Chapter 195

               As the miniature caravan of three cars pulled into the Six-Shooter parking lot, Alice ogled at the generous mass of vehicles that had already arrived. Having worked at the bar since the start of the school year, she was accustomed to seeing it slammed, but never so early in the evening. The sun had barely dipped behind the horizon and already a line of people extended out of the entrance as students waited to have their I.D.’s, some of which were undoubtedly fake, checked by the pair of beefy bouncers perched before the door. It was a testament to how desperately Lander wanted to celebrate the end of finals and the start of spring break that they were beginning the party so early. That, or Roger really had undersold his employees on just how big a draw the event was.

                Alice cut the wheel of her sedan to the right, pulling up just outside a row of filled parking spaces near the front of the club, and turned to her passengers. “I’m going through the employee entrance in the back. You all can get out here and have a shorter walk.”

                “My soon-to-be-weary legs thank you,” Mary said. She tried hard not to sound especially grumpy at the idea of a nightclub filled with loud music and drunken thoughts. Alice was attempting to step out of her comfort zone, and Mary wanted to support that. She just wished Alice would have picked an activity in a quieter place; perhaps a poetry reading at the local library.

                “Yeah, appreciate it,” Will agreed. He opened the door and undid his seat belt, sliding out into the warm spring night as Mary did the same on her side of the car.

                “I think I’ll tag along to the end,” Nick said. “I’ve never seen the back of this bar before. Might make for quite an entertaining experience.”

                “That’s one of the weirdest, lamest excuses you’ve ever come up with, and for you that’s saying a lot.” Alice kept the car idling, not shifting gears quite yet. “Don’t you want to get in line with everyone else?”

                “I trust them to wait for me,” Nick replied. “Ordinarily I’d hope they’d save a spot, but with Vince and Thomas here they’ll never allow something as sinful as cutting to slide.”

                “All the more reason to go get in line with them.”

                “Nah, I’m good.” Nick reclined his chair a few inches back, as if he were settling in for a nice pleasant nap.

                “Suit yourself, weirdo.” Alice shifted back into gear and began heading around the large building’s exterior, navigating into the employee lot at the rear. She could see one of the bouncers standing by the door, dutifully making sure no one tried to sneak in or hassled the employees, and gave a small wave which the massive man returned.

                She slipped into an open space, one of the few left as other employees had clearly shown up before their shift to make as much as possible, and killed the engine. Rather than opening her door, however, Alice pointedly clicked down the locks on her car and turned to Nick.

                “Alright, what’s going on?”

                “Well, you’re about to parade around in a semi-skimpy outfit for hundreds of ogling strangers and I’m going to drink liquor and hoot with the rest of the group as you do so. Good summation?” Nick asked.

                “Nick, you’re odd, but at this point you have to know I realize that a large extent of it is an act. You wouldn’t just come along to the back of the building with me for no reason, and since you were so persistent about it, I have to assume it’s a good one. The most logical guess is that you’re worried someone might try to attack me in a remote place like this, which would be a perfectly valid concern if I weren’t powerful enough to send you floating off into space. So you’re either pointlessly worried, or you think I’m in danger from someone stronger than me. I think we both realize you don’t do anything, not even worry, pointlessly.”

                Nick stared at her for a long moment; his own brown eyes making her feel uncomfortable as they bored into her green irises. It was strange to look Nick in the eyes after so many years of the sunglasses. He still wore them on occasion, but it had become an intermittent habit, and Alice was beginning to appreciate what he looked like when she could see all of his face. At last, Nick let out a soft chuckle and shook his head.

                “You are so damned aggravating at times. I can slip so much past you, but it seems like the lies you catch are the ones I try the hardest to keep from you.” He turned away, breaking their gaze and looking out the window. “I assume you remember Nathaniel Evers?”

                “Guy I threw in a dumpster after he ruined our… that time at the movies.”

                “Correct. My reports say he’s starting to move again, and I fear this time he’s looking at all of you as pawns in the game we’re playing. Nathaniel knows that at least some of my associates are in the HCP, thanks in no small part to the level of power you showed him. He’ll want you all off the game board before he makes a run at me.”

                “Let him try.” Alice felt a flicker of cold in her stomach, a hard stone of determination that she’d experienced when she dealt with Nathaniel and fought the Sims. Strange as it was, she didn’t hate the idea of getting another go at the orange-eyed bastard. Perhaps a small part of her was even excited by the prospect.

                “I’m well aware that you’re far stronger than Nathaniel, as is he,” Nick said, turning back toward her. “But he doesn’t have to kill any of you to take you off the board, now does he?”

                Alice’s excitement quickly turned to terror as she realized what Nick was saying. If this asshole made them use their powers in public, then a secret identity infraction was inevitable. It was an HCP rule, not even Dean Blaine would be able to protect them from that.

                “Oh shit.”

                “Relax,” Nick said quickly. “I’m making certain that no such situation ever comes to pass. Just go on about living your life as if you’d never heard this news.”

                “Yeah, that might be kind of tough,” Alice admitted.

                “I know. It’s why I tried to hide it from you in the first place,” Nick replied. “With that in mind, perhaps you wouldn’t mind keeping this from the others. Mary knows, of course, but I mean anyone else. I don’t want to worry them, since there’s nothing they can do.”

                “I’ll think about it,” Alice said. She reached over and unlocked the doors, then popped off her seatbelt and stepped out of the car. Nick followed suit, and moment later they were both standing the new night’s air.

                “One last thing.” Alice looked at Nick from over the roof of the car, her height making it easy to see him. “What’s the bet?”

                “The bet?”

                “Yeah, the bet. I’m about to go enter a damn contest back here.” Alice jerked her thumb toward the doorway with the lone bouncer in front. “What do I get if I come in first?”

                “Bar merchandise and a thousand dollars to split, as I recall.” A sly grin was spreading across Nick’s face as he took the meaning of the words. “But if you mean what would you get from me, well that depends on what you want.”

                “A date. Only this time, you’re going to be the one in charge of it. Planning, paying, all that crap. I want you to take me out in a proper fashion.” Even earlier in the year, Alice wouldn’t have been able to deliver such a demand without turning squeamish. As Nick stared at her from over a car, he couldn’t sense so much as a flicker of fear or uncertainty in her. Not for the first time, he marveled at the woman who had grown from the girl he first met.

                “It’s a deal. However, if you don’t take first, then I will plan a whole day for us composed entirely of things I enjoy and you can’t stand.”

                “I get a date and you get a day? Seems a little unbalanced,” Alice pointed out.

                “You have Angela on your team. It’s assumed I should get better odds since my wager is less likely to win,” Nick countered.

                “Guess it doesn’t really matter anyway,” Alice said. “‘Cause I’m damned sure going to win this thing. A date for a day, consider it a bet.”