Chapter 59

The world of Nick’s mind was ridiculously detailed. Mary could hardly believe the intricate design of the tile floor, or the way the occasional table would bear scratches and scuffs, or how every person she encountered was wholly unique. It was evident they weren’t real people, of course; no matter how well-crafted the cigar-puffing men or scantily-clad waitresses were, they still grew hazy at the edges, identifying them as mere chunks of Nick’s mind rather than flesh and blood. Because of that blurring effect, Mary was instantly able to recognize Nick when she found him, which was fortunate because she likely would have missed him otherwise.

Despite the glimpses she’d had into his thoughts, Mary had always imagined the Nick she knew was just a slight variation on the real one. Surely he didn’t wear those silly sunglasses or act as purposefully confounding when he was away from Lander, but she assumed many of his other habits and fashions remained the same. As her eyes fell across the well-dressed young man raking in chips at the poker table, Mary realized just how wrong that assumption had been. His hair was styled in an expert manner, the suit that whispered across his form had clearly been crafted specifically for him, but most distinctive of all was his face. The Nick she knew generally wore a look of affable ignorance, as if he was merely wandering through the world and chuckling at the things that fell across his path. This Nick didn’t conceal his intellect; his eyes roved the world in front of him and devoured every detail they could find. There were no emotions, not even fake ones, decorating his visage. He gave away nothing and took in everything: that was the essence of Nicholas Campbell.

Mary approached slowly, taking the seat of a man who stalked away with a sad look and presumably lighter pockets. The dealer looked at her with a curious glance, and Mary suddenly realized she didn’t have any money to enter the game. The dealer motioned for her to leave and she began to slide off the chair’s vinyl red cushion.

“She stays.” Nick’s voice wasn’t a command, nor was it a request. He spoke like he was calmly discussing geography or math, things that were simply fact. There was no room for denial in his tone; what he said simply was.

“Thank you,” Mary replied, readjusting in her seat.

“No problem.” Nick motioned in the air and a waitress materialized at his side. She carried a clear glass with a brown liquid inside, which she placed next to Nick while collecting the empty ones he’d presumably already drained. Mary noticed the girl had long blonde hair and a familiar facial structure, but declined from mentioning it.

“So your power lets you come into my brain now, huh?”

Mary tilted her head in surprise. “You already know where we are?”

“I didn’t originally. The owl was a good hint.” Nick pointed to the ceiling where Mary could see a snowy white bird sailing between the chandeliers. She recognized it immediately; that species had frequented her forest since before she’d moved to it.

“How did that get here?”

“My guess is that you accidently pulled some of your world into mine when you made the trip. I didn’t start noticing the inconsistencies around here until a few minutes ago, so maybe you crossing over broke whatever part of Rich’s ability keeps us unaware that we’re in an illusion.”

“Seems closer to a dream.”

“Or a carefully controlled coma if we’re splitting hairs. Anyway, the point is, I could sense something that didn’t belong, and that’s when I started getting a feeling none of this was right.”

“You have to admit, this is kind of neat.”

“Of course you’d think that,” Nick scowled. “You’re not the one with a stranger traipsing around in your head.”

“Nothing we can do about it until he frees us.”

“I wouldn’t say that.” Nick turned his attention back to the cards just as a pair of hulking male figures appeared behind Mary’s chair. “See, this is place is a perfect replica of my casino, which means the things around here were pulled from my brain rather than constructed by Rich. Knowing that, I can’t just let you wander about. My friends here will show you to the mandatory hospitality suite until we’re both back in the real world.”

“Come on, Nick, aren’t you being silly?”

“I’ve made it comfortable and lavish, so try to take it as a courtesy. I can’t stop you from digging through my thoughts but I’ll be damned if I’ll have you peering through keyholes into the deeper parts of my mind.”

A rough hand settled on Mary’s shoulder. It wasn’t forceful, but it was there to send a clear message.

“If you’d asked nicely I would have promised to just sit here with you. I’m a little insulted by the goon squad; I think it’s time for them to leave.” Mary sent a blast of telekinetic energy toward each thug, enough to drive them into and through the walls. Since they weren’t real she didn’t bother with holding back, which made it all the more surprising when neither of them moved an inch.

“Oh, Mary, did you really think your powers would work in here? This is my mind, after all.”

Mary tried again, and again, and again as the security agent on the right gently pulled her from the table and began to escort her toward a set of stairs leading downward.

“Why not just let me stay with you?” Mary called over her shoulder.

“Nothing personal, but I don’t trust you. Besides, I have things to do,” Nick replied, rising from the table and turning his back on the stack of chips resting on the green felt. “A man rarely gets lucid access to a world his own brain has created. This is an opportunity I don’t intend to squander.”

Mary struggled slightly against her muscular escorts, but found neither of them loosened their grips in the slightest. She wasn’t surprised. Nick had already made the truth evident: this was his world, she was merely visiting it. The most she could do was speculate whether he’d been serious about the luxury of her cell and hope Rich released them in short order. Plus think of all the ways she was going to painfully pay him back for this when they got free.