Chapter 96

Nick was charming. Alice had never expected that sort of thought to cross her mind, yet as she watched him schmooze the conversation she had to admit the boy had his smoothness. It wasn’t just that he was knowledgeable on every topic that came up, or that he had an impeccable sense of manners and propriety, or even his effortless likability. It was that he had all those things and understood how to control a conversation. Nick knew the art of not talking.

He spoke infrequently, never interrupting but only interjecting when a lull occurred. He splashed in a few words or a subtle idea and then retreated. It was a series of quick, delicate strikes that gave off the impression of a young man with a competent head on his shoulders who still properly respected his elders. Alice sipped her merlot (she’d been allowed single glass at dinner since she was a young child), pondering just how it was that someone like Nick could so effortlessly become this amazing guy.

They were in a restaurant that catered to upscale clientele. As such, it was done in very dark, muted colors, lit by a soft glow of light that was just bright enough to see that one’s food was properly cooked. It was a place that was easily missed, even by the locals, holding only a small placard on the door to indicate a restaurant was here. There were no prices on the menus and there was ample dust on the bottles. Alice used to love places like this, and while a part of her was always overjoyed at the prospect of food prepared by expert chefs, she found the atmosphere to be a bit drab. Somewhere amongst the gastrointestinal catastrophes that represented the dorm cafeterias Alice had grown accustomed to a dining environment that was more... lively.

“I must say, Nick,” Mr. Vinders’ voice blurted, breaking Alice’s reverie. “You were quite right about the ‘62 merlot. I’d never ever heard of that winery before.”

“Thank you, sir,” Nick said, dipping his head ever so slightly in a gesture of humility. “It was just some knowledge I gleaned from an old teacher. It seems that particular regions of France experienced exceptional flooding about a year before, leaving it unable to grow or produce until 1962. When they finally did, they discovered that the rain had washed new minerals from a nearby village into soil, leading to exceptional wine.”

“That’s quite the useful knowledge,” Mr. Adair said.

“I’m glad I was able to share it with you,” Nick said with a smile. He raised his glass and did a small toasting motion before treating himself to a sip.

“That’s quite a young man you have there, Alice,” Mr. Vinders said. “I wish my Beth could meet one like him.”

Father!” Beth hissed. “I’m taking my time in choosing a worthwhile one.”

“You’ve had three years. Alice pulled it off in only one semester,” Mr. Vinders countered.

“I suppose Alice got the only good one,” Beth said, spreading her mouth into a smile while her eyes danced with rage at the happy couple.

“Keep trying. The sooner you get married the sooner you can leave that school. You’ll get yourself seriously hurt one of these days. I’d never have allowed you attend Lander if I’d known they were letting women in the combat classes,” Mr. Vinders said. Nick began to suspect the large, mustached man had drunk a little too much of the sumptuous merlot. Fortunately, Mr. Adair was certain of that fact.

“I’m sure she’ll meet a kind boy soon,” Mr. Adair said. “Be glad she’s being choosy, though. After all, a man like you would surely reject ninety-nine percent of the boys who would try to date a girl as lovely as your daughter.”

“Quite true,” Mr. Vinders agreed.

“Thus it is both prudent and efficient for her to only bother bringing around the ones who truly have a chance at being worthy of her,” Mr. Adair said. “But I think that’s enough about our daughter’s love lives for the moment. Shall we get down to more immediate matters?”

“I’ve told you already, Charles, I’m not comfortable selling out my company unless I’m certain you won’t go on a firing and outsourcing spree,” Mr. Vinders said, his face immediately growing serious.

“I assure you, the headcount will remain unchanged should your company find itself in my employ,” Mr. Adair said. He reached out onto the table and plucked up a small black menu. “However, I find talks like best done between two gentlemen in solace, save for a good brandy. The immediate business I was referring to was dessert.”

“Ha!” Mr. Vinders let out a chuckle and slapped the table. In a fine dining restaurant, such a thing would have been unacceptable. In a place like this acceptability was determined purely by whoever had the most money in the room. “Right you are, Charles. Let’s leave business for after we drop off the kiddies. At the moment I’d rather do some serious damage to a good crème brûlée.”

*          *          *

Vince and Mr. Transport lounged in the straw chairs, resting their feet in the smooth currents of the ocean.

“This beats the cafeteria,” Vince said.

“This beats damn near everything,” Mr. Transport said. He took a long drink from the pink liquid in his clay cup. The punch was another specialty of the shop and a feature that made this slice of paradise even more enjoyable.

“Yeah, I’ll give you that one,” Vince agreed. “I do love the water. Makes me wish I was looking forward to the river trip more.”

“What’s wrong with the river trip? I’ve heard it’s a highlight of freshman year at Lander.”

“There’s going to be a lot of drinking,” Vince said. “I’m still figuring out how to be part of that whole scene when I don’t want to join in.”

“Just be,” Mr. Transport said. “Contrary to what after-school specials will tell you, people who are drinking don’t really care all that much if you’re not. It translates to more beer for them anyway.”

“Heh. I suppose that is a good point.”

“Why the hang up, though? I mean, most kids your age like to experiment a little.”

“Most kids my age haven’t spent their whole lives out of control,” Vince pointed out. “I’m a little worried that anything that messes with my brain chemistry will send me right back to where I was.”

“That’s nothing to worry about. We told you there’s no chemical compound that can change you back. You’re a Super for life.”

“Fear isn’t often rational,” Vince said.

Mr. Transport took another sip of his drink, mulling over Vince’s words. He then extended the cup to his silver-haired charge.

“Fear isn’t rational, but facing it can be,” he said. “Try a sip.”

“I’m... um, well I’m underage.”

“Actually, in this part of the world there is no legal drinking age, so no, you aren’t,” Mr. Transport said. “Aside from which, we’re surrounded by a small population and you’ve probably only got a little bit of energy stored up. I can easily teleport you somewhere deserted if you start blasting fire at the trees. There is literally no situation I can think of where it’s safer for you to take a sip of alcohol.”

“But why take the chance?”

“Because hopefully you’ll have a long life ahead of you, and in it there will be tons of things that might take away control. I’m not saying to get shitfaced or become a drug addict, I’m just saying that I’d rather not see a kid like you spend his life always afraid that fun will automatically be punished by a return to a shittier point in life,” Mr. Transport said.

Vince tentatively reached over and accepted the cup, then took a short sip. He handed it back to Mr. Transport, who took a much larger one.

“That was actually pretty good,” Vince admitted.

“Yeah,” Mr. Transport agreed. “Feeling like you’re about to blast the shit out of something accidentally?”

“Not yet,” Vince said, settling back in his seat. “I think we better relax by the ocean for a bit longer though, just in case.”

“Good idea.”

*          *          *

“Charles, do you mind if we borrow the limo for a bit so I can drop my daughter off and say goodbye?” Mr. Vinders asked as they pulled up to the parking lot nearest Melbrook.

“Not at all,” Mr. Adair said. “It will give me a chance to say goodnight to Alice as well. Swing back by when you are done.”

“Of course,” Mr. Vinders agreed. Mr. Adair, Alice, and Nick all departed from the limousine. It puttered off slowly across campus, aimed at a different housing area.

“So good to see you again, dear,” Mr. Adair said, hugging Alice lightly.

“You, too, Daddy. Feel free to come visit again.”

“I will keep it in mind,” Mr. Adair said with a smile. “If it isn’t too much trouble, may I ask the chance to speak privately to your boyfriend?”

“I really don’t think you need to do that,” Alice began.

“It is every father’s right to put a touch of fear into his daughter’s suitor,” Mr. Adair said, turning toward Nick.

“It’s fine, Alice,” Nick assured her, flashing a confident and relaxed grin. “I’ll be inside in a minute or two.”

“Nick, you really don’t need to-”

“Don’t be silly,” Nick said, cutting her off. “A gentleman covets the right to speak earnestly with his lady’s father.”

“Um... okay... I guess,” Alice said. She walked slowly back to Melbrook. Both Nick and her father kept her in their peripheral vision until she was in the door, but neither took their focus off the other. It was only after the door had solidly shut behind her that words were at last spoken.

“You’re not actually dating Alice,” Mr. Adair said simply.

“You’re going to slash the shit out of Mr. Vinders’ company,” Nick replied.

Mr. Adair raised an eyebrow. “What makes you say that?”

“You called first, you show your hand,” Nick said.

“Fine,” Mr. Adair agreed. “You’re too smart for her, she was too comfortable when you touched her around her father for there to be any legitimate intimacy, you don’t particularly care for her, and she was not nearly nervous enough. Shall I continue?”

“No,” Nick said. “That was good. You’re a smart man and a good liar.”

“That’s how you knew I plan to gut the company?”

“Yes. Remove humanity and it’s a simple business decision. I’m sure you’ll find a fancy way to word the contract, but it was a simple deduction to make. It’s what I would have done,” Nick said.

“That might be the first thing you’ve said all night that I believe,” Mr. Adair said. “Your act did cheer my daughter, though, so I suppose I owe you some thanks.”

“Consider the meal thanks enough,” Nick said. “Are we done here?”

“Depends; are you planning on chatting up the younger Vinders and letting her know about my business intentions?”

“Not even slightly,” Nick said. “You played along with my ruse, I’ll ignore yours. You were wrong about something, though.”

“Do tell.”

“I care enough about Alice to tell her father what a bastard he is for baiting and switching the poor girl with a visit like that.”

“She loathes business dinners and I needed her attendance in order to secure the meal,” Mr. Adair said unapologetically.

“I didn’t expect you to be sorry,” Nick said. “Just felt you should know that you’re an asshole.”

“Nothing new, I assure you,” Mr. Adair replied.

“Good. Now we’re done,” Nick said. He began walking toward Melbrook. As soon as he opened the door he saw Alice waiting, pacing along the floor.

“How was it?”

“Standard dad stuff,” Nick said, slipping into his usual persona. “Touch my daughter wrong and I’ll have the FBI and the CIA erase you from existence. Nothing new.”

“That’s good at least. A little surprising from him, but good.”

“Yeah. Now, if you don’t mind, that heavy meal has me tuckered out. I need to get some sleep,” Nick said.

“Oh yeah, no problem,” Alice said, stepping out of his way. “But I just wanted to say thanks.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Nick said, waving her off. “You saved my life, it’s the least I could do.”

“I know, but... still.”

“We’re cool, Alice,” Nick said gently. “Helping each other in rough spots is what friends are for.”

Alice smiled. “I’m starting to realize that.”