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Like he was dumb enough to answer … Well, there were times he was that stupid.
Today wasn’t one of them.
“It was nothing.”
“Nick,” she chided, “that wasn’t nothing. That was pure, ugly rage, and you’re lucky he didn’t rebreak your arm.”
He wasn’t recovering from a break. He’d been shot, but he didn’t want to get into that with her, so he tried to move past her. Before he could make it, she had her hand in his pocket. The next thing he knew, she’d pulled the paper out and was reading it.
His stomach shrank as he tried to take it back. “Give me that.”
She moved like a three-year-old avoiding her parent’s attempt to take away a toy. “What is this?”
Irritated and annoyed, he stopped chasing her. There was no need if she kept prancing out of reach. All it was doing was making him angrier. “It’s mine. Now, give it back.”
She arched a brow at him.
“C’mon, it’s nothing.”
“Nothing?” she asked doubtfully. “It has a lot of … significant things on it. Stone’s class ring? Have you any idea how much his parents paid for that? The ring rep actually called his father at home just to make sure it wasn’t a mistake and that they meant to order something that cost that much.”
Nick hissed at her. “Don’t talk about this out loud. Okay?”
She walked up to him and lowered her voice. “Nick, tell me what’s going on, or I’ll go to the principal with this. I swear I will.”
That was all he needed. He could see this scenario clear as day.
NICK: Uh, yeah, Mr. Dick, that’s my steal list from the coach that he gave me. If I don’t do it, he’ll kill me. (Sounded nuts to the one who knew it wasn’t. Imagine what it would sound like to someone who hated him.)
COACH: Gautier’s a lying piece of trash. You know how they are. Come into the world as worthless thieves.
PRINCIPAL: Yes, they’re all scheming scumbags out to steal anything not nailed down.
COACH: Here, let me call the police for you.
PRINCIPAL: Very well. I’ll just sit here and look down my nose at him while you do that.
Yeah, it’d be some variation of that play. But no matter the exact scene, the ending would always be the same.
Him dead in jail.
No thank you.
“Casey…” He tried again to make her see reason. “This is between me and the coach. Leave it alone and let me have that paper back.”
She sucked her breath in audibly between her teeth as she pulled the sheet away from him. “I’m not real good at that. Especially not when I see something that looks like a shopping list, and don’t think for one minute I don’t know all about those.”
Of course she would. Shopping was what she lived for.
I’m so screwed. “Please, I’m begging you to forget you saw that.”
He had no choice but to be at least a little honest with her. “Because if you don’t, I’ll be in a lot of trouble.”
And dead by morning. He shuddered at the mere thought.
She glared up at him as if debating whether or not to believe him. “Something tells me you’re already in a lot of trouble. The coach has you stealing for him, too, doesn’t he?”
Nick’s jaw went slack at the last words he’d expected to come out of her mouth. “What?”
She gave him a cocky toss of her head. “I’m not as stupid as people think, you know? But when everyone thinks you are, you’d be amazed at what they’ll talk about around you.”
“Such as who’s stealing for him?”
She nodded. “I overheard them talking about it a few days ago.”
His heart sped up at the thought of having someone who could corroborate his story with the principal. If he could get a couple of the school pets to back him, he stood a chance of bringing the coach to justice. “Who?”
“Dave and Barry.”
His stomach sank. Not good. Not good at all. “Barry Thornton?”
Both dead. Oh yeah, all of this was making sense now. The coach used who he could, then killed them off to keep them from telling on him. No wonder Ash had said the attack on Barry hadn’t seemed right.
Nothing more than human cruelty by a coward who was trying to cover his tracks. What a dog …
“You know anyone else?” he asked, hoping to salvage a little of his plan.
“No, just them.” Dang her for dashing his hopes again.
Suddenly, her eyes widened. “You don’t think he had any part in their deaths, do you?”
Absolutely, but he wasn’t about to start slandering a school official when he had nothing to prove his suspicions. “Why do you say that?”
“Well, they stole for him and now they’re both dead. What other conclusion can I draw?”
That Nick was screwed and probably soon to follow them to the grave himself.
He wanted to whimper as he realized just how inevitable that was. He was going to die a poor, pedestrian virgin.…
Why, Lord? Why?
She pulled him into the room, farther away from the student crowd that was quickly growing as people came in the back door of the school. “Okay, listen. I have a thought. How about I help you?”
His brain automatically snapped to his previous thought. Nah, I ain’t that lucky. She had no idea why he feared dying so young. He must be misconstruing her intentions. “Help me do what?”
“Take what you need.”
Oh, yeah right … “Are you out of your mind?” he snapped at her. “You can’t do that, Casey.”
“Of course I can. I don’t want to see you killed. It’s not right.”
He couldn’t agree more. However, he didn’t want her to die for doing a good deed either. No need in both of them haunting the gym. “Maybe we can go to the principal. I know he won’t believe me, but with you there, he—”
“I have no proof. Why would he listen to me?”
Nick shrugged. “You come from a good family. Why would you lie?”
“I don’t know. The coach could tell him we’re sleeping together or some other lie. You know how adults are. They never believe kids our age, and they’re always expecting us to be on drugs or in trouble. Anytime something happens, they immediately blame it on the video games we play, cartoons we watch, music we listen to, or some occult thing that’s as ludicrous as blaming D&D and RPG.”
She was right. Most adults did do that, but he knew Kyrian and Ash would believe him.
And his mom might.…
Bubba and Mark would definitely, but since they also believed in Bigfoot, little green men, and the tooth fairy, no one would ever believe them. In fact, having them on board could be a liability.
Still, there was nothing any of them could do without proof. It all came back to that one word. The only way to bring the coach down would be to catch him in the act and to show the principal and everyone else just what a demented nut job he was.
“We’ve got to find other students he’s blackmailed.”
Casey scowled. “How?”
“I have no idea. But you know everyone at this school. Can’t you find out something? How did you find out about Barry and Dave?”
“Same way I did you. On accident. They were talking, and I was walking by.”
That wasn’t helpful. They didn’t have time for her to “accidentally” discover all the students Devus was harassing. She’d have to walk the hallway like a brainless automaton, which they’d then write up and put in detention.
The clock was ticking like the tell-tale heart, and he had to steal items and get them to the coach before school let out, or literally his head would be on the chopping block. He could already feel the guillotine falling.
In the end, as much as he hated it, he had to agree with Casey’s stupid idea. He couldn’t do this alone and survive it.
I’m going to burn for this.…
“All right, Casey. We’re not stealing anything, okay? We’re borrowing it, and I will make sure to give it all back once we’re done. You got it?”
“If you say so.” She glanced over the list and selected her items. “I can grab Shannon’s hairbrush and Stone’s ring without a problem.”
Not that he doubted her, but … “Really?”
She nodded. “Me and Stone are supposed to be dating. I smile at the oaf, and he’ll let me have it back. For all the money his parents paid, he couldn’t care less. To him it’s only something that sits in a box or marks me as his property. I hate that whole territorial thing he does. I’m lucky he’s not marking me in a more personal way.”
Ew. There was a thought he didn’t even want to contemplate. Where is the mental eye bleach when you need it?
Not close enough. Obviously. “What else?”
“I can borrow Shannon’s brush without a problem, too.”
Good. That just left Nick to pick up his side of the partnership. “I can ask Mason if he’ll loan me his notes from history.” His handwriting was one of the things the coach needed for some reason. Made no sense to Nick, but far be it from him to try to educate a man with a college degree.
“What else?” she asked.
Nick glanced back and saw another easy target to procure. “Michael’s always leaving one of his scarves in the cafeteria. I’m betting I can nab one of his out of lost and found.”
Why a scarf? No clue. Maybe it was the big hulking man’s security blanket, and he needed it for game days.
For that matter, maybe the coach was just strange.
Casey pointed down the list to another item. “I can get Kody’s necklace.”
Nick drew back at her offer. That was the one thing he had no intention of taking. “Absolutely not.”
“No,” he repeated sternly.
She actually stomped her foot like a kid. “Why? You want to steal it?”
No, but he didn’t want her to become a criminal either. How awkward would it be to take a date to the prom with a police escort? There were some things a guy didn’t want to experience, and that was near the top of his list.
“We’re not stealing, Casey. We’re borrowing.”
“Fine. I’ll ‘borrow’”—she made mocking air quotes around the word with her fingers—“her necklace.”
And before Nick could protest that declaration, she was gone.
Come back, you little …
But there was nothing he could do. She’d left him in the dust.
Disgusted, he wished he could call her back without starting a scene. Unfortunately, there were too many students in the building now for him to use his powers.
And more were filing in through the doors.
Fine. He’d deal with Casey later. Right now, he had a scarf to find and some handwriting to borrow.
* * *
Ms. Grider kept her beady little eyes on him as he dug through the large box of unclaimed items the school kept in the checkout office. “Are you sure that’s your scarf? I don’t recall you ever having one before. Seems to me you don’t have any coats either. All I remember you in are ragged jeans, hideous tourist shirts they sell cheap at the Goodwill, and worn-out shoes.”
Nick cringed at the L&F Nazi’s unrivaled memory. At 904 years old, her memory should be going by now, or so one would think. But apparently the only things she’d lost were her personality and human decency. “Well, Ms. Grider, if you remembered everything that belonged to everyone in the school, it seems we wouldn’t really need a lost and found, would we?”
She glared at him. “That better be yours. I’m making a note of what it looks like and who’s taking it.”
Of course you are.
“If someone comes looking for it, I’m going to tell them exactly who took it.”
With a fake smile, Nick shoved the scarf into his backpack and headed out the door. The things I do for you, Mom. If it were up to him, he’d drop out of this school and go to one where he wasn’t a pariah. One where he was normal and these people were the freaks. But his mom wanted him to have the best education possible.
So here he was.
In hell for three and a half more years.
Again, thanks Mom.
As he headed toward his locker to switch out books, something moved fast to his right. Always on the lookout for Stone or his buds to ambush him, Nick jumped left and …
Frowning in confusion, he scanned the wall and saw no trace of whatever he’d glimpsed. Weird. A slow circle turn in the middle of the hall didn’t uncover anything either as the sea of students moved around him.