Chapter 196

               Despite her looks, wealth, and social standing, Alice had never done pageants or balls. The risk that she might get overly excited or happy and start floating up to the ceiling was simply too great. Her interactions with other women of high society were confined to rigid, formal occasions like dinners or tea. She loathed them, and often couldn’t stand people who enjoyed them, which meant she was never at risk of getting so happy she committed the faux pas of floating. It was this lack of experience that caused her to nearly gag as she entered the female employee changing room, tonight designated for contestants, and choked on the mist of hairspray coating the air.

                All around her were other young woman in various stages of undress as they changed into their team outfits. Some had chosen function over fashion, picking clothes that were easy to move in and provided good coverage, while others were wearing clothes only a few inches of fabric more than a bathing suit. A couple of teams wore matching ensembles, but most had only gone as far as trying to coordinate color-scheme. Alice felt dizzy in the once familiar area, though whether it was due to crush of bodies or the fog of hairspray was impossible to say for sure. Just as she began to reel, a strong hand reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling her out of the thickest part of the crowd and off to a corner.

                “Hell of a lot of competition,” Angela said as she hauled Alice to safety. She was already dressed in jean shorts and a pink and white plaid button-down top with more than a few of those buttons left unlatched. Atop her head was a pink cowboy hat, an aspect of the planned outfit she hadn’t bothered relaying to Alice. “But we’ll take ‘em all down. Now hurry up and get changed. They’re going to do team intros in ten or so.”

                “Yeah, sure, just give me a second to get my lungs working again,” Alice managed to choke out. “There are a lot of people here. At least a hundred. It’s going to take forever for us to all do every event.”

                “Oh no, only ten teams actually get to compete,” Angela explained. “We do the intro walk, then it is right into the qualifier round. Top ten teams get to play for the win; everyone else gets a free beer as thanks for coming out.”

                “Wait, what? We might not even get to compete?”

                “Relax.” Angela put an arm around her teammate’s shoulders. “I made the qualifying rounds last year with a deadweight partner that I had to pull along. We’ll crush it with no issue. Plus, unlike most of these gals, you and I are used to playing for high stakes.”

                “You still could have warned me about it,” Alice grumbled as she stripped out of her jeans and into an outfit that, while similar, wasn’t quite a perfect match for Angela’s. Her shorts were a bit longer, and the design on her shirt was slightly different. Still, anyone who looked at them would see them as a group, and that was the point of the outfits in the first place.

                “Sure I could have, but where’s the fun in that? Besides, if I thought you needed preparation to win something that easy, I would have never asked you to be on my team,” Angela said.

                Alice realized this was a fight she wouldn’t be winning, so she decided to focus on doing something productive, like information gathering. “Fine, can you at least tell me which event is the qualifier so I know what I’m heading into?”

                “I suppose it can’t do any harm.” Despite Angela’s words, the gleam in her eye said so it could do just so very much harm. And that gleam rarely lied.

*             *             *

                Though the line outside Six-Shooter had been massive, the bouncers managed to process each person’s entry with a methodical, efficient speed. I.D.s were shown, money was collected (from both genders, in a rare change of policy) and students were ushered in. While the dance floor in the middle of the bar was roped off, as well as filled with various props and tools, the bars were certainly open and doing a brisk business. Nick and Will managed to get a small round of drinks due only to the fact that Chad was working and dealing with things at his usual relentless pace. Roy stood beside him, and with the free time created by Chad’s speed he managed to slip his friends their drinks ahead of the others in the large crowd congregated in front of the bar.

                Since conversation was impossible, Nick and Will merely took the drinks across the club to the small area where the others were closely guarding the single small circular table that they’d found free. Vince and Thomas stood on either side with hands clearly resting on the area, their size and evident muscles keeping anyone from attempting to hi-jack the momentarily drinkless table. That need was remedied as Nick and Will deposited their load of beverages and began handing them out.

                “Okay, sodas for Vince and Mary,” Nick said, carefully sliding the fizzing liquids the short distance across the table to their owners. “Camille and Thomas both had beers; leaving me with my gin and tonic, Alex with the screwdriver, and Will with his cider.”

                “It’s so strange to see an order come back from the bar without an array of unwanted shots attached,” Thomas noted as he watched the drinks being handed out. “I suppose that’s because the only time I come to these places is with Violet, though.”

                “Personally, I’m rather enjoying the lack of peer pressure,” Will said. “Almost makes these places more enjoyable. We should talk Jill and Violet into entering things like this more often.”

                “I’ll wait to see the damage before I get on board with encouraging them,” Thomas replied.

                Nick, drink-dispensing duties fulfilled, allowed himself to sip his own cocktail, and as he did he noticed Mary staring wordlessly from the other side of the tiny table. She lifted a single eyebrow for only a second, to which Nick responded with a half-shake of this head.

                He imagined it was hard for her, unable to pick out many thoughts with the loud music pounding around them; especially since she was the only other one besides Alice who knew about the danger that might be lurking. So far he hadn’t found anything to hint at an attack tonight, and that was bothering him. This was a huge event, with tons of witnesses around and far too many people to keep watch on. Add in that Alice has announced her presence by signing up in advance and it was the perfect chance for Nathaniel to strike. Were the tables turned, it was the sort of opportunity Nick would have certainly seized. All which made it the more confusing that Nick hadn’t spotted so much as a single red flag.

                Because it meant either Nathaniel was perfectly concealing his plan of attack from Nick, or that Nick was entirely misreading Nathaniel’s timeframe for a move. Either way, it meant playing in the dark, and Nick loathed such circumstances.

                Somehow, he’d have to find a way to cheat.