While Keith continued to bang away, all eyes in my room were on me. The clipboard Alchemists looked thoughtful and curious. Tom Darnell was visibly sweating, watching me with fear and anticipation. I supposed it was understandable. I held his son's fate in my hands.
Conflicting emotions warred within me as I regarded Keith. I didn't just dislike him - I hated him. And I didn't hate many people. I couldn't forget what he'd done to Carly. Likewise, the memories of what he'd done to others and me in Palm Springs were still fresh in my mind.
He'd slandered me and made my life miserable in an effort to cover up his blood scam. He'd also horribly treated the vampires and dhampirs we were in charge of looking after. It made me question who the real monsters were.
I didn't know exactly what happened at Re-education Centers. Judging from Keith's reaction, it was probably pretty bad. There was a part of me that would have loved to tell the Alchemists to send him back there for years and never let him see the light of day. His crimes deserved severe punishment - and yet, I wasn't sure they deserved this particular punishment.
"I think... I think Keith Darnell is corrupt," I said at last. "He's selfish and immoral. He has no concern for others and hurts people to further his own ends. He's willing to lie, cheat, and steal to get what he wants." I hesitated before continuing. "But... I don't think he's been blinded to what vampires are. I don't think he's too close to them or in danger of falling in with them in the future. That being said, I also don't think he should be allowed to do Alchemist work for the foreseeable future. Whether that would mean locking him up or just putting him on probation is up to you. His past actions show he doesn't take our missions seriously, but that's because of selfishness. Not because of an unnatural attachment to them. He... well, to be blunt, is just a bad person."
Silence met me, save for the frantic scrawling of pens as the clipboard Alchemists made their notes. I dared a glance at Tom, afraid of what I'd see after completely trashing his son.
To my astonishment, Tom looked... relieved. And grateful. In fact, he seemed on the verge of tears. Catching my eye, he mouthed, Thank you. Amazing. I had just proclaimed Keith to be a horrible human being in every way possible. But none of that mattered to his father, so long as I didn't accuse Keith of being in league with vampires. I could've called Keith a murderer, and Tom would have probably still been grateful if it meant Keith wasn't chummy with the enemy.
It bothered me and again made me wonder who the real monsters were in all of this. The group I'd left back in Palm Springs was a hundred times more moral than Keith.
"Thank you, Miss Sage," said Gray Bun, finishing up her notes. "You've been extremely helpful, and we'll take this into consideration as we make our decision. You may go now. If you step into the hall, you'll find Zeke waiting to take you out." It was an abrupt dismissal, but that was typical of Alchemists. Efficient. To the point. I gave a polite nod of farewell and one last glance at Keith before opening the door. As soon as it shut behind me, I found the hallway mercifully silent. I could no longer hear Keith.
Zeke, as it turned out, was the Alchemist who had originally led me in. "All set?" he asked.
"So it seems," I said, still a bit stunned over what had just taken place. I knew now that my earlier debriefing on the Palm Springs situation had simply been a convenience for the Alchemists.
I'd been in the area, so why not have an in-person meeting? It hadn't been essential.
This - seeing Keith - had been the real purpose of my cross-country trip.
As we walked back down the hallway, something caught my attention that I hadn't noticed before. One of the doors had a fair amount of security on it - more so than the room I'd just been in. Along with the lights and keypad, there was also a card reader. At the top of the door was a deadbolt that locked from outside. Nothing fancy, but it was clearly meant to keep whatever was behind the door inside.
I stopped in spite of myself and studied the door for a few moments. Then, I kept walking, knowing better than to say anything. Good Alchemists didn't ask questions.
Zeke, seeing my gaze, came to a halt. He glanced at me, then the door, and then back at me. "Do you want... do you want to see what's in there?" His eyes darted quickly to the door we'd emerged from. He was low-ranking, I knew, and clearly feared getting in trouble with the others. At the same time, there was an eagerness that suggested he was excited about the secrets he kept, secrets he couldn't share with others. I was a safe outlet.
"I guess it depends on what's in there," I said.
"It's the reason for what we do," he said mysteriously. "Take a look, and you'll understand why our goals are so important."
Deciding to risk it, he flashed a card over the reader and then punched in another long code. A light on the door turned green, and he slid open the deadbolt. I'd half-expected another dim room, but the light was so bright inside, it almost hurt my eyes. I put a hand up to my forehead to shield myself.
"It's a type of light therapy," Zeke explained apologetically. "You know how people in cloudy regions have sun lamps? Same kind of rays. The hope is that it'll make people like him a little more human again - or at least discourage them from thinking they're Strigoi." At first, I was too dazzled to figure out what he meant. Then, across the empty room, I saw a jail cell. Large metal bars covered the entrance, which was locked with another card reader and keypad. It seemed like overkill when I caught sight of the man inside. He was older than me, mid-twenties if I had to guess, and had a disheveled appearance that made Keith look neat and tidy. The man was gaunt and curled up in a corner, arms draped over his eyes against the light. He wore handcuffs and feet cuffs and clearly wasn't going anywhere. At our entrance, he dared a peek at us and then uncovered more of his face.
A chill ran through me. The man was human, but his expression was as cold and evil as any Strigoi I'd ever seen. His gray eyes were predatory. Emotionless, like the kinds of murderers who had no sense of empathy for other people.
"Have you brought me dinner?" he asked in a raspy voice that had to be faked. "A nice young girl, I see. Skinnier than I'd like, but I'm sure her blood is still succulent."
"Liam," said Zeke with a weary patience. "You know where your dinner is." He pointed to an untouched tray of food in the cell that looked like it had gone cold long ago. Chicken nuggets, green beans, and a sugar cookie. "He almost never eats anything," Zeke explained to me. "It's why he's so thin. Keeps insisting on blood."