Chapter 16

Nick was already seated comfortably at a blackjack table when he noticed Vince and some pink-haired girl walk into the garishly decorated student union. They had obviously been trying for an over-the-top Vegas style décor with the gold banners and fake statues, but what the decorator had failed to realize was that Vegas’ brilliance was in the subtlety beneath the glamour. Nick took no offense to it, though; that was the signature appeal of his home town. Often imitated, never duplicated.

Nick was grateful that Vince had told him about the event at any rate. Throwing his first fight to stay off anyone’s radar had left an unpleasant taste in his mouth. Tactics and stealth were all well and good, but there was something so viscerally wrong about losing in any way. It had been necessary, though, and as Nick pulled in a few more additions to his pile of chips he felt the sourness ease from his taste buds. It didn’t matter that the chips were worthless: it only mattered that Nick was winning.

“Hit,” said a female voice next to him. Nick had been seated and working up a hot streak when Mary had plunked herself down next to him. He didn’t want to be rude, but he didn’t want a mind reader so close to him, either. He had waffled for a few moments then let it be. The girl could follow him even if he did get up; besides, he had no idea how good her range was. Even being in the same building might give her free access to his head. Better to stay put and keep up appearances of friendliness toward his dorm mates. It wouldn’t fool her, but that was a lost cause anyway.

“Good play,” Nick complimented her as a ten was laid onto her queen, giving her twenty.

“The advice helps,” Mary replied without looking at him. This was the first time they had spoken all night. He took her meaning quite clearly.

“Glad to help,” Nick lied, turning his attention back to the game. He was almost immediately interrupted again.

“Whoa,” Vince said as he came up to the table. “That’s quite a stack you’ve acuminated.”

“Well, I am from Vegas, after all,” Nick said.

“And eighteen,” Vince countered. “So you couldn’t have hit the casinos. How’d you get so good at blackjack?”

“Chill, Vince, it’s a game of luck,” the pink-haired girl interrupted. There was a beat of silence as Nick could actually watch the word luck leave her lips and enter Vince’s head. Once there it plunked around a few times before finally coming to rest in a spot labeled “natural conclusion.”

“Yeah,” Vince said as his eyes narrowed. “You’re right, Sasha; it is a game of luck.” The sense of accusation wasn’t precisely dripping from Vince’s words, but there was definitely some accusatory condensation on them.

“So it’s Sasha? I’m Nick and this is Mary. We’re both in Melbrook with Vince. I do apologize for my good friend’s poor manners in not introducing us,” Nick said, switching into his usual affable mode and swinging the focus away from his blackjack success.

“Nice to meet you two,” Sasha said, giving a slight incline of her head.

“Sasha, would you mind grabbing us a seat at the craps table? I know we wanted to roll some dice, I just need to have a quick word with my dorm mate,” Vince said.

Sasha looked at the two of them for a moment, then shrugged and said, “Okay.” She wandered off towards the craps, but not without keeping an eye on them. That girl was sharper than she wanted to let on. Nick could respect that.

“Nick,” Vince whispered harshly as soon as Sasha was gone. “Do you really think it’s a good idea to be doing... what you’re doing out in the open like this?”

“You mean winning?” Nick asked innocently.

“I mean using an unfair advantage.”

“Hold your horses there, hoss,” Nick said in equally low tones. “First off, this isn’t even real money, so stay off the soapbox. Secondly, I’m not doing what you think I’m doing. I’m winning because I know how to play blackjack well. There are some basic strategies any kid who grew up around a city of gambling knows. So re-fucking-lax and go worry about your date instead of your dorm mate.”

“It isn’t a date,” Vince snapped immediately. “And... I’m sorry. You’re right. I guess I was just worried because... well, the whole secret being a big portion of your grade thing. You really haven’t been using?”

“Ask Mary,” Nick replied. “See if I’ve focused or breathed deep even once tonight.”

Vince looked at Mary, who didn’t turn toward him but shook her head to the negative anyway. “Sorry,“ Vince said once more. “I guess that whole speech and a day of fighting has gotten me paranoid.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Nick assured him. “If I were you I’d think the same thing. Now go catch up to your girl before someone else does.”

“She’s not my girl,” Vince said, but he departed from their table and made his way over to Sasha and the craps game. Nick turned back to the blackjack table, annoyed that he had missed several hands while talking to Vince and had now lost track of the cards.

“I notice you didn’t bother to mention to him that you don’t actually need to breathe deep or close your eyes to use your talent,” Mary said softly.

“It wasn’t pertinent,” Nick defended. “After all, I’m really not doing anything.”

“You don’t consider counting cards doing anything?” Mary asked.

“Fine; I’m not doing anything that others couldn’t do with skill and practice. Besides, for all you know, I do need to shut my eyes to use my talent. Maybe that’s why I wear the sunglasses.”

“No, it isn’t,” Mary said with unfaltering certainty.

Nick was ruffled by how sure she was. It was unnerving, talking to someone he couldn’t bluff. He wanted to know more about what she could see, but was afraid of how much he would be exposing of himself. He shrugged off the fear. In for a dime, in for a dollar.

“How much do you know?” Nick asked flatly as he slid several chips out to place a bet.

“Enough,” Mary replied as she followed suit and put her own chips into play. “More than you want me to, which isn’t saying much, but less than you’re scared I do, which also isn’t saying much.”

The dealer put two cards in front of each of them, so they each paused to do a quick spot of mental math.

“Have you told anyone?” Nick asked.

“No,” Mary replied. “And I won’t, either. I’ve been hearing stuff I wasn’t supposed to all my life. I learned a long time ago it’s best if I treat it like a therapist or an attorney, with ironclad confidentiality.”

“Is that supposed to assure me?” Nick asked as he rapped knuckles against the green velvet and the dealer handed him another card. An almost instantaneous calculation flew through his head and he waved off to show he was staying.

“It’s supposed to let you know where I stand,” Mary replied, tapping her own hand as well. She went for another hit after the first then elected to stay.

“And where is that?” Nick asked as the dealer began hitting his own stack, stopping once he struck eighteen.

“As your friend,” Mary replied. “Someone you can talk to and trust. Someone who understands some of the things you’ve gone through.”

“Table has eighteen,” the deal announced. The girl to Nick’s right had already busted, so Nick was first to be compared to the dealer’s numbers.

“Nineteen,” Nick announced. To Mary, he resumed his whispering tone. “You’ll forgive me if I’m a bit reluctant to take you up on that. I’ve got trust issues.”

“No problem,” Mary whispered back. “Twenty,” she announced happily, smiling at all of the other players at the table. Both of them pulled in the chips they had won and pushed a few more out for the next round.

“I’m just saying,” Mary resumed in her soft tones. “I’m going to be in on just about everything you do anyway. I thought that since there is finally someone you can’t lie to, maybe you’d like to try talking to them. It’s not as if you have to worry about giving away something I don’t already know.”

Nick couldn’t think of a snappy comeback for this one, so instead he just checked his cards. He hated himself for realizing that Mary was right, and he hated her even more because the moment he thought it a small smirk crept onto her face.