Nick flipped the cards onto his desk again, staring at the hand before him with a frown. There was no doubt about it: his assessments were spot on, but in a way he wished they weren’t. He might have liked to take solace in ignorance, to quiet the machinations of his ever-ticking mind. Since that option was not presented to him, he instead looked at the other hands on the table. There were four of them, each different from the last. The arrangement would have seemed random to anyone else, which indeed was why Nick had chosen this medium for physical observation. The others didn’t need to know what he knew, not yet anyway.
They needed to bond first, and bonding meant spending time together in high spirits. High spirits were best sustained when one believed they had a significant chance of victory. Nick would have to crush those hopes soon, because as it stood the hand before him was the weakest one on the table. That meant if they were hoping for a real shot at victory there was only one course for them: changing the cards.
Nick set down the remainder of the deck and checked the time. People would start arriving soon. He needed to get ready. If things went to plan, he could use tonight to get people bonded and to lay a bit of the groundwork they’d need for the tasks ahead. If they didn’t... well, given the number of backups Nick had in mind, it would be quite extraordinary for things not to go according to at least one plan. He reached into his closet and pulled out a dark-colored button-down. He’d gotten most of the prep work done during the day; however, he still had a few tasks left.
* * *
Camille stepped nervously into the Melbrook common room to find all the others already gathered. She hadn’t been sure what Nick meant by “dress nice” so she’d changed outfits several times trying to strike the right chord. Initially she’d gone with a white dress that went to her calves, but she’d opted against it in case the night’s activities required any extensive movement. Eventually she’d settled on a light green blouse and jeans. Looking about the room at the range of clothing, from Alice’s pink dress to Alex’s flip-flops, she decided she’d struck a good medium.
“And at last, we are all assembled,” Nick declared, gesturing to the short girl’s entrance.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said weakly.
“Don’t worry about it,” Mary said. “Alice only got out here around two minutes ago.”
“I had to find the right shoes,” Alice defended.
“How do you know which shoes are the right ones? You don’t know what we’re doing,” Mary pointed out.
“Thus I selected the ones that were utilitarian in function and adorable in looks,” Alice shot back. “On that note, what are we doing tonight? Now that Camille is here will you finally tell us?”
“I’d be happy to, once we arrive,” Nick replied with a smile. “For the trip we’ll need to split up into three vehicles. I’ll drive, Alice will drive, and I believe Alex has a car as well.”
“I’ve got a Focus that’s a few years old,” Alex confirmed.
“We’ll do our best not to hold that against you,” Nick said. “To the cars!”
“Don’t you need to tell the drivers where we are going?” Vince asked.
“Nope! Just follow my car!”
“This seems kind of weird, even for him,” Alice whispered to Mary as the group filtered out the front door.
“Leave it be, I’m sure he has something in mind,” Mary said.
Alice raised an eyebrow. “Did you peek?”
“No, but I mean, it’s Nick. For all his excessive eccentricity, he always has a goal behind the things he does.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Alice sighed. She wished Mary was a little less correct in that assessment.
After some quick debate, the cars were stocked with passengers. Alice, Mary, and Roy piled into Alice’s car. Camille joined Alex in his, leaving Vince and Nick to rely on the Volkswagen for transportation.
* * *
The knock on Dean Blaine’s door was loud and pronounced. The educator glanced at one of the many monitors hooked up to the closed-circuit camera system to see who his guest was. Despite the everyday appearance of the four-bedroom home a few blocks from campus, Dean Blaine’s house was a fortress of security. Concealed cameras covered all areas of his perimeter, the charming bay windows housed glass of a thickness rated “rocket-resistant”, and his doors and walls were all reinforced with sheets of steel in their centers. Some might have considered it a bit of overkill. Those people had never worked as Heroes. The ones who were lucky enough to retire had to take precautions to make sure they lived long enough to enjoy it.
In this instance, Dean Blaine had little to fear from his weekend caller. He unbolted the front door and swung it open, revealing Sean Pendleton dressed in a pair of slacks and a black silk shirt.
“I couldn’t get you to dress this nicely for the first day of meeting students, but you’ll do it to intrude on my time off?”
“Now don’t be like that, Blaine,” Sean said, a cheerful smile plastered to his face. “There was a time when we tore up the town on any given weekend.”
“That time was long ago, and with a much larger group I might add. And you can call me Dean Blaine. You’re an employee now, need I remind?”
“I am indeed, but we’re off the clock,” Sean pointed out. “Besides, I come bearing gifts.” From behind his back Sean produced a small but very nice bottle of scotch.
“Dare I ask how you acquired it?”
“I did have a savings account with legitimate funds before my incarceration,” Sean said. “So what do you say, shall we have a drink then perhaps go out on the town for old times’ sake?”
“Are you really that bored?”
“Dreadfully so, I’m afraid,” Sean lied. “There’s little action to be found in this town when one is on the side of authority.”
“Fine,” Dean Blaine acquiesced. “You can come in for one glass of scotch. Just one.”
“You haven’t changed a bit, dear boy,” Sean said, stepping into the tastefully decorated living room. “Still always willing to put yourself out to cheer up a friend.”
Dean Blaine shut the door and bolted it behind Sean. He let the comment pass without objection, though he couldn’t help noting just how wrong Sean was. Dean Blaine knew himself quite well, and he knew he had definitely changed in their time apart.
He just wished he knew if it was for the better or not.