The Friday before the party, Nick discovered a note in his locker with coded instructions. It took him less time to decipher it than it did for him to put on his sneakers. Mentally he made a note to talk to Professor Pendleton about upgrading the level of cipher he was using. It wasn’t that the note contained anything more than directions to meet him in a classroom within ten minutes, but it was the principle of the thing. If Nick was going to flex his brain, he may as well go for a full-on sprint rather than a light jog.
Professor Pendleton was reading at his desk when Nick arrived, some cheap paperback romance novel. One time, Nick had asked the teacher about his selections of literature. He’d been told that it was the only type of reading material supplied in prison and that once one developed a taste for it, the books were actually quite enjoyable.
“Rodrigo sweeping the widow off her feet?” Nick asked as he took a load off his own and slunk into a chair.
“He was, but now the local bank owner has come between them in an effort to win her for himself,” Professor Pendleton replied, carefully setting in a bookmark before closing his novel. “So, you ready for your midterms?”
“If my assessment of my own understanding is accurate, I should breeze through with at least a B in everything.”
“You know if you applied yourself you could be valedictorian.”
“And if Einstein had put his smarts toward women instead of physics he could have been knee-deep in trim. That’s not the way his priorities lined up, now is it?” Nick wore his usual cocky grin, however it was slightly subdued in these sessions. He kept in character – it was something he prided himself on - but with Professor Pendleton, he showed occasional bits of respect.
“Cute. That one take you long to think up?”
“Meh, about five minutes. Had it in the barrel for over a month, though. Thanks for the set-up.”
“My pleasure,” Professor Pendleton said. “And since you’re doing so well on your academics, I think you can handle a little something extra. I’ve called you in to talk about your midterm for my class.” While aboveground classes only lasted single semesters, the HCP ones ran the duration of a school year. This meant the winter break was only halfway through the term for most of them.
“I thought we weren’t getting anything from the HCP?”
“Most students aren’t. Then again, most students aren’t half-assing their way through the public portion of my class. This is especially pertinent when my class is the only one in which they stand a reasonable chance of advancing.” Professor Pendleton stood from his desk and opened one of the drawers on the side.
“Ah, so this is my price for our arrangement.”
“I’d prefer to think of it as extra credit to keep you even with the class.” He withdrew five pieces of stiff paper from the desk, each one a blank white square from Nick’s vantage point. Professor Pendleton crossed the distance between them and extended the papers. “Pick a card, any card.”
Nick began to reach out, nearly touching one before the professor slapped his hand away.
“Sunglasses off, if you don’t mind.”
“Got a problem with a little luck on my side?”
“I prefer to leave this up to genuine chance. No weighting the odds.” Professor Pendleton smiled placidly, his face indicating that this was in no way optional.
Nick sighed dramatically as he removed his shades. Looking his teacher in the eye, he reached out and grabbed one of the papers at random. A quick flip to the other side revealed only two words were printed on it: ‘Blake Hill.’
“Am I supposed to kill him?”
“Tempting, but no,” Professor Pendleton replied. He took the paper back from Nick and slipped it into the stack. After a brief walk over to the desk he deposited them in the drawer from whence they came. “It looks like learning about Professor Hill is your assignment.”
“What are you looking for: favorite color, if he cheats on his wife, where he buys his pants?”
“No, I want to really test your information gathering skills,” Professor Pendleton replied. “I want you to uncover the secret he keeps the closest to his heart. You’re going to find out his Hero code name.”
Nick let out a low whistle. “That’s not a bad one. I don’t have much to go on. He hasn’t even used his power in class yet; actually, no one besides Professor Stone and Professor Fletcher has.”
“Advanced mind is one of the more common abilities, so she has little risk in revealing what she can do. As for Professor Fletcher, well, I’m sure you can reach the obvious conclusion there. The rest of them guard the exact nature of their abilities to avoid someone doing exactly what I’m instructing you to do.”
“So is this above-board?”
“As above-board as anything in the Subtlety field ever is,” Professor Pendleton replied. “Information is our bread and butter; it’s what makes us truly useful. Sometimes doing a little research on a friend in the present is good preparation for a worst-case scenario in the future.”
“People call me a cynical bastard when I say things like that,” Nick said, a splash of bitterness discernible in his voice.
“Good for them. Better that only a few of us have to think this way,” Professor Pendleton slid into his chair and picked up the book once more. “You have until the end of January. Any questions?”
“If it’s a midterm why is the due date next semester?”
“Because it’s an off-the-books midterm, so I can set the deadline whenever I please. I thought giving you more time was a kind gesture.”
“Just checking,” Nick replied. He stood from his own chair and placed the sunglasses back on his face. “So all you need is the codename he used when he was a Hero?”
“You got it. This is pass or fail, all or nothing.”
“Yeah yeah yeah. I’ll have it before Christmas.”
“Good luck with that.”
“That’s the one thing I know I’ll have,” Nick shot back with an exaggerated wink. Professor Pendleton couldn’t see his eye close, of course, but the muscle movements of his eyebrow left no doubt as to what he’d done. With that, Nick was gone and his tutor was left alone, save only for the company of a good book.
Before continuing to read, Professor Pendleton reached into the drawer and took out the pieces of paper again. This wasn’t his classroom, and it wouldn’t do to have anyone find five identical cards, all with Professor Hill’s name written on them. For a moment Sean had worried Nick would ask to see the others, but it seemed denying him his luck ability had convinced him that the papers were different. He stuffed the pages in his pocket then turned his attention back to Rodrigo, who was languishing over the seemingly insurmountable obstacle barring him from his love.