Chapter 173

               While Victor was speaking to Hero hopefuls, Ralph Chapman was getting lunch. Much as he liked to keep an eye on things in the Hero Certification Program, it was simply logistically unsound to watch over the whole program day after day. Dropping in infrequently, at key times, that was how one kept people on their toes and still found time to get one’s own work done. As for Victor, the Super once known as Bullrush, Ralph Chapman had no desire to hear that loud man’s brash voice. Though he’d left the Hero world with a clean record, Ralph had simply never enjoyed that Hero on a personal level. Too much destructive potential, really destruction was all that Bullrush could do. Seeing him filled Ralph with questions about what sins might have been covered up to protect that goofy Hero’s positive image. It was ire that he didn’t need before eating, so he skipped the speech altogether.

                Instead, he went to a nice diner near his office, one he’s discovered on his first week and still found to be scrumptious. Walking in, he greeted the hostess with a polite nod, settled into a booth with his laptop, and began to do some work after giving the waiter his order. It was just like every other time he’d come to the establishment…

                Right up until the young man slid into the opposite side of his booth. Chapman looked up from his computer screen, hoping it was simply a misunderstanding, but bracing the possibility of an attempt on his life. He found neither confusion nor malice staring back at him. Rather, he was greeted by a friendly smile gleaming on a face that also hosted a pair of sunglasses. The young man had a small bag of chips open in his hand, which he turn and held up.

                “Spicy flavored. Want one?”

                “No, thank you.” This clearly wasn’t an accident, so this strange young man must know who he was. What remained a mystery was what he hoped to glean from ambushing a DVA agent in broad daylight.

                “Don’t blame you. Spicy isn’t really a flavor in the first place, you know? It’s supposed to be an addition to other flavors. Saying this is the spicy flavor is like having one where the description is just ‘salty.’ We’re really letting standards slide when it comes to junk food.” As he spoke, the young man popped a few more of the very chips he was denigrating into his mouth.

                “I’m certain the FDA is right on top of it. I can even pass along your complaint if you like, Mr…”

                “Nick. Just call me Nick, though your last fellow knew me by the name Dig Bixby.”

                A hot coal of worry began burning at the lining of Chapman’s stomach. This was the man who Smitt had tried, in vain, to pin down for weeks. Who was likely responsible for driving him out of town. Nick, if that was his name, likely knew about the nature of Smitt and Chapman’s relationship. Suddenly the intrusion shifted from an annoyance to a problem.

                “I’m not sure I have any idea what you’re talking about.”

                “Really? That’s a little disrespectful. I mean, I offered you my chips, I even gave you my real name, and you’re going to try and bluff me with the flat-denial lie. That hurts, Ralph. It really does. And here I came to you with the truest hopes of friendship.”

                Ralph Chapman considered the young man carefully. He was college-aged, though likely on the downhill side of the experience. Despite the frame he tried to hide under winter clothing, there were still telltale signs of impressive fitness. All of that, plus the ties to Vince Reynolds Smitt had uncovered, narrowed down the possibilities of who he was significantly.

                “So then, Nick. You’ll be Nick Campbell, last year’s expulsion case.”

                “Somebody has been looking at the ‘no-no’ files.” If Nick was surprised to have his identity deduced so quickly, it didn’t show on his face. “But yes, you got it in a single guess. I’d shake your hand, but, you know, chip dust.” He raised his orange colored hands to illustrate the point.

                “Given the situation surrounding a certain student, I felt it proper to read all files around his associates, regardless of their classification level.”

                “Hey, I’m not here to judge,” Nick replied. “In fact I’m glad you’re the snooping type. Saves me the trouble of telling you, then you doubting me, then you digging it up and finally believing me so we can have a worthwhile discussion.  And really, who has time for all that?”

                “You should, technically speaking. You’re out of the program, in the very permanent fashion, and should have no memory of the entire experience. Given the circumstances, it seems that’s not the case.”

                “With all due respect to the professor, she did a hell of job popping my top and scrambling my memories. But she, and really all of you in the process, forgot a very important rule about the world.”

                “Do tell.” Chapman didn’t like this young man, he didn’t trust the glib way Nick was admitting to things that should have been hidden away with every ounce of cunning he had. Telling a DVA agent that you’d regained sealed memories made no sense; which meant that either Nick was idiot, or Chapman didn’t yet know what game they were actually playing.

                Nick leaned forward, lowering his voice to a whisper. “There are millions of Supers out there, and with enough money you can always find one with the talent you need. If you can break it, someone else can fix it, Ralph.”

                “Perhaps so, but now that I’m aware of you breaking protocol, what makes you think there won’t be a warrant out for you by the time my food gets here?” Chapman shot back.

                “Because we’re friends.” Nick leaned back, all air of seriousness gone, replaced with another wide smile. “And friends don’t do things like tattle on each other. It’s why I didn’t send that massive pile of evidence, including some choice Smitt recordings, off to the DVA’s Internal Affairs division as soon as I got them. Friend’s protect each other; we don’t narc the other out.”

                “Can you cut to the quick of this?” Chapman said. He felt uneasy talking to Nick, like the longer he spoke, the more he was giving the failed Hero exactly what he wanted.

                “Glad to.” Nick crumpled up the chip bag and set it down, then took a spare napkin from the table and began wiping off his fingers. “I debated on how to approach you for a long while, Ralph. I thought about extortion, or threatening loved ones, or all the usual ways I’d come at someone who dared to try and pin me down. But the more I studied you, the more I realized how similar we are. You don’t have any family to use, my condolences by the way, and you’re not the sort to cave to someone trying to blackmail you. You’d bring them down with you just for spite. At the end of the day, Ralph Chapman, you’re just a man who is driven by a single purpose, and that means none of my normal tricks would really work on you. So I decided to take a page out of Vince’s book, and try a whole different tactic.”

                Ralph braced himself, if Nick was mimicking Reynolds then whatever attack he had planned was bound to be outrageous. Instead of explosions, shattering glass, or any other signal of destruction, Ralph only saw Nick extend his recently cleaned off hand.

                “I decided to forgive you, Ralph Chapman. You didn’t know the beehive you were poking, and I’m not going to punish you for the accident. We’re square. You can walk out of this diner and never worry about your bosses finding out you went off the books. Leave, and you’ll never see me again. Not even if you try.”

                Tentatively, Ralph stretched out his fingers and accepted Nick’s handshake. They gripped for a moment, then it was done.

                “Of course, leaving will also mean you lose out on the treasure trove of inside knowledge I have, and no one else knows I have, from my time in the program,” Nick added.

                “Given what you did for your friend, I doubt you’re going to tell me anything that will damage him.”

                “No, but only because there’s nothing to tell,” Nick replied. “All I can give you is the truth, actual facts that can be used as you see fit. That’s what I’ll be wanting from you, as well. Simple, pure, friendly, informational exchange.”

                “Why on earth would you think I’d deal with someone like you?” Chapman asked.

                “Because you stepped outside the lines with Smitt, which means you’re desperate for information. I’m not chiding you for it; I’d have done the same thing. Well, I’d have done it better, but that isn’t the point. What matters is that I already know you’re willing to make deals and compromises, if it means uncovering the truth. So, Ralph Chapman, I’m proposing you stop doing bargains with imps.”

                Nick smiled again, this time with such strange force that Ralph actually wondered if he was misremembering the man’s powers.

                “If you want to make deals, you should do them with a proper devil.”