Chapter 17 (round 8)

Chapter 17

 

We could be friends

 

With a kiss in flow

 

Choose your weapon, time to go

 

A military fashion show

 

 

 

And One - Military Fashion Show

 

 

 

"Statistics and facts have always fascinated me. Did you know that the sheer number of applicants to the poker tournament at King's Hope generates thousands of jobs? The administration around the whole event is unlike anything else. Planning for the next year's tournament begins the week after the previous tournament has ended. There's personnel to be trained, logistics to organise, food to be ordered and confirmed. Sometimes that's one of the most difficult parts, getting hold of all that exclusive and rare food, and that's such an achievement you can't possibly imagine how impressive it is. Not even I know how Cid Andrew manages to get hold of swallows. They're believed to be extinct, but there must be some wild ones left, or a farm. Nobody knows exactly how Cowboy Andrew is produced and aged, either. It's a well-kept secret.

 

"Another precious secret is the central computing and data facility on the upper floors. There, somewhere, Cid Andrews has his private wing, but nobody has seen any concrete evidence of its existence. There are many rumours, of course, for example that he has a highly advanced research centre up there. Or that the decor is a mixture of antiques with modern technology built-in, like something from a Jules Verne novel. Nobody knows for sure, which is fascinating. Perhaps we'll never know.

 

"The trance-like and euphoric state that many players find themselves entering is also extremely fascinating. In principle, this is only observed at King's Hope and the players lose all sense of time and space at the poker table. Only the adrenaline, the chips and the cards exist. If you want to know more, I can strongly recommend the book 'Pokervania: A Winner's Experience'.

 

"Another thing I find very interesting is the handling of information on a scale that the world has never seen before. When the Portugal Drought Incident came along, the world's media went crazy trying to outdo each other in portraying what was going on. Every story was blown out of all proportion to such an extent that no one knew what was true, and from that point even more news was fabricated. King's Hope was the first instance to sell information that was truthful, built on statistical data without any emotional overtones. I think that's cool, and that we can all contribute. Mark my words, listen to the voices from here, and consider what is being said. This is how reality looks nowadays, unmasked and real."

 

 

 

It was now painfully apparent that most of the chaff had been separated from the wheat, and that a dwindling number of players were beginning to accumulate huge stacks. For example, Korhart must have had almost half a million in chips towards the end of the last round. Some of the players around table thirteen had a lot as well. It was going to be a tough round.

 

Leo began to deal their cards straight away. The dealer button was in front of Luke, so Rickard "Jeeves" and Amanda had the blinds. Peter's stomach churned in anticipation as the cards landed in front of him. Was there a winner there? Was there hope? He was tired. The involuntary attempt at escape had made his body switch off. Even though he doubted he'd nod off at the table, he'd started to develop a headache by his right ear. The one that was most alert and awake would most likely make the best decisions and would probably make it the furthest. All of a sudden, he regretted not having rested during the breaks.

 

Lorenzo was first out before the flop and folded. Erik checked, and Marie folded. Then it was Peter's turn. He turned up the corners of his cards and saw 5♠J♦. No. The other players folded, apart from Rickard "Jeeves" who called. Marie, who was looking more and more like a wrestler or weightlifter in Peter's eyes, muttered in appreciation as the pot grew. Rickard kept on stroking his cheeks and Amanda just stared at the pile on the table.

 

Leo turned up the flop, Q♠2♠7♦.

 

Rickard tapped the table with his fingertips, check. Erik bet 3,500.

 

"Call," Rickard said.

 

Leo revealed the turn, 4♦.

 

Rickard tapped the edge of the table once more and then leaned back, appraising Erik.

 

"Did you know that there have been as many as sixty-seven escape attempts recorded?" Lorenzo suddenly said, in a very peculiar accent.

 

"Here at King's Hope?" Peter wondered, his interest involuntarily aroused.

 

"Yep, here at the casino. Twelve of them were during the first year. Most of them are people that try to hide and sneak out when the rounds start. About 80% of them don't even make it as far as the elevators. The guards always know where the players are. Nobody has managed to get out from King's Hope other than winning or making it to the top hundred. Isn't that what's happened to those poor bastards?" he added, nodding his head at the bodies hanging at the windows behind him.

 

"Yes," Peter mumbled miserably. "They tried to escape. We almost made it down to the lobby. I don't think anyone got away."

 

"Were you with them down there?" Lorenzo burst out, suddenly full of enthusiasm. "How was it? It's the first time such a large group has made it that far. Eleven recorded escapers have managed to get into the elevator shafts, and only two of them made it to the ground floor. Neither of them got out. Statistically, it's much more common for people to try jumping from the windows. First, they break them, or try to, and then they hope for the best. Isn't that something?" he wondered, grinning. "How did you get back up, still alive, I mean?"

 

"I never crossed the line. There were a few of us who survived. Me and …" Peter replied, catching sight of Cautious Girl's eyes. She shook her head, almost imperceptibly. Peter shrugged. "… and a few others."

 

"What was it like? Tell us!"

 

"It was …" Everybody's eyes were now on Peter, and he felt uncomfortable. Not because the unwanted attention, but rather the fact that what had happened down there was so absurd, he'd much rather forget about it. "It was awful," he said quite simply. "We could have ended up over there." He nodded at the window without looking.

 

Marie leant forwards and squinted at Peter's name display.

 

"You're Mr. Royal!" she exclaimed. "Why on earth would you try to escape?"

 

Peter stared at her in surprise.

 

"I didn't want to escape. It was an accident."

 

She burst out laughing. "It was an accident," she repeated. "Pussycunt, that was funny. I had an accident once as well. I crashed my car into a kiosk. Bang! Newspapers and cigarette packets flew all over the place. I love cars, but that one was a write-off. Buckled up like a tin can. That was an accident."

 

While they'd been talking, Peter tried to sense what his gut feelings were saying. He didn't have any. A lot of that was due to the distracting screaming and moaning from the window. It was quieter now, but still there. Like watching a horror movie with the background music constantly seeping into his mind.

 

"Lucky you made it then," Erik interrupted. "Check."

 

Leo turned over the river, J♣.

 

On the table were Q♠2♠7♦4♦J♣.

 

It was an extremely messy hand. Peter knew that a jack was gone, since he'd had one in his hand, but what else? What did they have? He should have been able to pick up their signals by this point, but a pulsing headache was dulling his senses.

 

After a short moment's thought, Rickard checked. Erik bet 7,500. Erik didn't seem to be aware that he was pulling a face, quite obviously, when he did so. He was pretending, of course, but Peter had happened to see the true despair in his eyes. Peter was convinced that it was fatigue taking its toll, and that Erik had quite simply made a mistake. He shook his head and ordered a triple espresso, as he filed away Erik's behaviour in his memory. Rickard finally called, and behind them the guns fired, three times in quick succession.

 

Rickard won the hand with a pair of queens. He had Q♣10♥, and Erik had 3♣A♣.

 

"Did you know that the fastest round was over in just twenty-three minutes?" Lorenzo informed them. "The circumstances were extreme, of course. Three hundred and fifty-six players had fewer chips than the blinds. The whole situation created havoc on fourteen floors and people started to go all-in without any second thoughts."

 

The speakers suddenly sprang to life. "It is now 9 am and the blinds are now at level fifteen, 2,000-4,000, with an ante of 500. King's Hope wishes all contestants continued good luck."

 

"Where did you get that information?" Peter asked, in a shriller voice than he'd intended. He'd seen the casino's seventh tournament many times to study tactics and player psychology. He was interested by statistics, and he was just a little envious of Lorenzo, who seemed to know even more about King's Hope than he did. In other circumstances, they might become friends. Instead, they both had to choose which weapons to use at the table, and Lorenzo certainly had a larger battery of statistics than Peter.

 

Lorenzo shrugged. "Information wanders around. I don't know how I got it. Nothing strange about that. Have you seen any procrastinators yet?" Lorenzo asked, raising his eyebrows.

 

"No. What's that?"

 

"They usually start turning up around now. The number of chips at each table is often quite evenly distributed. For example, there's no player here with an overly large or tiny stack. In particular, players with really short stacks normally want to sit together. They usually wait by the walls, parading as if it's some sort of fashion show, and then grab places at the tables that are left over just before the round gets started. It's an interesting psychological phenomenon here at King's Hope, one that's very rarely mentioned."

 

Peter couldn't help raising his eyebrows, impressed.

 

"Procrastinators, you say?"

 

"Yep. Keep an eye out for them later if you get a chance."

 

Peter shook himself to cast off the envy he felt, and so as not to become imbalanced.

 

"Did you know that there's never been a pair of aces in the last hand of the tournament, but there's been a pair of kings five times?" Lorenzo ruthlessly continued.

 

Peter pretended he'd not heard him. The dealer button was now in front of Rickard. Peter had new cards, and when it was his turn and he could choose whether he wanted to call Marie's bet of 25,000, he discarded 8♣5♦ without thinking twice.

 

The play continued, and Peter carried on throwing cards that he considered insufficient. Lorenzo occasionally came out with some detail that he felt was important. For example, that King's Resort had been one suggestion for the name of the casino, but it had been rejected since meal vouchers were limited. There's no way it was like a holiday. Or that seventy-eight percent of the paying TV viewers paid extra to be able to watch Salon Selma and other scenes that were otherwise unavailable.

 

Peter was for the most part exhausted. He'd begun to zone out. That was dangerous. Lethal. The cards that landed in front of him every so often started to lose meaning. The queens were starting to resemble lewd, curvy women that were almost naked. The jacks and kings were shifting shape into soldiers with stern faces and smoking guns in their hands, like they were on a fashion show, displaying broken dreams or shattered illusions. It wasn't until he robotically turned up the corners of a couple of new cards and saw Q♣Q♥ that he realized that he'd almost fallen asleep, sitting at the table. Without thinking, he gave himself a slap on the cheek to clear his mind and was rewarded by laughter from the others at the table.

 

"I know exactly how you feel," Marie consoled him and reached forward to pat his hands. "When I get away from here, I'm going to sleep for a whole week. Maybe two. Pussycunt, how I'm going to sleep."

 

More laughter from around the table. Peter considered as fast as he could. He was under the gun. With a huge pair. Perhaps he could fool the others into a trap and make a big winning. It was worth trying.

 

"Call."

 

"There are quite a few who've fainted at the tables during the last rounds, and never woken up again. Do you want to know how many?"

 

"No," Peter murmured. He'd been dangerously close.

 

"One hundred and seven," Lorenzo said without taking any notice of the objection. "Surprisingly many manage to stay awake for the whole tournament. Or they wake up in time."

 

Cathy joined, and Amanda bet 16,000. The others folded. Lorenzo had the dealer button. Peter peeked again at his queens that were now fully dressed, and made up his mind.

 

"Call."

 

Four players, and the flop was 9♦K♣J♦.

 

It had become a tough hand. He was one draw away from a straight, which gave him a good feeling, but Amanda had also signalled strength before the flop.

 

He checked, so he had a chance to glean more information.

 

"All-in," Cathy said softly, punching a hole in Peter's good feeling. He only needed to throw in a couple thousand more to call. Her big, brown eyes danced back and forth, but didn't reveal anything in particular. As far as Peter knew, she was like that – cautious and methodical. Perhaps a little paranoid, but that had despite everything saved her life during the break.

 

"All-in," Amanda added, quickly.

 

Shit. If he went along with it, he was risking almost half his stack.

 

Nobody remembers a coward. No, they didn't. But nobody would remember someone who was knocked out in the eighth round either. He had a shot at a flush, and the straight. He hesitated. Both of them were signalling strength. He had to be wary. The longer he thought about it, the more worried he became. His gut feeling that he'd learnt to trust was now ringing wildly.

 

"I'll fold," he said, disappointed.

 

"Let's see what you have then, honey," Amanda said.

 

Cathy turned up her cards one at a time, almost coyly, A♠ and then Q♦.

 

Amanda's mouth became taught as she showed up her cards – K♦K♥. Cowboys.

 

Leo dealt the turn, 4♥.

 

Two gunshots were heard from the stage.

 

Leo quickly turned up the river, 10♠.

 

On the table were 9♦K♣J♦4♥10♠.

 

Cathy had a straight, and Amanda three of a kind.

 

"Nice, well played!" Marie said, applauding. "You needed that, as starved as you are."

 

Cathy gave a little smile and took a gulp from the cup by her side.

 

Meanwhile, Leo had picked up the cards, shuffled and dealt out the next hand. The dealer button wandered onwards, mercilessly ticking towards high noon: execution. Peter discarded several hands and watched dismally as his piles diminished each time the blinds passed him. He needed to be careful.

 

During the next twenty minutes he managed to win a couple of smaller pots, but he also lost a few and now had 35,000. It was going worse for Luke, who'd chickened out on the turn and lost almost everything to Rickard. He now only had just over 7,000 left, and he probably wouldn't survive the blinds much longer. Marie had also won a large hand from Erik. Despite her enormous size, her upper body was hidden behind all her chips.

 

The dealer button was in front of Rickard, and Marie had called the big blind of 4,000.

 

Peter glanced down at A♠Q♣, and decided to join.

 

"Call," he said.

 

"Call," Erik added. He had 15,000 left behind the line.

 

His pulse rose as he pushed the chips over the line. It still wasn't too late to pull out, but if he didn't win a hand he'd be back down there again, scraping at the bottom. He hated feeling pushed in a corner.

 

They were three players when Leo turned over the flop, 9♠3♠A♦.

 

"All-in," Erik said rapidly, almost throwing his chips in over the line. Then he sat leaning over the table and staring at the pot.

 

"You don't have so much, love," Marie said in pity. "Not much at all. So, I have to play. Call."

 

Peter, who'd made a hit with the ace, considered the possibilities. He could fold and let Marie try to knock out Erik. At the same time, he had the top pair and collecting chips was the name of the game. If he pulled out now, he'd soon be where Mads had been. If he joined and lost, he'd have about 11,000 left. As long as Marie didn't raise any more, of course. No, there were only two alternatives. Either he should get out now, or he should try to take on Erik alone.

 

"All-in as well."

 

"Oh? You don't have that much either, darling," Marie sighed, with genuine tiredness in her voice. That was life at King's Hope. It was the law of the jungle. "Call."

 

Peter turned up his cards, A♠Q♣, and tried to disguise the fact that his hand was trembling.

 

Erik revealed his cards – K♠9♦.

 

Marie pushed her A♣10♥ forwards.

 

His stomach was writhing from nerves. His hand dominated Marie's, and Erik's hand was a real underdog.

 

Leo dealt the turn without any delay, 8♠.

 

Marie leaned back and wiped her brow.

 

River was 6♣.

 

9♠3♠A♦8♠6♣ lay on the table.

 

"Pussycunt," Marie said sympathetically, and tried to reach over the table to pat Erik kindly on the hand. He was beyond consolation. His eyes were vacant, and his face had turned white. The guards came. They placed their cold hands on his shoulders, and when he didn't react at once, they grabbed him by the arms, lifted him and carried him to the stage. The gun shot sounded distant, as if it was in a film. Peter's hands were shaking from tension and relief. He'd won a large and well-needed pot.

 

"I'll remember you," he murmured to himself, but those words hardly meant anything any longer, and when new cards had arrived in front of him he'd forgotten about Erik. All that counted was the shiny stack of chips lying there. The guns continue to fire, and the tournament moved on. Luke was also knocked out in the next hand. Marie and Amanda called his blind-and-a-little-bit, and Amanda won the hand with a jack high.

 

"How many have gone now?" Rickard wondered.

 

"Twenty-five on our floor," Lorenzo said.

 

Twenty-five gun shots. He hadn't even heard them all. He would have guessed five, maybe six or seven tops. And that was in addition to the ones hanging by the window.

 

"Did you know, by the way, that the average number of hands during each round is forty-three per table?" Lorenzo carried on.

 

"No more than that?" Peter asked, surpised.

 

"No. For the eighth round, the specific average is thirty-seven, and that is usually due to the fact that so many are heavily wounded from previous rounds, so they go out faster. That means that we're over half way for this round. Not bad, don't you think?"

 

"No, not bad," Peter agreed, although he didn't feel very reassured by the fact. He'd had enough. He wanted to sleep. He wanted to go home. Above all, he didn't want to get shot in the face. "How many hands have we played? I mean right now."

 

"We are now entering the twenty-first hand of round eight," Leo replied automatically.

 

Peter nodded in agreement without actually caring what hand it was. All that mattered was the next hand. And the one after that. He was phasing out again, and he saw the white Teflon felt through hazy, half-closed eyes. Occasionally he lost focus altogether, and at one point he started when his head fell forwards and he didn't manage to stop it in time.

 

You're so close to the abyss. So close. How much does Korhart have now?

 

"Well played," Lorenzo commented a little later when Cathy won a hand from Rickard after an all-in on the turn. "That's pretty much how Kent "Kenta" Lennáart played four years ago. He advanced rapidly towards the end to 385,000, then he lost everything in four hands in the ninth round. That's life."

 

Cathy mumbled and smiled absently. Three hands later the inevitable happened, as was normally the case for those who didn't have so much at King's Hope. Lorenzo was knocked out by Rickard with an ace-high against a pair of sevens. Two hands later, Marie knocked out Amanda with three eights against a low straight.

 

The guns went off regularly. Peter wished that Lorenzo had been there to keep count. One of the neighbouring tables had been emptied, and the single victor had moved to another table. There were only three remaining players at table thirteen. None of them really had any big lead. A few minutes later, the speakers were heard again.

 

"It is now 9.44 am, and round eight is now over. King's Hope congratulates all players who've come this far, and wish you good luck for the ninth round. Round nine begins at 10.44 am."

 

As the sound of the speakers faded, Peter began to count his chips. They added up to 52,500. That wasn't brilliant, but it was a marvel he'd made it that far. Now there were only two rounds left, and he'd outlived eight thousand other contestants. He glanced over at the windows. The ones that had been hanging there had been weeded out. He looked away again, stood up and stumbled on unsteady legs towards the elevators.

 

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