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To the Victor…
Chapter 9: The Aquapolis
by Tog
(part 3 of 4)

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The casino was abuzz with activity.  Spectators filled the few rows of seats.  Camera operators checked the connections and angles.  Sound engineers did a last minute check on the microphones.  When everything seemed ready, the players were brought out.  Two large tables with 10 seats were in the main room.  The table nearest the doors started first, while the other took a minute to get settled.  Audience members had the option to view the game strictly as spectators, or to watch the video feed on a hand-held monitor.  Angela opted for the latter.  Marcus was at the first table and folded early in the first hand.  He had stayed in the second one to the end, but lost to a full house.  By the time the third hand was dealt the second table was ready to begin. 

The action stayed pretty constant throughout the day.  By the 2 PM intermission, Marcus was in the 4th spot at his table with 2 people already out.  The other table had managed to put out three people, and the leader was the little Asian guy from the dinner.  He was up by quite a bit and seemed unbeatable this year.

Play resumed after lunch and things picked up just about where they left off.  Marcus was able to pull into third place after using his base cards to break up three other players’ hands and still squeak out a straight of his own.  By 6 PM the game had ended.  There were ten remaining players between the two tables, and Marcus was number 6 overall.  The Asian guy had fallen off of his game after the intermission and dropped to fourth.  The overall leader was a woman named Vickie that seemed to come out of no where in the second half.

Players and spectators left the casino and descended on the dining room.  Dinner this night was a buffet style and the players table at the front of the room had been replaced by the desert line.  The remaining players ate at the same table and shared stories about the day.  Doug, Angela and Lista waited for the chance to meet with Marcus in his office to go over one last game plan.  Lista looked over the roster to find that there were three people in game this time that were in the finals last time: Vickie- the current leader, Beau- the winner from last year, and Isaac- the little Asian guy.

After dinner, they made arrangements to meet Marcus and fill him in on what they had learned.  It came down to three basic things.  First, Vickie is playing much more aggressively this year than she did last year, and it’s working out really well for her.  Second, Isaac has changed his style completely this year and looks like a totally new player.  Third, nothing about the camera work or video signal seems to be all that different.  None of it was really much help.

Talk over breakfast was focused on going over what they knew and the plan that would follow.  In the end, they didn’t know anything new and the plan was rapidly becoming catching them in the act.  Lista managed to get a look at the production booth and even managed to get a short tour of the place.  Nothing seemed to be out of place.  Nothing that looked like it might be capable of sending a hidden signal at any rate.

Marcus was unavailable for the entire morning.  This was normal before a big match.  In addition to preparing to play, he also had to make sure that all parts of the hotel were in shape for the broadcast.

Doug and Angela were spending their time looking over the crowd and the backgrounds for anything that might be able to send a coded message.  Doug said there was nothing he could see, which prompted her to point out that literally anything could be a code of some sort.

By 3:45 everyone had come up dry.  If there was a way to send messages during the game, then they would have to actually see it being done, and those odds were not great. It was time to get changed, and the casino was closed for 30 minutes while the final preparations were made.  Angela had changed clothes just after lunch and spent the intermission loitering around the stage crew to see if she could spot anything.  Lista had managed to flirt her way into the production booth to watch the show.  Doug had planned to sit by the door to keep tabs on who came and went, and because that would give him the best chance at a clear shot up the aisle if trouble started.  Right now, he needed to change clothes.  When he got to his room door he noticed a card had been shoved under the door.  It was the contact card for Agent Phelps.  On the back was a hand written note which read:

“I know why you’re really here.  Gauthier is involved.  I’ll get with you later when I know more.”

This was a problem.  Why would Gauthier invite them here to help if he were involved?  Was it a trap?  Was it a diversion?  It might be legit.  What if it was?  Gauthier has been let in on everything so far.  What if he is the bad guy?  This line of thought swirled around for a moment.  If Gauthier was the bad guy that would mean that they were basically trapped here.  The FBI people might be actors brought in to give Doug someone to report suspicions to, only to have them get back to Gauthier.  Maybe the card was a lie and the FBI guys were in on it.  Maybe it was someone else that swiped the card and is using it to set up a trap.

When he arrived back on the casino floor, he was unable to find Mourning or Lista.  He really wanted to get Mourning’s take on this note.  Maybe one of the waitresses knew where they were.  Before he could flag one down, the house lights dimmed.  The glass partition between the audience and the players became a one way mirror, letting the audience see the game, but preventing the players from getting any clues from the crowd.  Music filled the room and the announcer’s voice welcomed everyone to the February 2005 Edition of the Paragon Poker Championships.  There was a bit of applause and the game was underway.

The table was long and had room for 6 players to a side, plus the dealer’s pit in the center of the side nearest the crowd.  Gauthier sat at the head of the table, to the left.  Opposite him, at the other end, was Isaac.  Centered on the Dealer was Vickie, and to her left was Beau.  Doug didn’t know the other player’s names, but since they weren’t in the finals last year, he wasn’t sure they mattered.

Just before the first hand began, Isaac was given a note by one of the waitresses.  He apologized for the short delay and the players were allowed to select their base cards.  From the on screen graphics it was clear that at least a few of the people wanted to start out very aggressively; choosing mainly aces and kings.  Marcus seemed to assume a straight would come into play and took the role of spoiler by choosing an ace, jack, eight, five, and two while mixing all four suits.  This effectively wrecked any straight that anyone else may have had, unless they got a good set of community cards.

Once the cards were chosen the betting began.  Everyone checked, that is, did not place a bet at all, or just called the big blind to stay in the hand, until it was Isaac’s turn to act.  He made a small bet, but it was enough to drive off two others when their turn came.  Vickie on the other hand made a huge bet.  As the betting wrapped up, the dealer flipped the first three cards, ace of clubs, three of spades, and a seven of diamonds.  Not much help for anyone.  More betting, and several more folded.  The hand was now down to Isaac, Vickie, and Marcus.  The next card was turned and it was a six of spades.  This gave Vickie three of a kind, but didn’t really seem to help the other two.  Her turn to act saw her make a small raise.  This was probably done to try and bait the others into thinking her hand was not as strong as it was.  The last card was turned and it was a 6 of diamonds.  Vickie had slopped into four of a kind and had won the hand.  Now it was just a question of how much she could take the others for.  If she bet too little, she’d be cheating herself.  If she bet too much, she’d scare them off.  Instead of betting about 30% of the pot, like the game analysts assumed, she simply checked.  Marcus didn’t feel good about his two pair, and Isaac only had the pair of sixes in the community cards having missed the five he needed for a straight.  They both folded and Vickie won the hand.

Doug had watched the hand a bit, but spent much time watching the crowd.  It was while he was looking around that the waitress had found him and slipped him a note from Agent Phelps.

“Slip away as soon as you can.  I have information, but we have to act fast.  Meet me outside the infirmary.”

Doug thought about it for a moment.  Should he leave the floor and meet Phelps?  It might shed more light.  Then again, he might be getting pulled away from where he’s needed, or into a trap.  He wrote a fast note of his own and told her to give it to Lisa or Angela, whichever she found first, and went down to meet the agent.  As he left the Casino, the second hand had begun.

Angela had watched the first hand on the small hand-held viewer intently, but there was nothing that seemed the least bit out of the ordinary.  Lista had been getting to know the layout of the control panel in the broadcast booth, and also found nothing unusual.  The next three hands were played out much like the first.  Vickie was still betting aggressively when her hand didn’t really support it, but she was getting lucky draws and it seemed to be working well for her.  Isaac and Marcus were both doing well and two people had already been knocked out.

Doug stood outside the infirmary for about 5 minutes until he saw Agent Phelps.  The agent glanced around then approached and began to speak.

“Look, I know you three are from Paragon.  I can’t seem to find out much about the women, but we do have some information on you.  From everything we can see, you can be trusted.  Here’s the deal.  Someone is using the broadcasts to send secret messages to covert operatives.  That someone is Gauthier.  We’ve got a player in the game and we think the pattern of Gauthier’s chips is meant to indicate something to people watching the game.  He’s not quite what he appears to be.  Think about it.  Here is this hotel, located way outside the US boundary.  There really aren’t any laws here to speak of.  There’s nothing to stop foreign operatives from coming here.  They don’t need a passport to get to this hotel, and they don’t need one to come from this hotel back to the mainland.  We think this place is an entry point for people to sneak into the US, and Gauthier uses the broadcast games to alert his people as to how many and when.”

“But the riots last year…”

“Were a cover.  People were so focused on the riots that nothing else got more than a casual glance.  If you have 5,000 people destroying the heart of downtown, you really don’t notice a minor break in at a chemical plant in one city, an electronics firm in another, and so on.  The fact they can be tied so neatly to his broadcast shows he’s in on it.  That was part of the scam to lure you guys in.”

“But why bring us in if he’s the leader?”

“He’s not interested in you investigating him.  He wants to know who our operative is.  Basically, he’s got you working for the wrong side.  If you find out the operative, then pass it on to him, he’ll spook.  This place is probably rigged with explosives.  If anyone gets too close, he’ll just blow it up and move on.”

As Doug thought this over, the game upstairs had gotten more intense.  It was now down to six players and Vickie was well in the lead.  Her aggressive style was really paying off.  Isaac was sitting in second place with Beau and Marcus about even just behind him.  At the 30 minute mark it was normal for only 5 to remain, so things were right on track.  Angela and Lisa had still not seen anything odd, and off the main floor as they were, the waitress had not managed to pass the note along to either one.

Once the sixth player was eliminated in a tight hand with Beau, Angela noticed that the waitress had brought another note to Isaac.  His shoulders slumped a bit and he gave a small sigh as he looked at his chips.  It seemed to be bad news.  Then she passed one to Vickie who seemed to get very anxious to get back in the game. 

For being as far in the lead as she was, Vickie looked even less happy.  As each hand finished, she would glance around and check her watch.  It was almost like she had someplace else to be.  Marcus was finally getting into his groove.  His presence at the table seemed to be having an effect on the others.  He was pleasant enough, but it was obvious that he meant business now.  Beau was the only one that didn’t really seem affected one way or the other.  Something about his quiet confidence made Angela linger on him a bit longer than the others each time she watched the events of the game.  She found herself really hoping he wasn’t a bad guy.

The next few hands saw a change in style from Isaac.  He was taking longer to choose his base cards and folding quite early.  Beau was quick to take advantage of this and quickly moved into the second spot by eliminating the fifth place player.  This continued for about five hands total, when Vickie’s aggressive play started to turn on her.  She stopped getting the lucky draws and both Beau and Marcus had taken to either not falling for her bluffs, or betting big when they knew they had her beat.  She had dropped from first to fourth in a very short time.  Beau was now in the lead with Marcus and Isaac about even.

Down in the Base of the hotel, Doug was still processing all that was told to him by agent Phelps.  He hated this.  All of his life he’d hated puzzles.  If he knew all or most of the facts, he could act very well, but this having to sort through the stories to find the facts, then trying to assign a weight to each one to see of it really mattered was not something he’d ever really liked.  See the bad guy, chase the bad guy, hit the bad guy with the blunt side of an axe.  This he understood.  This room with 20 people and the bad guy is not the one with a hat, nor is he standing beside anyone who ate garlic for lunch today, taller than Jill, but not as tall as Frank…  Bah.

Marcus looked at the three cards face up on the table.  With what he had in is own hand he’d have 4 sevens.  Beau was still strong, but Vickie had a short stack.  He may be able to bait her in.  He finished his silent count to 20, paused another three seconds, then checked.  Beau checked as well.  Vickie bet 500,000.  Isaac folded, again.

“Isaac, you do know that if you fold every hand you’ll end up just going out of the game anyway right?  I mean, what are you up to?  You’re a better player than this,” said Marcus

“I’m just waiting for my moment.”

“At this rate, you’ll limp out in 15 hands hands.  You might want to think about making your moment find you.  Five hundred thousand to me?  Call.”

The next card was turned.  King of clubs.  No help for Marcus, but a big card is never nice to see turn up.  He checked again.  Beau folded.  Vickie bet another 500,000.  Marcus called, and when a two came up, he was sure he was set.  He bet 1,000,000.  Vickie looked at her stack, then back to the pot.  “Well, not enough to play another hand if I fold now anyway.  All in.”

That was one more gone.  Vickie smiled and shook hands as she got up from the table and left to join the others who had been eliminated in the player’s box.

As Angela watched the game unfold, something that had been nagging at her from the start popped into her mind.  It made sense.  It was possible.  It was utterly simple.  If she was right it was probably also too late.

Doug was still sitting with Agent Phelps, trying to find anything in the story that he could use as a foothold to find the truth, when they heard someone approaching.  It was Vickie.

“Doug, you need to move away from that man.  My name is Agent Victoria Waters with Homeland Security.  He’s not a real FBI agent.  Crystal, the waitress, gave me your note when she couldn’t find your friends.  I got here as fast as I could, but damn if my cards didn’t keep coming up.”

Agent Phelps drew his gun and yelled, “She’s the inside person!”

At this same moment, Vickie drew her gun and Doug grabbed Phelps’ arm and stood between them.  “Look, right now I don’t know who to trust or what’s going on, so I’m going to back to what I do know, and what I’m good at.  I’ve called for back up and he’s ready to come out.  It would be in both of your interests not to shoot me.  I may not have my axe here, but I got no problem with grabbing one of you by the ankles to beat the tar out of the other.  I also guarantee you don’t have enough bullets to stop me from doing it.  Guns on the ground and we’ll talk this over.”

Angela was desperately trying to figure out a way to get a message to either Lista, or Marcus.  She knew what was happening, and all evidence pointed to it happening again, right now.

Marcus motioned for the dealer to wait after each person had chosen their cards.  “You know, Isaac, I think I know what you’re up to.  I think there are two games being played here, and that this one really doesn’t matter to you, as long as you can win the other one.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Maybe so, but I’m also pretty sure I’m right.  You played like a pro yesterday and managed to make it here, to the finals.  Then you switch styles mid game and start playing like a rookie.  Why?  Either someone got to you and asked you to take a dive, or there is another reason you have to be in the game.  You’ve got about 2.5 million there.  That’s enough for 10 hands if you fold right after the deal on every hand.  I’m going to make you an offer.  A side bet.  We each draw one card from the deck.  High card wins.  If I win, you go all in on the next hand, no matter what.  At best, you’ll double up.  At worst, you’ll leave the game 9 hands sooner than if you just limped to the finish.”

“And if I win the draw?”

“I sign over this hotel to you, and you concede the game to Beau.”

There was an audible gasp from the crowd, followed by a heavy silence that seemed to last forever.

“What do you say?  One draw, high card wins.  If I win, you stay in the game for one more hand and either double up or go home.  If I lose, you get the hotel and go home now.  If you win it all, you get 2 million, as the third place finisher, you get half a million.  Think about it.  50-50 shot at winning this hotel outright, or sticking around to play out one last hand right before you drop out of the game anyway.  There really isn’t a downside for you other than the small chance that you will be able to sit in for the last 9 hands.”

Isaac’s brow folded in on itself.  For a moment he looked like he’d made up his mind, then reversed it.  He had the look of a man carefully weighing the odds.  “This is some sort of trick.  I’m not falling for it.”

“No trick.  It’s a straight up offer made on live television.  I’m betting that no matter how badly you want to go for it you can’t because there is something tying you to finishing out these last ten hands.  I don’t know what it is, but I have some suspicions.  And I think those suspicions are right enough that I know you’ll never go for it.”

In the production booth, the crew was stunned by this development.  Each man had one camera focused on his face, and the director was jumping from one to the other to get every little twitch and bead of sweat.  Lista had stopped watching the crew and was now fixed on the screen.  Had Marcus snapped?  What was he up to?  Was he serious?  A pounding on the door to the room scared most of the occupants, one even screamed.  The door opened slowly to reveal Mourning, slightly out of breath.

“Kill the on screen graphics!  Don’t show the base cards for anyone.  Marcus is right!”

The director took a step towards her and said, “Just who the hell are you?”

“My name is Angela and there is a coded message bein’ sent through the cards chosen by Isaac.  Every time you show the cards he picked, 5 more letters go out.  There are at most 50 letters left in the message, so there may still be time to stop it.”

“Get her out of here!” yelled the director.  But as one of the interns moved to grab her, a cloud of smoke surrounded him and a shard of ice flew across the room from Lista’s position.

Mourning said in a calm, but forceful way, “She’s on my side, and we’re not leavin’.  We’re not asking you to kill the broadcast, just turn off the graphics, blame it on a glitch or spilled coffee, just stop showin’ the world his cards.”

Lista said, “You know that intern that vanished?  Derek?  We found his body in the boat room of this hotel two days ago.  Someone shot him because he was on to something here.  That’s why the FBI is here.  That’s why we’re here.  Listen to her and shut it down or I’ll have to do it, and my way involves a lot of free flowing water in the boxes where the electricity lives.”

Back in the game, Isaac replied to Marcus’ offer with another exclamation that Marcus was crazy.  “You just want me out of this game because you know that my luck is about to change and I’m gonna crush you both.”

“I knew you wouldn’t go for it.  Whatever you’re up to is worth more to you than this game, or even a shot at winning this hotel.  Well, I’ve got news for you.  This place is still mine, and what I say goes.  Mike!  Kill the broadcast.  We’ll play out the rest off camera then go though it all to find out what he was doing to edit it out and rebroadcast later.”

Isaac stammered, “You…  you can’t do that!  What about all the people that paid to see this game.  Are you going to give back that money?  What about the family members that couldn’t be here to see it live?”

“I have none that care.  You have none I care about.  Hey Beau, you mind if we postpone the rest of the broadcast until next month?”

“Dude, I just want to play cards.  I don’t care if it’s on national TV or in some guy’s basement.  Whatever you wanna do is cool.  It’s your house.”

“There you go, Isaac.  Done deal.  Shall we resume?”

Just then a voice filled the Casino floor, “Mr. Gauthier, this is Mike.  We have a problem with the broadcast relays.  It’s gonna take about 45 seconds to get the signal stopped.”

Isaac whirled around to find an active camera and held up his deck of cards, flipping from one to the next, showing each one to the camera.  Marcus had moved to stop him but held fast when he saw Lista appear and gesture to him to sit back down.

Isaac turned to see that no one had moved to stop him and bolted for the open door.  Lista sprinted across the room but Agent Johnson was already in position and leapt from his position by the door to tackle the little man.  He thanked her and said that he’d better get Isaac secured.  With that, he disappeared across the casino floor toward the hangars.

Marcus was doing his best to calm the crowd and Mourning Angel had joined Lista on the floor to follow agent Johnson.  As they rounded the last corner before the door, they could see Isaac and the agent just leave the building. Suddenly, several muffled gunshots rang out.  Mourning ducked out of instinct but Lista was already falling.  From the corner of her eye, she could see the shooter run off toward the Base section.  Lista had been hit in the back by several rounds but the green pulses emitted by MA were acting on her to heal the wounds.  With the last pulse, Lista indicated she was okay and they ran off after the shooter.

“Who was it?”

“Male.  Didn’t see a face.”

They crossed the circular line from the sail to the base and found Nikolai slumped against a wall with Agent Phelps resting on top of him in what looked to be a very uncomfortable position.  Turning to the left they saw Doug, bleeding from the chest and Vickie standing up behind an overturned couch.

“You okay, Doug?”

“We’re okay.  If you guys see Agent Johnson, stop him.  He’s in on it along with Phelps.”

“Dammit!” yelled Lista.  “He was just getting to the hangars with Isaac when someone shot me.  Maybe I can catch them.”

Mourning called out as she sped off toward the boat room and its openings to the outside, “Careful Lis’!  No med ‘porters here!”  Turning back to Tog she asked, “What happened here?”

“Doug had Phelps and Vickie but didn’t know which side either one was on.  Vickie lowered her gun and started to show me her credentials when Phelps raised his gun to get a shot at her.  Doug let me up and I tossed Vickie over to the couch to get her clear, but he got off a few shots.  I closed on him while he ran out of bullets and about the time I grabbed him, Nikolai burst into the hallway and yelled for Phelps to kill me and help him ambush you two.  By now the bullet holes were starting to ache a bit, and I was in sort of a bad mood, so I threw Phelps at Nikolai, then you guys came running in.  Doug wants to know what happened upstairs?”

Angela began the healing pulses again as she explained.  “Marcus figured it out about the same time I did.  He made a side bet that and put up the hotel against about 2.5 million chips, but he knew Isaac wouldn’t take the bet.  Win or lose, there was no way Isaac could have kept playing.  When he refused the bet, Marcus called out to cut the broadcast off.  I was in the booth by then so I told the director to say it would take about 45 seconds to shut it down.  Isaac panicked and started flashing cards at the camera.  We got the whole message recorded, but the last 50 cards never made it to the mainland.  Let’s hope it’s enough.  Okay, Vickie, spill your side.”

“First off, I don’t really appreciate being tossed around like that.  I can handle myself in a firefight.  It’s sort of my thing.  Second, there are limits to what I’m authorized to tell you, even though it sounds like you may know more about some parts of this situation than we do.  Is your friend gonna be okay?”

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