"I just stuck some dead batteries in a few of them on my way over to your room," Penn said, in the same nonchalant tone of voice someone else might use to say "I just filled the car up with gas."
Penn took a sweeping glance around before she led Luce to the main building's back entrance and down three steep steps to an olive-colored door not visible from ground level.
"Is this basement from the Civil War era, too?" Luce asked. It looked like an entrance to the kind of place where you could stash some POW5.
Penn gave the damp air a long, dramatic sniff. "Does the malodorous rot answer your question? This here is some antebellum mildew." She grinned at Luce. "Most students would keel over for the chance to inhale such storied air."
Luce tried not to breathe through her nose as Penn produced a hardware store's worth of keys held together on a giant lanyard. "My life would be so much easier if they got around to making a skeleton key for this place," she said, sifting through the assortment and finally pulling forward a thin silver key.
When the key turned in the lock, Luce felt an unexpected shiver of excitement. Penn was right - this was way better than mapping out her family tree.
They walked a short distance through a warm, damp corridor whose ceiling was only a few inches higher than their heads. The stale air smelled like something had died there, and Luce was almost glad the room was too dark to clearly see the floor. Just when she was beginning to feel claustrophobic, Penn produced another key that opened a small but much more modern door. They ducked through, then were able to stand up on the other side.
Inside, the records office reeked of mildew, but the air felt much cooler and drier. It was pitch-black except for the pale red glow of the EXIT sign over their heads.
Luce could make out Penn's sturdy silhouette, her hands groping in the air. "Where's that string?" she muttered. "There."
With a gentle tug, Penn turned on a naked lightbulb hanging from the ceiling on a linked metal chain. The room was still dim, but now Luce could see that the cement walls were also painted olive green and lined with heavy metal shelves and filing cabinets. Dozens of cardboard filing boxes had been stuffed onto the shelves, and the aisles between the cabinets seemed to stretch out forever. Everything was coated with a thick felt of dust.
The sunshine outside suddenly felt very far away. Even though Luce knew they were only a flight of stairs under the ground, it might as well have been a mile. She rubbed her bare arms. If she were a shadow, this basement was exactly where she'd be. There were no signs of them yet, but Luce knew that was never a good enough reason to feel safe.
Penn, unfazed by the gloom of the basement, dragged a step stool from the corner. "Wow," she said, pulling it behind her as she walked. "Something's different. The records used to be right here... I guess they've been doing a little spring cleaning since the last time I meddled in here."
"How long ago was that?" Luce asked.
"About a week..." Penn's voice trailed off as she disappeared into the darkness behind a tall file cabinet.
Luce couldn't imagine what Sword & Cross would possibly need with all of these boxes. She lifted one lid and pulled out a thick file labeled REMEDIAL MEASURES. She swallowed dryly. Maybe she was better off not knowing.
"It's alphabetical by student," Penn called. Her voice sounded muffled and far away. "E, F, C ... here we are, Grigori."
Luce followed the sound of rustling paperwork down a narrow aisle and soon found Penn with a box propped in her arms, struggling under its weight. Daniel's file was tucked under her chin.
"It's so thin," she said, lifting her chin slightly so Luce could take it. "Normally, they're so much more, um ..." She looked up at Luce and bit her lip. "Okay, now I sound like the crazy stalker girl. Let's just see what's inside."
There was only a single page in Daniel's file. A black-and-white scan of what must have been his student ID picture was pasted onto the upper right-hand corner. He was looking straight at the camera, at Luce, a faint smile on his lips. She couldn't help smiling back. He looked just the same as he had that night when - well, she couldn't quite think of when. The image of his expression was so sharp in her mind, but she couldn't pin down where she would have seen it.
"God, doesn't he look exactly the same?" Penn interrupted Luce's thoughts. "And look at the date. This picture was taken three years ago when he first came to Sword & Cross."
That must have been what Luce had been thinking ... that Daniel looked the same then as he did now. But she felt like she'd been thinking - or been about to think - something different, only now she couldn't remember what it was.
"Parents: unknown,'" Penn read, with Luce leaning over her shoulder. "Guardian: Los Angeles County Orphanage.'"
"Orphanage?" Luce asked, pressing her hand to her heart.
"That's all there is. Everything else listed here is his - "
"Criminal history," Luce finished, reading along. "Loitering on public beach after hours ... vandalism of a shopping cart ... jaywalking.'"
Penn widened her eyes at Luce and swallowed a laugh. "Loverboy Grigori got arrested for jaywalking?
Admit it, that's funny."
Luce didn't like picturing Daniel getting arrested for anything. She liked it even less that, according to Sword & Cross, his whole life added up to little more than a list of petty crimes. All these boxes of paperwork down here, and this was all there was on Daniel.
"There has to be more," she said.
Footsteps overhead. Luce's and Penn's eyes shot to the ceiling.
"The main office," Penn whispered, pulling a tissue from inside her sleeve to blow her nose. "It could be anyone. But no one's going to come down here, trust me."
A second later, a door deep within the room creaked open, and light from a hall illuminated a stairway. A clopping of shoes started down. Luce felt Penn's grip on the back of her shirt, pulling her against the wall behind a bookshelf. They waited, holding their breath and clutching Daniel's poached file in their hands.
They were so, so busted.
Luce had her eyes closed, expecting the worst, when a haunting, melodious hum filled the room.
Someone was singing.
"Doooo da da da dooo," a female voice crooned softly. Luce craned her neck between two boxes of files and could see a thin older woman with a small flashlight strapped to her forehead like a coal miner. Miss Sophia. She was carrying two large boxes, one stacked on top of the other so the only part of her that was visible was her glowing forehead. Her airy steps made it look as if the boxes were full of feathers instead of heavy files.
Penn gripped Luce's hand as they watched Miss Sophia place the file boxes on an empty shelf. She took out a pen to write down something in her notebook.
"Just a couple more," she said, then something under her breath that Luce couldn't hear. A second later, Miss Sophia was gliding back up the stairs, gone as quickly as she'd appeared. Her hum lingered for just a moment in her wake.
When the door clicked shut, Penn let out a huge gulp of air. "She said there were more. She'll probably come back."
"What do we do?" Luce asked.
"You sneak back up the stairs," Penn said, pointing. "Hang a left at the top and you'll be right back at the main office. If anyone sees you, you can say you were looking for a bathroom."
"What about you?"
"I'll put Daniel's file away and meet you by the bleachers. Miss Sophia won't get suspicious if she sees just me. I'm down here so much it's like a second dorm room."
Luce glanced at Daniel's file with a small pang of regret. She wasn't ready to leave yet. Right around the time she'd resigned herself to checking out Daniel's file, she'd also started thinking about Cam's. Daniel was so cryptic - and unfortunately, so was his file. Cam, on the other hand, seemed so open and easy to read that it made her curious. Luce wondered what else she might be able to find out about him that he might not otherwise share. But one look at Penn's face told Luce that they were short enough on time as it was.
"If there's more to find on Daniel, we'll find it," Penn assured her. "We'll keep looking." She gave Luce a little shove toward the door. "Now, go."
Luce moved quickly down the rank corridor, then pushed open the door to the stairs. The air at the base of the stairs was still humid, but she could feel it clear a little with each step she took. When she finally rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, she had to blink and rub her eyes to readjust to the bright sunlight flooding the hallway. She stumbled around the corner and through the whitewashed doors to the main lobby. There she froze.
Two black stiletto boots, crossed at the ankles, were propped up and sticking out of the phone booth, looking very Wicked Witch of the South, Luce was hurrying toward the front door, hoping not to be spotted, when she realized that the stiletto boots were attached to a pair of snakeskin leggings, which was attached to an unsmiling Molly. The tiny silver camera was resting in her hand, She raised her eyes to Luce, hung up the phone at her ear, and kicked her feet to the floor.
"Why do you look so guilty, Meat Loaf?" she asked, standing up with her hands on her hips. "Let me guess. You're still planning on ignoring my suggestion to stay away from Daniel."
This whole evil monster thing had to be an act. Molly had no way of knowing where Luce had just been.
She didn't know anything about Luce. She had no cause to be so nasty. Since the first day of school, Luce had never done a thing to Molly - except try to stay away from her.
"Are you forgetting what a hellish disaster it was the last time you tried to force yourself on a guy who wasn't interested?" Molly's voice was as sharp as a knife. "What was his name again? Taylor? Truman?"
Trevor. How could Molly know about Trevor? This was it, her deepest, darkest secret. The one thing Luce wanted - needed - to keep under wraps at Sword & Cross. Now, not only did Evil Incarnate know all about it, she felt no shame bringing it up, cruelly, cavalierly - in the middle of the school's main office.
Was it possible that Penn had been lying, that Luce wasn't the only person she shared her office secrets with? Was there any other logical explanation? Luce gripped her arms over her chest, feeling as sick and exposed ... and inexplicably guilty as she'd felt the night of the fire.
Molly cocked her head. "Finally," she said, sounding relieved. "Something got through to you." She turned her back on Luce and shoved open the front door. Then, just before she sauntered outside, she twisted her neck around and looked down her nose at Luce. "So don't do to dear old Daniel what you did to what's-his-name. Capiche?"
Luce started after her, but only got a few steps out the door before she realized she would probably crack if she tried to take on Molly now. The girl was just too vicious. Then, rubbing salt in Luce's wound, Gabbe trotted down from the bleachers to meet Molly in the middle of the field. They were far enough away that Luce couldn't make out their expressions when they both turned back to look at her. The ponytailed blond head craned toward the black pixie cut - the vilest tкte-a-tкte Luce had ever seen.
She balled her sweating fists together, imagining Molly spilling everything she knew about Trevor to Gabbe, who would immediately run off to relay the news to Daniel. At the thought of this, a sick ache spread from Luce's fingertips, up her arms, and into her chest. Daniel might have been caught jaywalking, but so what? It was nothing compared to what
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