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Chapter 10 - Jane

So Isabel Morelli is a real social butterfly. There is basically nothing that she can’t and won’t turn into a party of some kind. I’ve lost track of how many little parties I’ve attended under the guise of “study groups” or “meetings” or whatever the hell she wants to call them. It’s not my thing, but maybe that’s because these are not my people. Maybe I’m just a little jealous that I can’t call my old friends together on a whim, or that none of my get–together are considered a big deal.

Isabel’s absolute favorite is the “girls’ night out.” It’s an odd concept, isn’t it? I guess modern social interactions are based so centrally around dating that any non–dating situation has to have its own name. Anyway, about once every month or two I get a call from Isabel asking me if I want to hit the town with her friends. Usually, I say yes, though I’m really not sure why. Isabel’s other friends are operating on another wavelength entirely. As much as I have in common with any of them, they might as well be from another country – hell, another planet. A typical night out starts with dinner, where the girls talk about their boyfriends, which I don’t have. If I’m lucky, they let me sit there in silence. On less lucky evenings, when they’re in a mood for a project, they talk about the boys they could fix me up with. I let Isabel set me up once – now she knows not to do that anymore (long story – tell you another time). After that, it’s only a matter of time before someone breaks out the booze. Well, that may be a bit strong, since they drink whatever they can steal from their parents and they aren’t all that discriminating. There’s nothing like watching a bunch of high school dilettantes guzzling Kahlua and pretending that they’re wasted. The evening concludes with me driving my not–at–all drunk friends around town, stopping to let them yell at boys.

I’ll admit that it’s entertaining, if a little sad.

Every year, we have a night out with the team, and I knew that this year was going to be the same. I had mixed feelings about that. It’s a more sober crowd, so if nothing else I knew I’d be spared the sight of Isabel chugging a bottle of vermouth she blindly swiped from her house and then going into a tirade (another long story). It would also be a lot more comfortable for me – no more popular girls discussing their perfect lives, this was my crowd. But that’s also what worried me. I really had no idea how Hannah and Karen would get along with Isabel, or with each other for that matter. Being the only one who knows all of them, I might have had to play peacemaker, and that’s really not my role.

Was I too worried? I have a real problem with that.

That Saturday, Isabel set us up at this little Chinese place she likes. My job was to pick up the other girls. Isabel was always good at delegating tasks, so good that I never asked why she couldn’t bring us all down there herself. It was okay – gave me a chance to inform my guests of a few things.

The Bae residence was my first stop. Much to my surprise, Hannah came right out – no awkward dealing with the family, which is obviously good. I popped open the door for her. “Hop in. We just have to swing by and pick up our other teammate, should only take a minute.”

Hannah cleared her throat. “Maybe I should sit in the back.”

That, on the other hand, I was not expecting. The back seat of my car is tiny and filled with a really unacceptable amount of junk. Were I still ferrying Isabel’s crowd around, I probably would have cleaned it out, but this time it just skipped my mind.

“You...actually want to ride back there?”

“Someone has to sit back there.”

“True, but I came here first. You have right of first refusal.”

“All right. Help yourself.” I got the feeling she wanted to stay out of sight, and I wasn’t going to fight her over it.

Karen was my next pickup, and she didn’t even wait in the house. She was out on the curb, waving for me when I drove up. “Hey Jane! Over here!” I didn’t even have a chance to park before she ran up and hopped in the passenger seat. “Great to see you! Sorry, I guess I’m a little excited.”

“No problem,” I said. “Oh, Karen, this is Hannah. Hannah, Karen.” I’m not great at intros, if you haven’t figured that out by now.

Karen was halfway over the seat. “Of course! You’re Hannah...um...Bay?”

“It’s Bae,” she muttered.

“That’s right. Oh, my parents were going to introduce themselves to your family, but I guess it didn’t work out.” Karen nudged me. “You know how it is, right? You get caught up.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“So, where are we headed?” said Karen.

“Chinese place. Just a friendly get–together, should be a normal evening.”

Karen looked puzzled. “As opposed to what?”

This seemed as good a time as any to introduce my friends to the Morelli experience. “Well...Isabel doesn’t really know any of you. She’s used to dealing with a very different group.”

Karen laughed. “So she hangs out with a flashy crowd. It’s not like she was raised in a castle or anything. What’s she going to say?”

“Just...keep it in mind,” I said. “If she says anything...silly, try not to hold it against her. She doesn’t mean it.”

I probably shouldn’t have talked like that. Who the hell introduces people by hinting at how crazy one of them is? There’s really no situation that I can’t turn awkward in a hurry. I mean, Isabel isn’t that bad, really.

“You got here in a hurry.”

“Hit all greens. The reservation ready, or are we early?”

“Table for four, ready and waiting.”

“Cool, because we’re all here.” I waved for Hannah and Karen to join. “Girls, this is Isabel Morelli, the one who brought us together this evening. Isabel, this is Karen Schumaker and I believe you already know Hannah Bae.”

Karen reached out and grabbed Isabel’s hand, something that Isabel clearly didn’t anticipate. “I have wanted to talk to you for so long. Remember winter homecoming last year? Oh, you made such a glamorous entrance. Deep down, I really hoped you could give me some pointers.” She laughed. “I’m not good at that kind of thing.”

“Uh...okay.” Isabel glanced over at me, that old I need help look I’ve seen so many times before.

I jumped in. “Maybe we should head in. No reason to stand around on the street.”

“Of course,” said Isabel. “Oh, I always order in advance – you know, get everything out quicker. You ever been here?”

“Oh no,” said Karen. “I’m just not that adventurous.”

“It’s nothing strange like that, I just never order off the menu. You get the best service when you know what you’re doing.” Isabel looked over at Hannah for this next part. “Of course, it’s probably not as good as what you’re used to.”

“Goddamn it, Izzy,” I said under my breath. I wonder if I’ve embarrassed Isabel in front of her friends like she did in front of mine.

Isabel had actually landed us a small room apart from the main dining area. That would be a bigger deal someplace like New York City, I suppose, but I was impressed. It was important to have a little peace and quiet, because Isabel and I had to explain how we did things. The rules on the Northwest website are only the tip of the iceberg. The important chunks are all informal and unwritten. You only know the real rules if you’re genuinely in contention.

“All right, here’s the rundown,” I said. “Registration opens on Monday. It stays open for three days, but it’s always a good idea to get it out of the way as soon as possible so that nothing strange happens.”

Hannah meekly raised her hand. “What sort of ‘strange things’?”

I never did figure out a good way to answer that question that doesn’t make me sound crazy. So I took the coward’s route. “Let’s not think about that. Point is, we get the form in on Monday and everything’s fine. We’ll need your signatures, but one of us will take care of everything else.”

“I’ll take in the form,” added Isabel. “It’s not such a big deal, but it does get a little crazy around the office. You might want to show up early.”

“Crazy?” said Hannah. “I don’t like how this sounds.”

“Well, it sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun to me,” said Karen. “I do have one tiny little question. Have either of you ever had a match against one of your friends?”

“I don’t think that ever came up,” I said. “Why?”

“Oh, I’ve always wondered about that,” said Karen. “It just seems really hard. I figured that maybe you’d know some ways to deal with that.”

“Not in particular,” I said. “Why? Do you have a friend on another team?”

“Oh, it’s not for me. It’s for her.” She nodded toward Hannah. “Her brother is on another team, you know.”

That seemed a touch strange. Andrew Bae was a real champ when he was younger, but he gave up trivia years ago. “Someone talked him into playing?” I said.

“Yeah,” Hannah said. “He’s playing with someone named Aaron.”

Isabel and I groaned in unison. That had to be Aaron Bellamy, a little weasel with one hell of a Napoleon complex. I could write a thousand pages on Aaron Bellamy and still not come close to describing everything that’s wrong with him. I could tell you that he’s a pathological liar. I could list the many people he’s sabotaged over the years for petty revenge. Isabel could tell you about the deranged crush he has on her, which led him to keep tabs on her boyfriends and pull some really bizarre stunts in a weak attempt to catch her eye. I’d actually be impressed by his intellect if he wasn’t so goddamn evil.

“Is something wrong?” said Hannah.

“He’s a nut, is what’s wrong,” said Isabel.

“Look, if Aaron comes over, stay away from him. He’s a little...intense,” I said.

“Let’s change the subject, huh?” said Isabel. “There is one thing we still need: A team name.”

“Yeah, we’re never very good with those,” I said. “Hope was that maybe one of you – ”

“The Valkyries,” said Hannah. There was another surprise – I’d anticipated having to prod her into the conversation, and here she joins all on her own.

“What was that?” said Isabel.

Hannah lost her nerve real quick. “Sorry, it was nothing.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “Why don’t you tell us? I’m interested.”

“I just said ‘the Valkyries.’ They were the warrior women who escorted dead soldiers to Valhalla.” Hannah looked away. “But you don’t have to use it.”

It was a simple thing, but it got the point across. “I like it. Isabel?”

“It’s fine by me,” said Isabel.

“I just think it’s terrific, Hannah!” added Karen.

And that was how the Valkyries were born. It turned out to be a fine evening – other than Karen asking Hannah if the kung pao was “authentic,” no one said anything too stupid and no one threw up in my car. It was the first time since we started gathering the team that I felt really optimistic about the whole thing. Everything was turning out splendidly. Yeah, everyone was saying that it was going to be an especially ugly year, but there was no drama here.

Oh, and as long as we’re being honest, it was also the first time that I felt we could really kick some ass in this thing. In a fun way, though.

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