Chapter 53

                Mary had only been to a few bars in her college career, a tally she was quite happy with, so she didn’t have a great standard of comparison as she walked into the one at the address Ralph Chapman had provided her. All the same, it still came off as a bit dingy, dark walls and battered stools instead of the usual cornucopia of bubbly wait staff and bright neon signs advertising drink specials. This was a real bar, a place people came to drown their troubles, not where college students gathered to create fits of intoxicated revelry. It was also almost completely deserted, save for a thick-necked man in a stained apron standing behind the bar, and the barely visible profile of Ralph Chapman tucked away in a corner booth.

                Empty as it looked, Mary was still scanning the area telepathically, just in case there were a few unseen presences hidden in some unseen nook. She came up empty, however. The only thoughts in the building seemed to be Ralph’s, the bartender’s, and a busboy in back who was worried about making this month’s rent. She eased into the opposite side of the booth from Ralph Chapman, who was drinking a lemonade.

                “Can I get you anything?”

                “I don’t suppose they have tea here, do they?” Mary asked.

                “Just the iced kind,” Ralph replied.  “But they do make a mean lemonade.” He leaned out of the booth and motioned to the bartender, tapping on his glass to signal another round was needed.

                “If it’s alcoholic, you’ll be drinking that yourself,” Mary warned him.

                “Not a drop,” Ralph assured her. “I’m like you, Ms. Smith. I prefer to keep a clear head about me. It’s an important trait in this line of work.”

                “You mean illegally coercing off the books meetings with students who are supposed to be under your care?” Mary could have played it more aloof, she was sure that was what Nick or Alice would have done, but she didn’t have their tolerance for bullshit. Ralph might be able to compel her to show up here, however that didn’t mean she had to be nice, or pretend this was anything other than the forced meeting it was.

                “Fair enough,” Ralph said. “I’m playing loose with the rules, and you don’t like it. Hard to begrudge you that. And I’m sure that none of you, or your friends, or professors have ever taken actions that fell outside the rules. Otherwise, I can’t imagine you’d be sitting quite so easily on that high horse of yours.”

                Mary didn’t think she let his jab show on her face, but Ralph Chapman smiled anyway, like he’d just glimpsed what he was looking for. “If I could prove even half the things I know have happened, this would be a very different conversation, but we both know you’re all too clever for that. So instead, just try to appreciate what it’s like to be on the other side of the equation for a change.”

                “You wanted to talk to me about Globe.” Mary didn’t have a comeback for his accusation, her own mind was flooded with all the semi-to-totally-illegal activities they’d undertaken over the years, from secret dream conversations with Globe to reviving Nick’s memories, and all the smaller stuff in between.

                “Maybe a little bit.” Ralph Chapman paused as the bartender walked over and set a fresh glass of lemonade in front of Mary. “Mostly I wanted to ask if you have any guesses as to why he tried to abduct you once, and only once. You probably don’t know this, but Globe was a tenacious Hero, never the sort to easily give up on something once he’d set his mind to it. Yet after one failed attempt, he’s left you completely unaccosted. Even stranger is the fact that you are the one he wanted in the first place, when his son was living in the same dorm.”

                Mary tried a sip of her drink. It was good, if a bit tart for her tastes. “There’s not a week that goes by I don’t ask myself some of those same questions. I’ve tried my hardest to figure things out, and eventually I had to accept that I just don’t see enough of the board.”

                “The board?”

                “I like chess, Mr. Chapman,” Mary explained. “But right now, all I can see are the few pieces around me. I don’t know what Globe is doing, or what moves he’s making, so I can’t make sense out of the few actions I catch a glimpse of. Truthfully, I don’t even know if he’s playing the same game as the rest of us.”

                “That is… well put,” Ralph agreed after a brief pause. “None of us has any idea of what Globe is after, which makes him all the more dangerous. He has incredible power, and a gift for leading others. When he strikes, it will be hard and ferocious, and I’d very much like to have any bit of warning I can manage to glean. So again I ask, not for well-thought out ideas or provable points, but do you have any guesses at why he may have taken you?”

                “Nothing I’d want to share.” Mary stared at the DVA agent stone-faced. She’d taken the meeting, and she’d answered the questions she could. Compelling random speculation out of her seemed like more than he could demand, and she wanted to set boundaries in this conversation. He needed to know that he didn’t have all the power in this booth.

                Ralph seemed to take the message, draining the rest of his lemonade and then motioning to the barkeep for another. “Ms. Smith, I’m keenly aware that all of you think of me as the bad guy. I’m not part of the club, I’ll never understand the job, and yet I’m the one who makes the rulings as to whether or not you’ve done it well. You don’t have to like me, or the existence of my department, but I think you out of everyone in your peer group should be able to understand that we are necessary. You can see into people’s minds, the best and worst of them. Do you really want to live in a world where Supers have no checks or balances? Where Heroes are free to enforce the law as they wish without oversight?”

                “I know the DVA is necessary,” Mary replied. “But you’ve been gunning for Vince since the moment you stepped foot on campus. That’s not part of your job, that’s personal. And he’s never done a thing to you, or anyone else.”

                “Yet.” Ralph’s face darkened for a moment, and his composure slipped. Mary picked up a few scattered thoughts whirling through his brain before he it got back under control: something about a bridge, and mistakes, and a white hot core of fury buried beneath all the platitudes and red tape. Then it was gone, replace by milquetoast thoughts about the weather. “Mr. Reynolds is a fine young man with a good heart; I’m not going to debate that with you. But he lets his emotions overtake him more than is wise or prudent. I’ve seen what happened in your sophomore year, and I’ve read the reports from May’s incident. Did you know he almost killed a man in cold blood?”

                She did, Vince had been tormented by thoughts of that moment almost as much as his memory of Sasha’s corpse. It had made the first few weeks of summer so morose that sometimes she turned off her telepathy entirely. “He made the right choice in the end, and I don’t blame him a bit for being tempted. ‘Almost’ doesn’t count.”

                “Until the day it does,” Ralph Chapman countered. “I don’t hate Vince Reynolds. I don’t hate any Super or Hero. I hate what they can do, what people will let them do because love and comradery and friendship cloud their judgement. I don’t have that luxury. I’m not in this business to be liked; I’m in it to get a job done.”

                The bartender arrived with another drink, and Ralph handed over a small wad of bills. “If you want to know why I take the threat Vince poses so seriously, then I’ll show you. And him. Just call the number on the card I gave you and pick a day. We can even use your teleporter, so that I can’t pull a fast one.”

                “Why would you do that?” Mary asked, struck by a rare moment of genuine confusion.

                “Because while we may not all see eye-to-eye, we do all agree that Supers should work to keep people safe and make the world a better place, unlike what groups like the Sons of Progress want to see happen,” Ralph told her. “We’re on the same side, and if I want you all to realize that, it means I’m going to have to start showing you some trust.”

                “So, no more restaurant visits?”

                “That was a bit of theatrics, Ms. Smith, necessary to get a conversation started. But no more of them regardless. If you want to talk, whether you think of something to tell me or take me up on the offer, just call the number on the card,” Ralph told her.

                Mary stood to leave, fully intent on walking out the door without so much as a glance back. Except… he was right. They, the DVA and the Heroes, they were on the same side. And when push had come to shove, Ralph Chapman had remembered that, protecting the students legally so they could go forth and do good.

                “I have one guess, and it’s barely even that,” Mary said. “I don’t know what Globe is planning, but if he needed someone to work with him at Lander, I might have been the easiest person to convince to join him.”

                “And why is that?”

                “Because if what he was doing was good, then I could have listened to his thoughts and believed him. Not saying it would have worked, just that it might be what he was thinking,” Mary explained. “I doubt it helps much.”

                “We won’t know until things are fully settled,” Ralph Chapman replied. “But thank you, Ms. Smith. For your time, and your candor.”