Chapter 198

               A pony keg, Alice would later learn after a curious internet search, weighed ninety pounds when filled with beer, which the one she and Angela were hoisting most certainly was. Split between two people that made for forty-five pounds each, not a trifle, but hardly something that was beyond even a relatively weak person to support. The issue wasn’t the weight, unfortunately, but rather the metal that started digging into her hands after only a few moments. Her grip would be the thing to give out before any other part of her body, Alice saw that immediately. Roger’s summation of the events was an apt one. It was, more than about strength, about the willpower to keep hanging on despite growing discomfort.

                The first keg hit the ground less than twenty seconds after the contest started. From the way it clanged and clattered, it was evident that someone on the team hadn’t gotten a proper hold when they lifted and had ultimately lost their grip. Within two minutes, the first true losers set down their keg, giving up the battle in favor a free beer and pain-free hands. After that, teams began dropping quickly; with the stigma of being the first to quit erased, wills broke quickly as fingers protested.

                Despite her training, Alice’s hands were only somewhat more powerful than the other contestants. Since she didn’t needed a particularly strong grip for her fighting styles it was an aspect of her body she trained perfunctorily in gym, with no extra emphasis in her off hours. Thankfully, it wasn’t a contest of who had the strongest grip; it was about who could hang on through the pain, and that was an area Alice was a damned expert at.

                Compared to her gym sessions under the professors, the wounds she’d taken in class matches, the exhaustion of training until she couldn’t see straight, holding up a small keg was nothing. She met Angela’s eyes and they both knew, without saying a word, that they would collapse on this stage before letting themselves be broken by something so trivial. In fact, Alice was so lost in keeping her resolve firm that she didn’t even notice as the eleventh team still standing lowered their keg and signaled defeat.

                “And that’s the end of our qualifying round,” Roger announced, shocking Alice so much she nearly dropped the keg in surprise. Only training and a fierce grip kept it in her hands, which was good both for not being embarrassed on stage and for the feet she had positioned directly beneath the steel cylinder.

                “Everyone still holding a keg, please set it down. Our bartenders are going to come collect them and set the stage for the next event.”

                “One down,” Angela said, carefully lowered her keg to the floor.

                “If they’re all that easy, we’ve got this in the bag,” Alice replied.

                Angela snorted, then nodded her head to the right. “After this we can’t just survive, we have to win, and your friends are still in the running.”

                Alice did a quick glance to the right and was unsurprised to see Jill and Violet lowering their keg as well. She hadn’t expected the others to be knocked out by such an easy event, and in fact would have been disappointed if they had been. While she might not be quite as thrilled as Angela at the idea of tough competition, she did like doing things with her friends. Even if she was set against them, Alice was happier having Jill and Violet in the fray.

                If nothing else, it would prove to keep things entertaining.

*             *             *

                Nick felt his phone vibrate against his leg and casually slipped the device out of his pocket. He was glad this was coming during an event shift; taking a text while he was supposed to be cheering for Alice would have put the others on alert. As he skimmed the contents, Nick realized that it didn’t quite matter when he’d gotten this message. It required action, more than he’d be able to pull off sitting at the table. He needed to get clear, as quickly and inauspiciously as he could. Since his presence would obviously be missed, than meant he had to take an approach that was overt rather than covert.

                “Aaaaaand this is the day when I learned the price of my hubris,” Nick said, reaching down and gripping his stomach. “Oh sweet mercy. Oh good lord in heaven.”

                “Are you okay?” Vince asked, immediately at his friend’s side.

                “I’m fine. The gas station burrito I ate before meeting up with you guys, on the other hand, has seemingly decided that I’ve taken it prisoner like a war criminal, and it demands to be set free.”

                “You can just go to the bathroom,” Thomas said. “We don’t need every detail.”

                “Well blame Vince for asking. I’ll be back in… I don’t know. This is just going to take however long it takes, I’m merely holding on for the ride. If I’m not back by the next event, cheer for Alice extra-” Nick winced and tightened the hold on his stomach. “Yup, that ends my time to talk about this. Got to go!”

                Without another word, Nick slunk away through the crowd, moving with the swiftness of a man presumably on the verge of public humiliation and ruined clothes. He was nearly to the bathrooms, which were conveniently near the back exit, when he felt a small hand tighten on his arm. Before he even turned, he knew who it was. Still, he kept the pained expression on his face and the grip on his stomach as he looked at the person holding him, just in case.

                “What excuse did you use?” Nick asked.

                “I just excused myself,” Mary replied. “I’m a girl; we don’t make such spectacles of our internal functions.”

                “Normally neither do I, but when you gotta go…”

                “But you don’t, at least not in that way. Tell me what’s going on,” Mary demanded. Since they were near the restrooms, the normal racket of the club was slightly diminished allowing for non-shouted conversation. This small measure of privacy wasn’t much, but it was enough for Nick to risk giving her a reply.

                “Jerome and Eliza have been keeping watch on this place. They just sent me word that around ten people all arrived at once and started milling about in the parking lot. This group seems a little too old and rough for Six-Shooter, and if that weren’t enough they have a special guest with them.”

                Mary could read it in Nick’s face easier than his mind. He was concerned, and there were precious few things Mary had ever encountered that could worry Nick.

                “Nathaniel is with them,” she said.

                “Which is why I need to be out there,” Nick replied.

                “You said he has ten people with him. What are you going to do against that?”

                Nick shrugged, then favored Mary with a cheerful smile. “I’ll think of something. I always do. You just keep everyone in here and out of the action. If they reveal themselves, Nathaniel wins, and I’ll be damned if I’m giving that little shit even a partial victory.”

                “I take it you think you can beat him,” Mary said, finally releasing her grip on Nick’s arm.

                “You know me; I never make a bet I don’t think I can win.” With that, Nick headed past the bathrooms, out the back door, and into the night.