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He shook his head. “I’m Papa Bear Peltier. You have a name?”
“Nice meeting you, N-n-nick.” He pulled a token out of his pocket and held it out to him. “Sorry I ruined your game. But I love the look of shock on people’s faces the first time they meet me. It’s a thing of beauty.”
Nick took the token, but still wasn’t sure what to think.
He’s a good guy, kid. Thank him for the token.
Papa Bear patted him on the shoulder, then walked over toward the stage so that he and another guy who was an exact copy of Rémi could run electrical cords on the ground.
“Close your mouth, sug. Papa only bites those who bare their teeth first.”
He turned at the soft, lightly accented voice to find what had to be one of the most gorgeous women he’d ever seen. Tall, blond, and built with the kind of curves men dreamed about, she wore a black Sanctuary T-shirt that was tight enough to make him really uncomfortable.
“I’m Aimee Peltier. You must be Nick.”
Man, she had better powers than he did. “How do you know my name?”
She leaned in to speak into his ear as if she were imparting a great secret to him. “Your mother told me in the back room,” she whispered.
Oh yeah, duh. He felt epically stupid with that.
“C’mon and let me introduce you to the crew that is currently awake and functioning.”
Unsure about that, Nick hesitated. “Why?” Was she going to feed him to the bears or something?
“Since your mom will be working here and your school is just down the street, you’ll probably be hanging out a lot in the near future.”
“Oh.” Finally relaxing, he allowed her to lead him to the busboy with the monkey.
“Wren, say hi to Nick.”
The busboy didn’t respond other than to glare out from under his mop of gnarled hair.
Aimee took it in stride. “Wren doesn’t really speak. But he’s a nice guy, and he lives next door in our house. You’ll see him a lot, since he has no personal life or outside interests. He basically works all the time.” She scratched the monkey on its head. “And his furry little friend is Marvin. Marvin, say hi to Nick.”
The monkey jumped from Wren’s shoulder to Nick’s, startling him. Nick grabbed him and held him close while Marvin mussed his hair and stuck one leathery little finger in his ear. Ew!
“He likes to mess with people’s hair.” Aimee held her hand out, and Marvin allowed her to pull him into her arms and hug him. “Marvin’s a little beggar. Keep some snacks handy, and he’ll be your new best friend.” She nuzzled his nose before returning him to Wren.
Wren didn’t say a word as Marvin perched on his shoulder. He merely went back to work, wiping down the tables.
Aimee led Nick away. “You met Rémi when you arrived. My best advice to you on that is to learn which of the quads he is.”
She gestured to the stage, where Papa and the Rémi look-alike were working. “I have four brothers who are identical quads. Quinn!” she called.
The younger werebear looked up.
She smiled and waved him back to work. “That’s obviously Quinn. I thought so, but sometimes, rare though it is, I can’t tell him from Cherif. They have the same exact haircut, which they occasionally do to mess with us. It’s normally a little shorter than Rémi’s and Dev’s. Dev you can spot pretty easy because he’s always laughing and cracking sarcastic jokes—your mom said that that’s right up your alley. He also has a double bow and arrow tattoo on his arm, and he’s most often the one at the door. He took the day off to run over to Kenner to pick up a motorcycle he had on order.” She drew up short and gave him a sinister look. “If you approach one of them and he growls or doesn’t speak, assume it’s Rémi. He has perpetual PMS and will tear your arm right out of its socket. You don’t really have to do anything other than breathe to piss him off. Word to the wise.”
He made a mental note of that as she took him to the bar.
“The blond is Jasyn. Jasyn, say hi to Nick.”
The werehawk inclined his head to him.
“The other charming bartender this morning is Justin.”
Black hair, tall, and with an aura of I’ll kick your butt so hard, you’ll be burping my shoe leather. Another one Nick intended to avoid.
An older version of Aimee came out from the door next to the bar. She paused as she caught sight of him.
He felt like he was under a microscope as she eyed him from head to toe.
Finally, she held her hand out. “Good day, Mr. Gautier. I am Nicolette. But please, call me Mama Lo.”
Her glower melted into a kind expression. “Welcome to our family. I hear you work for Kyrian.”
“I do. Until he fires me.”
She laughed. “No need to give him reason to. Besides, he doesn’t fire his people. He kills them.”
“Maman!” Aimee said with a laugh. “The poor boy doesn’t know you’re kidding.”
“Nick? What are you doing here?”
He turned at the call that came from Alex’s sister Kara, who also went to school with them. Even in height to him, she had the same blond hair as Aimee and Mama Lo.
Aimee explained his presence before he had a chance. “His mother will be working for us, Kiki. Why don’t you take him to the kitchen? I’m pretty sure Morty’s cookies are done.”
Cookies? Dang, if they kept this up, he was going to be huge.
But it would be worth it.
Nick took a step toward the kitchen, then paused as a cold chill went down his spine. Something was here and it was evil.
He searched the room until his gaze found the source of his discomfort. The man stepped through the door behind the women, carrying a silver tray. Dressed in a black T-shirt and gray hoodie, at first glance, he appeared like any guy around the age of twenty.
Until Nick locked gazes with him. It felt like electricity jolted him. There was no denying the intensity of this creature’s presence.
He was Death, and he’d ridden in on a pale horse.…
Okay, Death wasn’t exactly on a pale horse. He was carrying it.…
Nick wanted to run for the door, but he couldn’t get his feet to obey. It was like every joint in his body was locked by some invisible force.
“Morty!” Kara said excitedly. “Your ears must have been burning. I was just going to come and find you.”
His gaze never left Nick’s. “Really? No wonder I knew to come out, then. Must have heard all of you screaming for cookies of Death.”
Nick watched as the pale horse, which was no bigger than his hand, reared up on the stack of cookies. Its color was like nothing he’d ever seen before. A strange mixture of blue and white, the color seemed to be a living entity all its own. The miniature horse snorted fire from its nostrils before it ran down Morty’s arm and vanished inside the pocket of his hoodie.
More than that, was the image of Morty dressed in black armor, brandishing a sword. His black hair whipped around his face and shoulders, while his eyes glowed a fierce, vibrant red and his skin glinted like it was bronze and not flesh.
Nick glanced around to see if any of the weres had noticed. If they did, they gave no indication.
“Would you like a cookie, kid?”
It took him a second to realize Death was speaking to him. “What?”
“Do. You. Want. A. Cookie?”
He could have done without the tone that said Death thought he was a moron.
When Death offers a cookie, or anything else, refuse.
Yeah, that definitely seemed like the wisest course of action.
Nick shook his head. “I just ate. A lot, and I’m still burping syrup. Thanks, but no thanks.”
The corner of Death’s mouth quirked up in wry amusement.
Kara frowned at him. “You should try them, Nick. They’re delicious. No one makes cookies that taste like this.”
Probably because arsenic was a key ingredient.
He patted his stomach. “Have to watch my girlish figure. ’Cause if I don’t, no one will.”
Death laughed as he handed the tray to Kara. “C’mon, Nick, let me show you around.”
“I think I’m good.”
Completely oblivious of the fact that Nick was highly disturbed by their stygian cook, Aimee grabbed a cookie off the plate. “That’s a good idea. You two have fun. I need to get back to payroll, anyway.”
Mama…, Nick silently whimpered.
Morty grabbed his arm and all but hauled him through the swinging door that led to the kitchen, where two giant brutes were cleaning. One was humongously tall and bald, with dark eyes that missed nothing. He had a tattoo at the base of his neck that looked like some kind of angry bird. The other was not much taller than Nick. His brown hair was cut short.
Death clapped the tall one on the shoulder. “Nick, meet my two companions. Pain and Suffering.” Pain was the big one, and Suffering the smaller of the two. “You’ll have to ignore Suffering, since he’s mute.”
“Mmm … You know, you should always suffer in silence.”
Nick would laugh, but he was afraid Pain might hit him for it, and since he was Pain, best to leave him be. “Nice meeting you two…” He looked around nervously. “Oh, wait! I hear my mom calling. I better go see what she needs.” He turned to leave, only to find that his legs were locked again.
Death sauntered over to stand in front of him. “Don’t play coy, Cajun. We don’t like that.”
Yeah, and he didn’t like being stuck in the kitchen with ghouls either. Sometimes you just didn’t get what you wanted. “What do you want from me?”
“Normally, it’d be your life and your soul.” He sighed heavily. “Unfortunately, I can’t take either right now. Sucks to be me today.” He slapped Nick so hard on the shoulder that it made him stagger. “I was sent here to teach you.”
“Teach me what?” Dying painfully in a back alley somewhere?
“How to understand augury.”
Nick scowled. “Ahhhga … who?”
“Augury,” Death repeated. “The art of divination.”
Okay, that made absolutely no sense to him. “But you’re Death.”
Death gave him a droll stare. “I know, kid. Believe me, it’s not something you forget. But there are many agents of death, messengers as it were. I am only one. In my opinion, I’m the best one. However, there are plenty more out there able to do the job. Poseurs mostly, granted. But enough that Death can sometimes take a holiday.” He winked at him as he mentioned the title of a movie Nick’s mom loved to watch.
Yeah, Death was a few quarts shy of a gallon. “I take it the death business doesn’t pay too well, so you moonlight as a cook here in this place.”
“You would think that, right?” Death stepped out of his body. Literally.
Where there had been one person, there was suddenly two. Only, one of them now had short black hair, a white apron, and tattoos running down both arms. That person ignored them while he went to the oven.
“Where are my cookies?” He looked around and then scowled as he caught sight of Nick. “Who are you, and what are you doing back here? Only staff is allowed in the kitchen. Rémi!”
Nick opened and closed his mouth like a fish. He pointed to Death.
“He can’t see me, kid. He just thinks you’re nuts for pointing at nothing.”
Great. That was all he needed. One more person who thought he was on drugs. “Morty?”
The cook drew up short as he was headed for the door. “Yeah?”
“I’m Nick. Aimee told me to come back here and introduce myself to you. My mom will be working here.”
Morty held his hand up in warning. “Stay right there. Don’t you move.” He went to the door and pushed it open only enough for his head to vanish while he spoke to the others. Nick could hear his muffled voice, but couldn’t understand the words.
Death laughed evilly. “I love making humans think they’re losing their minds. Nothing else is quite so satisfying … other than listening to them try to bargain with me for their lives. You know, I was once offered my own private island with a harem of virgins and three camels. Tempting, but a ghoul has to do what a ghoul has to do.” The look on his face said he was savoring that memory. Then he hit Nick on his “injured” shoulder. “Watch this.…”
Morty returned with a stern frown on his face. “How did I get my cookies out there without knowing it?”