”
“We want to stay close, in case Lynne comes back,” Adrian said. Something told me if the party had been all the way across campus, he still would’ve pushed for it. “Besides, if you want to go to college so badly, you should see the full scope of what it has to offer. And aren’t you a fan of Greek stuff?”
That was hardly what I had in mind, and he knew it. I reluctantly agreed but warned him he couldn’t drink. I was sporting the brown wig and presumed he was using spirit to mask us further. Alcohol would diminish his ability to pull it all off. Plus, I just didn’t want to see him drunk.
It was easy to find the party house because we could hear the music blasting from it. A guy and a girl openly drinking beer from plastic cups challenged us at the door. “This is Greek only,” the girl said. She looked as though she might fall off her stool. “Who are you with?”
I pointed vaguely toward Lynne’s sorority. “Um, them.”
“Alpha Yam Ergo,” said Adrian, without hesitation. I expected the door squad to point out that most of those weren’t even Greek letters. Maybe it was because Adrian spoke so confidently – or because they’d had too much beer – but the guy waved us inside.
It was almost like being back at the arcade, an overwhelming flood of stimuli. The house was crowded and loud, with smoke hanging in the air and alcohol flowing freely. Several people offered us drinks, and some girl invited us – three times – to play beer pong, forgetting that she’d already spoken to us. I regarded it all in amazement, trying to keep the disgust off my face.
“What a waste of tuition. This is ruining all my collegiate dreams,” I shouted to Adrian. “Isn’t there anything to do that’s not drinking or being stupid?”
He scanned around, able to see more of the room from his greater height. He brightened. “That looks promising.” He caught hold of my hand. “Come on.”
In a surprisingly nice and spacious kitchen, we found several girls sitting on the floor painting blank T-shirts. Judging from the sloppy job and paint spills, they too had been indulging in alcohol. One girl had a cup of beer next to an identical cup of paint, and I hoped she wouldn’t mix them up.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
One of the girls glanced up and grinned. “Making shirts for the winter carnival. You want to help?”
Before I could say no, Adrian was already on the ground with them. “Do I ever.” He helped himself to a white T-shirt and a brush with blue paint on it. “What are we putting on these?” The girls’ shoddy work made that a valid question.
“Our names,” said one girl.
“Winter stuff,” said another.
That was good enough for Adrian. He set to work painting snowflakes on the shirt. Unable to help myself, I knelt down to get a better look. Whatever his faults, Adrian was a decent artist. He mixed in a few other colors, making the snowflakes intricate and stylized. At one point, he paused to light a clove cigarette, sharing one of the girls’ ashtrays. It was a habit I didn’t really like, but at least the rest of the smoke in this place masked his. As he was finishing up the shirt and writing out the sorority’s name, I noticed that all the other girls had stopped to stare.
“That’s amazing,” said one, her eyes wide. “Can I have it?”
“I want it,” insisted another.
“I’ll make each of you one,” he assured them. The way they looked at him was an unwelcome reminder of the breadth of his experience with other women. I shifted a little closer to him, just so they wouldn’t get any ideas.
He handed the white shirt to the first girl and then set to work on a blue shirt. Once he fulfilled his promise to each girl, he sifted through the T-shirt stack until he found a men’s-size black one. “Gotta pay tribute to my fraternity.”
“Right,” I scoffed. “Alpha Yam Ergo.”
Adrian nodded solemnly. “A very old and prestigious society”
“I’ve never heard of them,” said the girl who’d claimed the first shirt.
“They don’t let many people in,” he said. In white paint, he wrote his fake fraternity’s initials: AYE.
“Isn’t that what pirates say?” asked one of the other girls.
“Well, the Alpha Yams have nautical origins,” he explained. To my horror he began painting a pirate skeleton riding a motorcycle.
“Oh, no,” I groaned. “Not the tattoo.”
“It’s our logo,” he said. Adrian and I had once had to investigate a tattoo parlor, and to distract the owner, he’d gone in and pretended to be interested in a tattoo that sounded very much like what he was drawing now. At least, I assumed he’d been pretending. “Isn’t it badass?”
“Badass” wasn’t quite the word I would’ve used, but despite it being such a ridiculous image, he actually did a good job. I made myself comfortable, drawing my knees up to me and leaning against the wall. He soon stopped with his banter and grew completely absorbed in his work, meticulously painting the skeleton’s bones as well as that of a skeleton parrot sitting on the pirate’s shoulder. I studied his features as he worked, fascinated by the joy in his eyes. Art was one of the few things that seemed to anchor him and drive that darkness in him away. He seemed to glow with an inner light, one that enhanced his already handsome features. It was another rare and beautiful glimpse of the intense, passionate nature lying beneath the jokes. It came through in his art. It had come through when he kissed me.
Adrian suddenly glanced up at me. Our gazes locked, and I felt like he could read my mind. How often did he think about that kiss? And if he really was crazy about me, did he imagine more than just kissing? Did he fantasize about me? What kinds of things did he think about? His lips on my neck? His hand on my leg? And was that leg bare . . . ?
I was afraid of what my eyes might betray and quickly looked away. Desperately, I groped for some witty and nonsentimental comment. “Don’t forget the ninja throwing stars.”
“Right.” I could feel Adrian’s gaze on me a few moments longer. There was something tangible to it, a warmth that enveloped me. I didn’t look back until I was certain his attention was again on the shirt. He added the stars and then sat back triumphantly. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“It’s not bad,” I said. In truth, it was kind of amazing.
“You want one too?” The smile he gave me stirred up those warm feelings again. I couldn’t help but smile back.
“We don’t have the time,” I managed to say. “We’ve got to check on Lynne.”
“I’ll make you a fast one.”
“Not the pirate,” I warned. He found a small purple shirt and began painting on it in silver. “Purple?”
“It’s your color,” he insisted. A thrill ran through me at his words. Adrian could see auras, the light that surrounded all people and was tied into their personalities. He’d told me that mine was yellow, a color most intellectuals had. But he’d also said I had flares of purple, which indicated a passionate and spiritual nature. Those weren’t qualities I usually thought I possessed . . . but sometimes, I wished I did.
I watched, enthralled, as he painted a large silver heart with flames edging one side. The whole design was Celtic in style. It was beautiful.
“Where did you get that from?” I asked in awe. I’d seen a lot of his work but never anything like this.
His eyes were on his heart, completely caught up in his work. “Just something kicking around in my head. Reminds me of you. Fiery and sweet, all at the same time. A flame in the dark, lighting my way.” His voice . . . his words . . . I recognized one of his spirit-driven moments. It should’ve unnerved me, but there was something sensual about the way he spoke, something that made my breath catch. A flame in the dark.
He swapped out the silver paintbrush for a black one. Before I could stop him, he wrote over the heart: AYE. Underneath it, in smaller letters, he added: HONORARY MEMBER.
“What are you doing?” I cried. The spell had shattered. “You ruined it!”
Adrian regarded me with a mischievous look. “I figured you’d be flattered at being accepted as an honorary member.”
“How can I get in?” asked one of the girls.
In spite of my outrage, I took the shirt when he offered it to me. I held it up gingerly, careful not to mess up the paint job. Even through the ridiculous words, the fiery heart was still stunning. It shone through, and I couldn’t stop admiring it. How could someone so irreverent create something so beautiful? When I finally looked up again, I found Adrian watching me. That earlier thrall seized me, and I found myself unable to move.
“You haven’t painted anything,” he said softly.
“That’s because I have zero creativity,” I told him.
“Everyone’s got some creativity,” he insisted. He handed me the silver brush and slid over to join me against the wall. Our legs and arms touched. He laid out his own AYE shirt across his lap. “Go ahead. Add something, anything.”
I shook my head in protest and tried to hand him the brush. “I can’t draw or paint. I’ll ruin it.”
“Sydney.” He pushed the brush back into my hand. “It’s a pirate skeleton, not the Mona Lisa. You’re not going to decrease its value.”
Maybe not, but I had a hard time imagining what I could possibly add to this. I could do a lot of things, but this was out of my league – especially compared to his skill. Something in his expression drove me, however, and after a lot of thought, I gave my best shot at drawing a tie around the skeleton’s neck. Adrian frowned.
“Is that a noose?”
“It’s a tie!” I cried, trying not to feel offended.
He laughed, clearly delighted at this. “My mistake.”
“He can go to a boardroom meeting,” I added, feeling a need to defend my work. “He’s very proper now.”
Adrian seemed to like that even more. “Of course he is. Proper and dangerous.” A little of his mirth faded, and he grew pensive as he studied me, holding me in his gaze. “Just like you.”
I’d been so worried about the artistic challenge that I wasn’t aware of just how close he’d moved to me until now. So many details came into focus. The shape of his lips, the line of his neck. “I’m not dangerous,” I breathed.
He brought his face toward mine. “You are to me.”
And somehow, against all reason, we were kissing. I closed my eyes, and the world around me faded. The noise, the smoke . . . it was gone. All that mattered was the taste of his mouth, a mix of cloves and mints. There was a fierceness in his kiss, a desperation . . . and I answered, just as hungry for him. I didn’t stop him when he pulled me closer, so that I almost sat on his lap. I’d never been wrapped around someone’s body like that, and I was shocked at how eagerly mine responded. His arm went around my waist, pulling me onto him further, and his other hand slid up the back of my neck, getting entangled in my hair. Amazingly, the wig stayed on. He took his lips away from my mouth, gently trailing kisses down to my neck. I tipped my head back, gasping when the intensity returned to his mouth. There was an animalistic quality that sent shock waves through the rest of my body. Some Alchemist voice warned me that this was exactly how a vampire would feed, but I had no fear. Adrian wouldn’t hurt me, and I needed to know just how hard he could kiss me and –
“Oh my God!”
Adrian and I jerked apart as though someone had thrown cold water on us, though our legs stayed entangled. I glanced around in a panic, half expecting to see an outraged Stanton standing over us. Instead, I looked up into the terrified face of a girl I didn’t know. She wasn’t even looking at us.
“You guys won’t believe what happened!” she exclaimed, directing her words to our fellow artists. She pointed vaguely behind her. “Over across the street at Kappa, they found one of their girls unconscious, and they can’t wake her up. I don’t know what happened, but it sounds like she was attacked. There’s police out front and everything.”
Adrian and I stared at each other for one shocked moment. Then, wordlessly, we both stood up. He held my hand to steady me until my trembling legs strengthened. I’m weak because of this news, I told myself. Not because I was just making out with a vampire.
But those dangerous and intoxicating kisses faded almost instantly when we returned to Lynne’s sorority. It was busy with frightened people, and campus security moved in and out, allowing us to step right inside the open door.
“What happened?” I asked a brunette standing nearby.
“It’s Lynne,” she said, biting her lips. “They just found her in an empty auditorium.”
Something in the way she spoke made me uneasy. “Is she . . . alive?”
The girl nodded. “I don’t know . . . I think so, but they said there’s something really wrong. She’s unconscious and looks . . . well . . . old.”
I met Adrian’s eyes and vaguely noticed he had silver paint in his hair. I’d still been holding the brush when I’d wrapped my arms around him. “Damn,” he murmured. “Too late.”
I wanted to scream in frustration. We’d been so close to warning her. She’d allegedly left just before we’d arrived. What if we’d come sooner? What if we’d visited her before the other two girls? I’d chosen the order randomly. Worse, what if we’d been able to find her instead of having art time with the drunken sorority girls?
What if I hadn’t been all over Adrian? Or maybe he’d been all over me. Whatever you wanted to call it, I hadn’t exactly resisted.
The more we learned, however, the more unlikely it seemed we would’ve been able to do anything if we’d stuck around Lynne’s house and investigated. Nobody knew where she’d gone. Only one person had seen her leave, a girl with curly blond hair who frustrated the campus police with her vague answers.
“I’m sorry,” she kept saying. “I just . . . I can’t remember the girl she left with.”
“Nothing?” asked one of the officers. “Height? Age? Hair color?”
The girl frowned, looking as though she was using every ounce of mental effort. At last, she sagged in defeat and shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
“Did she have black hair?” I suggested.
The girl brightened a little. “Maybe. Er, wait. It might have been brown. No. Red, maybe?”
Adrian and I stepped away, knowing we could do no more. “That girl seems awfully confused,” I said as we walked back to my car.
“She certainly does,” he agreed. “Sound familiar?”
“Very,” I muttered, recognizing the signs of magic.
No one could deny it. Veronica had been here. And we’d been too late to stop her.
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