The eyes of a seasoned casino worker were hard to read. Those who mastered the job were experts in the art of appearing friendly yet professional, worldly yet relatable, keen eyed yet not staring. They created an artifice of someone who had seen and lived it all, but wanted to talk to a tourist about their cats while they lost another hand of blackjack. Still, as someone who had grown up in this industry, Nick had the training to look past such false smiles and hollow words. That was why he knew something was wrong as soon as he stepped into the casino.
Sadness throbbed under the surface, an unseen river carting away the happiness of nearly every employee he glanced at. Some hid it better than others, but the overall tone was unmistakable. Unless Nevada was about to outlaw gambling, there were very few things that could impact so many of their people at once. Suspicious though he already was, the moment Nick rounded a corner that led to the elevators he finally understood how serious the situation was.
Ms. Pips was standing there, flanked by employees as she fired off directives at a ceaseless pace, waiting for him. As soon as her eyes fell upon Nick, she said something to the people around her. Nick was too far off to hear it, but they scattered like roaches caught in the light the moment her lips stopped moving. All he could do was keep walking, ignoring the loud beeps and sounds of clattering coins that filled his ears, noises that were trying to conjure a sense of familiar homecoming. There was no room in his heart for such pleasantries, though. Not with the terror of what was to come choking out every other emotion.
“Ms. Pips,” Nick said as he arrived at the elevators.
“Nicholas.” She reached over, pressed a button, and seconds later a nearby set of doors slid open. Together, they stepped inside and she waved a small card in front of the scanner before hitting a button for the upper floors. They stood near each other in silence as the doors slowly came back together and sealed themselves shut.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on, or is this something I’m supposed to puzzle out for myself?” Nick barely recognized his own voice, it was so tense it sounded strange in his ears.
“No. No tests, no hoops to jump through, none of that. It wouldn’t be proper. Not for this. But it sounds like you don’t need me to spell it out. I think you already know what’s happening.” Ms. Pips sounded different too, Nick realized. Less detached than normal, and perhaps with the smallest bit of weariness in her voice. She must have been running herself ragged if the exhaustion was managing to break through her usual stoicism.
Nick took a deep breath to brace himself. It would be okay. Information wasn’t something to be feared, it was an asset, always and forever. No matter how bad things might be, once he knew the score he could start fixing them. “Tell me anyway. Like you know you should have told me before.”
“Hold on there; let’s get one thing straight at the outset: I wanted to tell you from the start. Gerry was the one who insisted on keeping you in the dark. He even managed to get a promise out of me. I know you’re going to want to lash out, but find a better target.” It was Ms. Pips turn to take a long breath, and when she spoke again her voice was softer. Nick hadn’t heard her use the tone since he was a child, and even then it had been a rare occasion.
“Nicholas, Gerry is sick. Cancer. Had it for a while now. We’ve been getting him the best treatment we can, but even most Supers with healing powers can only repair the damage, not cure the disease. And in the last year, it’s been getting worse. You must have noticed how he was dropping weight the last few times you were here. Then, a few months ago, Gerry came into my office and told me he was done with the treatments. Nothing was taking, and even the healing sessions weren’t making as much of a difference… he’ll tell you about it, I’m sure. The point is, he’s doing poorly.”
Though his right hand was clenched in a fist so tight his fingers were turning white, Nick kept his voice even. “Why am I just now hearing about this? Why wasn’t I told the minute he took a turn? Why has Eliza been moping around my apartment for months, obviously coping with this news, and I was kept in the dark?”
“Because Gerry knew you’d come running here to be with him, and he didn’t want that.” Ms. Pips lifted her arm slowly, reaching over, and for a second Nick genuinely had no idea what she was about to do. Then her hand fell lightly on his shoulder, and he realized she was trying to comfort him, despite clearly being unfamiliar with the tactic. “I know this is a strange concept for people in our world, but Gerry has always wanted what’s best for you, Nicholas. Even when that meant we disagreed on what path to put you on, I’ve never for a moment doubted that man’s dedication to you. So when he saw you building a life for yourself out in California, away from us and the future you’d have here, the last thing he wanted was to yank you away from it. You’re obviously pissed off and distraught, not that I blame you for either, but I want you to keep in mind that he asked us to keep quiet because he thought it was best for you.”
A loud ding filled the air, and the door opened to reveal a carpeted hallway. Nick and Ms. Pips both stepped out, letting the elevator begin its downward trek behind them. “Where is he?” Nick asked.
“In his room.” Ms. Pips pointed down the hall, even though they were both fully aware that Nick knew where Gerry lived. “He wanted to be at home, to be comfortable, so we had equipment brought in. I’ve had to threaten the other employees within an inch of their lives to keep them away from him, he keeps trying to pitch in and work despite… well, everything. He’s expecting you, though. Told him you were coming home for Winter Break. I think he held on… never mind. Just go see him.”
Nick started down the hallway without so much as a word of goodbye. There was no space for pleasantries in his mind, a brain that was already whirring with plans and schemes that grew more complex with every step he took along the dark carpet. Maybe Gerry and Ms. Pips were resigned to this fate, maybe they felt they’d exercised every option and come up empty, but Nick was not yet willing to lie down and accept the death of his mentor as inevitable. No, he’d seen too much in his time at Lander, gained too great an appreciation for how deep the well of power among Supers truly ran. Nothing was impossible. Somewhere there was someone who had exactly what they needed.
And as soon as Nick made Gerry understand that, they could start the process of saving his life.
Hey Patreon people. Drew here giving you a heads up that the Q3 Sneak Peek has gone up, and it's the first two full chapters of SS&S #3: Going Rogue. Enjoy!