Chapter 249

                It was a testament to how strange Ralph Chapman’s life had become that he wasn’t even especially surprised to find that someone had broken into his apartment. There had been a stretch of relative peace since Dean Blaine more or less told Ralph he was a kept man, so if anything he was overdue for some casual breaking and entering. While he might have been worried in other contexts, fearing that the friends of a Hero he’d put away had finally come for revenge, once Ralph recognized the person sitting on his couch he knew there was no cause for alarm. If Nick Campbell wanted him dead, there was little chance he’d even hear the gunshot. No, the only reason someone like Nick pulled this type of stunt was when he wanted something.

                “Should I offer you some refreshments, or just assume you helped yourself?”

                “Since we both know you don’t stock alcohol, I did you one better and brought my own.” Nick reached down to his feet and pulled out a bottle of fine scotch, much nicer than anything Ralph kept on hand even in his drinking days. “Seeing as I’m here to talk business, it was necessary. Having this on hand is something of a Vegas tradition.”

                “You just said you know I don’t drink.”

                “And no one is telling you to. It’s the pouring and toasting that matter, the ceremony of it all.”

                Once, Ralph might have been tempted to try and push Nick away, throw him out of the apartment without hearing so much as a word more. But it never escaped Ralph’s memory that, despite having an army on his side, Nathaniel Evers had been the one who ended up mysteriously dead during the attack on Lander. It wasn’t the sort of thing he’d ever be able to prove, even if he could convince someone to give him the resources for a full investigation, yet he kept it in mind all the same. The outcome spoke to a level of competence on Nick’s part that meant he might be a useful ally, or a very dangerous enemy.

                Rather than hurling Nick out the door, Ralph set down his briefcase, went into the kitchen, and brought out two glasses filled with a scant few cubes of ice. He set them down in front of Nick, who began to pour from the bottle while Ralph took a seat in an adjacent chair.

                “Should I ask how you got past my security measures?”

                “It’s cute that you think what you have constitutes ‘security’, it really is. I hope you’ve all got more resources on Lander for Intramurals than on this apartment complex.” Nick handed the first glass to Ralph, who patiently waited as Nick took a sip. Apparently drinking might not be required, but it was allowed.

                “I’ll just go ahead and take that as a ‘no’ so we can move on. Since we’ve dealt with each other before, how about we skip the pretense and go right for the main point: why are you here?”

                “Because I need your help. And when you come to someone to ask a favor, it’s only right to meet them on their own turf, observing basic rules of hospitality. Granted, breaking in doesn’t quite fit with accepted decorum, but I assumed you’d prefer I not make this approach in public.” Nick eased back into the couch, seemingly defenseless as he settled in. “To cut to the chase, I want to attend Intramurals. I want to watch my friends fight, cheer them on, and generally be supportive during what has to be a huge moment for all of them. Now someone in the HCP might be able to make that happen, with enough wheeling and dealing, but the man in charge of overseeing the DVA at Lander could pull it off with a snap of the fingers.”

                Ralph nearly dropped his glass in amusement at the sheer outlandishness of the request. “So we’re clear, you want me to bring a supposedly mind-wiped, expelled former student to watch one of the most historically secured annual events at an HCP that endured a surprise attack last year?” Reaching forward, he picked up the bottle, and checked the label in detial. “You should have brought nicer toasting scotch.”

                “That can be arranged. Besides, I didn’t come here planning on dealing in booze. I get that this is a big ask, and I’m willing to compensate you for it.”

                “Are you offering me a bribe?” Ralph asked.

                This drew a sharp laugh from Nick. “A bribe? Why bother? I’ve seen your financials, Ralph, you barely spend half of what you make as is. Since all you do is work, there’s not much to sink cash into, so I know a bribe wouldn’t be worth the paper it’s printed on for you. No, what I’m offering is a little more versatile: I’ll owe you a favor.”

                After several seconds of waiting, Ralph realized that Nick wasn’t going to continue. “A favor? That’s it? You want me to go through all the effort of getting you in to watch Intramurals, subjecting myself to a lot of questions that I don’t have good answers for in the process, all in exchange for the promise to give me a hand somewhere down the line? I know you don’t like me, Nick, but I’d hoped you at least respected my intelligence more than this.”

                “Don’t dismiss the favor that quickly,” Nick cautioned. “First off, I never welch on these kinds of deals. Part of my upbringing, which I’m sure you’ve done enough digging to know. Second, I am a surprisingly capable and competent person when properly motivated. Third, you could use that favor to have me turn up your good luck or turn down someone else’s in a key moment, and that creates all sorts of possibilities if you’ve got an active imagination. Last, but certainly not least, there’s no expiration date on what I’d owe you. Right now, I’ll admit that the sorts of favors I can grant are limited. That won’t always be true, though. I do respect your intelligence. I know that you can see me for what I am: a man with ambition and determination. I won’t be a mere college student for long. A decade down the line, I may very well be higher up in the government than you. And that is the sort of person it’s good to have owe you a favor.”

                Easy as it would be to dismiss Nick’s words as the bluster and bravado of a child who’d yet to face the real world; part of Ralph knew he was right. Between the power over luck, the skill, and the capacity for manipulation, Nick would probably rise through whatever field he set his sights on. And even if he didn’t, that luck ability alone could have plenty of uses when properly applied.

                “I assume there are some limits on it?” Ralph asked.

                “It’s not a magical fairy charm that compels me to act against myself or my people, if that’s what you’re getting at. It’s a favor. When you cash it in, we’ll talk, I’ll let you know if I have any conflicts that we need to work around, and we’ll go from there. I’m a reasonable man, especially to those I have a cordial working relationship with. That could be you, Ralph. Or someone else in the DVA, someone who might not share the same goals you have, who would end up having me owe them a favor instead. It’s your call to make.” Nick raised his scotch, holding it out a few feet away.

                The clink of Ralph’s glass meeting Nick’s echoed through the largely empty apartment, and while only Nick took a small nip from his they both understood the gesture’s significance. “What exactly am I supposed to tell everyone about why you’re suddenly at Intramurals?”

                “That I was hired as a representative for an outside firm to evaluate whether the new HCP security procedures are strong enough; heaven knows I’ve got the expertise to sell that cover. Or make up something that works for you, I can play along with whatever story you need. All that matters is that I’m there for the show.”