“Good evening, sir” – the concierge nods curtly, slipping aside the velvet rope – “If you’d like to take your place, the game is about to begin.”
Milton offers the briefest of smiles and takes his usual seat between the Dannex Oil twins, and the Saudi prince. The four exchange well-rehearsed greetings, hand-shakes, bows. The remaining eight men and women gathered around the wide ellipsoidal table do likewise, and a multitude of tongues begin to chatter at once in the smoky air beneath the dome.
Cackling jackdaws, Milton thinks, laden with ill-gotten spoils.
A flotilla of gigantic clouds sail overhead – like flotsam borne on a dark river. Every now and then the rippling stars are exposed. Candelabra mounted on the surrounding walls direct the shadows of the assembled inward, to the centre of the table – and the giant screen embedded there – where they form the spokes of a misshapen wheel. All at once, the screen comes to life, reversing the light-source, and now the overall impression is of a giant, pupil-less eye, their shadows its lashes.
Hush replaces chatter, the twelve sit straight and attentive. Milton lights a cigarette and waits. Tension is the objective. The hunt invariably contains more excitement than the kill.
The table’s ‘eye’ resolves into a digital simulacrum of the earth. As it begins to rotate a deep, distinguished male voice pipes from unseen speakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, today’s challenge is to be a little closer to home . . . North Carolina.”
Murmurs of surprise. Milton exchanges a glance with the twins. The eldest – Jack – sports a white Tux, while his younger sibling Denby is kitted in black. They take the branding very seriously, especially at events like this (Audience ratings for The Wolf have been fantastic the past three seasons – and Dannex stock correspondingly high).
“No need for concern,” the unseen host continues. “If the wind prevails west, the Appalachians will catch the brunt of any fallout.”
Exaggerated – ratings-conscious – sighs of relief.
“Right next door though,” Denby hisses.
Milton stubs out his cigarette. “Raises the stakes somewhat. Watch your aim, boys!