Chapter 86

                  Nicholas had barely made it five minutes past the door when a short figure in a bright-red hood sidled up to him. The amber eyes peering out from under the crimson hood studied him carefully, then turned their scrutinizing gaze on his two companions. Only after the silent test was concluded did the young woman speak.

                “A pleasure to make your acquaintance. My name is Mary, an old friend of Nicholas’s. And you are?”

                Jerome acted first; formality was one of the many lessons that had been drilled into him for his role in the Family. He might not understand why this telepath was pretending not to know who they were, but it didn’t matter. His job was not the question why, it was only to follow orders. Nicholas told them to play nice, that was all that mattered.

                “Jerome,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the ever-present din of bass coming from the dance floor. The area was still under-filled enough to where they could stand without being jostled, but the growing line outside the doors suggested that wouldn’t be the case for much longer.

                “I’m Eliza,” Eliza announced, taking a step forward. If she’d hoped to assert some subliminal form of dominance with her height, she had chosen the wrong opponent.

                “So glad you all could make it. I’d love to chat and get to know you better later, but I think I’d like to speak with Nicholas first. Why don’t you grab some drinks?” Mary’s voice couldn’t have been sweeter or more polite.

                It also couldn’t have been clearer that she wasn’t making a request.

                With a small nod from Nicholas, the others took their cue and headed to the bar, leaving him alone with his former dormmate. The duo shuffled slightly out of the way, leaning against a wall between a pair of unattended tables. This kept them out of line of sight for the reserved seating area, the dance floor, and a large portion of the bar.

                “Well, any chance you were followed?” Mary asked.

                “Not that I can tell. Nathaniel is good, but with my full attention he shouldn’t be able to sneak up on me again. That said, my ego has recently been humbled, so I would appreciate it if you kept a mental ear open for him.”

                “Already intended to,” she said. “But if he tries anything here, he’ll be in for one hell of a surprise. Half of our junior class is in attendance, and plenty of them can do serious damage even without using abilities.”

                “I highly doubt Nathaniel will make a move tonight. His last loss is too recent; Nathaniel is the sort to lie in wait and lick his wounds. Besides, a place this size presents too many uncontrollable factors. It makes for a poor environment to plan an ambush in.”

                “Let’s hope he sees it that way too. I’d like to have one Halloween that doesn’t end in violence.” Mary shifted her position slightly, running her hands along the edge of her cloak. “So, are you ready to meet some old friends?”

                “Don’t you mean go to my audition? Have no fear; I will make them all feel quite at ease with my presence here. How are we going to do this?”

                “I’m going up to our section,” Mary said. “Once there, I’m going to tell them about you being here, and that your memories are still fogged. At that point, anyone who wants to leave the section and meet you will come with me. Those who don’t feel like reconnecting with an ex-program member will stay put, and you’ll respect that. If everyone comes, then you and your people can join us in our section. If not, you and yours hang out in the main part of the club. I’ll listen to everyone’s thoughts as the night goes on. If I think you can exist among us without causing serious problems or emotional turmoil, then the next steps will be yours.”

                “A shockingly unfair arrangement, but given the amount of leverage you possess I have no choice but to agree. What of Jerome and Eliza?”

                “They stay with you,” Mary replied. “If they’re part of your world, then the people reconnecting with you need to know that. All cards on the table.”

                “Funny, as I recall you were never much of a card player.”

                “Nicholas, you don’t recall anything. You just read that in a file.” With that, Mary walked away, red cloak bobbing amidst the sea of bodies as she made her way back to her friends.

                “Well, I wouldn’t say I don’t recall anything,” Nicholas muttered under his breath as he watched her go. The memory of their fight in his mind, when she discovered his deepest secret in that subliminal church funeral, was crisp as the pain of a fresh wound. He knew Mary was more resourceful, surprising, and determined than her amiable facade might indicate. That, above all else, was why he was playing along with her game.

                Thanks to the recovered memory, Nicholas understood just how unstoppable Mary could be, when motivated.

*              *              *

                “Hey Vince, do you want to go dance?”

                Vince glanced up from his discussion to find Camille standing beside him, hands purposely stuck to her hips as she awaited an answer. It was bluster, pure and obvious, but it was still quite striking. She was beautiful, in her own way. The longer Vince knew her, the more enthralling she seemed to become.

                “Are you sure you want me? I’m not exactly the picture of grace.”

                “And I’m hell in heels? I just feel like moving around a bit and checking out all the other costumes. Plus I’m trying to work on getting outside my comfort zone, which dancing definitely is. Come help a friend out.”

                “Alright, but if I accidentally break one of your toes, don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Vince replied, rising from his chair.

                “Maybe it’s time we all started thinking about getting some dance partners,” Alex said. He glanced about the section to see who was remaining.

                “Why not try our luck with someone not in direct competition with us?” Will suggested. “There seem to be plenty of beautiful women who we won’t have to fistfight sometime in the near future.”

                “The man makes a good point,” Alex said. He and Will stood up as well, though Alex paused to smooth out the various facets of his coat. “You two should probably go ahead. Will and I need to formulate a game plan. We can’t go out there without having proper wingman duties assigned.”

                “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and I’m probably better off not knowing,” Vince said, chuckling softly to himself. “Come on, Camille; let’s go try not to wound each other.”

                “You ask for the impossible.” The two headed down the stairs and toward the dance floor. Alex watched them go, following the red and yellow striped hat carefully as it navigated through the growing crowd.

                “So, what are these duties you need performed?” Will asked.

                “We’ll get to that later. The real reason I had us hang back is because Mary’s on her way up, and we don’t want to miss what she’s going to say,” Alex explained.

                “Shouldn’t you have stopped Vince?”

                “No way,” Alex replied, permitting himself a sly grin. “He and Camille finally going off and doing something as intimate as dancing together is… well not more important overall, but more pressing. Mary’s announcement will be here when he gets back. For now, let’s cross our fingers those two finally make some damn headway.”