"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.