Copyright ©Hans Olsson
Let's seize the day
Let's go astray
There ain't no reason to be shy
Running at the speed of life
Frozen plasma - The Speed Of Life
“I thought it would just be temporary, but I’m here again for the third season. It was strange to begin with, but you get used to it just like they teach you during the training. You can get used to anything. We always get to freshen up our knowledge and skills before the tournament gets going, but it’s never like the first time again.
“I remember when I stepped into the conference room the first time. A strict-looking man with grey hair and white sideburns was standing on the podium. He emanated a feeling of proudness, and it was probably at that moment I realised what a big deal it was to land this job. The course was much tougher than I’d thought. There’s much more to being a croupier than you can imagine.
“We don’t make mistakes at King’s Hope.
“That mantra is the first thing we’re taught. During innumerable sessions, we’ve practiced at throwing cards so they land in front of each player without turning over. We learn to count chips by just looking for a couple of seconds, despite the fact that we constantly receive data from the observation centre in our earpieces. A good trick is learning to measure chip stacks with five, ten and twenty chips. It’s like tables in our heads, where we can instantly look up how much a stack is worth. I couldn’t even tell you how I do it any more, it’s automatic. We spend hours at the gym to train our muscles, so we can cope with the long sessions at the tables. The first and the last rounds always take the longest. Before the contestants get going.
“I remember that I was bothered by the guns the first time, since that was for real and outside the classroom, but thanks to the extensive training there was never any sense of danger. The players are just like mannequins or extras in a film.
“We don’t make mistakes at King’s Hope.
“After each season, our connection with King’s Hope grows. I’ll be here again next year, I’m convinced. It's a well-paid job, and I’ve never experienced anything like the belonging or sense of pride in what I do. Thank you, King's Hope, for existing.”
When Peter had counted his chips, he found that he’d reached an acceptable level during the sixth round.
“How much did you scrape together?” Lennart asked from behind. “I ended up on 61,500.”
“21,800,” Peter said softly. This was better than the 14,800 chips he’d started the sixth round with. Although it wasn’t the amount he needed for coming rounds.
“Well, what do you say, kid?” Lennart wondered, changing the subject. “Shall we go down to Salon Selma?”
The third floor, where the dormitories were located, had a well-known salon where the players could screw around during those last, desperate hours of their lives. There was a dedicated paying channel for that on the TV stations, and if you wished, you could pass your wristband over a panel outside the room and your face would be blurred by an algorithm they called ‘sexorship’. Players very rarely chose to hide their faces, and there was only one year that an overcharged orgy participant had won the tournament and become doubly famous. The clip with the new porn star was given the title “Casino Knight and Deep Stack Action” and had been sold in huge quantities. The winner that year, almost twenty years ago, was Alfred “Stanko” Goldman and he had a very ordinary appearance. Wearing a tweed jacket, dark grey trousers and a flowery shirt, he set the trend that year for sex games as well as clothing. It looked ridiculous.
The rest of the players that spent time in the room had all ended up on the stage, and depending on who you asked, the room went by the name of “The Sex Chamber of the Dead” or “The Final Shoot”. Going by the statistics for King’s Hope, it was hopeless to go wild in there and expect to win the tournament. The thought of being shown on the paying channel, if only for a short moment, drew many contestants. Apart from all the fucking, of course. The few players that got into the top hundred after a visit at Salon Selma could often live on invitations to parties during the following year.
“I suppose so,” Peter said without any enthusiasm.
“Good, kid. Good.”
They stepped into the elevator together with five other pale and vacant players. Only one of them looked happy, but he was leaning with his apparently heavy bag slung over his shoulder.
Stick ‘em up, this is a robbery! Peter thought to himself. Give me your chips slowly and carefully, and nobody will be harmed during the break.
Three players left at the restaurant. The others carried on down to the third floor where the dormitories were. And Salon Selma. Peter could hardly summon up any feelings at all. He ought to feel horny, or at least somewhat aroused. Instead, he just stared at the wall ahead.
When the elevator bell rang and the doors slid open, he just floated along with the others, almost apathetic. A dose of sex, perhaps that would bring him back to life. Or, even better, sleep a couple of hours … He could place his chips up on a table, come back down and sleep for maybe two or three hours before the blinds had chewed away his stack. At the worst, they’d have to come and get him. That was perhaps not such a bad idea, getting shot half asleep, hardly aware of where you were and with your brain bobbing pleasantly in a state of tiredness.
They stopped outside the red doors that were now slightly ajar. Above the doors, there was a neon sign.
The corridor where they stood led onwards to the dormitories. Two guards stood outside, staring blankly ahead with expressionless robot-like faces. Peter was tempted to do something. Kick them between the legs, for example, just to see if they’d react. Instead, they stepped in through the doors.
Before them lay a hall, similar to all the others. Here, however, there were no unpleasant poker tables suggesting death and fear. No stage. Instead, there were soft couches, a few pool tables and some tables placed out here and there. The floor was covered by a red wall-to-wall carpet with miniature hearts. The lighting was dim, and Peter could just make out three guards standing along the walls. The atmosphere was lighter here, like stepping outside on a sunny winter’s morning.
Two couples were at it in a couch. Peter could see a pair of legs poking up over the back of the couch, and the head and shoulders of a man who was pumping away between them. With the other couple, he saw the woman rhythmically moving up and down. Beneath her, he could see the back of somebody’s head. A little further away, at one of the tables, a woman was bent over with a man behind her. A younger guy was leaning against a pillar, watching and masturbating. Along one of the walls there was a row of individual booths with glory holes inside, separated by a thin wall. Lamps above indicated if there was anybody inside and if the person wanted to give or take. A green light for give, purple for take. And red if both sides were occupied. Just then, there was a green light above one of the booths.
Peter and Lennart walked slowly by the wall to get some idea of what was happening. He’d have given his right arm for a place like this when he’d been young, but just now he couldn’t summon up the enthusiasm he wanted to feel. Although he couldn’t deny that it was enticing. It was all seductively desperate. Carnal and uninhibited.
More players slipped in through the doors. They stood, as Peter had done, staring in amazement. A few of them seemed to know exactly what they wanted, others hesitated and stared at bobbing breasts, pumping cocks and the smacking sounds of genitals pushing against each other.
“This will be good,” Lennart said. His voice was remote, and Peter hardly noticed that Lennart had started to undress and place his clothes in a neat pile on a table.
Yes, it should be good, but why couldn’t he feel any desire? Fatigue was an obvious answer. The constant threat was another. The cameras were a third. He didn’t really want to become a new “Casino Knight”, not that it mattered, but there was of course The Book. If he, despite everything, made it in there, he didn’t want a nickname like that. There was more to it than that, though. He hadn’t completely let go of Dibley, although he knew Lennart was right. But in a place like this, could he afford not to take what was on offer?
If he was being honest, Dibley wasn’t the entire truth either. He suddenly realised what was bothering him. It all felt so hopeless. The people that were there, fucking away, had given up. The woman over there, with her tits jiggling back and forth and her face twisted in a wild orgasmic roar, was dead. The man on top of her, with a concentrated but vacant expression, was dead meat. The two couples to the right, who’d just taken their clothes off and were tentatively feeling each other’s genitals, were dead. And the beautiful brunette over there, with small perky breasts and her short skirt pulled up over her hips, was also gone. Giving over to lust was to give up. The Book, he wanted to get in The Book, that was his only true desire, and the path there was long and hard.
“Come on, kid. Loosen up!” Lennart said, and did the helicopter in front of Peter.
Peter stared at him absently, and Lennart sighed.
“I’ve got one thing to say to you, my friend. Then it’s up to you, but you’re a moron if you don’t enjoy living while you can. Are you listening?”
Peter nodded, trying not to look at the penis that hung before him.
“When I was young, my parents used to go to a farm outside our town for some extra work. I didn’t have much choice than to tag along. While we were there, we worked like animals, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, to earn extra cash so that mum could get a perm done every other month. It was hard work, shovelling hay, clearing undergrowth in the forest, cleaning up cow shit, things like that. How we laboured! Late in the evenings, when the farmer came from the barn and said it would do, and that we could go for a dip in the lake nearby, I was most often so tired that I could have dropped down there and then. But when we got to the lake and jumped in the water, it was worth it. All that hard work, and for me as a young lad it was no fun being there, it all washed off you. It was always then that it was most pleasant to bathe. Remember that, kid! After a hard day’s work, it’s worth relaxing and enjoying the water.”
Lennart turned and disappeared into the room towards two women who were hanging by the wall at the back.
No, the answer was no. He wasn’t going to avoid the water. Suddenly, he remembered Dibley’s words. This is the new, liberated me.
So, what is the liberated me? I could die in the next round. The fact is, it’s likely.
When he realised that, it all felt much easier. He ripped off his clothes and strolled over, naked, to Lennart and the women who by that point had undressed. They’d laid down in one of the couches. One of the women lay on her side and was giving Lennart a blow job. The other one was pushing another man’s face between her thighs. Peter knelt down in front of the women who was sucking Lennart’s dick. He placed his hands on her thighs, and as she felt his pressure she spread her legs. Lennart was right. Peter realised that he often was. He had worked bloody hard to get here, to the end of the day.
He bent down and pushed his face into her crotch. It smelt and tasted sour, bitter, woman. She groaned and twisted beneath him.
“My doctor prescribed ejaculations,” Lennart gasped. “Do you have prostate problems? Come a couple of times each week. We’ll fix that, Peter-boy. Are you ready to try something new?”
Peter lifted his head and looked into Lennart’s questioning eyes.
Is he serious?
Dibley’s words came back to his mind. Yeah, what the hell. He might be dead in an hour. And then he’d never know what it felt like. He shrugged slightly reluctantly and nodded. Lennart muttered approvingly, stood up and stepped behind him. Peter felt something touch his buttocks, closely followed by a sudden surge as Lennart pushed himself inside him. He felt a strong hand on his neck pushing his face down on the woman’s vagina.
“You’re going to love this,” Lennart said from behind.
The surprise paralysed him for a brief moment, and Lennart had a firm hold of him. Peter could do nothing else but take it, while Lennart, according to statistics, condemned him to death. Lennart, the old goat, had sides to his personality that Peter would never had guessed. The question that echoed in his head was whether that was a bad thing. With every thrust, his own involuntary grunts grew in intensity and he felt less and less unwilling. As he both slid and was pushed over the woman, pushing his cock inside her at the same time as Lennart was working on him, he forgot every thought. Before long, they were all a groaning, carnal entity. When they all exploded together, he understood exactly what Lennart had been saying. And how they’d laboured!
Forty minutes later, he was completely spent. Spent, but in fact quite happy. For a few minutes, he’d managed to forget where he really was, and his body was exhausted as if he’d been at the gym. He got dressed quickly, glanced at the clock and then waited for Lennart. They had twelve minutes before it was time for the seventh round.
When Lennart was ready, they picked up their chip bags and went up to the twenty-sixth floor. Once there, they found a table in the middle, number fifteen. There were two players there already, five minutes before the round was due to start. Peter slid down carefully to the right of the croupier. It was easier to sit down than he expected, just then it was harder to walk in a straight line, his legs were stiff. Lennart sat down almost opposite, next to another player who looked familiar. It felt good with some space between them. He wasn’t sure he wanted to have Lennart at the table, but that’s how it was. He felt calm and harmonious. The croupiers were in position and players were either wandering around in the hall or picking up their chips. They drew their wristbands over the displays and registered for round seven. Peter took out his chips, meanwhile the table was filling up with players. He looked up and tried to get some idea of the starting field.
To his left was the croupier, a cute woman with bond hair tied up in a tight bun, a round face and red cheeks. The name badge on the casino uniform said Ellinor.
To her left sat a black woman, Susanna Abigail with number 184. 22,400 in chips lay in front of her.
Beyond her was a large woman with red hair. It was a couple of seconds before his memory awakened.
“Katrish,” he exclaimed. “You’re still alive!”
“Of course I am,” she smiled. “Peter…?” she asked hesitantly and peeked at his display. When she was sure she’d remembered correctly, she lit up. “Great to see you again! Do you want some more candied ginger?”
He could still feel the taste of it, like a boil that stubbornly refused to disappear.
Katrish had recovered and she had 23,900 in front of her.
The next player was a man, and Katrish’s stacks were shadowed by the mountains that the man had. The sheer volume of his stack was so exaggerated that Peter didn’t stop to think what values the chips had, or that the man was familiar. He’d quite simply believed that there were so many chips because they had lower values. Anything else was too absurd to believe.
It wasn’t until Peter peered at the display that it all clicked. He should have realised sooner, but when he saw the bowl haircut, the grey hair and the jet-black sunglasses that adorned the mans narrow nose and rough face, he was struck by the harsh reality. The man’s sunglasses seemed to absorb light rather than reflect it. It was then that he felt his charisma, like a stifling blanket of oppressive strength. He felt cold. This was M. “The Reactor” Korhart, number 4,803. It was him that had won the tournament six years ago. Korhart had a ridiculous amount of chips, 423,000. There were chips whose colours he could only dream of. Korhart had some chips that were deep purple with yellow stripes on the edges, worth 25,000. There was also a dark blue one with gold stripes worth 50,000. Peter stared numbly at his own display that merrily showed his name. It was too late to change tables.
After him sat Lennart, leaning back and trying to look casual, but his eyes reflected Peter’s concern.
The next player was a familiar face, Natascha Rappanova, 5,919. Her mouth was hidden beneath her green polo neck, and her dark glasses shone dully. It had gone well for her, too. She had about 65,700 in chips. Compared with Korhart’s mountain, it looked feeble. A little chip baby beside the giant.
Between Natascha and Peter was a new face. The display stated that this was Bert “Junker C” Darktower, number 6,810. He was a slender, young man, maybe about twenty-five, with blond hair and a narrow nose. He had a smile constantly playing on his lips. Peter estimated that he had about 23,100 in chips.
He sat in the last seat himself, where his 21,800 meant he was the poorest at the table, although not by much. And he was still alive, and a new day at work was about to begin at any moment.
Ellinor split open the plastic around a new deck, shuffled, and skilfully tossed a card in front of each of them starting with Susanna. She was dealt 4♦, Katrish 10♣, Korhart Q♥, Lennart K♠, Natascha 3♦, Bert 8♦ and finally Peter J♣. Ellinor accurately pushed out the dealer button so it landed in front of Lennart.