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“Master of my own destiny.”
“Master of your destiny, Mr. Gautier?” Mrs. Richardson mocked as she neared them. “The only thing you’re going to be master of is detention. You’re late. Both of you.” She handed them write-ups. “Now, get to class before Cinderella turns both of those into suspensions.”
Nick let out a frustrated breath. Beautiful.
Kody squeezed his hand. “You’ll be fine, Nick. You have me and Caleb here. We’re not leaving you.”
“You still haven’t told me what you are.”
“I’m your friend. That’s all that matters.”
It’s not the enemy from without who is the most lethal. He didn’t know why that thought went through his head, but it did. Was it his subconscious trying to tell him something?
Or was it more paranoia?
Why was life so dang hard? Why did every decision have to be rough? Unable to cope anymore, he headed for his classroom while he tried to sort through some of this.
But in the end, he kept coming back to the same questions. Could something that had been conceived of darkness ever be used for good? What made someone evil?
Was it their birth or their life?
Did they control the direction of their fate or did something else?
A guy could lose his mind trying to sort all that out. He definitely felt like he was going crazy. And all the while, he was gathering up items for a cause he knew was wrong. I’m making a bad decision.
But what choice did he really have?
He couldn’t go to jail, and he couldn’t let the coach continue to prey on people. Someone had to stop him. For now, he’d play along, and somehow he’d find the evidence he needed to put a stop to the coach’s corruption.
Then he’d find a way to stop his own.
* * *
At three o’clock, Nick was standing in Devus’s office, feeling even worse than he had felt that morning. He didn’t know why, but it was like he was selling out his brethren. Offering his classmates up for slaughter.
How stupid was that?
Yet he couldn’t shake the sensation.
“What do you have, Gautier?”
“Bad case of indigestion, sir,” he answered sarcastically. Something that didn’t endear him to Coach Predator.
“Should I call the principal, then?”
“No.” Nick emptied his pockets on the desk. He had the hairbrush, two writing samples from two students on his list, the scarf, and …
He hesitated with the class ring that Casey had given him after lunch—he’d told her to hold off on going after Kody’s necklace. She had no idea what a challenge that little bit was going to give her, and he didn’t want Kody to disembowel her in the hallway and make her another stain on the wall.
Nick looked down at the heavy ring in his hand that glinted in the dim light of the room. The bright stone in the center was as red as blood and surrounded by small diamonds that winked at him. Unlike the other items that he could write off his conscience, this one was definitely theft, and guilt tore at him. He felt like his dad, and he hated the coach most of all for giving him that sensation.
I won’t be that man.
But right now. In this one moment …
Wincing, Nick held it out. So much for Devus not wanting him to hand stuff to him during school hours.
Devus grinned as he palmed it. “Good boy. You’ve bought yourself a reprieve. Now, get out there and finish the list, or I will finish you.”
He took too much pleasure in causing pain. Like my father. The comparison really ate at him. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do. In fifteen minutes, school would be out and he’d have to hustle to make it over to the St. Louis cemetery for his next lesson with Grim.
Nick turned to leave, but the coach stopped him. “Tell you what, Gautier. Why don’t you skip practice today and make sure that I have four more items in the morning?”
“Or what?” The coach’s tone had implied there was definitely an ultimatum in there.
“You’re a smart kid. I think you know the answer.”
I go to jail and die. “Can I ask a question?”
“Why did you pick me for this?”
“You’re a pathetic waste with nothing to lose. If you died tomorrow, no one would even know you were gone.”
Nick ground his teeth. That wasn’t true. His mother’s life would be shattered. She’d never be the same. While the rest of the world would go on, she wouldn’t. He knew that. And in that moment, he fully realized something.
How many lives one life touched. Not always with a major impact, but in little ways.
If he died, Liza would have to unload her deliveries alone. Yes, she could do it without him, but she always claimed to enjoy spending a few minutes chatting with him while he did it. She looked forward to his visits. Mennie wouldn’t have anyone to take out her trash or clean the yard. Kyrian wouldn’t have someone who busted his chops, and Acheron wouldn’t have a human friend who knew all about his weirdness.
Not big things. It was the little things in life that really mattered.
He leaned forward over the desk. “There you’re wrong, Coach.”
The coach looked up with a smug sneer. “How so?”
Nick returned that sneer with a pompous smile he was sure set the coach’s ire on fire. “I assure you if your garbage men stopped picking up your trash, you’d miss them real fast and want them back. No life, no matter what you think, is insignificant. Everyone has a purpose. Even you.”
Devus sputtered while Nick turned around and left him to it. For the first time in his life, Nick felt like he was experiencing the real world for what it was. Like blinders had been ripped off his face and he saw the sunshine in all its natural glory.
And even though he wasn’t certain about his future, for this one moment in time, he was thrilled to be alive.
As soon as the bell sounded, Nick grabbed his backpack and headed for the cemetery to meet Grim. Kody and Caleb had pretty much avoided him after their morning encounter with the Fringe Guard. Kody seemed sad about it.
Caleb’s anger was so potent, it scared him.
There was something more going on with the demon than he was letting on. And since Nick couldn’t fight him without dying, he decided to leave the demon be until he came to terms with whatever was eating at him.
It didn’t take long to walk the handful of blocks up to the cemetery, which rested on the northwest side of the Quarter, one block outside of it between Conti Street and St. Louis on Basin. The white plaster walls that surrounded it spanned an entire block and shielded the massive city of the dead, where more than a hundred thousand former New Orleanians had been laid to rest. Some of the most notable people of the city were interred here.
Because New Orleans was so far below sea level that buried bodies had a nasty way of returning to the land of the living, the city had been forced to find another way to deal with the departed. Above ground tombs and mausoleums had been erected, which was what led to these areas being referred to as the cities of the dead. The grossest thing was that most of the tombs were shared spaces, usually with a single family, but sometimes with groups such as the massive Italian monument in the center. Once someone died, their remains were put on top of someone else who’d decomposed. It was why the city had a law that no tomb could be opened for a full year and a day—giving the bodies enough time to fully decay before the next one was added. He didn’t know what they did with someone if they needed a tomb before that time elapsed, and he didn’t want to know.
Some questions really didn’t need answering, and that was definitely one of them.
Shoving that thought away, he headed through the black iron gate that was opened so that tourists and tour groups as well as loved ones could access the cemetery during the daylight hours.
Honestly, the cemetery was beautiful in a creepy kind of way. The elaborate tombs and statues went off in every direction, some dwarfing him. While most were white, others were brightly colored, and all manner of images and wrought iron decorations had been used to add flavor and beauty to the crypts.
Nick cursed as Grim appeared behind him and startled the crap out of him. “Don’t do that!”
“Jumpy, are we?”
“We are in a cemetery, you know.”
Grim laughed. “Of course I know. It’s one of my favorite places.”
“Yeah, well, not mine. I don’t make it a habit of spending a lot of time here. I figure since one day I’ll be a permanent resident, there’s no need to rush and visit it while I’m not.”
“I love the way you look at things, kid. Now follow me.”
Nick did until he noticed that Grim didn’t have a single shadow.
He had three.
Grim paused to look at him over his shoulder. “What?”
Nick pointed to the shadows. “What’s up with you?”
“You know my friends. Pain and Suffering were on my nerves, so I relegated them to shadow status for the day.” He continued forward.
Nick wasn’t sure he liked that, but he knew better than to argue. Picking up the pace, he closed the distance between them. Grim didn’t stop again until he reached the far back end, where one of the sarcophagi reminded Nick of a table. Images of death and angels were carved all over the intricate stonework.
“I think this will do for our next lesson.” Grim skimmed his hand over the surface without touching it. A cloth appeared, shielding the blackened surface. “Much better.” He held his hand out to Nick. “Have you been practicing?”
“For all the good it hasn’t done me. Yeah.” He handed the pendulum and book to Grim.
“Have you made friends with the pendulum?”
“Kind of one-sided if you ask me, but yeah. I think so.”
Grim sighed irritably. “Fine. Today I wanted to show you how you can locate someone with your pendulum.”
“Wouldn’t calling them be easier?”
He passed a droll stare at him. “What if the phone doesn’t work, Nick? Or you don’t have their number. Better yet, what if you don’t really know who you’re hunting, but you still need to find them.”
“Why would I waste time hunting for someone I don’t know?”
Grim clenched his teeth. “Why would you waste time playing senseless video games for hours on end?”
“’Cause that’s fun.”
“And this can be lifesaving.”
Yeah, okay, that might be better than mastering Mario.
As Grim opened the book to a blank page, a tourist came around the corner and gasped, then quickly retreated. A devilish grin lit his face. “Hold that thought.”
Nick frowned as Death turned into a dark gray vapor and made a quick exit. A few seconds later, he heard a loud scream followed by the sound of running feet.
When Grim returned, he was beaming in satisfaction. “Aw, fear. How I love the fragrance.”
“You are so sick, Grim.”
“And one day, you will learn to take pleasure in the small things as well.”
Yeah, but after what he’d learned about himself today, he hoped it wasn’t from harming others. Even mildly.
“Now, where were we?”
“Finding lost things.”
“Yes, yes.” Grim returned, and a map of New Orleans appeared in the book.
“How do you get it to do that for you? Whenever I try something like that, it back-talks me.”
“Much like a child, the book knows it can get away with back-talking you. I have no love or tolerance for it. If it annoys me, I will burn it without reservation.”
Ah, intimidation did work. Who knew?
“Now,” Grim said, drawing his attention back to the map. “Tell me someone you’d like to find.”
Problem was, he knew where everyone lived who was important to him.
Everyone except Kody.
“Nekoda,” he said to the pendulum. “Show me where Nekoda is.”
Grim handed him the chain.
Nick hovered it over the map, and nothing happened. “This is a waste.”
“No. Learning is never a waste. What you’re doing right now is discovering how not to make a lightbulb.”
Grim shook his head. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Educate yourself, kid. All right, the pendulum isn’t working. Sometimes you need an accelerant to help it.”
“Yes, Nick. We’re going to set the book and your pendulum on fire and then use them ’cause we’re just that intelligent.”