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Cringing, he sobered instantly.
“Nice summation, Mr. Malphas.” She headed for the board. “It’s essay time, class. Hope all of you are up to date on your reading. If not, I will soon know and you will regret it, and don’t even try siccing your parents on me. If I get one phone call about unfair treatment, I’ll automatically deduct thirty-five points off your final grade. And ten points off everyone else’s, just for good measure.”
Ignoring her, Nick wanted to know why Caleb had so obviously directed those last words to him. He might be a lot of things in life, but he’d never been an idiot. Especially not where his life was concerned. Obsession was not his thing. He believed in rolling with the punches.…
Oh, wait. Did Caleb know about his wanting to go after Alan for shooting him?
Yeah, okay, so that wasn’t so easy to let go. But the turd had shot him. Shot him. Would have killed him, too, without a second thought, had Kyrian not stopped him, and Alan would have beaten up two innocent older people. Someone needed to stop that animal. Going after Alan wasn’t obsession. That was a public service.
Suddenly, the intercom turned on, making several kids, including Nick, jump in their seats. “Mrs. Richardson? Could you send Nick Gautier to the office?”
Nick’s stomach hit the floor. Such a summons was never good, at least not where he was concerned.
What did I do now?
Actually that wasn’t the question. What are they blaming me for now? He was the one person who could never get away with anything without getting caught. And he was always the one they held up as an example to everyone else. Or worse, he was totally innocent in the matter and blamed anyway and still held up as an example.
She curled her lip at him as she spoke to the intercom. “He’s on his way.”
Nick packed his bag up, just in case a suspension was looming, then stood. Someone threw a wadded-up piece of paper at him while Richardson wrote the assignment on the board with her back to them. Of course she missed that.
Had Nick done it, she’d have turned and caught him the moment it left his hand.
Ignoring the insult, which he was pretty sure had come from one of Stone’s minions, and the fact that it completely ticked him off, he slung the backpack over his shoulder and made the Bataan Death March toward the office. Gah, could it be any farther? Could he dread it any worse?
Can I have one day at school where I’m not forced to the office? Just one? Really, is that asking too much?
His gut completely knotted, he pushed open the door and walked to the long light wood counter. The secretary, who was around his mother’s age, but nowhere near as attractive, gave him a smug lip curl. “Mr. Head wants to see you.”
Of course. Why else would he be here? Not like he was making a delivery.
Nick went for the door behind the counter that was slightly ajar and knocked on the fogged glass that gleamed with the new principal’s name on it.
Nick pushed the door open wider so that he could enter the Chamber of Doom. It was even dark and gloomy inside. For some reason, the fluorescent lights in this room cast a grayish wash that hung over everything like a ghoulish pall.
“Close it behind you.”
Yeah, that tone said his butt was in for it. Nick obeyed, then went to take a seat in front of the dark wood desk.
Strange, all traces of Peters had been removed, and Head’s personal items were all in place as if he’d been principal here for years. It was kind of creepy when you thought about it. You got eaten by a coworker one day at work, and the next the world went on as if you’d never existed. No one even talked about Peters anymore.
He was completely erased. A shiver went down Nick’s spine. Even though Peters had been a jerk, it was sobering to realize how little the world cared once you were gone.
Meanwhile, here they were.…
A middle-aged man with a bald head, the new principal looked even more stern than Peters had. Did they send them to a special training camp to give them all that pompous, condescending twist to their mouths?
He glared at Nick over the rim of his brown glasses. “Do you know why you’re here?”
You needed somebody to kick, and I drew the lucky straw? He kept that belief to himself. “No, sir.”
“Think, Gautier. Think.”
I am the most unfortunate human ever born, and you guys like to screw with my head? Biting back that sarcasm was much easier said than done. “Sorry, sir. Not a clue.”
Head set a handheld Nintendo down on his desk. “Look familiar?”
Duh. What was he supposed to answer? Of course it did. Most of his classmates had one. They were common and unless decorated by the owner, ubiquitous.
Head’s smug glower intensified. “Cat got your tongue, boy?”
No, confusion had his tongue. He still had absolutely no idea what was going on. But before he could speak, a knock sounded on the door.
The new coach pushed it open. “Am I interrupting?”
“Yes.” Head’s tone was even colder than his grimace.
The coach ignored it. “Gautier. Glad you’re here. I was just about to track you down.” He came in and handed Nick his jersey.
Nick would be excited, but under the circumstances, he was going to wait to celebrate.
“You might want to hold off on doing that,” Head said in a dire tone.
The coach scowled. “Why?”
“I’m about to send this little punk to jail, and the last thing we need is another person in lockup wearing one of our school jerseys.”
Nick choked. Jail? For what? Breathing?
“What did he do?” the coach asked.
Yeah, what did I do?
“Stealing. This—” He held up the Nintendo. “—was found in his locker. It belongs to—”
“Kyl Poitiers. He loaned it to Nick in gym class.”
Nick was as stunned as the principal, who mirrored the word that was screaming in his mind. No one had loaned him that, and he’d definitely not stolen it. But he knew better than to speak up until he understood what was going on. Anything can and will be used against you.
The coach gestured to Nick. “I saw Kyl give it to him.”
Head still refused to believe it. “You’re mistaken. The serial number’s on my list of stolen objects, and it belongs to Bryce Parkington.”
“And again, I know what I saw in class. If it’s stolen, Poitiers is framing Nick. But that’s a stretch. Are you sure the number’s correct?”
“Of course I’m sure. The number is right here.” Head compared the two numbers, then cursed under his breath. “Well, that’s odd. I swear the numbers matched earlier.”
The coach shrugged. “It’s an honest mistake. Happens to the best of us. Besides, those numbers are so small on the devices, it’s easy to misread them.” He gestured to Nick. “C’mon, Gautier. I’ll walk you back to class.”
Head continued to sputter as he went back and forth with the serial numbers, trying to make them match.
“Wait,” he said as they reached the door. He held the system out toward Nick. “You might as well take it back with you, since it’s not one of the stolen items.” Then his tone went sharp again. “And don’t let me catch you playing it in class or the hallway, or I’ll confiscate it.”
“Yes, sir.” Nick grabbed the handheld and made a quick getaway. He still had no idea what was going on, but he wasn’t about to open his mouth and get himself into trouble now that he was clear. Especially since he was innocent of any wrongdoing.
As soon as they were outside the office and in the hallway away from anyone who might overhear them, the coach stopped him. “Bet you’re wondering what’s going on, aren’t you?”
“Lot of confused. Definitely.”
The coach took the Nintendo from Nick’s hand and toyed with it. “I did some digging into your school file. It’s actually quite impressive.”
Nick had a bad feeling he wasn’t talking about his grades or test scores. “How so?”
“You scored the highest for the entrance exam of any kid ever tested. You’re the only one who’s ever made a hundred on it and got all three of the bonus questions correct, too. Did you know that?”
All right. For once he was wrong. A wave of pride filled him. That was saying something, since this was one of the best schools in the country, never mind the state of Louisiana, and harder than even Ben Franklin High to get into. “No.” They’d told him he’d done really well and given him a full scholarship, but no one had ever told him that he’d scored perfect on it. Wow. No wonder his mom got so bent whenever she thought he was slacking off.
“But that wasn’t what I found the most fascinating. It’s your other record I want to talk to you about.”
His stomach shrank. Here it comes.…
Loser. Dork. Your family history blows. You have no hope for a future, so we might as well throw you out now, right into the gutter that spawned you. He’d heard it all more times than he could count and from more people than he could name. Peters in particular had taken a sadistic pleasure in letting him know that he had no future whatsoever.
“Last year alone,” the coach continued, “you were in thirty-five fights. Thirty-five. Kid, that has to be a record. When you take out the days you were absent, it’s like one every third day you’re in school. The fact that you’re still a student here, even with your exemplary test scores and grades, is the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard of. I’ve taught at a lot of schools over the years and never have I seen anyone who was a worse troublemaker. Truly impressive.”
That annihilated every bit of pride Nick’d temporarily had. He knew it looked bad, but it wasn’t entirely his fault. He didn’t care when they insulted him, which was pretty much hourly, it was when they went after his mom that it was on like Donkey Kong. Unfortunately, Stone knew that, and so they relentlessly called his mom names and said horrifying things about her and her character. In spite of a few mistakes that everyone made, his mom was a saint, and he’d bust anyone who said differently—which apparently happened every third day he was in school.
Sighing, Nick held the jersey out. “Guess you want this back.”
The coach refused to take it. “No. I have another proposition for a boy with your unique … skills.”
Nick didn’t need his pendulum or his book to see where this was going. His gut said he wouldn’t like it, and when the coach spoke, he confirmed that suspicion. Loudly.
“I have a group of boys who do favors for me. I’d like for you to join our elite group.”
Oh yeah, right. No thank you. There were some groups he wanted no part of, and this sounded like one that needed to be at the top of his never list. “Dude, I don’t do nothing perverse. In fact—”
“Nothing like that, Nick.” He held the Nintendo up. “We procure things.”
No flippin’ way … The coach was part of that?
It wasn’t possible. Why would he do such a thing?
Then again, the thefts hadn’t started until the coach had come on board. Given that, it freakishly made sense. A supplemental income for an underpaid staffer. All the teachers he knew complained about their pay, and most looked for other ways to augment their income.
This was over the top, however.
“You steal,” Nick accused.
The coach screwed his face up. “That’s such an ugly word. We merely procure and borrow. After all, people never return what they borrow anyway, and the snobby rich kids here have so much, they don’t even appreciate it. Mummy and Daddy will replace their stuff without a second thought, and file claims with their insurance. It’s what it’s for, right? Think of it like Robin Hood. You’re alleviating the rich of wealth they don’t deserve and are giving it to those in need. Us.”
Nick shook his head at the manure the coach was spreading. Semantics couldn’t couch it. This was theft, pure and simple. There was no justifying it. Taking was taking, and it was wrong. His mother had raised him better than that. “Forget it. I’m not a thief.” He started to leave, but the coach stopped him.
“You will help us, Gautier. If you don’t, I’ll make sure the next item found in your locker carries a much longer jail sentence than this.” He wiggled the Nintendo in Nick’s face. “And with Principal Dick just itching to call the cops and have a scapegoat to placate the angry parent phone calls demanding he catch his thief, no one will mourn your sacrifice.”
Nick felt his panic rise. He knew it was the truth. The people at this school wouldn’t bat an eyelash to see him go and would think it was his just desserts to be brought down as a criminal. No one would ever believe he, the poorest kid in school, hadn’t been desperate enough to do it. “You wouldn’t dare.”