Chapter 151

               Ms. Pips was not happy with the young man sitting across the desk from her. Physically, he was still the same as he had been at their last meeting; same deliberate posture, same neutral expression, same gestureless way he rested his hands in his lap. It was his eyes that spoke of change. Last time they had been confused, deliberate, and hungry. Ms. Pips liked those emotions; they played well into what she could manipulate and what she needed to see from the young man. This time, however, it was a very different set of eyes she was staring into.

                These eyes were full of guile and determination, which were fine in the right proportions, but there was third element in there; one that set Ms. Pips on edge. Nicholas’s eyes had just a touch of smirking laughter, the sort that had been creeping in before his expulsion. She didn’t like that, both for what it said about the mind she might be dealing with…

                …and because even she shuddered to think about the sorts of things that could make a man like Nicholas Campbell truly laugh. Her only consolation was that if there was a heaven, Ms. Pips would never have to see her sister’s judgmental face over what had been done, what had needed to be done, to her son. No, if there was a heaven, then Ms. Pips would never see it. Her soul was far too heavy with blood to ever claw its way out of the pits of hell.

                “You want to go back.” There was no question in her voice; she didn’t need to bother with it. That was why he was here, it was the only reason he would have left the suite he’d sealed himself in since arriving. “After how your semester ended, that’s quite the interesting sentiment. Does this mean you’ve decided to finally explain why you lapsed into a coma then managed to vanish out from right in front of your bodyguards?”

                “To be fair, since they were guarding me, shouldn’t that be something they’re raked over the coals for?” There it was, just was she’d been expecting. His tone was polite, his words carefully chosen, and his point valid, but there was a chuckling barb tucked beneath that simple veneer. Nicholas wasn’t just accepting her authority as he once had, he was testing her. Dancing with her. He was making a game of it. Part of her was annoyed at his boldness, but most of her was glad he’d finally gotten around to it. Leaders couldn’t be beholden to anyone’s authority. Once he could best her, he’d truly be ready for the next step in his path.

                “They have told us everything they know, which while inadequate is still better than you, who is clearly holding information back.”

                “I’m playing a very long con, and that means keeping my information as close to the vest as possible. You’re the one who taught me the importance of keeping my mouth shut when information is dangerous, even around people I can trust.”

                Smart play, using her advice against her, though it hadn’t slipped her notice that Nicholas merely said he was running a con: he’d never specified on who.

                “Even if we look past your curious silence, this last semester was far from brimming with accomplishments. You failed to uncover the answer to whatever puzzle you were after; you managed to expose one of our operative’s identities to a future Hero; you were put in a mysterious coma and abducted from your room; and worst of all you failed to anticipate an attack from Nathaniel Evers that made us look unacceptably weak.”

                “If I may address those points: we both knew my puzzle would not be the sort that was so easy it could be solved in a single semester, and I have certainly made progress on it. Yes, Eliza’s identity was revealed to Vince, however he doesn’t know what it is she or I do, nor about our involvement in the organization. If anything, I’ve just provided you with an emotional vulnerability to exploit on a man who could one day be a tremendous Hero.” He paused briefly, sizing up Ms. Pips expression. This next piece could be played in one of two ways, defense or aggressive. She didn’t seem to be yielding much, so that meant he’d have to take the offense route. “We’ll skip the coma since that was little more than an inconvenience; instead let’s cut to the heart of the matter: Nathaniel’s attack. You’re absolutely right about my failure there. I should have been smarter, been more aware, and anticipated any move that he would make. Nathaniel Evers got the better of us, of me. And that is exactly why I have to go back to Lander.”

                “For revenge? Come now, you know I’d never authorize that sort of thing unless there was a profit in it,” Ms. Pips said.

                “No, I need to go back because I failed to beat him the first time. He was stopped, but not by me. Right now, we’re at a draw; neither of us considers his last attempt to be a true win or loss. But if I don’t return, I look like I’m running. Like his last attack was strong enough to scare me away, and that will make it his win. I’ll look weak, and worse, The Family will look weak for allowing me to do it. Nathaniel Evers has left me with only one choice: return to Lander and finish the fight.”

                It was well planned, calculatingly reasoned, and designed to appeal directly to her line of thinking. He had almost backed her into a corner, leaving her with the choice of conceding pride to the Evers or letting him have his way. Nicholas still had his skills, whatever sentiments might dance in his eyes. Of course, he’d forgotten the first rule she ever taught him: always have a trump card. Hers was the manila folder resting in her top desk drawer. Inside were documents that would not only keep Nicholas in Vegas, but would compel him to burn his precious Lander to the ground if she demanded it. And he’d do it all with a “thank you” and a smile. She merely had to pull out the folder, and she’d win.

                And all it would cost her was a single broken promise.

                “If I let you go back, I expect you to return home with unquestioned victory. I will not allow our organization to lose face in a confrontation like this. You either destroy Nathaniel Evers completely, or you’ll be coming back home as an employee who failed his task, and we will have to make quite the example out of you.”

                “I’m aware of the rules we live by.”

                “Very well then. You have my blessing; go spend the next few months at Lander. Indulge in whatever side-games are keeping you so entertained there; just be sure to take care of our business when the chance arises.”

                “Thank you very much.” He rose from his seat and began heading toward the large door at the end of the office. Before he made it all the way there, Ms. Pips called to him.

                “Nicholas, make sure you take special note of how this meeting went. You were the one who insisted on going, I wanted you to stay. Don’t ever forget that, understand?”

                “Yes, ma’am.” Nick Campbell pushed the door open and strode out in the hall, suddenly far less certain that he’d actually won the confrontation.