II try to touch you but I know
That I'm just stranded in my dreams
Blutengel - Stranded
”At school I saw dreams being crushed time and time again. Small things in that context, but it was then I understood that what had happened was irreversible and that things would never be the same.
"On one occasion, we were going on a class trip and every pupil saved two pounds a week in a class deposit box. That went well a month or two before the problems started. A couple of pupils suddenly stopped bringing money with them. When I asked why, they stared down at the floor and refused to answer. I soon realised it was a matter of survival for those families. They couldn’t afford to spare any money at all.
"And after that, the deposit box was stolen. I don’t think it was one of the pupils. You see, the money was locked away in the teachers’ room and there weren’t any signs of a break-in or anything. It doesn’t matter now, even though I have my suspicions who it was. In any case, that was just another dream that vanished.
"That was when I met Marv, at one of the many parent-teacher meetings that followed. Marv was Issy’s dad and his boyish manner was charming and pleasant. We started seeing each other outside school. To start with it was quite good, but then …
"Never mind, it’s not important. That to-do with the class’s deposit box made many of them talk about how things were before. They wanted to go back to familiar ground, when people weren’t so hard up and things weren’t so insecure for the majority. I don’t want to go back. Instead, we should embrace the new and leave the old stuff behind us. I’m here, and I got away. Shove that up your arse, Marv!”
When he reached the elevators, Peter's blood sugar was in the red. He was hungry, irritable and had bad vibes. He glanced at the electronic bulletin board. Just like the security control at the entrance, it was reminiscent of an airport with its gigantic screens. The bulletin board displayed a large table containing names, numbers and chip counts. By placing your wristband in front of a small scanner, you could see detailed information about yourself: Number of hands played, favourite starting hand, average time for each hand and so on. It also showed which floor to go to next.
He hurried to the elevator and started to frantically push the button. A guard standing by the wall staring into space became instantly alert and started watching him. Suddenly, Peter wanted to hit him.
I’m not trying to escape, idiot.
He kept himself under control, but paced back and forth impatiently until the elevator doors finally opened with a faint pinging sound. He threw himself into the elevator and hit the button for the third floor. By mistake, he also activated the button for the second floor. He froze. If the guards thought that he was trying to flee then he’d receive a warning. Then he calmed down. The elevator couldn’t stop at the second floor since that was closed off, it wouldn’t go down further than necessary. The elevator doors slid shut just as the other contestants started to flock around the bulletin board to see where they should be going.
He was glad that he’d hurried, since the rush for the toilet corridors, elevators and the wide staircases running between the floors, despite King’s Hope’s ingenious floor design, always caused a certain amount of crowding and delays. Now he was alone in the elevator.
When it stopped, Peter was already prepared. He cast himself out when the doors opened. He nervously looked around. Apart from one guard, he was alone in the corridor that led both right and left. He could see several doors along the walls, the bedrooms. He could also see the large, red swinging doors further along leading into Salon Selma that would remain closed a while longer.
He glanced at the guard, who seemed quite uninterested, before walking quickly to the left. The corridor appeared to continue infinitely far into the building. He passed ten doors before he stopped trying to count them. He opened one of them and peeked in. It was a small, sparsely furnished room with dampened lighting. There were only two beds and a small table with an alarm clock. So as not to miss the start times.
Poor bastards that wake up too late anyway. They get personal room service from the guards.
She’d turn up. Dibley was of course late. Which floor had she said she was starting on again? Thirteen. Of course, it took longer for the lifts to come down from there. And she’d probably not run for the elevators like he’d done. No problems, she’d turn up at any minute. Despite that, he looked nervously at his watch while he hurried back through the corridors to the elevators.
The guard hadn’t moved an inch since Peter had passed by earlier. One of the doors finally slid open accompanied by the soft ping. Dibley wasn’t there. Instead, four other players stood in front of him, two men in their thirties, a cute woman with long, black hair and a man who looked like he could drop dead at any minute. Peter stared at his sunken, yellowish face. He looked away and pretended to be studying the wall that consisted of smooth, dark panelling. The four players disappeared in different directions. Maybe to sleep, or to have sex. But who’d want to touch that … leper?
After twenty minutes Peter felt like giving up. Dibley had most likely bitten the dust. She’d seemed alert and should have been able to play better. Although anything could happen, of course. Damn. The Valkyries had carried yet another fallen warrior home.
Six minutes later, he couldn’t stop looking at his watch and his stomach was howling after food. He couldn’t wait any longer. He pressed the elevator button, feeling gloomy. He watched the light through the cracks as the elevator travelled down and stopped. The doors opened, and there she was. Dazzlingly pretty and smiling, the sight almost took Peter’s breath away.
“Peter, Hi!” She exclaimed. “How are you?”
He didn’t know how to react. He wanted to give her a hug, congratulate her that she’d made it this far. Perhaps plunge his tongue into her mouth and place his hands on her hips. Instead, he stood with his mouth wide open and stared at her like a fool. Then he registered the man by her side. A short man with a thin face, greasy curly hair, glasses and baby-smooth skin. Slimy. He was holding his hand on Dibley’s back, dangerously close to her backside. Peter’s eyes narrowed.
“I didn’t think you …”
“Oh? No worries. Jean-Lafores and I played at the same table. It went really well.”
Jean-Lafores, number 4,281. What a poof name. Peter stared at the man who just stood, quite unconcerned and chewing his lip. His instincts began to creep out towards his fingers and he realised he was clenching his fists.
Take it easy. Don’t get yourself warned. Remember the rules.
15. Violence against other players is forbidden and will result in a warning. After three warnings, the contestant will be disqualified.
“Have you been waiting long?” Dibley chortled happily. She didn’t see, or pretended not to see the jealousy in Peter’s eyes.
“No, only a moment,” he lied.
“Oh, that’s good. How did it go for you?”
“It went pretty well. I have about 24,000 on me in chips.” He pointed at the bag hanging by his hip.
“Not bad! I’m on about 18,000 so I can’t complain. It didn’t go as well for Jean, he’s only got 8,000 left …”
“… so I promised to follow him down here and keep him company. He can’t speak English so well and needed an interpreter. Besides, he’s a little down right now.” She winked at Peter and patted the man on the cheek.
“I see. I suppose he needs some company then,” Peter said stiffly.
He was jealous and disappointed and it was hard to hide it. Apart from that, his low blood sugar levels were giving him tunnel vision. He’d only spoken to Dibley for a short time before the tournament got started and she was here to live out all the stuff she couldn’t where she came from. She was like a diffuse personification of that singer. Unobtainable and beautiful. But. He’d seen her first.
Fucking faggot Frenchman.
There was a moment’s silence.
“Well, I’m going up to get a bite to eat,” Peter said at last.
“OK. Do you know where you’ll be for the next round?”
“No, I haven’t checked yet. I thought I’d do that after I’ve eaten.”
“I’ll be on the fifteenth floor. There were quite a few on our floor that were eliminated. Was it bad on yours?”
“Not too bad, around fifty maybe. You’ll have to excuse me, I need to get some food before the next round. See you,” he added, pushing eagerly on the elevator buttons.
“Yes, we should catch up. Down here again during the next break?”
“I don’t know. Maybe”
“Oh? Do you have an appointment?”
Peter imagined he could hear a rather angry tone in her voice, but it was gone just as quickly.
“Not at all, apart from first place, of course.”
“Well then. Shall we meet up here in the next break or not?”
“Can’t we say down here the break after that? I thought I’d take it easy during the next break, maybe eat again and get a feeling for the opponents. Between rounds three and four? Is that OK?”
“Yeah, that will be good,” she said, studying the same wall that Peter had been staring at a while ago.
A few awkward moments passed until the elevator doors slid open again.
“Good luck, then. Play carefully!” He said, coolly.
“The same to you. Bye, kitten!”
“Au revoir,” Jean-Lafores said in a silky-smooth voice. Peter had to bite his tongue to prevent himself turning and punching the man in the face before he entered the elevator. He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the sound of Dibley’s giggle as the doors slid shut behind him.
The elevator came to a smooth halt at the fifth floor and Peter stepped out. A guard stood outside the doors and stared expressionlessly ahead. Peter had difficulty telling them apart. Like the Kray twins. He held one hand on his stomach to ease the increasing pains, and with the other he held his bag safely in place behind his back. The fifth floor was just like the eleventh but didn’t have poker tables. The restaurant was beyond the open salon and he aimed for that.
Chat and laughter resounded between the walls as he drew closer. And the smell. The wonderful aroma of food wafted towards him. Roast meat, stir-fried vegetables, deep-fried potatoes and spices he couldn’t even place. Ever since the Portugal Drought Incident, the culinary experience and selection of food at King’s Hope was something that most people were no longer able to enjoy. Quite a few took part in the tournament merely for that reason. The great drought in Portugal had taken place when Peter was still too young to fully understand. It also took other nations far too long to understand the severity of the situation and react with concrete measures. It was then, of course, too late to save the fertile areas. He was drooling like one of Pavlov’s dogs.
The restaurant was large and elegant. The lighting was subdued and soft and discrete music was playing in the background. The pillars were square with shining, glossy surfaces and they rose majestically up to the ceiling. As opposed to the poker rooms, their design created the illusion of several different and separated rooms. It was gorgeous.
Then he saw the food. In the middle of the room there were dishes covered in glass cloches as far as the eye could see, with piles of food. Meat, potatoes, pasta, salads, desserts. He wiped his mouth and made for the delicacies. He almost walked straight into a heavy rope that was hanging between two posts. Even the posts for the rope were gilded, which, strangely enough, made him feel welcome, as if he were a celebrity.
Was it so easy to manipulate the players into feeling so well taken care of, just to unsympathetically gun them down later? Yes, it was. He shuffled forwards eagerly but was stopped by a guard that stepped forward.
“Sir, do you wish to use one of your meal coupons now?”
“You have five meal coupons. Do you want to use one now?”
Then he recalled the rules.
18. Each contestant has five meal coupons. These may be used at any point during the tournament. The coupons are personal and may not be given away. Nor is it possible to gain more. When these five meal coupons have been used, no more food will be served to the contestant.
“Yes, I wish to use a coupon now.”
“Can you hold up your wristband, sir?”
Peter obeyed. The guard’s cufflinks were so well-polished he could use them as mirrors. The guard passed a device over Peter’s wristband. A subtle beep registered Peter’s meal coupon and the man stepped aside.
“Enjoy your meal, sir. You have four coupons left.”
“Thanks very much,” Peter said without interest and pushed past him.
He shovelled as much food as he could onto his plate without spilling it. There were lamb burgers, roast chicken in peanut sauce, spare ribs, bacon and fish. There were also fresh salads and fruit. Behind him, there was a dessert table covered with chocolate cakes and pastries. When he got to the end, he stared indecisively at the mountain of food on his plate.
Maybe I should take a little more, just in case.
His tummy howled and that made his mind up for him. Now he was going to eat. He looked up to see if there was any empty table nearby, but when he couldn’t see one he walked past the pillars looking for one. He saw Louise sitting at a full table. He walked on and caught sight of Lennart sitting three tables away together with a bunch of players that Peter hadn’t seen before. After the fiasco with Dibley, it was comforting to see a familiar face. He slid down into a free chair.
“Hi! There you are,” Lennart exclaimed brightly, clapping his shoulder as he sat down. “We were just talking about you.”
“Oh?” Peter said, while at the same time piling as much meat as he could into his mouth.
“Yes, you’re Mr. Royal now.”
Peter glanced up from his plate and looked around at the others. Sitting around the table, besides Lennart, was a girl with thick brown hair and a small button nose, a large man with a beard and curly, black hair and a younger guy that resembled Mads.
Peter looked back down.
“Lennart was telling us about your royal straight flush,” the woman said shyly.
“Aha, yeah – I wasn’t expecting that,“ he mumbled while chewing. “The problem was that it came at the wrong time. There was nobody else with a good enough hand just then.”
“Haha, no, that happens sometimes,” the younger man said. He was also Swedish. “I had a three of a kind in the last round, but nobody wanted to bet against me, either.”
“Mm.” Peter chewed with determination and glanced at his watch. There was still time. Despite all the luxury and wealth of the food melting in his mouth, he wasn’t able to savour it. When he didn’t reply, the young guy changed the subject.
“What do you think about your opposition in the next round?”
“Well, it’s impossible to say. I’m going up to the fourteenth after the break.” Lennart stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I’ve no idea who’s going to be there.”
“It doesn’t really matter. Just play so their clothes fall off,” the young man laughed, drumming his fingers on the edge of the table.
“You can talk,” the bearded man said, leaning back in his chair. “We had a bloke at our table, he was one of the last ones to drop out. He was in the lead from the first hand, but then he went all-in on really bad hands, hoping to knock out the ones with not many chips. His name was William-something, number 3,980. He went all-in on 7♠9♦, as if he had a real shot at a straight. Cost him three quarters of his chips. Nutcase.”
“Well, you have to bluff sometimes,” the young man retorted.
“Sure, but not after the flop when there’s A♠Q♣2♣ on the table.”
“No, maybe not.”
“My point is,” the beard replied, “that the most difficult part is keeping your nerves. Not allowing yourself to be steamed or tilted just because you lose a hand, it’s hard. It’s worse here than anywhere else.”
“Steamed?” The girl raised her eyebrows in surprise.
The bearded man cleared his throat and looked at her, amused. “If you don’t find the newbie around the table within ten minutes in a round, then you are the newbie. Being steamed is when someone is convinced they are going to win a hand, but they lose anyway and then play rashly in an attempt to get back the chips they lost. It’s easy to play ones like that for everything they’ve got.”
“Yes, you have to keep your chips. That’s all you have here. And food, of course.” Lennart pointed at Peter’s plate while patting his own belly. “Just for that, I’m going to have a dessert. So I’ll last out.”
He stood up and disappeared in the direction of the food counters. The rest of them around the table fell silent. That this could be their last meal was far too obvious to even mention. When Lennart came back, the curly-haired man stood up. He was number 1,587.
“I’m going to see where I’ll be next round and go up right away. Good luck, and maybe see you later.”
They said goodbye and then he was gone. Peter didn’t even know his name. He glanced again at the time. It was 6.48 pm, not so much time left but enough time to eat a sufficient amount. Lennart was right about that, you had to last out. Especially Peter, who was very sensitive to his sugar levels.
“Did you hear about the nineteenth floor, by the way?” the young kid wondered.
“No, was there anything special there? Gorgeous croupiers?” Lennart laughed and stole a glance at the girl sitting to his left. She didn’t see, or didn’t take any notice of his look. But Peter thought he could see a smile playing on her lips.
“Ha, ha. No, apparently it was the hardest starting group ever. It was a slaughter up there. Almost two hundred and fifty down.”
“What? That can't be right. On a single floor? Where did you hear that?” The girl looked at him, eyes wide.
“I bumped into a guy by the elevators before. He was going down but he happened to press the wrong button. He was pale and shaking like a leaf. But of course, if you’d watched two hundred and fifty get executed…”
“That’s not the worst thing,” Peter said, having just forced down his last potato.
“What do you mean? It must have been like hell up there. So much blood they didn’t have time to clean up. It was running off the stage and dripping on the floor, he said.”
“Yeah, I don’t even want to imagine, but it wasn’t what I meant. Think of the ones that are left. How many chips they must have. They can almost fold their way through the next round.”
A silence fell over the table. The noise from the other players was starting to ebb as they’d stood up and left. The young guy swallowed, Lennart looked upwards, deep in thought and the cute girl was nervously fingering her poker case.
“You’re right there,” Lennart said. “I’d not thought about that. But it doesn’t matter, they’re no further from being knocked out than a couple of all-ins. And the blinds are going up, they always do sooner or later.” Lennart fell silent for a short moment. “No, I’m going up too. It’s not a good idea to miss the start of the next round.”
The other nodded in agreement. It was now 6.52 pm and it was high time to get going.
“I’ll accompany you to the lift.” Peter wiped his mouth with a white cloth napkin, downed the glass of lemon-flavoured water and stood up. He nodded at the others. “Are you coming? Otherwise, good luck. Perhaps we’ll meet again.”
“Good luck,” Lennart said, winking at the girl. Then they left.
“Do you have any strategy now?” Peter asked.
“No, I’ll carry on as usual and see how it goes. How about you?”
“Same, I’ll stick to the strategy I had in the first round.”
“Good, good. We have to get to the fifth round, at least.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Peter said, when he remembered the promise he’d been made about the Lollapalooza. “Although it’s crazy to aim so low. Why don’t we make it to the final?”
“Hah, yes, of course. The Swedes wipe the carpet with all the opposition.”
They were approaching the large electronic bulletin board with information on the players and Peter slowed down.
“I need to check where I’ll be next round. I haven’t had time yet,” he quickly added.
“No, that’s right, you disappeared. What were you doing? Taking a shit?”
“Eh, it doesn’t matter.”
He could feel Lennart’s gaze burning into him.
“Yeah, right. That’s what they all say. Oh well, I’m going up. Good luck and I’ll see you later!”
“Same to you. Good luck, Lennart.”
They shook hands and parted. Peter shivered uneasily. At that moment, he was certain that was the last time he’d see Lennart alive. Then he pushed those thoughts aside. Now he needed to get back his concentration so he’d make it through the next round.
He went up to the bulletin board and held up his wristband to a small, square black panel. The wristband beeped and the panel flickered for a moment before showing rows of information.
Amount of chips: 24,250
Round two is to be played on sixteenth floor, table twenty-three.
He adjusted the strap of the poker case so it sat comfortably on his shoulder, then walked towards the elevators. On the way up, he stopped on the eleventh floor where he walked out. He drew his wristband over the small panels of the lockers and heard the click as the lock opened.
The weight of his personal belongings felt good in his hand. It was now 18.59 and he felt his nerves in the pit of his stomach, like a motor idling. What if he ended up like Howard, late, stressed and not ready. He shut the locker, put the bag on the floor and began at once to search inside it. His fingers soon found a small plastic jar. He pulled it up and smiled victoriously. The powder for his sweaty nose. He felt the bridge of his nose with his fingertips, it was already damp with small beads of sweat. He quickly unscrewed the lid and took as much powder that he dared to between thumb and forefinger and dabbed it on his nose. Then he searched for a piece of cotton wool he’d carried with him and spread it carefully in an even layer over the tight skin. When he was satisfied he threw the cotton wool, put the jar back and closed his bag. Then he went back to the elevators. Several people were standing there and waiting, which calmed his nerves.
Remember the plan. Don’t deviate from it, whatever you do!
The elevator beeped. He entered it calmly and confidently together with seven others. A motor inside him sped up as the elevator doors slid shut, but now it was not nerves he felt. It was excitement.
I can actually win this. I am actually going to win this!
Copyright ©Hans Olsson