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Death snickered. “Look at his face. I love it.”
Nick cleared his throat. “Meth is death, dude. Lay off the crack.”
“What?” Morty looked at him as if he’d forgotten he was there. “Um, anyway, Aimee said you’re legit. I still don’t remember meeting you. I just don’t remember.”
“It’s all right. We all have—” He slid his gaze to Death, who was still laughing, and had to wonder if he wasn’t imagining things, too. “—our issues. Tell you what, I think I’ve met enough new people for the day. I’m going to go chill for a while.” And have my head examined, ’cause obviously, I’m having a hallucination probably brought on by finding out my boss is a freak of nature.
Now I’m seeing freaks everywhere.
“Good idea.” Morty headed to the stove.
Death slung his arm around Nick’s shoulders. “Call me Grim or master. I prefer master, but Grim works since it reminds you of who and what I am and what will happen to you if you get under my skin. Capisce?”
“Good. By the way, did you know the word capisce is actually from the Latin word for ‘seize’? As in carpe diem or, in the case of your nocturnal boss, carpe noctem. Seize the night.”
Nick wasn’t sure what to make of any of that.
“Close your mouth, kid. The cook already thinks you’re crazy. Remember, right now only you have the privilege of my company.”
“Hmm. The correct answer should be capisco. ‘I understand.’ So I say capisce, and you say…”
Nick hesitated before he answered. “Capisco.”
Grim patted him on the cheek. “Beautiful. You can be taught. Makes my job so much easier when you’re actually intelligent. You’d be amazed at the idiots I’ve come across. As George Carlin so eloquently put it: Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”
He had a point. “I try to keep my stupid to a bare minimum, since my mom’s always telling me it can be fatal in large doses.”
“Oh, she’s right. Believe me, I know. For that matter, it can be fatal even in small measures. Remind me sometime to tell you about the woman I claimed who was vacuuming her cat.”
“Who are you talking to?”
Nick felt his face go hot at Morty’s question. “Still in the kitchen, aren’t I? Guess I need to keep walking. Oh, look! Yonder is the door, which I’m going to make use of right now.” He quickly made his exit.
The small group he’d left earlier had dispersed. No one was there except the two bartenders who’d gone back to restocking behind the bar.
Nick paused beside them. “Where’s my mom?”
Before they could answer, she came out of the restroom area dressed in a black Sanctuary T-shirt that matched Aimee’s. Thankfully, hers was on the large side and kept her completely covered. Her face lit up the moment she saw him. She practically danced her way over to him.
He started to ask her if he was forgiven for getting her fired, but decided that might not be in his best interest. “You look happy.”
“Oh, baby, I am. They are so nice here. All of them.” She slid her gaze to the door. “Well, Rémi’s a little distant, but I’ll take that any day over some of the people I worked with at the club. They’re even going to give me a day schedule so that I can be home with you at night. And, best of all, they feed me free while I work and you, too, and not just scraps. We could eat steak if we wanted to.”
“I’ll settle for the cookies.”
“Yeah, I know you would.” She squeezed his cheek. “I’m technically on the clock already. I should have left you at Mr. Hunter’s.”
“I tried to tell you that.”
“Don’t sass me.” She let out a sigh. “I know you’ll be bored here. I mean, they have things to do.” She glanced over to the game area. “But it’s probably best not to press our luck the first day.”
“I can go hang at Bubba’s. It’s just down the street.”
All the joy evaporated off her face. “That is one name I never want to hear again. I swear, that man and his antics … He’s ridiculous.”
He’d also saved both their lives last night. But for Bubba and his epic fighting and driving skills, they’d be dead today.
That thought made him glance past his mother’s shoulder to where Grim watched them with a bemused expression. He tapped his watch.
“Bubba’s all right, Mom. He was trying to help.”
“Yeah, well, for his own personal safety, you better keep him away from me—or you’ll have two parents in prison for murder.” As soon as those words were out of her mouth, she slapped her hand over her lips and looked around frightfully. “Let’s not talk about that here, okay?” she whispered.
“I don’t talk about that man’s unfortunate and eternal incarceration to anyone. Ever.” No offense, but he hated the sperm donor who’d spawned him. Speaking of people he didn’t want to talk about, his father was a cold-blooded killer who’d knocked them both around the few weeks he’d been out of jail. If Nick never saw him again, it’d be too soon.
“Go stay with Bubba. I’ll check with you later.”
“All right. Do you have my new cell number?” That’d sounded infinitely better in his head than it did coming out of his mouth, as it invoked an image of him in prison orange, sitting on a bench doing time in Angola like his dad.
“Not with me.” She pulled a pad and pen from her pocket and handed it to him.
He jotted his number down and gave it back to her. “If you need me, shout.”
She kissed him on the cheek. “Be safe. Be good.”
“Always.” Nick turned around and headed for the door. Luckily Grim didn’t speak to him again until they were on the street and away from Rémi.
“Aww, Nicky, that’s so sweet. Your mama loves you so.”
Nick froze instantly. “You don’t mock my mother. You don’t speak of her in anything but the most reverent of tones. I don’t care if you are Death, I will open a can of Cajun whup-ass all over you, boy.”
Grim arched one brow as his two companions took a step back, as if giving him space to beat Nick into a bleeding pulp. “Normally, I’d be handing you the can opener and daring you to go for it. Be glad I owe a debt that precludes me from killing you right now. But don’t push it. While you have a predetermined death, your own free will decisions can override that. Put that in the bank and think about it before you try to make a withdrawal.”
Nick frowned at him. “What do you mean I have a predetermined death?”
“Did I stutter?”
“Do I look like Webster’s?”
Nick frowned. “No.”
“Then you should understand what I said, since I didn’t speak in code. Every mortal creature is born with an expiration date. Some immortals, too. Set by the big clockmaker. But excessive stupidity and moronic tendencies can shorten it. Pissing me off is one really good way to cut yours down to three seconds from now.”
The ice in his voice as he spoke went a long way in making Nick back down. Not that he made a habit of that. Far from it. His mom often called him Snapper after the snapping turtle. Because anytime you sink your teeth into something, you won’t let ago until lightning strikes you. It was sadly true.
However, his survival instinct won out. “So what are we doing, anyway?”
Grim gave him a droll stare. “We’re going to Bubba’s. Isn’t that what you told your mom?”
“Yeah, but I thought—”
“For the first lesson, I can train you anywhere. Just remember, I won’t be seen. You will be.”
Nick considered that. “Bubba’s it is.” He was the one person who wouldn’t even bat an eyelash that Nick was talking to an “imaginary” friend. Heck, he’d probably bring one of his own out to play, too.
“So who sent you to train me, anyway?”
Grim grinned. “I’m not at liberty to say.”
“Then how do I know I can trust you?”
“You’re still breathing, right? If an MOD comes to you and you see them and you live through it, obviously we’re here for your good and not your demise.”
“Messenger of Death.” The moment Grim spoke those words, Nick saw an image of him standing with his wings extended, his eyes flashing red, and his face a glowing purple skeleton.
“You like to freak people out, don’t you?”
Death grinned. “Absolutely. I love the sounds of fear they make. Music to my ears.”
And on that note, Nick decided it would be best to continue on. No, he wasn’t sure he could trust Grim, but …
It wasn’t worth angering him. So he turned down Royal and made his way to the Triple B—the only computer and gun store in the world—at least that Nick knew about. And that said it all about Bubba, whose logo was him standing over a shot, smoking computer with a gun slung over his shoulder.
IF I CAN’T TAKE CARE OF YOUR COMPUTER PROBLEMS ONE WAY …
I’LL TAKE CARE OF THEM ANOTHA’
Yeah, Nick knew all kinds of people.
“Triple B?” Grim asked as they approached the sign that hung above the door. “What’s that stand for?”
Nick scratched the back of his neck. “There’s some debate on that. Some think it’s for Big Bubba Burdette. Others believe it stands for Big Balls and Brains.”
“What does Bubba say?”
“He changes it every time someone asks.”
Grim smiled. “I like him already.”
Nick slowed as he saw the damage from the night before. The main window had duct tape over the broken panes. The front door, which had been blasted off its hinges, had been chained in place, and there was soot from the flamethrower all over it.
Yeah, last night had been fun. It was a wonder they weren’t all in jail.
Grim crossed his arms over his chest as he surveyed the mess. “Reminds me of the apocalypse. Shame I missed whatever went down here.”
“It was a zombie invasion, and we barely escaped with our lives.”
Grim scoffed. “What are you? Arthritic? Zombies don’t move fast enough to be a threat to anyone. They do, however, make great targets when you’re bored.”
“These weren’t undead zombies … at least not all of them. There was a group of Mortent demons after me. They found a video game that a friend of mine made that could reprogram the human brain and turn a person into a mindless killing machine. They were using my football team to come after us, and trust me, them boys can move and move fast. We didn’t want to kill them, because it wasn’t their fault.”
Grim screwed his face up as if Nick’s words caused him pain. “Let me give you free advice, kid. Whenever something is coming for you, snap its neck or double tap. Never, ever hesitate. It’s infinitely better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”
He had a point, but Nick wasn’t his father and he didn’t want to take anyone’s life. Especially not one of his classmates’. He was pariah enough without adding that to his résumé.
Grim pulled against the padlocked chain that was holding the unhinged doors across the storefront. “Any way in?”
Nick pulled out his phone and dialed Bubba’s number.
“Yell-oh?” Because of Bubba’s thick Southern drawl, most people thought he was stupid when they first met him. But Bubba was a summa cum laude graduate from MIT and was without a doubt the smartest man Nick had ever met.
A little … no, a lot crazy, but highly intelligent.
“Hey, Bubba, it’s Nick. My mom started a new job at Sanctuary and wanted me to lie low until she gets off work. Since you’re the reason she got fired, I was wondering if I could work in the shop today?”
“Oh, hell yeah, get your Cajun hide around to the back door pronto.”
“I’m right outside.” Nick scooted around to the rear door that was usually reserved for deliveries.
Bubba already had it open as he eyed him. “How you doing?”
“I’m alive, so no complaints.”
“Wish Mark thought that way. Boy ain’t done nothing but cry like a girl all morning long.”
“I’m not crying. I’m in pain, you heartless Cro-Mag.”
At six-four and with a full black beard and short black hair, Bubba was the epitome of what most people would call a redneck. But the one thing Nick had learned in his short life was that people seldom fit whatever stereotype others wanted to give them. Case in point, while Bubba loved his truck, his mom, and his guns and flannel shirts, he was also a huge horror movie fan and a sucker for foreign girl movies. In fact, Bubba’s favorite show was Oprah, and he watched it faithfully every single day. Woe or, more to the point, death to anyone who came between Bubba and his TV at four. His music of choice was punk or alternative, and he was never caught with a pair of Doc Marten’s boots.