Chapter 49

“So what do you think he’s got planned for Tuesday?” Vince asked Nick as the two flopped down in the boys’ lounge after gym.

“Hookers,” Nick replied without a pause.

“You think the dean is going to bring hookers to a class centered on ethics?”

“A man can dream,” Nick sighed longingly.

Vince shook his head, a habit that was growing more and more frequent the longer he knew Nick. “I’m just glad we’re done with the graded work in his class for the semester. My other classes are starting to seem a lot scarier now that it’s almost finals time.”

“I know what you mean,” Nick half-lied. He did understand Vince’s plight from an objective standpoint, it was just one that he had never found himself in.

“I think most of my weekend will be spent meeting up with others in the class and getting a study group organized,” Vince speculated. “Hopefully if we share knowledge I can cram enough between now and then to scrape through.”

“Don’t worry too much about that,” Nick told him.

“You think it’ll be okay?”

“I have no idea; I just think you should be worrying more about whatever test they’ll give us in gym and less about ones with the highest danger potential of a paper cut,” Nick explained.

“Why would gym do a test? The combat matches are at the end of the year,” Vince pointed out. “We’re only halfway there.”

Nick could have pointed out that after the break was when the class format would change and students would no longer be able to battle to change their ranks, so it was only logical that the coaches would utilize one last testing activity before deciding who would be combat and who wouldn’t. He didn’t, though. Instead he just said, “It’s a chance to torture us. You see them just letting that pass by?”

“I hate to say it, but you make a point,” Vince admitted. “Thanks for that, by the way. Now I’m even more stressed.”

“Always here to help,” Nick chuckled.

“At least you have an ace in the hole,” Vince said. “I mean, worst case scenario, you can crank up your luck and just fill in test answers randomly. I bet that power comes in really handy.”

*          *          *

The ten-year-old boy sitting at the blackjack table took a sip of his soda, but other otherwise kept his eyes intent on the game. He had sandy hair and was a little tall for his age, though it was clear he still had ample growing left to do. The boy wore a striped collared shirt and jeans, along with a pair of black framed glasses he had to keep pushing up onto the bridge of his nose. The only other people at the table were the dealer, a woman who had money but not much sense or sobriety, and well-built balding man wearing a black suit.

“So why exactly is your son sitting at a blackjack table in the middle of the day?” Ms. Anders asked. She was nervous, but doing her best not to show it. She was new to the Las Vegas branch of Child Protective Services, so of course when the time for Ms. Pips’ yearly review had come around, it was Ms. Anders who’d been handed the job. Unfortunately, Ms. Anders wasn’t quite new enough not to have heard any rumors, so while she’d been willing to come, it hadn’t been without a large sense of hesitation that was now slowly eroding into fear. The two women were sitting at a small table a few feet away from where the boy was watching the blackjack game.

“Because I have to work,” Ms. Pips answered. “And unless you’ve found a reliable sitter service in this town, I think you answered your own question.”

“I more meant why is Nick not in school today? It’s April, so summer break isn’t for another month,” Ms. Anders clarified.

“I take it you didn’t read his full history before our meeting,” Ms. Pips deduced. “My son has to be home-schooled because of his condition; the public school system declared him too dangerous to attend with the other children. Since I can’t take off every day to teach him, I hired a tutor. I’m not sure what he’s learning right now, but I trust the man’s teaching methods implicitly.”

“I see,” Ms. Anders said. “And, just to be clear, when you say condition...”

“Nick is a Powered. He has uncontrollable luck, good and bad. After the day he found a thousand dollars on the playground and was in the bathroom when all of the toilets exploded due to a plumbing mishap, he was officially deemed unacceptable at any institution of learning,” Ms. Pips said matter-of-factly.

“Yes, of course. My apologies for bringing that up.” Ms. Anders was trying very hard to act less flustered than she was feeling. “Now, you’ve had Nick for nine years now, correct?”

“Ever since my sister and her husband had their car accident, lord rest her soul.”

“And in those years, how do you feel that Nick has developed, emotionally? I mean, living with a Vegas casino owner must be a unique childhood,” Ms. Anders said.

“Nick walks around every day with the knowledge that because of a fluke of birth he could die at any minute. A plane could fall from the sky, or a truck could hit him while he’s in the shower. He has to deal with his mortality in a much more real way than the rest of us ever have. I don’t think my son ever had a chance at an existence that wasn’t unique,” Ms. Pips answered.

“An excellent point,” Ms. Anders said. “That takes care of the preliminary work. I just wanted to introduce myself and get some initial information. As you know, in the next few weeks I’ll speak with you and Nick, both together and separately, just to make sure he’s adapting well to his environment.”

“I’m familiar with the process by this point,” Ms. Pips said with a surprisingly reassuring smile. “Though, to my knowledge, I’m also the only foster parent in this city with no complaints or reports who still receives yearly check-ups.”

“Standard procedure, I assure you,” Ms. Anders lied, gathering her notes and hastily rising from the table. “I’ll give you a call to set up another appointment.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” Ms. Pips replied, rising as well. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Ms. Anders. Enrique will escort you out.”

As if by magic, a muscular man stepped into view and waited patiently as Ms. Anders finished grabbing her things, then quietly followed her as she found the way to the door. Only after Enrique returned and confirmed that she was in her car and out of earshot did Ms. Pips make her way over to the blackjack table where the boy was sitting.

“So sorry, dear, but I have to speak with my dealer for a moment. Please feel free to try your luck at another table, and tell them to get you something top shelf on me for the inconvenience,” Ms. Pips said to the woman still tossing away her cash in the vain hopes of getting twenty-one.

“’S okay,” she slurred. “Needed to change anyway, got no luck at this table.” With that she stumbled away in search of another place to settle down and piss away time and funds.

“Okay, Nick,” Ms. Pips said as soon as the woman was gone, “what’s the count?”

“Deck’s almost done,” Nick replied, adjusting his glasses once more and double checking his numbers. “There should still be two threes, a four, two fives, three sevens, an eight, a nine, two jacks, and a king.”

“Gerry?” Ms. Pips asked.

“Spot on by my count,” said the large balding man in the suit.

“Good job,” Ms. Pips praised him. She then turned her attention on the dealer. “Tom, was he showing any tells you noticed?”

“He fiddles with his glasses when he’s adding and scratches the velvet with his right index finger when he’s mentally removing cards from what’s left in the deck,” Tom replied quickly.

“Nice observations, Tom,” Ms. Pips said. “Thanks for helping out today. Go ahead and get lunch at the restaurant on me.”

“Thank you, Ms. Pips,” the dealer said respectfully. He knew when he was being hustled off, and he had been at the casino long enough to know he should take the free lunch and get out of the way.

“Impressive,” Ms. Pips said, patting Nick on the head. “You tricked one of our better dealers with both fake tells, plus he didn’t even catch on that the glasses were fake.”

“They aren’t,” Nick replied.

Ms. Pips raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“They aren’t fake,” Nick repeated. “When Gerry took me to get some I realized that without a distortion it would be obvious to anyone observant that the lenses weren’t real. I knew that would bust me off the bat, so instead I had Gerry forge a prescription that would show distortion but wouldn’t mess up my near-sight so much that I couldn’t see that cards.”

“That true, Gerry?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Gerry replied. “Nick saw the hole in the plan and told me how he wanted it filled.”

“Ha!” Ms. Pips barked a laugh. “And here I thought Tom was losing his touch. That was smart, Nick, I didn’t think you’d find that one so easily.”

“You’ll have to do better next time,” Nick said with a genuine smile.

“And so will you, my little con man, so will you,” Ms. Pips said, smiling back. “Okay, Gerry, let’s get the glasses off of him before he damages his sight for real. After that, take him over to Fleece and have Nick work on his hand skills.”

“Um, Ms. Pips, I feel I would be remiss if I did not inform you that Fleece is set up over at The Bear Back this week,” Gerry brought up.

“So?” Ms. Pips asked.

“Given the mature nature of that club, I feel Nick might be too young to visit Fleece at that location,” Gerry said.

“He’s ten years old, Gerry, and it’s just a strip club. He nursed from tits when he was a baby, it’s not like they’ve changed a lot in the last decade,” Ms. Pips said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Gerry said obediently. His tenure and loyalty to Ms. Pips had earned him the right to bring possible problems and objections to her attention when it seemed necessary; Ms. Pips trusted he had the best interests of the family at heart. But no one had the right to argue back with her once she had laid down her decision.

“One more thing. Do some digging on our new CPS rep. I don’t think she’ll be much of a problem, but she’s got an idealistic streak in her and I’d rather be prepared,” Ms. Pips said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Gerry repeated.

“Okay, Nick, you work hard for Fleece today,” Ms. Pips said, turning her attention back to the boy.

“Yes, Ms. Pips,” Nick said respectfully.

“I’ll check with Fleece after. If you can get three solid pulls today, I’ll let Gerry do some work on misdirection with you later tonight.”

“Thank you, Ms. Pips,” Nick replied. He loved working with Gerry, and misdirection was one of his favorite subjects, so he knew he’d have to really try and get those pulls this afternoon.

“Be good,” Ms. Pips told him with a kiss on the cheek. “And always remember: luck is for tourists and losers.”

“Winners cheat,” she and Nick finished together in unison, as they had since she’d taught him the motto when he was first diagnosed as a Powered all those years ago.

*          *          *

“I bet that power comes in really handy.”

“Hell yeah it does,” Nick replied. “Who knows how I’d get by without it?”