Chapter 121

Nick had just finished putting on his regular shoes when Professor Pendleton entered the locker room. The uniform boots, much like the rest of the Lander mandatory outfits, were comfortable and functional, but whoever designed them didn’t have much regard for fashion. Not that Nick could throw stones: his above-ground garb was a t-shirt, jeans, and bright green sneakers. He’d have been turned away from his own casino in this outfit, but it was a necessary camouflage to blend in.

“You didn’t want to go to the infirmary with your friends?” Professor Pendleton asked.

“Nah. I know Vince and Camille are fine, we’ve got good people on staff here. Besides, standing around awkwardly, trying to acknowledge someone got hurt without talking about it, that’s not my idea of a good time. I’ll swoop by after things have settled down a bit.”

“I can appreciate the validity of that strategy. Speaking of, how do you think things went today?”

“Are you fucking kidding? We pulled out a tie against Chad’s team and I didn’t have to sacrifice a single team secret to do it. I’m not even religious and I feel like I should be lighting a saint candle in thanks.”

“It was a pretty surprising outcome. I got a briefing from Professor Fletcher. One thing struck me, however; it seemed like if you’d let Camille use her full power you would have won.” Professor Pendleton settled down on a nearby bench as they talked. Given his tall, lanky frame, he looked more like a squatting bird as he hunkered down on the low-seated wooden plank.

“First off, getting Camille to use her ability would have been a fight in itself. Even if she’d agreed, it would have been halfhearted and hesitant because Vince was watching. But if, and that’s a big if, she’d managed to win, it would have just put Chad into defensive mode. He would have played it safer, used Will or Rich in the two-person team as support instead of letting them run their own matches. If she’d done it and lost then we’d have gotten the same outcome, plus we’d be down a match.”

“Well-reasoned,” Professor Pendleton agreed. “I take it Camille’s match was also a play to get Will sent out?”

Nick nodded. “That kind of shit leaves a foul taste in anyone’s mouth. Will doesn’t have bad blood with any of us. Hell, all of us consider him a friend. He was the logical choice to make sure there wasn’t a repeat of what happened with Camille and Sasha.”

“I think we can all be glad that was an isolated incident. The Mary and Alice pairing was quite a cunning move, I must say. You hid her new ability and utilized it at the same time.”

“Yeah, I owe Alex some thanks for that one. Until he pulled his trick I had no idea how I was going to convince those girls to pair up for the match.”

“You intended to put them together before you thought of hiding Alice’s power?”

“Sure. My biggest fear was that Chad would play Rich in response to someone we sent out. Camille neutralized the first opportunity for that by forcing Sasha out and Alice neutralized the second.”

“Why would Alice stop him from using Rich?”

“Because of what happened at Halloween. Assuming Chad believes Rich didn’t induce a dead-mother-based fantasy on purpose, which given Rich’s lack of constant bruises seems like a fair assumption, he would never willfully put Alice under Rich’s spell again. If he didn’t mean to do it, then there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again. Chad has a parent he never knew, too. He won’t risk putting Alice through that pain again, not unless he has to,” Nick explained.

“I see; so Alice ensures he won’t be sent out in round two, and by then it doesn’t matter because if Chad nominates Rich you play Roy, and if he uses Selena you play Vince,” Professor Pendleton said, continuing the path of logic.

“Bingo. Selena’s match was lost to us anyway, as was anyone Vince tangled with, so I just had to make sure and condense the losses as much as possible. Little bastard surprised me, for a minute I thought he was going to pull off a win.” Nick finished tying his shoes and stood up from the smooth bench. His back made a dull crackling sound as he rose, reminding him that he’d neglected his stretching exercises as of late.

“Yes. That loss was... unfortunate.”

Nick felt something is his mind bristle. There had been a pause, a hint of a tone almost imperceptible in the way Professor Pendleton said ‘unfortunate.’

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing, nothing. Just saying it was too bad he couldn’t have pulled that off. It would have given your team an actual win rather than a draw. And, of course, winning against someone like Selena would have reflected well on Vince’s record.” Professor Pendleton’s smile was casual and his words were light, but his eyes were locked steadily on Nick’s face. It was the body language of someone trying to say something without actually saying it. Fortunately, Nick was well-versed in the art of subtle communication.

“True, Selena has placed quite well on most challenges. Of course, Vince is no slouch himself.”

“Well, he tries his best,” Professor Pendleton said. “His only wins during his time at Lander have been against Michael Clark earlier this year and when he and Alex teamed up against Thomas Castillo in the freshman midterm. You can see why it would have been quite a coup if he’d gotten the better of a high performer like Selena.”

“Only two wins? I feel like it’s been more than that.”

“You’re no doubt including last year’s kidnapping as well as some extracurricular events which I can neither encourage nor officially know about, but unfortunately only official matches can be used for student evaluation.” Professor Pendleton’s eyes were practically bursting out of his sockets by now. Nick had to assume the professor’s fear centered on being overheard more than being watched.

“I’m sure he’ll get to strut his stuff in our last team event,” Nick assured him.

“Let’s hope so. I know nepotism and networking are considered the great forces that get one ahead in the outside world, but here in the HCP the only factor that will get you to the next year is dedication. That goes for you, too, you know.” Professor Pendleton rose from his strange perch and headed toward the door. “Don’t forget, you have an assignment due Wednesday on code breaking.”

Once the professor was gone, Nick sat back down. Whatever he was trying to say had to have been in his parting words. This week’s assignment was in tonal recognition, so the code breaking thing had been a heavy-handed hint. That was the direction, which meant the clue was in the first part. He’d said that nepotism and networking were the great forces for advancement. That didn’t seem to pertain too much to Vince. He got along with everyone, but he wasn’t the type to use friendship to get ahead. Besides, the only teacher he’d spent truly extensive time with was Coach George, so that wouldn’t be helping him anytime soon. As for nepotism, that was even less likely. Alice might have a dad in high places, but Vince didn’t have anyone. After all, he was an orphan with no parents. Well, unless you counted-

“FUCK!” Nick yelled, driving his fist into the nearest locker. There was an impressive dent that would take a workman three hours to fix on Monday. Nick didn’t even notice; his marvelous brain was whirring with such intensity it was nearly audible. He’d missed it. It was obvious, it was right fucking there, and he’d missed it. Nick took a deep breath and tried to get calm. It didn’t work.

He’d missed it. And now there was a good chance that Vince was completely fucked.