Nick was getting really irritated. “In where? Trouble? Synch? Between?”
They exchanged an amused look with his last guess.
“You’re warm,” Caleb said with an evil twist to his lips.
Yeah, that clown was definitely possessing him.…
“Le monde au delà du voile,” Kody said.
Nick scowled. “The world behind the veil?”
She nodded. “Why do you think they call this neutral ground?”
“Because the Creoles in the Quarter,” he pointed to the left side of Canal, “and the Americans in Uptown,” he pointed right, “couldn’t stand each other. So they let weeds and crap grow up to be a barrier between the two parts of the city. Later, they started meeting here to do business and sell things. Since they were conducting a form of cold war, they started calling all the medians where they met neutral ground.”
“Yeah … you keep on believing the lies our kind feed to the humans.” Caleb clapped his hand against Nick’s shoulder. “Haven’t you ever wondered about the Spanish Plaza behind this place?”
Was he on demon crack? “Um, no. Not really. Other than it was a cool place to get my feet wet when I was a kid.”
Kody jumped in on Caleb’s lunacy. “Ever notice that from up high, the fountain in the center of it and its surrounding area bears a scary resemblance to a Xibalba round? Right down to the way it lays with the river?”
“No. But that has a lot to do with the fact that I don’t know who or what Xibalba is.”
“Mayan underworld,” Kody explained. “The word itself means ‘place of fear.’ And all over the world, there are doorways from this world to others. Doorways we can use to access alternate places.”
Nick glanced up at the sinister statue. “Well, that explains Mr. Creepy Clown being here, doesn’t it?”
A slow smile curled one side of Caleb’s mouth as he let out a low, evil laugh. “This is going to be some twisted fun.”
“Malphas!” Kody snapped. “Don’t you dare!”
Walking backwards, Caleb spread his arms wide and laughed. “I’ve got to. I can’t resist. It’s pulling me, Kody … I can’t stop.” Caleb feigned great physical pain.
Kody growled at Caleb before she took Nick’s hand and pulled him after Caleb. Nick wanted to drag his feet, but he couldn’t do that if this really would get him to his mother.
Caleb began running, then launched himself straight up to the very narrow pedestal the clown stood on. Nick gaped at what had to be a twenty-foot jump. Not to mention, Caleb had to balance on something about the size of a narrow two-by-four.
“Forget quarterback. You ought to play running back.”
Ignoring him, Caleb reached to the smaller jester head on a stick that Nick had named Mr. Little Creepy.
Nick curled his lip. “Don’t touch that thing. You’re gonna get rabies or scabies or parvo or something.”
With another evil laugh, Caleb touched the head.
“Get your finger out of my nose, daeve!”
Cursing, Nick jumped three feet back as the statue came to life. “I knew it! Damn it all! I knew that thing was a minion of hell!”
The jester went slack-jawed as he turned his head toward Caleb. “Please tell me he isn’t one of us.”
“Hate to disappoint you, Sal.”
The jester made a face of absolute agony. “How far demons have fallen that he can be counted among our family. Sad, sad day.” Sighing heavily, he shook his head. Then he glanced back to Caleb. “I suppose you want in?”
“Yes, we do.”
The jester held the small head out toward Caleb. “You know the cost of admission.”
Caleb bit his finger, then allowed nine drops of blood to fall onto the smaller clown head.
The jester tapped his heart with the little head, then waved it high above. As he moved it, the Riverwalk sign on the right flickered so fast that for a moment, Nick thought he was imagining things.
“Thanks, Sal.” Caleb jumped down to land near Nick. “You ready?”
“For nightmares? Sure. Will now have plenty of them, Cay, merci beaucoup.”
Caleb snorted. “You’re such a baby.”
Yeah, right. “I’m not the only person who doesn’t like clowns, you know?”
Kody patted his shoulder in sympathy. Caleb ignored him.
As they passed the giant Lafayette horse statue beside the Trade Center, Lafayette lifted his tricorn hat to them as his horse reared up on its pedestal. The statue rider jerked its reins and it settled down. “Malphas,” he said in greeting.
Caleb inclined his head to him. “Gilbert. Good to see you.”
“Et toi, mon ami. Bon soir.”
His jaw dropping, Nick blinked at Caleb. “I think I now know what it is you do when you’re not with me. How much time do you spend here?” Apparently, a lot.
Caleb passed him an innocent stare. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Sure he didn’t.…
Without another word, Caleb led them under the Riverwalk sign arch that Nick had gone through hundreds of times in his life. Normally, it led to the Spanish Plaza where the humongous, ornate fountain would be on the right and an oyster bar straight back.
Tonight, the air seemed to shiver around them. And as they passed underneath the arch, a flash of light blinded Nick for the merest second. When he could see again, the Plaza had a dome over it. Instead of being dark from night, an eerie green glow made it as bright as day. And the water in the fountain appeared to be blood.
“What is this place?” he whispered to Kody.
“Think of it like an amusement park and holding station. It’s where demons who want to enter the human world can stay until they find a way in. Or demons from our world can come and intermingle with nonhumans in a relatively safe environment.” She gestured to what appeared to be a row of stores and a building that had strange music coming from it. “There’s even a demon brothel and bar.”
“It’s also where the Hellchasers hold their prisoners until they can hand them off to the right party.” Caleb slowed his pace as they neared a man with short brown hair and greenish brown eyes. He wore brown armguards with gold embroidery that started glowing at Caleb’s approach.
“Speak of the pain,” Caleb mumbled to Nick and Kody. Then louder, he spoke to the man in front of them. “Tristan.”
Tristan narrowed his eyes dangerously at Nick and Kody. “Who are your friends, Malphas?”
“Not your targets.”
“Yeah,” Nick added. “We’re not the droids you’re looking for.”
Kody was aghast. “Don’t taunt the Hellchaser, Nick. Most lack a sense of humor.”
Without warning, Caleb banked left and headed through a set of glass doors that led to a long, narrow hallway. “All right, Nick. You’re up. Sniff out your parents.”
“This is the Hall of Holding. If you saw them in a holding cell, it would most likely be one of these.”
Nick slowed his pace. “What is this? Like demon death row?”
“No. More like intake.”
That didn’t make sense. “Why would my parents be in here?”
Caleb held his hands up and shrugged. “You’re the one who led us here.”
True. He still had no idea who had taken his parents, never mind the why.
With a deep breath for courage, Nick summoned his powers and used them to probe the ether for a sign or signal. His ears grew warm as he finally located them. They really were here.
Thank you, God.
He grinned at his friends. “Got it.”
Kody took his hand as Caleb touched his shoulder. Nick teleported them into the room … right in front of his father. The instant they appeared, the demons in the walls froze in shock, as did Nick’s parents.
Caleb clenched his shoulder so hard, he bruised it. “Uh … Nick.” He enunciated each word slowly and with great irritation. “You forgot to tell us one itty-bitty important detail.” His grip tightened even more as he snarled quickly. “Like the fact your parents are surrounded by thin walls holding back things that want to eat us!”
As if they heard every word, the demons went on an attacking frenzy.
“Baby?” His mother ran to him and grabbed him into a fierce hug. “Are you all right?”
She slid her gaze to his father before she nodded.
Nick turned slowly to face Adarian. This was the first time he’d stood beside his father since he’d been a child. Back then, his father had looked like a giant and had scared the bejesus out of him.
Tonight, they stood eye to eye. And while his father still had him on body weight and muscle mass, he no longer intimidated Nick at all.
And Adarian knew it.
But the one thing that did disturb Nick was how much he favored his father in looks. The only thing different was their eye color. How his mother could ever look at him and not curse and beat him, he had no idea. He was a walking reminder, every single day of her life, of what his father had done to her when she’d been younger than he was now, and not once in sixteen years of his life had she ever let Nick know it.
In that one single heartbeat, the full capacity of her heart and love hit him so hard, he could barely breathe.
And one day, he, who had ruined her entire life by being born to her, would be the cause of her death.
No wonder Ambrose went Malachai. Nick finally got it.
“You are an idiot of the first magnitude,” his father growled. “I should have devoured you when you were born.”
His mom turned to defend him, but Nick wouldn’t let her. “It’s all right, Mom.” He stepped around to block her from his father. “I’m not a kid anymore and I’m not afraid of him.”
His mother touched his shoulder. “I don’t understand what’s going on here, Nicky … where are we? Why can’t I leave?”
Kody put her arms around his mother’s shoulders and pulled her back. “Everything’s fine, Mrs. Gautier. It’s just a bad dream. That’s all.”
Nick inclined his head to Kody, grateful for her support and strength. When he turned back to his father, he caught his father’s unguarded expression as Adarian made sure Kody wasn’t hurting his mother.
The worthless bastard really did love his mother.…
But the love in his gaze turned to brutal hatred when he met Nick’s eyes.
Yeah, they were still at war with one another. No mistaking that look.
“Have you any idea what you’ve done?” Adarian snarled at him. “They now have us both, and there’s no way out of here.”
“That’s not entirely true.”
Both Nick and his father looked at Kody.
“I don’t have demon blood. I can open the door. But the problem we’re going to have is that your mom is human. She’s the Godiva chocolate to all the creatures hanging around here. When we get out, they will all be after her.”
“And Kody,” Caleb interjected, “doesn’t have the passcode for this room. So when she opens the door, an alarm will sound and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. The dampeners will come on and we won’t be able to teleport. Our powers will be weakened. The only way back to the human realm is to get to the arch and run through it.”
His father shoved at him. “You are so stupid.”
Nick started for him, then stopped himself for once. This wasn’t the time and place for losing his temper. Not while his mother and Kody were in danger.
He glared at his sperm donor. “We are going to fight. One day, one of us will kill the other. That’s a given. But today, we have something more important to fight for.” He passed a meaningful glance to his mother before turning back to Adarian. “Now, you can be the dick I know you are. Or you can finally be the man my mother needs you to be.”
“You don’t know who or what you’re dealing with, boy.” His father went to poke a finger into Nick’s shoulder.
Nick grabbed it and shoved his father back. “I’m dealing with a really old and pathetic, dying Malachai, and every second I’m here with you, you’re getting weaker and sicker. Unfortunately, while I may have all the power, you have all the control of it. We need each other to get her out of here. So are we going to fight each other, and let everyone die, or are you going to learn how to play on a team for once?”
The expression on his father’s face said that they were about to deathmatch.
Nick braced himself for the fight.
His father sucked his breath in so hard that it sounded like a vicious roar. And as he did so, he grew in height until he was twenty feet tall. His skin changed from its normal tawny shade to a mixture of gold and black that swirled in a beautiful pattern. His eyes bright gold, Adarian opened his mouth, showing his fangs.