Skilling drew a drag on his shortening cigar and stared up at the starling murmurations. The birds flocked to the city of Rome in great numbers during the winter in search of food. He sat at a balcony enthralled by their public display. He billowed cigar smoke resulting in his own display of hanging sculptures. The air was still and evenly warmed, disturbed only by the rising heat of the rush hour traffic ten storeys below. The traffic was heavy even this late at night. Skilling was sat relaxed and listened non-committedly to the distant bustle. Suddenly the scene was disturbed by something behind him, a sliding balcony door opened. Skilling turned to glance behind and saw Thomas. Skilling gave a welcoming gesture. Thomas rested his rum tumbler on the thick marble balcony and took the invitation to sit beside Skilling. He reclined deep into the wicker seat.
Just after the wicker released its last crack and the ice in the tumbler ceased to ring, Skilling remarked, “There is failure there you know?” with his hand raised ahead toward the starling flocks flying ahead.
Thomas sighed. He wanted some evening air alone however did not feel the need to brave the ten storey descent to street level. This old building had its charm but it was slow to embrace modern amenities such as lifts. The fast shortening cigar in Skilling’s right hand was glaring proof that he is no man of patience. A quiet descended whilst a suitable response was expected.
“How does that come about?” inquired Thomas with a slight waver in his voice.
“In exactly how they come about.”
A single flock drifted across the blue evening sky before them, as if commanded to do so. Skilling and Thomas both observed silently in awe. It was shaped like a bear sat on its hind. It looked aggravated. Suddenly a small perturbation, possibly on the left flank, caused the great shape to look defeated; its wild nature suddenly ruptured, reduced to a circus bear. The shape then violently rolled forwards and merged into an unrecognisable form.
Skilling continued, “There must be failure for success … death for life.”
The flock’s front reared to the left and as the two continued to converse on the balcony it chaotically reordered itself into various abstract forms.
“When one views these strange structures they often ask why? Even without a scientific mind they ask the question ‘Why does it come about?’ … The generally accepted answer is through failure.”
Thomas sighed once more at this pontification and felt at liberty to rise from his chair and stand. He reached to the balcony and took a sip of rum from his tumbler.
Thomas demanded with an abrupt raise of his eyebrows, “Please explain.”
“Imagine a sky covered so thick with starlings the sun’s rays fail to reach soil. Now imagine inside this thick flock a spiralling murmuration as we see before us. Allow the other starlings, not engaged in dance, to cease to exist and ask yourself … ‘In what way can they cease to exist?’”
“Nobody ever sees the peregrine falcon, who carved this undulating animate sculpture. As with any event space, we are completely blind to the inexperienced. We appreciate the innate functional beauty here however forget, for the sake of our sanity, the desperation to reach this outcome. Amongst this reality, your experienced reality, there are many shadows of success. I am sure of it. Many lived, that are not experienced by yourself, myself, or indeed any other self … that we know of.”
Thomas reflected, “I understand that the individual actions of the starlings are for personal survival, each starling aims to do two things: 1. fly as close to their neighbour as possible, and 2. try to navigate to the centre of the flock and stay there. I understand the science. The sparrows’ natural predators, including the peregrine falcon, aim to attack the entire flock and mathematically they are more likely to succeed in catching prey from the edges of the flock. I need not be patronised with regard to the science. One in four attacks by peregrine falcons for example are successful, the success rate also decreases with flocks that are sparsely populated and more ‘energetic’. I still do not however accept your philosophy of reality.”
“Thomas, why are you here?”
The question came abruptly, a quick adrenaline rush was followed by some warranted thought on this. Thomas was an economics professor at Brown University. He had subscribed himself to this club for his research, the basis of his post-doc involved game theory. Investigation into game theory inevitably forced a crossover with probability theory, stochastic analysis and more importantly required an understanding of cause and effect. Thomas had met a member of the club whilst playing poker at a different venue. The member was drunk and now not important, more important was that the details of the society were leaked to Thomas. This allowed his entry; the only academic to have entered. Academics are less prone to the hedonistic lifestyle of the club. There is usually neither an interest to interact with the other members, nor a personal incentive to engage with the ludicrous mechanics of the club. Thomas however was a man alone, completely engaged in his research. This sparked his immediate interest in the club and subsequent entry.
“I am here to play into your hands, a common reason as shared with the fellow attendees.” Thomas lied. This open lie carried weight and was a good bluff. The lie was reluctantly accepted as sarcasm partially laced with truth. Skilling’s unparalleled arrogance and sense of self purpose aided belief in this false sense of truth.
“Ok, so you know I do not like you being here, particularly not in Rome, a fallen seat of power. But I admire your tenacity. I know your public profile and your history. You have no business making this activity public and I don’t like the lack of control. Please forgive my brash honesty but these stem from a lack of my control over you joining this club. I am not, we are not, your animals to study. This does not exist, I want it to carry on.”
Thomas breathed slightly lighter with an aim and requirement to show some sense of fear. He simply needed to enter the club to satiate his own sense of curiosity, he never had any ‘business’ as it was referred to, and he simply had a curious mind. The club’s activities were being recorded. They were being analysed. However not for profit or senseless destruction; but to sculpt permanence. This discussion was appreciated, so that he could remain out of trouble.
Thomas offered, “The existence of this club had no bearing on my activities before I joined. It has no detrimental effect on the public. I have no reason to publish my work as the beast has not lived. As you claim there is no life without death. As an academic it is my responsibility to keep alive the exotic, to be engaged with it. I am not studying ‘you’ like animals as I am an official member of the club. I have two responsibilities to keep it alive, firstly as an academic and secondly as a member. My studies will obviously be cut short if the creature is to pass away. I am safe and your empire is quite safe.”
Skilling solidly pressed and extinguished his cigar stub in one uninterrupted move. Thomas after finishing his proclamation could not see Skilling’s face, he could not gage his reaction and a gnarly awkwardness hung in the air along with the trace of stale cigar smoke.
“Ok … let’s do this.”
They waited for a while and when Skilling went back into the building Thomas followed his lead. They both entered the room.
Skilling was the smaller of the two. They both entered through the sliding door with a rush of air. Skilling’s thinly covered, brushed back hair faltered about his pronounced bald spot. Although about average height he filled the room with personality and a confident voice with an unplaceable accent.
Skilling moved to shut the door after Thomas had entered. Thomas was taller however slightly stooped in an embarrassed pose. A wiry man, he did not devote much time for the pursuit of personal fitness. After being allowed through by him, Thomas stood aloof waiting for Skilling to finish closing the sliding door.
After spending a little time to ensure it was locked, Skilling turned slightly exhausted from the task and declared “Let’s go.” Both arms gesturing forward. He walked quickly, Thomas following close to heel. Skilling walked with a certain look of ownership, striding long and confident steps.
“Which table where you on?”
The two were stood before a large room of green felt tables surrounded by gamblers with an uninterruptible focus. Thomas pointed and confirmed table 9. The room had an old thick carpet centred under glass chandeliers. The moulded plaster was slightly tarnished, there was a sense of former grandeur.
Twelve tables were surrounded by gamblers. All gazes were focussed on the centre of the green tables and they did not receive a single glance as they entered the room. Skilling walked up behind a portly lady in a purple velvet jacket and patted on her broad shoulders.
“Alicia how are we doing?”
Alicia did not flinch. With her gaze still averted she spoke, “Need another pack of cards – these are worn.” She waved the set and turned to face Skilling, catching sight of Thomas beside him she looked concerned. “I … I will get some.”
“Let us walk, Thomas watch the game.”
On that Thomas was left watching the poker table to ensure that there was no foul play. He was stood staring at the most eclectic mix of people. Without turning to observe, he imagined the conversation taking place between Alicia and Skilling.
As they walked away, to avoid awkwardly staring at the table, Thomas turned his head in their direction feigning curiosity. Suddenly there was a question.
“Hey I’m talkin’ …” the Texan cowboy slammed his hand and then pointed, “Hey I’m talking to you.”
A lady sat opposite let out a short sigh, this seems to be his normal approach to conversation.
“Sorry daydreaming … hi, its Thomas what do they call you?”
“Anger, Call me!? Some kind of a joker this … this one … so you just going to stand there o’ deal us a hand?”
“I’ve got no cards”
“Craps then,” insisted the man who wore a cowboy hat. He reached into his pocket for two dice and threw them towards Thomas.
Thomas stared at the die, the silence prompted him to pick them up. Remembering the movies there was no backboard to hit the die against. He carefully threw them to the middle of the table. It was a two and a three. He feebly announced “Two and Three.” The whole table erupted with laughter.
As the laughter died down one guest explained that he had not taken any bets. But that not to worry as everyone on the table knew they were ‘skewey die’.
The cowboy started to pipe up again, “You ain’t no gambler! Why are you here?, what nonsense is thi-” his sentence ended into whisper.
Thomas looked a little confused then jumped with a noise behind him.
Skilling and Alicia had returned. Skilling ripped off the plastic film from the new pack of cards and discarded it on the floor – the jokers are removed from the pack with an emphasis. “Jokers will be ratted from play, we will have no funny business, in this game, this club, or otherwise.” After throwing the two joker cards on the floor he placed the new cards back on the table.
Skilling started chuckling to himself, only after a little while he explained, “Alicia informed me that you went all in on a 2-3 off suit before joining me on that balcony, either you are playing a very clever game, or an extremely stupid one”
One could taste the tension in the air and Thomas’ embarrassment met an all-time high.
“Thomas come with me.” Skilling turned from the table and walked out towards the doored exit.
Thomas welcomed the opportunity to leave the fixed gaze of the gamblers, he needed to jog to catch up with Skilling’s prompt pace. He caught up at the doored exit, suddenly aware that now most of the room were watching their departure – a marked difference from the ambivalence shown before. Approaching the door he couldn’t wait to leave the room.
“Now Thomas, you can go back, go back to gambling with the others – or come with me.”
Thomas followed to the door but looked back at the others who looked in some stress. After a concerned pause he asked, “What about the others – are they coming too?”
“Don’t worry they will be joining us in a bit. You couldn’t keep them out of where we are headed even if your life depended on it” Skilling sought to assure.
Thomas winced at the choice of words and hoped it was metaphorical. He nodded to Skilling and they left the room and entered a long cool windowless corridor. Skilling led at a fast pace and was discussing the cowboy at the table. Skilling assured Thomas that the cowboy’s behaviour was as usual and that he shouldn’t feel insulted. As Skilling continued Thomas could not help but notice the portraits hung on the wall – tall long thin faces, pallid and bone china white.
“Ah this one,” Skilling stopped at a door and started to fumble with some keys.
As Skilling was finding the keys Thomas stood to contemplate a portrait hanging opposite the door. An unnamed figure. The portrait’s proud expression hinted that the subject would have been insulted to be placed in a windowless servant’s corridor.
“Bingo, Houston we have landed.” With the door unlocked Skilling turned to Thomas, “Thomas, you asked me at an earlier event why all the secrecy, all the fuss over a game of poker? – Well my friend poker is just the aperitif. The night is young – you would have heard the talk about this right? – You have been at the club for over a few months and been to three visits right? – I think the time has come.”
Skilling caught the door handle and pushed through – Thomas followed soon after, keen to understand this fast paced turn of events.
Once in the room they were faced with tables across the hall, ten tables. They were gambling tables with the iconic green felt – however there was a difference. – Attempting to spot the game on each table Thomas couldn’t reach a conclusion though he spotted a television screen dominating each table.
“Look Skilling, I struggle with Poker, you may find me on a blackjack table when I am drunk beyond my senses however a game more exotic than these I am afraid you will find no demonstration of my skill, at least in the immediate future. Or draw no form of entertainment from my participation.”
Skilling pressed his finger to his mouth to demand silence. Skilling looked excited at Thomas and suddenly turned. He switched a switch and all the TV screens flickered to life – all ten TVs were lit up with scenes from across the city.
Skilling walked into the centre of the room and stood in front of the screens. He was still in awe despite it being one of many times he visited the room. In this awe he lost all notion of manners. He stood before a huge wall of TV screens with a different scene playing each one. Thomas closed the door quietly and walked towards Skilling to join him. Thomas joined and stood also looking at the screens.
Thomas had to interrupt, “What is it?”
“What is the wrong question to ask” … “The question you should be asking is who is it?”
“Who are they?”
“That is Mary,” Skilling pointed towards one screen, “Joe, Tim, Alecia.” He pointed sequentially at each screen one by one. Named but not fully known. “Don’t know her, but Mary is interesting, she this very night is to experience a huge life event.”
They both fixate upon this one person, they watch Mary as she hauled a bag of washed clothes from the washing machine to the balcony to air dry. After a short time watching Skilling explained that their intel suggested her boyfriend was scheduled to propose.
Skilling asks openly, “What’s her choice?”
“OK so who is Mary?” Thomas pointed towards one of the screens. “Who are all these people and why are you filming them?”
“Ah Mary, we do not know the full story,” Skilling skipped to the table in question and picked up the schedule for tonight. “Of course we don’t know Mary but we know that tonight a bet is to be settled.”
Thomas rubbed his face, trying to comprehend the situation. “So Mary … you have some plans for Mary?”
“We don’t prescribe their lives, we are merely observers, journalists if you like, we watch, we bet. We bet on their lives.”
“You bet so you have a stake.”
“We never interfere, we all have a stake therefore any intervention into their lives will be a gross misconduct of the club.”
“Gross misconduct! Barr! … if what I think is taking place then the very nature of the club is of gross misconduct!”
“This is pure emotional pornography, offering the strongest drug known to man … so what will it be, Mary is due a proposal very soon, will she say yes or no?”
“Yes or no? – simple question.”
“ … Stakes?” Thomas knew he must participate or he would inadvertently be throwing down a gauntlet.
“The stakes are -” Skilling was interrupted by a sound at the door.
The door suddenly boomed open to an influx of members. The room filled with all the gamblers from the previous room. The peace was interrupted with a burst of conversation.
“Hi … that time already? … Doesn’t the time just fly?!” Skilling sprang into host mode shaking hands smiling and welcoming punters to the tables.
The room was awash with excited conversation. They were the same people in the quiet room next door however now as if addicts suddenly in possession. Some were taking the time to accept Skilling’s greetings however most were looking toward the screens, pointing, thinking, and discussing.
Thomas was distracted by the crowds however he heard a name that pulled his attention, a group of three were discussing Mary as they approached him and her table. The three sat at the table and watched intently as Mary finished up with her washing. Thomas recognised one of the three. It was Alicia, his dealer from the rounds of poker. They met gazes. Alicia gave the same short cautious look. This look now had some explanation; he now recognised a slight shame in her expression. Thomas needed to reassure her that everyone was on the same page so he took a seat and joined the three. He was about to reacquaint himself given this new scenario when Skilling appeared before them.
“Welcome, we have all waited a long time for this moment, Mary’s dear beloved is soon to make the move, tie the knot, tighten the noose. Let’s join him” Skilling flicked the remote to change to Mary’s betrothed Alex. Alex was at his home and dressed for the evening out, a smart light grey suit. He was with a close friend as they discussed the night planned ahead. Skilling was feigning a swoon as each step of the proposal plan was outlined. Skilling then turned the volume down and called, “Final bets placed, final bets placed on the matter of Mary and Alex.”
On this there was a movement of some other groups to join a view of the table. This was a simple binary choice between a yes and a no. Each player had their chips ready from the previous room. The green felt had betting pens labelled for a huge variety of outcomes, on this table only two pens were relevant ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.
“Calling final bets, all terms covered it will be a ‘Yes’ or for all other outcomes a ‘No’ 1/2 on both.”
There was a shuffle as the three of them made for their bets. Thomas did not have chips to hand and Skilling plied him with a $1000 chip. Thomas thought that he was off the hook and unfortunately now needed to join in. He optimistically bet on a yes. After reaching forward and dropping his $1000 chip on this ‘yes’ bet, he sat back on his haunches and watched the TV with the others.
Some time had passed before Mary and Alex eventually made their way to the restaurant. Alex was there first and after greeting Mary made their way to their table. The camera had found a resting point and had a clear view of their table.
Thomas in the betting room interjected “How do you manage to film this in such privacy?”
“Trade secret,” Skilling tapped his nose, “We are going to miss the decision, come on let’s watch” Skilling locked his gaze on the screen.
“Final bets closed, outcome looming, now let’s see the odds.” The screen flickered and an odds wheel appeared for this bet, it was wavering around about a 62% chance of a Yes. There were some applause and commiserations over this revelation.
It looked like the moment had come, this was a big event and the club had been waiting a long time for it. Such purity, a yes or a no, 50-50 choice that will change both of their lives forever either decision. A fork in the road. Skilling lived off these moments, butterfly effects that can change the course of history, once decided, once closed there is never a return. A collapsed wave function, entropic, irreversible beauty that is life.
Alex proposed to Mary, her pupils widened with excitement, she said YES. The screen faded to black on table 9.
It was chaos at the club, there was a couple of people silent who had bet on a NO however there was mostly celebration amongst the revellers. Eventually the excitement died out.
Skilling noticed Thomas had not picked up his win, there were two chips in front of him $2000. “Thomas come with me, let’s go for a walk.”
Skilling pulled Thomas’ limp body from the excited crowd. They walked to the corner of the room and had a view of all the screens.
“So why do it?” Thomas asked. “Surely you can bet on sport in a similar way?”
“I started with finding the richest gamblers the world; by the way as an aside I always find that they like gambling not winning. I thought to myself – why should gambling be so abstract – why so detached from reality? A stack of cards, set of dice, or roulette wheel all have a very weak association with reality– the society aims to bring life to gambling and gambling to life!”
“You have not brought gambling to life, you have reduced life to gambling.”
“Life, ultimately a race of folly and vanity, is ultimately meaningless. To seek any meaning from life is absurd. Here in this club we actually apply an additional layer of meaning. Its harmless fun.”
“I am heading home, Skilling it’s been great however I need rest.”
“But I have not shown you our analysts, oh the stories they have, watching intimately the lives of many.”
“Look Skilling, it’s been a blast but I really need to go, get back to my life. Can we catch up in a month or so?”
“…” There was a long saddened pause as Skilling looked offended and deep in thought. They were in close view of the others. The cowboy was watching and Skilling looked resolved. “Ok let me walk you out.” They left the room and went to the central stairwell. “Look Thomas, I hope that you have gained enough from us however please be aware that from now on, we do not exist to you.” Skilling paused on a stair break and turned to stare Thomas in the eye. “Watch my words, we do not exist. You know what we have, we can have full surveillance, and we will if we feel we need it to protect our society.” They continued to walk down the old stairwell. Until they go to the bottom.
“So this is goodbye for now.” Thomas offered out a handshake.
“Bye, for now.” Skilling was compliant in the handshake. “Farewell Thomas and best of luck with you.”
On that Thomas left the building, got into his car and started it up for the long journey home.
After re-entering the room without Thomas, Skilling received some cold looks.
“Hey Skillin’ what’re ye playing at?” The cowboy pointed and walked quickly towards Skilling. The cowboy’s objection was joined by a chorus of remarks mutiny was in the air.
“Hello all, please settle let me explain. It seemed that we had reached a bifurcation point – there is no benefit in gambling without risk – we now have the ultimate risk – can we be found out? Who knows what might happen as we observe Thomas’ every move?”
“You knew he was a journalist, journalists don’t participate. This whole thing is set upon a basis of mutual guilt. They can’t flitter above this operation. I have a stake in this. We all have a stake in this!”
“Be patient my friend, this is all devised and all according to plan.” … “Just watch here” Upon that suggestion Skilling reached for the remote and turned the TV on table 9 back on. Thomas was travelling down the highway at speed. The others all laughed and jeered together. The camera was watching the car travel along at significant speed. With an Aerial shot Thomas could clearly be seen in his car with a convertible screen down.
Their laughter and celebration persisted for some time. The Cowboy was at first defensive of his initial position, after a little time he conceded holding his hands up and joined the laughter.
The laughter eventually died down. “So until now we have only had anonymous participants to view. The most chaotic and interesting behaviour can now be observed. Our friend is still oblivious to his new found position. Let’s join him.”
Skilling pressed a button on the remote to turn the camera to a view of the driving seat of the convertible. The camera was a close up of Thomas’ face. He was clearly reflecting on the experience that was just presented to him.
“So guy’s bets away! We have a lot on our schedule, Thomas lives quite a way away! Will he have the stamina? We may have a runaway deer, mysterious hitchhikers or even drunk drivers. So bets away! We need to be cleared and gone by morning.
Thomas smiled into the night contained in his thoughts He was unaware, for the meantime, that he will be the plaything of the cabal for quite some time.