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Chapter 20 - Aaron

The first week is over, and it’s about damn time. I can’t stand the preliminary rounds. It’s just so much meaningless ritual, something to prop up this meritocratic myth of theirs and give a lot of false hope to a bunch of dead–end teams who never had a shadow of a chance. Even the most humble contestant knows that some people just don’t have a prayer. There aren’t that many people who will admit it, but everyone knows deep down that the the tournament doesn’t really begin until the onset of the quarterfinals, and sometimes not even until after that.

The prelims are now over and the bracket has been updated, so let’s see who will be competing in the quarters. We have Pirate Radio, a crew of would–be disc jockeys who run some kind of podcast or radio show of something – I tried listening once and it sounded like the router was malfunctioning. All I know is that these idiots are actually trying to talk people into hiring them for parties, so my guess is that they only signed up for promotion. It doesn’t matter that they’re going to be stomped by the Valkyries, all that matters is that everyone in this hellhole is going to hear their names and see their faces. Getting beaten by a premier team may be exactly what they want, just because their round will draw a bigger crowd. Point is, they are not a factor.

Then there’s the Specials, the team poor Duncan Washington had to form on his own because my nemesis poached his friend. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, no one ever leaves happy when Paul Liston is involved. We’re up against them, and I predict a cakewalk. Duncan is pretty good and his team is reasonably intelligent, but without Trevor they lack the guts and reflexes to keep up their score. Brian is predicting a win of 250 to 160, which I think is on the conservative side. If I flex my muscles I could probably top 300, but that might be too cruel. It’s not Duncan’s fault that Liston screwed him over.

Now for the under card. The Skeleton Crew is a group of freshmen and sophomores that got phenomenally lucky. Their opponent in the prelims was one of the worst teams I’ve ever seen, so their victory was pretty much foregone. They’re too new to gauge, but I can’t imagine that they’ll put up much of a fight.

The Praetorians are also new at this. I don’t know much about them except that the team leader has been seen chatting it up with Ken Greevey. I’m sure that fat little turd has been spreading all sorts of stories about me – not that it matters. We’ll be up against either the Praetorians or the Skeleton Crew in the semifinals. I suppose it’s possible that the former could be a challenge, but I’m not too worried either way.

Now let’s talk about the top card, the teams who are really in contention. My petit chou–fleur has fielded one hell of a team this year. From what I’ve heard about their performance in the prelims, the Valkyries have some real momentum coming in to the true phases of the tournament. Of course, it remains to be seen how they’ll do under battle conditions. It’s one thing to land a blowout when there’s no one watching and you’re up against a team that’s been sabotaged. Their quarterfinal round should show us if they have the right stuff.

Then again, they are up against the Raging Nerds in the semifinals. I do hope that Paul and Ken win, because if they don’t I won’t have the chance to humiliate them. I’m not especially impressed with their team, but Paul can carry them through the quarters by himself. We’ll see how they fare against a team that can actually fight back.

That leaves only Paul’s opponent in the quarters, the Council of Seelie. The second I saw that name, I knew that Colette Henshaw was involved. No one else would bother digging up a name like that for a high school competition. Colette is one of the most deeply unpleasant individuals I’ve ever encountered – an uptight prig who doesn’t understand or respect anything unless she dug it out of some half–forgotten old book. We’d considered her for our team before I realized that I’d rather chew razor blades than spend time with her. Still, here is an opportunity – Colette’s team being the next stop for my foe.

Paul played it cool when we met earlier in the week, but I know I threw him for a loop. Now he knows without a shadow of a doubt that I can hurt him. He’s always thought that he was too smart and too cautious to fall prey to my snares, but he just barely slithered out of this one. What I needed to generate a little more pressure – just enough to let him know that he’s not getting away with anything. And wouldn’t you know it: An opportunity presented itself at one of Brian’s little strategy meetings.

“Aaron? Are you listening?”

“Yes, Brian, I’m listening.”

“Well? What do you think?”

“All right, Brian, you got me. I missed that last part. Why don’t you repeat it?”

I had an excellent excuse for letting my mind wander. Brian’s lectures on stats will do that every time. I think he finally tired of me leaving in the middle of his presentations, so he called us all to the library to a little corner table where he could keep an eye on us. “All of us” didn’t include Sid – Brian promised him that he could go to his band practice instead of sitting in on our meetings, the lucky bastard. I actually told Andrew that he could skip them too, but he popped in on that one, anyway. I suspect he just wanted to speak with me, but he had to endure Brian first. I imagine that he’ll never do that again.

“You should really listen, because this is the part you’ll like.” He cleared his throat, always a good sign that an endless speech is due to arrive. “I’ve been analyzing score statistics and listening to chatter from our classmates, and according to my model we are now favored to win.”

“By how much?” I asked him, more to humor him than out of genuine curiosity.

“Well, if we face the Valkyries in the final round, we have a 60% chance of winning,” he says. “If we face the Raging Nerds, it’s 53%.”

Only a math geek like Brian would be excited about odds that are barely better than chance. “That is unacceptably low and you know it. Notwithstanding, I don’t know how much we should be trusting models.”

“The models are fine!” He looked at Andrew. “I showed you the models, you know they’re sound.”

“I really don’t care,” said Andrew.

“Oh, come on!” Now Brian’s about to have a fit. “Everyone agrees. We’re running 6 to 5! That’s respectable!”

Brian made that last part up. It’s not that people wouldn’t gamble on Trivia Master, mind you. It’s just that no one has enough money to cover the spread. Yeah, I’ve heard rumors about people running numbers out of that disused pothead room on the third floor, but that’s all they are – rumors. People in this place are much too gullible.

“Whatever, Brian.” Looking up, I spotted someone interesting at the next table. “Is that Colette?”

Brian looked around. “Sure is. Anyway...”

I stopped him. “Put it on hold, Brian.”

“What, you’re gonna go talk to her? Why?”

“That’s my business.”

Colette was sitting by herself, which is her standard state of being. She was surrounded by notebooks, crumpled sheets of paper, yearbooks, and spirals of the school code of conduct. Obviously this was a one–woman strategy session.

“Colette?”

“Excuse me.” She looked up for just a second. “Not now, Aaron Bellamy. I am following up on a lead. There was a leak of falsified documents earlier in the week and I’m on the verge of finding the perpetrator.”

“You’re talking about the Trivia Master questions?”

“Yes, and I have a solid lead I’m working on, so excuse me.” Colette is nothing if not single–minded. One more thing to dislike about her, but that’s also something I can use.

“Well, it’s interesting that you should bring that up.” I took a seat next to her, peeking around a sizable stack of refuse. “I have a lead myself.”

Colette put down her pencil and looked up at me. Now that I had something she could use, she actually had a trace of interest. “What do you know? And I hope you’re not wasting my time. Time is a valuable commodity and I can’t spare a second.”

“Not at all.” God, she’s repulsive. “A few days ago, I was talking to Paul Liston. You know him, right?”

She looked back at her papers. “I believe he is on the team I’ll be facing in next week’s quarterfinals. The schedule should be around here somewhere.”

“I’m sure it is, but that’s not important.” She’s worse than Brian with this crap. “Well, he was talking about the leak, and he said some very curious things. He knew that it was on office stationery, he knew how the list was disseminated...I don’t want to level any unfounded accusations, but I can’t think of how he knew any of that.”

She disappeared into thought for a moment. “Not many people know about those things. But I haven’t encountered any clues that direct me towards Paul Liston. Whoever did this had to have access to both the office and the gifted room where the questions were kept. Paul Liston is in the gifted program, but he does not have access to the main office.”

“Of course, but then it occurs to me that whoever did this would be smart enough to get other people to do the dirty work. He wouldn’t risk being seen in the office.”

“Hmm...A possibility I hadn’t even considered.” Colette pulled out some random document and started jotting notes in the margins.

“Look, I’m not saying that Paul did this. Maybe he just knows who did it. Maybe it’s just a coincidence.”

“Yes, maybe. But I see now that a specter of impropriety hangs over this entire event.” Colette leaped to her feet, cramming her materials into a bag that looked far too small to hold the whole mess. “If I had the time, I’d conduct my own investigation into this competition. Since I don’t, I’ll need another way to ensure that the rules are observed. I thank you for your assistance, Aaron Bellamy.”

“Not a problem.” And thus, the seeds were planted. No, this plan wasn’t nearly as intricate as the last – I whipped most of it up on the fly. Still, I think it’s even better. It’s a more subtle form of manipulation, and I always have preferred the scalpel to the sledgehammer.

I returned to my own table. “Brian, I think we should cut this short.”

“Cut it short?” Brian looked like he was about to have a panic attack. “But this is our last meeting before it starts!”

“Exactly,” I said. “Once we’ve got data from the quarters, we’ll have something to talk about.”

“Okay, I guess.” I’ve never heard anyone sound so disappointed.

I got up to leave, Andrew following close behind. He looked frosty and in control when I’d seen him before, but that day he resembled a hunted squirrel. Oh, he hid it, but I could sense his paranoia.

“Something on your mind, Aaron?” I said.

“Yeah, remember that deal we made when I joined the team?”

“I sure do.”

“Okay.” Andrew clears his throat. “Well, I was taking shit from this basketball player, Donny...”

“Donny Carter. The one who got busted with alcohol in his locker.”

“Yeah, I wanted to ask about that. He swears that the booze wasn’t his.”

I turned to him. “Donny’s a drunken asshole. Everyone knows it.”

“Yeah, but with what you said, I was wondering – ”

I cut him off. “Don’t ask too many questions.”

“But I never even mentioned a name. How would you even know – ”

“No questions.”

“Okay. Well...thanks for whatever you might have done.”

That was nothing. Making a drunk look like a drunk isn’t hard. Now, exposing sunny Paul for the bastard he is? That takes finesse.

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