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But the guy who strode inside was anything but.
Dressed in a pair of loose-fitting olive green cargo pants, and a thin black T-shirt, he appeared extremely normal. His hair was a little long and a lot of shaggy, but the brown waves with the blond highlights were fashionable enough. He had his hands in his pockets, and a dark brown canvas messenger bag was hung across his body.
As Nick headed down the stairs, he realized that the guy also had on a pair of worn-out Birkenstocks. And a thin braided anklet of green and black thread.
While he had good muscle definition, he was more lean than beefy. Still, he was a typical man in his late twenties to early thirties with mirrored aviator sunglasses and an unassuming air about him.
At least until Nick drew closer. Then everything changed. You could feel the power emanating from him like an overcharged battery. Nick even swore he could hear the hum of it. And that wasn’t the only thing to make a brave man run. He was covered with scars and burn marks and tattoos. Like a combat vet who’d been tortured by his enemies.
Caleb cleared his throat before he introduced them. “Xenon, meet Nick Gautier.”
Nick grimaced. “Xenon? What kind of name is that?”
“The only kind I answer to.” His voice was deep and gravelly, like he didn’t use it often. And as Nick closed the distance, Xenon approached him with a scowl. He raked his body slowly from top to bottom. Not in a rude way, but in a very thorough one. “Aren’t you an enigma wrapped in a thick coating of contradictions.”
Caleb snorted, “Don’t eat the help, X. We need him.”
“Pity.” Xenon reached up and pulled his sunglasses off and then put them in a case inside his messenger bag. As he did that, Nick saw the tattoos on his hand. His left knuckles each carried one letter that spelled EASY. This right spelled HARD.
Nick laughed. “Cool tattoo. Does it have any special meaning?”
“Pray you never find out.” Ignoring Nick, he turned his attention to Caleb. “What’s the situation?”
Nick drifted back to where Kody stood on the bottom stair. She had her arms crossed over her chest, letting him know how uncomfortable she was. She didn’t say it, but he could hear it loud and clear in her body language.
He creeps me out.
“So how long will it take you to set up?” Caleb asked.
“You have one.”
“You can’t rush me, Malphas. It’s more an art than a science. And if I screw this up … you know the consquences.”
“Yeah. Still having flashbacks.”
“Flashbacks? I’m still having therapy.” Xenon’s tone was flat and dry. “Where do I do this?”
Caleb led him to the study on the right side of the front door.
While they did whatever they were doing, Nick looked at Kody. “Are we … What exactly are we?”
She lifted a quizzical brow. “We who?”
“You and me. What exactly is going on between us?”
She fell silent for a few minutes as she thought it over. “I honestly don’t know. I like you. A lot.”
That was good to know. “But?” He dreaded her answer, even though he had to have one.
“We shouldn’t be so familiar.”
“You’re the one who keeps kissing me.”
Her face flamed bright red. “I know. I’ve got to stop tripping and falling on your mouth all the time.”
“Ah … so that’s what it was?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Of course it was.”
He felt crushed by her words. “Glad you told me. Now I know.”
As he started away from her, she pulled him to a stop. “Let’s just take this one day at a time, okay? See where it takes us.”
“I’m young. I’m good with that.” He fell to his knees, and pretended to whimper and cry out in pain. “I’m going to die old and alone. Every loser in high school has a girl, but me. Why? Why?”
“Are you off your medication?”
Nick winked at her as he stood back up. “I must be ’cause I’ve been hallucinating all day long.”
She shook her head and started for him. But she’d taken only a step when something slammed into the front door.
They exchanged a bemused scowl while Caleb came out of his study to answer it.
The moment the door was opened, a swarm of demons burst in and attacked.
The demons came into Caleb’s home like locusts, swarming them and pinning them to the floor. Nick couldn’t move without being mobbed by them, and the same was true of Kody and Caleb.
“What kind of bachelor party are you throwing, Malphas?” Xenon asked as he came out of the study.
“Feel free to join us.” Caleb was trying as hard to break free as Nick and Kody were.
It was useless.
Xenon vanished back into the room before they swarmed him, too.
“We’re dead.” Nick looked at Kody, wanting to memorize the beauty of her face in case they didn’t have women so lovely where he was headed.
Neither of them bothered to contradict his dire prediction. There was no need. The demons sat on his chest, banging his head against the floor so hard, he was amazed it didn’t split open. Same for Kody and Caleb. They fought with everything they had, but it wasn’t enough to even hurt their attackers.
The demons swarmed together and lifted them up as if they were about to fly them somewhere.
Just as Nick was convinced they wouldn’t survive, Xenon came out of the study like the Terminator. He sprinkled something into the air that acted like acid, especially when he shot fireballs out of his hands that ignited it. As soon as it hit their attackers, they shrieked and flew off with their skin melting.
Chasing them out of the house and down the driveway, Xenon spoke in a calm, soothing voice while he attacked them. It was an impressive feat. One Nick would love to learn. But yelling out obscenities and sarcasm was more his style.
Once they were gone, Xenon came in and locked the door. He grimaced at Caleb. “Thought you said this place was safe.”
“Apparently, I was mistaken.”
“Good job, Malphas.”
Caleb flipped him off for the sarcasm. Then he looked over at Nick. “That was an assassination crew. Somehow they knew you were here.”
That news made him sick to his stomach. “Do we need to go protect my mom?”
Xenon shook his head. “They don’t follow like humans. They’re more like basset hounds. We were attacked because they blood-tracked their target here. That would be you, by the way.”
Crap. “What if my scent leads them to my house and my mom’s there alone?”
“Calm down. Again, they don’t work that way. They can track only a current scent, not a lingering one. Unless you’ve bathed in perfume so strong, it leaves a heavy, lasting impression, you’re safe.” He glanced over to Kody.
“I resent that look, and I don’t wear perfume.”
Caleb limped over to Xenon. “Now you know why we have to hurry. Can you have us something by tomorrow?”
“I’ll work on it all night. Not like I need sleep anyway with the crap in my head.”
Xenon gave a nod to Caleb before he went back to the office.
Caleb let out a weary sigh. “I’m going to bed. If anyone else attacks tonight, feed them Nick and tell them to go away.”
But Caleb ignored him as he left them alone.
“I think I’m going to turn in, too.” She kissed his cheek. “Don’t stay up too much later. Otherwise, I’ll be worrying about you.”
“I won’t be long behind you.”
“All right.” She headed up the stairs to the guest wing. The fact that Caleb had wings said it all about how sick his house was.
Nick waited until they were gone before he went to the study to spy on their newcomer.
“You might as well come in, Nick. I can’t stand someone at my back.”
Nick pushed the door open wider and walked into the office that had wood paneling from floor to ceiling. Even though it had a desk and chair, it was sparsely decorated and had a lot of space in it.
Xenon had laid out all his supplies and was combining things into a small black iron pot in front of him.
In a strange way, he reminded Nick of a chef. Graceful and sure, as if the recipe was forever etched into his memory.
“So what are you doing?” Nick asked.
“I’m creating an elixir that will protect me when I summon this girl back for you.”
“Do you think my plan will work?”
Xenon shrugged. “Not an expert on that kind of thing. You will either fail or succeed. One or the other is a given.”
Nick wandered closer. “So how did you get into this line of work, anyway?”
Xenon glanced askance at him as he added a green leafy thing to the pot. “Answered an ad in the paper.”
Xenon didn’t respond. “Actually, kid, I need you for a second.”
That made him cringe. “Why?”
“I have an ingredient I need from you.”
Nick didn’t like the sound of that at all. “Come again?”
“Get over here.”
Not sure about that, he did what Xenon said, even though he felt like he should be running in the opposite direction. As soon as he was within arm’s reach, Xenon grabbed him in a GI Joe kung fu death grip and laid open his hand with a blade Nick hadn’t known Xenon had until he was bleeding.
“Don’t pull back.” He held Nick in place to let his blood drip into the pot.
“That’s not sanitary. Ew!” And it burned like crazy.
“Ew is right, but trust me. You’ll be glad you have this.”
Not at the moment. As soon as he was free, Nick ran out of the room and retreated to the guest room Caleb had made for him. He practically jumped into the rice plantation bed that was elevated from the floor. Without pausing, he climbed under the covers and returned to nursing his throbbing hand.
He blew air across his palm, trying to stop the stinging.
Until the wound knitted itself closed.
His jaw slack, Nick stared at the scar that was right where his cut had been. Yeah, that was strange.
Go to sleep. Don’t think about it.
But it was hard not to.
C’mon, body, cooperate. He had a busy day tomorrow, and he needed to be fresh and alert. Especially since he’d be taking down the coach …
* * *
Nick entered the school with Kody on his right and Caleb on his left. Heads turned as the three of them walked shoulder to shoulder to his locker. Dropping his backpack on the floor, Nick opened his padlock. “All right. The challenge is to find the box with the heart in it.”
“We’ll be looking.” Kody headed off toward her homeroom.
Caleb clapped Nick on the back before he took off, too.
While Nick swapped out his books, Stone shouldered his way to him.
“What’s that? A new shirt, Gautier? Don’t tell me Goodwill’s out of tacky.” He was referring to the fact that Nick had been forced to borrow one of Caleb’s black shirts for school today, since he hadn’t packed an overnight bag.
“Grow up, Stone.”
Stone went to shove him.
Nick dodged with a skill he’d never had before. In fact, he could see every blow Stone was going to make an instant prior to Stone’s doing it.
He had to force himself not to strike the oaf. But if he did, he’d get suspended. “You’re not worth the paperwork, Stone.” Nick picked his backpack up and left him standing in the hallway to sputter.
Yeah, that felt good.
Real good. And he’d take longer to savor it, but right now he was on a quest. Something that had him skipping study hall so that he could search Devus’s office while the coach taught his history class.
This time he was a lot more cautious about breaking in. He slipped into the room and pulled his pendulum out.
“All right, baby. Work for Daddy.” He drew a quick sketch of the room on a page in his book. “Where is the heart box?”
At first nothing happened. Nick tightened his grip, ready to scream. When all of a sudden, the pendulum finally began to swing for him.
Ah, baby, thank you!
He watched as it formed a large circle around the room model. After a few seconds, it narrowed down to the desk.
“Right side?” he asked.
It swung to yes.
Delighted, he kissed the pendulum and slid it into his pocket. Nick opened drawers and …
Nothing was there.
The stupid thing had lied. He was so mad, he wanted to hurl it into the Pontchartrain. But he didn’t.