A few seconds later, Fingerman snatched at the curtain that separated the front of the store from the back room. In his midtwenties, Mark had shaggy brown hair and bright green eyes. Dressed in a baggy tan T-shirt that had seen better days, he looked like he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days.

Ah, that was where Bubba’s beard had gone.

Mark had been working for Bubba off and on for years. But more than that, the two of them were best friends, and Mark was every bit as crazy as Bubba.

Wait, on second thought, he was even crazier. Bubba didn’t make a habit of dousing himself in duck urine to ward off zombies. Thank goodness Mark wasn’t wearing it today, ‘cause that stuff stank with a big capital S.

“Dang it all, Bubba, how many times do I have to tell you not to do that? You scare the crap out of me with that booming voice of yours. It carries and breaks the sound barrier. One day, you’re gonna cause me to leave a pile of it in the back room and I’m not gonna clean it up. You cause it. You clean it.”

Bubba mumbled something that sounded like Latin.

“I’m not a wimp,” Mark said defensively. “And I’m not your dog. Don’t bark at me, boy. One day you gonna make me bite.”

Nick cleared his throat to remind the two of them that they weren’t alone. “Uh, guys? My phone? Malicious lunatic at school? Your mom at the airport?”

That snapped Bubba’s attention to where Nick wanted it. He handed the phone to Mark. “I need you to trace the IP on this and find out who registered the domain.”

“Yeah, all right. I can do that.”

“I know you can. That’s why I called you out here.”

Mark clenched his jaw in a way that let Nick know he was having to force himself not to comment. After a few seconds, he gestured toward the door. “Don’t you need to go get your mama? It’s a long trip from Bucksnort to New Orleans, and God love the good-hearted woman, she never met a stranger a day in her life.”

“I’m going.” Bubba opened his jacket to check the pocket and make sure he had his wallet. He patted his pants, then frowned.

Mark picked his keys up from the counter and held them out.

With a sigh of relief, Bubba took them from him. “Thanks.”

Inclining his head, Mark didn’t say anything until after Bubba had left the store. “I swear, I love his mama, but I hate whenever she comes to town. That boy gets so beside himself he can’t think straight.”

Caleb snorted. “I didn’t know he ever thought straight.”

Mark laughed at that. “True. All right, y’all, come on back and I’ll trace this for you.”

They walked around the counter and through the curtains. Kody took a seat at the long, tall worktable that was strewn with various computer parts. When she reached for a motherboard, Mark grabbed her hand. “Make sure you ground yourself before you touch anything.” He stressed the last word.

She frowned. “Ground myself? I’m not floating, am I?” From anyone else that would sound like a joke, but since Kody could actually fly …

Mark placed her hand on the metal computer casing. “Static electricity is your worst enemy in computers, and when pumping gas.”

Caleb and Nick exchanged an amused grin. Knowing Mark, this had to be good. After all, Mark was the only one Nick knew who could set fire to his jeep by simply answering his cell phone.

“Pumping gas?” Nick asked.

“Yeah, I once blew up my uncle’s motorcycle by accident and set fire to my favorite pair of jeans. ’Course it’d been even more wrong had I done it intentionally. Anyway, I slid off the vinyl seat and touched the nozzle without grounding myself. The spark ignited the fumes and that was all she wrote. You’d be amazed how many people a year blow themselves up. Believe it or not, I’m not the only one … Not exactly sure how that makes me feel, though. Glad I’m not the only one, but still…”

Mark sat down at the bench and pulled the keyboard toward him. “Did you know there’s been over two hundred reported cases of people who ignited themselves and their cars because they didn’t ground themselves before touching the nozzle? It’s true. Most are women who started pumping, gas, that is, then got back in the car, and when they got back out to touch the nozzle, ka-boom. I have to say that I am not proud to be one of the very few men who have done it. Kind of embarrassing, but if I can keep one of you from learning my lesson, then it’s worth a little humiliation. I’m just glad Bubba wasn’t there to see it and mock me for it.”

Nick laughed. “That’s what I love most about you, Mark.”

“What?”

“Your whole purpose in life seems to be to serve as a warning to others on what not to do.”

Laughing with him, Mark started typing. “Sad, but true, kid. Sad, but true. Now let’s see what we can find.”

They waited quietly while Mark worked.

Nick’s phone started ringing. Without missing a single keystroke, Mark handed it to him. Now that was impressive. But then, Mark was the master of one hand speed typing. Something he’d perfected while keeping one hand buried in a potato chip bag while he worked or surfed.

Pressing the answer button, Nick held his phone to his ear. “Hello?”

“Are you dead?”

Nick hesitated at the sound of Kyrian’s deeply accented voice. “No, but that tone sounds like my death might be imminent. Why?”

“You know what time it is?”

Nick glanced to the clock on the wall and cringed. It was after five. “Sorry, boss. I got distracted.”

“Yeah, and you didn’t call your mother and she called me worried sick about you.”

Nick scowled. “Why didn’t she call me?”

“She tried and you didn’t answer. Then she tried again and it rolled straight to voicemail. She now thinks you’re dead in a ditch.”

Great. Detention and grounded. Just what he wanted. “I’ll give her a call.”

“And…”

“I should have called you and told you I’d be late to work. I’m really sorry, Kyrian. I am. I had something come up at school, and I’ve been working on it since I got out of detention. I just let time get away from me. It won’t happen again, boss, I promise.”

“It’s fine, Nick. But only because this isn’t a habit with you. That’s why we got worried. You’re always so good about keeping in touch that when we lose you, it rattles us.”

Nick cringed at that. He couldn’t stand to upset his mother. “Sorry. I’ll head on over and—”

“Don’t worry about it. I don’t have anything that can’t wait until tomorrow. Go see your mom so that she’ll know you’re all right.”

“Okay. You sure you don’t need me to do anything?”

“Did you check with Kell about the status on my replacement sword?”

“I did, and I tracked it down. It’ll be delivered tomorrow morning. They accidentally sent it to Cleveland. I also dropped off your dry cleaning on my way to school, and will pick it up tomorrow afternoon. During lunch, I scheduled an appointment for the Lamborghini to be serviced on Friday, and I got Mr. Poitiers to agree to pick it up and drop it off for you. I e-mailed Acheron about Halloween, and he said to tell you and Talon that there will be two new additions moved in for it. Someone named Gallagher and Wulf. They’ll arrive on the twenty-eighth. I’ve already e-mailed Talon about it and was going to tell you when I got over there. Lastly, I called Liza and she will have Rosa’s birthday present from you wrapped and ready. I’ll grab it on my way home and make sure Rosa gets it tomorrow along with the card you have in your top desk drawer. Anything else you need?”

“No. You are on top of it and I appreciate it. I really am impressed with you, Nick. You’re a good kid.”

Nick’s face ignited. He wasn’t used to praise from anyone and it always embarrassed him to get it. “I’m just trying to do my job, boss.” But it was more than that. Nick owed Kyrian a debt that couldn’t be repaid. The man had saved his life after Nick had been shot last year. Not only had Kyrian kept Nick’s friend from killing him, he’d taken Nick to the hospital and paid for them to patch him up.

It was that debt that had led to Nick working part time for him so that he could repay the hospital bill.

“All right,” Kyrian said kindly. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay. If you need anything else…”

Kyrian laughed. “Bye, Nick.”

Nick hung up, then dialed his mother at work. Since she didn’t have a cell phone of her own, he had to call in on the restaurant line.

“Sanctuary on Ursulines. How may I help you?”

He’d know that sweet drawl that was tinged with a hint of a French accent anywhere. It belonged to a tall, beautiful blonde woman who was all legs and all curves. “Hi, Aimee, it’s Nick. Can my mom come to the phone for a second?”

“Boy…” she stressed that word in a way that made him inwardly cringe, “your hide is so tanned, I could make shoe leather out of it. Hang on and let me get her.”

Nick dreaded what he knew was coming.

Sure enough, he heard the tears in his mother’s voice. “Nicky, baby? Are you okay?”

I’m such a jerk. How could he have forgotten to call her? She’d been bad to worry about him before he’d been shot. Since that night when he’d almost died, she was barely one step short of insane when it came to his well-being.

“I am so sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“But are you all right?”

“I am.”

Those two words cured the tears. It also sent her reeling into a realm of anger that instantly knotted his gut. “How dare you scare me like that! Have you any idea how worried I’ve been? Why didn’t you answer your phone? Where have you been? Why aren’t you at work? I swear, if you’re hanging out with those hoodlums again, I’m going to ground you until you’re in an old-age home. You hear me? Why aren’t you answering me, Nick, huh?”

“’Cause you always yell at me when I interrupt you.”

“Are you sassing me?”

“No, ma’am.” That would be all kinds of stupid, especially in her current mood.

She let out a sound of ultimate peeve. “You’re grounded for a week. You hear me?”

“But Mom—”

“Don’t you ‘but Mom’ me. I’ve had it with your irresponsibility. And you think you’re mature enough to drive and date? Really, Nick? You can’t even remember to dial a phone or take trash to the curb or lower a toilet seat or pick your underwear up from the floor, and you think you can handle operating a car in New Orleans’ traffic? I don’t think so. You’ve got a long way to go to become the man you think you are. You hear me?”

He really, really hated those last three words that she said every other sentence whenever she yelled at him. He clenched his teeth to keep from arguing.

“Now I have to go and get back to work. I don’t know where you are, but you have fifteen minutes to walk through the doors here. If you’re further away than that, you’re grounded for a month. You hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Clock’s ticking, buster. You better run for it.” She hung up on him.

Sighing, Nick looked at Kody, then Caleb.

“We heard,” Mark said. “Pretty sure the folks in Slidell heard, too. You better get on.”

“I’m going.” He held his phone out to Mark.

“I got everything I need. I’ll call you once I get it all tracked.”

“All right. Thanks.”

“You want us to come with you?” Kody asked.

Yeah, that was all he needed. There was no telling what insanity his mom would come up with if she knew he’d been with Kody when he should have been at work. “No, she already thinks I’m goofing off instead of working. If she sees you guys, she’ll really be hot. I’ll catch y’all later.”

Nick grabbed his backpack from the floor, shrugged it over his sore shoulder, and ran up the street toward Ursulines as fast as he could. Luckily Bubba’s store wasn’t all that far from Sanctuary. But he didn’t want to push it. The sooner he got there, the happier his mom would be.

He didn’t slow down until he reached the doors of the three-story red brick building that housed one of the most famed bar and grills in New Orleans. There was a huge bear of a man at the door to greet all newcomers. Most wouldn’t think anything about it, but Nick knew whoever was on door duty was there to assess the threat level of any preternatural clientele entering the building. And for reasons no one would explain, the doorman always had them cue Sweet Home Alabama on the jukebox whenever Acheron showed up. There was much about Sanctuary Nick still had to learn.



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