Chapter 97

“This wardrobe is wasted on you,” Nick said as he sifted through Vince’s closet. The bulk of the former wanderer’s clothes had been provided for him along with his dorm furnishings and monthly allotment. It was part of the “scholarship” that their program provided, along with tuition and class fees. The others hadn’t been provided with quite as much as Vince; then again, they hadn’t needed nearly as much, either. Nick had always thought of it as a form of payment for letting themselves become human guinea pigs, but given that the experiment had worked, he supposed the blood money arrangement worked out in their favor.

“Over half this stuff still has tags on it.” A tumble of clothes fell upon Vince’s bed as Nick cleared the way to view more options.

“I’ve never had many clothes. I just find what’s comfortable and keep wearing it,” Vince replied from his desk. He was doing some homework before heading off to Camille’s birthday event, determined not to find himself in the same kind of situation as he had last semester.

“That’s very Zen of you, but adding variety to one’s rotational ensemble isn’t always a bad thing. For instance, you might already know what to wear tonight instead of having me help you.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t expect it to be formal.”

“Funny how that works. You’re the one who put together Camille’s shindig yet you didn’t realize Karaoke Barn has a strict dress code.” Nick didn’t bother giving Vince the accusing glare. He’d no more believed his friend had organized this event than he believed Bigfoot was secretly in charge of The Masons.

“It’s called Karaoke Barn! Why would I expect that to require suits and dresses?”

“The name is ironic; it’s one of the swankier places in town. Private rooms, highbrow food, I hear they do a non-complimentary valet even though there’s tons of parking available.” Nick knew, of course, that the relevance of that last fact would be lost on someone like Vince. Really the only person in Melbrook who might have fathomed its significance was Alice, and Nick had already found himself a bit too fond of her company lately. He needed to put a little space between himself and his blonde teammate.

“I know that, now.” ‘Now’ had occurred when Vince showed Nick the jeans and T-shirt he planned to wear that night. It had not gone over well.

“Just be glad we did a pre-screen. It would have been mortifying if you’d shown up in those rags.”

“They aren’t rags.”

“They are compared to what you should be wearing.” Nick pulled back another section of clothes and revealed a piece that demanded he let out a low whistle. “And what you should be wearing, pretty much always, is this.”

Nick plucked free a three-button suit that was still bound in plastic wrap. It was the color of smoke and had clearly been fashioned with Vince in mind. His lean frame had put on a bit of muscle thanks to his HCP conditioning, but Vince would still fit strikingly into this outfit. Nick could already visualize it, and the image made him want to pick something a little nicer than what he’d planned for himself. Nick could deal with many things, but being drab, even if only by comparison, wasn’t one of them.

“Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” Vince said, rising from his desk. “I saw it the first week I was here. Didn’t know where I’d ever wear it to.”

“You knew it was here, yet you let me spend half an hour rooting through the dregs of your closet?”

“I forgot.” Vince shrugged like only the truly innocent and the truly idiotic are capable.

“Of course you did.” Nick thrust the suit to his friend, who accepted it gently. “I’m going to leave while you try it on. Add the accoutrements, too; I’m helping you itemize all afternoon.”


“Yeah, you know: shoes, belt, rings, watches, all the periphery shit.”

“I don’t think I have that.”

Nick jerked his thumb toward the now ravaged closet. “Go dig. If there’s a suit then there’s at least a matching belt and shoes. As for watches, what about that pocket watch you keep on your bedside table?”

Vince didn’t glance toward where Nick’s eyes were looking; he already knew perfectly well what watch he meant.

“I don’t really wear that out.”

“And with your usual clothes you shouldn’t. With this suit, on the other hand, it would be a welcome addition. Tell you what, get dressed and I’ll show you how to run the chain, then you can decide for yourself.”

“I guess I could do that,” Vince agreed reluctantly.

“Then hurry. Some of us have to get ready too, you know.”

*    *    *

When a room is thoroughly disheveled the phrase ‘it looks like a bomb went off in there’ is frequently used. This description, while popular, is wildly inaccurate. It ignores the fact that most bombs civilians are familiar with are not designed to create craters; rather they use a controlled amount of explosives to send fragments and shrapnel as projectiles. It also fails to take into account that even if the first condition were not true, such a situation would invariably leave scorch marks as collateral damage to the area in question. So, Camille Belden’s room certainly did not look like a bomb had gone off in it. It did, however, look as if a team of specially trained agents had scoured through it looking for illegal contraband. Unfortunately for Camille, neither of these were the case.

“Try these on next,” Violet demanded, setting a pair of heels Camille was certain she’d never bought onto the bed. Camille didn’t buy heels; she’d never even worn a pair. These must have been included in one of her mother’s care packages. She was always encouraging Camille to dress more lady-like.

“Oooooh, with the green dress,” Stella chimed in.

“Love it!” Violet agreed cheerfully.

It was a strange thing, Violent Violet and Stella Steel, as they were known in their respective hometowns, setting aside their usual rough demeanors and getting bogged down in the intricacies of hair and makeup. This was not, as some might speculate, because all women are predisposed to such passions regardless of their personality type. It was simply that people are complex creatures, and the joy of burying a fist in someone’s skull does not exclude one from also enjoying the ability to turn heads when walking into a room. Besides, bad as one might assume these girls were at such pageantry, Camille was infinitely worse.

The duo had been at this for hours, fully aware that if they didn’t go the extra mile to make Camille look irresistible, then she certainly wouldn’t do it herself. It was a testament to how much she wanted to go to a party she believed Vince had thrown for her that the small girl was tolerating such abuse. Normally she would have slipped away in some moment of confusion, and she certainly wouldn’t have allowed her housemates to wreak such havoc on her normally well-kept room.

“I can’t walk in these,” Camille said as she turned over the new set of heels in her hand.

“HCP training spends a lot of time on balance, I bet you’re better than you think,” Stella told her.

“Plus, heels will help close the height distance between you and Vince. The boy is kind of tall,” Violet added, resisting the urge to share a conspiratorial wink.

Camille let a sigh die in her chest and began putting on the heels. Denying the truth was as useless as resisting these two. They were relentless, and she was their favorite pet project. At times she wondered why they didn’t put as much effort into their own love lives, but it was a question Camille would never ask. Even if they could be annoying at times, she knew that all this effort came from a sincere love for her, so the last thing she wanted to do was say something hurtful. Besides, in the deepest part of her heart, Camille had to admit she wouldn’t mind standing even a few inches closer to Vince’s lips.

It bears saying that she made it all of ten steps before taking her first tumble, a tally which Stella and Violet mutually agreed had to be a first time heel-wearer record.