“But John… The rumors. They’re growing vicious.”
My voice carried in the open air like a wind chime. The rickety gazebo in which John insisted we held these late-night meetings was barely large enough to accommodate the six of us, hardly kept out the rain and did nothing to preserve the secrecy of what we said.
With an unnerving calm about him, John replied, “My dear friend, there will always be rumors. One must simply learn how to manipulate the beneficial ones.”
I scoffed. The beneficial ones? As if such a thing existed for people like us. Perhaps they benefited those who started them. What other reason was there to spread such lies? But for us, rumors were nothing but trouble, and that’s putting it lightly. Rumors meant people suspected something. The fact that there were names tied to these rumors meant people would point their fingers at us when something went wrong.
John Barton was planning for things to happen that were very, very wrong.
Apparently my scoff did not fit the attitude John wished me to have toward him. Rather terse, he asked me, “Do you wish to share an opinion, Miss Smite?”
I stared him right in the eyes, something no other soul had dared do on this wretched evening. They had mumbled excuses about the rain getting in their eyes, but in truth, they were too afraid.
I wasn’t afraid of this con in the slightest. I knew, even if he didn’t, that I had a much better poker face than him. And a better hand.
“Merely an observation.” I used the tone that my grandmother had taught me during the tea parties of my childhood: airy, aloof and a tad arrogant.
“Oh, please enlighten us.” His lips curled into a sickening grin and his eyebrows pressed down toward his eyes. I enjoyed these games, but I also knew how twisted he truly was. I saw his end goal more than he realized.
“It seems to me that my reputation means nothing to you,” I said. “And while I truly commend your ability to throw away everything someone has worked for without batting an eye, I’m afraid I cannot stand for it. Maybe if it was someone else, but not when it’s me. I’m too proud of what I’ve accomplished.”
“That’s quite selfish, don’t you think?”
I mirrored his grin and replied, “That’s the only way to win the game.”
He chuckled. He probably found my comment quaint. I bet he thought I had merely stumbled on the metaphor. I doubt he saw my deeper meaning. “A skilled chess player knows that pawns must be sacrificed to protect the king.”
I retorted quickly. “But a player left only with his king is rather weak, is he not?”
John Barton was no longer smiling.
There was silence after that. Not only from John and our co-conspirators, but also from the sky. The thunder stopped. The lightning stopped. The rain slowed to a patter.
John ignored me and continued laying out his plan. I was not bothered.
Let me explain something to you, my dear reader. I am supposed to be the hero of this story. When it was all said and done, that’s what they called me. The hero who stopped a catastrophe, the scared young woman blackmailed by a horrible, conniving man with evil intentions. However, though I hate to admit it, I am nothing of the sort. I just happened to be the one who did the least evil and finished my share in the horrors the quickest. While the others were just beginning to carry out their roles in the chain reaction, I was coming to the end of my part in John Barton’s scheme. And then I enacted the final step in my own hidden plan. I laid my cards on the table and left my so-called partners to shoulder the destruction. I did what John Barton had planned to do to me: I exposed him and left him to be eaten alive by the populace.
Then, on the day of his conviction, I looked John Barton right in the eyes and said, “Checkmate.” Because in the end, I wanted him to know. I wanted him to realize that I’d known his game all along, from the first day he wrapped me up in all this. And that, somewhere along the way, I had switched from being his pawn to being his opponent. I had looked at the board and seen just how many weaknesses he had.
I had taken advantage of those weaknesses and I had won.