Chapter 165

               Jerome and Eliza sat patiently as they waited for Nick to finish making himself a drink. He refused to talk about where he’d been that night, and despite their best efforts he’d managed to slip every tracker and bit of surveillance they’d stuck on his person. This wasn’t especially shocking, while Eliza and Jerome had been living this life for many years, Nick was born into it. He’d been training since he could crawl, and he’d taken to the lifestyle like an alcoholic to free whiskey. Even when he was Powered, he was still one of the most skilled and terrifying people in the state. No, it was not shocking that he was able to ditch them when he wanted.

                What was surprising was how utterly glib he insisted on being about the whole thing. He should have been clucking his tongue and making them feel inferior for their lacking skills. Instead, he’d come home in a cheery mood and gone right to the liquor cabinet, breaking out a bottle of high quality gin.

                “I don’t suppose you’ll actually tell us where you were,” Eliza said, talking loud enough to be heard in the kitchen.

                “Clandestine meeting with beings of immense power about dealing with a conspiracy that might reach back several decades.” Nick poked his head from around the corner and rolled his eyes. “Where do you think I was? I went to go do some surveillance on Nathaniel and didn’t want you two bungling things up by tagging along.”

                “We’re more than capable of staying unseen,” Jerome said.

                “Just like you’re capable of keeping a tail on someone, or anticipating a surprise attack in the parking lot.” Nick walked out of the kitchen with his freshly prepared drink in hand. “Sorry kiddos, but sometimes daddy has to run the big boy errands and doesn’t have time to babysit.”

                Eliza watched their “boss” as he took a seat on the couch and propped his feet up on the table. He was different, he had been ever since that whole sleeping for a day and then vanishing fiasco. At first she’d wondered if he’d been compromised, mentally taken over by some previously undiscovered type of Super who could actually control brains. His meeting with Ms. Pips had put that worry to bed, though. Surrogate mother or not, she’d have sniffed out if he was compromised and put a bullet right in his forehead. But Ms. Pips still trusted him, which made the change in demeanor more odd than worrying.

                “So tell us, oh great one, what did you manage to find out?” Eliza asked.

                “Nathaniel has sown fields of information that all point to him being holed up in a suite at the Merida downtown. This is, unsurprisingly, false. He’s actually in a room at the Twin Clouds hotel.” Nick pulled a small card from his pocket and tossed it unceremoniously on the table. “That’s the address, but neither of you is allowed to go near it. Instead I want a surveillance routine established for watching the Merida. I want him to think he’s got us fooled.”

                “And all the while we let him do as he please, free from observation. This seems like inviting another ambush,” Jerome said.

                “Relax, I took care of it,” Nick said, pausing to take a sip of his drink. “From what I can see Nathaniel is still a few weeks away from making any moves, which makes him our secondary priority.”

                Eliza kept her eyes leveled at Nick as he did his best to appear unruffled by her and Jerome’s visible scrutiny. Less than a week. That’s how long they’d been back at Lander, and in that time Nick had already found the location where Nathaniel was hiding. Last semester it had taken the better part of a month with all three of them working hard. Now he was claiming to have knocked it out in a few days, and was acting like it was no big deal. Demeanor changes were one thing, but it was impossible for him to have turned that much more competent in the span of only a few weeks. No, the only thing that could account for such a shift in capabilities was the acquisition of new resources. He’d gotten his hands on something or someone that made the job a whole lot easier, and Eliza could make a few guesses about what.

                “If Nathaniel isn’t our priority, what the hell is taking his place?” Eliza asked.

                “Why, something you’ll be able to get on board whole-heartedly with,” Nick replied. “Revenge.”

                “I like what you’re selling, but given the business we’re in you’ll have to be a bit more specific,” Eliza said.

                “Of course. Last semester someone had the unmitigated gall to try and spy on us, someone who isn’t even part of the world we live in. I don’t know about you, but I take a bit of offense to that. The very idea that we could be so easily watched and catalogued, it’s downright disrespectful,” Nick said. “Of course, when you add in the fact that they were trying to drum up information on a man who could be a terrific asset for us, as well as being Eliza’s former hook-up, it takes on a whole new dimension of aggravating.”

                “Nicholas, you heard Smitt’s words just like us. The man who gave him orders works for the government, the Department of Variant Human Affairs at that. Given what all of us are, and our ties to Vegas, is this really an enemy we should be going up against?” Jerome was accustomed to being the voice of reason amidst the hot-headed tempers that permeated a crime syndicate. He’d always had a knack for staying detached from what was happening in the moment, focusing on the big picture win instead.

                “If we were going against the DVA, then you’d be dead-on,” Nick agreed. “But Chapman hired Smitt on the side; he stepped out from his official role in the department. Whatever the repercussions are, he’ll either have to deal with them on his own or tank his career by admitting to shady dealings. In this case, the repercussions are us.”

                “I’m happy as anyone to see that asshole go down, but do you have a plan?” Eliza asked.

                “I have steps in mind,” Nick said. “And the first of those is research. Find out everything you can about Ralph Chapman. The full work-up: friends, family, vices, weaknesses, everything. If he cries during romantic comedies, I want to know what scenes make him teary.”

                “Give me a week.” Normally Eliza would have bucked against the plan more, for show if nothing else, but she could still remember seeing Vince’s picture tucked inside that folder, still remember the anger she felt when she realized who they were going after. If the target was someone after Vince, she was all in. “Just promise me you’re not going easy on this guy.”

                “Of course not,” Nick assured her. “There’s a precise method to this sort of thing. We identify a person’s weaknesses, then we put pressure on those spots until they give in. Or, of course, until they break. In this case, either outcome suits me just fine.”