Chapter 149

               Mary felt a strange combination of emotions as Mr. Transport vanished from her side, leaving her alone in the clearing of her woods. She was both relieved, and a bit unsettled. The relief came, no doubt, from finally being back in her sanctuary of solitude, able to be alone with no thoughts but her own. Despite being able to control her abilities, necessity still demanded she keep her telepathic channels open most of the time, resulting in a constant hum of background thoughts. Here, at last, she could be completely alone for the first time since the previous winter. Much as she loved Alice, this was always meant to be a single-person abode.

                The fact that she was unsettled bothered her though. This was her retreat, the place where she should feel most at home. Instead, it felt a bit creepy and strange. For nearly a decade this had been her shelter from the world, and only now was she beginning to realize how cut off that truly left her. True, there was nothing in this forest, beast or man, that she had to fear, yet all the same she felt less comfortable than expected.

                Mary went into her trailer and started up the heat, but in her mind she was already planning when to go down and visit her parents. Perhaps this year would be more than a few quick words to the family and a hasty bite of turkey. Rough as things had been during her childhood, maybe it was time to come out of the woods for something besides Lander. She had, at best, a year and half left there, and if she didn’t start pushing herself into the bigger world now it would all too easy to retreat back into this isolated clearing in the woods.

                The generator kicked on, and Mary pulled out the special extra-powerful satellite phone she kept for calling out from the forest. With a few quick presses of a button, she dialed her parent’s number.

*             *             *

                “You’re really not going to tell us what happened?” Eliza said, not for the first, second, or even fifteenth time during the drive from Lander to Vegas. It would, thankfully, be the last for now, as Jerome eased the car into a parking spot outside Ms. Pips’ casino. The trip was finally over.

                “Nope,” Nick said. “The situation has been handled, and I’m going to make sure it never happens again. That’s all you need to know. Everything else gets told to Ms. Pips, and she can decide how the information gets disseminated.”

                Eliza narrowed her eyes in a hateful glare, but said nothing. Deciding to let the head of the Family decide how to handle sensitive information wasn’t exactly the sort of judgment call she could take a stand against. The young woman might have a sharp tongue and quick temper, but she knew her place in the organization. Nick often wondered just how Ms. Pips had corralled a personality like hers so effectively, unlike Jerome she’d joined when she was sixteen. Knowing Ms. Pips, it was either bribery, blackmail, or sanctuary. Those were her favorite recruiting methods for young criminals with potential.

                Nick exited the vehicle, pausing only to take a suitcase from the trunk, and headed toward the casino. He’d been tempted to have Jerome act as his porter, but the stoic man had been the least annoying part of his journey home so there was no point in being spiteful. Besides, with the semester he still had coming up there was a good chance he might need those two. Unlike Nicholas, Nick saw them as potential tools to be used rather than shackles Ms. Pips had placed around his ankles. Especially now that he knew about Eliza’s relationship with Vince.

                As Nick strolled through the casino floor, he spotted Gerry waiting for him by the elevators. The bald man gave him a warm smile as Nick drew near, and reached for the suitcase in his hand. Nick pulled it away as he hit the pressed the button to go up.

                “Don’t even think about it. I might be off you-know-what training, but I’m still a lot stronger than you.”

                “Please, it’ll be a cold day in hell before you’ve got my kind of power or skill,” Gerry shot back. Despite his words, Nick noticed that his mentor looked a bit more worn than usual. His normally ageless face had bags under his eyes, and his skin seemed pale, even for a man who worked indoors most of the time.

                The elevator dinged and the two men stepped inside. Nick pressed the button to the private floor and they began to rise.

                “Have a good time at school?”

                “An interesting time, I’ll say that much. Made some good headway on rekindling my friendship with the old classmates.”

                “So Eliza and Jerome reported,” Gerry said. “Nathaniel give you any trouble?”

                “He took us by surprise once, but one of my assets was on hand to immediately return the favor. When he comes at me again, I suspect he’ll show far more discretion and planning. Should be pretty fun.”

                “I worry about your idea of fun.”

                “You don’t need to worry about me Gerry.” Nick’s voice grew lower for the span of just one word. “Really.”

                “Maybe I don’t need to, but it’s still my prerogative.”

                “Fair enough. While you’re worrying though, I need you to do two things for me.”

                “What’s that?”

                “First, I need you to burn the files I kept in the basement. All of them, scorched earth.”

                “Too late. I checked on them this morning and every one of them is destroyed. Hidden backups too, even the ones you didn’t know about. We’ve overhauling our security system to make sure whoever got in doesn’t pull a repeat performance.”

                “I thought that might happen,” Nick sighed. “That school really does have an excellent set of procedures in place. Still, at least they saved us some trouble.”

                “So what’s the other thing you need?” Gerry asked. The elevator dinged and the doors slid open, revealing the lush hallway.

                Nick stuck his suitcase out to hold the doors, then turned back to Gerry. “I could use some sunglasses. Nice ones, the sort that would be comfortable if I wore them all day every day.”

                Gerry arched a carefully sculpted eyebrow in motion so fluid it seemed to happen instantly. “Sunglasses huh? Going to wear them around the casino?”

                “No, but Lander’s in California. Lots of sunshine. Might just need to get back in the habit.”

                “Gotcha. I’ll have a nice pair ready by the time you head back.”

                “Thanks, Gerry.”

                Nick removed his suitcase and the elevator doors slid shut, leaving Gerry alone in the elevator. He didn’t say a word, he couldn’t risk it. Even in the elevator there were cameras and listening devices everywhere. Gerry did smile though, a grin born of relief from a fear he’d been carrying ever since Nicholas came back at the end of the last year.

                It looked like his boy might be okay after all.