Page 19

 Sherrilyn Kenyon

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He wasn’t.
Tall, shaggy haired, and swathed in flannel and jeans, Mark, who was again drenched in the smell of duck urine, stood on the stoop like a hyena with a broken laugh track. “Boy, you should have seen the look on your face. I ain’t seen you that floppy rabbit scared since you were trying to get into the store before the zombies ate your brains. Oh my God. If I’d had a camera on you, I’d have made a fortune.”
Incensed over the needless scare the idiot had given him, Nick glared at him. “You dickhead! You’re not funny.”
“You’re right about that. Funny is you, boy.” He continued laughing until Nick was ready to kick him where it would leave a lasting impression. It was a good thing he owed Mark, or he would definitely give into that urge.
Nick growled low in his throat. “What are you doing here anyway, besides stinking up my porch and skinning a decade off my life?”
Mark wiped at his eyes. “Lo siento about the u-rine, mi amigo, but better safe than sorry when in the swamp. That’s my motto.” He finally stopped grinning and got down to business. “I saw that you’d called, and I was trying to call you back, but my battery went dead. So I went to car charge it. Unfortunately, I’d used the car charger to tie my glove box closed, which frayed it, and when I plugged it in to use it, it started a small electrical fire in the Jeep, which ignited a stack of papers and burned out the whole passenger seat before I could douse it with enough Coke to put it out—that stuff’s not as good at putting out fires as you’d think … Well, anyway, here I am. What did you need?”
Only Mark or Bubba could set their car on fire with a battery charger. Nick would laugh at it if it wasn’t so (a) typical of their luck and (b) pathetic.
“Um yeah, about that…” Nick scratched at his arm that was in the sling. “I took care of it already.”
Mark actually pouted. “You telling me I burned up my Jeep for no good reason? Dude, that sucks. At least tell me there was a zombie at your door or something trying to kill you.”
“No. Sorry.”
Mark muttered under his breath.
But as Nick stared at Mark’s Jeep, which had burn marks on the passenger-side window, a weird thought occurred to him. This might be the one person, aside from Caleb, who could really help him in this.
At least he was the one person insane enough to try. Everyone else would try to talk sense into him.
Mark was also the one person, aside from Mennie and Caleb, he knew could keep him safe from any preternatural attack. In fact, Mark lived to fight off anything he perceived as not human.
“You wouldn’t want to do a little recon with me, would you?”
That perked Mark up. “What kind of recon?”
“Well … it’s what I was calling you about. I have a teacher at school who is a strange enigma.”
One of Mark’s eyebrows shot north. “How so? Like zombie enigma or normal enigma?”
“I don’t think he’s a zombie.” However, he wouldn’t rule anything out at this point. Psycho was the best bet. Still, this was New Orleans and he was learning real fast about a whole crop of residents that he’d never suspected existed before. So the coach could be some kind of zombie he knew nothing about.
And to think, six months ago, he’d thought Mark and Bubba were the most bizarre residents in Louisiana.
How soon everything changes.
Now, they should be so lucky.
Nick brought his attention back to the discussion at hand. “He told me he’s taught at a bunch of schools, but Madaug can’t find anything on him. And I mean nothing. Not a single school where he’s taught or anything else. It’s like he never existed until my school hired him.”
“Neo-Luddite.” Mark nodded in approval. “I like that. Could just mean the man has a brain. I’m telling you, Nick, we’re all going to get hooked into a massive server one day and become nothing but bytes in a data stream. Even our primal, individualistic essence will be reduced to simple binary code. Could have already happened and all we are now are play actors in a Rod Serling episode on permanent syndication. In fact—”
Nick snapped his fingers in front of Mark’s face. “Can you come back to reality with me for a second? I kind of need you here on earth for a few minutes more.”
“Sure. Not that I like it here, since I’m still waiting for my mother ship to return. But … what do you need?”
Nick took a deep breath for patience. Keeping Bubba and Mark focused on task at times was like dealing with a herd of ADD cats at a mouse farm. “Well, the new coach is…” He didn’t want to tell Mark about the blackmail or theft ring. While he trusted Mark implicitly, he didn’t trust him not to go up to the coach’s door, kick it in, then drag him out into the yard and beat the snot out of him for threatening people. Mark didn’t like abusers or bullies of any kind and considered beating one of them down a valuable public service. “Something’s not right about him. I can feel it.” That was something Mark could understand and agree to. “I was wondering if you’d mind swinging by his house to see what it looks like. That might give me some clue about who”—and what—“he is. After all, I know how much you like to profile people.”
That sparked Mark up a lot more. “You know where he lives?”
Nick nodded. “I do.” It was one of the few things the coach had told him after practice. The creep wanted Nick to bring the loot to his house so that the coach wouldn’t be caught with it on campus.
But if Nick was caught, that was fine. Burn the kid, burn the kid.
“A’ight, then,” Mark agreed. “I’m through zombie hunting tonight, and since my woman liberated me”—by burning everything Mark owned and making him leave, but that was another story—“I’ll do it. Get in.” He stepped down from the porch.
Nick stopped him from leaving just yet. “Let me tell my mom where I’m going.” ’Cause if he didn’t, she’d set his fields on fire once he came back.
He stepped over and opened the door to Menyara’s condo.
Mennie and his mom were already settled on the couch, under a thick red and white blanket with all the lights off while they snacked on potato chips and dip.
His mom looked up expectantly.
“Hey, Ma? Can I have a few minutes to run an errand with Mark?”
She narrowed her gaze at him. “Crazy Mark?”
Mark stuck his head in the door to grin at her. “I heard that, Cherise.”
His mom’s face flamed. She was actually closer to Mark’s age than Nick was. Not to mention, Mark had once worked the door at the club where his mom used to dance, which was how Nick first met him.
Lowering her potato chip back into the sack, she cleared her throat and gave him a bashful look. “Didn’t realize you were right there. Sorry, boo.”
Mark laughed good-naturedly. “Sa’ight. I’ve been called a lot worse. At least you didn’t insult my parentage while you were at it. But don’t worry. I’m not doing anything too weird tonight.”
“Please don’t.”
Mark exchanged an amused glance with Nick. “Don’t worry, cher. I’ll guard him with my life.”
“Good,” she warned, “’cause that’s what I’ll be taking from you if you let even one hair on his head get harmed. I’m dead serious, Mark. There is no corner of hell you can find where I will not hunt you down, drag you out, and torture you until you bleed out at my feet. That boy is my life, and I don’t want him coming back here in pieces. So don’t you pull none of your crap with him around. I mean it.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
As Nick started to leave, his mom aimed one warning pointy finger at him. “Don’t be gone long. You have school tomorrow.”
He repeated Mark’s last words. “Yes, ma’am.” Then he closed the door.
Whoa, for a tiny, little pocket woman, she could be scarier than a rampaging bear on steroids. Even Mark appeared shaken by her threats.
Heading down the steps, her insane rant reminded him of Caleb’s stern warning. “Hey, Mark? Do you know what a Fringe Guard is?”
“Duh. What you think I am? Stupid? Who doesn’t know what those are?”
Nick gave him a sullen grimace. For the record, I be the idiot. Thanks to Caleb, though, he didn’t have to own that. “You ever fought one?”
Mark scratched at the whiskers on his cheek. “Not personally. Don’t think I’d want to, from what I’ve heard about them. Got friends who have, though. Why?”
“A friend of mine told me he ran across one tonight and that I should be careful.”
Mark gave him a stare so piercing, it felt like it went all the way through him. “He told you to hide, didn’t he?”
“How’d you know?”
“I can read your body language, Nick. You’re scared all of a sudden. What else did your friend say?”
“That I should stay in protected areas.”
Mark closed the distance between them and pulled something out from under his shirt. It took Nick a second to realize it was a silver necklace with a symbol similar to the one on his grimoire.
“Wear this. Unless the devil himself comes after you, that’ll protect you.”
Nick screwed his face up as he caught a whiff of the duck urine, which almost caused him to gag. “You sure?”
Mark stood up straight. “I’m still breathing, aren’t I?”
“I think so. But with that stench all over you, it’s hard to tell. God knows, I’m trying real hard not to breathe at the moment. And I could understand if you had to stop because of it.”
Mark scratched his eyebrow with his middle finger. “Then trust me, short stack. I’ve put that thing through the wringer. Ain’t nothing going to get past it to hurt you. I’ve staked my life on that many a day.”
Nick didn’t quite share Mark’s faith. Okay, so maybe the necklace was a placebo, but for some reason, it made him feel a lot better to have it. And when Mark put it around his neck, he swore he felt a small spark.
Now they’ve got me doing it.…
If this kept up, he’d be taking swamp duty with Mark and Bubba, waiting in the boat while they searched for the undead. Please tell me I’ll have better things to do as an adult.
Without another complaint, he followed Mark to the Jeep. “When did you get this?”
Mark let him in on the driver’s side so that he could climb into the undamaged backseat. Nick tried to ignore the stench of burned vinyl and paper.
Well, at least it overrode the stench of duck urine.
Mark got in and slammed the door shut. “It’s always been my backup vehicle. It’s what my dad bought for my sixteenth birthday. She’s not much to look at. Still, I’d run her up against just about anything. She’s as reliable as they come and faster than you’d ever give her credit for.”
The NOS tank strapped between the front seats probably had a lot to do with that. Good thing that hadn’t caught fire. Otherwise, they’d still be scraping pieces of Mark off the sidewalk.
Mark rolled down the windows before he took off with Nick buckled in the center of the backseat so that he could lean forward to give him directions.
It didn’t take long to head over to Frenchmen, where his coach had a rental house. A ubiquitous shotgun like hundreds of others in New Orleans, the house had a fresh coat of white paint. The green plantation shutters were left open so that he and Mark could easily see straight inside to where Devus sat watching the same show his mom and Menyara had been tuned into. What was it with older people and news shows? They were glued to it, and while Nick could watch it, it wasn’t his favorite genre.
Sighing in frustration, he realized this had been a futile exercise. There was nothing here he could use.
Just another row house with an unremarkable Toyota in the driveway.
Mark shuddered. “Man oh man, don’t he look like someone who would play strip poker to lose? Why can’t that ever be some fine piece of womanhood like Angelina Jolie? Nah, it’s always got to be the one man you’d least like to see naked.”
Mark scowled at him. “Oh, c’mon. You know. Acid Burn from Hackers.”
Nick snorted. That was Mark’s favorite movie of all time, and for some reason that made no sense to anyone other than Mark, references to it were forever finding its way into Mark’s conversations.
Meanwhile, Mark continued to rant. “If you’re going to sit in your living room in your underwear, the least you could do is cover the windows. Old dude … really? I don’t think I can drive you home, Nick. I’m snowblind from the miles and miles of exposed white flesh.”