Chapter 58

                As gym class came to an end, the senior students began making the familiar trek off to the showers where they’d clean up, don normal clothes, and return to the serene normality of Lander’s above-ground campus. Their route was blocked, however, as Alice floated over to the double doors and placed herself directly in front of the exit.

                “Quick announcement to make,” she told them, dealing with their curiosity before anyone could ask what the hell was going on. “This seemed faster than letting everyone know one by one. Since Halloween is coming up, we decided to throw a party. Everyone is welcome to attend. Anybody who wants details, hang around for a few minutes. Those who already have plans, sorry for the delay.”

                With that, Alice moved to the side, allowing free access to the doorway. Rich, Allen, Amber, and Britney all exchanged a brief stare between them, before Britney ultimately stepped forward to speak for her group. “We appreciate the invitation, but the four of us were going to check out Screamtopia since Amber and I haven’t gone before. Last year here and all, we even pre-bought tickets.”

                “Totally understandable, no offense taken,” Alice assured her fellow Subtlety student. Screamtopia was a good time, unless one had an unexpected journey into their own mind, and probably should be experienced at least once. She watched as the four made their way past, into the showers beyond the double doors. Alice waited patiently to see if anyone else would automatically step away, but there were no other followers. The rest of the crew was at least interested enough to hear the details.

                “It won’t be anything too fancy, just an apartment party on Halloween night, so to those hoping for another club outing: sorry to disappoint. Friends, food, drinks, and horror movies playing in one of the rooms. I think games too, for those who like that sort of thing.”

                “Drinking games?” Violet asked.

                “Have you ever played a game you couldn’t turn into a drinking game?” Thomas said.

                “The man makes a point,” Violet agreed. “Alice, please continue.”

                “Glad to. Anyway, since it’s Halloween, we do request costumes, and that’s for more than one reason.” Alice hesitated, so far everyone seemed more or less on board with the plan. This was going to be where she lost people, though. “This won’t be an HCP-only party. You’re welcome to bring friends from your regular classes if you want. Hence why we strongly encourage costumes and masks. Never hurts to put a little extra protection over the identities.”

                “Hold on a minute,” Shane interrupted. “You’re going to try and cram regular people, on top of most of our class, into just Melbrook? I’ve been inside, I’m not sure there’s enough room for that.”

                “And that leads me to the last pertinent detail.” Alice felt a bit grateful for Shane bringing up the space limitation, at least this offered her the chance to address the issue without a forced, awkward segue. “The party won’t be held at Melbrook, for the very reason that Shane just pointed out: we don’t have nearly enough room to do it well. Instead, we’re renting out the general use room at a nearby apartment complex.”

                She took a deep breath and braced for whatever came next. It was now or never time.

                “More specifically, it’s being rented by one of the occupants, and an old friend: Nick Campbell.”

*             *             *

                “Uh huh. Are you sure? I really think I should-… yes ma’am.”

                Nick picked up those last scraps of conversation as he entered his apartment, textbook-filled-backpack in hand. Of all the things he despised, few were quite as annoying as professors who took attendance in their classes. Wasn’t it enough for them that he could ace the tests and homework on his own? Why did they demand to steal his precious, useful time week after week? Walking in on Eliza in his apartment, getting orders no less, was a welcome distraction from the hours he’d just spent trying not to fall asleep at his desk.

                “I have to go.” She closed the phone immediately, wisely not trusting Nick to resist the urge to eavesdrop. “How was class?”

                “A thrill a minute.” He tossed the book bag unceremoniously to the floor, where it would lay untouched until his next forced educational outing. “What was that about? The guy who books kegs giving you a hard time?”

                “No, just… home office. You know how it goes.” Eliza was unusually squirrely today, a very rare oddity. She was obviously hiding something from him, but that was par for the course in their line of work. Everyone was hiding things from everyone, except Ms. Pips, who oversaw all their little secrets and personal plots. She alone knew it all, and she was the one who decided when to force her people to share their hidden gems with one another. Eliza hiding something was well within the norm, something she’d long since grown accustomed to. So… why the odd behavior?

                Rather than press the issue like a novice, Nick decided to back away. Right now she was on-guard, and no amount of pushing or prodding would uncover whatever she was concealing. Better to let it mull, play a slower, more careful game to extract the truth from her.

                “I do indeed. Gotten more than my share of those calls, and I’ve truthfully lost count of how many times Ms. Pips called me into her office for a ‘chat’. Is that why you broke into my apartment, didn’t want Jerome to hear you getting chewed out?”

                “Actually, I was waiting for you, since someone decided to be a controlling douche and demand regular updates about the party.” Eliza seemed to be shaking off her jitters, slipping back into their familiar dynamic of verbal jabs. “The pool table is rented, Jerome bought the kiddie pool, and I’ve hired some people to lay down plastic sheeting over every inch of the floor so we don’t have to buy the whole room when this is done. Also got the keg booked: nice stuff, but not too nice.”

                “Cheap booze: the never-ending curse of my façade,” Nick moaned. “What about liquor and wine?”

                “What about it?” Eliza asked. “I was going to go grab a few bottles of everything the day before, and then just duplicate the entire stock until we’ve got enough to fill a bar. Speaking of, how many kegs do you want there? I can’t start busting out my power mid-party.”

                “Let’s go with two, there won’t be a lot of people coming but some are notoriously heavy drinkers.” Nick imagined Roy might be able to nearly put down one of those by himself, if given the inclination. “I trust Jerome is following up on security?”

                “Doing all we can to keep the DVA out using legal means,” Eliza assured him. “By all accounts, this will be a hell of a party. I’m not sure why you keep riding us on the details.”

                “Experience,” Nick said, the group’s Halloween history well catalogued in his mind. Just this once, he’d like his favorite holiday not to be looked back on with twinging and regret.