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Some people pledge to lose weight for their New Year’s resolution. Others quit smoking, or promise to do their homework before Sunday night, or swear that they’ll never again, no matter how many pomegranate martinis they’ve imbibed, give in to temptation and drunk-dial their ex-boyfriends, ex-lovers, or ex-friends-with-benefits and invite them over for a nightcap.
Instead of resolving any of the above (and that last one sounded pretty good), I promised to commit a felony.
On December 31st, as the clock struck twelve, I held aloft a glass of champagne and solemnly swore that I’d join my secret society brothers in their quest to steal back one of our treasured relics from a rival society. At the time, I thought it would be a relatively straightforward operation. Sneak into the Dragon’s Head headquarters, snatch back the knee-high stone statue of Orpheus, and hightail it back to Rose & Grave’s High Street tomb, booty in tow.
Dragon’s Head had grown suspicious over Winter Break, indulging their more paranoid sides. I knew from intimate association with my fellow knights that no one in our crew could have tipped them off on purpose, but perhaps we weren’t as discreet as we should have been during one of our many reconnaissance missions to their York Street abode. Perhaps they had as many hidden cameras trained on our tomb as we had on theirs. Whatever the cause, intel showed, clear as infrared, the Dragon’s Head members removing the purloined Orpheus statue from their courtyard late the previous night. If they were worthy of their admission to Eli, they would have hidden it out of reach in their house’s safe, a move that would make things tricky—but not impossible—for us thieves.
Wait a second. Reconnaissance? Infrared? Intel? What’s going on here? I was a Literature major, for crying out loud, not a CIA recruit. And yet, in the nine months since I’d been tapped into Rose & Grave, my inner spygirl had gestated and emerged as a black-clad, code-speaking, secret-handshake-knowing, card-carrying acolyte of the New World Order.
Or at least, the wannabe New World Order. Despite all the 007 talk, this mission of ours cut a little closer to fraternity prank than military coup. But whatever the flavor of the operation, the practicalities were the same: I was spending my first night back on campus lying in the slush in an alleyway behind the Dragon’s Head tomb, waiting for orders, while my black ski mask painfully crushed my ponytail holder against my scalp.
However, that wasn’t what was causing my headache.
“I say we go now,” said the society brother lying in the slush to my left.
“Bond directed us to wait for his signal,” said the one on my right.
“Listen, old-timer,” said Lefty. “Maybe in your day, you sat around waiting for someone to hand you an engraved invitation, but that’s why we’re running the show now. Your ways are out-of-date. Don’t you agree, Bugaboo?”
I shifted in the slush. Time was, I would have made precisely that statement, and had. But last semester I’d been involved in espionage activities with the guy on my right, and he’d proven quite handy in a pinch.
Whereas the guy on my left was mostly all hands and pinches.
“Listen, Junior,” hissed the party on the right from behind his ski mask, “I concur that we don’t see eye-to-eye. About anything. But if you move now, you’re going to throw off the whole group. Wait for the signal.”
The guy on my left rolled his copper-colored eyes and sat up. “I’m no one’s junior,” he threw over his shoulder. “Dad’s middle name isn’t ‘Harrison.’ ” He sprang into a crouch.
Poe leapt across me to grab Puck before he could give our position away, but it was too late. Puck had already jumped to the top of the wall that separated the Dragon’s Head property from the alleyway.
“Middle name should have been Asshole,” Poe grumbled.
In place of a response, I coughed, politely, and he seemed to notice that he was still lying on top of me, his hands resting in places that weren’t exactly public access.
“Oops.” He stood, and brushed snow off of his pants. “Here’s an idea for next year’s taps, Bugaboo,” he said, and pulled me to my feet, making as if to brush snow off me before I gave him a warning swat, “only tap the ones who are interested in keeping your secret operations secret.”
I laid a finger against my ski mask–covered mouth. I was to blame for many things involving George Harrison Prescott, but not this. “Remind me who it was that tapped our dear Puck?”
“I liked it better when you were playing mute.”
“You always have,” I replied, as the alarm went off.
Alarms in most buildings on campus might bring a few offhand observers, perhaps some threatening glares from light sleepers or heavy studiers, and campus security. Alarms at a secret society bring reporters. And since the offices of the Eli Daily News were right next door, I’d say, Winter Break or not, we had approximately eight seconds before our masked countenances turned downright conspicuous.
“Right. New signal.” Poe jumped. I followed, missed the ledge, and proceeded to scrape elbows and knees on the stone as I slid down the wall.
Poe’s face shot over the ledge, silhouetted against the purply-orange sky, a signature of overcast New Haven nights. “Can’t take you anywhere, can I?” He reached down and gave me a hand.
I looked over the wall at the virgin snow on the ground inside. Crap. Could we make the leap all the way over to the cleared walkway in the center of the yard? Did it even matter anymore if the Dragon’s Head knights knew where we came from, now that the alarm was blaring loud enough to be heard up Science Hill?
Poe jumped down from the ledge and landed in the snow, and I saw black-clad figures doing the same all around the yard. Guess not.
We convened at the kitchen entrance near the back. “What brain donor was responsible for moving in early?” asked Thorndike, a.k.a. Demetria Robinson. She was rocking her set of broken-in breaking-and-entering duds and picking the lock on the Dragon’s Head back door.
Poe and I pointed at Puck, who gave us the finger.
Angel arrived. The New York socialite most called Clarissa Cuthbert was almost unrecognizable with her fall of blond hair tucked under her ski mask. “That was . . . unexpected. Lucky almost had the alarm system disabled. Bond’s furious. They’ll be along in a minute.” She stared at our motley crew. “Where are the others?”
“Forced to abort.” Lil’ Demon, known to her legions of fans as bad-girl starlet Odile Dumas, leaned against a wall and attempted to catch her breath. “I tried to wave down Tristram and Frodo, but they were totally zoned out.” She squinted at Poe. “Who brought him?”
I shrugged. “He brought himself, as usual.”
“I don’t blame the boys for getting distracted,” said Angel. “We’ve been waiting for half an hour. I almost forgot what we were doing myself.”
“I think the term is ‘woolgathering,’ ” said Poe.
“Yeah, if you’re my grandmother,” said Thorndike, and the door popped open.
“Wait,” I said. “Wasn’t your grandma a Black Panther?”
“Okay, so not mine, exactly. She skipped the tatting lessons in favor of showing me how to crack safes. Let’s go.”
We slid inside the building, taking up positions in the main hall according to our pre-arranged plan—a plan that now seemed to contain several obvious and glaring holes. Lil’ Demon, in possession of the two-way radio, directed us to keep our headlamps off for the time being and peeked through a scratch in one of the blacked-out windows to assess the damages.
Dragon’s Head, unlike most of the dedicated society buildings on campus, is a retrofitted frat house. Instead of the windowless, mausoleum-like tomb we members of Rose & Grave enjoy, their building is more of a Tudor mansion. Back before all the frats were kicked off campus and the society had taken over the property, you could be a member of the fraternity that called this place home and, in your senior year, of Rose & Grave as well.
To wit: We know every crevice of this house. Because past generations of Rose & Grave ceded their loyalty to us Diggers, we know the location of every secret room, every back stair . . . every emergency exit. And we’d probably need each one if we still wanted to pull this caper off.
“Crowd’s forming,” whispered Lil’ Demon. “Bond says the rest of the crew was forced to give up or be recognized. He’s trying to mingle and keep giving us updates.”
“Perfect,” I said. “So we’re down to what, Ocean’s Six?”
The alarm died.
“Ocean’s Seven,” said Lil’ Demon with a laugh. “Lucky came through after all.”
“Either way,” said Poe, “we’re not going to have time to get Orpheus and get out. I bet they’ve got security on the way. I know their caretaker will have been roused, and any members already on campus.”
“So you think we should abort?” I asked.
“I think it might already be too late to make a clean getaway.”
“Spoilsport.” I almost stuck my tongue out at him, then remembered the mask.
“I think that title belongs to your friend.” He gestured to Puck, who’d taken up residence on one of the leather wingback chairs and looked relaxed enough to pour himself a drink. “He’s the one that got us into this mess.”
True. Okay, time for some decisions. I addressed the group. “Here’s my thought: The same crowd that’s keeping us from getting out might be helpful in preventing the members from getting in. Too many witnesses. I say we’re made whether they catch us inside or outside. So let’s keep to the plan. All in favor?”
There was a chorus of “Aye”s in the darkness. Poe crossed his arms, but his expression was unreadable beneath his mask.
Puck clapped and rubbed his hands together. “I love it. Let’s go get arrested.”
Lil’ Demon looked around. “Where’s Thorndike?”
“Already working,” came a voice over Lil’ Demon’s two-way. “And I’ve got good news and bad news.”
“Lay it on me,” Lil’ Demon said.
Thorndike’s voice crackled through the radio: “The bad news is, I’m not going to be able to open the safe. The good news is, I found something even better.”
“Impossible,” said Poe, shaking his head, so the beam of his headlamp swerved like a lighthouse ray.
“I’m with him,” said Puck. “Weird as that sounds.”
Angel peeked into the hallway and down the stairs. “There’s no way we’re moving it without a dolly and about seven burly men.”
Lil’ Demon stood speechless in front of it. “What . . . what is it?”
To hazard a guess, I’d say the Maltese Dragon. The statue before me was about six feet tall, plated with gold leaf, and encrusted all over with semi-precious jewels. Lapis eyes flickered in the glow of the LED headgear a few of us wore, and ivory fangs jutted out from carnelian jaws. Jade scales mixed in with the gold. It was, without a doubt, the most precious thing in the society’s possession. (It was also way nicer than the tiny marble statue we’d come here to reclaim.)
I’d been through most of their house by now (I can’t call this windowed Tudor a “tomb”) and, nice as it may be, their headquarters held none of the grandeur of the Diggers’ own home base. Their meeting room was cozy and well appointed, but enjoyed neither walls covered with expensive antique oil paintings nor a painted dome ceiling, like ours. Of course, I’d memorized their floor plan, but seeing the rooms in person gave a different impression completely. The whole building had a far less grandiose air than the only other tomb I knew.
It only stood to reason. Dragon’s Head was almost a half century younger than Rose & Grave, and though generally well respected (hey, anything we deign to consider a “rival” is okay by us), it boasted fewer alumni gifts, a smaller trust, and, perhaps as a consequence of both, a lesser cachet in the campus pecking order.
Or at least, it had until this year. The scandals that had rocked Rose & Grave during the last two semesters had tarnished our reputation somewhat. I’m sure the Dragon’s Head’s (or Book & Key’s, or Serpent’s) sales pitch to potential taps this spring would sound something like, “Rose & Grave is going to pot. Look at how many times they’ve been in the tabloids this year. You sure you want to hitch your wagon to that falling star?” Which made tonight’s expedition all the more important. Pull off a good crook, and we’d prove our mettle once again.
Unfortunately, our chances of departing without a police escort, never mind scoring any booty, looked slimmer than the cut of Angel’s jeans.
“Bet it’s heavy,” said Thorndike, leaning a bit on the beast’s long, lithe body. The pedestal base barely jiggled. “But what a coup, huh?”
“Really puts the ‘grand’ in grand larceny.” I shook my head. “There’s no way we can take this with us. Are you sure you can’t open the safe?” I directed the beam of my headlamp toward the enormous safe set into a recess in the far wall.
“Nope,” said Thorndike. “I’ve never even seen a lock like that before. Sorry to let you all down.” Apparently, our safecracker hadn’t spent as much time studying with her grandmother as she had preparing for her SATs. Couldn’t blame her, to tell the truth.
“Great,” said Puck. “All this trouble for nothing.”
“At least you can afford a good lawyer when we get caught,” I said. “I doubt these charges will look good on my graduate school applications.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Angel scoffed. “New Haven cops never take these pranks too seriously.”
Poe, as usual, was standing somewhat away from the rest of the group, studying the peeling wallpaper in the bluish ray from his headlamp. Suddenly, he stiffened. “Someone’s inside. Quick, we’ve got to hide!”
We all froze, straining in an attempt to hear whatever clue Poe had that we weren’t the building’s only occupants. I looked around. Where would we hide? This room was cluttered with various knickknacks and furniture, but nothing that would conceal six college kids (no matter how petite certain starlets were).
But Poe was straining to lift the upright piano in the corner by the safe as quietly as possible. “Someone help him,” I whispered, though I really had no idea what he was trying to do.
So I asked him. “Um, if we’re trying to steal something heavy, I think it’s best we go with the dragon.”
In response, he grabbed my arm and shoved me behind the piano. “Get in.”
There was a thigh-high hole in the wall, and from the cobweb-covered opening came a distinctive draft. Great. Spiders and cold air and blackness. I reeled back against him, standing up. “No way!”
“Now,” he hissed, pushing me back down.
“Crawl space” is a generous term for the damp, grimy cavity my companions and I presently found ourselves crowded into. Poe squished himself inside and began tugging the piano back into place. “It won’t budge,” he said, a note of real fear entering his voice at last.
Angel, who was closest, began pulling on it with him, and as the back of the upright snapped against the wall, the two of them tumbled across the unfinished floorboards and hit the wall opposite with a crack.
We all stopped breathing. Could whoever was downstairs hear that?
“The lights!” Thorndike’s warning came on a breath, and around me, LED headlamps extinguished one by one. And then, from a distance, we heard a rhythmic pounding. Footsteps on the stairs. We lay completely still, heedless of our awkward positions and the way we were all jumbled together in a heap.
“Did they get anything? Search all the rooms.”
A chorus of voices began to ring out from all around us. “All clear here.” “Nothing here.” “I don’t think they even made it up here.” And then, one voice, louder and clearer than all the others. “I’m in the treasure room. They took the cover off the dragon.” A sliver of light sliced into our hole from the crack between the piano and the wall. In its blaze, I saw Poe’s eyes, wide and almost silvery inside the eyeholes of his mask. They met mine and we simply stared at each other for several long moments, not blinking, willing in unison for the light to vanish before it gave away our location.
More voices joined the first. “Did they open the safe?” I heard the rapid-fire clicks of the lock spinning. “They didn’t get it,” a voice said, and someone sighed loudly with relief.
Inside the wall, we were still a long way from that point. I glanced away from Poe, and then, after a decent interval, looked back. He was still staring at me.
“I think they set off the alarm and ran,” said one at last. “They didn’t have the chance to steal anything.”
“We’ll get them back, though,” another cut in, his voice low and threatening. “We can’t let this kind of affront stand without a counterattack.”
Puck jerked in place, and several pairs of arms clamped down on him before he could rally to the Diggers’ defense. “Yes,” said the third voice. “But how? We can’t get into their Inner Temple. We’ve tried.”
They had? That was news. I could feel, in the infinitesimal shifts of my companions, how they were taking this information, and predicted a sudden increase in our tomb’s security. If we had any say in the matter, they’d continue to fail at breaching our sacred spaces.
Another voice joined in. “They aren’t here. We’ve checked all the rooms.”
“Even the back stairs?” said the scary voice. “You know they know where all of our secret places are. Damn frat boys.”
Poe’s eyes glinted slightly, and I fought to keep from giggling.
It seemed like hours later that the Dragon’s Head members finally left the room in darkness, and hours more before any of us felt comfortable enough to move. I spent the time trying not to think about spiderwebs or rats’ nests or how many creepy crawlies were sharing this space with me. I think Thorndike fell asleep. Puck did something that made Angel knee him in the balls. Lil’ Demon almost had a heart attack when her two-way radio beeped on, but she shut if off before anyone could transmit.
Finally, Poe broke the silence. “We should make a break for it . . . soon.”
“How did you know about this place?” I whispered back.
He shrugged, a move I could feel in the close quarters. “Didn’t. But the safe was in a recess. Stood to reason there’d be a space, and I thought I could feel a draft from behind the piano. My main worry was that they knew it was here, too.”
Thorndike roused herself from slumber. “You’re the go-to guy when it comes to secret rooms on campus, man.”
Poe fell silent, and I didn’t blame him. When last he’d commandeered a secret room, it had almost torn our society apart at the seams. Of course, Poe was only one of the men who’d been involved in the society-within-a-society of Elysion last semester, and, as a group, we’d risen up and nipped the experiment in the bud well before Winter Break. Still, I swallowed the impulse to respond on his behalf. If Thorndike was still pissed off, she wasn’t alone, and she was well within her rights.
Also, I wanted to defend Poe like I wanted to make this hole my new summer home.
Slowly, we pushed the piano away from the wall and squeezed out, stretching our cramped limbs and breathing deeply at last. After our long confinement, even the dim glow filtering in around the edges of the window seemed enough to define every detail of the room. We’d spread out, relieved to finally be able to have some space to ourselves. Lil’ Demon was doing lunges, Thorndike had gone back to examining the dragon, and Poe leaned against the wall, his hands pillowed behind his head. Angel once again checked the status of the hallway. “I think they’re still here,” she whispered. “I can hear a television on downstairs.”
Crap. So we were still stuck, and still without a prize for all our trouble. I stared back at the hole behind the piano, and suddenly got a great idea. “Let’s steal the dragon.”
“What?” said Puck. “No. Trying to go forward anyway is what got us into this mess.”
“No, you jumping before the signal is what got us into this mess,” Poe offered from against the wall.
“Forget it, Bugaboo,” said Thorndike. “There’s no way we can get it out of here.”
“So we don’t get it out,” I replied, feeling a grin tugging at the corners of my mask. “Hidden is as good as gone for our purposes. We pull a Thomas Crowne Affair.”
“The original or the remake?” asked Lil’ Demon.
I furrowed my brow. “There’s an original?”
Poe chuckled softly. “Children.”
Hollywood history aside, my plan was quickly ratified and, with no little difficulty and a good deal more noise than we hoped, we got the giant golden dragon hidden inside the crawl space we’d so recently vacated.
“Doesn’t have the same sense of victory as if we actually took the item we’re supposedly stealing,” Angel whispered, when at last we had the piano pushed back in place and the entire area dusted to ensure that our tampering wouldn’t be detected.
“It works, though,” said Thorndike. “When they notice it’s missing, they’ll know it was us. We can still bargain with them to get our little statue back.”
“Don’t celebrate yet,” said Lil’ Demon. “We still need to escape, or did anyone fancy spending the rest of the semester in the Dragon’s Head tomb?”
In the ensuing silence, we all tried not to look at the one patriarch in the room. Poe was, after all, the go-to guy when it came to finding secret passages. We stood in silence for a full ten seconds before his sigh floated over from the position he’d returned to, holding up the wall.
“Okay. I’ll help you guys out, just this once.”
“Did he have to be so holier-than-thou about it?” Angel asked me five minutes later, as we sneaked down the back stairs into the kitchen. “Every time I start to think he might be okay, he turns around and acts like a complete jerk.”
And every time I decided he was a complete jerk, he turned around and did something decent. Poe kept his sheet pretty well balanced.
We broke out into the yard and sprinted quickly for the nearest wall. This time, I made my leap on the first try, but it took three attempts for Poe to reach the ledge. We hauled him over the top and into the safety of the alleyway beyond.
Thorndike pumped her fist in the air. “Success!”
We hurried back to the street, and Lil’ Demon pulled out her walkie-talkie. “I’ll see if they’re still waiting up for us. This calls for pizza and beers, I think.”
“I think they’re paying,” Puck said. He whipped off his ski mask and let out a primal shout to the sky. His hair was plastered to his face and wet with sweat. “Man, what a rush!”
I pulled off my own mask and fluffed my hair. I’m sure I looked just as gross, but I felt just as exhilarated. I wanted to dance, to run, to scream. Angel and Thorndike were tangoing in the snow, and Lil’ Demon laughed and snapped pictures with her cell phone to send to the knights who’d missed out on the adventure. I turned to Poe, grinning. He’d removed his own mask, and ran his fingers through his wet, dark hair, then lifted them into the light. I saw a flash of red before he caught me staring and whipped his hand behind his back.
Euphoria leaching into the air, I rushed over. “You’re hurt. What happened?” I reached for his head and he wrenched it away. “When you cracked your head against the wall in the crawl space . . .”
“Presence of real genius, Bug’boo.”
I shook my head. He’d been hurt all that time, and hadn’t said anything. “If you’re still bleeding . . . My God, Poe. Let’s call Lucky and get her to give us a ride to the hospital.”
He moved another few steps back. “ ’m fine. Go get your . . . pizza.” He waved vaguely at the retreating group.
“You’re not fine,” I argued. He was slurring his words. He’d been leaning against the wall while we’d been in the treasure room. He hadn’t been able to jump over the ledge. “You’re still bleeding. You could have a concussion. Probably have one.”
“Yo, guys!” Puck called. “Let’s get a move on! There’s a pitcher of beer at Sicily’s with my name on it.”
I looked at the others, then turned back to Poe, holding out my hand. “Come on. Stop being so difficult.”
“Right, ’cause the perfect ending to me tagging along, again, is ruining your vict’ry cel’bration with a trip to the ER.”
I laughed in disbelief, hoping it would set him at ease. “Please. You’re talking crazy. We only made it out tonight because of you.”
He wadded up his ski mask and held it against his head, then turned south, which was not, thankfully, in the direction of his apartment, but rather of Eli–New Haven Hospital. Still, it was a half hour walk, a hike I had no intention of letting him take alone. Or at all.
“Poe, wait up already!” I hurried after him.
“Where are you guys going?” I heard Angel call.
“Check out Bugaboo, hooking up with the freaks,” Puck said. But I barely noticed. In the golden glow of the sodium lights, I could now see that the back of Poe’s black sweater was soaked with a dark liquid I doubted was sweat.
I skidded to a stop on the icy walk before him. “Stop. Now. You’re in no condition to walk.”
He looked at me with unfocused eyes. “Christ, Amy, you’re such a bossy bitch.”
And then he collapsed.