Chapter 18

Copyright ©Hans Olsson

Chapter 18

 

My nightmares they are chasing me

 

What is the truth of what I see

 

Would someone please be ending this

 

Could someone wake me with a kiss

 

 

 

Namnambulu - Nightmares

 

 

 

He sneaked quietly through the silent house. His parents had dozed off in the sofa while watching some crappy television show. He cringed when the floor creaked outside their bedroom. He carefully pushed down the handle and eased open the door. The room was dark, but a childish fear prevented him from turning on the lights. What if they were to feel the lightbulb when they came up to sleep? What if it was still warm … then they’d know he’d been up here.

 

And done what?

 

What business do you have, sneaking into your parents’ bedroom as an adult? It was probably that thought that stopped him from pressing the light switch, it would be embarrassing if they found him out.

 

He eased silently over to the chest of drawers where he knew his mother kept her savings. He pulled out the drawer, careful not to let it make any noise. Then he opened the box where the money was and pulled his own wallet from his pocket. He took out a 50 Euro note and two tens and placed them in the box. He closed the lid, pushed back the drawer and backed slowly out of the room. He glanced at the chest of drawers, concerned. What if his mother saw that the box was out of position? He made it quickly out of the room and held his breath as he closed the door. He stood in the hallway and took a deep breath to calm himself down.

 

There was a poetic and harmonious justice in returning the money that he’d taken many years ago for that shady club. He’d won the money he’d just put back in a legal poker tournament at a local pub. And he’d paid it back with interest. He wanted to give more, but he suspected she’d notice. He’d done all he could do. The circle was complete.

 

He leaned against the wall in the hall, and closed his eyes. He had a mental image that had been growing in intensity every time he saw his parents. Compared with how they’d been when they’d been expecting Moa, they were becoming empty shells. They moved around, ate and slept. But there was no longer any joy.

 

They’d tried for a long time to gain some sort of closure for Moa who’d been taken away from them so brutally, but nobody cared any longer. The doctors merely shrugged it off and politicians offered no assistance. Only one child was permitted. Period. Justice for things like that was impossible, especially since his parents were just one couple among many. Expecting couples had had their dreams crushed all over the world, and people soon became indifferent. You could have one child. Not two. If you wanted to leave your mark, you had to do something else like build a fortune and invest in a monument, or start a company and aim for the global market.

 

During that 50-Euro tournament he’d taken part in he’d reached one important insight, and that was that he was very good at getting a sense of what cards his opponents had. When he got a cramping feeling in his stomach, it was an early warning that he was running into a trap. He’d discarded many good hands that he would have lost with. Just maybe that intuition of his could build him some capital and get him somewhere someday.

 

But never to King’s Hope, there was too much at stake there.

 

Or?

 

 

 

Sleep. He had to sleep. Half an hour would be enough. Or at least help. The rules of both poker and King’s Hope were by this time hard-coded in his brain. He ought to be able to make it a long way on routine, but fatigue had dulled his mind.

 

The elevator was packed with players who wanted to get away from the twenty-eighth floor. Some of the victims from the escape attempt had lost their minds. One woman had started screaming after the speakers had sounded and she didn’t stop. It sounded like a damaged siren that rose and sank. It was occasionally interrupted by a rattling cough, but the heart-wrenching noise never ceased. One man babbled out loud. He both shouted profanities and cried, begging for forgiveness. Most of the others just hung there, limp and still. The players who’d survived the eighth round all had a growing feeling of impending doom after the mental strain it had been to listen to the dying. The woman who was wailing touched everyone’s heart and left nobody unaffected. The queue by the elevators was several minutes long and many chose to take the stairs instead.

 

When he made it into the elevator, someone had pushed the button to the dining room, so he had to go all the way down there before he could go up again. After that, it stopped at the twenty-ninth floor. That would have to do. He realised that he was very close to the floor where the final would be held, and even the final round itself.

 

When the elevator doors rang, he hurried out and surveyed the hall to find a suitable table that was as inconspicuous as possible. Close by the elevators was out of the question. Likewise, he didn’t want to be too close to the aisle down the middle since many players would walk past and might wake him up. The fact was, he didn’t want to sit anywhere. He wanted to get out of the contest.

 

In the end, he compromised and sat down to the left of the middle section. He registered himself at table sixty-five and then clumsily pulled out his chips from the case. When that was done, he crossed his arms and used them as a pillow. He shut his eyes and started to drift off straight away.

 

At first, all he could hear was the soft sound of the other players talking and the clicking of their chips. After a while, these sounds were mixed with his own thoughts and he became swept away. In his dream he could see mountains, black and ominous with sharp peaks that jutted out against the steel-grey sky. He was standing on a small ledge high up on the mountain face. If he slipped, he would die. He’d never been afraid of heights, but here he was in peril. He was petrified of falling and of failure. He pushed himself up against the rock wall and groped for something to grab hold of. There was nothing there but the rough rock that cut into his hands.

 

“You’re going to die!” someone shouted.

 

Peter looked up in surprise and noticed that countless other dark figures were also standing on tiny ledges around the mountainside. They held on for dear life, like small, rotten barnacles.

 

“You’ll lose!” someone to his left cried this time, he couldn’t see who. A vague figure stood there, melting into the shadows.

 

“You’ll fall and die alone!” the figure called encouragingly. “Give up. Play badly!”

 

The words cut him like a knife. It meant something. Was he here because he’d played badly?

 

“You’re worthless, Peter,” it whispered in a razor-sharp voice that was carried by a sudden gust. “You’re going to fall.”

 

“Who are you?” Peter called out. His voice was drowned out by the wind. “Who’s there? Stop. Please stop!”

 

“You’ll play badly and lose,” the voice said very clearly and full of self-righteousness. “You’re useless.”

 

Peter turned towards the shadow who was taunting him. His fear took on a hint of rage.

 

“Tell me who you are!” The shadow starting to take shape. It looked a bit like Lennart, although it wasn’t him.

 

“Morrie? Moa?”

 

He twisted and turned to be able to see better and slipped on the wet rock and lost his balance. For a brief moment he swayed, trying to push himself back against the mountain face. The ledge was slippery, and he couldn’t keep his hold. He fell forward.

 

“You’re going to die,” the voice said mockingly as Peter fell into the darkness, down towards the sharp rocks far below.

 

He awoke with a start and threw himself back in the chair, causing two of his chip stacks to fall over. The first thing he saw was a figure to his left who rapidly leaned away from him. Peter blinked to get rid of the sleepy haze that that was blurring his vision. He took a deep, gasping breath, counted to ten until he was sure he was more or less fully awake. Freidrich sat to his left, sneering at him.

 

“Good morning, Peter. Good to see you’ve made it this far. Really good.” His voice was completely devoid of any warmth.

 

Peter felt a wave of fury welling up and he stood up so quickly that his chair fell down.

 

“You fucking bastard!” he cried. “Why did you wake me up?” He clenched his fist, ready to strike. From the corner of his eye, he saw how one of the guards stiffened.

 

“What do you mean, woke you up? I was just talking to myself. Calm down before you make a fool of yourself. People might think you’re hysterical. The next round is starting soon, and I told you it was good to see you again. Really.”

 

Peter glared at him. He wanted to destroy him, but he forced himself to look away. He saw Friedrich’s pile of chips instead, as large as a three-piece suite. He took a deep breath, turned around to pick up his chair and sat down again. It was 10.35 am. The next round would start in nine minutes. He’d slept for a while, after all. To his left, Friedrich chortled.

 

“You should have seen yourself. No sense of humour and no finesse. Did you have a nice dream?”

 

“Shut it,” Peter muttered. He took a deep breath to organise his thoughts and to subdue the headache that was throbbing behind his eyes.

 

He hated being tired. He became stubborn and irritable. And unwanted memories rose up to the surface. He could recall things from his childhood. He remembered how he’d stood in the school yard with a few friends and spat on the ground. A girl was running towards him. Her hair was tied up in a plait and bobbed up and down against her back. Her round face was covered with freckles and her blue rucksack had a yellow and pink print of a pony. She wasn’t going anywhere in particular. Perhaps she was on her way home, since she had her rucksack on her back. Or she was on her way to show something to the teachers. But those thoughts were in hindsight. She was just running there. He never understood why he’d done it, but he decided then and there to tackle her down. As she run by him, he stepped forward and pushed her in the side. The girl stumbled, like a flickering flame and fell in a heap on the grit. He could actually hear how the palms of her hands and her knees were scraped. Then she began to scream and cry.

 

Even now, Peter didn’t know why he’d done it. Just a whim, maybe. Probably to demonstrate how tough he was for his friends. It had been so unnecessary, and he’d known it at the time. The only thing he knew for certain was that, even as he’d moved towards the girl, he’d regretted it. Deeply and bitterly. He’d carried through with it anyhow.

 

When a teacher hurried over the yard and wondered what the hell he was doing, he made excuses as children usually do. He was so convincing that the teacher soon left him alone, having no evidence to go on. The teacher helped the girl up and took her with him. Strange what he could remember. He could only recall that the teacher wore wooden clogs and green corduroy trousers. He’d bear what he’d done to that girl forever. And right now, for some inexplicable reason, his brain thought it was the right time to pull out that memory.

 

“Give me a coffee,” he muttered stubbornly. He waved down a guard and ordered a large black coffee.

 

Coffee beans had always had high priority. It was one addiction that humanity would carry on with until nothing else remained. After Portugal, when unbelievable large areas of land were left arid and barren, many plantations changed crops. A large number of wine districts in Spain and France switched to coffee beans that were suited to the European climate. In the long term, this was an economically wise choice that probably held these countries afloat longer than countries that couldn’t do that. But it made no difference to those who experienced famine during that unsteady period. The coffee at King’s Hope was dark, strong and the best that Peter had ever tasted. He took a gulp and then studied the people who had joined at the table.

 

The croupier was in place. Peter recognised her, it was Tess from the fifth round. This surprised him at first, but why not? It was only the first round when they had to have a complete staff of croupiers to work all tables on all floors. After that, they could work in shifts. He suddenly wished that Lorenzo had made it through the last round, he’d certainly be able to say what the probability was of encountering the same croupier twice. It must be quite probable anyhow, maybe as high as 10% chance in the ninth round. He wished that Lennart was still alive. The poker tournament at King’s Hope was a lonely business.

 

To the croupier’s left sat a woman with curly, red hair and freckles. She was very attractive, and Peter guessed that she was about forty. She wore a snug-fitting black and white striped dress and Peter could see her nipples through the tight cloth. She was playing absently with a chip, and her pink varnished nails reflected the lights. Her name was Martha Rotsjenko, number 337, and she had 33,000 in chips.

 

Next to her sat a woman with a round face, short-cut brown hair and blue nails. She was wearing an orange suit that was so garish that Peter felt as if small supernovae were exploding between his ears. He made a mental note not to stare at her. This woman was called Anne Meredith-Westmacott, number 1,000 and she was short-stacked with 18,000.

 

Peter was at the next seat, followed by Friedrich who was sneering. Peter could see that it had unfortunately gone well for Friedrich and he had 56,000 in front of him.

 

Beyond Friedrich sat a ginger-haired man whose sideburns almost joined at his chin. All that separated them was a narrow, well-trimmed groove. This was Duncan Connor, number 2,391 and he had 55,000.

 

After him, he saw a familiar face. It was Marie from the previous round. She smiled as their eyes met.

 

“I chose the same table as you,” she said cheerfully. “I want to watch how it goes for you, Mr. Royal. I heard rumours that you made a big recovery before we met last round! Pussycunt, how you must have played! I reckon you’ll make it to the final table.”

 

Her frank and upbeat manner made Peter feel nauseous. He couldn’t understand how she could be so happy, since from what she said, she counted on being knocked out. Marie had 33,000.

 

To her left was a man with glasses and stubble that made him look a little like a wolf. This was Gunnar “Swedish Zombie” Vahlström, number 414, wearing a simple suit. He had the largest stack at the table, 96,000.

 

The final place was occupied by a slender woman with short, blond hair. She was wearing red lipstick which, in the context of her pale and tired face, made her look like a vampire who’d just sucked a victim dry of blood. Her name was Jasmina Orrfenhauer, number 35, and she had 46,000 in chips.

 

The speakers sprang to life and it was then Peter noted that the dealer button was in front of Marie. Tess must have dealt them cards just before he’d been awoken by Friedrich.

 

“It’s now 10.44 am, and the start of the ninth round. The blinds are at level fifteen, 2,000-4,000, with an ante of 500. King’s Hope wishes all players good luck. May the cards fall to your advantage.”

 

And it began, again.

 

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