Chapter 101

                Eliza stepped through the front door to find Nick’s living room empty, unless one counted the three white banker boxes full of files sitting near the couch. She had no idea what was inside those, as neither she nor Jerome had been tasked with bringing them in. That was generally a dead give-away that the contents were highly sensitive and related to the HCP. Though that wasn’t always true, once or twice Nick had put out similarly tempting piles of documents that turned out to be nothing but printed out copies of Sherlock Holmes books. Nick liked to stay unpredictable, even to those around him. Maybe especially to those around him, the more Eliza thought about it.

                “Back here,” Nick called from his bedroom.

                Ignoring the boxes, for now, Eliza followed his voice to where Nick was sitting at his desk, three more boxes stacked nearby and the glow of a computer monitor casting a soft light on his face.

                “Anything to report?” He glanced away from the monitor, futilely attempting to rub some of the bloodshot from his eyes.

                “Nothing out of the ordinary. We’ve seen a few people keeping tabs on us, all by the book so presumably they’re DVA agents,” Eliza told him. “Careful little bastards, always staying on public property and keeping their observation just on the right side of stalking. If we documented enough of them, we might be able to make a fuss.”

                “Don’t bother; we’re not the ones they’re interested in. And, much as I would love to start a court case just to inconvenience Ralph Chapman, I believe we’ve reached an uneasy truce for the moment. Neither of us is making overt moves against the other, or my friends, and I won’t be the one to break that,” Nick said.

                “And if he decided to?” At no point had Eliza ever doubted that Nick had a plan. That was not the way of their family, not the reputation Ms. Pips had earned and ingrained in her nephew. No, there were always contingencies, and they were as brutal as they had to be. Eliza knew Nick had something up his sleeve, the only question was whether or not he’d share it with her. Part of her was hoping he would, solely because it meant it wasn’t that bad of a plan. The closer he kept things to the vest, the more collateral damage there would be when the smoke cleared.

                “If Chapman decides to go to war with me, then I will meet his desire with perfectly justified attempts to defend myself and my people.” Nick let it end there, and Eliza made a mental note to be sure they were paid up with every politician and beat cop who could fudge evidence, just in case.

                “Got it. Jerome and I will do another sweep. Might not hurt if you left the house, you know. At this rate they’re going to think you skipped town,” Eliza said.

                Nick patted the boxes at his side. “Let them think what they want, I’ve got work to do. You know how it is, five minutes of wonder and apparent magic are built on the back of countless hours of research. And this will be a doozy, I may even have to stay here over Winter Break to keep working.”

                Eliza was just about to leave, so close to freedom, when his words stopped her dead. She hung there for a moment, split by indecision, duty and obligation, before turning away. If she faced him, Nick would see everything.

                “Go home for Winter Break, Nick. No matter how full your plate is, bring your work if you need to. But you should go home.”

                “It’s tempting, I do miss the food, but Gerry’s always got his hands full with travelers and something tells me Alice would be more than a bit miffed if I picked up my old habits with the waitresses and show girls. Not much there for me.” He was testing her, trying to tease out the information. Nick knew she didn’t speak without reason, so he wanted her to tell him why he should go home.

                “Maybe all that’s true, but you should still go. You’ll regret it if you stay here. If you trust me at all, if our years working together mean anything, take me at my word on that, because it’s all I can give you.”

                She made it out the front door without him stopping her, which was victory in itself. Too much, she’d said too much, and there might be hell to pay for it down the line. Still, she wouldn’t take back the words, even if she could. Nick deserved to be there.

                No matter how hard it would be.

*             *             *

                “The trouble with using high-quality personnel is that they are frequently in demand.” Dean Blaine ran a pen down the calendar in his personal planner, he’d never trust anything this important to digital records, and circled a day in early January. “Galina is booked until after the year changes, just a few days before the new semester starts. That may be to our advantage, however, as it means DVA staff will be thin with no students to watch over. Perhaps we could organize an informal gathering of Nick, Mary, and Alice in one of their homes. There’s enough friendship and romance between the trio to justify such an outing.”

                “I’ll talk to Nick,” Professor Pendleton offered. “Something tells me he’s got secure facilities in Vegas. Honestly, I wouldn’t be that shocked if they had a bunker that put Lander’s underground to shame.”

                “Mary’s forest might also be a good spot,” Professor Stone said. “With no one else around for miles, anyone stepping into her range would stand out like a beacon.”

                Professor Fletcher tilted his head slightly to the side, a gesture the others had learned to mean he was carefully considering the situation. “Despite the fact that Alice has more layers of protection than anyone, it’s probably tempting fate if we try to work right under Charles Adair’s nose.”

                “Enticing as it is, I think we’ll have to pass on that,” Dean Blaine agreed. “I’ll confirm with Galina and begin laying out the framework for a plan.”

                “While you’re reaching out to her, mind making a few other calls and seeing if we got the borrowed resources?” Professor Pendleton didn’t even bother disguising his excitement; his lanky body was leaned so far forward it cast a shadow on the cheap table in their underground bunker. “It’s been two years; I’m tired of having to sit on the sidelines whenever this comes up. Carl probably is too.”

                “I could take it or leave it,” Professor Fletcher replied.

                “First off, we are still several weeks out from the final trial of the semester,” Dean Blaine reminded him. “We still have November’s to get through.”

                “Yeah, but that’s more of the same: human looking Sims and civilians to save. The December one is where it’s at.” Professor Pendleton glanced over to Professor Stone, trying to coax out support. “Don’t sit there and try to tell me you all don’t look forward to it.”

                The older woman offered a slow, polite smile and took a sip from her coffee mug filled with tea. “It is always interesting; I’ll admit only that much.”

                “There you go, proof positive that we’re missing out,” Professor Pendleton declared. “So, any word?”

                Dean Blaine took his time answering, clearing his throat loudly and shutting his planner before finally turning to Professor Pendleton. “By all accounts, the resources will be available; meaning you and Professor Fletcher will be able to participate.”

                The whoop of joy from Professor Pendleton was out of place in the secret bunker, echoing down the dim halls and filling them with a brief flash of excitement.