Chapter 156

               The start was spring semester was still two days away as Nick Campbell piloted his new SUV into the parking lot only a few blocks from Lander’s campus. Jerome and Eliza were taking the same car they’d left in, but Nick had opted to head back solo. This was both because he wanted some time alone with his thoughts, and due to the fact that someone had to bring his new ride down. He’d been a bit tempted, however fleetingly, to pull the Bug out of storage, but had ultimately decided against it. Best to start off a new semester with a new set of wheels, ones Nathaniel wouldn’t immediately know belonged to him. Admittedly, it wouldn’t be much a gap before his rival learned of the car switch, but it would be a window all the same. Besides, Nick could fit the rest of his friends in a vehicle this size, and that would make their inevitable commutes much easier.

                Slamming down the rear door, Nick pulled out his two suitcases and headed up the stairs. Security people working for an associate of Ms. Pips should have finished their sweep of the apartment no less than half an hour before his arrival and Nathaniel was confirmed to be still in Las Vegas. If there was ever a time to return safely, this was it. True, he probably shouldn’t have sped off, ditching Eliza and Jerome, but Nick just hadn’t been able to help himself. He’d only knifed two of their tires, after all, so they shouldn’t be too far behind him. Nick just wanted a bit of time to be alone in his apartment before the pestering reignited.

                Unfortunately, as he swung open the front door, Nick realized his desire for solitude was destined to go unfulfilled. Prof-… Sean Pendleton was sitting on the couch, having helped himself to a beer, and watching television.

                “You didn’t strike me as the football type,” Nick said, dropping the suitcases by the door.

                “Because I’m lean and lanky? Give me a little credit, I can still appreciate the athleticism.”

                “I was actually referring to your love of romance novels,” Nick explained. He shut the door and re-locked it. From what he could tell, Sean hadn’t used any sort of forced entry to break in. As one of the few people on Lander’s campus who knew his former teacher’s power, this didn’t surprise Nick in the slightest.

                “A man can love fine writing and bone-crushing sports. We’re multi-layered creatures like that. Mind grabbing me a fresh beer?”

                Nick obliged the request; the beers were for company in the first place. While in the kitchen he mixed himself a gin and soda as well, bringing both into the living room. He set down his former teacher’s beer in front of him, then took a seat in a nearby recliner.

                “Are you going to make me guess why you broke in?”

                “Sort of sad that there are so many options, aren’t there?” Sean said, grabbing his cold beverage. “Could be about the homework I gave you, could be to see how you dealt with that guy who was following you last semester, yes we knew about that, or it could be to do with that card you left me just before your mind got wiped.” Sean took a long sip of the freshly opened beer. “Why don’t we make sure your skills are still sharp: try and deduce which it is.”

                “Fine.” Nick leaned back in the recliner, adopting a position that made him appear far more relaxed than he actually was. “Given the nature of the homework, you’ll likely want Blaine here when we discuss it.”

                “That’s Dean Blaine.”

                “In that case you can call me King Nick, since we’re adopting superfluous titles.”

                “Except he actually is a dean.”

                “But not my dean, which makes the distinction irrelevant.”

                “Humor me.”

                Nick rolled his eyes, but decided not to dwell on an issue of etiquette for longer than he had to. “My point still stands, if it were the homework you’d want Dean Blaine here, likely as well as Professors Stone and Fletcher.”

                “We never told you Fletcher was part of our circle.”

                “Please, he was brought on at the same time as you, after George and Persephone’s betrayal. Add in his close association with Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport, and it becomes clear he was brought on board for the express purpose of being someone to trust. May I continue now?”

                Sean gave a small nod and took another sip of his beer.

                “If you were aware of the matter of the man who was stalking us, then you also know it was never really us he was interested in. I’m not quite sure how much you know about his employer, but even based solely on the subject of his investigations I can conclude you wouldn’t want to have that talk in a place like this. Especially without Dean Blaine to offer some assurances of privacy.”

                “We know about the employer,” Sean replied. “Which should tell you that you’re spot on about this neither being the time or place to discuss it.”

                “That would seem to leave us only with the third option, but there’s a problem with that.” Nick set his glass down carefully, turning so his eyes met the professor’s. “In the semester I was… indisposed, there is no way you didn’t do some investigating on your own. By now you should have learned about Alice’s incident at Halloween, and about the facilitator who broached Vince’s subconscious. Even if Mr. Numbers and Transport didn’t fill you in, I’m sure Professor Stone rummaged all around through our minds while were dealing with the ice-tomb. So, by now you already know how I figured out your sister was alive. There’s not much more on that front to convey.”

                Nick picked his drink back up and pressed to his lips that were already smiling. “Thus, I must conclude that it is none of the options you presented. Those were given to throw me off, to lead me to the belief that it must have been one of them, which was a fallacy. No, having ruled out each of those, I am left with only one conclusion at the reason for your presence: you wanted someone to watch the football game with, and no one else is back from break yet.”

                “Some of them are around, just busy. Plus you have beer,” Sean said.

                “So I do. When Eliza arrives, I’ll have her stock the fridge.”

                “I always knew you were smarter than most kids your age.” Sean finished the beer and set it down, his long face growing suddenly serious. “But you know that soon, very soon, we will have to talk about all that other stuff. And it’s going to lead to places, and actions, that are likely to be very unpleasant.”

                “The terms of my service were made exceedingly clear,” Nick replied.

                “I’m just saying, when you know there’s a lot of darkness on the horizon, try to enjoy the good days. Drinking beers, watching the game, relaxing; that stuff. The chances for it slip away faster than you can imagine.”

                Nick stared at the older man for some while. In a way, they were much the same: men who were no longer part of the Hero world, yet were still bound to its service. Amidst the sentinels of justice and decency, they were the ones whose hands were already dirty, and could bear the weight of a little more filth when the time came. The others might love them, trust them, and respect them, but they would never understand them. Those who lived in the light could never truly know what it was to dwell in the shadows.

                “Is this your way of asking me for another beer?”

                “Well if you’re offering, I won’t say no.”

                Nick got up from his chair, snagging his own glass in the process. His teacher was right: better to enjoy the good days when they came. There were always horrid ones lurking around the corner.