This would be our last game for a while. The weekend would be over after tonight, and classes would start. No one would have time for this: Gerig Hall's greatest pastime. Mafia.
"You probably shouldn't move around as much this round, Chandler," said Nathaniel, on the couch next to mine. In the last game, I had been eliminated because I had shifted in my seat when the Narrator had been speaking to the Mafia, Cop, and Nurse. Nathaniel had noticed it; he had been the star witness that had condemned me.
I laughed, and said, "No worries. I'll sit still. And even if I move some, Anna will never tell, will she?" I turned to look at her, my smile wide.
"'Course not," she said, and grinned back. "Freshmen have to stick together."
I glanced around the room as the cards were passed out. Everyone was so excited they almost vibrated. Our breathing came quick--short and hurried, matching the tempo of our pulse.
The card was in my hands. I tipped it over, carefully, and tried to keep from smiling.
"What are the cards again?" Rachel asked. It would be a fatal mistake, but it hardly mattered...
"Aces are Mafia," replied the Narrator. "The King is a Cop, and the Queen is the Nurse."
Ace of Diamonds. I was Mafia.
The cards were collected again--it had been tradition for a while to return them, ever since someone had defended themselves by revealing their card--and the Narrator called for silence. "Townspeople," she said, "go to sleep." And then..."Mafia, wake up."
I raised my head, careful not to shift much; if the couch twitched overtly, Anna would feel it. I trusted her, yes, but in this game trust was often rewarded by a noose.
Keeping patiently still, I shifted my eyes around the circle, seeking my fellow Mafia. Two of them I hardly knew: Abi and Val, simply faces in the crowd as of yet. They were wild cards to me, but they seemed competent. My eyes fell on the final face, and I grinned.
Julie. Smart and cunning and practiced at artful deception, Julie was probably one of the best players we had in the game. As a Mafia, she would be utterly lethal, and wouldn't raise suspicion--except that everyone already knew that. Julie had a widespread reputation of being the most deadly player in the dorm; more often than not, she met the noose before the fourth round. People feared her, and the kangaroo court was fast to dispose of what if feared. If we were lucky, Julie would survive long enough to cast suspicion off the rest of us; we couldn't hope for more.
Already, Julie had found our mark; her finger was leveled at Rachel. I could see the logic, mapped in Julie's eye; Rachel was our enemy, either the Cop or the Nurse. Asking to hear the significance of the cards was like dancing in front of a gun.
We four Mafia all nodded our agreement to Rachel's death, and closed our eyes. The Narrator continued the ritual, speaking first to the Cop and then the Nurse, and finally bid us all to wake.
"It's very late," she began. "So this story will be short." And she told us of Rachel's death.
The Townspeople bickered and bantered for a while, but in the end it amounted to nothing; it was too early in the game for us to suspect anyone. The Narrator pulled us back to sleep.
We Mafia raised our eyes like serpents from a river, and killed another Townie. Just as quickly, we were finished. The Narrator continued her ritual, and eventually we all opened our eyes. She told us of another death, and once again the Townies abstained from hanging a player. "We don't know enough," they said. Too often, they had thinned their own ranks faster than the Mafia had. It was too risky.
We slept again, and killed again, and woke again, and finally the Townies had had enough. They called for an execution, and voted; it wasn't long before Elena was nominated and hanged.
"It's not because we actually suspect you," said the Townies. "We just need to kill someone."
I glanced at Julie. Her survival in this round was absolutely uncanny; but then again....
Ah, I thought. Now I see.
Julie had set this up. She'd spent so many games lamenting how quick the others were to kill her that they didn't want to. She'd played on their guilt so much that they pitied her.
This is no place for pity.
We killed again, and then dawn was up. I glanced around, counting the number of players left. We were thinning them out, slowly, but the Cop and the Nurse had been oddly silent. None of our kills had been circumvented; nor had anyone stepped forward to accuse us, or even to protest that someone was innocent. It seemed so unusual...but...could it be? Had we already murdered them both without realizing it?
My thoughts were interrupted when I realized that Val was on trial. I didn't dare to step forward and proclaim her innocence; defending anyone in this game could get me murdered. I was certain at least that they weren't certain that she was one of us; this was just another senseless killing--to them, at least. They were killing randomly, which was the best possible situation for us; they were running scared. We were ghosts in the night.
Val was called guilty, but before we slept, we spoke.
"We need the cop to come out and help us," said Brian. Brian is much too clever for his own good; we had left him alive because Brian's death would put Julie under too much suspicion. What's more, he is charismatic; Townies would listen to him. Anything he said would be followed. "At this point, we need all the help we can get, because the Mafia is clearly not even dented yet."
I spoke up, because concurring with Brian is like hiding behind a massive, cast-iron shield. "I agree. Too many people are biting it for the Cop to keep hiding." But, in my mind, I was calculating, trying to be cunning. I could see the connections, the possibility...and I knew what I had to do.
Night fell, and we murdered Brian. He was too dangerous. And when the Narrator woke us once more, and told us of Brian's tragic death, I put my head in my hands and groaned.
"I'm so sorry, guys," I whispered. "I'm so sorry..." And I put my head further into my hands. They thought it was because I was angry, but I knew that it was to keep my eyes shaded; if they saw my eyes, they would know. "I'm so...alright, I just have to say this, right now, because once I say it, I'll probably be killed. But...I'm the Cop."
I paused, waiting for the message to sink in...and they accepted it. I pressed on, fast, knowing: I have to pull this off flawlessly. If I stop for just one second... "I'm sorry, Brian, I should have spoken earlier, but I wasn't sure that you weren't Mafia."
They all believed me; I could see it in their eyes. I realized, in the back of my mind, that on some level I had done the same thing Julie had: I had created a character and fallen into it, and it was a character they pitied, and pity is death to suspicion. I pushed, faster, because I had to make them believe what I said next, so that even if they killed me next round, they wouldn't doubt what I'd told them. Make them believe.
"I've already checked some of them," I continued, and leveled a finger. "Julie, Abi, Brian...they're all clean. Of course, I got to Brian too late..."
Julie's eyes widened for just a moment, and then she said "Yes! Thank you!" and raised her arms exultantly.
Do you see what I've done? Julie and Abi and I are untouchable. I am the Cop; and they both are innocent. And even if they catch me in the lie, they have accepted that Julie and Abi are clean; they won't doubt it, because they want to believe. And the Townies--the ones that really are innocent--are under suspicion.
The Townies took a moment to really understand the danger they were in, and then they erupted all at once. Four minutes of arguing and desperate pleas later, they'd settled on a scapegoat. Nathaniel was an honest man--I would know--and his defense was patently straightforward:
"I had the ten of clubs. I'm not Mafia."
Beside me, Anna leaned in and said softly, "Last time he said it was the ten of hearts..."
Thank you, Anna. "Tell them. Let them know."
And she told them, and Nathaniel's fate was sealed. He died at the hands of his Townies, and night fell, and the Mafia raised their serpent eyes.
From there it was so simple. In just a few minutes, we three Mafia had reduced the town to two people, and the game was over. I raised my hands and said, "Yes!"
Julie got to me first. "Chandler, you got some balls." And that was all, and she had moved on. The rest of the players came to me--they knew now, they knew what I'd done--and shook my hand. I had earned the respect--if not, perhaps, the love--of the Mafia Players. But love could wait. For now I was content to be a serpent in the grass, provided they respected my fangs.
But then I looked at Anna, my friend, the girl who had trusted me and sworn not to talk if she felt me move, who had condemned Nathaniel with a memory. Her mouth formed the words "You were Mafia?" and I nodded, just a little, and I remembered--too late--that a serpent may be respected, but it has precious few friends.