"Why do you call it the game, and not by its proper name?" The woman who'd spoken was in a wheelchair. I'd seen her here a few times. She was dressed like a librarian from the fifties, glasses hanging around her neck on a beaded chain. Her name was Sally Berkman. She ran the most popular Dungeons & Dragons game in town. Original Advanced D&D.
"Phones and all other electronics in the box," I said, ignoring Sally's question. They loved it when I played it up, made everything feel more dangerous, more underground.
Everyone stepped forward and placed their phones, laptops, and whatever other electronics they had with them into a large cedar chest on the floor.
The chest was old. The Magician had brought it back from a trip he'd taken to Europe a few years ago. There was a graphic stamped onto the lid, some kind of ceremonial image of a hare being hunted. It was an intricately detailed and terrifying scene. There were a bunch of hunters and their dogs in the background bearing down on their prey in the foreground, but the thing that drew all your attention was the expression on the hare's face. There was something dark and knowing about the way it stared out from the bottom of the image—eyes wild and wide, mouth partly open. For some reason, the hare's expression always left me feeling more frightened for the hunters than the hunted. The chest looked like it had been manufactured sometime in the 1920s or 1930s. I always used it when I did these things; its strange patina brought an authentic old-timey-conspiracy atmosphere to the ceremony.
Once the last phone was inside, I kicked the lid shut with a dramatic bang and pulled out an ancient reel-to-reel tape recorder.
I had a digital copy of the recording, of course. In fact, I'd made the reel-to-reel recording I was about to play from an MP3. But there's just something romantic about analog tape. Like the cedar chest, the old tape recorder was for show, and these people had come here, to this old arcade in Seattle's University District, for a show.
They'd come from their parents' basements, their messy studio apartments, high-rise tower penthouses, and midcentury post-and-beam homes in the woods. They'd come to hear about the game. They'd come to hear The Prescott Competition Manifesto, or PCM.
Just as I was about to press play, I heard a voice from somewhere near the back of the room. "Is it true that you know Alan Scarpio?"
"Yeah, I know Scarpio. I mean, I met him once while I was playing the ninth iteration," I said, trying to find the person who'd asked the question in the crowd.
There weren't that many people here, maybe forty or fifty, but the arcade was small and the bodies were three or four deep in some places.
"Most people believe Scarpio won the sixth iteration of the game," I said.
"Yeah, we know that. Tell us something we don't know."
I still couldn't find the person speaking. It was a man's voice, but it was hard to tell exactly where it was coming from over the drone of the video games and pinball machines.
"Alan Scarpio is a gazillionaire playboy who hangs out with Johnny Depp," said a young man leaning against an old Donkey Kong Jr. cabinet. "He can't be a player."
"Maybe he played, but there's no evidence he won the game," said a woman in a Titanica T-shirt. "Californiac is the name listed in The Circle, not Alan Scarpio."
"So then how do you explain his overnight wealth?" Sally Berkman replied—a familiar challenge when it came to Scarpio. "He has to be Californiac. It just makes sense. He was born in San Francisco."
"Oh, well, if he was born in San Francisco, he must be the guy." Donkey Kong Man was clearly looking to stir up some s hit.
"San Francisco is in California," Sally Berkman replied. "Californiac."
"Wow, are you serious?" Donkey Kong Man said, shaking his head. "How about I just play what you've come all this way to hear?" I said.