Chapter 177

                For the first time since he’d ever set foot on Lander’s campus, Nick felt wholly present. No part of him was back in Vegas, wondering about turf wars and power plays, trying to calculate what would be waiting for him on the next trip home. There was no going back anymore, not really. He might make a quick trip or two when the year came to an end, but there wouldn’t be much time to waste on the past. His new career goals were ambitious to say the least, and the more time spent working on them the better. Besides, the idea of going back to Vegas for any prolonged amount of time felt dangerous. Ms. Pips might have bought into the proposal, at least on a trial basis, but there were bound to be other forces that would try to pull him back into that world, especially now that Gerry was gone.

                Taking a step back, Nick examined the framed photos he’d just finished hanging up on his bedroom wall. There were two of them, one an iconic picture of the Vegas strip, lit up in all its brilliance, and one of Gerry and a young Nick standing outside of a casino. Nick was at peace with moving on from his past, but he felt no inclination to abandon it entirely. Vegas, the family, Ms. Pips, and Gerry; all of it had shaped him into the man he was today. It felt fitting to keep some pieces of that with him, just as he would no doubt hang a photo of Lander in whatever new domicile he occupied when the semester came to a close. Carefully, Nick nudged the picture of Vegas slightly to the left, making it level.

                There was no shortage of other tasks on his plate: learning about Charles Adair’s crimes and Globe’s innocence had only given him more to do, and there was still the matter of flushing out the mole. Still, these moments were important. He’d seen what happened to people who couldn’t step away from their work, and Nick had no intention of going down that path. Regardless of what job he had, he would define it, not the other way around.

                His phone vibrated in his pocket, and Nick snatched it up by the third ring. “Yes, Eliza?”

                “We’ve got a guy heading in your direction, climbing the stairs. Student, one of your old running buddies. I think I met him at Halloween and he went by Will.” She didn’t seem especially panicked, which was fair since they’d yet to see any aggression from the HCP students. But Eliza didn’t know Will the way Nick did. If he was making an approach like this it meant he either needed something, or was coming to settle a score. Nick was pretty sure he hadn’t done anything to slight either of the Murray twins, but he tucked a knife into his pocket just to be on the safe side. Underestimating Will was an easy mistake to make, and one that rarely worked out well.

                “Let him through. Will’s a useful friend to have, I’m glad to make some time for him.”

                Nick checked the photos one last time, then made his way to the front door. Just before Will could knock, he pulled it open. Will’s face was unsurprised; he’d clearly expected Nick to be aware and waiting for him. “You should really upgrade to phones with better security. At this range it was almost too easy to listen in. Tell Eliza I said hi, by the way.”

                “I’ll pass it along,” Nick replied, motioning for Will to step inside. It might have been a parlor trick, Will was smart and there was a fifty-fifty shot to guess which lapdog was on security duty at any given time, but Nick made a mental note to see if there were ways to upgrade their communication security anyway. Hell, if this meeting went well he might just ask Will to do it. “So, Will, what brings you by? If you’re here for game night, we only do those on Wednesdays.”

                Will looked around the apartment, ostensibly checking out the décor while in reality probably searching for traps or monitoring devices. “I might actually take you up on that sometime. The chance to test my strategic skills against you and Hershel sounds like quite the opportunity.”

                “We cycle between games based on skill versus ones based more on luck, since we want the others to have fun too,” Nick said. “But if you set a weekend aside I bet you, me, and Hershel could kill a few days playing one of those world-conquering games and really pissing each other off.”

                Reaching into his backpack, Will produced a circular device roughly the size of a stack of coasters, only with bits of wire and circuits sticking out. “Forgive the lack of aesthetics; I had to make this one on the fly.” Will flipped a switch, and several lights started glowing red. “This should knock out any remote listening or recording devices in the area. Our meeting is happening off the record, and I think we’ll both prefer it stay that way by the end.”

                Nick’s curiosity was piqued; Will hadn’t ever been this bold in the past. He’d always been best at working behind the scenes, staying out of sight and never displaying his true aptitude. To come in with such an aggressive approach meant that either Will had significantly stepped up his game, or the situation he was in was quite dire.

                “I’m not sure what you think I have to say that I don’t want recorded. After all, I’m just a normal student these days. No cool HCP business or superhero intrigue to discuss.”

                A small frown pushed down Will’s mouth, and he shook his head. “I thought we could skip this part, since it was all rather implied, but I guess some things still need to be said out loud. I know you remember the HCP, Nick. I don’t know how you undid the wipe, or how much you got back, but you were always too smart and resourceful to let someone permanently tinker with your brain. It was a given, I knew that from the day you were expelled, and your actions since then have only proved to me how right I am.”

                “If that were true, I’m sure you could understand why I’d be unable to openly admit to it,” Nick said.

                “Hence why I brought a device to prevent outsiders from electronically listening to or recording this conversation. But if you don’t want to say it, that’s fine. I don’t need to hear the words to know I’m correct, and your memory isn’t why I came over in the first place.” Will lowered himself onto the couch, staring at Nick and waiting until he took a seat as well. “I’m here because I need your help. Not just me, the whole class, maybe even the whole HCP. Have you heard about the Take Back Lander initiative?”

                “Small group of students who wanted to kick the HCP off of campuses where normal students lived and went to school. They had a few good weeks early in the year and then started dying off. I haven’t kept tabs on them beyond that, they were kind of small potatoes and I’ve had a lot going on.” Nick had actually dug a bit deeper than he was letting on, but nothing he saw gave him reason to think they’d find the funds or audience they needed to keep going at Lander. Things could change, though, and given that Will had seen a problem important enough to approach him over, they clearly had done just that.

                Reaching into his pocket, Will produced a stack of pages and held them out to Nick. “Their leader, Kennedy Dawson, is reorganizing the group to try and hunt down HCP students and out them. She’s focused, determined, and good at marshalling her forces. Without her, the whole thing would have crumbled. Instead it’s just changed up tactics.”

                “And I take it you have a counter-plan?” Nick took the pages, cracking them open and flipping through.

                “I do. Or the start of one, anyway. There are a lot of components I’ll need to make it work, but you’re an irreplaceable one. This can’t happen in a vacuum. They need to meet someone, be confronted by a living embodiment of their opposition, and given the range of the role I think you might be the only one who can play it.”

                Slowly, Nick turned the pages, reading Will’s research, existing steps, and plan for moving forward. As he got to the section featuring his character, Nick’s ever-present smirk took on a more malicious gleam. “I’m in. We’ve got a lot to talk over, and I’m going to have input on this moving forward, but if I get to be this guy, then you can count me all the way in.”

                Will’s whole body was flooded with a brimming sense of relief, as well as a small trickle of pity for Kennedy Dawson and her cronies. They really had no idea what sort of monster Will had just called down upon them.