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He looked at his mother, hoping she’d change her mind.
“Thank you, Rosa, but we have an appointment to keep.”
Rosa’s frown melted into a kind smile. The same height as his mother, she was a beautiful woman with black hair she kept in a bun and bright brown eyes. “Then let me get it for you to go.”
His mother released his arm. “No, thank you. We don’t want to put you to any trouble.”
“Is no trouble,” Rosa assured her. “I made the food for you. I have already eaten, and Mr. Kyrian won’t be up until much later today. If you no eat, I just throw it away.”
Nick gave his mom his best begging stare and pouty lip. It was a look that had gotten him away with many things that didn’t have a moral dilemma attached to them.
He saw the reluctance in her eyes. She really, really didn’t like to take anything from anybody. People always expect something back when you do. Nothing in life is free, Nick. Don’t take and you won’t be beholding. He knew her litany well.
But he didn’t view this as the same thing.
“You always say we shouldn’t waste food, Ma.”
She took a deep breath before she relented. “All right. Thank you, Rosa.”
“My pleasure. You want me to—?”
“We’ll eat at the table. I don’t want to put you to any more work.”
Nick all but ran to the kitchen, where Rosa had two plates already made and sitting on the center island. The warm smell made his stomach cramp even more. “Oh, my God! We have pancakes and bacon!” It smelled so good, he was already salivating.
Rosa laughed at his eagerness. She had no idea how rare a meal like this was for him. “Don’t you want syrup?” she asked as he grabbed one of the pancakes and took a bite.
Nick swallowed the delicious-tasting food. “We have syrup, too?”
She pointed to the counter behind him, where a huge bottle of Log Cabin waited. Oh yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.…
He grabbed it, popped the top, and proceeded to drown the plate.
His mom was much more sedate as she took her food. “Nick, don’t use so much syrup. You won’t be able to taste your food.”
That was the idea. “Ma, it’s real good syrup and it’s not watered down.” Something she did to make it last longer for them whenever they were lucky enough to get some.
Her face turned bright red.
Rosa patted her on her hand. “It’s okay, Mrs. Gautier. I understand what it’s like to have to struggle to feed my son. Miguel and I had many lean years before I come to work for Mr. Kyrian. You eat as much as you want. Mr. Kyrian’s policy is that no one goes hungry in his home.”
Rosa inclined her head, then moved a plate full of pancakes toward Nick. “But you go a little easy and leave some for your mother. Too many, and your stomach will hurt.”
“Yeah, but so worth the pain. These are delicious. Thank you so much for making them.”
She smiled as she handed him a napkin. “I’m glad you enjoy.”
“I more than enjoy. It’s like all the taste buds in my mouth are singing and dancing. I bet if you listen close, you can even hear them.”
And it got even better when she handed him a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Oh yeah, he was in heaven.
By the time his mom was finished eating, he’d plowed through most of the pancakes.
Shaking her head, his mom took him by his “uninjured” arm and pulled him away from his empty plate. “C’mon, boo. We need to get going.”
He licked the syrup off his fingers.
His mom screwed her face up in distaste. “Nick, you have a napkin. Please use it.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to waste it. It’s good.”
She let out a sigh of exasperation as she met Rosa’s gaze. “I swear, Rosa, I have taught him better. It just hasn’t taken yet. Not from lack of effort on my part.”
She laughed. “I know. Believe me, my Miguel is the same way.”
Ignoring them, Nick took one last bite before he followed his mom out of the house and down the street to the station. They didn’t speak much as they made their way from the fancy, high-end Garden District, where Kyrian lived, to the other side of the French Quarter, where the bar and restaurant called Sanctuary stood at 688 Ursuline. Something that involved their getting off the streetcar at Jackson Brewery and hoofing it a few blocks over toward the Ursuline’s convent that had given the street its name. Sanctuary was only one block up the street from it and not that far away from his high school.
He’d been by the place more times than he could count. His mother said the crowd in there could be rough and she didn’t want him getting hurt, so he was technically banned from it. And that statement always made him wonder how his mom knew what the crowd was like, since she’d never been inside it either to his knowledge. However, he’d never asked her.
It fell into the category of “don’t ask, ’cause you’ll only get a stupid parent answer.” If all your friends jumped off a bridge … Because I said so. So long as you live under my roof … and so on.
Sanctuary aside, Nick had always loved coming to the Quarter as an escape from their run-down condo and neighborhood. There was something about it that soothed every Cajun root inside him—the history, the beauty, the mixture of cultures, smells, food, and people. No place else on earth like it. Not that he’d ever been anywhere else except Laurel or Jackson, Mississippi, whenever they’d had to evacuate for hurricanes—and then he’d seen only the parking lots of whatever store or mall where they’d made temporary camp in their rusted-out Yugo.
He paused as they came even to the Café Du Monde that sat at the edge of the French Market and the smell of chickory coffee and beignets hit him. It was the first time in his life the sweet smell didn’t cramp his stomach with hunger pangs. Today, with his stomach completely full, he appreciated and savored it.
Until he realized he was being left behind.
Even though he was taller than his mom, he had to hurry to catch up to her. For a little woman, she could seriously haul whenever she wanted to.
Luckily, she was so intent on her destination that she didn’t even notice he was trailing.
She cut down Dumaine to Chartres. And as they went up to the corner of Chartres and Ursuline, she finally slowed down, as if suddenly apprehensive. Not that he blamed her. Almost a city block in size, Sanctuary was not only huge, but legendary as well. Everyone in New Orleans knew about the place that was opened from eight A.M. to three in the morning. It was said to have some of the best food in the world and some of the meanest patrons.
The three-story redbrick building had a huge sign that hung over saloon-style doors. It was black with a motorcycle parked on a hill and silhouetted by a full moon. The word SANCTUARY was white with a hazy purple outline. And on the lower right-hand side of the sign, in a much smaller font was the slogan, HOME OF THE HOWLERS.
But that wasn’t what made Nick hesitant. Standing just outside the doors was a huge mountain of a man who leaned against the wall. Even taller than Kyrian, he had arms like two tree trunks and long curly blond hair that was pulled back into a ponytail. And as he stared at him, Nick saw a flash in his mind of the bouncer turning into a big, angry bear.
He was one of the shape-shifters Alex Peltier had told him about last night.…
Nick had no idea how he knew that, but he did.
His mom pulled him across the street to where the werebear was standing.
As if he sensed Nick feeling his preternatural powers, the bear narrowed a pair of glacial blue eyes on them. “You two lost?”
His mom swallowed audibly. “Um … Kyrian Hunter told me to speak to a Nicolette Peltier? I believe she owns this establishment.”
He met Nick’s gaze with a curious frown before he pulled a walkie-talkie off his belt and pressed the button. “Aimee? Is Maman in her office?”
“I have two humans out here who want to see her. Kyrian sent them.”
His choice of words amused Nick. While his mother would dismiss it as eccentric, he knew better. The guy in front of him was warning the rest of his family that new humans were entering. Nice code. In your face and at the same time innocuous enough to fly below the radar of most people.
“Be nice to them, Rémi, and don’t bite their heads off. Maman will be right out,” the woman on the radio said.
Rémi opened the swinging door for them. “If you two want to go on in and wait…”
His mother smiled. “Thank you.”
Nick paused at the door to look back at the bear. “Is Alex around?”
Rémi narrowed his gaze on him. “How you know Alex?” Could there be any more suspicion or challenge in that tone?
“We go to school together.”
“Ah…” And that was all he said.
Okay … Obviously the bear wasn’t a morning person and had no desire to tell him where to find his classmate. Deciding not to irritate someone who wasn’t human and who could probably break his spine in half, Nick went inside and joined his mother, who was standing in front of the first round table that was set with four chairs. Since it was still an hour and a half before lunch, there weren’t many occupants in the room. Two men … no, a werepanther and werehawk, stood at the bar, restocking and cleaning. There was one person at a table with a laptop and a cup of coffee. Two women eating a late breakfast and an older man reading the paper and making notes of some kind.
His mom handed him a dollar. “Go play a video game while I talk to the owner.”
Thinking it was odd, but too grateful for the rarity of having money to waste, Nick went off to the rear of the restaurant, where pool tables were set out and arcade games were placed against the wall. As he neared them, he caught sight of a boy a few years older than him who was cleaning tables. It wasn’t the matted blond dreadlocks that made him pause so much as it was the small monkey sitting on the boy’s shoulder, eating a banana. The monkey bared its teeth at Nick before it made noises at him. The busboy reached up to soothe the monkey, and it settled right down.
Nick wanted to go and investigate the primate, but something about the busboy warned him to keep his distance.
No, not boy.
Weretigard. A very vicious and antisocial one.
How can I tell that by looking at him?
Yesterday, he’d been normal.
He was a freakfest as images of the shape-shifters around him flashed in his mind. He didn’t know their names, but he knew what they were even though they were masquerading as humans.
What is going on?
His head was spinning from an overload of information. But with all of that was an overwhelming sense of safety. He didn’t feel threatened by the animals around him. It was as if they were guardians of some sort. Protectors, not predators. Something that sounded as far-fetched as a restaurant and bar owned by a family of shape-shifters.
Ambrose? He silently summoned his uncle, needing someone who could help him understand. What’s going on here? I’m seeing some scary things. People who aren’t people …
Remember what I told you, kid. You have the power of perspicacity. The ability to see what’s hidden.
So no one will ever be able to lie to me again?
No. That’s a different power. Perspicacity allows you to see most preternatural beings who are trying to blend into the human world.
What do you mean “most”?
There are some demons who are powerful enough to hide. As well as upper-level gods and those who are possessed. In time, you’ll be able to see them, too. But that will take a lot of training and discipline.
For now … it was like living in some bad psychedelic hallucination.
Just relax, Nick. Go play a game.
He felt Ambrose leaving him alone again. With nothing better to do, he went over to the Galaga machine. Wow, he hadn’t seen one of these in a long time. Some old-timer here must have caught a liking to it. Pulling out his dollar, he converted it to tokens, then put one in and listened to distinctive music. He’d just started playing when a shadow fell over him.
He looked up and froze instantly. Holy Mother …
This dude had to be over seven feet tall. An older version of the guy at the door, this one had the most merciless expression Nick had ever seen.
I’m going to die.…
“Who said you could play my machine?”
Nick knew it was a man saying it, but he saw Grizzly Peltier in his mind. A huge bear with blood in its eyes. “Uh…”
The man laughed and playfully shoved his arm. “Relax, kid. Don’t wet my floor. I was just teasing you.”
Easier said than done, since his heart was racing like Richard Petty at Daytona.