Jamie is gone. Grace looks to be a powerful ally. Nathan has voted twice for the novelist, and Casey has never been more vulnerable. Lance can almost taste victory, but so can the others. Nobody wants to fail after making it so far.
Lance could definitely have used an extended intermission, yet between every round, he barely had enough time to regain his focus. Crew members spent a mere couple of minutes resetting cameras and taking away voting boards. He looked back at the faces almost hidden in the darkness and excitedly waved, getting attention from not just his own parents, but surrounding people as well. They grinned and waved back, people he'd never met in his life, and it made him feel fuzzy inside before he turned back to the front of the set. It was a little sobering, seeing so many vacant podiums where Paul, Alyssa, Cian, Eliza and Jamie once stood, all eager to win a big prize tonight.
What if I won tonight?
The thought had popped up once or twice in the beginning, but now, with five other contestants sent down the walk of shame, it was becoming a possibility. It wasn't just a string of potatoes that had been voted off - strong competitors had taken the walk of shame. Paul and Alyssa hadn't been impressive and their early elimination wasn't a surprise, but Cian, Jamie and especially Eliza had all seemed viable winners. He turned to look to the left. Nathan was certainly no fool, but he'd made some bad answers. Queen, not bishop. Runway, not catwalk. Casey, who had not once engaged with the audience between rounds, wasn't endgame material. She should never have been allowed to survive the early votes. Then Lance looked to his right.
If it comes down to the two of us, could I ever beat her?
Grace was yet to make a single mistake. She was untouchable... except, perhaps that didn't matter. In the final round, the two remaining contestants answered five questions head to head, and whoever provided more correct answers went home with the bank - all of it. No prize for second place. Lance bit the inside of his lip as he remembered the shady way Jamie and Casey had been strategically voting - until the novelist decided the actor was more trouble than he was worth and cut him loose.
I could vote for Grace.
It wasn't uncommon for tactics to outweigh the demand for the highest pot at this stage of the game. After all, wasn't it worth losing a few thousand quid in the long run if it meant he could increase his chances of winning it? If Lance were to luck his way into the finals, this was the perfect opportunity to decide who he would best like to go up against. Those who tended to underperform in the game - he side-eyed Casey - would be easier to beat.
But she doesn't deserve to make it any further.
He glanced again to Grace, chewing the inside of his lip as he thought about the possibilities. Would he be able to sleep tonight if he voted off the stiffest competition? He grimaced and shook his head slightly as if to rid himself of the thought. That wasn't who he was.
I'm a proud sissy. I am not a coward.
After a verbal note to the contestants that filming would resume, the Hostess stepped back up to her stage and gripped her screen. Once the light turned on, she spoke, as she had the previous five times.
"Round six! With five alleged weakest links voted off, there are now only four of you left. Grace, Britain's youngest know-it-all, Lance, who is far too fashionable for general knowledge, Nathan, who thinks he never forgets and last but definitely not least, Casey, our VIP tonight who boasts a wealth of knowledge, or so she says." Lance beamed, happy that he hadn't been left out of her pre-round sniping this time. "We're taking another ten seconds off your time, so you will only have two minutes and ten seconds to reach your five thousand pound target. We'll start with the strongest player from the last round - that's you, Grace."
Ooh. It's about time she got credit for all her hard work... and the spotlight.
"Let's play The Weakest Link. Start the clock. Grace, in pop music, the name of American singer and songwriter Madonna's second studio album released in November of 1984 is 'Like a what?'"
Virgin! Duh. It's what made her Madonna.
But as obvious as that answer was to Lance, Grace didn't offer up that smile of omniscient knowledge. She faltered. He frowned. She knew about the island in Dr Shivamalago - or whatever it was - but she didn't know Madonna?? Grace shook her head after a few seconds and gave her best answer.
Oh, honey! Blasphemy!
The studio roared with laughter. Lance giggled but didn't let himself get carried away - he had to answer next. It was lovely to see, at long last, the person lurking behind the machine that had spat out correct answers. She was witty and funny. He supposed that if she were going to finally make an error and lose her invincibility, she might as well do it with style. Still, 'bimbo' was obviously wrong. Was 'virgin' that difficult to guess?
"Virgin!" The Hostess couldn't keep the grin off her face, and she took an extra second to compose herself. "Lance, in shapes, how many sides does a septagon have?"
Lance sighed in frustration. It was another of those questions that he'd probably know the answer to if he paid attention in school before he left to pursue modelling and dancing full-time. The others probably thought he was so stupid. Maybe his defining breakout would be 'Like a Bimbo.'
Septagon, like a stop sign? Maybe?
The dancer didn't dare to look at his opponents. Would he see irritation? Disgust? There were only four of them now, and he couldn't afford to make mistakes!
"Nathan, in the animal kingdom, what is the name for a collective of crows?"
"A... murder," Nathan ran his hand through his fiery orange hair. He wore his nerves on his sleeve.
"Correct. Casey, in astronomy, what 'T' is the name of Saturn's largest moon?"
Casey briefly let the semblance of a frown cross her pale face. "Titan?"
At least she bothered to think about it this time.
"Correct. Grace, in history, which country fought the Americans in the American war of independence?"
"England," the girl returned to form with that cute smile of hers.
"Correct. Lance," Bank. "In psychology--" You idiot! You didn't say it out loud! "--arachnophobia is the term--" Don't fuck this up! "--used to describe a fear of what?"
"Oh!" Lance, a severe arachnophobe, almost shuddered. "Spiders!"
"Correct. Nathan, which word can mean a racquet sport or a variety of pumpkin?"
Lance screwed up his nose.
What? Tennis? Tennis pumpkins? Is that a thing?
"Squash!" Nathan answered, pointing emphatically at the Hostess as he did so.
The dancer was glad he didn't have the opportunity to give his foolish answer to that question.
"Correct. Casey, in food, gouda is a popular cheese originating from which country?"
"The Netherlands," Casey didn't bat a charcoal eyelid.
"Correct. Grace, in the English Monarchy, who is next in line for the throne after the current Queen?"
Grace cocked her head slightly, lips moving as she worked out the answer. "Prince Charles?" She didn't sound sure.
"Bank!" The dancer blurted out, determined to actually verbalise it this time. By his count, Grace's question had been worth three thousand pounds, and his would have been four thousand. After getting railroaded by a simple shapes question, he didn't fancy gambling with stakes so high.
"In human anatomy, where would you find the tibia bone?"
"Correct. Nathan, in literature, the characters Queequeg, Ishmael and Captain Ahab feature in which classic novel?"
Nathan blew out his cheeks like a pufferfish and let his head hand backwards. "I don't know."
"Moby-Dick. Casey, in astronomy, what is the closest star in proximity to the Earth?"
"Alpha Centauri," the girl gave an answer that made Lance's rose-gold tinted eyes squint in confusion.
"The sun!" The Hostess corrected her harshly, and the girl audibly snorted. "Grace, in the French language, what is the translation of the phrase 'bonne nuit?'"
"Goodbye," Grace replied confidently, with that smile again.
"No, good night," the Hostess stressed, and Lance could see the fear spreading on the girl's face. She'd made two mistakes, both in the same crucial round.
Gracie, you in danger, girl.
"Lance, in the animal kingdom, wombats are native to which continent?"
"Australia," he bit his lip as he answered.
I think it's Australia.
"In the game of Tiddlywinks, what is the official name of the discs that are flipped into the pot?"
The colour had gone entirely from behind the plump boy's mass of freckles. "Coins?"
"Winks! Casey, which British actor most recently played the role of James Bond in the movies Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace?"
"Which 'E' is the neurological disea--" The Hostess abruptly stopped as the noise of defeat thundered through the studio, and the lights flickered. "Time is up, and I can't complete the question. In that round, you banked a grand total of three thousand, one hundred pounds. An improvement from previous rounds, but still well short of your possible total. So, who doesn't have what it takes to make the big bucks? Who are you tired of carrying? Who is holding you back? It's time to vote off the weakest link."
It was the hardest decision Lance had made all game long. In round one, he'd had to pick between Casey and Paul, both of whom answered none of their questions correctly. In round two, he had to vote to save his skin after making some mistakes, so he chose the weakest player - Alyssa. In round four, he had to choose between his friend, Eliza, and bitter rival, Jamie. It was Eliza who went home then, given the walk of shame by Casey, who had protected Jamie the way he'd protected her - only to send him home in the next round. The scene queen would never have gotten so far had the two of them not conspired together. She had pockets of knowledge, sure, but she was reckless and had no respect for the money she lost.
But he wasn't about to forget Nathan, the Irishman with a big heart and an inconsistent pattern for answering questions. There was no denying that he'd done a lot for the team's progress in his own right, answering high-value questions for Casey to casually lose money on. He'd been a contributor all night long, but like so many others, he was beginning to struggle against the high pressure and challenge of the game. Lance liked him well enough, though. He seemed strong enough to make money in rounds seven and eight, but not as potent as Grace.
I think I can beat him.
Speaking of Grace... what about her? Even if she gave two wrong answers this round, she was still easily the most potent threat among the other contestants. Reliable, intelligent and she had a game plan. She was dangerous. Yet, Lance knew that it was her powerhouse performance that had given him a leg up throughout the night. He'd even been the strongest link in round three, banking the money that Grace had consistently provided. Had he been elsewhere and not looked good riding Grace's coattails, the others might have dogpiled him and sent him home much earlier. They'd already tried it once, way back in round two. He looked at her, as she repeatedly tapped the side of her marker against the raised part of her podium.
I can't do it.
Since the moment they'd met, she'd been sweet to him - shy, but sociable. He even taught her how to do her first box step! Besides, he wasn't arrogant enough to ignore the fact that she'd carried him through the game. It was his turn to do right by her. It was unlikely he'd ever manage to beat her, but he gave credit where it was due, and she deserved to make it to the end.
It should be us in the finals together.
Nathan was a potential finalist, Lance supposed, but the dancer's generosity only reached so far. He had to go too, which was regrettable. He liked the Irishman well enough and had a deep respect for what he'd managed to do for the autistic community before he'd even left school. It would be nice to keep him as well, but unfortunately, that wasn't the game the four of them had signed up for. Someone had to go home. And if he were choosing between Nathan and Casey... well, that was hardly a choice. How much bigger would the overall bank be had Casey not been there to screw it up? Thousands. For the third time that night, he wrote her name down on his voting board with a thick black marker, and he went to the trouble of underlining his decision with bold, angry rows.
Jamie isn't here to save your neck this time.
"Alright, pens down. It's time to reveal who you think is the weakest link."
Grace's vote surprised Lance. "Nathan."
He turned his board over when the camera shifted to him and the red light blinked. "Casey."
"Grace," Nathan's voice was small, with a 'sorry' written under the girl's name.
"Gra-ace," Casey sang obnoxiously, boiling Lance's blood.
Lance wasn't the only person offended or shocked by the way the votes went. A loud buzzing rumbled through the people sitting behind him, and the Hostess even raised her thin, orange eyebrows when the cameras weren't looking. He looked over to Grace in despair. He'd thought Casey was the obvious choice, but now he remembered what Grace said when she explained her vote for Jamie in the last round - that Jamie was weak now, whereas Casey had improved from the beginning. He should have thought about that. The younger girl voted for who she believed was costing them the most money, not trying to send home those whose mistakes lay in the past. He cursed himself. He let his dislike for Casey get the better of his judgment.
"Casey. You've never heard of the sun?"
"I know the sun," the pink and blue-haired girl replied defensively. "I figured if you meant the sun, you would have called it the sun. I gave you the right answer. It's not my fault the question was misleading."
Lance didn't let his eyes roll where the cameras would see them, but he was very sick of Casey bloody Adams. He was now thinking perhaps he despised her more than stupid showoff Jamie. They were equally obnoxious, arrogant and disingenuous in different ways. Jamie's brand of wanker was loud, impulsive and domineering, whereas Casey's was cold, calculated and insidious. But Jamie received his comeuppance and took the walk of shame.
She will too.
"What's Grace done to offend you?" The Hostess rested a hand on her hip.
"She's starting to slip up. She got some easy questions wrong," the girl gave her answer as bluntly as ever.
"How convenient for you that those are the first questions she's got wrong all night," the Hostess reminded her coolly. "Did you think she was the weakest player?"
"In that round, yes."
"You'd be wrong!"
What a surprise. Casey's wrong again.
The woman turned to Nathan, who seemed to shrink before her. "Nathan! Do you know who the weakest player was?"
"Um, I do," the boy replied meekly, his hair growing increasingly unkempt and messy the longer the game went on. "It was me. I know that. But I can't vote for myself, so I voted for the next weakest."
"You never played Tiddlywinks?"
Nathan ran his hand through his red curls again. "I have, which, erm, makes this so much worse. Heh."
"I see. And you never read Moby-Dick?"
"Dear me. I would have thought that with all the money Mum saves with your haircuts, she might have bought you a book or two." When Nathan only laughed and offered nothing back to her, she moved on. "So why Grace?"
"It's like Casey said. After me, she was the weakest player," he explained, looking guilty. "I had to vote for somebody. I'm sorry."
"Grace! Not a French speaker?"
"I'm afraid not. I learned Spanish."
"That's a shame. Did you ever learn about Madonna?"
The dark-skinned girl chuckled. "I did, but I don't know her music. She's a little... risque for my family."
"Do you think she'll ever forgive Britain's Brightest Star for calling her a bimbo?"
Grace laughed again, lowering her face in shame. "Madonna, if you ever happen to see this, I'm so, so sorry."
"Well, you might well be Britain's youngest know-it-all, but Nathan who never forgets and important Casey who insists she knows a lot of things think they can do better! With two votes, you are the weakest link. Au revoir!"
For the first time, Lance didn't feel a sense of victory as he watched Grace Ojomo, obviously disappointed, place her board down, step off the small platform that made her look taller and begin the walk of shame, audience applauding her performance. Lance felt the effect of her absence immediately. She'd been his companion all game long, and without her comforting presence next to him, everything was worse. He was painfully aware of how many lights had gone out from now-empty podiums, how loud the music was, how big the set was. She'd been the reason he'd done so well, the one person he trusted to have his back, but now, thanks to his clumsy, thoughtless vote, he was going to have to do it all himself. Grace had done so well for so long, and the very moment she slipped up, the vultures began to circle. Could the same happen to him next round?