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Suddenly, Mark went silent and cocked his head as he stared at the porch. “That’s weird.”
Nick leaned forward, trying to see what had caught his friend’s attention. “What?”
“I’m having déjà vu.”
Most people would disregard that, but with Mark …
This could be serious.
“What’s going on?”
Mark shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s … I know your coach. He’s familiar to me for some reason, but I can’t think why.”
“Have you gone to one of the schools he’s taught at?” Nick asked hopefully. If he had, then that might give them some well-needed intel on the beast.
Mark considered it. “Maybe. What does he teach and coach?”
“History and football.”
“Nah.” He stretched that one word out. “I don’t think I’ve ever had him for history, and I know he was never one of my coaches. Their faces are forever burned into my memory.”
That information caught Nick off guard. There was something Mark had never mentioned before. “You played ball?”
Mark stiffened as if the question offended him. “Uh, yeah. I was first-string quarterback all the way to college. Went to school on a full-blown scholarship, too, I’ll have you know. I’d have gone pro had I not blown out my knee my sophomore year.”
Nick was surprised and impressed. “I never knew you played ball.”
“Uh, yeah. Hello? I was born to it. Where you think I get all my good evasive zombie moves from? My uncle was even one of the coaches who worked under Bear Bryant.”
Whoa, that was seriously impressive.… “Really?”
He nodded. “My real dad was a coach, too.”
This was the first time Mark had ever talked about his father other than to say he was gone. Bubba had told him that Mark’s dad had died of cancer when Mark was seven. His mother had remarried two years later, and Mark had felt so betrayed by both his parents that he didn’t speak about his father to this day. Bubba said the pain was just too raw for him still.
Mark continued to stare at the coach on the couch. “He is so familiar. I can see his face clear as a bell. I just can’t remember where. But it’s somewhere odd. Somewhere I spent a lot of time. If I could just remember…”
“Maybe you played a team where he was the coach?”
“Could be.” Mark grunted. “What’s his name?”
“His first name?”
Mark gave him an expression of pain. “I can see your education isn’t wasted.”
“Hey, now … I’m offended. I never thought to ask what his name was. Really didn’t care.” Who would? Since Nick wasn’t allowed to use faculty first names, why waste the brain space to store it? It might kick out something he really needed, like the ability to play Donkey Kong. Now that would be tragic.
Mark didn’t say anything. He merely let out sounds of deep annoyance.
While he bellyached, Nick returned his gaze to the coach and tried to use his powers to see if he could pick up anything.
Nothing was there. It was as empty as the dark street. Which made sense to him, since he didn’t think the coach was all that deep a well anyway.
“Can you pick up anything off his house itself?” he asked Mark.
“Not really. There’s nothing much here. It’s all as generic as his white Toyota.”
“Great. Better get me home, then. I don’t want my mom to kill either of us.”
Without another word, Mark turned the Jeep back on and headed down the street.
* * *
After a fretful night of dreams where he was forced to steal against his will, Nick woke up completely exhausted. It felt like he hadn’t slept at all. Groggy and with a headache that wouldn’t quit, he dressed and made his way to school.
For once, he arrived early. Which was good, since he wanted to look around Devus’s office and not get caught. This time of morning, the coach was on bus duty. He should have a good fifteen minutes alone to poke around.
At least that was his thought until he found the coach’s door locked.
Dang it all … He looked up at the ceiling in frustration. “Was one break really too much to ask?”
That being said, Nick wasn’t without a few skills. One of them being the ability to pick a lock fairly quickly. It’d been a gift from one of his dad’s “roommates” who’d thought it would be funny to teach a six-year-old how to enter.
Even though he should have, it was a skill Nick had never allowed to atrophy.
Just in case.
Five minutes later, he was inside the office. Making sure to stay away from the cameras and to keep the lights off, he went through the desk drawers first.
Just the typical stuff you’d expect to find in a coach’s desk. Grade book. Whistle. Pens. Pencils. Paper clips. Agenda. Hall passes. Play books. Schedules. Rosters. Player lineup.
And then it struck him. Something that had toyed at the edges of his mind last night at the coach’s house, but here in the office, it was epically clear.
There was nothing personal in the entire office. Not a photo, a trophy, certificate.
Not even an Altoid.
Hired at the same time as Devus, Principal Dick had completely taken over Peters’s office and made it his own. This one looked like the coach could quit and walk straight out the door without packing up a single item.
His house last night had been the same way. Sterile and impersonal. Ubiquitous. Unremarkable. Just like the coach himself. Everything was forgettable.
Now it all made sense.
Wow … Devus must owe some serious change that kept him running constantly. What kind of mondo gambling debt had he accrued? It must be steep for him to live in this kind of fear all the time. A fear that wouldn’t even allow him his choice of car since he drove one that wouldn’t stand out on the road. Everything about him was a study in vanishing.
No wonder we can’t find any trace of him.
He must be staying off grid to avoid loan sharks or collection thugs. Nick almost felt sorry for the man. Had Devus not been the ruthless killer who was blackmailing him, he would have. As it was, Nick wouldn’t really mind handing him over to whoever was after him.
Shaking his head, he slid the drawer shut.
“What are you doing here, Gautier?”
He jumped out of his skin at the deep baritone of the coach’s voice coming from behind him.
Ah, crap. I’m dead.
Trying to act as normal as possible, Nick turned around even though he was shaking so hard, he wondered if the coach could hear his knees knocking and his heart racing.
C’mon, Nick. Think. Don’t blow this.
But in his mind, all he heard was the sound of a police siren coming for him to take him away. Meanwhile, an image of him hanging dead in an isolated jail cell danced in his head. Ah, gah, don’t let that be my psychic powers kicking in now. Not when he really didn’t want them.
His panic rose higher.
Nick forced it down and decided on the simplest tactic.
A bald-faced lie. “Waiting for you, Coach.”
Devus’s gaze narrowed dangerously. “How did you get in here?”
Okay, time to seriously jack it up a couple of notches. Save your butt while you can. He swallowed hard before he answered. “Door was open.”
Granted he’d unlocked it first, but it was true. It had been open when he’d entered. Minus one important detail.
Normally such a lie would bother him. However, new rules were applied when dealing with a homicidal lunatic.
Devus closed the distance between them to stand toe to toe with Nick so that he could intimidate him. He shoved one shoulder into Nick’s and glared down his nose. “You’re lying, boy. I always lock it.”
That wasn’t a smart tactic to use on a backwoods Cajun whose father was a career felon currently sitting on death row. One who was used to standing up to the worst sort of people and not backing down, no matter what.
Not even if they were holding a loaded gun on him.
As his mama so often said, Gautiers don’t run. Sometimes you want to. Sometimes you ought to. But Gautiers don’t run.
Nick rose up on his tiptoes to level the difference in their heights and stiffened as his anger overrode every shred of fear … and probably his sanity, too. “I opened it without any problem at all.”
Actually that was the truth.
And that made Devus furious. “Why were you in here, boy? What were you looking for?”
Since he couldn’t admit the truth, Nick blurted out the only lie he could think of. “I lost the list you gave me yesterday. And I need to get another one.”
Devus’s entire face turned bright red. He reminded Nick of a pressure cooker about to blow its gasket. “How could you have lost the list? How is that possible?”
Nick shrugged with a nonchalance he didn’t feel. “Mom says I’d lose my head if it wasn’t attached to my shoulders. Guess she’s right, huh?”
Devus grabbed him by the front of his hideous yellow Hawaiian shirt and held him in two tight fists. “Listen to me, you little punk. Time is running out, and if you think I’ll spare you, think again. I need you to get started immediately today. If I don’t have five of those items in my hand by three, I swear I’ll see you jailed by four. You hear me? And you know what happens to boys who get sent to jail from this school.…”
A cold chill and premonition danced down the length of his spine at the look in Devus’s eyes and the twist of his features. If he’d had any doubt before about Dave’s suicide, that ended it.
The coach was psycho.
And he’d killed Dave.
I’m so dead. How could he get out of this?
A knock sounded on the door an instant before Casey walked in. “Coach Devus?”
The coach literally flung him into the desk before he stepped between Nick and Casey. “What?” he snarled down at her.
Grimacing, Nick straightened to watch the confrontation.
To Casey’s credit, she didn’t back down or flinch at his irate tone. Dressed in a pair of tight jeans and her red cheerleading camp T-shirt, she was exceptionally cute today. She blinked in that vacuous way Nick was beginning to suspect was staged, and smiled. “Miss Dale wanted me to ask you for Friday night’s schedule to make sure she knows what time to have us meet the buses. You can’t do the play-offs without the cheerleaders, you know? We’re a vital part of team motivation, and we’ve been working hard on new cheers for the game.” She winked at Nick. “It’s guaranteed to lift the players’ morales.”
Nick didn’t dare comment on that.
The coach growled before he went to his desk and opened the drawer Nick had searched last. Did I put everything back? If something was out of place, the coach didn’t notice—thanks to Casey’s interference. Devus snatched a sheet of paper out, then slammed the drawer shut. “I already gave this to her.”
Casey shrugged. “She said she misplaced it.”
The coach cut his glare toward Nick. “There’s a lot of that going around lately.”
Ignoring the dig, Casey pranced to the desk to take the paper from his hand. “Thank you, Coach Devus.” Then she faced Nick. “Do you mind helping me for minute? I need someone who’s tall or at least taller than me.” She smiled back at Devus. “You don’t mind my borrowing him, do you, Coach?”
His snarl deepened as he snatched a piece of paper from his clipboard. Folding it up, he held it out to Nick. “You better remember what you’re doing, boy. You hear me?”
Nick nodded and then before he could stop it, the suicidal part of his personality blurted out. “That was three by five, right?”
His nostrils flared. “Five. By. Three. You better remember it.”
“Got it.” Nick tucked the paper into his back pocket as he silently cursed the coach.
“Thank you, Coach Devus,” Casey said, holding the door open for Nick, who felt ill over the entire encounter.
How was he ever going to get out of this?
Casey led him toward the gym. But instead of heading into it, she pulled him toward the alcove where the vending machines were kept so that they would have a little privacy as the students started arriving for school.
“Are you okay?” The concern in her voice mystified him. If he didn’t know better, he might think that she actually had feelings for him, but that was impossible.
He saw the panic in her eyes as she looked back toward Devus’s office. “I thought he was going to hurt you, Nick. What did you do to him?”