Chapter 20

Copyright ©Hans Olsson

Chapter 20

 

There are two types of men on our Mother Earth

 

Some have all the luck some just live in dirt

 

Here are several types of the colour of the skin

 

But what's crucial is to lose or win [...]

 

 

 

We will stay down

 

Down where we belong

 

 

 

:Wumpscut: - Down where we belong

 

 

 

As she lay beside him he examined her body, its lines and shapes. A nameless girl he'd met at a university party the night before. Her soft cheeks were moving as she breathed as if she were chewing in her sleep. Her breasts were calmly rising and falling in time with her breath. When he accidentally nudged her, her eyes flew open and she stared at him in confusion as the fragments of yesterday fell into place. Then she smiled and pulled his hand to her breast.

 

"Did you sleep well?"

 

"You bet," he nodded, feeling how her nipple began to stiffen. She moved her legs apart as he lay on top of her, pushing himself inside her as deeply as he could. She arched her back, wrapped her legs around his hips and gently bit his neck.

 

Afterwards, they both lay staring at the ceiling, each following their own thoughts.

 

"What do you want to do in life?" she asked, breaking the silence.

 

"I don't know." He swallowed. "What about you?"

 

She thought for a moment. "I wanted to be a fireman when I was little. Or firewoman. Isn't that silly?" she sniggered. "Although why not? Imagine saving people who are in real trouble. I thought it would be cool when I was young."

 

"And now?"

 

"Now I'm not sure what I want to do. I'd like to finish my degree and then work at a hospital to improve life for people who need help. Then I'll have a kid."

 

"Aren't you worried about the food deliveries if you have a kid?"

 

"No, not at all. I'll get married to somebody rich, doctors earn a lot, and all those problems will be solved. Now it's your turn. What do you want to do?"

 

Peter fell silent and thought. "Maybe I'll take part in the poker tournament at King's Hope." He was being ironic, but either she didn't notice the irony in his voice, or she just chose to ignore it.

 

" Why?" she asked, laughing. "I didn't take you for a suicidal maniac. Don't you enjoy living?"

 

He shrugged. "Of course I do, but I'm not sure I believe that things can change any longer. Not without doing something drastic. And how are you supposed to do that nowadays?" As he spoke, thoughts started running through his mind. He'd already landed a job at an IT company and had a higher salary than he'd ever dreamt. He didn't need to worry about food deliveries, even though he could hardly call his lifestyle luxurious. His life lacked substance.

 

"I think that's ridiculous. Taking part there isn't the same as doing something with your life. It's more like letting go completely."

 

"I don't know," he replied as he got up from the bed and started to dress. "It's possibly the only way of taking control of your life. I don't think a well-paid job solves much. They can take anything they want away from me anyhow. No, to truly influence your destiny, you need to think bigger than that."

 

"Who's they? And what do you mean, think bigger? What's bigger than saving lives?"

 

"Realising that we're all slaves to a new system is bigger than saving lives. And breaking out of that system is even greater. That's what I want to do with my life."

 

 

 

When he'd packed away his chips he remained at the table, indecisive. His internal food and sleep clock told him he should try to eat something again. He had one coupon left that would otherwise become invalid. But he wasn't the slightest bit hungry. Was there any point trying to do anything other than just making his way up? Salon Selma was open, but that didn't seem enticing either. He was close to being in the top hundred and that thought preoccupied him. He decided to go up to the floor where the final would be held. Get it over and done with.

 

As he was waiting for the queues at the elevators to subside, he walked across to the window over the entrance. Outside a drizzling rainfall left small streams running down the glass. When he looked back, he realised that he hadn't seen the sun at all since arriving at the casino. At that moment he yearned to see the sun once more. Down below he could see the crowds that gathered each year outside King's Hope. Most of them were watching the big screens that were placed on the building. From up here, it looked like the crowd was swaying like sea anemones on the ocean floor. There were at least five thousand people herded together, pushing up against the riot fences. Behind these stood guards, staring expressionlessly back at them. If any of the crowd suddenly decided to storm the fence, they'd quickly be shot with a stun gun or given a real thrashing. The crowd soon learned to keep on the right side of the fence.

 

From time to time, he could make out individual people as they raised their hands and opened their mouths wide to either shout their protest at the mass murder, their praise for the diminishing waiting time for healthcare, or merely pure ecstasy for the violence taking place behind the casino walls. Some of them caught sight of Peter standing at the window. Peter braced himself to take in the view that he'd only ever see once in his life before he stepped back and slid from their view.

 

With an uneasy feeling he walked over to the window at the other end of the room instead, the one facing the inner court yard. As he looked out from the window, he caught sight of something that threw an even greater shadow over the gloomy day. Down below, on the side of King's Hope that the demonstrators and audience couldn't see, there were countless numbers of black disposal bags stacked. Nine thousand players. He suddenly felt dizzy and had to lean against the glass so as not to fall over. Were there really that many? Perhaps that was only a fraction of them, but the fact remained: there were very many sacks down there and they were stacked up so high that they blocked the windows of half the first floor. Those were the ones that had run out of luck. The ones that had fallen and who the Valkyries were supposed to fetch. Or maybe they were the lucky ones? They didn't need to worry about anything any longer. They were down below, where they belonged. Where everyone belongs sooner or later.

 

He looked away and walked towards the elevator. The toughest round would be starting soon, and by this stage the poorer players had been mercilessly weeded out and had ended up down there.

 

The elevator stopped at each floor, picking up pale and unknown faces. Quiet piano music played in the background. The elevator was soon filled and therefore continued without stopping up to the final floor. The players spewed forth from the elevator when the bell rang to announce their arrival.

 

The final floor was different from the other floors. Above all, it was larger with wide open spaces and the ceiling was so high up it made the hall feel like the inside of a cathedral. The pillars that were spread throughout the room were a creamy colour, bathing the room in a grotesque light. The stage was at the other end, also larger than before. Heavy crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling and carpet in a poker chip design covered the floor. The shape of the room was also different. Stepping out of the elevator was like coming out of a chimney that opened onto the centre of the thirty-fifth floor. On each side of the entrance, poker tables were arranged in the shape of the letter A pointing toward the stage. You could see the stage clearly from wherever you were sitting, although the ones at the back needed sharp eyes to be able to see. The entire floor was over eighty metres wide for sure. He'd seen it before on television but being here in person was something else. There was a pleasant scent of plastic and metal in the room that was reminiscent of the smell of a new car. An electric atmosphere of tension, frivolity and expectation wafted between the tables. The real challenge would soon begin.

 

He tried to figure out where it would be best to sit, but he didn't really have any preference. If he sat at the back, he'd have to pass by half of the players if he was knocked out, and that was actually quite likely. In a strange way, it would feel worse and more embarrassing to be eliminated now. He wasn't keen on the idea of walking the blue march in front of all the remaining players.

 

Since he had no real criteria to go on, he decided to take a table with a high number. For the previous rounds, there had been between seventy and ninety tables per floor. On the final floor there were one hundred and twenty-five tables to choose between. He found a table with number eighty-four to the left of the elevator. From there he'd be partially hidden when he was forced up onto the stage. He stopped his train of thought. Not when. If he was forced up on stage.

 

He sunk down into a chair, passed his wristband over the display and unpacked his chips. When that was done, he looked around to see if there were any familiar faces amongst the players that were wandering about. There was a woman that seemed familiar, but they hadn't played at the same table. Had he seen her in the dining-room? Or had they exchanged words in Salon Selma? One man was reminiscent of Miguel who'd been killed ages ago. For a brief moment he saw Korhart flash past, but he disappeared again amongst the other players. Peter tried to remember which table Korhart had sat at the last time he'd been here. Perhaps he was superstitious and wanted to sit in the winning seat? After a while he stopped trying to look for people he knew. He was the only one left. King's Hope was meant for the lonely. The flood of players streaming past transformed into a blurry haze. While he was waiting for the final round to begin, he tried to relax without falling asleep. If only he managed to play two or three good hands, he'd have enough to discard the rest of his hands into the top hundred. That was his goal.

 

The murmur of voices in the hall was sending him to sleep, and he had to force himself to think about things that would keep him awake. Morrie turned up in his mind's eye. And Lennart. And vague images of mountains of chips that were swaying like treetops. In the end, he stood up and waited. That was a good move since it was uncomfortable to sit still, and besides, it felt good to stretch his legs. Players continued to drop in and it wasn't long before a man he didn't know arrived at his table. They nodded at each other, both reservedly and with a certain respect for the fact they'd both made it this far. Peter shook his head. No, what bullshit. Anything before top hundred was only worth the same as a bullet.

 

The man was Stephen Mistbound, number 6,649. He was thin, with an angular face, black hair combed to one side and sunken, pale green eyes. He sat down at the middle of the table and placed out a large pile of chips, Peter guessed about 103,000.

 

They appraised each other in silence until Peter averted his gaze and looked once more around the hall. Five tables away, his tired, staring eyes met those of a woman and it took him several seconds to register who it was. Dibley smiled affectionately and walked over to him.

 

"Well hello, kitten! Nice to see you again."

 

She was still wearing soft green trousers and that beige top with the revealing neck, but she was now also wearing a scarf around her neck to hide her cleavage. And the bruise.

 

"Yes," Peter laughed, and gave her a hug. "I was just looking around to see if there was anyone I recognised. How have you got along?"

 

"It's been OK," she replied, ambiguously. "And you?"

 

"OK," Peter nodded. "So crazy that we've made it this far. Now it feels actually possible to make it to the top hundred."

 

"Yes, it does," Dibley said. Her voice contained a hint of sorrow.

 

"What will you do then? Are you going to stop there and take the money you get?"

 

"I haven't thought about it," she answered, even more evasively. "And you?"

 

Peter coughed. "For me, it's The Book that counts so I can't back out. It's different for you, isn't it? If you make it to the top hundred, then you can change your life back home. If you want to, of course? I mean, what you said about being another person here at King's Hope, and all that. With the prize money, you can really change things. If I make it out of here, I don't think I'll ever be the same," Peter said, and looked down at the floor.

 

"Sure, but where will I go? It's not as easy as you think to break clean of everything back home. Now I've tried living as a liberated woman, it'll be hard, impossible, to go back to what there was before. That frightens me, what would I do with the money?"

 

"You can do what you like if you make it to the top hundred," Peter said, meaning every word he said. "If you don't like that guy who … There's nothing stopping you. You can move some place where he can't follow."

 

Dibley was staring down at the floor.

 

"No, now I'm going back to my table to get ready," she said after a while. "Good luck, kitty cat."

 

"You too. Play carefully," he replied, thrusting his hands into his trouser pockets.

 

She nodded, smiled cautiously and then leant forwards to give him a kiss on the lips before she turned around and went back to her table. Peter stood there, staring at her. The pull of the abyss was greater now, he was concerned about her. He didn't want to see her walking the blue march. He wiped the sweat from his hands on his trousers and tried to concentrate on the task ahead.

 

After a few minutes the next player arrived, and that helped him to think about the present. A woman sat in the seat to the right of the croupier's position. She unpacked about 89,000, and when she swept her wristband over the display, it stated that her name was Claire Silberman, number 7,982.

 

"Hi, boys," she said in a hoarse voice. "May I join you?"

 

"Of course," Peter said, attempting to smile. He felt that he ended up looking like a half-dead vampire and was glad that there were no mirrors close by. Claire had an oval face, big pale eyes and curly hair that was dyed blue. She wore a red dress with a text over her bosom that claimed, "I made it this far. Let's finish it." The combination of the dress and the printed text looked comical, threatening and terribly attractive. Peter had to make an effort not to stare too deep between those hypnotic, soft mounds.

 

After her, a muscular man turned up with a roughly hewn face, a big button nose and slicked hair.

 

"Hello," he said curtly, and then sat down in the seat to the left of the croupier.

 

His name was Amon Biegel, number 438, and he pulled 128,000 out from his case.

 

A couple of minutes later, two players arrived at the same time. They sat down beside Claire. First was Milligan Torrego, 5,598. Milligan was wearing a waistcoat, a white shirt and a small bowler hat on his head. He had a neat pile that Peter estimated was about 98,000.

 

The one next to him was Hamish Oakshield, number 3,017. He had ginger hair, a puffy face and steel-grey eyes. Hamish sat down and unpacked 96,000 in chips.

 

Next, all the croupiers made their entrance. It was similar to the impressive entrance they'd made during the first round, apart from that there were now more of them. They spread out elegantly in the hall and came to a halt by their tables. The Valkyries, who'd come for the harvest. Things were really coming to a head, but it wasn't time yet and the table was not full. It wasn't long before two women arrived and took seats. They looked around appraisingly at the ones that had already joined the table and nodded politely. One of them smiled and sat next to Peter. Her name was Ritva Velasquez, number 7,445. She was light blond with high cheek-bones and pointed ears that made her look like an elf. She had about 58,000.

 

The last woman sat between Stephen and Hamish. She was short, fragile, and had to lean to the side to be able to carry her chip case. She had Asian features, black hair and deep green eyes. Her name was Michelle d'Akhu, number 884, and when she placed up her chips Peter understood why she'd been leaning. She had 165,000. Two large stacks to his left. That wasn't good, but sooner or later he'd have to knock them out.

 

Along the walls Peter could see the procrastinators, standing and waiting. When there was only about two minutes remaining, they crept furtively up to different tables and sat down.

 

Their croupier, a woman called Beata with chestnut-brown hair tied up tightly in a bun, red lipstick and stone-grey eyes, had turned up a card in front of each player. Amon started out with the dealer button, since he'd been dealt K♥.

 

Peter settled down in his chair and waited for the final round to begin.

 

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