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Mark scowled at the sudden change in topic. “Huh?”
“I thought you were only like twenty-one or something. It just dawned on me that you weren’t old enough to do all of this.”
“What? Is there some unwritten Gautier manual on what a person can and can’t do with their life? Really? My birthday’s in November, so I was a year ahead of my classmates, and graduated when I was seventeen. Blew out my knee right before I turned nineteen and doubled up on my classes to graduate by twenty. And for the record, I’m almost twenty-three. That good enough for you, or you want my whole résumé, too?”
“Sorry. Don’t get so testy. I was just curious. I thought you told me you were younger.”
“You want to see my license?”
Nick held his hands up in surrender. He could have sworn Mark had told him he was younger, but then, he could have been screwing with him. Mark was bad that way.
Madaug let out a low whistle to get their attention. “And this is a little more important than Mark’s background.” He shoved another piece of paper into Nick’s face. “Remember I told you Devus coached the Tech team against Georgia?”
“Yeah, and the next day they were all killed.” Nick was now holding the article that had been written about it.
“Exactly.” Mark gave him a third piece of paper with another football team on it. The date on this photograph was a year later and …
Holy snikes …
It was Devus again. This time standing in front of the players. Nick stared in disbelief.
Surely there was some mistake.
He lined the pictures up side by side and compared them. While he did that, Madaug brought pages with the photos blown up larger so that he could see all the details in their faces.
Yeah, there was no denying it. They were all the same man. “How can this be?”
Mark rubbed his chin. “Apparently, that’s his MO. Coach appears to lead a team to victory and a championship. Then the day after they win, all the players and the coach die.” He handed Nick more pages. “Year, after year, after year.”
Nick shook his head. “No, no, no. It’s not possible. Why would he let them photograph him and keep records? For that matter, why keep his name the same? Wouldn’t that be stupid?”
“He didn’t keep his name all the time,” Mark said. “If you look at the articles—and believe me, we have—he has a list of names he recycles. I think Walter Devus was his real name, but honestly we don’t know. He’s used a lot over the last century.”
Well, that made more sense. If you wanted to hide, you couldn’t always be you. “Okay, but why have your picture made?” Especially if you don’t want people knowing you’re immortal.
Nick had noticed that Kyrian didn’t have one single photo of himself stashed anywhere at all. Not even a painting, bust. Nothing.
“I’m voting cocky arrogance.” Madaug pulled out another paper where they’d charted all the schools Devus, if it was Devus, had taught at. “Think about it. Before now, pictures weren’t all that clear, and they damaged easy. Once you left your little town, the chances of the next one having seen your photograph were pretty slim. It’s only now that we have Photoshop and computers that we can clean the images up and compare them. More than that, we have online libraries, archives, and depositories where we can pull out the most obscure information imaginable. There’s no hiding today, and once it goes online, it’s there forever, just waiting for someone to stumble on it. So remember that the next time you take a picture of you mooning someone and want to post it somewhere.”
Why did everyone have to keep bringing that up?
One little mistake …
Mark brought his attention back to the subject at hand. “And once we’d figured out his MO, it was easy to start looking for a championship football team that won one night, then died the next day. Every year, like clockwork, there’s always one team. The venue varies from college to high school all the way down to Little League. But it’s always the same sequence of events.”
That news sickened him most of all. Little League? “He kills kids?” As soon as he said that, he realized how stupid his statement was. Of course he killed kids. Dave was lying in a morgue right now because of him. “We have to stop this.”
“We know,” they said in unison.
Nick gestured to the papers around them. “We’ll take this to the police and—”
He gaped at Mark. “What do you mean we can’t? We’ve proved—”
“Nothing.” Madaug handed him other articles. “During the gangster era, when the media was exploding and national coverage began to boom along with newsreel footage that was shown in movie theaters across the country, Devus wised up and stopped having his picture made. He also learned to kill off an existing coach and then step in just long enough to win the championship and supposedly die with his team. No doubt to avoid any long-term relationships or questions.”
“Or media coverage,” Mark added.
Maybe, but Nick kept coming back to one thing. “Then how do you know it’s him?”
Madaug gave him a duh stare. “Really? You asked me that? What are the odds that every single year across the country, one team and one team only has a coach who dies under bizarre circumstances right as they’re heading to the play-offs? Then the school or rec center is desperate for an experienced replacement. Out of the blue, here comes Mr. Middle Age with roughly the same description. He stays for four weeks … just long enough for the championship games, and takes his team to victory. And while drunk on their laurels, wham!” He slapped his hands together. “They all die. You really think that’s just a coincidence?”
Well … no. “Not when you put it that way. But a cop will never believe this.”
“You think?” Mark sighed. “No one would believe us. They’d all think we were high on something. So the question is, how do we stop him from killing again without going to the authorities?”
“Turn my zombies loose on him?”
Mark cut a murderous glower at Madaug. “I know you didn’t go there, given what almost happened to your family.”
“It was a joke, Mark. Believe me, I’m done trying to manipulate human brain patterns.”
Ignoring them, Nick’s thoughts raced as pieces slowly fell into place.
You can use personal items as a binding spell. Think of it like a heat-seeking missile. If you want something to happen to someone in particular, you take an item from them and you can use that as a focal point. It’s the same principle that the pendulum works under.
Grim’s words haunted him. Now he understood his list. The coach needed those specific items from all the football players.
But then what did he do with them after the game was over and the owners were killed? Since his home and office were so bare and he constantly moved, keeping them didn’t seem feasible. Maybe he threw them out afterwards?
The most important thing was to break the cycle, especially since Nick was on the team and didn’t want to die.
I thought you didn’t want to live.
Well, that was true, but it didn’t mean he wanted to die. He only wanted his life to calm down a little and go back to normal. Not flying off the tracks at warp speed toward Insanityville.
Madaug’s phone rang. He picked it up and cringed. “Dang it. It’s my little brother.”
“Is that so bad?” Mark asked.
“Uh, yeah. Ian’s voice is so high-pitched on the phone that I swear if we bottled it and put it in a grenade, we could make a fortune as arms dealers. It’d clear more rooms and cause more pain than a hydrogen bomb. I’m living for the day when that kid hits puberty and his voice drops down to a human level.”
Nick was about to tell him he was overreacting when Madaug answered it and he heard for himself the truth of the matter.
Oh yeah. That could break glass. A screech demon had nothing on this kid. And it wasn’t even in his ear. He was standing several feet away.
Even Mark was cringing.
“All right. All right,” Madaug said to his younger brother. “Stop whining, you little brat. I’ll be home later and fix it. I will, but if you don’t stop nagging me about it, I’m going to erase Eric’s hard drive and tell Dad you did it.” Madaug hung up as Ian whined a very shrill no on the other end. He glared at Nick. “You’re so lucky you’re an only child.”
“Not really. If I tell someone to stop touching me or blame something I broke on a sibling, it’s a one-way ticket to a straitjacket.”
“You know my twisted brother actually owns one of those? Eric spray-painted it black and hung it on his wall. Again, I say you are so lucky you’re an only child. Oh, to have the blessed quiet and not to be forced to endure endless hours of blaring Bauhaus out of Eric’s dark hole, and ‘Baby Rock’ sung by Ian the Pirate, who walks around the house with a parakeet on his shoulder that he shoves in my face every night and tells me to pet or he’ll make it peck out my eyes while I sleep.”
Nick didn’t mean to laugh, but he couldn’t help it. And to think, his biggest complaint was his mom drying her bras on a string over the bathtub. He was sure he’d be in therapy for years dealing with that one.
Mark clapped his hands together to get their attention. “All right, guys. Focus. We have to come up with some way to stop Devus for good. Let’s get our heads in the game and stop this psycho.”
* * *
Walter Devus stood in front of his mirror, staring at a face that hadn’t changed in more decades than he could count.
But then he knew. Greed. Vanity. Pride. Take your pick. They’d combined into a toxic mixture that had led him into making the worst mistake of his life.
And for what?
Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame?
Only it wasn’t supposed to be that short. It was supposed to have lasted a lifetime.
Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it.
Especially when dealing with things that were best left alone. If only he could go back in time, he’d have grabbed himself and stopped him.
But it was too late for that. The die was cast. The roll made. He would spend eternity in servitude, gathering souls for his master. Unknown. Uncelebrated. Obscure. The very things he’d wanted so desperately to avoid.
Funny how your fears always manifested and took over your life.
He’d been hopeless of ever discovering a way out of his slavery.
Until he came here. New Orleans. Land of Dark Magick and the birthplace of paranormal. He could feel the undercurrent of it that ran through the city like a living, breathing thing.
And here in its heart was the darkest of all.
The Malachai. If he could find the young one in time, his master would release him.
He would be free.
Walter savored that word. To be human once more. To be able to stay in one place and grow roots. Something that had been anathema to him as a young man.
Now it was paradise.
Holding that hope close, he continued to run his experiments on the items his “boys” had gathered. While the Fringe Guard looked for the escaped demon, he was after the Malachai they didn’t know existed.
He was sure the Malachai was in his school masquerading as a student. It was a feeling he’d had from the moment he stepped inside the building.
He’d carefully searched files until he narrowed down the most likely suspects. So far, they’d all been wrong.
His timer went off, notifying him it was done.
His heart racing, he went to check on the latest batch. Biting his lip in trepidation, he pulled Stone’s class ring out of the bowl.
Still intact. Still perfect.
Stone wasn’t the Malachai. He’d been so sure of it, what with his cruelty and arrogance. But, no. He was wrong again.
Thoroughly agitated, he moved on to the next bowl. He wasn’t expecting anything at all. Yanking the string, he froze.
It didn’t come straight up.
Could it be?
Hope returned furiously as he pulled harder. He’d put in a piece of towel, but in its place …
“I’ve found you now. You’re mine!” And he was about to unleash a legion of doom on the boy.
I should have recognized the name. I should have known. How stupid was he not to see it? But then, he’d lived long enough to know how deceitful such things were.
The Malachai had been living in plain sight of everyone. Flaunting his presence with careless abandon.
But no longer.
At last, Walter Devus would be human again.