Chapter 179

                While everyone else went to the dorms or apartments after parting in the parking lot, Nick Campbell drove his car to a different destination. He pulled up in front of a large, gated brick building, one among dozens of identical others, and killed the engine. Emerging from the car, he took a moment to check his reflection and frowned. It would have been nice if there had at least been time to change after the movie. Such was the price of efficiency, however, and Nick sauntered through the front door without an ounce of compunction over the fact that he was technically trespassing. These buildings were undergoing renovations that had stalled due to a drop in the company’s revenue; there was nothing to steal and no reason anyone would care to do more than offer up a perfunctory effort at guarding them.

                Inside, Nick found the vast area largely empty save for a few lamps, a duffel bag, a portable generator, and several people. Two of them he knew instantly; they were the ones who had texted him with the need to meet up, after all. The other three were strangers, so far as he was concerned, though Nick had a feeling that before the night was out he would know intimate details about each one.

                “I see you weren’t gentle with them,” Nick said, noting the blood, bruises, and occasional missing tooth decorating each of the three men’s faces.

                “You wanted problems handled fast and quietly, that sort of ruled out delicacy as an option,” Eliza said. “Did any of the others notice?”

                “I don’t think so,” Nick told her. “You two intercepted these hooligans before even our resident telepaths could pick up on their thoughts. Good work, by the way. I appreciate you helping me give them a night of normalcy.”

                “Might be their last,” Jerome grunted. “These three were definitely hired by Nathaniel.”

                Nick leaned in close to one of them, noting the twinkle of fear in the large man’s blackened eye. Poor fools, they’d had no idea what Nathaniel was sending them into. If Jerome and Eliza hadn’t intercepted them, they would have been walking up to a group of impossibly powerful beings and trying to harm them. While there might have been repercussions for the HCP students after the fact, it wouldn’t have changed the fact that the criminals were essentially being thrown into a meat grinder.

                “So you started the fun without me.” Nick pulled himself back from the man he’d been eyeing and turned to Eliza. “Did they say anything else?”

                “Just that he reached out to their gang through some connections and offered a lot of money to beat down a group of kids outside the theater,” Eliza replied. Her tone was even, more so than it had been when she and Jerome first pounced on these three. Much of her anger had already been vented by battering their bodies, now she was content to leave them in the horrifying hands of Nicholas Campbell.

                Nick nodded, then walked over to the duffel bag and unzipped it. He reached in tenderly, wary of slicing himself on one of the sharp objects contained within. “It seems that Nathaniel Evers is letting us know that the game has resumed.” He rooted through the bag carefully, searching for a specific tool. It was important to start these things off with the right tone. Made things go much more quickly.

                “A warning shot? That’s unlike any of the Evers,” Eliza said.

                “No, not a warning shot. A threat,” Nick corrected. “He’s making it clear that he intends to go after my friends this time, not simply limit our battle to him and me.”

                “You already knew that in the first place,” Eliza said. “That’s why you’ve had me and Jerome on watchdog duty since we got back.”

                “What I knew is irrelevant, what matters here is what Nathaniel was trying to communicate. In this case, he wants our resources spread thin. Protecting me was one thing, but if I have to worry about him coming after any of my associates at a given time then we’ll be running around futilely, trying to cover more than we could possibly hope to.” Nick’s hand closed around the instrument he’d been looking for, and a half-smile crossed his face.

                “This is too much,” Jerome said. He looked at the three men who seemed increasingly worried the longer they watched Nick rustle through the duffel bag. “Infighting between the families is one thing, but Nathaniel’s actions could bring down the full weight of the HCP, and all the Heroes who’ve come from it, crashing down on his people. The Evers family would never sign off on something like that.”

                “Certainly not,” Nick agreed. He picked himself up from the ground and walked over to their hostages, a single item in his hand. “Which means that Nathaniel either never meant to truly harm them and knew we would intercept such inept pawns, or he has begun to take action without running it up the proper chain of command. Knowing Nathaniel, the latter seems infinitely more likely.”

                Nick leaned over and set the item he’d taken onto the ground. It was a generic chocolate bar, picked up hours earlier from a gas station outside of town. The three men looked at it, then him, then back at the bar again.

                “Here’s the deal, gentleman. One of you, and only one, is going to get an all expenses trip to Vegas, where you will be handled by the finest thugs and forced to sleep in the most cramped of compartments. But, if you do as your told and play ball, you may find accommodations improving as things progress. We’re a hungry organization, and there’s always room for those who can follow orders and complete tasks. That offer is only good for one of you, however. The other two will remain here, and are going to tell me just so very many things I want to know. Tidbits of information you may not even have realized you could conjure will be plumbed from the depths of your mind.”

                Eliza and Jerome went around and took hold of the bonds keeping the three men in place. With a few quick tugs the ropes would give way in seconds.

                “Of course, seeing as we’re big on go-getters, and the job you’re getting won’t be an easy one, there’s a little admittance test to pass. First of you to grab this chocolate bar, unwrap it, and take a bite is our winner. All manner of violence is both allowed and encouraged. Anyone who tries to chomp through the wrapper, or does something as dumb as go after one of us, is disqualified, and will have the honor of dealing with me when I’m in a less pleasant mood.”

                Nick took a few steps back, then gave the nod to Jerome and Eliza. “All right you fucking animals; let’s see which of you can claw your way out of this pit.”