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Chapter 14 - Aaron

One of the many injustices in this competition is that, in the three years we’ve done this, Paul Liston and I have never had a chance to face each other.

The first year, both of our teams were washed out in the preliminary rounds. This was hardly a surprise, as it’s quite rare for freshmen to make it far. Few fourteen year–olds have the maturity to grasp the subtleties of this game. On the second year, we were set for a match in the semi–finals, but we were both trumped by the champions – his team in the quarters, mine in the semis. That I made it farther than him was a cold comfort – I already know that I’m smarter than Paul, that’s hardly the point. The important part is demonstrating it in front of everyone. And last year really seemed like it was the season that was going to happen. We were set for a climactic showdown in the final match, but Ken Greevey blew a bid in the semi–final and lost. I was likewise dragged down by inferior teammates, narrowly losing in the opposing semi–final round. This is one thing Paul and I have in common – we are both victims of other people. The difference is that I am his victim as well.

I have long dreamed of my on–stage retribution. When would be the best moment for my victory? In the final round, as I snatch victory away from his greedy hands? Or would it better to trump him in the preliminaries, denying him the opportunity to even reach the show? Dare I risk too many rounds, lest he be defeated by some team of lucky idiots before I have a chance to work my magic?

Of course, I have no control over the schedule, so this is all rather moot. But as I pondered each possibility, I realized that none of them are sufficiently humiliating. Paul has suffered three losses, as have I. Each failure was painful, but not painful enough. A boy with his deceitful and cruel nature deserves something more personal. He deserves a humiliation that will pay in dividends.

I spent months devising this plan. I’ll grant you that it’s a little elaborate, even a bit risky, but that smug bastard deserves every step.

I started the process on Monday. I sent Brian to the office to file our entry papers while I went to find my rival. Sadly, this meant that I missed Brian dressing down Paul’s fat little lapdog. God, I can’t stand that prick. In fact, I hate Ken nearly as much as I hate Paul. He probably deserves some punishment, both for his complicity and for being a boring, pedantic pain in the ass in general, but there will be plenty of time to deal with him later. Anyway, while Brian was handling the details I tracked down Paul so we could have a little man–to–man talk. I confronted him with his latest misdeed (a backstabber can never quite restrain himself, can he?) and laid out his future in detail. He played ignorant, as he always does, but I could see worry in his eyes.

This was merely part one. When the hammer falls, I don’t want there to be any doubt as to why.

The registration closed yesterday. Tomorrow is the entrance test, the final gateway to Trivia Master. That left a single day with which to conduct my necessary business. And this plan of mine...you have no idea how happy I am with the way it turned out. This is a good two months’ effort on my part. Paul is certainly capable of figuring it out, but the beautiful part isn’t what it will do to him but how he’s going to react. Oh, to get a picture of his face when the trap springs...

...Oh, but I dare not give too much away. I want everyone to see what happens at the same time.

The first stop of the afternoon was the office. I timed my arrival very carefully so that I showed up just a little bit after the bell. The place has been abuzz with activity for three days, but at that moment – just when it really mattered – it was desolate. The only person there was my contact, Clarice Adams. Clarice is a charming young woman with a solid GPA who does clerical jobs in the office for extra credit. She also has secrets – nasty, sordid, embarrassing secrets. Everyone in Northwest has secrets. Tug on the right thread, and a student’s dirty laundry becomes public record. Clarice knows this. I haven’t let her forget it.

I approached her very casually, as though we were old acquaintances. “You have what I asked for?”

“Before we do this, I need to explain some things.” Clarice was clearly a bundle of nerves, ready to bolt at the first sign of movement. “I never actually planned on doing anything like this. What you saw...it’s not me, I swear. I was talked into something –”

She was rambling, and I really didn’t have time for this. “I really don’t care, Clarice. I don’t care about your reputation. All I care about is that.” I pointed to the manilla envelope she’s clutching. “And it had better not be damaged.”

“I don’t understand. Why do you want the office letterhead?”

“Does it really matter to you? It’s a very simple deal. I get the envelope, you get this.” I held up an SD card, gripped between two fingers just outside of her reach. “Do you really care what happens to that piece of paper?”

Now Clarice was wringing her hands so hard I think they might come off. “It’s just...I don’t want to hurt anyone. I can’t be involved in that kind of thing.”

“Oh, but you’ll be involved in this kind of thing?” I wagged the card at her. “The only question you should be asking is what is he going to do with those photographs? Post them online? Print up some nice, glossy copies and mail them to your parents?”

“No, please!” She handed over the envelope. “Just take it.”

It’s not a difficult proposition. She hands over the envelope without a second thought. Clarice may be a scared rabbit, but she does what she’s told – the papers she’s delivered are exactly what I requested.

“Thank you.” I dropped the card in her waiting hands. “I think the office has a heavy–duty shredder that can dispose of that. If you don’t have an electromagnet, that’s what I recommend.”

“Hold on,” she said. “How do I know you don’t have copies?”

“Why would I keep copies? I needed those shots for one thing, and I’m now done. Your double life is no longer relevant to me.”

“Well, how do I know that you won’t say anything?”

People ask me that a lot. I always respond the same way: “You’re not important enough for me to say anything.”

My classmates are so egotistic. Do these people really think that any of them are significant enough to warrant a betrayal? Do they really think that I would compromise my own finely wrought plans just to expose them?

There was still a lot to do, and just barely enough time to get it all done. My next destination was the gifted education room, where the question lists are compiled and edited. The computers in the gifted room are the only ones in the building that contain the master lists, so during the tournament the room is always being watched by someone trustworthy. The school is less concerned with propriety during the preliminary rounds, though. The only person down there this afternoon is Davis Racossi, a weaselly little scammer who’ll do anything for the right price. Apparently no one’s aware that Davis is down there, because it would be an invitation for everyone to cheat if it were widely known.

“You Aaron Bellamy?” Davis has the distinct look and mannerisms of a liar. I can’t believe that they trust him to handle this.

“No time for introductions today.” I passed him a ten–dollar bill. Davis may well be the cheapest Benedict Arnold who ever lived. “Let’s get to it.”

He slipped the bill into his wallet. “Well, we’re all ready to go, then.” He set a disc on the table in front of me. “Burned this just before you came in.”

“Put it on the computer so I can see the files.”

“You don’t trust me?”

“No, I don’t.”

“All right, fair enough.” He put the disc on one of the computers. As promised, it contains an extensive list of questions and answers. “See? Are we square?”

“Print a copy of the first page.”

The weasel shook his head. “Man, I told you when we set this up: No hard copies. It’s too suspicious, they can catch that kind of thing.”

“Davis, if you don’t print this file, I promise you will regret it for what remains of your life.”

“Okay, geez.” He tapped a few buttons and the printer sprang to life. “This isn’t a setup, is it?”

Another egotist. “No, you twit. And there’s no one here, so hand me the damn printout.”

“Okay, I believe you.” Davis quickly slid the printout over to me. “Just...y’know, don’t show it to anyone, all right?”

“Sure.” I folded it up and cram it into my back pocket.

“Uh...aren’t you going to look at that?”

“I pay you not to care. Now forget I was here and get back to what you were doing.”

It’s important to let these kind of people know who’s boss, especially when it’s someone like Davis. I hate dealing with his type. Aside from the oily sensation, there’s always a risk in dealing with someone whose loyalties are so mercenary. If it wasn’t for the overkill firewalls they keep on those damn things then I’d just hack in, but you do what you must.

My final stop was the library. The timing here is very important – it’s early enough in the semester so no one is studying or writing a paper, but there also aren’t any clubs holding meetings in there. The only person present was a dim–looking library aide.

I met her at the desk. “Good afternoon. Stuck here late?”

“What do you want?”

Typical low–class rudeness. Still, there are ways to use that. “Sorry, I can see that I’m bothering you. I’ll wait, it’s...it’s nothing that can’t wait a day, I guess.”

“All right, geez, I’m sorry. Don’t run off. What do you need?”

A touch of guilt goes a long way. “I’ll be quick. I believe that there’s an old electric typewriter around here somewhere. You know where it is?”

“Um...I think so. Follow me.”

She lead me to a corner of the library with a few partitioned desks. “Excellent. I forget, when does the library close?”

“Thirty minutes from now, I think.”

“Well, I’ll have to be quick.” Maybe I can kill two birds with one stone here. “Hey, are you doing Trivia Master?”

She stares blankly. “No, I never do that.”

“And, you’re down here every day?”

“Just Thursdays and Fridays. Why?”

“I might have a favor to ask. There’s twenty bucks in it if you can help me.”

“It’s nothing weird, is it?”

“Not at all. I just need you to deliver something for me. Stick around, I’ll tell you what I need after I’m done here.”

Everything went like clockwork. In a few days, Paul is going to get the surprise of his life.

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