Chapter 15

When Vince, Alex, and Roy finally arrived at the lounge, they found the girls already sitting at Nick’s side, a look of defeat on their pretty faces. Nick, on the other hand, looked like the cat that got the cream, drinking a soda and flashing them a winning grin as the three young men approached his section.

“I call shenanigans,” Roy thundered, bounding ahead of the others. “There was no way we could have done all that in the time frame you gave us. The places were all over town.”

“I hate to say it, but I agree,” Alex said. “I think you set us up for failure on this one.”

“That does sound like Nick,” Alice mumbled under her breath.

“We only beat you guys here by a few minutes,” Mary told them.

“Which was still a good half hour past the deadline,” Nick pointed out, setting down his drink. “Now, let me address your concerns. Did I set you up to fail? Well, it depends on what you mean by that phrase.”

“We’re listening,” Mary said.

“If you mean I did it knowing you would fail, then yes. If you mean it as I gave you a task that couldn’t be accomplished, then no. What I gave you was doable, I just knew you all wouldn’t be successful at accomplishing it.”

“How could you know something like that?” Camille asked, her voice only a few degrees louder than the background music.

“Elementary, my dear healer,” Nick told her. “I knew you’d go after this the same way most of you go after every problem: you’d pick a path and charge ahead blindly. At no point did it occur to you that there might be some strategy to implement in this particular task.”

“Like what?”

“For starters? You could have mapped out your routes a bit. Nearly all of my tasks had specific geographical markers required. If you all had taken the time to lay out a map, like so-” Nick pulled a folded map from his pocket and set it on the table in front of him. He unfurled it, showing a variety of dots scattered across the town’s surface. There were six different colors, each in locations the group was now more familiar with. “-you could have easily seen the natural clusters and plotted a path that had you doing one task after another, cutting down on travel time drastically.”

Alex stared at the dots, piecing together who was what color from the spots he knew various pictures had been taken. Something was nagging at him, and now that there was time to think he let that nag mature into a full-grown thought.

“You’re lying,” Alex said. “Roy is red, Vince is blue, and I’m orange, right?”

“Correct,” Nick confirmed.

“Then there was no ideal route. No matter what we did we’d still have to cross town at least twice. That trip alone would have put us over the time,” Alex pointed out.

“Correct again,” Nick agreed. “Which brings me to my next point. You formed the wrong teams.”

“How?” Roy demanded. “You gave us the papers with our requirement. All the boys were on orange and the girls were on blue.”

“I did do that, but I never told you how to split up,” Nick pointed out. “You just accepted the format that was given to you without applying any thought of your own.”

“Shit,” Alex said, his face still peering at Nick’s map.

“What?” Mary asked.

“He’s right. If instead of the red dot Vince and I had been paired with the white one we could have easily planned a route with almost no backtracking,” Alex said, pointing to the map to illustrate.

“But then how would we have known what pictures to take? The other team would have had the paper you needed for at least one person’s pictures,” Alice said.

Vince shook his head. “We were using cell phone cameras with digital displays. It would have taken no time for us to photograph the other team’s sheet.”

“Right again,” Nick said. “I’m starting to think you folks are smarter than you look.”

“So what, if we’d done all this prep work we had no idea we needed, then we could have won the bet? That seems pretty convoluted,” Alice accused.

“Does it? Does creating a real life demonstration of your natural failings in an environment with low consequences seem convoluted? Perhaps you’re missing the point of this little display,” Nick said, rising from his seat. “I wanted you to see what you all lack, which is planning and critical thinking skills. At no point did any of you try a strategy even remotely outside the box. You ran forward recklessly, focused on just doing things faster rather than smarter. The reason you lost tonight isn’t because you weren’t intelligent enough to figure this out, it is because you simply aren’t used to doing things that way. But you need to be, because if our previous test showed us anything, it is that these exams won’t boil down to pure power. We’ll need strategy, too.”

“Isn’t that what we’ve got you for?” Vince asked.

“Yes, and at the same time no,” Nick replied. “I’ll explain more later on; right now let’s just relax a little. The game is over so we can sit back and shoot the shit for the remainder of the night.”

“Works for me,” Alice agreed.

“Then tomorrow will begin the slasher marathon to end all slasher marathons,” Nick finished.

“Wait, you’re really going to make us do that? I thought it was just a threat so we’d work harder,” Alex said.

“Oh no, I always honor my bets,” Nick informed him. “Besides, if there are no consequences to failure then the lessons just don’t take as well.”

Vince turned to Camille. “If you want to jump ship to another group, I bet there’s still time.”

His tone was light-hearted and clearly meant in jest. Still, Camille turned an analytical eye toward her new comrades. Half of them were glaring at the boy wearing sunglasses indoors, and most of the others were staring fiercely at a map in dim lighting. Tonight had been one of the oddest training exercises she’d ever participated in, but she had to admit it had been successful in driving home a point to everyone. Besides which, she’d actually kind of enjoyed herself in the hecticness of it all.

Camille gave Vince a small smile. “I think I’ll stick it out for a while longer.”