Chapter 33 - Paul
“Correct, for twenty points.”
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and I wasn’t alone. Aaron was pale and sweating and looked like he was on the verge of a complete breakdown. All around me, people were whispering to each other, trying to get a grip on this unusual turn of events. I looked over at Ken, hoping he might have some insight, but he was totally occupied. He had a stopwatch in one hand and a pen in the other, hastily jotting down numbers into his notebook. The whole time, he was muttering to himself “Not possible...it’s not possible.”
Ken put away the stopwatch and dug a calculator out of his bag. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Just keep watching the stage, I’ll tell you later.” He turned back to his notes.
“The Brazilian wandering spider.”
Ken tapped me on the shoulder. “There’s something wrong, here. No one could be this fast. You seeing anything funny up there?”
“You think Leon is cheating? I can’t see how.”
“Neither can I, but find something. This makes no sense.”
“It looks normal to me...”
Of course, what I meant is that nothing suspicious was happening up there. There was nothing normal about this.
The Praetorians won by 400 to 130. That part definitely wasn’t normal. I don’t remember what the biggest blowout I’ve ever seen was, but I’m sure it was less than 270 points.
We broke for lunch after the round. I’d hoped for some idle conversation, anything to distract from what I’d just seen, but that wasn’t to be. Ken spent the whole time staring at his notebook, trying to find some logic in the numbers.
Not that I didn’t try to leaven the mood. “That was unique, huh?” Only silence greeted me. “You know, I’d like to believe they were cheating, too, but unless he’s psychic, I don’t see how.” More silence. “Say something, man, you’re freaking me out.”
Ken looked up and stared off into the sky. “Leon’s, uh...Leon’s reaction time is somewhere around 220 milliseconds. Maybe faster. That’s...he’s at least a tenth of a second faster than you. At least.” He closed the notebook, put it away, and stood up. “This is bad. This is really bad.”
“I wasn’t expecting it to get this hard either, but it’s not like we’re out of contention. He can’t beat all of us just on his own. No one’s perfect, right?”
Ken looked back at me. He was staring straight through me, like I just told him that the sky had polka–dots. He didn’t say a word – he didn’t have to. The incredulous look told me all I needed to know.
“All right, Ken. Clearly, you have a lot to work through here, and I’m not helping. So, I guess I’ll see you later.”
As I turned to leave, I heard a voice from behind. “Hey, Ken.”
I looked over my shoulder. It was Leon Mara, in the flesh. Ken dropped his blank stare and seemed to perk up immediately. “Hey, buddy!” he said in an exaggeratedly cheerful voice. “That was quite a round!”
“Thanks.” He looked at me. “And you would be Paul Liston, correct?”
“Yeah, I’m Paul. Leon, right?” Leon extended his hand, which I shook with some trepidation. “That was really an impressive victory.”
“Thanks, it was a good round,” said Leon. “Sorry if I was interrupting anything.”
“Not at all!” chimed in Ken. “We were just killing time, right Paul?”
“Yeah, we’re not doing anything important here,” I said.
“Good,” said Leon. “There was just something I wanted to ask real quick. Paul, are you busy this evening?”
“This evening?” I said. “I don’t think so...I’ll check, but I should be open. Why?”
“Well, we’re new in town, and I’ve already spent some time with Ken, but other than that I really don’t know anyone around here. I was talking to my father last night, and he thought that with the finals coming up, it would be nice to get to know the head of the team we’ll be playing against. To keep everything friendly and all. You are the team leader?”
“Sure he is!” said Ken, throwing his arm around my shoulder. “He’s the glue that holds the Raging Nerds together!”
Leon nodded. “Good. If you have time, I was thinking you might come by our house for dinner. I’ll let you check your schedule. Do you have some paper?”
“Of course I have paper!” Ken grabbed his notebook and ripped out a page, handing it to Leon with a ridiculous grin.
“Thanks.” Leon wrote something down and handed it to me. “This is the address and house number. Just call if you’re free, and I’ll give you directions, okay?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Thanks,” said Leon. “See you later.”
We were both quiet until Leon was out of earshot, at which point Ken said “You’re going to call, right?”
“Call him? I don’t know. I mean, I’ve never been that comfortable going to stranger’s houses.”
“I’d go in a second, but he didn’t invite me. Come on, this is a great opportunity.”
“Opportunity for what? What’s your angle?”
“No angle,” said Ken, trying to play it coy. “But, you know, he is probably our greatest opponent ever, and it might be a good idea to get to know him. You know, in advance?”
I got the message loud and clear. “You want me to spy on him, don’t you?”
“I don’t care for that word, Paul. And don’t tell me you’re not curious, too.”
“Maybe a little.” What? I’m only human.
“Of course, you are! Look, I don’t know if this kid is cheating or if he’s some kind of freak of nature, but the only way we’re going to find out is by getting a look at his inner sanctum.”
I laughed in Ken’s face – I couldn’t help it, this was absurd even for him. “What makes you think I’m even capable of this? I’m no spy, Ken”
“Not much to it. All you’d have to do is keep your eyes open. Maybe take a few pictures.”
“You want me to plant a bug in there, too?”
Ken rolled his eyes. “Paul, be serious. That’s not even remotely practical.”
“Fine. I’ll go to his house, but I’m not gonna do recon for you.”
“Well, will you at least get in touch afterward so I know what you found?”
“I’ll drop you a line, okay?”
“All I’m asking.”
I’m such a sucker. I actually called Leon, acting against every impulse to keep my distance. That’s how, at 5:30, I ended up on a bus headed towards the edge of town.
Pre–match meetings between rival teams aren’t especially common. When they do happen, they are inevitably approached with caution from both sides. It wasn’t that I felt worried – from what I knew of Leon, he wasn’t going to try and pull anything. If anything, I was the schemer here. I was the one on a mission to unearth my rival’s secrets. But just because I wasn’t anticipating a knife in my back, that doesn’t mean that I was comfortable.
The Mara residence was a huge house, but old and in an inconvenient part of town – two factors that no doubt made it very affordable for Leon’s parents. The walkway to the door was a twisting path made from cobblestones that were half sunk into the ground, half swallowed by the soil. It’s almost like this place was made to be intimidating.
Not seeing a buzzer, I knocked on the door. Moments later, an unassuming middle–aged man appeared in the frame. He seemed oddly familiar, like an old picture all grown up.
“You’re Paul Liston?” he said.
“No need to be so formal. Come on in, I’ll go find the kids.”
Mr. Mara led me into a small study. It was like something out of an old movie – very old fashioned, with cracked leather armchairs, a big stained glass coffee table, antique wall–mounted lamps and bookshelves built into every wall that extended up to the ceiling. The shelves were packed, but only some of them with books. From what I could see, most of the space was occupied by board games – dozens of them, some new, some old, all of them obviously well used. The coffee table was bare except for a small wooden box situated dead in the center. I nudged off the lid and peeked inside, finding it full of Trivial Pursuit cards. They were from various sets, all of them soft and worn at the edges, like the kind of thing you’d see in a restaurant.
I was so focused on the cards that I didn’t notice Leon come in. “Hello, Paul. Brushing up on your skills?”
I hastily shut the box and stood up. “Oh, sorry. Going through people’s things, it’s kind of a bad habit.”
“No big deal, that’s why they’re there,” said Leon. “Do you ever find time to play?”
“In gifted classes, sometimes.”
Leon looked around the room. “I think my dad owns every edition that they ever made. Even some rare ones, although those are in storage.”
“Well, it’s good to have a hobby.”
“Oh, it’s more than a hobby.” Leon smiled. “Well, come in to the kitchen. Dinner’s almost ready.”
The kitchen and dining area were surprisingly small, given the size of the house. Corkboards covered the walls, covered in newspaper clippings and photographs. As we walked in, another kid entered from another direction, carrying some kind of odd tool whose function I couldn’t deduce.
“How long I gotta wait up here?” said the kid.
“Don’t be rude, Eric,” said Mr. Mara “Five minutes, and you can get back to your project.”
“All right.” Eric looked at me. “You’re the kid Leon’s gonna beat?”
“There’s no need to be a smartass,” said Leon. “Sorry about Eric. He’s a little impulsive, but he’s got the makings of a champion himself. Take a seat.”
The table was set for three people. I felt awkward enough without asking where Mrs. Mara was. There was an odd centerpiece on the table with several compartments, each containing trivia cards.
“Can’t help but notice that you guys are really into trivia,” I said.
“It’s sort of a family tradition,” said Leon. “Speaking of traditions, you lucked out. My dad makes this special gourmet pizza that’s unlike anything you’ve ever had in a restaurant. It’s like an Italian–Greek fusion.”
Mr. Mara poked his head into the dining area. “Taking a little longer than I thought. Maybe you’d like to run through a few cards?”
“I’ll read ’em.” Eric leaned over the table and took a card. “What is the term for opposition to an electrical...”
“Resistance,” said Leon.
“Right, of course,” said Eric.
I flicked through the cards, which seemed to have been cannibalized from a variety of sets. Leon wasn’t kidding – some of these cards were from rare editions, the kind I’d seen sell for hundreds of dollars in online auctions. The group of cards in the middle stood out, though. They were plain white, lettered in what appeared to be ballpoint pen.
I picked one up. “These ones look hand–made.”
“Yeah, I made those for practice back in the day,” said Mr. Mara. “A few years back, I had them laminated. They’re a keepsake.”
Suddenly, it all hit me. I knew why this all seemed so familiar. “You’re Jerry Mara.”
The name Mara probably isn’t familiar to you, but we all know who he is. I can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out. This guy’s a living legend.
A little background: The only official records kept of non–televised trivia contests are the names of the winners in each division. However, there are always a few buffs keeping more detailed records. Back in 1982, one such group of amateur statisticians decided to compile a guidebook with figures on all public matches. First published through vanity presses, moved to its own website in 1996 and now produced via its own dedicated printer, the Aukland’s Unauthorized Almanac of Trivia and Trivia Competitions is the ultimate resource for obsessive quiz geeks. It’s now available in around twenty languages and there are all sorts of special editions that sell a lot better than you’d imagine, but the most common is the humble manual–sized paperback, given away for free at a variety of events. I’ve been carrying one of those editions since this competition started.
These things are chock full of insanely detailed stats and histories of events, but the most interesting part of the guide is the listing of the dramatis personae, the rock stars of the trivia world. The information found here is unavailable anywhere else. For example, the official records note that the 1992 Championships were won by a team from Chester A. Arthur High School. Only the Almanac will tell you that this team averaged a whopping 340 points per round – or that one member, Jeremiah Mara, pulled off a 100% accuracy rate in twenty–nine recorded matches. You know what they called him? “The Supercomputer That Walks Like A Man.”
And here I was, sitting in his presence. I felt like I should stand, or genuflect, or maybe knock my head on the floor.
I might have been awestruck, but Mr. Mara just laughed it off. “I guess they’re still passing that trivia almanac around, huh? Yeah, those were some fun times.” A ding sounded from the kitchen. “Pizza’s ready. All right, Eric, cut yourself a slice and you can get back to work.”
I couldn’t really concentrate on much after that. We talked about this and that and I assume I responded, but it was all a deeply awkward blur. The revelation of my opponent’s roots just made me feel more screwed. Once dinner was over, I immediately planned my retreat.
“You sure you don’t want to stay any longer?” said Leon. “We’ve been refurbishing and remodeling this old air hockey table. The neon highlights aren’t set in yet, but it’s still pretty sweet.”
“Thanks, but I’m a little tired. Been kind of a long week.”
“Of course. You know, if you want to maximize your reflexes, you should get eight and a half hours of sleep followed by at least three hours of wakefulness.”
“Thanks. Hey, how do you put up with all the pressure? New to the school, plus the contest...”
“There’s no pressure. It’s fun. Don’t you agree?”
“Yeah. Fun. Well, see you tomorrow afternoon.”
“Of course. Good luck, Paul.”
The bus ride home gave me some time to think. Mostly, I thought about the state of my life, and how much I’d tied it up with contests like this. I wondered what I’d missed along the way.
Ken was waiting at my stop. He was going to be even more displeased than me.