Chapter 40

                West Texas was about what Nick had expected: empty, save only for dust and shrubbery. The pump jacks were a bit of a surprise, though they shouldn’t have been. They dotted the landscape like giant metal versions of the novelty birds that tipped up and down in a seemingly endless loop. Nick’s trip from California had left him slightly irritable, made all the less enjoyable by the fact that his destination was a five hour drive from the nearest airport. True, he could have called in a teleporter, Mr. Transport would have happily helped with this task, but at the moment Nick wanted to keep the circle of knowledge confined. That was why he’d chosen to travel on the day when the others had their exams. It was one of the few times he could slip away without being missed. Everyone’s eyes, both friend and foe, were on whatever battle was happening in the depths of Lander.

                He pulled the car, rented under a false identity that tied back to neither Nick nor any of his people in Vegas, into the parking lot of a squat brick building. This wasn’t the first time he’d had to make a trip out, though his summer vanishings could be blamed on Vegas business, so he was careful not to get his hopes up. This was going to be a very long process, and if he succeeded then it would take going through a lot of failures to get there. Still, he had to make the time to do the visits, because that was how he took those careful steps closer to success.

                Killing the engine, Nick walked out into the blistering late-August heat. For most, it was daunting, but for a boy who’d grown up in the desert it actually felt a bit homey. Adopting a quick, certain gait, he made his way up the walk and into Careful Gardens, the only long term treatment facility in Cadsville, Texas or neighboring counties in fifty miles any direction.

                A nurse with marked laugh lines took gauge of him as soon as he walked in the door. Visitors to these sorts of places probably weren’t common, at least not as common as they should be, so anyone who stepped through was an anomaly that would stick out in the staff’s minds. Much as he’d have liked to avoid direct engagement, it was precisely because of this that he couldn’t delegate the task. Nick had to handle these interactions personally if he wanted to ensure they were done right.

                “Afternoon, ma’am.” Nick didn’t try to hide his youth, that would have only made it all the more conspicuous. Rather, he acknowledged the difference in their ages off the cuff, putting the onus on her to bring it up. The role he’d chosen wasn’t too far out of reach for someone who was clearly in late college or a recent grad. A little hard work and a direct career path might have brought him there, only a few years ahead of his peers. “My name is Calvin Carter; I’m here on behalf of Golden Grove Insurance.”

                From the suit jacket wrapped around his shoulders, Nick produced identification that matched Calvin’s name, and that of the one registered to the car outside. Calvin Carter was one of the several fake people he’d set up years ago, going so far as to give them credit histories and past residences. Some he used for work, others he never touched lest they become compromised. One never knew when the need to completely disappear might arise.

                “Golden Grove?” She took the credentials and looked them up and down carefully, as though she had the skill to spot a fake. Maybe she did, Nick wasn’t acquainted with her background, but were that the case then she still wouldn’t find anything off about these. Even if she called the actual company, his name would check out. Granted, enough digging would discern that he had no paychecks or supervisor, the hacker Nick had paid to put him in the system did have limits, but that wasn’t the sort of thing to happen on a mere phone call. “We don’t see many of your agents around here.”

                “Well, we’re a small company, and we only have a few clients in the facility,” Nick said. “But there’s been a little heat from some recent scandals lately, so the company is doubling down on checking in on their unresponsive clients. They’re so desperate for people; they’re even hiring us right out of college.” Nick smiled, and the woman seemed to relax a bit. He’d offered an explanation without calling her out on doubting his age. And the scandal was real enough, at least the one he’d reference if she asked. It was a big world, there was always some sort of scandal one could twist to fill a need.

                “I guess that’s fine, but Careful Meadows is a top notch facility,” the nurse informed him. “We’ve never had any instances of neglect or mistreatment.”

                “And I am relieved to hear that,” Nick replied. “The last thing I want is to actually have to report that sort of thing. The paperwork is a nightmare. But our company promises oversight of client care when the families buy coverage, so we do have to check in on occasion. Even at the top notch places.”

                The nurse nodded and sat down at her computer, clacking away, probably bringing up the patients that Golden Grove represented. Nick pulled an official list from his coat pocket that would match her records, one more step to establish authenticity. There were only four people in this facility under the insurer’s representation, and Nick would have to look in on all of them to keep up appearances. Plus, if these people were doing a shit job Nick would probably send a real report up stream, though that wasn’t his primary objective.

                No, he was here for one patient, the lone person in the state who’d jumped out at him from the thousands upon thousands of records he’d been perusing. Honestly, Nick wasn’t even entirely sure what he was looking for. There was so little to go on, he might stare directly at his objective and never even realize it. This was better than just records, though. Here, he could get a sense of things, trust his instincts.

                “Everything checks out,” the nurse announced. “Let me get someone to accompany you. Policy, you know.”

                “I’m well acquainted with it.” Nick’s pulse picked up, just the barest of a touch. Was he nervous? No, that was idiotic. Perhaps excited then, though technically he had no reason to be. This was going to be one of countless dead ends, he was just getting it out of the way. Yet, as he waited for another nurse to lead him down the hall, there was no denying that something in him seemed eager to get moving again.

                Perhaps it was a hunch, some collection of instincts whispering with knowledge his conscious mind had missed. That was unlikely though, Nick’s observational skills were highly trained, he generally knew where his hunches came from. This didn’t feel like one of those anyway. It was different, more ineffable.

                A new theory wiggled its way into Nick’s mind, seemingly appearing from thin air. In reality it was a bubble that rose from his memory of last May, when his power had been dialed up to an impossible level. This felt just the tiniest amount like he had then, a feeling of certainty, of knowing where all the pieces would fall. But he wasn’t using his power, even if he wanted to the only sunglasses he’d brought were sitting in the rental car, so it didn’t make sense.

                Unless… was it possible that he was feeling luck’s presence? Nick’s very power proved that luck was more than an intangible concept, at least for him. Maybe being in ultra-mode had heightened his awareness of it. It would be a strange side-effect, but no odder than his power was in the first place.

                The sounds of shoes echoed down the hallway, and the feeling grew stronger. Something was happening, that much was undeniable, and if he really was sensing the presence of luck then there was one very important question he needed to answer quickly.

                Was it good, or ill, fortune that was gathering around him?