Part 8 of Everyone a WInner
“…And so, in conclusion, the most crucial part of the game mechanic is that the player feels that the choice they make has an outcome, it makes a real difference. If two of three options, or even all three, feel as if they are heading to the same conclusion then you lose player engagement. The pay-off doesn’t always have to be immediate, and sometimes the player gets a bigger pay-off if it does come much later in the narrative. Right – now we’re out of time, so please read Michaelson chapters four and five, and I’ll be in my office Tuesday afternoon but not Wednesday… thanks.”
Professor Blake ran his hand through his untidy curls, and breathed another sigh of relief. The end of another week, his last lecture on a Friday – they were always the worst. Now to the gym and home. He had a new game to continue playing – that was an obvious perk of being a games design theory specialist. Game playing could easily be justified.
He closed down his powerpoint and started shutting down the computer. He hated MS with a passion but the university simply wouldn’t let them use Macs to link to their network. Bunch of bloody neanderthals…
When the screen finally went black he closed the lid to find that someone had left a gift behind his laptop. It was a small plush doll, a keyring in fact, depicting a cartoon character. An elliptical head with a blue top hat, cane, spats…
“It’s Jimmy Cricket, I believe.” Blake looked up. Sitting on the front row of the lecture theatre was Aaron Kerr, one of Blake’s PhD students.
“You put it there, did you?” asked Blake, his Welsh inflection starting to show when he felt flustered.
“No,” Aaron smiled, shifting in the seat. “Someone trying to send you a message perhaps? Choice was the theme of today’s lecture, and Jiminy Cricket was all about moral and ethical choices, wasn’t he? The decisions that Pinocchio made, especially when he ignored his good conscience, lead to tragic circumstances. Though one could argue that if he hadn’t made those choices and been a good boy, the ultimate happy ending would not have occurred, he wouldn’t have learned from his mistakes and been unable to make the transition from puppet to real boy. So, far from being a tale of redemption and forgiveness, it reflects a necessity of the human condition. Wouldn’t you agree?” Aaron stood up, pushing a spiral pad into a canvas shoulder bag, before resetting the strap across the shoulder of his black leather jacket.
“I don’t know what this could mean…” Blake said, studying the toy. “Ah, it’s fake,” he said, looking at the label.
“Perhaps that was the message then?” said Aaron, his wide angular smile showing perhaps too many teeth. He fixed Blake with a stare over his aquiline nose.
Blake looked back, tossing the toy to Aaron, who snatched it out of the air with one hand. “Look, what do you want anyway? We don’t have another supervision scheduled until next week. And there’s no need for you to be sitting in my classes.” Blake picked up his laptop and pushed it into his bicycle panier.
“Well, that’s a nice way to address your star student. Anyway, it’s not about me…”
“Makes a change,” said Blake, pulling his jacket off the back of a chair.
“It’s about Jenna,” Aaron said, tossing the keyring into the open top of the panier when Blake wasn’t looking. “I thought I might catch her here today, but she was absent. She’s missed quite a few of my classes too, and I’m worried she might not get her next assignment in on time. As a foreign student, if she doesn’t meet the attendance minimum…”
“I know,” said Blake, shouldering into his green corduroy jacket. “Have you spoken to any of her friends? Student services?”
“No. Have you?”
Blake winced at that. He couldn’t help it. What did Aaron know about him and Jenna? He couldn’t know, could he?
“No,” he said, recomposing himself. “I wasn’t aware she hadn’t been attending, or at least that it was becoming a problem.” That was a lie. He was perfectly aware she hadn’t been to class. She was the only student he actively sought out every time he looked around the theatre.
“Well, failing in your responsibility there, Prof. We’re all Theresa May’s border guards now, you know.”
“DON’T call me prof, Aaron!” Blake snapped. There wasn’t much of an age difference between the two of them – and though Blake respected, and even in some ways liked Aaron as a very capable and perhaps even brilliant student, sometimes he just seemed to know which buttons to push.
Aaron took a step back, palms up. “Take it easy, Rog, it’s Friday, remember? Look, I’m worried. But I’m also worried that if I don’t report this, I could get into trouble, which is a bigger deal for me than it is for you. I need the teaching role to finance myself. I can’t jeopardise that. Besides, I like teaching.”
If only he knew, Blake thought. I’d be in much more trouble than you.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re right, it’s been a long week. Could you put some feelers out? I’ll see what I can find out as well, okay, and I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”
“Same here. See you down The Liberator later? It’s your round I think!”
Blake hadn’t intended to go out tonight, but now… that might be the best thing to do.
“Alright, see you there,” he said, waving as Aaron went out through the double doors.
He’d have to find some excuse for his wife, of course.
Blake unlocked his bike and stowed the heavy D-lock in his panier, not noticing Jiminy jammed in alongside his laptop. As he pulled his bike out of the rack, the pedal caught in the wheel of the next one. It wouldn’t come free right away, but instead of pushing the bike back, pulling it carefully to one side and then lifting his bike from the rack, he yanked it so hard that he momentarily lost balance when it did come free. The other bikes fell into each other and a spoke popped out of the wheel. He looked around – no-one had seen him, so he jumped on the bike and cycled away.
At the gym, he did his usual routine without talking to anyone, plugged into his workout playlist. He’d been worried about Jenna for the past two weeks. The last time he’d seen her, things hadn’t gone… too well. Nevertheless, he thought he’d managed to patch things up enough to maintain the status quo. But she hadn’t been to one of his lectures since, and he hadn’t seen her around campus. Texts and calls had gone unanswered. He convinced himself that he was going to do something about it himself before Aaron showed up, even though it wasn’t true.
After his shower he was getting changed in the locker room when one of the other members walked by on his way in, unaware that his towel was dragging along the wet floor, before it fell out of his bag completely into a puddle. Shit happens, Blake thought to himself.
When Blake came out and went back to the gym’s bike rack, he found his front wheel had been stolen. Cursing under his breath, he slung the panier on his back and set off on foot.
When he got home, he dumped the panier on the floor in the hall.
“You’re late,” called Maite from the kitchen. “Where have you been?” Maite, or Maria-Teresa, was Blake’s wife of seven years. She was from Segovia. At first, he’d thought this little Spanish girl was exotic and beautiful, fiercely intelligent with a rapier wit. Now, she he thought she was a little wider and was quite keen on having children, something that so far he had failed, in her estimation, to have given her.
“Some twat stole the front wheel of my bike,” he called, taking off his shoes.
She came to the kitchen door. Steam and cooking smells escaped around her.
Paella, he thought.
“What was that, my love? They stole your bike?”
“No. They just took the front wheel.”
“Ah, Dios mio. You didn’t use the cable I bought you?”
“No, I forgot it.” That was a lie. He’d deliberately left it in the shed, as the bothersome thick steel cable was too stiff to coil properly.
“And now you have to buy a new wheel. Don’t leave your sports things and towel in the bag again, please? Put them in the washer,” she said, turning back to the kitchen. Did the apron she was wearing over her jeans make her hips look wider? Or was it the jeans?
The post was on the hall table. He flicked through it. Bill, bill, bill, loan offer, gym offer, bill – and an envelope with no stamp. The handwriting looked familiar… he quickly folded it and stuffed it into his jacket pocket.
“I’m… just going to sort out my gym kit, Maite,” he called. That was a lie. He forgot the panier and went upstairs to the bathroom, closing and locking the door behind him.
It was from Jenna. He tore open the envelope – it was handwritten, as the envelope had been, in green ink. Her large looped US handwriting style was unmistakable. He could hardly bear to read it. What if this was some kind of blackmail, or she was just going to tell the department – or his wife? He would be ruined. How stupid had he been to carry on this nonsense in the first place? His entire life was on the line for some worthless girl.
He summoned all his courage and started to read. She asked for his forgiveness… she’d been childish and demanding… she knew what the relationship was about from the start… could she meet him tonight at the usual place… continue from where they left off?
Blake breathed a huge sigh of relief and sat down on the toilet lid. He’d dodged a bullet, no mistake. Should he just continue as before or learn from this episode and call the whole thing off? Now would be a natural, and logical time, to end it with the minimum of fuss.
Perhaps he’d think about it after he’d shagged her one last time, he thought to himself, smiling.
“Roger?” Maite called from downstairs. “Dinner is ready. What are you doing?”
“I’m coming!” he said, getting up and flushing the toilet. He carefully folded the letter back into its envelope and put it in the inside pocket of his jacket.
He went into the kitchen – Maite was already sitting down, yesterday’s wine on the table. It was paella again, but it smelled fantastic. After the gym, and his near miss, he felt ravenously hungry.
“You forgot your gym clothes,” she said, pouring him some wine, “so I emptied your bag and put them straight in the machine. What’s this?”
She produced the little doll with a flourish, and sat it next to his wine glass.
“What..?” Bastard Aaron! “Oh that? Just a silly gift from a student. You know the character? From Pinocchio,” said Blake, taking off his jacket and putting it on the back of his chair.
“Yes, Pepito Grillo. What do you call him in English?”
“Jiminy Cricket. It’s a corruption of Jesus Christ – people used to say that instead of swearing. I don’t know why they picked that name for the cartoon – or how they got away with it for that matter.”
Maite forked some of the paella into her mouth, picking up the little doll again and studying it.
“Who was the student – one of your little blonde chiquitas?” she said, cocking her head and smiling.
Blake almost dropped his fork – then jumped as the doorbell rang.
Maite sat back and laughed. “What is wrong with you tonight? Dios mio! I get the door…”
“No, that’s all right – I’ll get it,” he said getting up.
Did she know?
She couldn’t know.
But then, how had Jenna got his home address for the letter?
Was this Jenna at the door?
He could see a rough shape through the frosted glass but couldn’t see anything else. He steeled himself, put the chain on the door, and opened it a crack.
“What the blazes are you doing here?” he said.
“Well, that’s a fine way to greet your friend and disciple. I was in the neighbourhood so I thought I’d swing by and pick you up. Are you ready to… rock?”
“I’m just eating dinner…”
“Roger? Who is at the door?”
“It’s me, Maite!” Aaron called, leaning towards the narrow opening.
Maite came into the hall and then clapped her hands, coming up behind Blake.
“Let him in!” she said. Blake closed the door, unhooked the chain, and opened it again. Maite opened her arms, and hugged Aaron, kissing him on both cheeks, before standing back and looking at him.
“Where have you been hiding? You look good – not so pale, eh?”
“Me? It’s merely a pathetic reflection of your indescribable beauty! You changed your hair? How is it possible to improve upon perfection?” Aaron stepped into the hall, moving to embrace Maite again, but this time she put her hand into the middle of his chest and stopped his advance, laughing.
“How come you never talk to me like that anymore, Roger?”
“Because I’m not trying to get invited to a free dinner?”
“Dinner?” said Aaron in mock surprise. “I wouldn’t dream to impose. Besides, I’m not worthy of the heavenly delights this goddess of the kitchen creates. A mere slice of dry bread, the pan scrapings, that’s all I deserve…”
“Come in! There’s plenty!” she grabbed Aaron’s hand and dragged him, in mock protest all the way, back to the kitchen.
Blake closed the door. Aaron might get more than he’s expecting, that’s for certain, he thought.
Aaron was already seated at the table when Roger joined them. Maite was getting a glass, plate and fork for him.
“You found your conscience then, Rog?” said Aaron, holding up the toy.
“Your doing, no doubt,” said Blake, sitting down.
“One does one’s best. Thanks!” Maite set the place in front of Aaron and started to pour some wine for him.
“Please help yourself,” she said, retaking her seat.
“It smells wonderful!”he said, spooning some paella onto his plate. “You know, if you ever get fed up with him,” he said to her in a mock aside, “I could always…” Maite wagged a finger at him and tutted. Aaron pretended not to notice Blake’s glare.
The table was silent for a few minutes, as Aaron began to eat, with gusto. Blake was starting to get his blood pressure under control and went back to his own meal, taking a sip of wine.
“I found her you know,” said Aaron.
“Found who?” Blake replied.
Blake almost choked on his wine.
“She’d gone up to London for the weekend, stayed with friends. Back to school on Monday. Might bump into her tonight, in fact, if we go to the union.”
“You are going out?” said Maite, putting her fork down.
“I said I might go out for a couple… I won’t be back late…”
“You didn’t say it to me. Like this I find out?”
“I’m sorry, I was going to tell you and then…” he waved his fork towards Aaron, who was now paying particular attention to his food.
“Who is this Jenna?”
A cold jolt went up Blake’s back.
“She the one who gave you Pepito?”
“Pepito?” said Aaron.
Maite nodded at the toy. Aaron nodded.
“I don’t know who that is from, I told you. Jenna is a student of ours who has been missing classes, and we were concerned about her.”
“I’m sure she is very happy that you care for her,” said Maite, getting up and clearing her plate away.
Aaron looked at Blake, and mouthed sorry.
“Why don’t you come with us?” said Aaron, trying to diffuse the situation. “Don’t let him keep you locked up here in his ivory tower. Come into town and make him jealous!”
Maite turned from the dishwasher, still trying to look upset but failing. She smiled. “Thank you for the invitation,” she said, giving a barbed look to Blake, “but I hate those student pubs, too noisy, too many drunks. He knows this. But anyway, you go with him, have a nice time.” She came round behind Aaron’s chair, and whilst stroking his left cheek, she kissed him on the right. “You are welcome at any time, and don’t leave it so long, next time. I have to go Skype my mama.” Her red-nailed hands rested lightly on Aaron’s shoulders. “I won’t wait up for you Roger. We can talk in the morning.” She went out of the kitchen and into the lounge, closing the door behind her.
“Thanks!” Blake hissed, throwing down his fork.
Aaron shrugged, then seeing the doll, he picked it up and held it to his ear. “JC here says that you ought to treat her better. You’re lucky to have her – very lucky – and she’s devoted to you, really she is. And you know it.”
Blake shook his head. He did know it.
But now he had to figure out how to ditch Aaron so he could meet Jenna.
Half an hour later, Blake and Aaron walked into The Liberator, their local pub. It looked like an old victorian building from the outside, and the pub sign depicted a British man-o-war in full sail, delivering a broadside. But the interior had recently been ‘renovated’ (or innervated, as Aaron put it) so that it looked exactly like any other generic student pub anywhere – lilac walls, scarlet upholstery, chrome and uplighting. Pork pies and pickled eggs had been replaced by halloumi burgers and nachos.
Some music was playing somewhere but all Blake could hear – and feel – was the bass and tsk tsk tsk of a synthetic cymbal. It was still fairly early so there weren’t many people in – more students standing idly chatting behind the bar than in front of it. Despite the plethora of staff, it still took Blake a long time to get served. This didn’t improve his mood – the only thing that did was thinking about Jenna. And despite the letter, which he could feel against his chest in his jacket pocket – he still felt slightly nervous about their meeting. He just hoped that they would be able to quickly get all the unnecessary awkwardness out of the way so that they could get down to…
“Hey! Rog!” called Aaron, who was seated at a table. “You were away with the fairies there for a while! What’s on your mind?”
Blake picked up the drinks and brought them over, sitting opposite Aaron on a low stool.
“Nothing. Well maybe something. I’ll have to go back early, make up with Maite. You’re quite right. I can’t let her stew all night.”
That was a lie.
“Well, you got these in and the next round would have been mine, so… who am I to argue?” said Aaron, sipping his lager. “Anyway, enough about relationships, let’s talk shop. Have you played that new RPG yet?”
Blake pretended to make conversation and some of it he did find genuinely interesting. Another colleague from the department joined them for a while which helped, allowing Blake to smile and nod in the right places with the minimum of effort. It also provided him for the perfect exit cover. As the other prof went to the bar, offering drinks, Blake declined, saying he had to get back. Aaron nodded assent, mouthed good luck with a wink, then a nudge nudge wink wink say no more!
Blake smiled and waved, walking out into the cold night air, and turning in the opposite direction away from his house, towards the centre of town.
He didn’t notice a dark figure leave the pub, following him, staying in the shadows.
Blake pulled his jacket collar up against the chill. He wished he’d put a coat on now, but of course as far as his wife knew, he wouldn’t be out for long. As soon as he could, he turned right off the main road and stayed on the back streets as much as possible. Here, thanks to what the council called ‘energy saving measures’, only a third of the street lights remained. In the spaces between the solid pools of LED light, the pavement was too dark to see, and a couple of times he tripped or stumbled over unseen obstacles. He cursed under his breath. Presently he came to a small pub, built right into the terrace. This was a proper old man’s pub – picked specifically as no-one from the university ever came here. It served standard brewery beers and lagers, only took cash, had no juke box, and served no food. And a lot of the clientele seemed to like very short hair cuts and tattoos.
Blake glanced around; first to check that he recognised no-one, and whether Jenna was here. Unfortunately negative on both counts.
“What’ll it be?” the old man behind the bar said.
“Um… whiskey. A double.”
“Right you are,” said the old man, getting a half-empty bottle of Johnnie Walker off the shelf behind him, and sloshing some into a tumbler. “Ice?”
“No, no thanks.”
“Fiver,” the old man said.
Blake pulled out his wallet.
“Sorry,” he said, handing the man a twenty.
The note was snatched from his hand, and after going in the broken till, and through his pockets, the old man gave him a ten pound note, three pound coins and the rest in coppers.
Blake didn’t bother to try and count it.
Blake walked around to the back of the bar. The booth they usually met in was empty, so he slid into it, setting the glass down on a ragged beer mat. He sat there for twenty minutes, occasionally taking a sip from the acrid, pungent whiskey. He regretted his choice to have it without ice now. He looked at his watch. The letter hadn’t specified a time but they usually met at 8:30. It was now 9:10.
Had she stood him up? This wasn’t like her at all. Had the whole thing been some kind of sick game?
“‘Ere. You Roger?”
Blake started. The old man had appeared at his side from nowhere.
“Right. A young girl came in before and wanted me to give you a message.”
The old man stood there, looking at him.
“So… what’s the message?” said Blake.
“She said you’d make it worth my while… especially not to tell anybody about it.”
“What…? Oh, fine,” he said, taking out his wallet again. The only note he had was the tenner the man had given him in change. He sighed and handed it over.
The old man took it and it seemed to disappear before Blake’s eyes.
“She said she’d meet you on the railway bridge at 9 o’clock.”
Blake checked his watch.
“It’s half past now! Why didn’t you tell me when I came in?” he said, getting up.
A squat middle aged man appeared behind the old man. His head was shaved, he seemed to have no neck at all. He was wearing tight jeans and and a green nylon bomber jacket over a grey T shirt.
“Oy, professor! We don’t want any fuckin’ trouble,” said the thug, trying to square his round shoulders.
“All right, I’m going,” said Blake, squeezing past them both. Just as he thought he was clear, one of the skinhead’s fat fingered paws grabbed his arm. He turned – the thug was a good head shorter than him, but twice as wide.
“And don’t you be coming back here again no more, right professor? Now fuck… off.” Blake desperately wanted to wipe the man’s sprayed saliva off his face, but was happy just to get out of his grip and back outside into the street. He wiped his face with his sleeve.
Blake turned to get his bearings. He thought he momentarily saw someone else on the street, in the shadows, but he dismissed it. He had to turn this way and that a few times to get his bearings, and then set off for the railway bridge.
It was an old bridge, all metal, painted green. Made in what must have been prefabbed metal components, it looked like it belonged in an old train set. Two flights of metal steps at each end, it climbed high over the tracks and electrical wires. It was only just wide enough for two people to pass without having to crab walk as they did so. The top was partially illuminated by some lights at the side of the track, but that was it. People generally avoided it as, though perfectly safe, it was a scary thing to cross especially if a train was thundering past beneath it.
Why would she want to meet here? It was private – it was also the fastest route to her house from here. They had actually taken this route once – he remembered a kiss – that must have been why!
He hurried on, checking his watch. He was late – curse that old bastard!
“Please be there! Please be there!” he repeated to himself under his breath.
As he approached the bridge, he could see a figure – just the head and shoulders over the high sides. She was there! He smiled and waved. There was no answering wave – she must have been looking the other way.
He got to the bottom of the metal stairs. The whole bridge seemed to shake and resonate as he hurried up both flights. When he got to the top, slightly breathless, he could still see only a shadowed figure.
“Hello! Jenna! Thanks for waiting! It wan’t my fault, that old twat own the pub, you know, and it cost me a tenner!” he called, as he rushed towards the figure.
But it wasn’t Jenna.
“Good evening, Blake,” Aaron sneered. “Now what would you be doing here? Not exactly on the way home, is it?”
Blake was dumbfounded.
Aaron turned towards him. “What would your conscience say about that, I wonder, such a lie. Why are you here, Blake? Where are you off to? You’re hardly dressed for it.”
“That’s… none of your business…”
“Looking for Jenna? Yes, no need to look surprised. Where do you think she’s been for the past week? My house. The poor, abused, defenceless maid needed a white knight – or perhaps a black knight, to ride to her rescue. And I had to console the poor child. Several times. On the sofa, the kitchen table, in the shower…”
“You… you’re lying…”
“Me? Lying? Are you trying to judge me, Blake? With your high moral standing? It’s about choices, isn’t it – that’s what you said in your lecture. The choices we make have consequences, don’t they? And the consequences have to be real and consequential, or the player won’t come back for more. But, of course, this is where your game ends.” Aaron took another pace towards Blake.
“Have you gone fucking mad?” said Blake.
“Tsk tsk,” said Aaron, wagging a finger. “That’s a tad discriminatory, isn’t it. Can’t go around using mental health pejoratively.”
“Don’t come any closer.”
“You had plenty of opportunities to take an alternative path. You could have stayed home tonight. You could have thrown that letter away. You could have gone home from the pub, and you’d be safely in the loving arms of your beautiful, and so horny, wife. She’s practically insatiable. You leave her for another woman? Fuck – I needed a holiday!”
Blake stepped closer now.
“You… and Maite?”
“Yep. Fucked her rotten. Actually, she fucked me rotten.”
Blake lunged and took a swing. Aaron dodged back, catching the back of Blake’s arm and using his momentum to push him into the side of the bridge. The high metal lip at the top hit Blake painfully across his upper chest. Aaron moved behind him, twisting the arm up his back, pinning him in place.
“Why are you so shocked at this? Hadn’t you forfeited all exclusive claim on your beautiful wife when you decided to seduce that poor, innocent child? How can you possibly judge me?”
“How did you know…?”
“About the letter? I wrote it. I also swapped it for the suicide note, printed on your own printer, that is now in the right inside pocket of your jacket.”
Blake struggled futilely.
“You, see been acting very strangely recently, tonight was a case in point. And the stress – and also your impotence, losing interest in your wife, was starting to get you down. Taking advantage of one of your students in such a horrible way. All these things weighed on your conscience. There was no other way out. I especially liked the way you thanked me for my support in this difficult time.”
Aaron suddenly reached down and grabbed Blake’s right ankle. Blake tried to kick free but failed – he was now off balance, only supported by the metal side of the bridge at his chest.
A light appeared on the track in the distance.
“No. You don’t have to do this… You want Jenna? She’s yours. Maite too if you want. Just, please, don’t, don’t do this.”
Aaron strengthened his grip.
“`Even at the last, you choose to betray your loved ones. You betray me, as well, painting me the murderer, the protagonist, when all I am is an NPC. You failed the last test. You made your choice.”
The bridge started to vibrate as the train approached at high speed.
“No! No please! You mad fuck! No!” Blake struggled and writhed, but this just put him more off balance. In one movement, Aaron bent at the knees and suddenly stood up, throwing Blake headlong over the side of the bridge into the path of the oncoming express train. Blake’s screams were drowned completely by the train’s horns as it thundered on down the track.
“Game over,” said Aaron, pulling up his jacket and running along the shaking bridge towards the town.