ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница

Vee exhaled, long and slow. “I believe you broke up with Patch. But I don’t believe for one minute the other story.”

I flinched. “Vee—”

She put her hand up. “I get it. You’ve got your secrets, and one of these days you’ll tell me what’s going on. And I’ll tell you.” She arched her eyebrows knowingly. “That’s right. You aren’t the only one with secrets. I’ll spill when the time is right, and I figure you will too.”

I stared at her. This wasn’t how I’d expected our conversation to go ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница. “You have secrets? What secrets?”

“Juicy secrets.”

“Tell me!”

“Would you look at that,” Vee said, tapping the clock on the dash. “I believe it’s your curfew.”

I sat openmouthed. “I can’t believe you’re keeping secrets from me.”

“I can’t believe you’re being such a hypocrite.”

“This conversation isn’t over,” I said, opening the door reluctantly.

“Not easy on the other side, is it?”

I said good night to my mom, then locked myself in my bedroom and called Patch. When Vee and I fled the Devil’s Handbag, the brown Chevy ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница van had no longer been parked at the curb. It was my guess that Patch had left before the fallen angels’ surprise invasion, since he would have stormed inside the club if he’d believed I was in danger, but I was more curious to know if he’d picked up Cowboy Hat. For all I knew, they were having a conversation right now. I wondered if Patch was asking questions or making threats. Probably both.

Patch’s voice mail kicked on, and I hung up. Leaving a message seemed too risky. Besides, he’d see the missed ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница call and know it was from me. I hoped he still planned on coming over tonight. I knew our messy confrontation had been staged, but I wanted the reassurance that nothing had changed. I was rattled, and needed to know we were still at the same place emotionally that we’d been before the fight.

I dialed Patch’s cell once more for good measure, then went to bed feeling restless.

Tomorrow was Tuesday. Cheshvan began with the rise of the new moon.

Based on tonight’s grisly free-for-all, I had a feeling fallen angels were ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница counting down the hours until they could unleash their wrath in full.

I awoke to the sound of floorboards creaking. My vision adjusted to the darkness, and I found myself staring at two rather large, muscled legs clad in white tracksuit bottoms.

“Dante?” I said, flailing an arm toward the nightstand, hunting for the clock. “Uuhn. What time is it? What day is it?”

“Tuesday morning,” he said. “You know what that means.” A ball of workout clothes landed in my face. “Meet me in the driveway at your convenience.”

“Really?”

In the dark, his teeth gleamed with a smile. “Can’t ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница believe you fell for that. Your butt better be outside in T-minus five minutes.”

Five minutes later I trudged outside, shivering against the chill of mid-October. A light wind stripped leaves off the trees and creaked their branches. I stretched my legs and jumped up and down to get the blood flowing.

“Keep up,” Dante instructed, and he took off sprinting into the woods.

I still wasn’t wild about traipsing through the woods alone with Dante, but I rationalized that if he was going to hurt me, he’d had plenty of opportunities yesterday. So ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница I raced after him, looking for the occasional streak of white that alerted me to his presence. His eyesight must have put mine to shame, because while every now and then I tripped over logs, lost my footing in natural potholes, and smacked my head on low-hanging branches, he navigated the terrain with flawless accuracy. Each and every time I heard his taunting chuckle of amusement, I jumped back on my feet, determined to shove him off a steep slope the first chance I got. There were plenty of ravines around; I just needed to get ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница close enough to him to do the job.

At last Dante stopped, and by the time I caught up, he was stretched out on a large boulder with his hands clasped loosely behind his neck. He’d peeled out of his tracksuit bottoms and Windbreaker, leaving him in knee-length shorts and a fitted T-shirt. Other than a slight rise and fall of his chest, I never could have guessed he’d just sprinted what must have been about ten miles gradually uphill.

I crawled onto the boulder and flopped next to him. “Water,” I said, gasping for ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница breath.

Dante rose up on an elbow and smiled down at me. “Not happening. I’m going to wring you dry. Water makes tears, and tears are one thing I can’t stand. And once you see what I’ve got planned next, you’re going to want to cry. Lucky for me, you won’t be able to.”

He hooked me under the armpits and dragged me to standing. Dawn was just beginning to light the horizon, coloring the sky an icy pink. Standing side by side on the boulder, we could see for miles. The evergreen trees, spruces and ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница cedars, spread like a towering carpet in every direction, rolling over hills and into the basin of a deep ravine that cut through the scenery.

“Pick one,” Dante instructed.

“Pick one what?”

“A tree. After you’ve uprooted it, you get to go home.”

I blinked at the trees, at least a hundred years old and as thick around as three telephone poles, and felt my jaw drop slightly. “Dante . . .”

“Strength Training 101.” He gave me a slap on the back by way of encouragement, then settled back into a relaxed recline on the boulder. “This is going to be better ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница than watching the Today show.”



“I hate you.”

He laughed. “Not yet, you don’t. But an hour from now . . .”

An hour later I had deposited every ounce of energy—and maybe my soul, too—into the uprooting of one very stubborn and unaccommodating white cedar. Other than making it slant slightly, it was a perfect specimen of a thriving tree. I had tried pushing it over, digging it out, kicking it into submission, and futilely beating my fists against it. To say the tree had won was an understatement. And all the while, Dante had sat perched on ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница his boulder, snorting, laughing, and hollering carping remarks. Glad one of us found this entertaining.

He sauntered over, a slight but very obnoxious smile tugging at his mouth. He scratched his elbow. “Well, Commander of the Great and Mighty Nephilim Army, any luck?”

Sweat ran in rivulets down my face, dripping off my nose and chin. My palms were scraped raw, my knees were scuffed, my ankle was sprained, and every muscle in my body cried out in agony. I grabbed the front of Dante’s shirt and used it to wipe my face. And then I blew ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница my nose in it.

Dante stepped back, palms raised. “Whoa.”

I flung an arm in the direction of my chosen tree. “I can’t do it,” I admitted on a sob. “I’m not cut out for this. I’ll never be as strong as you, or any other Nephil.” I felt my lip quiver in disappointment and shame.

His expression softened. “Take a deep breath, Nora. I knew you wouldn’t be able to do it. That was the point. I wanted to give you an impossible challenge so later, when you finally can do it, you’ll look ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница back and see how far you’ve come.”

I stared at him, feeling my temper boil.

“What?” he asked.

“What? What? Are you crazy? I have school today. I have a test to study for! And I thought I was giving it up for something worthwhile, but now I find out this was all just to make a point? Well, here’s me making a point! I’m throwing in the towel. I’m done! I didn’t ask for this. Training was your idea. You’ve called all the shots, but this time it’s my turn ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница. I QUIT!” I knew I was dehydrated and probably not thinking rationally, but I’d had enough. Yes, I’d wanted to boost my endurance and strength and learn how to defend myself. But this was ridiculous. Uproot a tree ? I’d given it my best shot, and he’d sat back and laughed, knowing full well I’d never be able to do it.

“You look really pissed off,” he said, frowning and stroking his chin in a perplexed manner.

“You think ?”

“Consider it an object lesson. A benchmark of sorts.”

“Yeah? Benchmark this .” And I gave him a ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница stiff middle finger.

“You’re blowing this out of proportion. You see that, right?”

Sure, two hours from now maybe I’d see it. After I’d showered, rehydrated, and zonked out in bed. Which, as much as I wanted it, wasn’t going to happen because I had school.

Dante said, “You’re commander of this army. You’re also a Nephil trapped in a human body. You have to train harder than the rest of us, because you’re starting with a serious disadvantage. I’m not doing you any favors by going easy ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница.”

With sweat running into my eyes, I glared at him. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe I don’t want this job? Maybe I don’t want to be commander?”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. It’s done. No use fantasizing other scenarios.”

My tone turned despondent. “Why don’t you stage a coup and steal my job?” I muttered, only half joking. Far as I could tell, Dante had no reason to keep me in power and keep me alive. “You’d be a million times better at it. You actually care.”

More chin stroking. “Well, now that you ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница’ve put the idea into my head . . .”

“This isn’t funny, Dante.”

His smile vanished. “No, it’s not. For what it’s worth, I swore an oath to Hank that I’d help you succeed. My neck is on the line just as much as yours. I’m not out here every morning to earn a few extra karma points. I’m here because I need you to win. My life is riding on your shoulders.”

His words sank in. “Are you saying if I don’t go to war, and win, you’ll die? Is that ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница the oath you swore?”

He exhaled, long and slow, before answering. “Yes.”

I closed my eyes, kneading my temples. “I really wish you hadn’t told me.”

“Stressed?”

Leaning back against the boulder, I let the breeze blow across my skin. Deep breaths. Not only could I potentially kill my mom and myself if I failed to lead Hank’s army, but now I’d kill Dante, too, if I didn’t lead it to victory. But what about peace? What about my deal with the archangels?

Damn Hank. This was his fault. If he’d gone ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница anywhere but straight to hell upon his death, there was no justice in—or out of—the world.

“Lisa Martin and the Nephilim higher-ups want to meet with you again,” Dante said. “I’ve been stalling, because I know you’re not sold on war, and I’m worried how they’ll react. We need them to keep you in power. In order to do that, we need them to think your desires are aligned with theirs.”

“I don’t want to meet them yet,” I said automatically. “Keep stalling.” I needed time to think. Time to decide on a ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница course of action. Who was my greatest threat—displeased archangels, or rebellious Nephilim?

“Do you want me to tell them that for now, you want everything to go through me?”

“Yes,” I said gratefully. “Do whatever it takes to buy me a little more time.”

“By the way, I heard about your faux breakup last night. You must have put on quite a show. The Nephilim are buying it.”

“But not you.”

“Patch gave me the heads-up.” He winked. “I wouldn’t have bought it anyway. I’ve seen the two of you together. What you have doesn ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница’t die just like that. Here,” Dante said, handing me a chilled bottle of Cool Blue Gatorade. “Drink up. You’ve lost a lot of fluid.”

Twisting off the cap, I gave a nod of gratitude and drank deeply. The liquid poured down my throat, instantly thickening to clog my esophagus. Heat clawed at my throat, broke through, and swarmed the rest of my body. I bent forward, coughing and wheezing.

“What is this stuff?” I gagged.

“Post-workout hydration,” he said, but he wouldn’t look me in the eye.

I continued to choke, my lungs rioting ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница in spasms. “I thought—it was Gatorade—that’s what—the bottle says!”

All emotion vanished off his face. “It’s for your own good,” he said dully. Then he darted off in a blur of speed.

I was still bent at the waist, feeling as though my insides were slowly liquefying. Specks of electric blue burst across my eyes. The world swayed left . . . then right. Clutching my throat, I trudged forward, fearing that if I passed out here, I’d never be found.

CHAPTER 8

ONE STAGGERING STEP AFTER ANOTHER, I made it out of the woods. By the time I ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница reached the farmhouse, most of the fire-in-my-bones feeling had dissipated. My breathing was back to normal, but my alarm was still front and center. What had Dante given me? And—why?

I had a key on a chain around my neck, and I let myself in. Taking off my shoes, I crept upstairs and padded quietly past my mom’s bedroom. The clock on my nightstand read ten minutes till seven. Before Dante came into my life, this would have been a normal, if not slightly early, hour to rise. Most days I ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница woke up feeling refreshed, but this morning I felt exhausted and worried. Grabbing clean clothes, I headed to the bathroom to shower and get ready for school.

At ten before eight, I pulled the Volkswagen into the student parking lot and hiked up to the school, a towering gray building that resembled an old Protestant church. Inside, I crammed my belongings into my locker, grabbed my first- and second-period textbooks, and headed to class. My stomach clenched with hunger, but I was too rattled to eat. The blue drink still swam uneasily in my stomach.

First up, AP U.S ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница. History. I took my seat and scanned my new cell phone for messages. Still no word from Patch. It’s cool, I told myself. Something probably came up. But I couldn’t ignore the feeling that something wasn’t right. Patch had told me he’d come over last night, and it wasn’t like him to break a promise. Especially since he knew how upset I’d been over the breakup.

I was about to tuck my cell away when it chimed with a text.

MEET ME BY THE WENTWORTH RIVER IN 30, Patch’s text read.

ARE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница YOU OKAY? I immediately texted back.

YES. I’LL BE AT THE BOAT DOCKS. MAKE SURE YOU AREN’T FOLLOWED.

The timing wasn’t great, but I wasn’t going to not meet Patch. He said he was fine, but I wasn’t convinced. If he was fine, why was he calling me out of class, and why were we meeting all the way out at the boat docks?

I approached Mrs. Warnock’s desk. “Excuse me, Mrs. Warnock? I’m not feeling well. Can I go lie down in the nurse’s office?”

Mrs. Warnock removed her glasses and studied ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница me. “Is everything all right, Nora?”

“It’s that time of the month,” I whispered. Could I be any less creative?

She sighed. “If I had a nickel for every time a student said that . . .”

“I wouldn’t ask if my cramps weren’t absolutely killing me.” I considered rubbing my stomach, but decided it might be too much.

At last she said, “Ask the nurse for acetaminophen. But the minute you’re feeling better, I want you back in class. We’re starting our unit on Jeffersonian republicanism today. If you don’t have someone ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница reliable to borrow notes from, you’re going to spend the next two weeks playing catch-up.”

I nodded vigorously. “Thank you. I really do appreciate it.”

I scuttled out the door, jogged down a flight of stairs, and, after looking both ways down the hall to make sure the vice principal wasn’t making rounds, fled through a side door.

I threw myself into the Volkswagen and made a break for it. Of course, that was the easy part. Getting back into class without a signed permission slip from the nurse was going to require nothing short of magic ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница. No sweat, I thought. Worse-case scenario, I’d get caught ditching and spend the next week in early-morning detention.

If I needed an excuse to stay away from Dante, whom I no longer trusted, it was as good as any.

The sun was out, the sky a hazy fall blue, but the crisp air cut through my puffer vest with the relentless foreboding of winter. The parking lot upriver from the boat docks was empty. No recreational fishermen out today. After parking, I crouched in the vegetation at the edge of the parking lot a few minutes, waiting to ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница see if anyone followed me. Then I took the paved walkway leading down to the docks. I quickly realized why Patch had selected the spot: Other than a few chirping birds, we were completely alone.

Three boat ramps stretched into the wide river, but no boats. I walked to the end of the first ramp, shielded my eyes from the glare of the sun, and looked around. No Patch.

My cell phone chimed.

I’M IN THE THICKET OF TREES AT THE END OF THE WALKWAY, Patch texted.

I followed the walkway past the docks to the thicket ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница, and that was when Pepper Friberg stepped out from behind a tree. He had Patch’s cell phone in one hand and a gun in the other. My eyes fixed on the gun, and I took an involuntary step back.

“It won’t stall you, but a gunshot can be excruciatingly painful,” he said. His polyester trousers rode high on his waist, and his shirt hung at an ill-fitting angle—he hadn’t lined up the buttons properly. However, despite his goofy, bumbling appearance, I felt his power ripple over me like the sun’s hottest rays. He was ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница far more dangerous than he appeared.

“Am I supposed to take it from someone who knows?” I returned.

His eyes darted both ways down the path. He sponged his forehead with a white handkerchief, further proof of his anxiety. His fingernails had been chewed to stubs. “If you know what I am, and I’m betting Patch told you, then you know I can’t feel pain.”

“I know you’re an archangel, and I know you haven’t been playing by the rules. Patch told me you’ve been living a double life, Pepper. A powerful archangel ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница moonlighting as a human? With your powers, you could really work the system. Are you after money? Power? A good time?”

“I already told you what I’m after: Patch,” he said, a fresh sheen of sweat breaking across his forehead. He couldn’t seem to mop it up fast enough. “Why won’t he meet me?”

Uh, because you want to chain him in hell. I jerked my chin at the cell phone in Pepper’s hand. “Nice trick, luring me here with his phone. How did you get it?”

“I took it from him last night ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница at the Devil’s Handbag. I found him hiding out in a brown van parked across the street from the entrance. He bolted before I got my hands on him, but in his hurry, he missed grabbing his belongings, including his phone with all his contacts. I’ve been dialing and texting numbers all morning, trying to reach you.”

Secretly, I breathed in relief. Patch had escaped. “If you brought me here to interrogate me, you’re out of luck. I don’t know where Patch is. I haven’t talked to him since yesterday. In fact, it sounds like ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница you were the last to see him.”

“Interrogate?” The tips of his Dumbo ears glowed pink. “Golly, that sounds ominous. What do I look like? A common criminal?”

“If you don’t want to question me, why lure me all the way out here?” So far, we’d kept our conversation light, but I was growing increasingly nervous. I didn’t trust Pepper’s bungling, inept antics. They had to be a ploy.

“See that boat over there?”

I followed Pepper’s gaze to the river’s edge. A gleaming white motorboat bobbed on the water’s surface. Sleek ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница, expensive, and probably very fast. “Nice boat. Going on a trip?” I asked, trying not to sound worried.

“Yes. And you’re coming with me.”

CHAPTER 9

I GAVE YOU A CHANCE TO DO THIS THE EASY WAY, but I’m running out of patience,” Pepper said. He stuffed the gun into the waistband of his trousers, freeing up both hands to wipe his gleaming brow. “If I can’t get to Patch, I’ll make him come to me.”

I saw where this was going. “This is a kidnapping? You’re most definitely not a common criminal, Pepper. Felon ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница, sociopath, and nefarious evildoer all sound a bit closer to the mark.”

He loosened his collar and grimaced. “I need Patch to do something for me. A little . . . favor. That’s all. Harmless, really.”

I had a feeling that “favor” included following Pepper down to hell, just before he jumped clear and slammed the gates shut on Patch. It was one way to take care of a blackmailer.

“I’m one of the good guys,” Pepper said. “An archangel. He can trust me. You should have told him to trust me.”

“The fastest way to break his trust ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница would be to kidnap me. Think this through, Pepper. Taking me isn’t going to make Patch cooperate with you.”

He tugged harder at his collar. His face had flushed to the point that he resembled a sweaty pink pig. “There’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye. I’m out of options, can’t you see that?”

“You’re an archangel, Pepper. And yet here you are, strolling around on Earth, carrying a gun and threatening me. I don’t believe you’re harmless, just like I don’t believe you mean no ill will toward ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница Patch. Archangels don’t hang around on Earth for extended periods of time, and they don’t take hostages. You know what I think? You’ve turned bad.”

“I’m down here on assignment. I’m not bad, but I do have to take certain . . . liberties.”

“Gee, I’m almost tempted to believe you.”

“I have a job for your boyfriend that only he can do. I don’t want to kidnap you, but you’ve forced my hand. I need Patch’s help, and I need it now . Walk toward the boat, nice and easy. Any ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница sudden movements and I shoot.”

Pepper made a summoning gesture, the boat glided obediently through the water, moving toward the closest boat ramp. Patch hadn’t told me archangels could command objects. I didn’t like the surprise, and I wondered how much this would complicate my attempt at escape.

“Didn’t you hear? He’s not my boyfriend anymore,” I told Pepper. “I’m dating Dante Matterazzi. Surely you’ve heard of him? Everyone has. Patch is one hundred percent in my past.”

“Guess we’ll find out, won’t we? If I have to ask you ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница to start walking again, I’ll put a hole in your foot.”

I raised my arms level with my shoulders and walked to the boat ramp. A little late, I wished I’d worn my jean jacket with the tracking device. If Patch knew where I was, he’d come for me. Maybe he’d sewn a device into my puffer vest too, but I couldn’t count on it. And since I didn’t know where Patch was, or if he was even okay, I couldn’t count on him, either.

“Climb into the boat,” Pepper ordered me. “Take ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница the rope on the seat and tie your hands to the guardrails.”

“You’re serious about this,” I said, stalling. I glanced at the trees framing the river. If I could get to them, I could hide. Pepper’s bullets would have more success hitting trees than me.

“Thirty miles from here, I have a nice roomy storage room with your name on it. Once we get there, I’ll give your boyfriend a ring.” He made a fist, extending his thumb and pinkie finger, and placed the hand-phone near his ear. “We’ll see if we can ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница’t come to an agreement. If he swears an oath to handle a personal matter for me, you just might get to see him, and your friends and family, again.”

“How are you going to call him? You have his cell phone.”

Pepper frowned. He hadn’t thought this through. Maybe I could use his disorganization to my advantage. “Then we’ll just have to wait for him to call us. For your sake, I hope he doesn’t dawdle.”

Reluctantly, I climbed inside the boat. I picked up the rope and started looping it into a knot. I couldn’t ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница believe Pepper was this stupid. Did he honestly think a run-of-the-mill rope would contain me?

Pepper answered my question. “In case you’re having any escape-type thoughts, you should know that rope has been enchanted. It looks harmless, but it’s stronger than structural steel. Oh, and once you’ve secured your wrists, I’ll enchant it again. If you so much as tug against the rope to break free, it will pump two hundred volts of electricity into your body.”

I tried to keep my composure. “Special trick of archangels?”

“Let ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница’s just say I’m more powerful than you think.”

Pepper swung one short leg over the boat, balancing his foot on the driver’s seat. Before he could bring his other leg over, I slammed my body against the side of the boat, rocking it forcefully away from the ramp. Pepper stood one foot in, one foot out, with the gap of air between his legs widening.

He reacted instantly. He shot into the air, hovering several feet above the boat. Flying. In my split-second decision to unbalance him, I’d forgotten he had wings. And not ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница only that, but now he was clearly furious.

I dove overboard, swimming hard for the center of the river, hearing shots being fired into the water from above.

A splash sounded behind me, and I knew Pepper had dived in after me. In a matter of seconds he would catch me and fulfill that promise to put a hole in my foot—and probably a lot worse. I wasn’t as strong as an archangel, but I was Nephilim now, and I’d trained with Dante . . . twice. I decided to do something either incredibly stupid, or incredibly brave.

Planting my feet firmly ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница on the sandy riverbed, I pushed up with all my strength, vaulting straight out of the water. To my surprise I overshot, soaring above the treetops crowding the riverbanks. I could see for miles and miles, past the factories and fields, to the highway strung out with tiny cars and tractor-trailers. Beyond that, I saw Coldwater itself, a cluster of homes, shops, and green-lawned parks.

Just as quickly, I lost velocity. My stomach flip-flopped, air skidding over my body as my direction reversed. The river rushed up at me. I had the urge to ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница pinwheel my arms frantically, but it was as if my body wouldn’t stand for it. It refused to be anything less than graceful and efficient, tucking into a tight missile. My feet crashed into the boat ramp, smashing through the planks of wood, plunging me back into the water.

More bullets whizzed past my ears. I scrabbled out of the debris, lunged up the riverbank, and took off sprinting for the trees. Two mornings of running in the dark had given me some preparation, but it didn’t explain why I was suddenly running at speeds that rivaled Dante ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница’s. The trees passed in a dizzying blur, but my feet leaped and bounded with ease, almost as if they could anticipate the necessary steps a half second before my mind.

I raced at top speed up the walkway, flung myself inside the Volkswagen, and floored it out of the parking lot. To my amazement, I wasn’t even out of breath.

Adrenaline? Maybe. But I didn’t think so.

I drove to Allen’s Drug and Pharmacy and slid the Volkswagen into a parking space nestled between two trucks that hid me from the street. Then I slouched in ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница my seat, trying to make myself invisible. I was pretty sure I’d lost Pepper at the river, but it didn’t hurt to be cautious. I needed time to think. I couldn’t go home. I couldn’t go back to school. What I really needed was to find Patch, but I didn’t know where to start.

My cell phone rang, startling me out of my reverie.

“Yo, Grey,” Scott said. “Vee and I are on our way to Taco Hut for lunch, but the big question of the day is, where are you ? Now that you ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница (a) can drive, and (b) have wheels—ahem, thanks to me—you don’t have to eat in the school cafeteria. FYI.”

I ignored his jesting tone. “I need Dante’s number. Text it to me and make it fast,” I told Scott. I’d had Dante’s number stored on my old phone, but not this one.

“Uh, please ?”

“What is this? Double-standard Tuesday?”

“What do you need his number for? I thought Dante was your boy—”

I hung up and tried to think things through. What did I know for certain? That an archangel ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница leading a double life wanted to kidnap me and use me as incentive to get Patch to do him a favor. Or to quit blackmailing him. Or both. I also knew Patch wasn’t the blackmailer.

What information was I low on? Mostly Patch’s whereabouts. Was he safe? Would he contact me? Did he need my help?

Where are you, Patch? I shouted into the universe.

My cell phone chimed.

HERE’S DANTE’S NUMBER. ALSO, I HEAR CHOCOLATE WORKS WELL FOR PMS, Scott texted.

“Funny,” I said out loud, punching in Dante’s number. He answered on ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница the third ring.

“We need to meet,” I said with an edge.

“Listen, if it’s about this morning—”

“Of course it’s about this morning! What did you give me? I drank an unknown liquid, and suddenly I can run as fast as you and soar fifty feet into the air, and I’m pretty sure my vision is better than twenty-twenty.”

“It’ll wear off. To sustain those speeds, you’d need to drink the blue stuff daily.”

“Does the blue stuff have a name?”

“Not over the phone.”

“Fine. Meet me in person.”

“Be ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница at Rollerland in thirty.”

I blinked. “You want to meet at the roller-skating rink?”

“It’s noon on a weekday. Nobody there but moms and toddlers. Makes it easy to spot potential spies.”

I wasn’t sure who Dante thought might be spying on us, but I had an uneasy feeling fluttering around in my stomach that whatever the blue stuff was, Dante wasn’t the only one who wanted it. My best guess, it was a drug of some sort. I’d witnessed its enhancement properties firsthand. The powers it gave me were surreal. It was as if I ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 5 страница had no boundaries, and the extent of my own physical prowess was . . . limitless. The feeling was exhilarating and unnatural. It was the latter that had me worried.


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