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Chapter 3

The deadline eventually passed and the first round officially began. They gathered at the same park where they had the opening. This time, however, there were stations set up where they had to line up according to numbers and the setting was also changed to fit the theme. The organizers had chosen a good spot because this park was quite spacious comparing to some other ones around town.
“Ready, Jensen?” Vic asked, a cunning smile on his face.
“Ready,” Jensen echoed.
Vic’s smile did not stop there. “We’re going to beat them.”
Jensen rolled his eyes. “Here we go again.”
Yet it was seen across the park somewhere, Cyndi was exchanging some similar words to Kimmy as her competitive side kicked in.
Not long after, the host’s voice came on from the center area to announce the beginning of the game. They had one hour and that was it. Both members of the group must reach the final point in order for both to pass – regardless of how they decided to divide the tasks on their hands.
“Still alive, Shorty?” Vic blurted out in Cyndi’s direction once the two groups were nearby one another.
“I guess someone has to stick around to see my victory,” Cyndi shot back before disappearing behind a tree.
The same type of exchanges continued the rest of the hour as the groups cruised around the park, finding their clues or retrieving the items from a certain hidden location.
At the end of the hour, Vic rubbed his hands together and eyed Jensen with his victorious smile. “We got all items. We’re good.”
“We’ll see about that,” Jensen returned.
They were waiting for the results to be announced since they had already handed their bag over to the host. Once each group was done, the members were supposed to hand their loot over – and wait in the center of the park. Vic and Jensen had finished half an hour into the game. Cyndi and Kimmy had used up most of their times, not wanting to make a mistake.
“Could I please have everyone’s attention?” The host asked when the crowd gathered in front of him.
The talking subsided. Everyone was anxiously waiting for the answer. Only Vic was seen chewing on an apple, displaying an expression that said the game was already his. Cyndi was somewhere to their left, displaying a confidence smile as well.
“The results are as followed – of the 25 groups, only 15 groups had made it into the second round,” The host continued. “The rest of the groups either did not finish in full with both partners or had run out of time. We still thank you for participating in our event. The ones who did not make it could still stay and watch the rest of the event if you would like so. We are also giving away some gift baskets to thank you for participating thus far.”
Another set of murmurs were heard with some references to whether they had made it or not. The host waited for the crowd to simmer down once more.
“We will announce the winners by time constraints.” The host retrieved an envelope from someone and opened it. “The first group to finish was Group #12 – Vic Chou and Jensen Lin.”
Jensen raised his hand up for the others to see where they were standing at while Vic hit Jensen on the shoulder with his free hand.
“What did I tell you?” Vic said, removing the apple from his mouth temporarily – and nodding as the crowd clapped them on.
The list went on and on as they waited to see who else had made it. The host stopped after fifteen minutes and Cyndi held her breath.
“And the last group had a close call because of time but still finished their tasks,” The host read. “Group #5 – Cyndi Wang and Kimmy Huang.”
Cyndi breathed out in relief and hugged Kimmy. Though she claimed to be full of confidence yet she was almost on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Losing was one thing. Losing to that arrogant face was another thing. And losing this time meant slavery for that arrogant face. The last thing she wanted to happen.
“Call it luck, Shorty,” Vic said, walking past them after the host dismissed everyone. “If you’re still that slow by the next round…” He gestured his hand with a slicing motion around his neck. “Pack your bags.” He paused and cleared his throat. “Or beg me. I could spare you the embarrassment and let you off.” He winked and increased his pace again.
They were supposed to meet up at the hotel conference room tomorrow to get the directions for the second round.
“We’ll see who packs first,” Cyndi returned, her hands on her hips. “And you’re the one who should be begging me!”
She was only able to spot Vic’s waving hand among the crowd. His other hand was probably used to devour some apple again.

*****

The next day arrived and they gathered in the conference room in time for a luncheon. They found out that they were no longer in groups for the second round but had to rely on their individual selves to compete. It was every man for himself this time. Was it because there were only fifteen groups left? They needed to increase the number of participants to carry the game to the third round.
“You could choose to work together to decipher the codes or puzzles you’ve received,” The host explained as they opened their envelopes. “But on the day of the actual game, you will work individually to solve the puzzles and move onto the next round. Like last time, you will be prompt for time and it will be announced on that day.”
Murmurs were heard around the room while questions were being asked. Vic was still working on his clues mentally while the others asked on. He heard the shorty asking something – though he didn’t care to listen either. It was brainless actually. He didn’t need to pay attention to those senseless, ridiculous questions. And at the back of his head, he was itching for an apple again. His tongue was moving inside his mouth, tracing his teeth as he was trying hard to focus on the words on the piece of white paper in front of him.
“So?” Jensen said when everyone was free to roam again. “You want to work together on this?”
Vic turned to Jensen and snatched his envelope to read the clues. It was different from his yet the clues didn’t appear to be from the same puzzle. He handed the information back to Jensen before making his way to the door. He had made sure to wait since he did not want to be mobbed by the crowd.
“Hi,” Jensen uttered, waving to someone from somewhere.
Vic finally looked up to see Cyndi and Kimmy on the other side. The girls were making their way to the door as well. Vic turned to Jensen with a murderous look. Jensen either chose to ignore or was too into staring at the girls to notice Vic’s signal.
“Since when did you hang out with them?” Vic interrogated.
“Uh…” Jensen stumbled and reached up to scratch his head. He had forgotten about Vic’s disagreement with Cyndi. Though that was impossible to forget – even temporarily. “I just…um…”
“Well?” Vic demanded, his voice crawling toward the stern side.
“You guys want to work on the clues together?” Kimmy asked when she reached where the two guys were standing.
Cyndi was using her envelope to fan herself while waiting for the crowd to disperse. Upon hearing that, she turned to Kimmy with a stern look. “What are you talking about? We shouldn’t be socializing with the enemy.”
“We’re here to have fun, remember?” Kimmy reminded Cyndi, her smile still shining on her face.
“Huh. I’m here to win.” Her eyes had passed Vic’s and were challenging him.
“And I’m going to win,” Vic returned. “So dream on, my servant.”
“You two can compete in that silly game if you want, I’m here to have fun,” Kimmy stated her position.
“It’s a good idea that you stay out of this though,” Vic said, offering her a friendly smile. “Because it’s better to realize your friend is not winning and you wouldn’t want to be dragged down too.” It seemed like he was changing his tactic. After that little subtle taunt, he gestured his left hand toward Jensen. “Go ahead and socialize with my buddy here. Since we all have different clues and different puzzles anyway.”
“Your words,” Cyndi jumped in. Then she turned to Kimmy again. “Wouldn’t want to go with that pervert and his pervert friend.”
“Hey!” Jensen protested.
Vic, on the other hand, remained calm. His smile was still taunting Cyndi. “I’m sorry to break it to you, Shorty, but all of us guys are perverts. And the saddest part is you’re going to have to marry one of us perverts one day.” He made a move to leave then, waving a farewell gesture at Cyndi.
“You’re the worst pervert of all in this world!” Cyndi yelled after him as she dragged Kimmy out of the room.
“Hey!” Kimmy scowled, attempting to break away from Cyndi’s grasp. “Let go already! You can’t control who I could hang out with.”
“Fine!” Cyndi let go of Kimmy’s hand and left in a huff.
“Cyndi!” Kimmy hollered above the crowd’s noise level. She made a dash for it, not wanting to severe their friendship over such a small matter. Then she was silently scolding at Vic for upsetting her friend.
Jensen was the only one left behind. He was not mad at Vic or Cyndi. But was just down in the dumps because he felt like his opportunity had been lost.

*****

One day, the four of them were in the library together. Yes, together as in one group yet Vic and Cyndi were still keeping their distance. Jensen and Kimmy were the ones having a conversation while the other two searched for information – individually. Vic and Cyndi were at the opposite corners of the space they occupied. Cyndi was sitting at a table and in a chair properly with her book placed on the table while Vic had sat at an edge of a table and placed the book on his lap instead and his feet one dangling back and forth while the other slightly on a chair. Actually, Jensen and Kimmy were also searching for information at the table between Cyndi and Vic’s table but they were so occupied with whatever topic they were talking about that they seemed to forget about their main purpose in the library. And why in the world did Cyndi even agreed on this meeting? She decided to use the opportunity to study her enemy – after having cooled down. Yet she was in for a major disappointment because as loud as Vic was each time they encountered one another, he kept to himself while searching diligently for information. He was so absorbed in his research that he even tuned out Jensen and Kimmy’s conversation. Only Cyndi was the one having trouble concentrating because of Jensen and Kimmy’s constant flirting.
“Would you two quit talking and try focusing on researching?” Cyndi asked, her tone reflecting obvious hostility.
“What’s wrong, Shorty, can’t concentrate?” Vic asked back, his voice hinting obvious taunting.
“How could you focus when they’re so loud?” She had abandoned the book she was reading and turned to Vic.
“It’s a matter of practice.” He continued flipping through the book he was holding. “They’re not that loud, you just have a problem with noise while reading. If they were loud, we would’ve already been kicked out.”
“But the librarian would have been told we would be here because of the competition.”
“It’s a privilege to be able to use the library, not a license to abuse. We would’ve already been warned if we broke the rules.” He was so calm as he was still reading and talking that he even scared himself. But someone had to be the one telling the shorty off.
“I just don’t get you.”
“You don’t need to.” He shut the book and got up from his place. He was done. “I’m outta here. I need an apple.”
“You’re not jotting down notes?”
Vic finally turned and looked at her. He gestured toward his head with his right index and middle fingers. Just like that, he winked at her and left the scene. His smile was still taunting, his composure still challenging yet she did not find it intimidating this time.

*****

The second round took place in a spacious room inside the hotel. It was on the tenth floor. They had one hour like the last time to locate an item from the clues given. Yet they were told that there were fifteen puzzles total and they had gotten thirty different clues weeks before. So that meant each of them was competing with someone else in the room and whoever solved the puzzles thus gaining the item first would win. Only fifteen people would make it this time. Unless some people did not know where to look or they had found the wrong item or that they could not beat the time.
The round went by in a breeze. No more taunting or mocking words exchanged between Vic and Cyndi this time. It was because they were too closely monitored. It would be too uncivilized to behave that way in such a time. Not to mention they did not want to break the concentration and end up losing to one another. At the end of the hour, the results were announced and Vic amazed the crowd again with fifteen minutes as his record. He, of course, had succeeded in solving his puzzles and collecting the correct final item. Cyndi finished fifth this time. Together with the rest of the participants who made it into the third and final round were ten other people. Of the ones who did not make it, three had missed the deadline and the rest found the wrong item or were too distracted with the possible false clues that they did not make a move. Jensen and Kimmy did not make it into this round. Jensen found the wrong item and Kimmy had lost on time.
“The last round will be held at the park once again,” The host announced after the results were known. “It will be in three weeks. You will receive your clues in two days at breakfast.” He looked at the disappointed looks on the ones who had not made it this time before resuming. “Once again, the ones who did not make it will still receive our appreciative prize and are welcomed to stay and witness the last round.”
So they cleared out after the host and the rest of the organizers stepped aside to clean up. Vic and Cyndi waited for Jensen and Kimmy as the crowd piled toward the door. Vic placed a hand on Jensen’s shoulder as if for comfort while Kimmy headed toward Cyndi.
“I’m sorry,” Kimmy said timidly to Cyndi, her head down.
Vic had overheard her though the crowd was somewhat noisy. “I don’t think we agreed on dragging you two in with the bet. So whether you two were eliminated or not, it doesn’t affect the result.” He offered her a friendly smile after saying that.
Cyndi did not want to agree with him yet he was right. Kimmy looked so guilty that she did not want to be harsh on her friend. Kimmy was here to have fun and she felt that she should be glad Kimmy had followed her here in the first place. She placed a hand on Kimmy’s shoulder and smiled. “That’s right. It’s our bet, not yours.”
As if already gotten over it or because he couldn’t bear seeing Kimmy’s sad state, Jensen turned on a bright smile and walked toward Kimmy. “Come on, we had fun while it last, right?”
Kimmy turned to him and smiled also, appreciating his effort in consoling her.
“Let’s get out of here because…” Vic began, seeing that the problem had been solved.
“You need an apple, right?” Cyndi jumped in, cutting him off.
Vic didn’t look offended. He had on his challenging smile again. He pointed at her with his right index finger. “That’s right, Shorty.”
And they were at it again.

*****

Two days later, Vic was on his way to the breakfast gathering when he spotted a box outside his room. He looked around to find no one. He wondered if Jensen decided to play a trick on him again. It was one of the reasons why he joined in on this game in the first place. He had wanted to venture into more challenges. He and Jensen had continued their series of pranks over the years since they left high school. It was just for old time’s sake. Yet did Jensen have to do it now? He shrugged as he picked the box up. No harm, he thought while opening the box.
“Whoa!” He jumped back and tossed the box on the ground. “What the hell?”
It was a green snake. He had reacted fast enough or he would’ve already been bitten. He tried to stay still and as calm as he could while studying the snake. He reached for his phone to yell at Jensen. Or maybe he should call for security first so they could send someone here to remove the snake. Yet it was odd that the snake stopped moving already. He risked a step forward and studied it with his eyes.
“What? Oh for…” He spied the hallway once more and made sure no one was around.
It was just a rubber snake. He picked up the note inside the box and it read: “You won’t be that lucky next time. I’ll make sure it’s the real deal. Last warning: withdraw from this game or die.”
His mind began circulating again. This was indeed the second note he received from that certain someone. The first warning note was sent to him after the first round. He thought it was Jensen’s prank the last time. Yet it didn’t seem so now. Who could it be? He gathered up the box and placed the fake snake inside again. Entering his room, he retrieved another note before locking the door once more. He headed to the breakfast meeting with a fury. As he entered, he saw Jensen and Kimmy sitting together at a table eating. He scanned the room to see Cyndi at the buffet table. He made his way toward her, his pace rapid.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Vic demanded as soon as he was inches from her.
“What?” Cyndi asked out of habit. She still had her back turned to him.
“This!” He shoved the items into her vision line.
“A box?” Cyndi asked, puzzled – and wondered if he was crazy to be upset by some box.
“No, the snake and the threat notes, you pretentious, barbaric control freak!”
Everyone in the room had heard him and all eyes were on him at that point. But he did not care. Cyndi could feel all eyes on them with the tension increasing and the noise level decreasing so rapidly.
Busted…?
© Sunday, January 30th, 2011
Posted: Thursday, April 14th, 2011

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