“Why ya wanna do it again, Champ? The doctors all said your mind can’t take the punishment no more. You’ve had your moment. Let the others fight over your leftovers. You got nuthin to prove!”
James Lightning Rod Johnson stood staring out of his penthouse window high above the New York skyline, observing the busy streets below, jammed with traffic and people that – from his high perspective – looked like armies of ants devouring every inch of sidewalk with their systematic marching to and from wherever their day dictated. James couldn’t help but feel a sense of superiority looking down on the small moving dots. Metaphorically speaking, he had risen to the top of his profession on the misery of others and more poignantly, the sacrifice of others. A rage against the machinations of human endurance kept him focussed on what needed to be done to live to fight another day. To his followers, James was a God, endowed with a divine protection that had made those wagering money on him rich beyond their imaginations. To his detractors, he was a curse who prolonged the disbelief of him lasting so long in the AWRR, the Arena of World Russian Roulette.
“I won’t sanction your death – just because you tell me to… I got morals…”
Russo Williams continued to plead with his number one client. Managing him for over ten years had been a financially rewarding occupation, but in the decade since becoming James’ sole advisor, he had grown to love him like a brother. In a sport where longevity is not expected, James had defied all odds to become a world champion; however, when Russo suspected organised crime involvement in betting circles, he persuaded his main commodity to retire while he still had life in him.
“Retirement is for old people,” James would often reveal his inner thoughts. “It’s all I have, Russo.”
“It ain’t all you have,” Russo contradicted. “You got me, you got Siobhan - your beautiful wife, and you got a kid on the way. You got money – lots of it. This penthouse, the house in the Hamptons, the yacht in Monte Carlo, have all been bought in hard-earned cash from your winnings. You want for nuthin, you need for nuthin. Why risk losing what no-one can take from you?”
James slowly turned to face his friend - the look of despair on his face reflecting the brutal, honest truth staring back at him.
“It’s the rush, dawg… I miss the rush…”
“But you’ve bet all or nuthin on this one, you asshole!”
“It was the only way to grasp one last chance of glory. No middlemen, no network interference. Just two dicers with death in one room with the world watching. I win this one and I become a living legend. Should I lose, then let it be remembered that I was always one empty chamber away from immortality.”
“You’re an asshole,” barked Russo ending the one-sided discussion.
The recognised sport of Russian Roulette took hold five years after the law of euthanasia allowed pharmacists worldwide to administer drugs to registered personnel aiding in assisted suicide. A cottage industry sprung from the new law, providing the opportunity for anyone to end things in more familiar surroundings instead of escaping the scrutiny of local authorities by fleeing to sympathetic countries. However, the dark side to this new freedom of choice, provided anyone willing to end their lives – no matter what the reason, a quick way out of this cruel world. Almost overnight, death became a movement without age barriers and without repercussion. For some, it was like a joyride to oblivion - free from the pain and torment of day-to-day living. To others, it was just a theatrical cry for attention with no repeat performance and no return. Whatever the reasons for the desire to end it all, the consequences resulted in a rapid reduction in world population by over thirty percent. Governments fell, migration increased, and wars raged. Death – it seemed – was big business, so it was no surprise that to fill the gap in the GDP of the more affluent countries, a replacement for the defunct national lotteries needed to be found. The newly formed central governing politburo of Manhattan legalised the deadly game after realising the potential broadcasting rights could return billions of dollars in profits. They were right. It found an instant following on social media. However, for legal reasons, the game needed a set of rules and regulations like Boxing’s Marquess of Queensbury rules, setting out policies and procedures that protected the creators from wrongful death lawsuits. They called this, The Protocol.
Most combatants are required to undergo medical and psychological testing before being granted a license to die. The stakes were high but with the subscription model in place to view live bouts, plus a percentage of all bets placed worldwide, contenders quickly emerged to compete for the chance to be crowned Roulette Emperor, contemner of death.
“The adjudicator and the streamer are here,” Russo begrudgingly announced.
“Have them wait in the library,” James instructed. “I must meditate first… Is my opponent here yet?”
“The concierge has just called to let me know she’s on her way up.”
“Yeh. There ain’t no barriers to dying.”
“Have her wait in the library too. I’m in no rush to begin.”
“Sure, death can wait, right…? Asshole.”
Russo lingered for a few solemn moments, before leaving the large open-plan living room with its two-storey sized windows. Readied for the contest, a small circular table had been placed in the centre of the room with a bright white tablecloth draped over it. In the middle of the tablecloth, the letters AWRR were embroidered twice onto it in cherry red colour - each in a semi-circle facing out, with a large dot of the same hue in-between them. It was the contest’s emblem, designed by a schoolboy – the winner of a contest to create the game’s logo. A childish design of such simplicity, the dot symbolising blood spilled and the repeated arced letters forming a complete ring around it, representing the circle of birth, life, and death. James concentrated on it as he sat at the table meditating.
“Fear not the unknown,” he recited out loud. “For it will be revealed.”
He had already changed into the customary white suit – a requirement for taking part in the game. A white polo neck sweater worn under a zip-up jacket atop a white pair of slacks, created a heavenly look. Completing the outfit was of white slip-on ankle boots and white socks. The colour symbolised the purity of the game. Its regimented protocols were a necessary legal requirement for a contest licence to be issued. It also added a dramatic flair to those viewing the live streams in 5K colour. It was God-like in its style, a poignant metaphor of the seriousness it portrayed to the heartless and faceless ghouls watching.
“Reveal thyself and suffer thy fate or steady thy hand and go for glory.” he concluded.
Signalling his readiness, James picked up a small bell resting on the red dot, briefly shaking it, before placing it back on the dot. Article 7.34 of the AWRR rules, states that no more than two rings of the bell can be made. Once to signal the readiness of the host player and once to concede the game. Conceding or more commonly called The Coward’s Flight from the Fight, would mean forfeiture of all monies owed and the public derision of millions of viewers worldwide. Getting to the top is not always about winning, it is about your fanbase, the followers that pump millions of dollars into your contests. Lose them and you may as well have pulled the trigger and ended it all.
The live streamer was the first to enter the room. A young, creative type fresh out of film school selected to be the first-hand witness and purveyor of the pugilistic pistol exchanges. Above his head, a drone camera followed his every move. In his hands, the main camera built for extreme close-up money shots and wide-angle slow-motion drama.
“Is this your first contest?” James asked him.
“Is it that obvious,” he replied.
“I’ve not seen you before, that’s all.”
“I’ve seen you,“ the eager broadcaster confessed. “Lots of times… I don’t understand why you’ve come back.”
“Maybe it’s an obsessive compulsion… an addiction,” James suggested as his gaze concentrated on the dot.
“Nah,” stated the camera operator. “It’s because you always win…”
Approaching footsteps signalled the arrival of the adjudicator, dressed in black for the occasion like a funeral director – top hat and tails included. In total silence, he positioned himself directly behind James, standing perfectly upright, like a soldier at attention. Producing a white blindfold from his inside coat pocket, he ceremoniously wrapped it around James’ head, covering his eyes. Article 9.17 states that opponents may not see each other until the game has commenced and that the adjudicator is satisfied that all protocols have been followed. Not knowing who you were about to face until the point of no return, built tension – the killer of concentration. Some say it’s just the luck of the cylinder’s spin, but others - like James – say concentration is the key to winning. It has a magical effect on the spin.
As the adjudicator took up position at a ninety-degree angle to James at one side of the table, James could hear the hallway door open, and footsteps approaching him, before the sound of someone sitting down opposite him, upped his adrenalin level. After a brief uncomfortable silence, the adjudicator spoke.
“The world has voted this contest to be a win-lose battle. No Coward’s Flight is to be granted.”
James had expected something like this to happen. His first contest in fourteen months had drawn the attention of certain organised crime bosses that had previously lost millions betting against him. This was their bitter attempt at retribution.
“Does the host agree?”
Following protocol, James affirmatively replied with a nod of his head.
“Does the guest agree?” The adjudicator continued. “…Let the contest notes show that both participants have nodded their approval.”
James thought he could hear a quickened breathing coming from across the table. Perhaps they were so frightened by the prospect of putting a bullet through their own head, that fear was emotionally washing through their nervous system.
“Fear not the unknown,” James recited to himself.
“Let it also be noted...” The adjudicator continued. “That the guest has signalled distinctly with their hand invoking Article 17, requesting that this contest is to be a Blind Five contest – meaning that blindfolds will remain in place until after a winner is crowned, or until after the fifth empty chamber of the six-shooter has been exhausted.”
“They’re definitely scared,” James thought to himself. “It’s a Rookie’s move. Another first in the room.”
“Does the host agree?” The adjudicator impatiently asked. “…Let the contest notes also show that both host and guest agree to a Blind Five exchange.”
In anticipation of the next sound, James could tell that the adjudicator had opened his gun box and produced the weapon that held the fate of two people in its revolving cylinder.
“By the power invested in me through Article 23.2,” the adjudicator explained. “I present the six-shot revolver holding nothing in five of its cylinder’s chambers and one live round in the remaining sixth chamber. Under the supervision of the video adjudicators, I have spun the cylinder in a random manner and I declare that I do not know what chamber the live round is seated in. Placing the revolver on a swivel tee in the middle of the table, I am about to spin it to determine who goes first.”
The heightened sense of James’ hearing identified the spinning of an object. When it had stopped, the adjudicator issued his final instructions.
“The spin has subsided, resulting in the barrel end of the revolver pointing at the host, who will go first. When you are ready host, please reach toward the middle of the table and retrieve the revolver.”
Without hesitation, James walked his fingers across the table, picked up the revolver, placed it against his right temple and coolly squeezed the trigger. The clicking sound of the gun’s hammer hitting an empty chamber was a nervous relief to James. Although he was a veteran of over twenty-nine contests, the question of will it hurt always played out in his mind as he pulled the trigger.
Following the rules of fair access to the weapon – laid out in Article 24.5, the adjudicator gently wrestled the revolver from James and placed it back onto the centre of the table.
“Guest… you may now pick up the revolver.”
Not being able to see what was happening, James cocked his head ever so slightly to one side, as he listened intently to every rustle, lift, and softened thud against his opponent’s temple. “CLICK” echoed the gun signifying no round in the chamber. James thought he could hear his opponent breathing a little sigh of relief, but he dismissed it to concentrate on his next turn.
“Host… you may now pick up the revolver,” came the well-rehearsed instruction from the adjudicator.
James repeated his series of movements to place the gun at his temple. Another click relieved him of the gun to be placed back onto the table.
“Statistics show that the fourth chamber is the critical one,” he thought to himself. “I’ve only been as far as chamber five on one occasion.”
The memory of that time produced a cold shudder down his back as the tell-tale click of the revolver once again defied the odds. The pressure was on, and James could feel the tension building up inside him as the adjudicator repeated his instruction to pick up the gun.
“Fear not the unknown, for it will be revealed,” he whispered to himself in the moment before another Click sound signified proof of life still in the game.
“We have come to the end of Blind Five,” announced the adjudicator in an oddly cheerier tone of voice. “Guest… you may remove your blindfold.
James knew he had to await his instruction to remove his blindfold. It was part of the game’s protocol and laid out in Article 27 of the code of conduct.
“Guest,” continued the adjudicator. “…You may now pick up the revolver and place it to your temple.”
James began to lighten his mood. It was the final chamber in the gun, and he knew what everyone knew. The bullet is in that last chamber. Victory will be his and there will most definitely be blood as Coward’s Flight has been suspended.
“Host…” The adjudicator started to announce.
“This is it,” James stated to himself. “I get to see it…”
“…You may remove your blindfold,” instructed the adjudicator.
Excitedly pulling the eye mask from his face, James squinted as his eyes readjusted to the bright light flooding the room. As his vision focussed on his opponent, he could make out their white-garbed, seated posture, the gun held against their temple awaiting the final outcome. Then, in abhorrent horror, James leapt to his feet, kicking his chair away.
“Please return to your seat,” ordered the adjudicator. “Protocol demands it.”
“This must be stopped… immediately!”
James’ wife of fourteen months sat unemotionally staring at the red dot in the centre of the table. James knew the look. It was something she had witnessed him do in previous contests. It was a form of self-hypnosis designed to rid the mind of doubt before squeezing the trigger. A sudden wave of anxiety mixed with fear swept over him, causing him to snatch at the revolver.
“The game cannot be interfered with!” Commanded the adjudicator. “It is against protocol.”
“She is my wife!” James snapped back.
Just then, Russo rushed into the room, sweeping past the adjudicator to reason with James.
“I didn’t know, James. They never tell me who is coming. It’s against protocol.”
In silent scream, James’s mouth spread agape with pre-emptive anguish. Swiftly moving towards Siobhan, he was halted in his tracks at the sound of a loud “Click!” He momentarily thought that the gun had jammed, then he heard the click sound again, followed by several more clicks as she unsuccessfully tried to fire the gun. Hugging his wife tightly, James disarmed her, tossing the revolver to the ground. As it impacted with the ground, a loud bang startled everyone. None more so, than the adjudicator who stood with a look of shock spreading across his face, followed by him crumbling lifeless to the floor.
“Article 29 dash 1,” Russo pointed out. “Should the adjudicator fail to close play, a no-contest outcome will void all wagers.”
As Russo put his pistol back into his shoulder holster, the cameraman cut the feed, then dashed out of the room, fearing he would be next.
“What have you done, Russo?” James asked worryingly.
Russo placed a comforting hand on James’ shoulder, then smiled a knowing smile with the realisation that he would face severe consequences.
“You needed to be set free from the game, my man… so… I broke protocol… but by doing that, I may be in trouble.
“No,” Siobhan spoke up. “I hired the cameraman to make it look like it was being streamed live. There was no broadcast.”
“You set this up?” James’ realisation caused a moment of insult to his ego.
“You needed to learn what was important to you. It was the only way to break your obsession with death.”
“So, you risked your life to teach me a lesson?”
“The risk was subjective.”
“What does that mean?”
“It would have been a risk, if there was a bullet in the gun.”
“I don’t get it. What about the adjudicator?”
“An actor I hired to role play.”
“Fuck!” Russo bleated. “I killed an actor…!? Goddam it. You’re as big an asshole as him!”