I EXPLAINED AWAY my chemistry experiment by saying that it was just a substance I had on hand from when I received my tattoo, in the event I had an allergic reaction. I certainly didn't let on that I'd mixed it myself. I think they would've bought that cover story, if not for the fact that a few days later, I was able to get ahold of a formula that helped treat the chemical burns on Kristin's skin. The mixture did nothing for the ink stain - that seemed to be permanent, barring some tattoo laser removal - but her welts did fade a little bit.
After that, word got around that Sydney Melrose was the new on-site pharmacist. Because I had extra left over from Kristin, I gave the remainder of the skin cream to a girl with severe acne since it worked on that as well. That probably didn't do me any favors. People approached me for all sorts of things and even offered to pay me. Some requests were pointless, like cures for headaches. Those people I simply told to buy some aspirin. Other requests were out of my power and nothing I wanted to deal with, like birth control.
Aside from the weird requests, I actually didn't mind the increase in my daily social interaction. I was used to people needing things from me, so that was familiar territory. Some people just wanted to know more about me as a person, which was new and more enjoyable than I'd expected. And still others wanted... different things from me.
I was waiting for my English class to start and was startled to see one of Greg Slade's friends standing over my desk. His name was Bryan, and although I didn't know much about him, he'd never come across as obnoxious as Slade, which was a point in Bryan's favor.
"Yes?" I asked, wondering if he wanted to borrow notes from me.
He had shaggy brown hair that seemed to be purposely grown unkempt and was actually kind of cute. He ran a hand over it as he picked his words. "Do you know anything about silent films?"
"Sure," I said. "The first ones were developed in the late nineteenth century and sometimes had live musical accompaniment, though it wasn't until the 1920s that sound become truly incorporated into films, eventually making silent ones obsolete in cinema."
Bryan gaped, as though that was more than he'd been expecting. "Oh. Okay. Well, um, there's a silent film festival downtown next week. Do you think you'd want to go?"
I shook my head. "No, I don't think so. I respect it as an art form but really don't get much out of watching them."
"Huh. Okay." He smoothed his hair back again, and I could almost see him groping for thoughts. Why on earth was he asking me about silent films? "What about Starship 30? It opens Friday. Do you want to see that?"
"I don't really like sci-fi either," I said. It was true, I found it completely implausible.
Bryan looked ready to rip that shaggy hair out. "Is there any movie out there you want to see?"
I ran through a mental list of current entertainment. "No. Not really." The bell rang, and with a shake of his head, Bryan slunk back to his desk. "That was weird," I muttered. "He has bad taste in movies." Glancing beside me, I was startled to see Julia with her head down on her desk while she shook with silent laughter. "What?"
"That," she gasped. "That was hilarious."
"What?" I said again. "Why?"
"Sydney, he was asking you out!"
I replayed the conversation. "No, he wasn't. He was asking me about cinema."
She was laughing so hard that she had to wipe away a tear. "So he could find out what you wanted to see and take you out!"
"Well, why didn't he just say that?"
"You are so adorably oblivious," she said. "I hope I'm around the day you actually notice someone is interested in you." I continued to be mystified, and she spent the rest of class bursting out with spontaneous giggles.
While I became an object of fascination, Jill's popularity fell. Part of it was her own shyness. She was still so conscious and worried about being different that she assumed everyone else was aware of her otherness too. She continued holding back from connecting with people out of fear, making her come across as aloof. Surprisingly making this worse, Jill's "doctor's note" had finally come through from the Alchemists. The school wouldn't put her into a different elective that was already in progress. Freshmen weren't allowed to be teacher's aides like Trey. After consultation with Miss Carson, they'd finally decided that Jill would participate in all indoor PE activities and do "alternate assignments" when we were outdoors. This usually meant writing reports on things like the history of softball. Unfortunately, sitting out half the time only managed to isolate Jill more.
Micah continued to dote on her, even in the face of adversity.
"Lee texted me this morning," she told me at lunch one day. "He wants to take me out to dinner this weekend. Do you think... I mean, I know you guys would have to go too..." She glanced uncertainly between Eddie and me.
"Who's Lee?" asked Micah. He had just sat down with our group.
A few moments of awkward silence fell. "Oh," said Jill, averting her eyes. "He's this, um, guy we know. He doesn't go here. He goes to college. In Los Angeles."
Micah processed this. "He asked you on a date?"
"Yeah... we actually went out before. I guess we're, well, kind of dating."
"Not seriously," piped in Eddie. I wasn't sure if he was saying this to spare Micah's feelings or if it was some protective way to stop Jill from getting too close to anyone.
Micah was good at hiding his emotions, I'd give him that. After a bit more thought, he finally gave Jill a smile that only seemed slightly forced. "Well, that's great. I hope I can meet him." After that, the conversation turned to the upcoming football game, and no one mentioned Lee again.
Finding out about Lee changed how Micah acted around Jill, but he still hung out with us all the time. Maybe it was in the hopes that Lee and Jill would break up. Or it could've simply been because Micah and Eddie spent a lot of time together, and Eddie was one of Jill's few friends. But the problem wasn't Micah. It was Laurel.
I didn't think Micah would've been interested in Laurel even if Jill hadn't been in the picture, but Laurel still saw Jill as a threat - and went out of her way to make her miserable. Laurel spread rumors about her and made pointed comments in the halls and during class about Jill's pale skin, height, and skinniness - Jill's biggest insecurities.
Once or twice, I heard the name vampire girl whispered in the halls. It made my blood run cold, no matter how many times I reminded myself it was a joke.
"Jill isn't what's keeping Laurel and Micah apart," I remarked to Julia and Kristin one day. They were amused by my continued efforts to apply logic and rationality to social behaviors in the school. "I don't understand. He just doesn't like Laurel."
"Yeah, but it's easier for her to think Jill's the problem, when really, Laurel's just a bitch and Micah knows it," explained Julia. Ever since the awkward encounter with Bryan, she and Kristin had taken it upon themselves to try to educate me in the ways "normal" humans behaved.
"Plus, Laurel just likes having someone to pick on," said Kristin. She rarely spoke about the tattoo but had been serious and sober ever since. "Okay," I said, trying to follow the logic, "but I was the one who called her out about dying her hair. She's hardly said a word to me."
Kristin smiled. "No fun picking on you. You talk back. Jill doesn't defend herself much and doesn't have many people to stick up for her either. She's an easy target."
One positive thing did happen, at least. Adrian was staying on good behavior after the Los Angeles mishap, though I had to wonder how long it would last. Based on what I gathered from Jill, he was still bored and unhappy. Lee's schedule was erratic, and it wasn't his job to look after Adrian anyway. There didn't seem to be any good solution for her, really. If Adrian gave in to his vices, she suffered the effects of his hangovers and "romantic interludes." If he didn't, then he was miserable, and that attitude slowly trickled into her as well. The only hope they had was that Jill would eventually learn the control to block him out of her mind, but from what Rose had told her, that could take a very long time.
When the next feeding came around, I was disappointed to see Keith's car parked in Clarence's driveway. If he wasn't going to actually do anything active to help this assignment, I kind of wished he'd just stay away from it altogether. He apparently thought these "supervising" visits counted as work and continued to justify his presence. Except when we met up with Adrian in the living room, Keith was nowhere in sight. Neither was Clarence.
"Where are they?" I asked Adrian.
Adrian was lounging on the couch and put down a book he'd been reading. I had a feeling reading was a rare activity for him and almost felt bad for the interruption. He stifled a yawn. There was no alcohol in sight, but I did see what looked like three empty cans of energy drink.
He shrugged. "I don't know. Off talking somewhere. Your friend's got a sick sense of humor. I think he's feeding Clarence's paranoia about vampire hunters."
I glanced uneasily at Lee, who had immediately begun talking to Jill. Both were so caught up in each other, they didn't even realize what the rest of us were discussing. I knew how much the vampire hunter talk bothered Lee. He wouldn't appreciate Keith encouraging it.
"Does Clarence know about the killing in LA?" asked Eddie. There was no reason Keith wouldn't, since it was open Alchemist knowledge, but I wasn't sure if he would've made the connection to Clarence or not.
"He hasn't mentioned it," said Adrian. "I swear Keith's just doing it because he's bored or something. Even I haven't sunk that low."
"Is that what you've been doing instead?" I asked. I sat down across from him and pointed at the energy drinks.
"Hey, it's not vodka or brandy or... well, anything good." Adrian sighed and upended one can, drinking the last few drops. "So give me some credit." Eddie glanced at the cans. "Didn't Jill say she had trouble sleeping last night?"
"Adrian," I said with a groan. Eddie was right. I'd noticed Jill tossing and turning constantly. Vicarious caffeine would certainly explain it. "Hey, I'm trying," Adrian said. "If you could get me out of here, Sage, then I wouldn't be forced to drown my sorrows in taurine and ginseng."
"She can't, Adrian, and you know it," said Eddie. "Can't you... I don't know. Find a hobby or something?"
"Being charming is my hobby," said Adrian obstinately. "I'm the life of a party - even without drinking. I wasn't meant to be alone."
"You could get a job," said Eddie, settling into a corner chair. He smiled, amused by his own wit. "Solve both your problems - make some money and be around people."
Adrian scowled. "Careful, Castile. There's only one comedian in this family."
I straightened up. "That's actually not a bad idea."
"It's a terrible idea," said Adrian, glancing between me and Eddie.
"Why?" I asked. "Is this the part where you tell us your hands don't do manual labor?"
"It's more like the part where I don't have anything to offer society," he countered.
"I could help you," I offered.
"Are you going to do the work and give me the paycheck?" Adrian asked hopefully. "Because that actually could help."
"I can give you a ride to your interviews," I said. "And I can make you a resume that would get you any job." I eyed him and reconsidered. "Well, within reason."
Adrian stretched back out. "Sorry, Sage. Just not feeling it."
Clarence and Keith entered just then. Clarence's face was exuberant. "Thank you, thank you," he was saying. "It's so nice to talk to someone who understands my concerns about the hunters."
I hadn't been aware that Keith understood anything except his own self-serving nature. Lee's face darkened when he realized Keith was furthering the old man's irrationality. Nonetheless, the Moroi withheld the comments he undoubtedly wanted to make. It was the first time I'd seen any sort of dark emotion on Lee's face. Looked like Keith could bring down even the most cheerful person.
Clarence was happy to see us, as was Dorothy. Humans who gave blood to vampires weren't just disgusting because of the act itself. What was also appalling was the addiction that resulted. Vampires released endorphins into those they drank from, endorphins that created a pleasurable sort of high. Human feeders who lived among Moroi spent their entire days in that high, becoming heavily dependent on it. Someone like Dorothy, who had lived only with Clarence for years, hadn't experienced enough bites to really get addicted. Now, with Jill and Adrian around, Dorothy was getting an increased amount of endorphins in her daily life. Her eyes lit up when she saw Jill, showing she was eager for more.
"Hey, Sage," said Adrian. "I don't want an interview, but do you think you could give me a ride to get some cigarettes?"
I started to tell him I wasn't going to help with such a filthy habit and then noticed him looking meaningfully at Dorothy. Was he trying to get me out of here? I wondered. Give me an excuse to not be around for the feeding? From what I understood, Moroi normally didn't hide their feedings from each other. Jill and Dorothy just usually left the room for my comfort. I knew they'd probably do it again but decided I'd take the opportunity to get away. Of course, I glanced at Keith for confirmation, expecting him to protest. He merely shrugged. It looked like I was the last thing on his mind.
"Okay," I said, standing up. "Let's go."
In the car, Adrian turned to me.
"I changed my mind," he said. "I'll take you up on helping me get a job."
I almost swerved into oncoming traffic. Few things from him could have surprised me more - and he said pretty surprising things on a regular basis.
"That was fast. Are you serious?"
"As much as I ever am. Will you still help me?"
"I suppose so, though there's only so much I can do. I can't actually get you the job." I ran down my mental list of what I knew about Adrian. "I don't suppose you have any idea of what you'd actually like to do?"
"I want something entertaining," he said. He thought some more. "And I want to make lots of money - but do as little work as possible."
"Lovely," I muttered. "That narrows it down."
We reached downtown, and I managed a flawless parallel-parking job that didn't impress him nearly as much as it should have. We were right in front of a convenience store, and I stood outside while he went in. Evening shadows were falling. I was off campus all the time, but so far, my trips had all been to Clarence's, mini-golf courses, and fast-food joints. It turned out that the city of Palm Springs was really pretty. Boutiques and restaurants lined the streets, and I could've spent hours people-watching. Retirees in golfing getups strolled alongside young glamorous socialites. I knew a lot of celebrities came here too, but I wasn't in tune enough with the entertainment world to know who was who.
"Man," said Adrian, emerging from the store. "They raised the price on my normal brand. I had to buy some crappy one."
"You know," I said. "Quitting would also be a really great way to save some - "
I froze as I spotted something down the street. Three blocks away, through the leaves of some palm trees, I could just barely make out a sign that read Nevermore in ornate Gothic lettering. That was the place. The source of the tattoos running rampant through Amberwood. Ever since Kristin's incident, I'd wanted to delve into this more but hadn't been sure how. Now I had my chance.
For a moment, I remembered Keith telling me not to get involved with anything that might raise attention or cause trouble. Then I thought about the way Kristin had looked during her overdose. This was my opportunity to actually do something. I made a decision.
"Adrian," I said. "I need your help."
I pulled him toward the tattoo parlor, filling him in on the situation. For a moment, he seemed so interested in high-inducing tattoos that I thought he'd want one. When I told him about Kristin, though, his enthusiasm faded.
"Even if it's not Alchemist technology, they're still doing something dangerous," I explained. "Not just to Kristin. What Slade and those guys are doing - using the steroids to be better at football - is just as bad. People are getting hurt." I thought, suddenly, of Trey's cuts and bruises.
A small alley separated the tattoo parlor from a neighboring restaurant, and we stopped just before it. A door opened inside the alley, on the parlor side, and a man stepped out and lit a cigarette. He'd taken only two steps when another man stuck his head out the side door and called, "How long are you going to be gone?" I could see shelves and tables behind him.
"Just running down to the store," said the man with the cigarette. "I'll be back in ten."
The other guy went back inside, shutting the door. A few moments later, we saw him through the window at the front of the store, tidying up something on the counter.
"I have to get back there," I said to Adrian. "Into that door."
He arched an eyebrow. "What, like sneaking in? How very black ops of you. And oh, you know - dangerous and foolish."
"I know," I said, surprised at how calm I sounded as I admitted that. "But I have to know something, and this may be my only chance."
"Then I'll go with you in case that guy comes back," he said with a sigh. "Never let it be said Adrian Ivashkov doesn't help damsels in distress. Besides, did you see him? He looked like some insane biker. They both did."
"I don't want you to - wait." Inspiration hit. "You talk to the guy inside."
"Go in the front. Distract him so that I can look around. Talk to him about... I don't know. You'll think of something."
We quickly hashed out a plan. I sent Adrian on his way while I ducked into the alley and approached the door. I pulled the handle and found it - locked. "Of course," I muttered. What business would leave a remote door like this exposed and unlocked? My brilliant plan started to crumble until I remembered I had my Alchemist "essentials" in my purse.
My full kit was rarely needed, high school acne crises aside, so it was usually kept at home. But Alchemists were always on call, no matter where they were, to cover up vampire sightings. And so, we always kept a couple of things on us at all times. One was the substance that could dissolve a Strigoi body in under a minute. The other was almost equally efficient at dissolving metal.
It was a type of acid, and I kept it in a protected vial in my purse. Quickly, I fished it out and unscrewed the top. A bitter scent hit me and made me wrinkle my nose. With the bottle's glass dropper, I very carefully leaned down and placed a few drops right in the center of the lock. I immediately stepped back as a white mist rose up from the contact. Within thirty seconds, it had all dissipated, and there was a hole in the middle of the door's handle. One of the nice things about this stuff, which we called quickfire, was that its reaction occurred extremely fast. It was now inert and posed no danger to my skin. I pushed down on the handle, and it released.
I only opened the door a crack, just to ascertain that there was no one else around. Nope. Empty. I crept inside and quietly shut the door behind me, fastening an inside bolt to make sure it stayed locked. As I'd seen from the outside, the place was a storage room, filled with all sorts of tools of the tattoo trade. Three doorways surrounded me. One led to a bathroom, one to a darkened room, and another to the store's front and main counter. Light spilled in from that doorway, and I could hear Adrian's voice.
"My friend's got one," he was saying. "I've seen it, and he said this is the place he got it. Come on, don't play me."
"Sorry," came the gruff response. "No idea what you're talking about."
I slowly began scanning the cupboards and drawers, reading labels and looking for anything suspicious. There were a lot of supplies and not much time.
"Is it a money thing?" asked Adrian. "Because I've got enough. Just tell me how much it costs."
There was a long pause, and I hoped Adrian wouldn't be asked to show any cash since the last of his money had gone to promoting cancer.
"I don't know," the guy said at last. "If I was able to do this copper tattoo you're talking about - and I'm not saying I can - you probably couldn't afford it."
"I'm telling you," said Adrian. "Just name your price."
"What is it you're interested in exactly?" the man asked slowly. "Just the color?"
"I think we both know," said Adrian cunningly. "I want the color. I want the 'bonus effects.' And I want it to look badass. You probably can't even do the design I want."
"That's the least of your worries," said the guy. "I've been doing this for years. I can draw anything you want."
"Yeah? Can you draw a skeleton riding a motorcycle with flames coming out of it? And I want a pirate hat on the skeleton. And a parrot on his shoulder. A skeleton parrot. Or maybe a ninja skeleton parrot? No, that would be overkill. But it'd be cool if the biker skeleton could be shooting some ninja throwing stars. That are on fire."
Meanwhile, I'd still seen no sign of what I needed, but there were a million nooks and crannies left to explore. Panic began to rise in me. I was going to run out of time. Then, seeing the darkened room, I hurried over to it. With a quick glance toward the store's front, I flipped on the light and held my breath. No one must have noticed anything because the conversation continued where it had left off.
"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," said the tattooist.
"That's not what the ladies are going to say," said Adrian.
"Look, kid," said the guy. "It's not even about money. It's about availability. That's a lot of ink you're talking about, and I don't have that much in stock."
"Well, when will your supplier deliver next?" asked Adrian.
I stared in awe at what I had found: I was in the room where the tattooing took place. There was a lounging chair - much more comfortable than the table I'd received my tattoo on - and a small side table covered with what appeared to be freshly used implements.
"I've already got some people wait-listed ahead of you. I don't know when there'll be more."
"Can you call me when you know?" Adrian asked. "I'll give you my info. My name's Jet Steele."
If not for my own tense situation, I would've groaned. Jet Steele? Really? Before I could think much more about it, I finally found what I'd been looking for. The tattoo gun on the table had its own ink container, but sitting nearby were several smaller vials. All of them were empty, but some still had enough metallic residue of their former ingredients to tip me off. Without even thinking twice, I quickly began recapping them and putting them in my purse. Nearby, I noticed some sealed vials full of dark liquid. I froze for a moment. Carefully, I picked one up, opened it, and took a sniff.
It was what I'd feared.
I screwed the lid back on and added those vials to my purse.
Just then, I heard a rattling behind me. Someone was trying to open the back door. I'd bolted it behind me, however, and it didn't give. Still, it meant my time for snooping was up. I was just zipping up my purse when I heard the store's front door open.
"Joey, why's the back door locked?" an angry voice demanded.
"It's always locked."
"No, the bolt was on. From the inside. It wasn't when I left."
Cue my exit. I flipped off the light and began hurrying back through the storage room.
"Wait!" exclaimed Adrian. There was an anxious note to his voice, like he was trying to get someone's attention. I had the uneasy feeling that the two guys who worked here were headed back behind the counter to investigate. "I need to know something else about the tattoo. Can the parrot also be wearing a pirate's hat? Like a miniature one?"
"In a minute. We have to check something." The voice was louder than before. Closer.
My hands fumbled as I unlatched the bolt. I managed it and opened the door, hurrying out just as I heard voices behind me. Without pausing to glance back, I shut the door and ran out the alley and up the street, back toward where I'd parked. I was pretty sure the guys hadn't gotten a good look at me. I think I'd just been a figure darting out the door. Still, I was grateful for the crowds of people on the street. I was able to blend in as I turned my attention to my car and unlocked the door. My hands were sweaty and shaking as I fumbled with the keys.
I wanted badly to look behind me but was afraid of attracting the attention of the two men, if they were out searching the street. As long as they had no reason to suspect me -
A hand suddenly grabbed my arm and jerked me away. I gasped.
"It's me," said a voice.
Adrian. I breathed a sigh of relief.
"Don't look back," he said calmly. "Just get in the car."
I obeyed. Once we were both safely inside, I took a deep breath, overwhelmed by the pounding of my heart. Fear-born adrenaline surged in my chest, so strongly it hurt. I closed my eyes and leaned back.
"That was too close," I said. "And you did good, by the way."
"I know," he said proudly. "And actually, I kind of want that tattoo now. Did you find what you were looking for?"
I opened my eyes and sighed. "I did. And a whole lot more."
"So, what is it? They're putting drugs in tattoos?"
"Worse," I said. "They're using vampire blood."