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I FELT LIKE A FAILURE when I delivered Ms. Terwilliger the news before classes the next day.
She told me, her face pale and grim, that there was nothing I could’ve done. But I didn’t know if I believed that. I still berated myself with the same questions as last night. What if I hadn’t spent the previous day with Marcus? What if I hadn’t spent so much time making sure the Mustang was taken care of? What if I hadn’t been engaged in a massive public display of affection on the floor with Adrian? I’d let personal matters interfere, and now a girl had paid with her life. I wanted to skip school and warn the others immediately, but Ms. Terwilliger assured me that Veronica wouldn’t be able to feed so quickly. She told me waiting until later in the day would be fine.
I gave a reluctant nod and returned to my desk, figuring I’d try to read until class started. I didn’t expect to have much success. “Miss Melbourne?” she called. I glanced back and saw that her sad expression had lightened up a little. She almost looked amused, which seemed weird, given the situation.
“You might want to do something about your neck.”
I was totally lost. “My neck?”
She reached into her purse and handed me a compact mirror. I opened it and surveyed my neck, still trying to figure out what she could be talking about. Then I saw it. A small, brownish purple bruise on the side of my neck.
“What on earth is that?” I exclaimed.
Ms. Terwilliger snorted. “Although it’s been a while for me, I believe the technical term is a hickey” She paused and arched an eyebrow. “You do know what that is, don’t you?”
“Of course I know!” I lowered the mirror. “But there’s no way – I mean, we barely – that is – “
She held up a hand to silence me. “You don’t have to justify your private life to me. But you might want to consider how you can actually keep it private in the next fifteen minutes.”
I was practically out of my seat before she finished speaking. When I emerged from the building, I had the amazing fortune to find the campus shuttle just pulling up. I hurried onto it, and although the ride to my dorm only took a few minutes, it felt like forever. All the while, my mind reeled with what had happened.
I have a hickey. I let Adrian Ivashkov give me a hickey.
How in the world had that happened? The devastating news about Lynne had allowed me to ignore the full impact of my indiscretion, but there was no avoiding that now. Against every principle I possessed, I’d allowed myself to get drawn into kissing Adrian. And not just kissing. Thinking about the way our bodies had been pressed together made me feel as flushed as I had last night.
No, no, no! I couldn’t think about that. I had to forget it had happened. I needed to make sure it didn’t happen again. What had come over me? I didn’t feel the way he felt about me. He was Moroi. And even if he hadn’t been, he was undoubtedly the most unsuitable guy for me in the world. I needed someone serious, someone with the potential to get a job that had medical benefits. Someone like Brayden.
Yeah, how’d that work out for you, Sydney?
What happened with Adrian had been wrong. It had obviously been some twisted act of lust, probably brought on because he was so forbidden. That was it. Women fell for that kind of thing. When I’d researched relationship books, I’d seen one called Bad Boys and the Women Who Love Them. I’d ignored it because Brayden was pretty much the opposite of a bad boy. Maybe it would be worth getting that book now.
A flame in the dark. I needed to forget that Adrian had ever called me that. I had to.
We had another minute before we would reach my dorm, so I sent a quick text to Adrian: I have a hickey! You can’t ever kiss me again. I honestly hadn’t expected him to be awake this early so I was surprised to get a response: Okay. I won’t kiss you on your neck again.
So typical of him. No! You can’t ever kiss me ANYWHERE. You said you were going to keep your distance.
I’m trying, he wrote back. But you won’t keep your distance from me.
I didn’t dignify that with a response.
When we reached my dorm, I asked the driver how long she’d wait before returning to main campus. “I’m leaving right now,” she said.
“Please,” I begged. “Wait sixty seconds. I’ll pay you.”
She looked offended. “I don’t take bribes.”
But when I sprinted back out of the dorm – in a scarf – she was still there. I made it back to Ms. Terwilliger’s class just as the bell rang. She flashed me a knowing look but said nothing about my wardrobe change.
While I was in class, I received a text from Marcus. Can you meet today? San Bernardino, 4 p.m.
Well, he’d warned me about short notice. San Bernardino was an hour away. I’d given Eddie a heads-up about the meeting happening this week, and he’d agreed to go. I just hoped he didn’t have anything planned this afternoon. I texted back that we’d be there, and Marcus sent me an address.
When class ended, a girl from my English class caught my attention and asked if she could borrow some notes since she’d been out sick yesterday. Eddie was gone by the time I finished with her, so I didn’t get a chance to ask him about San Bernardino until lunch.
“Sure,” he said, snapping into that fierce guardian mode.
Jill already knew about our errand because I’d told Adrian about it. I felt a little bad about taking Eddie from Jill. Okay, really bad. Removing Eddie was a serious risk, though I reminded myself that he wasn’t always with her every single second. Sometimes it was impossible, which was why we’d acquired Angeline. Still, if anyone in the Alchemists found out I was using her main bodyguard for personal errands, I’d be in big trouble. Well, actually, I’d probably be in big trouble regardless, seeing as I was meeting with a group of rebels. I turned to Angeline, who was trying to decipher some notes about the quadratic equation.
“Angeline, you need to stay with Jill until we’re back,” I said. “And you should both actually just stay in your dorm, to be extra safe. Don’t wander campus.”
Jill accepted this, but Angeline looked up in dismay. “I’m supposed to meet Trey for math. How do you expect me to pass?”
I was helpless against an academic argument. “Study in the dorm lobby. That should be safe enough. Jill can just do homework with you.”
Angeline didn’t seem entirely pleased about that alternative, but she didn’t protest it. She started to return to her notes and then did a double take. “Why are you wearing that scarf?” she asked. “It’s so hot today.” It was true. The unseasonable temperatures had returned.
Eddie, to my surprise, said, “I wondered the same thing.”
“Oh, um . . . ” Please don’t blush, please don’t blush, I ordered myself. “I’ve just been cold today.”
“That’s weird,” said Jill, perfectly deadpan. “For someone who always seems to be so cold, you sure can warm up pretty fast.”
It was straight out of Adrian’s playbook. Jill knew perfectly well why I had on the scarf, and I gave her a warning look. Eddie and Angeline appeared completely mystified. I stood up, even though I’d barely touched my food. Probably none of them would find that weird.
“Well, I’ve got to go. I’ll find you later, Eddie.” I hurried off before any of them could question me further.
I’d been a little hesitant to let Eddie in on Marcus. Eddie certainly wasn’t going to turn Marcus or me in to the Alchemists for sideline plotting. That being said, I also didn’t want Eddie to think the Alchemists were involved in nefarious schemes against the Moroi. That might very well be something Eddie would relay back to his own people, which could in turn cause all sorts of diplomatic problems. Even this hint of the Alchemists potentially being in contact with the Warriors was dangerous. I decided that having Eddie as protection was worth the risk of him hearing something he shouldn’t. He was my friend, and I trusted him. Still, I had to give him a little background information as we made the drive to San Bernardino.
“Who are these people exactly?” he asked.
“Ex-Alchemists,” I said. “They don’t like all the procedures and red tape and just want to interact with Moroi and dhampirs on their own terms.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.” I could hear caution in his voice. Eddie was no fool. “Why do you want me along?”
“I just don’t know much about them. I think their intentions are good, but we’ll see.” I thought very carefully on how to phrase my next words. I had to give him a heads-up. “They’ve got a lot of conspiracy theories. Some even, um, think there might be Alchemists working with Warriors.”
“What?” It was a wonder Eddie’s jaw wasn’t on the floor.
“They don’t have any hard proof,” I added quickly. “They’ve got a Warrior girl who spies for them. She thinks she overheard something . . . but it all sounds sketchy to me. They want me to help, but I don’t think there’s anything to uncover. I mean, the Alchemists helped raid the Warriors, right? Disrupting their crazy execution ritual wouldn’t exactly foster good relations.”
“I suppose not,” he admitted, but it was clear he wasn’t entirely at ease.
I decided to move on to safer territory. No need to worry about Marcus and his Merry Men (I couldn’t get Adrian’s name out of my head) until we heard them out.
“How is everything?” I asked. “With Angeline? Jill? I’ve been so busy with, uh, stuff that I feel like we haven’t talked much.”
Eddie didn’t answer right away. “Quiet with Jill, which is good. We want things to be as boring as possible for her. Things are better with her and Micah too. At first, a lot of his friends wouldn’t talk to her after the breakup. But he’s gotten over her enough that they can just be friends . . . so, the others have decided they can too.”
“That’s a relief.”
When we’d first come to Amberwood, Jill had had trouble fitting in. Dating Micah had opened up a lot of social circles for her, and I’d worried about what would happen after they split up. Things had worsened when I’d forbidden her from modeling for a local and very assertive fashion designer, Lia DiStefano, who risked exposing Jill. Jill had felt like she’d lost everything, so I was glad to see things were coming together for her again.
“Jill’s easy to like,” I added. “I bet most of them were happy to stay friends with her.”
“Yeah.” It was all he said, but there was a lot of emotion in that one word. I glanced over and saw a dreamy look on his face. So. Micah might be over Jill, but Eddie wasn’t. I wondered if he even knew it. “How’s Angeline?”
The dreaminess became a frown. “Confusing.”
I laughed. “That’s pretty accurate.”
“She goes from one extreme to another. When we first started going out, she, uh, couldn’t stay away from me.” I didn’t entirely know what that entailed, and I really didn’t want to think about it. “Now I can hardly get five minutes alone with her. She’s started going to basketball games for some reason. I think she’s just kind of dumbstruck at a game that’s got so many rules, compared to whatever insanity the Keepers do for fun. And she’s really into fixing that math grade too. I guess that’s a good thing.” He didn’t sound too sure. I, however, was thrilled.
“I think the idea of getting kicked out really scared her. Despite all the tough adjustments she’s had here, she doesn’t want to go back home.” When Rose had been on the run, I’d hidden Dimitri and her with the Keepers. That was where we’d first met Angeline, and even back then, she’d begged Rose to take her away from that rural world. “Give her time. This’ll settle down, and her, uh, enthusiasm will come back.”
We reached the address in San Bernardino, a hardware shop that seemed like a strange location for a secret meeting. I pulled into the parking lot and texted Marcus that we were here. No response came.
“That’s weird,” I said. “I hope he didn’t change his mind.”
Eddie was over his girl troubles and had that sharp guardian look in his eyes again. “I bet we’re being watched. If they’re as paranoid as you say, this probably isn’t the place we’re meeting. They’ve sent you here and are looking for signs to see if you were followed.”
I turned to him in amazement. “I never would’ve thought of that.”
“That’s why you’ve got me along,” he said with a smile.
Sure enough. Ten minutes later, Marcus texted with another address. We must have passed the test. This new location was in another loud, busy place: a family-friendly restaurant with actors walking around in giant animal costumes. It was, if possible, more absurd than the arcade.
“He picks the weirdest places,” I said.
Eddie’s eyes were everywhere. “It’s brilliant actually. Too loud to be overheard. One exit in the back, one in the front. And if the Alchemists did show up, I’m guessing they wouldn’t create a scene around this many children?”
Marcus met us in the lobby and waved us forward. “Hey, gorgeous. Come on, we’ve got a table.” He paused to shake Eddie’s hand. “Nice to meet you. We can always use more for the cause.”
I’m not sure what I’d expected of the Merry Men. Maybe a bunch of rough-and-tumble outcasts with battle scars and eye patches, like Wolfe. Instead, what we found were a guy and girl sharing a plate of chicken fingers. They had golden lilies on their cheeks.
Marcus directed us to two chairs. “Sydney, Eddie. This is Amelia and Wade.”
We shook hands. “Sabrina’s not with you?” I asked.
“Oh, she’s here,” said Marcus, an enigmatic note in his voice.
I picked up on the subtext and glanced around. I wasn’t the only one who’d brought protection. Sabrina was hidden somewhere in the crowd, watching and waiting. Maybe in an animal costume. I wondered if she’d brought her gun in here.
Amelia slid the plate toward us. “Want some? We’ve got mozzarella sticks on the way.”
I declined. Even with my resolution to eat more, I drew the line at deep fryers. “Let’s talk,” I said. “You’re supposed to tell me about the tattoos and this mysterious task you have for me.”
Wade chuckled. “She gets down to business.”
“That’s my girl,” said Marcus. I could almost hear an unspoken That’s why we need her for the cause. He waited for our waitress, who was dressed like a cat, to bring the mozzarella sticks and take our drink orders. At least, I think it was a waitress. Gender was a little hard to determine under the mask.
“The tattoo process is simple,” Marcus said, once our privacy was back. “I told you that the Alchemists are able to put Moroi compulsion in it, right? To limit communication . . . and other things, if needed.”
I still didn’t know if I bought the idea of mind control in the tattoos, but I let him go on.
“When Moroi help make the blood ink, the earth users put in the compulsion that prevents you from discussing vampires. That earth magic is in harmony with the other three physical elements: air, water, and fire. That harmony gives the tattoo its power. Now, if you can get a hold of charmed ink and have a Moroi undo the earth magic in it, that’ll shatter the bond with the other elements and kill any compulsion locked in. Inject that ‘broken’ ink into your tattoo, and it breaks the harmony of your elements as well – which in turn breaks any suggestions the Alchemists put in.”
Eddie and I stared.
“That’s ‘all’ I have to do?” I asked in disbelief.
“It’s easier than you might think,” said Amelia. “The hard part is . . . well, Marcus added another part to the process. Not technically necessary . . . but helpful.”
We’d been here ten minutes, and I was already getting a headache. “You decided to do some improvisation?”
The laughter that elicited from Marcus was just as infectious as before . . . except, once again, the scene didn’t really warrant laughing. He paused, like he was waiting for us to join in, and continued when we didn’t. “That’s one way of looking at it. But she’s right – it’s helpful. Before I’ll let anyone do it, they have to perform a task. Some task that involves directly going against the Alchemists.”
Eddie couldn’t hold back anymore. “What, like an initiation ritual?”
“More than that,” said Marcus. “I have a theory that doing something like that, something that challenges all the training you’ve had, will weaken the compulsion a little. Usually it’s something that involves infiltration and helps our cause. That weakening makes it easier for the other ink to take effect. It’s also a good test. Deactivating the tattoo doesn’t mean you’re ready to walk away. It doesn’t undo years of mental conditioning. I try to find people who think they’re ready to rebel, but sometimes, when they’re faced with actually taking action, they crack. Better to know sooner rather than later, before we interfere with the tattoo.”
I turned toward Amelia and Wade. “And you’ve both done this? You did some dare, and then your tattoos were deactivated?” They nodded in unison.
“We just have to seal it with indigo now.” Seeing my confusion, Wade explained, “Even after breaking the elements in the tattoo, it can still be repaired. Someone could forcibly re-ink and compel you. Tattooing over it with indigo ink makes sure you can never be controlled again.”
“And here I thought yours was just a style choice,” I said to Marcus.
He absentmindedly traced the crescent pattern. “Oh, the design was. But the ink was mandatory. It’s a special concoction that’s hard to get a hold of, and I have to go down to a guy in Mexico to get it. I’m taking Amelia and Wade there in a couple weeks to seal theirs. You could come too.”
I didn’t even acknowledge that crazy idea. “Seems like that blue ink would kind of be a tip-off to the other Alchemists that something’s up.”
“Oh, we ran away from the Alchemists,” said Amelia. “We’re not part of them anymore.”
Once again, Eddie jumped in. “But you were just talking about infiltration. Why not keep doing other covert tasks once you’ve broken the elements? Especially if it frees you? Your tattoos look the same as Sydney’s right now. If you really think there’s something suspicious going on, then work from the inside and hold off on sealing with the indigo ink.”
“Too risky,” said Marcus. “You could slip up and say something that the tattoo wouldn’t have let you before. Or, if you’re not cautious, they might catch you going off to meet with others. Then you’ve got a date with re-education – where they could repair the tattoo.”
“Seems like it’d be worth the risk for more information,” I said. “If you’re careful enough.”
Marcus shook his head, no longer flippant. “I’ve known others who tried that. They thought no one was on to them. They were wrong. We don’t make that mistake anymore.” He touched his tattoo again. “This is the way we do it now. Complete your mission, break the tattoo, leave the Alchemists, and get sealed. Then we work from the outside. Also saves us from getting caught up in all the Alchemist routine and menial tasks.”
“So there are others?” I asked, picking up on what he’d said.
“Of course.” That amusement returned. “You didn’t think it was just the three of us, did you?”
I honestly hadn’t known. “So this is what you’re offering me. A fairy tale about my tattoo, if I just complete some traitorous mission for you.”
“I’m offering you freedom,” Marcus corrected. “And the ability to help Moroi and dhampirs in a way that’s not part of some larger conspiracy. You can do it on your own terms.”
Eddie and I exchanged glances. “And speaking of conspiracy,” I said. “I’m guessing this is the part where you tell me about the alleged Alchemist and Warrior connection – the one you need me to prove.”
My sarcasm was lost on the threesome because they all grew excited. “Exactly,” said Marcus. “Tell her, Wade.”
Wade finished off a chicken finger covered in ranch dressing and then leaned toward us. “Just before I joined Marcus, I was assigned to the St. Louis facility. I worked in operations, handling a lot of visitor access, giving tours . . . not the most interesting work.”
I nodded. This, at least, was familiar territory. Being in the Alchemists meant taking on all sorts of roles. Sometimes you destroyed Strigoi bodies. Sometimes you made coffee for visiting officials. It was all part of the greater cause.
“I saw a lot of things. I mean, you can probably guess.” He looked troubled. “The harsh attitudes. The rigid rules. Moroi visited, you know. I liked them. I was glad we were helping them, even though everyone around me acted as though helping such ‘evil’ creatures was a terrible fate that we’d been forced into. I accepted this because, you know, I figured what we’re told is true. Anyway, there was one week . . . I swear, it was just nonstop Strigoi attacks all over the country. Just one of those things. The guardians took out most of them, and field Alchemists were pretty busy covering up. Even though most of it was taken care of, I just kept wondering about why we were always dealing with the aftermath when we have so many resources. I mean, I didn’t think we should start going after Strigoi, but it just seemed like there should be a way to help the Moroi and guardians be more proactive. So . . . I mentioned it to my supervisor.”
Marcus and Amelia wore deadly earnest expressions, and even I was hooked. “What happened?” I asked softly.
Wade’s gaze looked off into the past. “I was chastised pretty bad. Over and over, all my superiors kept telling me how wrong it was for me to even think things like that about the Moroi, let alone talk about them. They didn’t send me to re-education, but they suspended me for two weeks, and each day, I had to listen to lectures about what a terrible person I was and how I was on the verge of corruption. By the end, I believed them . . . until I met Marcus. He made me realize I didn’t have to be in that life anymore.”
“So you left,” I said, suddenly feeling a little more kindly toward Marcus.
“Yes. But not before completing the mission Marcus gave me. I got a hold of the classified visitor list.”
That surprised me. The Alchemists were always hip deep in secrets. While most of our goings-on were recorded diligently, there were some things that our elite leaders didn’t want the rest of the society to know about. Again, all for the greater good. The classified list would detail people allowed access – that the higher-ups wanted kept secret. It wasn’t something the average Alchemist could see.
“You’re young,” I said. “You wouldn’t be allowed access to something like that.”
Wade snorted. “Of course not. That’s what made the task so difficult. Marcus doesn’t have us do easy assignments. I had to do a lot of dangerous things – things that made me glad to escape afterward. The list showed us the link to the Warriors.”
“Did it say ‘Top Secret Vampire Hunter Meeting’?” asked Eddie. Things like that, aside from his deadly protective skills, were why I liked having him along.
Wade flushed at the jibe. “No. It was all coded, kind of. It didn’t list full names, just initials. Even I couldn’t get the actual names. But one of the entries? Z. J.”
Marcus and his Merry Men all looked at me expectantly, as though that were supposed to mean something to me. I glanced at Eddie again, but he was just as baffled.
“What’s that stand for?” I asked.
“Zebulon Jameson,” said Marcus. Once again, there was an expectation. When I didn’t answer, Marcus turned disbelieving. “You were there with the Warriors. Don’t you remember him? Master Jameson?”
I did, actually. He was one of the Warriors’ high officials, an intimidating man with a salt-and-pepper beard who’d worn old-fashioned golden ceremonial robes.
“I never caught his first name,” I said. “But isn’t it kind of a leap to assume that’s who Z. J. was? Maybe it was, I don’t know, Zachary Johnson.”
“Or Zeke Jones,” supplied Eddie.
The cat came by with a refill for Marcus’s lemonade, and I soon had proof that it was a woman. “Thanks, love,” Marcus said, giving her a smile that nearly made her swoon and drop the tray. When he turned back to us, he was all business. “That’s where Sabrina comes in. Not long before Wade got the list, she overheard Master Jameson talking to one of his cronies about an upcoming trip to St. Louis and how he was going to find out about leads on some missing girl. The timing lines up.”
“It’s an awfully big coincidence,” I said. Yet even as I spoke, I was reminded of something Sonya Karp always said about the world of Moroi and Alchemists: There are no coincidences.
“What missing girl were they talking about?” asked Eddie carefully.
I met his eyes and immediately understood what he wasn’t saying. A missing girl that the Warriors were interested in. There was one missing girl that the Moroi were very, very interested in as well. And whom the Alchemists were determined to keep safe. She was the reason I was stationed in Palm Springs in the first place. In fact, I was pretending to be her sister.
I said nothing and focused on Marcus again.
He shrugged. “I don’t know, just that finding her would create a lot of problems for the Moroi. The details aren’t important yet. First we have to prove the connection.”
Those details were immensely important to Eddie and me, but I wasn’t sure how much Marcus and friends knew about Jill. I wasn’t about to show too much interest.
“And that’s what you want me to do?” I asked, recalling the arcade discussion. “How would you like me to do that? Go visit Master Jameson and ask him?”
“Every visitor is recorded on video if they’re going through the secure access point,” said Wade. “Even the top secret ones. All you have to do is steal a copy of that footage. They store it all in their computers.”
These people had a very different idea than me of what “all you have to do” meant.
“I’m a field Alchemist in Palm Springs,” I reminded them. “I’m not a computer hacker. I’m not even in St. Louis! How would I walk in and steal something?”
Marcus tilted his head to study me, allowing some of that golden hair to slip forward. “It’s more of that resourceful vibe I get off you. Couldn’t you find some way to get to St. Louis? Some reason to visit?”
“No! I’d have no . . .” I trailed off, flashing back to the wedding. Ian, with his lovesick eyes, had invited me to visit him in St. Louis. He’d had the audacity to use church services as a way to further his chances with me.
Marcus’s eyes sparkled. “You’ve already thought of something, haven’t you? Brilliant, just like I thought.” Amelia looked mildly put out at hearing me complimented.
“It’d be a long shot,” I said.
“That’s kind of how we roll,” said Marcus.
I still wasn’t on board. “Look, I know someone there, but I’d have to get permission to even go, which wouldn’t be easy.” I stared at each of them in turn. “You know how it is. You were all in the Alchemists. You know we can’t just take vacations whenever we want.”
Wade and Amelia actually had the grace to look embarrassed, but Marcus was undaunted. “Can you let this chance pass? Even if you don’t want to join us or alter your tattoo, just think about it. You saw the Warriors. You saw what they’re capable of. Can you even imagine what could happen if they had access to Alchemist resources?”
“It’s all circumstantial,” argued the scientist in me.
“Sydney,” said Eddie.
I turned to him and saw something in his eyes I’d never expected to see: pleading. He didn’t care about Alchemist conspiracies or Marcus’s Merry Men. What he cared about was Jill, and he’d heard something that made him think she was in danger. That was unacceptable in his world. He would do anything in his power to keep her safe, but even he knew stealing information from the Alchemists was out of his league. It was pretty much out of mine too, but he didn’t know that. He believed in me, and he was silently begging me to help.
Marcus pushed his advantage. “You have nothing to lose – I mean, if you aren’t caught. If you get the footage and we find nothing . . . well, so be it. False alarm. But if we get hard proof that Jameson was there, then I don’t have to tell you how big that is. Either way, you should break your tattoo and join us. Besides, after a stunt like this, would you really want to stick around?” He eyed me. “But that part’s up to you. Just help us for now.”
Against my better judgment, my mind was starting to figure out how I could pull this off. “I’d need a lot more information about operations,” I murmured.
“I can get you that,” said Wade promptly.
I didn’t answer. This was crazy – a crazy idea from a crazy group. But I looked at Marcus’s tattoo and the way the others followed him – the way even Sabrina followed him. There was a dedication, an ardent belief that had nothing to do with Marcus’s silly flirting. They might really be on to something.
“Sydney,” said Eddie again. And this time: “Please.”
I could feel my resolve weakening. A missing girl, who could cause lots of trouble if found. If they were really talking about Jill, how could I risk anything happening to her?
But what if I was caught?
Don’t get caught, an inner voice said.
With a sigh, I looked back up at Wade. “All right,” I said. “Give me the scoop.”
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