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“Knock the sarcasm, okay? I’ve had a really bad day.”
“You keep lipping off, and I can assure you it will get worse.”
Nick cleared his throat as he reminded himself this wasn’t someone he could be himself around. “Sorry. You were saying?”
“Do you have anything of Nekoda’s?”
“Uh, yeah. I have her Nintendo she lent me and a pencil. Why?”
“Do you have one with you?”
“Give me the Nintendo, since that is more uniquely hers. Whenever you’re doing something like this, you want an item that means something to the person you seek. Such things can tell you a lot and aid you immensely.”
Like his book and pendulum that Grim had told him to guard with his life …
Oh, no. A really bad feeling went through him.
Nick bit his lip as he balled the pendulum up in his hand. “You told me that things like that can be used to control someone, right?”
“Can it do anything else?”
Grim nodded. “Lots of things.”
Grim considered it a moment before he answered. “You can use it to bind them to a spell. Manipulate them. There are things you could do for good, such as help them with motivation or retrieve something else they’ve lost, but few entities do that. Usually it’s reserved for hurting someone. Why?”
“Because I think I finally understand what Devus is up to.”
“Never mind.” It still didn’t really make sense. Devus knew where everyone lived. All he had to do was access their student files.
Which meant Devus must be using the stolen items to control or manipulate them. But for what? The football team could be for the play-offs, but Kody and the ones not on the team …
Something wasn’t right. He needed more information.
“Are you paying attention, Nick?”
“Absolutely. Undivided. Lead on.”
Grim grimaced before he continued. “Okay, you can—”
“Can you use the item to test for something?”
“Stop interrupting me,” Grim snarled. “Or I will skin you.”
“Sorry … but can you?”
Grim let out a long-suffering sigh. “This is why I don’t have children and why I’ve spent eternity avoiding them at all costs.” He met Nick’s gaze. “Yes. You could use the item to test for something personal about the owner.”
“Anything. Do they bake? Are they smart? Are they going to die for irritating me, et cetera.”
“Yeah, I don’t like that last one.”
“I really don’t care.” Grim picked up the Nintendo.
Nick’s phone started ringing.
Cursing, Grim glared at him.
“Sorry. I forgot to turn it to vibrate.” Nick looked down at the number. It was Mark. “Um. I need to take this call. Is that okay?”
“Oh, by all means. Go ahead and hold up Death for that. It’s such a smart move on your part.” That sarcasm was thickest of all.
Nick knew it was stupid to taunt the being, but …
He answered the phone.
“Where are you?” Mark asked.
“St. Louis Number One. Why?”
“I just remembered where I saw your coach. And boy, you ain’t gonna believe this one.”
And boy, if you don’t put that phone down, you’re not going to live to draw another breath.…
Ever irritated Death? Not recommended you try it even on the tiniest level.
Suffice it to say, the Grim Reaper was not long on patience, and if you really must press your luck with him, the best way to survive it was to be born of the ultimate evil and have him fear you screwing up unlocking your powers as much you feared screwing up unlocking your powers.
Only that could save your life.
Nick tried his best to pay attention, but his curiosity over Mark’s discovery was killing him. While he was dying to know what they’d found, but he didn’t want to die to know. If that made sense. And if he didn’t pay attention and stop fidgeting, he still might become a stain on the pebbled walkway under his feet.…
This was the longest lesson of his life. Forget Richardson’s class. Pendulum swinging was starting to bring tears of boredom to his eyes.
By the time they were through, he felt as though he’d been tortured on the rack. The most aggravating part was that Grim had refused to show him what he really wanted to know.
“We’re working on my timetable, kid. Not yours. You follow me. I dance to no one’s tune but my own.” Really. Grim would make an awesomely annoying parent.
Ugh. But now that they were through, Nick was running full speed to the Triple B to catch up with Mark and Madaug.
By the time he reached the store, he was winded and exhausted. And his backpack had picked up an extra thirty, forty thousand pounds somewhere along the way. At least it’s not summertime. That would have made his run excruciating.
Opening the door that was now fully repaired and in proper operating order, he headed for the counter.
Bubba came out of the back room to greet him. “Oh, it’s you, Nick. I thought I might have a paying customer. Should have known.”
“Thanks, Bubba. Love you, too.”
He rolled his eyes before he wandered back toward the curtains. “Mark’s in the office with Madaug. They said to send you in as soon as you arrived.”
Nick paused as he watched Bubba close the tower shell on a computer, then move it to the pickup shelf for the owner to reclaim. He had to give Mark and Bubba credit as he glanced around the back area. They’d done an amazing job putting the store back together. There weren’t hardly any signs that it’d ever been damaged, never mind burned, shot, and attacked with an ax.
Best not to remind Bubba of that, since Nick had been the one wielding it.
“Did they tell you why they wanted to see me?”
Bubba pulled down the next system waiting to be repaired and hooked it into the periphals, then started booting it up to run a diagnostic. “Nah, and I don’t care. As long as you girls don’t burn down my store, I’m happy in my ignorance.”
Nick decided not to question that at all, given the damage they’d already wreaked, but as he neared the office door, he remembered what Kody had told him about his friend’s past. Was any of that true at all?
Don’t ask it, Nick. Don’t.
But as was typical, his mouth took off without consulting his common sense or his brain. “Bubba? Can I ask you something?”
“Were you ever married?”
There was no mistaking the grief on his face over that normal question. The agony. The self-loathing. How awful that four simple words, one harmless question, could wring that much pain out of someone.
Bubba cleared his throat before he answered. “Yeah, I was. Long time ago.”
Having inadvertently hurt him, Nick wanted to make Bubba feel better, but he didn’t know how. He shouldn’t have asked. He shouldn’t have. And after seeing Bubba’s reaction, he knew Kody had been telling him the truth. The man was eaten up with guilt. “I’m sorry, Bubba.”
“You look real upset all of a sudden. I didn’t mean to bring up an unhappy memory. Sorry.”
Bubba swallowed hard as he turned to face him. “Nick … I hope one day you find you a woman who loves you like my Melissa loved me. Whatever you do, boy, don’t turn your back on her. If she says she needs you for something, don’t matter how stupid it sounds or what deadline you got, you go to her and you do it. Screw work or whatever else. In the end, the only things that matter are the people in your life. The ones who make your life worth living and whose smiles light up your world. Don’t ever push them aside for fair-weather friends. Everything else is just cheap window dressing that you can replace. But once them people are gone…”
He winced. “You can’t buy back time, Nick. Ever. It’s the only thing in life you can’t get more of, and it’s the one thing that will mercilessly tear you up when it’s gone. It takes pity on no soul and no heart. And all those fools who tell you it gets easier in time are lying dumb-asses. Losing someone you really love don’t never get easier. You just go a few hours longer without breaking down. That’s all … that’s all.”
Tears choked him at the pain he heard in Bubba’s voice. It was rare for him to show that kind of emotion. Big Bubba Burdette was a growling bear of a man. Huge. Tough as nails. Never let anything bother him.
And loyal to the end.
Everyone deserved a friend like him.
Who would ever have thought that such a fearsome, larger-than-life beast could be haunted by something so human as the loss of his wife and child?
Without thinking, Nick went over and hugged him hard.
Bubba bristled. “Boy, what are you doing? Have you lost your ever-loving mind?”
Nick shook his head. “You looked like you could use a hug.”
“Then call up Tyra Banks and send her over. That I’m always up for. Don’t want no straggly teenager rubbing up against me. Jeez.”
“Yeah, yeah. I hear you, you old grump.”
Bubba scoffed. “Not that old. Not that wise. But still filled with enough venom to spank your butt if you don’t leave me alone to my work. Now get on with you and get out of what little hair I got left.”
Nick headed back to the office, but before he opened the door, Bubba stopped him.
“Hey, Nick? You’re a good kid. Don’t let anyone tell you different. I see how you come in here some days after school with your shoulders hanging down from the weight of the world and all its misery. But don’t let them steal your day, boy. I know about your daddy and how you walk around with his ghost riding your back all the time. But those are his sins and his crimes, not yours.” Bubba tapped his chest twice. “You got what counts right here. All you need and then some. More heart and more kindness than anyone I’ve ever met. Don’t let anyone take it from you. You hear me?”
He inclined his head, then went back to work.
Feeling better than he had all day, Nick opened the door to find Madaug and Mark spread out over Bubba’s desk with what appeared to be hundreds of printed-out pages scattered everywhere. They were so intent on whatever they’d found that they didn’t even hear him enter.
“Hey, guys. What’s all this?”
Mark glanced up with his eyes so wide, they looked like saucers. “Hold on to your bootstraps, ’cause you’re about to be blown out of your shoes.”
“I take it you found something good?”
“Not just good,” Madaug said. His blond curls were sticking out over his head like he’d been tugging at them—something he did unawares whenever he concentrated on a subject. “Incredible.”
It was hard to take him seriously with his glasses askew and so smudged with fingerprints that it made Nick wonder how he didn’t walk into walls. It strangely reminded Nick of his mother’s favorite comedy, My Cousin Vinny, when Joe Pesci was interrogating the witness about what he’d seen through his scum-infested windows on his trailer.
Oblivious of that, Madaug dug under the stack of papers in front of him. Wearing a gray sweatshirt that swallowed him whole—no doubt a hand-me-down from his older brother Eric’s non-Goth days, Madaug smiled as he found what he’d been searching for. He shoved it in Nick’s face.
Nick tilted his head back and took it from him so that he could hold it at a normal, viewable distance. He frowned. It was some old-timey football team, wearing antique clothes.
Dang, the players looked like old men and not college students. How hard did their ancestors live?
“What do you see?” Mark asked.
“Yeah, and—?” he prompted.
Before Nick could answer, Madaug pointed at the man in the back on the far left-hand side. “Meet Coach Walter Devus.”
Whoa. The guy was a dead ringer for the coach at their school. It must be his great-grandfather or something.
“I knew I’d seen him before.” Mark tapped the sheet. “When I played at Tech, they had a wall of honor for all the teams, and this one was hung by … well someplace I spent a lot of time with a certain biology tutor. But that doesn’t matter. I knew I’d seen him, and I was right. The old toad was right there the whole time, staring at me with those beady, greedy eyes.” He grinned at Madaug. “See what happens when you bang your head getting out of the shower? Total recall.”
Nick laughed, then asked a random question that occurred to him. “How old are you, anyway?”