Just as Caleb took a step toward the raised counter, Bubba reappeared in the open windows. “Hey, Nick? You got a minute?”
Unsure how wise that would be given the weirdness of this night, he glanced at Caleb to see what he thought.
“Ain’t nothing going to eat you while Bubba’s around,” Caleb said with a laugh. “They might screw with him for fun, but he won’t let them through. You go on and see what he needs while I check out. I’ll be there in a few.”
Nick wasn’t sure he liked that idea, but he left in spite of his common sense. Carefully, so as not to get hurt, he picked his way through the glass fragments until he was outside on the sidewalk beside Bubba.
Car alarms rang out up and down the street and there was hardly a store left with its windows intact. At the sound of approaching police sirens, Mark came running down the street with the backpack portion of the flamethrower bobbing while he cradled the tube with the pilot light in his arms to protect it.
Now there’s a sight you don’t see every day.
Unless you befriended lunatics.
With lightning speed, Bubba took his flamethrower off and held it out with one arm. In a perfect handoff, Mark grabbed it as he ran past them, toward the Triple B. The man didn’t even slow down or miss a single step.
Nick was impressed. Horrified and amused, but really impressed. “Should I ask?”
Bubba wiped his hands off on his jeans. “The commissioner stopped by a couple of weeks ago and told us that if another police officer caught either me or Mark out in public with the flamethrowers again, they’d haul us in for arson and keep us there until we’re too old and feeble to lift a weapon.”
“Ah … so what did you need?”
Bubba rubbed at his neck in a gesture that always signaled he was nervous about something. A wave of fear shot through Nick. It wasn’t often that anything rattled Bubba. And when it did …
It was biblically bad.
“Is something wrong?” Nick asked.
“Nah … I just…” His voice trailed off as various expressions played across his face.
An awful feeling went through Nick. Please let me be wrong. This night has already sucked enough. He couldn’t stand for it to get worse. “Please, God, Bubba, tell me you’re not about to ask me out, are you?”
Bubba made a rude sound at him. “Hell, nah. I’d date Mark first, provided he took a bath so I wouldn’t have to fumigate my truck or store.”
That was a relief.
“But,” Bubba continued, “now that you mention it … that is what I wanted to ask you about.”
“Dating Mark? Really?”
’Cause the kid with a brand-new license was such an expert on going out with others.
Bubba gave him a dry, irritated stare.
Then after a few seconds, he inhaled a deep breath and rubbed his hand over his chin. “Look, I’m just going to blurt this out, so bear with me. I wanted to ask you if you’d be opposed to me asking out your mama? I’ve been thinking about it for a while now and I didn’t want to go behind your back and do it. If it bothers you at all, just tell me and I’ll never mention it again. But your mama’s a fine woman and I would never do anything to dishonor her or upset you.”
For a full, solid minute, Nick couldn’t breathe as that question hit him like a kick to his groin. Had he really heard that? Was it possible?
Bubba wants to date my mother.…
The mere concept threw him straight into shock.
Bubba snapped his fingers in front of his face. “Nick? You all right?”
No. The world was suddenly upside down.… Total pole reversal, and it wasn’t from the demons and other things out to get him.
Bubba wanted to date his mother.
His mom. His blessed, sainted mother who never even looked at a man that way. She was so uptight and staunch about that, that Nick had half convinced himself she’d turn into a pillar of salt if she even contemplated talking to the opposite sex, never mind actually touching one of them.
But then, Bubba never looked at women either. Not once since his wife died. Mark had told him that. Heck. Bubba didn’t even talk about women. It was as if his heart was so broken by the loss of Melissa that he couldn’t bear the thought of spending even a minute with another woman, other than his own mama.
Yet once the initial shock of the question settled and Nick had some higher cognitive functioning again, he stopped looking at it like an infant who thought he’d been born through immaculate conception.
His mother was a sweet, beautiful woman who was barely thirty years old.
And Bubba, while a bit on the crazy side, was a great man who wasn’t that much older than her.… He was also the closest thing to a father Nick had ever known.
His mind whirling, he went back in time to that afternoon he’d first met Bubba. It’d been a particularly bad day his first month at St. Richard’s. Stone had punched him so hard during first period that his nose had still been stinging that afternoon, and his eyes hadn’t stopped tearing up.
Worse, he’d been given an assignment in English that required him to have a computer and Internet connection. Since they couldn’t afford either, Nick had spent over an hour trying to find an Internet café or computer store that would rent time to him when he didn’t have an ID or parent with him. Most had run him off three seconds after he entered the building.
By the time he’d stumbled into the Triple B, he’d been so frustrated, he’d wanted to throw himself into the Pontchartrain.
Bubba, in all his humongous rippling muscled form that made the Hulk look like a pigmy, had stood at the counter of his store, staring right at him. Back then, he’d had a thick black beard, shaggy hair, and was wearing a black glow-in-the-dark KILL THEM ALL AND LET GOD SORT THEM OUT tee covered by a red flannel lumberjack shirt.
Frozen in terror at the sight of Bubba’s stern glower and arms the size of a tree trunk, Nick had wanted to run, but he was afraid to move lest he wet his pants. And he’d been convinced that Bubba would kill him dead if he wet the floor.
“Can I help you?” Bubba’s thick drawl had rumbled out of his massive chest like low-lying thunder.
It’d taken a few seconds before Nick’s own voice could rise above a whisper. “Um, I need to rent a computer for homework.”
That scowl had darkened before Bubba broke into one of his famous crap-eating grins. “You don’t have to look so scared, boy. I’ve already filled up on snot-nose at lunch and don’t got no more room in my belly for another one for a while.” He’d reached under the counter and pulled out a laptop, then set it up with a chair for Nick in the front of the store. “I don’t normally rent computers, but I do have one right here you can use till you get finished with your homework. Just take your time and don’t worry about the cost.”
“I can’t take charity. My mama won’t let me.”
“Fine then. You can take out some trash in the back when you get done.”
The next thing Nick had known, he was working on his paper at the counter near the register, laughing at Bubba’s stories of his scary adventures with Mark, and splitting a pizza with him after Bubba had heard his stomach rumbling.
By the time he had his assignment finished, with a lot of help from Bubba, he’d thought the world of the man. They didn’t make many guys like Big Bubba Burdette.
And his mother was a lady in a category all her own.…
If she were ever going to have a relationship with a man, Nick couldn’t think of anyone else he’d rather have her with than Bubba.
“Dang, Bubba,” Caleb said as he joined them. “What’d you do to him?”
“I just asked a question. But I think it sent him into a coma or something.”
“What was the question?”
Nick held his hand up to interrupt them as he finally had a rational thought again. “You know what, Bubba?” He met Bubba’s gaze levelly. “I’d be fine with you dating my mama. I don’t know if she’ll say yes. She’s never been on a date before, but if she agrees, I’m all for it. She needs someone to make her happy. But I just have one question.”
“If you two were to get married, would Mark be my irritating stepbrother or my mentally challenged uncle we don’t talk about in public?”
Bubba laughed. “You better be glad he’s not here to hear that, boy. He’d kick your butt.”
Probably so. “Seriously though, I’m all good with it. May the Force be with you when you ask her. You can never tell how she’s going to react to things like this. And don’t hold it against me if she says no.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t.” Bubba inclined his head to him. “Thank you, Nick. I appreciate it. And I promise I won’t do anything to make you uncomfortable or dishonor your mama.” Then he nodded to Caleb and headed for his store at the same time the police began arriving.
Nick met Caleb’s gaze. “It’s a sign, isn’t it?”
“Bubba wanting to date my mom.… The world is coming to an end.”
Caleb laughed at his dire tone. “No, Nick. Not if we can help it.”
Nick wanted to believe that, but as they started back toward his house, a bad feeling went through him. A feeling that only got worse as they were passing a police car and he overheard an officer talking on his radio.
“What was the name of that escaped prisoner again?”
“Adarian Malachai. And they’re pretty sure he’s headed our way. He’s already killed six people who tried to stop his escape. So he is definitely armed and dangerous. Do not attempt to apprehend him alone. We’re getting information now about any family he might have in the area and will pass that along once it comes in.”
Nick felt the color draining from his face as he met Caleb’s wide-eyed stare. While he knew he’d be the primary target his father would want to kill, there was one other person his father would prey on.
“We’ve got to get to my mother. Now!”
Caleb caught Nick’s arm and pulled him to a stop. “Hang on. Something’s not right.”
“Yeah, my bastard father’s escaped and—”
“No!” he growled through clenched teeth. “Listen to me, Nick. I saw your father right before I came to you. He’s not in any kind of shape to fight anyone. Not even a human. He didn’t get out of there on his own. He couldn’t have.”
Wanting to kill Caleb for holding him back, Nick tried to break free of Caleb’s iron grip. “Then he has a helper. What else is new?”
Caleb’s fingers bit harder into his arm, keeping him in place in spite of Nick’s struggles to get free. “Your father has no allies, Nick. I’m it. Do you understand me? The Malachai is the King Shit of our universe. All preternatural creatures, including the majority of the gods who remain in power, exist in a state of absolute fear of him. Even Noir. He might have held your father’s leash, but he knew he was holding his death in captivity, which is why he kept your father weakened and chained.… That being said, everyone covets his power, and if they can ever get to a weakened Malachai, they can take those powers and use them.”
“Then why does he trust you?”
“I’m his slave. There’s no way I can hurt him and he knows it. So long as he lives, my powers are his to command. If I tried to use them against him, they would rebound on me and I could conceivably lose mine entirely or die myself. I’m the only creature alive he can turn to right now who can’t kill him for his powers.”
Nick shook his head. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“I’m saying that if your father is really out of jail, something went in and got him for a reason, and if he’s still alive, that creature is holding him prisoner. And whatever those reasons are that they haven’t killed him, they are not for your father’s benefit, and especially not yours. The Malachai is the most cursed creature ever born. They can know no love of any kind, and that includes friendship. They can’t even trust their own mothers at their back.”
Nick calmed a degree as he considered that and came to the conclusion that his mother wasn’t in immediate danger from his father. She should be at home, safe. “Who would have taken him, then?”
Caleb finally let go of his arm. “That is the right question. Now let me really taint your Corn Flakes by reminding you that if something has found him and they manage to take his powers, they alone will have the ability to kill you. That’s why I said we had to get you to him immediately, before something like this happened or he dies.”