MY DISCOVERY KICKED the tattoo problem up to a whole new level. Before, I'd just thought I was fighting against people using techniques similar to Alchemist methods to expose Amberwood to drugs. It had been a moral issue. Now, with blood on the line - it was an Alchemist issue. Our whole purpose was to protect humans from the existence of vampires. If someone was illicitly putting vampire blood into humans, they'd crossed the line we worked hard, every day, to maintain.
I knew I should immediately report this. If someone had gotten their hands on vampire blood, the Alchemists needed to send a force here and investigate. If I followed the normal chain of command, I supposed the thing would be to tell Keith and let him tell our superiors. If he did, however, I had no doubt he'd claim all the credit for uncovering this. I couldn't let that happen - and not because I wanted the glory for myself. Too many Alchemists erroneously believed Keith was an upstanding person. I didn't want to fuel that.
But before I did anything, I needed to figure out the rest of the vials' contents. I could make guesses at the metallic residues but wasn't sure if, like the blood, they came straight from the Alchemist catalog or were just knockoffs. And if they were our formulas, it wasn't obvious at a glance which were which.
The silver powder in one vial, for example, could have been a few different Alchemist compounds. I had the means to do some experiments and figure it out, but one substance eluded me. It was clear, slightly thick liquid that had no discernable odor. My guess was that it was the narcotic used in the celestial tattoos. Vampire blood wouldn't cause that high, though it would absolutely explain the crazy athleticism of the so-called steel tattoos. So, I began running what experiments I could, while going on with the normal routines of school.
We were playing basketball inside in PE this week, so Jill was participating - and being subjected to Laurel's biting comments. I kept hearing her say things like, "You'd think she'd be a lot better since she's so tall. She can practically touch the basket without jumping. Or maybe she should turn into a bat and fly up there."
I winced. I had to keep telling myself not to make a big deal of the jokes, but every time I heard one, panic seized me. I had to hide it, though. If I wanted to help Jill, I needed the teasing stopped as a whole - not just the vampire stuff. Drawing more attention to those comments wouldn't help.
Micah tried to comfort Jill after each attack, which clearly infuriated Laurel more. Laurel's weren't the only comments reaching my ears. Since my raid of the tattoo parlor, I'd been hearing a fair amount of interesting information from Slade and his friends.
"Well, did he say when?" Miss Carson was taking attendance, and Slade was interrogating a guy named Tim about a recent trip to the parlor.
Tim shook his head. "No. They're having some trouble with their shipment. It sounds like the supplier's got it but doesn't want to give it up for the same price."
"Damn it," growled Slade. "I need a touch-up."
"Hey," said Tim. "What about me? I don't even have my first one."
It wasn't the first comment I'd overheard from someone who already had a celestial and needed a touch-up. Addiction in action.
Jill's face was hard when PE ended, and I had the feeling she was trying not to cry. I tried talking to her in the locker room, but she simply shook her head and headed off for the showers. I was about to go there myself when I heard a shriek. Those of us who were still by the lockers raced to the shower room to see what was happening.
Laurel jerked the curtain back from her stall and came running out, oblivious to the fact that she was naked. I gaped. Her skin was covered in a fine sheen of ice. Water droplets from the shower had frozen solid on her skin and in her hair, though in the steamy heat of the rest of the room, they were already starting to melt. I glanced over to the shower itself and noticed that the water coming out of the faucet was also frozen solid.
Laurel's screams brought Miss Carson running in - shocked as the rest of us at the seemingly impossible thing we'd just witnessed. She finally declared it was some kind of freak problem with the pipes and the water heater. That was typical of my fellow humans. They'd always reach for far-fetched scientific explanations before delving into fantastic ones.
But I had no problem with that. It made my job easier.
Miss Carson tried to get Laurel to go into a different shower to get the ice off, but she refused. She waited for it all to melt and then toweled herself off. Her hair was atrocious when she finally left for her next class, and I smirked. I guessed there'd be no hair-tossing today.
"Jill," I called, catching sight of her trying to blend in to the group of girls leaving the locker room. She glanced guiltily over her shoulder but didn't otherwise acknowledge that she'd heard me. I followed close behind her. "Jill!" I called out again. She was definitely avoiding me.
In the hall, Jill spotted Micah and hurried over to him. Smart. She knew I wouldn't ask any dangerous questions with him around.
She managed to avoid me for the rest of the day, but I staked out our room until she finally came home, just before curfew.
"Jill," I exclaimed as soon as she walked through the door. "What were you thinking?"
She threw her books down and turned toward me. I had a feeling I wasn't the only one who'd been preparing a speech today.
"I was thinking I'm sick of listening to Laurel and her friends talk about me."
"So you froze her shower?" I asked. "How is that going to stop her? It's not like you can claim credit for it."
Jill shrugged. "It made me feel better."
"That's your excuse?" I could hardly believe it. Jill had always seemed so reasonable. She'd survived becoming a princess and dying with a clear head. This was what broke her. "Do you know what you risked? We're trying to not attract attention here!"
"Miss Carson didn't think it was weird."
"Miss Carson came up with a flimsy excuse to reassure herself! That's what people do. All it's going to take is some janitor investigating and saying pipes don't randomly freeze - especially in Palm Springs!"
"So what?" Jill demanded. "What then? Is their next leap going to be that it was vampire magic?"
"Of course not," I said. "But people are going to talk. You've raised their suspicions."
She eyed me carefully. "Is that what's really upsetting you? Or is it that I used magic at all?"
"Isn't it the same thing?"
"No. I mean, you're upset that I used magic because you don't like magic. You don't like anything to do with vampires. I think this is personal. I know what you think of us."
I groaned. "Jill, I do like you. You're right that magic makes me a little uneasy." Okay, a lot uneasy. "But my personal feelings aren't what's going to make people wonder what could have caused water to freeze like that."
"It isn't right that she can keep doing that!"
"I know. But you have to be better than her."
Jill sat on the bed and sighed. Like that, her anger seemed to melt into despair. "I hate it here. I want to go back to St. Vladimir's. Or Court. Or Michigan. Anywhere but here." She looked at me pleadingly. "Hasn't there been any news about when I can go back?"
"No," I said, unwilling to tell her it might be a while.
"Everyone's having a great time here," she said. "You love it. You have tons of friends."
"I don't - "
"Eddie likes it too. He's got Micah and some other guys in their dorm to hang out with. Plus, he's got me to look after, which gives him a purpose." I'd never thought of it like that but realized she was right. "But me? What do I have? Nothing except this stupid bond that just makes me more depressed because I have to listen to Adrian feel sorry for himself."
"I'm taking Adrian job-hunting tomorrow," I said, not sure if that would really help.
Jill nodded bleakly. "I know. His life'll probably be great now too."
She was sinking into melodrama and her own self-pity, but in light of everything, I kind of felt like she was entitled to it right now.
"You have Lee," I said.
That brought a smile to her face. "I know. He's great. I like him a lot, and I can't believe... I mean, it just seems crazy that he'd like me too."
"Not that crazy."
Her brightness faded. "Did you know Lee told me he thinks I can be a model? He says I've got the figure human fashion designers really like and knows this designer downtown who's looking for models. But when I told Eddie, he said it was a terrible idea because I can't risk having my picture taken. He said if it leaked out, others could find me."
"That's true," I said. "On all counts. You do have a model's figure - but it'd be too dangerous."
She sighed, looking defeated. "See? Nothing works out for me."
"I'm sorry, Jill. I really am. I know it's hard. All I can ask is that you keep trying to stay strong. You've done really great so far. Just hang in there a little longer, okay? Just keep thinking of Lee."
My words sounded hollow, even to me. I almost wondered if I should bring her along with Adrian and me but finally decided against it. I didn't think Adrian needed any distractions. I also wasn't sure how interesting it would be for her. If she was really that eager to watch Adrian go through job interviews, she could "listen in" through the bond.
I met up with Adrian after school the next day, and for the first time in ages, neither Lee nor Keith was around the old house. Clarence was, however, and he practically ran me down when I entered.
"Did you hear?" he demanded. "Did you hear about that poor girl?"
"What girl?" I asked.
"The one killed in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago."
"Oh, yeah," I said, relieved there was no new death. "It was tragic. We're lucky there are no Strigoi here."
He gave me a surprisingly knowing look. "It wasn't Strigoi! Haven't you paid attention? It was them. The vampire hunters."
"But they drank her blood, sir. Didn't you say vampire hunters are human? No human would have any reason to drink Moroi blood."
He turned away from me and paced the living room. I glanced around, wondering where Adrian was.
"Everyone keeps saying that!" said Clarence. "As though I don't already know that. I can't explain why they do what they do. They're a strange lot. They worship the sun and have weird beliefs about evil and honor - more unusual than even your beliefs." Well, that was something. At least he knew I was human. Sometimes I wasn't sure. "They also have strange views on which vampires should die. They kill all Strigoi without question. With Moroi and dhampirs, they're more selective."
"You sure know a lot about them," I said.
"I've made it my business to, ever since Tamara." He sighed and suddenly seemed very, very old. "At least Keith believes me."
I kept my face expressionless. "Oh?"
Clarence nodded. "He's a good young man. You should give him a chance."
My control slipped, and I knew I was scowling. "I'll try, sir." Adrian entered just then, much to my relief. Being alone with Clarence was freaky enough without him actually praising Keith Darnell.
"Ready?" I asked.
"You bet," said Adrian. "I can't wait to be a productive member of society."
I gave his outfit a once-over and had to bite off any comments. It was nice, but of course, his clothes always were. Jill had claimed I had an expensive wardrobe, but Adrian's blew mine away. Today he wore black jeans and a burgundy button-down shirt. The shirt looked like it was some sort of silk blend, and he wore it loose and unbuttoned. His hair was carefully styled to look like he'd just rolled out of bed. Too bad he didn't have my hair's texture. My hair did that without any styling at all.
I had to admit, he looked great - but he didn't look like he was going to a job interview. He looked like he was about to go clubbing. This left me kind of conflicted. I found myself admiring him nonetheless and was again reminded of that impression I got from him sometimes, like he was some kind of work of art. It was a little disconcerting, particularly since I had to keep telling myself that vampires were not attractive in the same way humans were. Fortunately, the practical part of me soon took over, chastising me that it didn't matter if he looked good or not. What mattered was that he looked inappropriate for job interviews. I shouldn't have been surprised, though. This was Adrian Ivashkov.
"So what's on the agenda?" he asked me once we were on the road. "I really think 'Chairman Ivashkov' has a nice ring to it."
"There's a folder in the backseat with our itinerary, Chairman."
Adrian twisted around and retrieved the folder. After a quick scan of it, he declared, "You get points for variety, Sage. But I don't think any of these are going to keep me in the lifestyle I'm accustomed to."
"Your resume's in the back. I did my best, but we're operating within limited parameters here."
He flipped through the papers and found the resume. "Wow. I was an educational assistant at St. Vladimir's?"
I shrugged. "It was the closest you had to a job."
"And Lissa was my supervisor, huh? I hope she gives me a good referral."
When Vasilisa and Rose were still in school, Adrian had lived there and worked with Vasilisa on learning spirit. "Educational assistant" was kind of a stretch, but it made him sound like he could multitask and show up for work on time.
He shut the folder and leaned back against the seat, closing his eyes. "How's Jailbait? She seemed down the last time I saw her."
I considered lying but figured he'd probably find out the truth eventually, either from her directly or through his own deductions. Adrian's judgment might be questionable, but I'd discovered he was excellent at reading people. Eddie claimed it came from being a spirit user and had mentioned something about auras, which I wasn't quite sure I believed in. The Alchemists had no hard evidence that they were real.
"Not good," I said, giving him the full report as we drove.
"That shower thing was hilarious," he said when I finished.
"It was irresponsible! Why can't anyone see that?"
"But that bitch had it coming."
I sighed. "Have you guys forgotten why you're here? You of all people! You saw her die. Don't you get how important it is for her to stay safe and keep a low profile?"
Adrian was quiet for several moments, and when I glanced over, his face was uncharacteristically serious. "I know. But I don't want her to be miserable either. She... she doesn't deserve it. Not like the rest of us."
"I don't think we do either."
"Maybe you don't," he said with a small smile. "What with your pure lifestyle and all. I don't know. Jill's just so... innocent. It's why I saved her, you know. I mean, part of it."
I shivered. "When she died?"
He nodded, a troubled look in his eyes. "When I saw her there, bloody and not moving... I didn't think about the consequences of what I was doing. I just knew I had to save her. She had to live. I acted without question, not even knowing for sure if I could do it."
"It was brave of you."
"Maybe. I don't know. I do know she's gone through a lot. I don't want her to go through any more."
"Neither do I." I was touched at the concern. He kept surprising me in weird ways. Sometimes it was hard to imagine Adrian really caring about anything, but a softer side of him surfaced when he talked about Jill. "I'll do what I can. I know I should talk to her more... be more of a friend or even a fake sister. It's just..."
He eyed me. "Is it really so terrible being around us?"
I blushed. "No," I said. "But... it's complicated. I've been taught certain things my entire life. Those are hard to shake."
"The greatest changes in history have come because people were able to shake off what others told them to do." He looked away from me, out the window.
The statement annoyed me. It sounded good, of course. It was the kind of thing people said all the time without really understanding the implications. Be yourself, fight the system! But people who said them - people like Adrian - hadn't lived my life. They hadn't grown up in a system of beliefs so rigid, it was like being imprisoned. They hadn't been forced to give up their ability to think for themselves or make their own choices. His words didn't just annoy me, I realized. They made me angry. They made me jealous.
I scoffed and threw out a comment worthy of him. "Should I add motivational speaker to your resume?"
"If the pay's right, I'm in. Oh." He straightened up. "I finally placed him. That Micah guy you're so worried about."
"Yeah. Why he looks so familiar. Micah's a dead ringer for Mason Ashford."
"A dhampir that went to St. Vladimir's. He dated Rose for a while." Adrian scoffed and rested his cheek against the glass. "Well, inasmuch as anyone ever dated her. She was crazy for Belikov, even then. Just like she was when we dated. Don't know if Ashford ever knew or if she was able to fool him the whole time. I hope so. Poor bastard."
I frowned. "Why do you say that?"
"He died. Well, was killed, I should say. Did you know about that? A bunch of them were captured by Strigoi last year. Rose and Castile made it out. Ashford didn't."
"No," I said, making a mental note to look into this. "I didn't. Eddie was there too?"
"Yup. Physically, at least. The Strigoi kept feeding off him, so he was useless for most of it. You want to talk about emotional damage? Look no further."
"Poor Eddie," I said. Suddenly, a lot about the dhampir was beginning to make sense to me.
We arrived at the first place, a law firm that was looking for an office assistant. The title sounded more glamorous than it really was and would probably involve a lot of the same errands Trey and I ran for Ms. Terwilliger. But out of the three positions I'd found, this one also had the most potential for future advancement.
The firm was obviously doing well, judging from the lobby we waited in. Orchids grew in giant, well-placed vases, and there was even a fountain in the middle of the room. Three others waited in the lobby with us. One was a very nicely dressed woman in her forties. Opposite her was a man about the same age, sitting with a much younger woman whose lowcut blouse would've gotten her thrown out of Amberwood. Each time I looked at her, I wanted to cover her cleavage up with a cardigan. The three of them obviously knew each other, however, because they kept making eye contact and trading glares. Adrian studied each of them in turn and then turned to me. "This law firm," he said in a low voice. "It specializes in divorce, doesn't it?"
"Yes," I said.
He nodded and took a few moments to process the information. Then, to my horror, he leaned over me and said to the older woman, "He was a fool, clearly. You're a stunning, classy woman. Just wait. He'll be sorry."
"Adrian!" I exclaimed.
The woman flinched in surprise but didn't look entirely offended. Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, the younger woman straightened up from where she'd been cuddling against the man.
"Sorry?" she demanded. "What's that supposed to mean?"
I willed the earth to swallow me up and save me. Fortunately, the next-best thing came when the receptionist called the threesome in to meet with a lawyer.
"Really?" I asked when they were gone. "Did you have to say that?"
"I speak my mind, Sage. Don't you believe in telling the truth?"
"Of course I do. But there's a time and place! Not with perfect strangers who are obviously in a bad situation."
"Whatever," he said, looking extremely pleased with himself. "I totally made that lady's day."
Just then, a woman in a black suit and very high heels emerged from an inner office. "I'm Janet McCade, the office manager," she said. She glanced between the two of us uncertainly, and then she decided on me. "You must be Adrian."
The name mistake was understandable, but the mix-up didn't bode well for him. My assessment of his clubbing outfit had been correct. My brown skirt and ivory blouse apparently seemed more appropriate for an interview.
"This is Adrian," I said, pointing. "I'm just his sister, here for moral support."
"Very kind of you," said Janet, looking a little perplexed. "Well, then. Shall we go talk, Adrian?"
"You bet," he said, standing. He started to follow her, and I jumped up.
"Adrian," I whispered, catching his sleeve. "You want to tell the truth? Do it in there. Do not embellish or make up crazy claims that you were a district attorney."
"Got it," he said. "This is going to be a breeze."
If by breeze he meant fast, then he was right. He emerged from the office door five minutes later.
"I don't suppose," I said, once we were in the car, "that she just gave you the job based on looks alone?"
Adrian had been staring off but now flashed me a big smile. "Why, Sage, you sweet talker."
"That's not what I meant! What happened?"
He shrugged. "I told the truth."
"I'm serious. She asked me what my greatest strength was. I said getting along with people."
"That's not bad," I admitted.
"Then she asked what my greatest weakness was. And I said, 'Where should I start?'"
"Stop saying my name like that. I told her the truth. By the time I was on the fourth one, she told me I could go."
I groaned and resisted the urge to beat my head on the steering wheel. "I should've coached you. That's a standard trick question. You're supposed to answer with things like 'I get too devoted to my work' or 'I'm a perfectionist.'"
He snorted and crossed his arms. "That's total bullshit. Who'd say something like that?"
"People who get jobs."
Since we had extra time now, I did my best to prep him with answers before the next interview. It was actually at Spencer's, and I'd gotten Trey to pull a few strings. While Adrian was interviewing in the back, I got a table and some coffee. Trey came to visit me after about fifteen minutes.
"Is that really your brother?" he demanded.
"Yes," I said, hoping I sounded convincing.
"When you said he was looking for a job, I pictured a male version of you. I figured he'd want to color code the cups or something."
"What's your point?" I asked.
Trey shook his head. "My point is that you'd better keep looking. I was just back there and overhead him talking with my manager. She was explaining the cleanup he would have to do each night. Then he said something about his hands and manual labor."
I wasn't the swearing type, but in that moment, I wished I was.
The last interview was at a trendy bar downtown. I'd taken it on faith that Adrian probably knew every drink in the world and had made up a fake credential for the resume, claiming he'd taken a bartending class. I stayed in the car for this one and sent him in alone, figuring he had the best chance here. At the very least, his outfit would be appropriate. When he came out in ten minutes, I was aghast.
"How?" I demanded. "How could you have screwed this one up?"
"When I got in, they said the manager was on the phone and would be a few minutes. So, I sat down and ordered a drink."
This time, I did lean my forehead against the steering wheel. "What did you order?"
"A martini." I lifted my head. "You ordered a martini before a job interview."
"It's a bar, Sage. I figured they'd be cool with it."
"No, you didn't!" I exclaimed. The volume of my voice surprised both of us, and he cringed a little. "You aren't stupid, no matter how much you pretend to be! You know you can't do that. You did it to screw around with them. You did it to screw around with me! That's what this has all been about. You haven't taken any of this seriously. You wasted these people's time and mine, just because you had nothing better to do!"
"That's not true," he said, though he sounded uncertain. "I do want a job... just not these jobs."
"You're in no position to pick and choose. You want out of Clarence's? These were your tickets. You should've been able to get any of them if you'd just put in a little effort. You're charming when you want to be. You could've talked yourself into a job." I started the car. "I'm done with this."
"You don't understand," he said.
"I understand that you're going through a tough time. I understand that you're hurting." I refused to look at him and gave all my attention to the road. "But that doesn't give you the right to play around with other people's lives. Try taking care of your own for a change."
He made no response until we were back at Clarence's, and even then, I didn't want to hear it.
"Sage - " he began.
"Get out," I said.
He hesitated like he might disagree but finally conceded with a swift nod. He left the car and strode toward the house, lighting a cigarette as he went. Fury and frustration burned within me. How could one person continually send me on such emotional highs and lows? Whenever I was starting to like him and feel like we were actually connecting, he would go and do something like this. I was a fool to ever start letting myself feel friendly toward him. Had I really thought he was a work of art earlier? More like a piece of work.
My feelings were still churning when I arrived back at Amberwood. I particularly cringed at the thought of running into Jill in our room. I had no doubt she'd know everything that had happened with Adrian, and I had no desire to hear her defend him.
But when I walked into my dorm, I never made it past the front desk. Mrs. Weathers was in the lobby, along with Eddie and a campus security officer. Micah hovered nearby, face pale. My heart stopped. Eddie sprinted toward me, panic written all over him.
"There you are! I couldn't get ahold of you or Keith."
"M-my phone was off." I looked over at Mrs. Weathers and the officer and saw the same worry on their faces as his. "What's wrong?"
"It's Jill," said Eddie grimly. "She's missing."
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