Chapter 12

Copyright ©Hans Olsson

Chapter 12

 

I am drifting away

 

This is my goodbye

 

No need for me to stay

 

This is my way out

 

 

 

Code 64 - Leaving Earth

 

 

 

The telephone rang in the afternoon and as soon as mum answered, I froze. Dad was in the garage right then, and I was watching TV. It was a wildlife program about ants. It’s strange, the details you remember.

 

“Yes?” mum answered mechanically several times.

 

I sneaked forward to try and figure out who it was that had rung. Mum’s voice didn’t usually sound so distant. I’d probably only heard that tone of voice once before, when my grandmother died many years ago.

 

“When? Tonight,” she replied, even more robotically, as if her voice came from inside a long pipe.

 

I stood completely still, hardly daring to breathe. Our eyes met, but there was no presence in her gaze. She mumbled a couple of times in the phone before she hung up.

 

“Fetch dad,” she said.

 

When I didn’t move straight away, her eyes came back to life and her sharpened gaze penetrated mine.

 

“Now!”

 

That got me moving, and before I knew it, I was at the garage door, panting.

 

“Mum had a phone call. Come, quick!”

 

After that, I don’t remember so much. Dad took one look at me, then pushed past me and rushed into the house. I didn’t know what to do with myself, that call … I probably understood at some level what it had been about, even if I didn’t know for certain and couldn’t believe it. To disturb mum and dad now was completely out of the question.

 

I walked around the house a few times. After a while, I picked up a stick and beat the grass with it until I got bored and broke it to pieces until only splinters remained. I kicked a football against a wall, but I couldn’t get the phone call out of my head. Eventually, I couldn’t wait any longer and went in.

 

Mum sat in the sofa, pale with her hands on her lap and her gaze was firmly fixed at a point on the wall. I don’t know what I expected, but not that. It looked like she was ready for a fight. Later on, I’d understand that she actually was. My father sat by her side, his eyes burning with anger.

 

“I won’t allow it,” he whispered repeatedly. “They can’t do it, not when we’ve come this far. Not sevent months in.”

 

“No, they can’t,” mum answered. “We’ll tell them that. I can tell them when they arrive.”

 

At that moment, they caught sight of me and exchanged a quick glance.

 

“We have to go to the hospital tonight,” dad said, clearing his throat. “It’s a kind of routine check-up. You’ll have to stay here on your own until tomorrow morning. I can ask the neighbour to look in on you if you like.”

 

“It’s not necessary,” I said, shaking my head. Whatever was happening, I wanted to be strong and ride out the storm as we did in our family. If we couldn’t be together, then we were strong on our own.

 

Two hours later, a grey car pulled into our drive and two men climbed out. One of them was smoking a cigarette and the other had dark glasses. Mum and dad got in the car, and as I watched them leave it was as if something broke inside me. I never cried, but I knew things would never be the same.

 

 

 

Peter wanted to get away from the casino. Far away. He looked at the windows, but he knew that he was far too high up to even consider it. That was of course intentional. Move upwards two floors at a time to eliminate escapees. There’d always been jumpers. The statistical average was one per year. Peter had always shaken his head at those that had chosen to leave that way, but now, when he himself was so short-stacked, he understood them more. Better to end life in a way you chose, rather than be humiliated and dragged up on stage.

 

It could be worse, though. Many years back, a player had managed to climb into a ventilation drum via the toilets on the third floor. He hid there during the break, but when the break was over, and they discovered that he was missing, the guards quickly found him. They had to use a gas cutter to get him out. Then he was dragged up onto the stage and shot in the stomach. It was all televised.

 

He walked around without knowing where he should go. He could really do with some sleep. If he fell asleep now, though, he wouldn’t wake up in time for the next round and that would be it. In despair, he went back down to the restaurant to keep his promise to Lennart.

 

There were fewer people there than earlier, but there were still a lot of people jostling around the tables and the buffet. He pondered about his meal coupons. Three left, and the tournament had reached half way. He should save them. Although considering how many chips he had left, it could be a good idea to get a bite to eat anyhow. One last meal, so he wouldn’t die hungry. His stomach turned at the thought.

 

His lips were becoming dry and cracked, and incoherent thoughts were spinning around in his mind. He cashed in a coupon anyway and took a coffee while he waited to regain his appetite. He sat down at a table and looked around for any familiar faces.

 

There weren’t many, but he did manage to catch sight of Sarah amongst all the people. Their eyes met, and she gave him a little smile. That felt good, and they did have something in common. Her bag didn’t look that heavy. They were both on their way out of the tournament and they knew it, but in their silent union, they found some comfort in that they weren’t completely alone. Sarah disappeared into the crowd. He spotted Mashmud and Patricia, but they soon moved out of sight and didn’t see him.

 

“Bloody hell, you look like a drowned cat, Peter!” Lennart sat down with a thump next to Peter and grinned. “Didn't the last round go well?”

 

“Hi,” he said, tired. “No, it really didn't.”

 

“Oh? What happened?”

 

“The usual, I suppose. I was stung by a hand that was better than mine. Lost loads of chips in one sweep. I don’t know how all the others can have so many chips.”

 

Lennart looked at him compassionately. “It’ll be alright. We’ve got this far, haven’t we? Think about all the people you’ve survived against instead.”

 

“I’m dying, Lennart. The next round is going to be my last.”

 

Lennart fell silent.

 

“That bad, huh? How much have you got left?”

 

“14,800.”

 

Lennart whistled. “I can understand why you’re depressed, buddy. But it’s never too late, you know that? How many stories are there of people who’ve been down to their last chip and recovered big time? Tons! You can be one of them.” Lennart’s voice was cheery, but not convincing.

 

“I’m starting to realise,” Peter said quietly, staring out over faces that reflected the emptiness in his own, “that this was doomed to failure right from the start. Why are you really here, Lennart? It’s suicide, nothing more. You convince yourself that you’re immortal and that you can win just like that. I’ve played in loads of tournaments, I mean small ones,” he added, “where I’ve had an amazing intuition what people have had in their hands. Does that help? Not one bit. You just have to hope for good cards, like everyone else.”

 

“King’s Hope,” Lennart nodded. “Because in the end, you just have to pin your hopes on the king,” they said at the same time, and then fell silent. That sentence had become the casino’s motto and was in the information brochure. Sooner or later, you knelt to the law of the king, while never being sure if the opponent had an ace in their hand.

 

“Does it matter why I’m here?” Lennart asked, shrugging. “It’s the ultimate challenge, you know. What about you? Why did you get involved in this crazy scheme?”

 

“I want to get in The Book,” Peter said quietly. “More than you could possibly know, I want to get into The Book.”

 

“Why?”

 

Peter remained silent for a while. “Because of Morrie,” he said.

 

“Who the hell is Morrie?”

 

“I’ve no idea. When I was a teenager, there was this place where you could take a swim. They had these huts where you could get changed. I was there one night with a friend and we got drunk, and that’s when I saw this text on the wall.

 

“Morrie was here.

 

“That’s all. I don’t know who Morrie was, and there was nothing special about the writing on the wall. But it stuck in my mind. When me and my friend met up there the year after, the changing-room had been renovated. After that physical reminder of Morrie had been erased, I realised how fragile everything is. Morrie was gone. Forever.”

 

He stopped and got lost for a moment in his memories. A year or so after Morrie, he and Karl had grown apart, despite being blood brothers. That’s when he finally realised what he wanted in life. He wanted to be remembered. Peter would do whatever it took to remain in the public memory, even when his time was over, and somebody else renovated him out of history. That had led him to the poker tournament at King’s Hope, and The Book. The Book was forever.

 

“Do you understand what I’m saying? Morrie was not forever, but I want to be.”

 

“What a load of bullshit,” Lennart exclaimed in a tone of voice that was so earnest that Peter almost burst out laughing. “For fuck’s sake, Peter, I didn’t think you were a spaced-out hippie. That can’t possibly be the reason why you’re here. Come on, tell me.”

 

Peter stared into space while he allowed his thoughts to coalesce.

 

“OK,” he said. “I didn’t understand why Morrie was so important either, but I worked it out in the end. Morrie was a catalyst. Without Morrie, my idea about The Book wouldn’t be so big. But sure, the real reason is Moa.”

 

“I see. And who the hell is that?”

 

Peter gave a wide smile. “That was my sister. Or would have been. A few years after Portugal, when things started to settle down, my parents drew closer to each other again. Mum got pregnant, but then the one-child policy had just been adopted world-wide. But it was so early, so we thought they’d get away with it. Our family satisfied all the criteria, stable, good income, well you know. They took mum away one Friday evening and performed a chemical abortion. We got to see her at the hospital afterwards, on the following morning. She was in the seventh month. As a boy, I didn’t understand the implications, but the older I got …

 

“It would have been a girl, and she’d have been called Moa. My little sister.”

 

Peter was silent for a moment. There were no tears in his eyes and his voice was surprisingly steady. But he’d grieved enough for Moa. “That’s why Morrie became so important,” he continued. “Because no one else but me will ever know about Moa. And if they can take people away like that, what is there to remember afterwards? When we’re gone, what’s left?”

 

“I understand,” Lennart said, giving him a friendly pat on the shoulder. “You’re a narcissist trying to reach the unattainable. Nothing wrong with that!” He grinned. Then he got serious. “There are one hundred and one that are listed in The Book each year. Isn’t there a risk that you’ll get lost in the crowd?”

 

“Perhaps, but I’ll be there anyhow. In a thousand years, the names will still be there.”

 

“But who’s going to care less in a thousand years? And what about two thousand years, what if all books are gone?” He held up his hand when he saw Peter’s expression. “I just don’t get it, nothing lasts forever. Who’s going to read that crap, if you’ll excuse my French?”

 

“No, nothing lasts forever, The Book is the closest you can get to it. And when the time comes that people can no longer read The Book, then it won’t matter anyway. Either the Earth will be dead, or humanity has been wiped out. As long as there’s someone that can read, there’s a reason to be in it, to be remembered. I mean, you leave your mark. But now I don’t have the chips for that.” Peter sighed. “I’m dying, and that’s that.”

 

“You make it sound like it’s the end of the world out there. Maybe Louise was right, maybe you are a philosopher,” Lennart grinned. “Sure, it’s different out there, but it’s just a temporary phase like everything else. Large parts of the world are falling apart, but people will survive even though it’s painful.”

 

“Sure, but at what cost?”

 

“Yeah, good question.”

 

Peter wiped his nose. “Why are you here Lennart? The true reason.”

 

Lennart smirked. “It’s not interesting.”

 

“I don’t care if it’s interesting or not. Now, tell me!”

 

Lennart looked out at the people moving back and forth between the tables with tired, empty gazes.

 

“Alright. I’m here because of my wife.”

 

“Your wife?”

 

“Exactly. Three years ago, she fucked somebody else. I really shouldn’t care, we’ve not had anything in common for years. But she's the one with all the money, inherited a load from her mother’s family, including the house and everything. Anyhow, I found out about it. Back then I thought that sure, she could amuse herself if she wanted to, I could screw someone else with a clear conscience. But things like that lay there festering, like a rat biting your toes every night. In the end, there’s just a hole that needs to be filled with something. I filled mine with indifference, and the more indifferent I became, the more she was certain that I knew.

 

“When I applied for the tournament, we could hardly be in the same house. I got in, and here we are. If I lose, I’ll do so with a smile because then she’ll know that she doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. If I win, I’ll take everything she owns because that’s what she did. I suspect she bought herself a little toy boy with all her money. I’ll ruin her. Besides,” he added with a smile, “there’s Salon Selma. I was there in the third break. Not bad. Not bad at all. We should go there.”

 

“Maybe not,” Peter said, thinking of Sarah and Dibley.

 

“What do you mean, maybe not? Let’s go there in the next break, provided we’re both still here. No buts!”

 

“Yeah,” Peter said, trying to think of something to say. He had an idea. “By the way, now you can tell me what that blasted Lollipoppy is!”

 

“The Lollapalooza!” Lennart exclaimed, clapping his hands together loudly. “Haven’t you figured that out yet?”

 

“No.”

 

“Damn it, Peter. You’re supposed to be a poker pro, and all that!” Lennart laughed. “The story goes something like this:

 

“A cheater goes into a saloon. He takes a drink, looks around and notices that there’s a poker game going on at a table. He goes over to the geezers and asks: ‘Can I sit down and play along for a while?’

 

“They let him, and he sits down. He plays for half an hour before he figures it’s time to give himself a monster hand, and then he deals himself four aces. The cheater is happy, but he doesn’t notice that an old, grey, wrinkly geezer is also happy.

 

“They bet against each other until there’s a monster pot between them. Then the cheater shows his aces.

 

“’I’ll take those,’ he says, reaching for the chips.

 

“’Slow down,’ the old man says, and shows his cards: three Clubs and two Diamonds. ‘In this town, we play The Lollapalooza, and that beats everything. And that’s exactly what I have, a Lollapalooza, three clubs and two diamonds.’

 

“’But I’ve got four aces,’ the cheater protests.

 

“’Doesn’t help,’ says one of the other guys, shaking his head. ‘The Lollapalooza beats everything.’

 

“The cheater realises that he’s beaten. He laughs and plays along. Half an hour later it’s time to strike again and he deals himself three Clubs and two Diamonds. Then he forces up the pot as much as he can against one of the other guys, and when it’s time to show the cards he’s happy to show them his hand.

 

“But the geezers just shake their heads.

 

“’You should’ve found out what the rules were first, stranger. In this town, The Lollapalooza only counts once per night.’

 

“In our case, the Lollapalooza was the A♣5♦ that Louise got in the first round. Or, depending a little on how she saw it, two Clubs and three Spades, because that’s what was on the table.”

 

Peter stared at him. “Shit,” he said, after a while. “I’m pretty certain I discarded that hand during the fourth round! I could have won so much then!”

 

Lennart burst out laughing. “That’s right Peter. You should complain.”

 

“You bet I will! And I’ll claim interest. I guess I could’ve won 50,000 with my Lollapalooza. With interest, that’s …” He pretended to count on his fingers. “93,700 in chips!”

 

“Extortionist!”

 

They both grinned. If there was one thing you learned at King’s Hope, then it was to appreciate the small moments. Right then he was strong, in a better mood and alive. And hungry again. Lennart saw the look on his face and nodded.

 

“Brilliant, Peter. Let’s get some grub and then we’ll go up to some floor and have a go at the same table. For old times’ sake.”

 

“For old times’ sake,” Peter agreed.

 

A shiver ran down his spine, but he tried to ignore it. It would be better to die with a friend by his side than alone. Poker could be a terribly lonely experience if the cards fell that way. They ate, then walked to the elevators. Two guards stood inside, staring ahead with blank expressions.

 

“Howdy, guys!” Lennart said cheerfully. “We’re going up. Is the … twenty-fourth floor free, by any chance?”

 

“The twenty-fourth floor has places left,” one of them answered robotically.

 

“Great, we’ll take that,” Lennart said, poking Peter in the ribs. Then they travelled up.

 

The food he’d eaten had made a big difference, and he allowed himself an encouraging, lively smile at his mirror image. Once again, he was going to win this! His mood was on its way up, until they walked out of the elevator and into the hall on the twenty-fourth floor. Dibley stood by a table, laughing and chatting with two other players. Before Peter had even thought about what his feet were doing, he was on his way over there.

 

“Hello again,” he said, tapping her on the shoulder.

 

“Oh. Hi, kitten!” Dibley exclaimed and gave him a quick hug. “How’s it gone?”

 

“Good,” Peter lied. “We’re still here in round six, aren’t we? How about you, how’s it gone for you?”

 

He noticed that she’d changed clothes. Instead of the black T-shirt, she now wore a deep-cut beige one with long sleeves. Instead of shorts, she was now wearing green trousers that accentuated her shape. She was sexy, and it hurt to look at her.

 

“It’s gone pretty well. I’ve made loads of new friends and I won big time during the last round, so now life’s good again. I didn’t see you in the third break, by the way, so I almost thought … It’s really nice to see you again, Peter.”

 

“Good to hear that. And sorry. I completely forgot we were supposed to meet,” he replied awkwardly, forcing a smile.

 

“No worries. I didn’t wait that long.”

 

There was a short silence as Peter tried to find something to say. He couldn’t find anything, which made Dibley laugh.

 

“Now you look like that kitten again. Are you sure everything’s OK?”

 

It wasn’t OK at all. He was dying and tired. At the same time Dibley’s cleavage was hypnotic, and his gaze was sucked there. He saw something there that he didn’t like at all. On her left breast, at the edge of the T-shirt, he noticed a yellow-green mark on her skin. The bruise was old and pale. Was that why she was at King’s Hope? He opened his mouth without knowing what to say, he just knew that he wanted to say something.

 

“Er,” Peter said, scratching his ear. “I was just thinking …” Suddenly he felt like a clumsy idiot.

 

“We only talked for a short while earlier,” he began, struggling for words. “I … We don’t even know each other. I’d like to get to know you.”

 

She looked at him as if appraising him. “No, you don’t. Not really.”

 

“Of course I do. What sort of teacher are you back home?”

 

She hesitated, but then he saw a barrier collapsing behind her eyes, as though she thought it didn’t matter what she told him.

 

“I teach science and geography. It wasn’t exactly the career I’d planned. When I was young, I wanted to be an architect or an author. Then the Portugal Incident came along and everything changed. That was of course before I started working, but it affected it anyway.”

 

“Do you like your job?”

 

She leaned her head thoughtfully. “It’ll do, but it was more fun in the beginning.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“One of the pupils’ dads flirted with me for a long time. I thought it was charming at first. Then he got more serious and in the end I agreed to … In the end he turned out to be a bastard. I should’ve worked it out because his son was always a little odd, sort of introvert, and I couldn’t understand why.” She stroked her hair while she gathered her thoughts. “Sometimes I wish the world was different. Despite all the progress after Portugal, there were so many steps backwards, not least for women. I didn’t get the chance to change things at home. But if I win this …” She bit her lip and looked out over the hall, as if she regretted saying anything.

 

“What will you do?”

 

“Oh, forget it.”

 

Peter cleared his throat and rubbed his nose. “I was thinking about what you said earlier,” he said. “Of course, I understand wanting to be someone else, or perhaps rather wanting something different.”

 

“Really, you do? What do you do for a living then?”

 

“I work at a company that works with software and data analysis. For example, we take in blocks of data from other companies that we sort, classify and produce statistics from, depending where the data comes from.”

 

“What sort of data?”

 

“Well, all sorts. Lorries and different parameters, for example. Fuel consumption as opposed to electric motors, things like that. Or statistics for nutrients in animal foods.”

 

“Do you like it?”

 

He smirked. “Two weeks ago, I went home from work for the last time. It’d been a stressful period because the company was due to deliver new analysis software to a media concern who wanted to rise up in the value chain. The pressure was enormous, and the entire staff had to work hard for several weeks. We were tired, exhausted and unhappy, but we struggled on. If anyone fell too far behind, there was always someone new to replace you.”

 

“I can understand that,” Dibley interrupted. “A good friend of mine worked at the paper plant where I came from. Then he got sick, and when he returned, another guy had taken his job.”

 

Peter nodded in agreement.

 

“Exactly. In any case, one morning one of the managers came in to a morning meeting. He looked amused and raised both his thumbs when he stood up in front.

 

“’Heave to, everyone,’ he said. ‘Now we’ll be working twice as hard and we’ll soon row this boat into harbour! If you manage one hour’s overtime every day, it’ll be done within one or two weeks!’

 

“He was probably just trying to be funny, but at the time, with his pearly-white teeth, shining suit and polished black shoes, it was too much for all of us. It was then I decided to do something I normally wouldn’t do. That was the last day I saw my boss and my colleagues, because I never went back to work. If they’re following the tournament, perhaps they’ve seen me on television but otherwise they don’t know where I went. It felt quite good, actually. In any case, I thought it was a kind of ‘now I do what I want and couldn’t care less about you’-feeling. Kind of liberated. If you know what I mean?”

 

Dibley nodded. “Yes, I know what you mean. Sometimes you just want to leave everything behind and watch it burning in the rear-view mirror. Do you think …”

 

They were interrupted by Lennart, who came ambling behind Peter.

 

“Hi, my name’s Lennart,” he waved his hand in greeting. “Peter, it’s time to find our table so we get seats where it’s not so damned draughty. It was nice to meet you!” He pulled Peter gently by the arm.

 

“Good luck!” Dibley said. “I mean it. Play carefully, kitty cat.”

 

“I will. Good luck to you, too.” Lennart had already pulled him away.

 

They sat down at the first empty table they found, number thirty-one, on different sides diagonally opposite the croupier’s place and with a couple of empty seats between. Lennart leant forwards towards him.

 

“What do you think you’re doing?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“That chick over there, anyone you know?”

 

“We met just before the tournament got started,” Peter mumbled defensively.

 

“Aha, and you fancy her even though you don’t know her?”

 

“I don’t fancy her …”

 

“Come on, it’s blatantly obvious. Think about where you are and how much time you have. You’re dying, you said it yourself. Are you going to spend your final hours wondering if she’s the one? No, you’re not. Come back in ten or twenty years when you’re married to her and she's fucking somebody else.”

 

Peter stared down at the table.

 

“You don’t know her and therefore she’s not worth getting attached to. In the next break, and you’ll have to bloody well make sure that you survive until then, we’ll go down to the third floor and enjoy life. And that’s that.”

 

Peter looked up at Lennart. He was right, of course.

 

“OK,” he said. “Let’s win a few chips so we get through this round as well.”

 

“Quite right, my boy,” Lennart grinned. “Quite right.”

 

Lennart passed his wristband in front of the sensor and registered himself for the sixth round. Peter waited for a moment, he wanted to see how many chips the others had when they arrived. When you had the choice, it was just as well to play tactically and sit to the left of the ones with large stacks. Then he’d have a better idea how to act with the cards he was dealt. Five thousand players left. Peter had just under 10 big blinds. Lennart had 84,300 in chips.

 

Lennart ordered them each a triple espresso, and despite the fact that Peter’s stomach complained, he knew that he needed it. Their first opponent soon turned up: a tall, athletic man around thirty-five years old. His curly hair was greased back, and he was wearing a pink shirt and white shorts. He had a pair of sunglasses wedged in his hair.

 

“Have you just got off the boat?” Lennart asked, and Peter couldn’t help laughing. The thin clothes looked out of place, to say the least. Peter preferred trousers himself. The man waved down a waiter and ordered a club soda. He sat down to the left of the croupier’s seat, then passed his wristband over the sensor and unpacked his chips. According to the display, his name was Vincent Dinkelzuug, number 9,010.

 

“Hi, I’m Peter”, Peter said to try to build some sort of impression of the man. “Where are you from? Do you speak English? And why are you here at the tournament?”

 

Vincent leaned forwards nonchalantly and then threw his hand forward, almost carelessly so his expensive watch clattered on his wrist. “Vincent. I’m Swedish, from Stockholm.”

 

“I see, great.”

 

“So?” Lennart wondered.

 

“So, what?”

 

“Do you have some problem with your memory? He asked you where you're from.”

 

Vincent leant back in his seat and draped one arm over the back of the chair. “I was born in the Congo,” he said.

 

“Yes?”

 

“So I like a challenge. There was a war in Congo when I was born. I have danger in my blood.”

 

“I see,” Peter mumbled.

 

“Hm. And when I win, I’ll have a couple of large sacks. That’s why I’m taking part, for the sacks.”

 

“Sacks?” Lennart asked.

 

Vincent looked at them both as if they were inferior creatures, but when neither of them showed any sign of understanding what he meant, he sighed. “Cash.”

 

“You can have what you like if you win. Is that all you want?” Peter wondered.

 

“Hm. I can’t do so much more. Work a little perhaps if it’s fun, see a few good movies every day. Maybe make my own movie.” With his characteristic Stockholm accent, Vincent pronounced it like “moo-wee”, which made Peter and Lennart look at each other, amused.

 

“Do you work with film?”

 

“No, I’m a salesman.”

 

By then, the next player had sat down at the table. This was a woman dressed in a tightly-fitting black dress, with a narrow face and sunglasses. She nodded and smiled timidly as she sank down on the seat to the right of the croupier. The display announced that this was Christine “Jump Frog” Golden, number 2,019. She had 21,400 in chips.

 

“What do you sell?” Lennart asked. He’d hardly noticed that Christine had joined them.

 

Vincent smacked his lips and looked satisfied with himself. “I sell software for financial instruments.”

 

“What? What kind of tune can you play on them?”

 

Vincent sneered. “Fi-nan-cial ins-tru-ments,” he said slowly, accentuating each syllable. “That’s where those sacks are. What did you say you did? A farmer?”

 

“I didn’t say that,” Lennart said icily. “Is that all your chips?” he asked instead, changing the subject and pointing at Vincent’s stack of chips. Vincent had 19,600.

 

“Yes, of course. It doesn’t look like much now, but that’s not a problem. I’m a salesman, give me a phone and I’ll solve everything. I’ve brought my own with me,” he added and pulled out a chrome object from his pocket and laid it demonstratively on the table. “If my chips start to run out, I just need to make a call. No problem.”

 

“To whom?” Peter asked, curious.

 

Vincent shrugged and grinned. The next player soon arrived. Peter thought he recognised the walk even before he looked up to see who it was.

 

“Howard!” He exclaimed. “You’re still alive!”

 

“Hi there,” Howard replied and sat down to the left of the croupier’s position. “Of course I am. I was so tired of playing against new people all the time, so when I saw you two sitting at the same table, I decided straight away to come here.”

 

“That’s cool,” Lennart exclaimed. “How’s it gone, then?”

 

“As usual. Won a little, lost a little. I’ve kept pretty even.”

 

Peter nodded and looked in horror at the puny pile of chips Howard had. He recalled that Howard seemed to balance on the edge of the abyss, and that was more apparent now than ever. He had even fewer chips than Peter, 7,000. Perhaps Howard was at this table because he wanted to die amongst friends.

 

It wasn’t until then that Peter discretely passed his wristband over the sensor and registered himself at the table. The ones to his left had big stacks, but the ones on the right did too, apart from Howard of course.

 

Sooner or later I must knock them out, and if I can’t do it now I might as well not be here.

 

The next player was a curvy woman with a beaming smile and untidy black hair. She sat down between Peter and Howard. The display said Esponsita “Flower Hair” Vallery, number 6,061. She unpacked 52,000 in chips, leaned back and started fanning her face with the casino brochure.

 

“Why are you taking part?” Lennart asked, off-hand.

 

The woman shrugged. “I won a satellite. A thrill to try out,” she said, winking at Lennart.

 

Peter also recognised the final player to arrive at the table. This was Friedrich and he grinned like a wolf when he saw Peter.

 

“Hello there,” he said and slid down besides Lennart. “So, you’re here too?”

 

“That’s right. Were the seats all occupied on the other floors?”

 

“No, but I thought I’d keep you company again. You’re one of the few who’s had a royal straight flush, Peter. The rumour has spread. I heard two different groups in the dining-room standing and talking about your royal, but I heard you didn’t win so much from it? Eh? You haven’t got nearly as much left as you ought to have. Look here, you should have about this much,” Friedrich said proudly and showed his pile that amounted to 48,300. “Besides, I thought about what you said during the third round. I think you’re crovulstic.”

 

“Thank you,” Peter said, surprised, and smiled. “It means something like pleasant and unassuming.”

 

“Of course,” Friedrich said icily.

 

Finally, their croupier arrived, this time an older gentleman with silver-grey hair and white sideburns. If the other croupiers had looked professional, it was nothing compared with this man whose name badge said Richter. He moved with elegance and a professional pride that suggested many years’ experience at the poker table. He stood up straight, and his eyes were unengaging yet sharp and intense. Richter placed himself by the table staring out, waiting.

 

Upon the invisible signal that only the croupiers heard, like dogs reacting to whistles with frequencies far beyond what the human ear can make out, they sat down in unison. Richter took out a new deck, broke open the packaging and got started. Vincent, sitting to the left of the croupier, was dealt 5♣, Esponita 9♦, Howard 5♦, Peter 10♦, Lennart 6♣, Friedrich Q♥ and finally Christine 8♥.

 

The dealer button was placed in front of Friedrich. Three minutes later the speakers sounded:

 

“The sixth round begins now. King’s Hope wishes all contestants the best of luck. May the cards fall to your advantage.”

 

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