By the time it was ten minutes to eight, Tiffani had been taken out and Will seemed to have completely lost the trail. Alice still didn’t know how Professor Pendleton had seen through Tiffani’s illusion of a large business man blundering amidst the crowd, especially since she was sure that man hadn’t been around for more than a few minutes. If she’d kept the same illusion then it would have been one thing, but Tiffani was smart. She’d obviously been changing it regularly so that no one person seemed to be tailing the professor along with his students. He’d still caught her, and with no sign of Will in the past fifteen minutes that meant it was down to her and Nick.
Whatever Professor Pendleton’s power was, it definitely lent itself to rapid relocation. He’d hopped between stores multiple times, changing outfits with each movement. It was only luck, frantic searching, and keeping one eye on Nick that had allowed Alice to stay in the game this long. She couldn’t figure out how he always knew when to walk off to a new area, or always seemed to see right through the professor’s disguises, but she was willing to bet that knowing their instructor’s ability didn’t hurt. So far her money was on teleportation, even if that seemed like a long shot. There were teleporters that became Heroes, but they generally had to be exceptionally powerful to make the cut. Something about Professor Pendleton just didn’t strike her that way, however at the moment she was at a loss for any better explanations.
Alice turned a corner, passing by a man in a giant cookie costume promoting a baked goods kiosk, and found herself with a sinking sensation in her gut. This was a straightaway, and even with three visible floors to search, she should be able to see at least Nick. Her eyes darted furiously about, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of them and knowing more certainly with each passing second that she wouldn’t. Damn it! She’d been so close. There were only seven minutes left until the professor stopped moving. She still had fifteen minutes after that to find him; however, in a place this size, that put her odds at pretty much crap.
A gust of wind tugged at her hair and Alice fixed it on instinct. Stupid outdoor mall, whose idea was that anyway? She turned her gaze from futilely scanning the crowd up to the sky, where the night was beginning to shine through the day with the ever-so-subtle twinkling of stars. In the corner of her eye, the man in the cookie suit was chatting up a girl who was fighting the wind to keep her skirt down at an appropriate level.
A gentle smile slid across Alice’s face. She wasn’t much of a football fan, but if she had been she would have known that what she was considering was commonly referred to as a “Hail Mary.”
* * *
Nick was the first to arrive in the gazebo where Professor Pendleton sat, his hands wrapped around a chocolate malt he’d picked up just before settling down to wait. The older man treated his student to a shake of the head as he sauntered into the finish line.
“Why am I not surprised?”
“Because you know me?” Nick tossed back. He slid onto a bench opposite of the professor. The gazebo’s seating accommodations were weathered and hard. Nick was glad they wouldn’t be there for very long.
“True. Used the mirrors to track me from a distance while also scanning a perimeter in case I doubled back?”
“What about the times when I left the area you could visually track? I changed entire sections of the mall more than once.”
“Sometimes I was able to angle the anti-theft mirror systems of the stores to expand my line of sight, sometimes I used a few techniques that are proprietary to my personal training, and once or twice I might have just gotten lucky.”
“I’d find that last one hard to swallow,” Professor Pendleton said, taking a loud sip of his shake. “The rest I can buy. At least you were able to get away both times I tried to grab you.”
“With all due respect, I think we both know you could have done a lot better.”
“Maybe I was trying to give you all a fighting chance,” Professor Pendleton pointed out.
“Well, at least that worked out for one of us,” Nick replied.
“Two,” Will corrected, stepping into the gazebo. He checked the digital watch on his wrist. “Five minutes after the stopping point. I believe that means I pass?”
“That you do, but I have to ask how. You haven’t been anywhere near us for some time,” Professor Pendleton said.
Will took a seat on the uncomfortable benches with them then explained. “I started hanging back after you got more aggressive in taking people out of the game. My tactic for tracking you was effective, but it did not possess a practical early warning system.”
“What, did you slip a tracker on him?”
Will nodded. “At first, yes. I used a mobile reconnaissance device I designed that was able to attach itself to him and relay his position to me. The professor ditched it at the first outfit change, unfortunately.”
“This is hardly my first rodeo,” Professor Pendleton replied.
“I’d calculated for such a possibility. Since you were kind enough to provide us the event’s location ahead of time, I spent the last few days before this breaking into their security system and designing a program specifically to locate and track Professor Pendleton’s facial features across the security cameras.” Will pulled a small device from his pocket; it looked like a car GPS unit to which he’d clearly done a tremendous amount of rewiring. “That’s why it took me a few minutes to get here. I was watching from far enough away to stay safe.”
“I have to say, I’m impressed,” Professor Pendleton admitted. “You planned, created contingencies, and used all the advanced information you had to construct as effective a strategy as you could. Well done, Mr. Murray.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Professor Pendleton finished his frozen treat and tossed it in the garbage then looked at his own watch. “Four minutes left, and to no one’s surprise, it seems Ms. Adair is nowhere in sight. We’ll wait the remaining time for the sake of formalit-”
“Freeze, you lowlife,” a uniformed officer said, hefting Professor Pendleton up by his shoulder and slamming it into one of the gazebo’s ancient wooden supports. It was sturdier than expected; the pain radiating through Professor Pendleton’s shoulder serving as excellent testament to that fact.
“I’m not sure what you think-”
“Did I tell you to talk?” The officer’s voice was a growl, anger barely contained as it twitched across his face. “Miss? Is this the man?”
From an entryway to the left a familiar form stepped out of the shadows, strolling its way across the grassy outcropping before coming to rest just outside of the gazebo’s interior.
“That’s him, officer,” Alice said, faux-distress rampant in her voice. “I’d recognize him anywhere.”
“What is going on?”
“What’s going on is that this establishment does not take kindly to men who walk around snapping pictures up women’s skirts.”
“Don’t bother, sicko. This young lady saw you using your camera when the women weren’t looking. Thank goodness, if not for her we might not have found you before you got away.”
Professor Pendleton looked over at Alice, who took the opportunity to pointedly take the last step into the gazebo, and twist her arm so that the face of her watch was showing. Fourteen minutes past that deadline. She’d just barely made it.
The professor continued to protest as the officer dragged him away, presumably toward some office for security footage to be reviewed. Alice sauntered past the shocked expressions of both her classmates and plopped onto the seat where their teacher had been only moments before.
“So,” she said nonchalantly. “Anyone up for dinner?”