Chapter 27

                It was always strange to Nick that in every movie about criminals or the mafia, whoever was in charge tended to gloss over one of the most important aspects for anyone who sought to work outside the law: research. Whether it was digging up information about cops, scouring financial records to make sure no one in the chain was skimming off the top, or just figuring out which people around town might be susceptible to a well-placed bribe, Nick would wager the average wise-guy had combed through as many documents as a PHD candidate before they hit thirty. Sure, these jobs could be outsourced if possible, but for the truly self-reliant it was a skill they had to master, and the sooner the better.

                As many papers and stolen records as Nick had scoured in his years in Vegas, none of them held a candle to the task before him. He’d dedicated part of his back room to just housing the documents, going through them as fast as Eliza and Jerome could bring them in. While he was still technically enrolled at Lander, given that he had three years under his belt there was no reason not to complete the degree, this by far accounted for most of his daily homework. He’d been at it for months, getting things set up before heading to summer training and doing the work digitally when he could sneak off. That always felt slower though, so now that he could put the pages between his fingers Nick felt like he was making progress.

                Well… he was moving faster, anyway. Progress implied actually getting nearer to a goal, and in that regard he was still coming up empty handed. That was the nature of this beast, though. There wouldn’t be any lead-up or small clues to follow. He’d just have to dig until he found what he was looking for, or concluded it to be a dead end. For everyone’s sake, but especially Alice’s, Nick was working tirelessly to make sure it wasn’t the latter.

                “Yo! We got a fresh delivery here.” Eliza’s voice rang through the apartment, followed by the heavy thumps of movement as she and Jerome hauled in three boxes each.

                He motioned to the momentarily clear corner of his bedroom. “Where are these from?”

                “Oregon,” Jerome replied. “Every city and county hospital, plus the hospices, just to be safe.” He set down his load easily, then relieved Eliza of hers and stacked them on top.

                “Oregon, huh? Well, I suppose anything is possible. You can clear out Louisiana, by the way. I finished it this morning.” Nick pointed to more boxes near his bed, these not stacked quite so neatly.

                “Damn, I had my fingers crossed for daiquiris and crawfish,” Eliza said. “Guessing you didn’t find it yet?”

                “If I had, would I still have you both getting me more documents?” Nick asked.

                “Absolutely, that is a thousand percent the kind of dick move you’d pull on us, just because you thought it was funny.” Eliza tilted her head forward, daring Nick to try and counter the accusation. After a moment, a small smile appeared on his face.

                “Okay, I suppose you’ve got me there,” Nick admitted. “But no, I’m still coming up dry. It’s probably going to be that way for quite a while.”

                “Unless you get lucky.” Jerome’s words, while seemingly innocent, hung heavy in the air. It was the thing he and Eliza had both been wondering since Nick gave them their assignment, the burning question that was going to be asked inevitably. The only surprising part was that Jerome was the one who had broached it, rather than the flippant Eliza.

                “That is a possibility,” Nick said, lowering the document currently clutched in his nimble fingers. “But one I’d prefer to save for use only if it’s absolutely necessary.”

                “Why? I mean, sure, old Nicholas I would have understood, but we’re up to speed now. We know you can control your power,” Eliza pointed out. “What’s to stop you from using it, finding our target, and wrapping this whole thing up neatly?”

                “As I said, if it comes to that, I’ll try, but this is a very complicated situation.” Nick spread his arms out, showing the small fraction of overall files facing them that occupied half his bedroom. “This isn’t dice on a table, and I can’t choose the outcome I want. Good luck might turn out to be never finding what I’m looking for, because it would cause more trouble down the road. And that’s just one of the more predictable potential outcomes. Yes, if we have no other options then I’ll turn to Lady Luck, but she is a finicky and unpredictable bitch, so until it’s absolutely necessary I’d rather handle this the old-fashioned way.”

                “Where to next?” Jerome ignored the awkward silence that tried to settle in as Nick finished speaking, defaulting to being a good soldier and getting his orders. Aside from keeping things moving, he’d found that in a place where authority was as important as it was with the family, reminding everyone that there was protocol in place could diffuse a lot of situations. Jerome didn’t avoid speaking so frequently because he had little to say, but rather because he had learned the value in constantly listening.

                “I’ve been avoiding it for a while since the state is so damn big, but with everyone gearing up for an exam this is the perfect time to take on Texas,” Nick said, after only a second of hesitation. “I’ll have most of the week free while they train and worry, so hopefully I can get through all of it.”

                “Texas?” Eliza said. “Come on, can we please get a bigger car for this one? It’s going to take forever to go all over that place, and you know Jerome’s legs don’t fit well in the economic models.”

                “Fine, you can rent something mid-size,” Nick conceded. Having made the drive from Lander to Vegas in a bug more than once, he had some sympathy in his heart for small cars and smashed legs. “But no sight-seeing. If we’re paying more for gas, you need to stay on task.”

                “Somehow, I think we’ll manage to resist the temptation of seeing the world’s largest tamale or whatever they’ve got,” Eliza assured him.

                “Good, then go get packed. I expect my documents as soon as possible.” Nick turned back to his current stack, ignoring Eliza and Jerome as they left the room. He needed to finish up with Washington, and get a jump on Oregon before they returned, so that he’d be ready to start on Texas. There were so many records though, and so many places his target could be hiding.

                But he would keep on digging, because pulling this needle out of a haystack was something only he could do. The HCP was behind him, he couldn’t protect his friends in there anymore. So this was the least that he owed them.