Chapter 227

               Getting a late-night message from Dean Blaine wasn’t an entirely uncommon occurrence for Ralph Chapman. The man worked the hours of an HCP educator, which was to say no one knew when he slept and they all just assumed he survived on 5-minute naps. But usually, the messages were clear and direct, relating to something that the Lander dean felt needed addressing. This morning, Ralph had woken to something more cryptic, just a brief voicemail informing him to be in Dean Blaine’s office the next morning. No context, no explanation, only a naked demand of Ralph’s time. Even that wasn’t so strange though, Dean Blaine could often get caught up in his job and occasionally spaced on niceties.

               No, the worrying thing had been his tone. There was something in it, something impossible to place yet unmistakable. Dean Blaine’s voice had been teeming with danger, bloodlust, and bits of fury poking their head through. None of it was obvious, however for anyone who’d held a position like Ralph’s noticing such nuances was a necessary skill. That didn’t mean those feelings were directed at Ralph necessarily, they might have been felt toward whatever cause inspired him to send the message. Still, Ralph would feel better when this was over.

               As he made his way through HCP’s underground campus, Ralph took note of another curious detail: there were no other DVA agents around. Usually at least a couple could be spotted in the early morning, attending to their various tasks before the students showed up to crowd the hallways. Today, however, there was nary a peep. The whole place felt deserted, like Ralph was the only one here. A knot of tension in his gut grew bigger; something was definitely off. Carefully, eyes peeled for some sort of trap or ambush, Ralph made his way to Dean Blaine’s office and lightly knocked on the door.

               “Come in, Ralph.”

               No hesitation, he’d been waiting for Ralph to arrive and knew no one else was going to knock. With a deep breath and a resigned sigh, Ralph pushed the door open and made his way inside. Dean Blaine was sitting there, dealing with paperwork, and Ralph’s tension deflated a bit. This was the first bit of normalcy he’d seen since getting that message, and it reassured him that things were fine. Taking a seat, he dropped his briefcase to the side and got down to business.

               “Late night calls and demands to show up at your office, I assume something big is going on?”

               Dean Blaine looked up from his papers and all of Ralph’s easing tension came rushing back even stronger than before. There was a look in those eyes, something that was hinging between blind rage and controlled hatred, none of it boding well for Ralph Chapman. If it came down to a fight, there would be no contest; he was a government paper-pusher going up against a trained Hero. Even if he’d had a gun or a knife, the odds would be monumentally stacked against him.

               “Do you like what you do, Ralph?” Despite the glare in his eyes, Dean Blaine was calm, which somehow made things feel even worse.

               “I feel like I have a job that provides a necessary public service, and I enjoy the daily challenges, so yes, I do,” Ralph replied.

               “Not the job. Well, not exclusively the job. I’m asking about these witch hunts you go on. Targeting Mr. Reynolds, for example, or any of the other Heroes you’ve set your sights on through the years. Do you like tearing people down?”

               “Vince Reynolds is a child who nature handed a nuke to with no instructions. I don’t apologize for treating him as a potential danger, and as much as you all protest I think deep down you know I wasn’t wrong to worry. As for the so-called ‘others’, I built my career on going after Heroes who used their clout and connections to avoid proper justice. Yes, Blaine, I do like that. I like knowing that there are standards, laws, that even the mighty Heroes have to answer to. I like that our protectors are accountable. And I don’t feel the need to defend that to an HCP dean. We’re done here.”

               Ralph started to rise, expecting Dean Blaine to jump up and stop him. Instead, he stared at Ralph’s every movement, waiting until he was out of the chair and halfway to the door before speaking.

               “If you leave this room right now, you’ll probably make it as far as the lifts, or perhaps even above ground, but no further.”

               “Are you threatening a DVA agent?” Despite keeping his voice calm, Ralph could already feel sweat breaking out along his back as his mind cast back to those empty halls. This whole thing had been planned from the start.

               “Of course not. That would be impractical and dangerous. But once you leave this office, you won’t be a DVA agent anymore. I’ve already spoken at length with Graham DeSoto about you. He’s a former Hero, you see, and keeps late hours by nature. Your fate is entirely in my hands. So you either sit down and we talk, or you leave. About three seconds after you pass through the door, the order will go out for your arrest. The only question is whether your fellow agents will reach you before my staff does, and if it’s the latter I can’t imagine you’ll be handled gently.”

               There was no chance Blaine was bluffing. Whether he actually had the authority to make good on his threat or not in the long-term, he’d absolutely have Ralph brought down hard the moment he was out of this office. “Arrested on what grounds, exactly?”

               “Graham and I talked about that a bit too. There are some conspiracy charges that will be easy to make stick, as well as perjury, but we both think that with a strong lawyer and a little detective work we might be able to get you locked up for treason. After all, the HCP is a government facility, and you knowingly worked with Nathaniel Evers, who was instrumental in the attack by the Sons of Progress on Lander last May.”

               Ralph Chapman had only seconds to make a choice he knew would impact the rest of this life: try to lie and deny, or admit the truth and see what Blaine was after. The mere fact that he’d called this meeting, rather than busting down Ralph’s door in the middle of the night and beating him half to death, meant that there were options other than prison. But that would likely depend on Ralph’s willingness to play ball. If he tried to weasel his way out, those options might vanish.

               Slowly, Ralph Chapman walked back across the room and took a seat in the same chair. He’d tried to leave so quickly he hadn’t even remembered to grab his briefcase. “Mind if I ask how you know?”

               “Last night, Crispin, head of the Sons of Progress, was captured, along with a tape of him making a full confession. And I do mean full. Your involvement was just one interesting tidbit he let slide. That’s where the other agents are, by the way. Processing someone like Crispin is an all-hands-on-deck situation. All hands that we can trust, anyway.”

               Dean Blaine was still composed as he spoke, even if the look in his eyes was getting progressively more and more dangerous. He closed the folder full of papers on his desk, set his pen aside, and gave Ralph Chapman his full, undivided attention.

               “Now then, let’s get down to business and talk about your future, Mr. Chapman.”