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Chapter 11 - The Decisive Moment

'Jack,' Halle chided, 'you're so busy talking, you're forgetting to play the game. ...Enough. I'll settle things here now.'

Halle's words reignited the crowd.

The silent hall burst into excitement as she pushed forward every last chip in her pile. Perhaps she was just that confident, but Halle already had a significant lead on Jack. He couldn't possibly accept the bet...

...could he?

'To match my bet, since you seem a little short, how about you wager...your life?'

Halle reached under the table and unholstered her orbal gun, then set both it and a bullet on the table by her chips. 'If I win, you can kiss your life goodbye.'

The audience waited for his answer with bated breath; surely no one would be foolish enough to accept such a bet, they thought, but Jack's response was the opposite of what they were expecting...as well as precisely what they were hoping for:

'All right. I'll call your bet. Not like it matters--if you don't kill me, someone else will.'

His response sent a wave of shock through the gambling enthusiasts in the hall, with each and every one of them erupting into claps and unbridled cheers of approval.

Enrique, personally, could not have been more pleased. Won sat quietly. Whatever he thought of the situation was privy to him and him alone.

The stakes were now that much higher, but neither side opted to change out their cards. Rather, they chose to place their current hand face down.

'So, what happened to the man?' Halle asked, seemingly smug with victory. Or possibly she was just asking to hear Jack's final words.

'...The man never won against the one that he admired.'

Silence followed in the wake of his response, and in that one moment, Halle's unfailing mask shattered to pieces. Her true expression, shown at last and one so beyond her years, was a long-unquenched rage that even Enrique had never seen.

'What are you talking about?! You won, didn't you?! Here, in this very hall!' Tears flooded Halle's eyes and her voice buckled. 'And... And you made a fool of my papa!'

Perhaps caught in the moment, Jack was as abrupt and impassioned as she was. The texture in his voice thinned as he locked eyes with her and cried:

'Your father NEVER lost! Not to me. He was never made a fool, he never felt a second of misery or humiliation, he... His pride is as intact now as it was seven years ago!

'He CHOSE to lose in order to protect everything he held so dear to him!'

Enrique, visibly panicked upon Jack's confession, sent his thugs forward to silence Jack before he could say any more. Won would have no such interruptions, however, and with a snap of his fingers had his own men step forward to prevent any interference. For the first time since the match began, his curiosity was now visibly piqued.

The crowd was restless and clamoring for the results. Once Chief Minister Shamrock gave his sign, the dealer flipped both players' cards.

Jack...had four kings.

Halle...had four jacks.

It was well and truly Jack's victory.

The crowd immediately hushed but mouths were left agape, and the room was bathed in a silence that was uncomfortably palpable. All eyes were on the table and all ears were perked, awaiting some kind of reaction. Seconds passed; finally, Jack was the first to speak.

'...See?' Jack muttered. 'Jack can't beat King.'

第11回 決着の時

「ジャック、あなたおしゃべりばかりで勝負の方は全然ね。」

「……もういいわ。早めにケリを付けてあげる。」

静まり返っていた会場を再び興奮させたのはハルのその言葉だった。 よほど自信がある手なのか、彼女は勝負時とばかりにチップを全額投入した。 もっともチップの枚数でいえばすでにハルは大きく勝ち越している。 ジャックはこの賭けを受けることができない。

「足りないチップの分は……そうね。あなたの命で補うというのはどう?」

「私が勝ったら、あなたはこの場で自分の命にサヨナラするの。」ハルはスカートから導力銃を取り出し、弾丸とならべてそれを台の脇に置いた。

『さすがのジャックも、こんなバカな提案を飲むワケがない。』――大方の予想はジャックの言葉に裏切られる。

「………いいだろう。どのみち俺は、負ければ殺されるんだ。」

「その提案……飲ませてもらうぜ。」

ジャックの言葉に、観客達は沸き返った。 エンリケは愉快でたまらない。 ウォンはただ黙って成り行きを見つめた。

お互い、カードの交換は無し。 2人が場にカードを伏せる。

「それで、男はどうなったのかしら?」 最期の言葉を聞くつもりなのだろうか、勝ち誇ったハルがジャックに訊ねた。

「……男が『憧れ』に勝つことは永遠になかった。」

その瞬間――決して崩れることのなかったハルの仮面は粉々に砕け散った。 そこに現われた真実の彼女の表情はエンリケすら見たことのない怒りだった。

「――何を言うの!あなたは勝ったじゃない。」

「この大舞台で!」

「そして……そして、パパを笑い者にしたんでしょ!!」ハルの目に涙がにじむ。

「違う! お前の親父さんは負けてなんかいない。」

「悔しくて、惨めな思いなんてこれっぽっちもしちゃいないんだ。」

「お前の親父さんは……キングは、大切なものを守るために!負けることを自らで選んだ!」

「キングの誇りは守られている!!」

これを聞いて慌てたのはエンリケだ。 ジャックを黙らせようと部下を走らせる。 だが、ウォンがそれを許さなかった。 ウォンはエンリケの動きを制し、ジャックに今の言葉の説明を求めた。

観客達は動揺の色を浮かべていた。 シャムロック大老の合図を受け、黒服は2人のカードを同時に開く。

ジャックは……Kのフォアカード。 ハルは……Jのフォアカード。

――ジャックの大逆転勝利だ。 だが、観客に埋め尽くされた広間は相変わらず水を打ったように静かなままだった。 「…………な?」

「ジャックはキングに勝てないんだ。」 ジャックはカードを見てそう呟いた。