4PM – 5PM Part 1

The following takes place between 4pm and 5pm

The afternoon sun shone through the canopy of leaves above us, turning the ones nearest the middle of the street to a greenish gold.  The air was hot, thick and heavy with humidity, and even the small current of it leaking in through the barely-open sunroof was enough to make me sweat despite the air-conditioning.

I’m no stranger to heat and humidity.  I spent my childhood in New Orleans – birth to age five, Las Vegas – five to seven, Austin seven to ten, Los Angeles ten to twelve, Atlanta twelve to fifteen, Las Vegas fifteen to the present, and was currently looking at a final move back to The City Of Angels where I’d attend – probably – college. Continue reading

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After The End

After The End

I stood at the railing on top of the parking garage, looking down at the river, rippling gently in the early morning breeze.  The city was starting to wake up, the traffic picking up almost imperceptibly, lights flipping on in buildings, the horizon growing brighter and driving the blackness of night to dark blue, and then the dark blue away from the edges of the sky altogether.

I needed someone to talk to.

Back in the car, the loneliness I’d felt earlier had barreled back in on me like a freight train.  Alone in this little city, no one to connect to.

Dad was sleeping, and needed to, so I wasn’t going to call him.  So was Mom, and Brett, and Stephanie.  Dan was probably up, but wasn’t picking up his cellphone.  The big bad rockstar was too busy to talk to his little sister.

Tim…Tim hadn’t picked up any of the seven times I’d called his phone since leaving the stadium.  And that made me even more depressed, angry, and desperate.

I felt like hoisting both legs over the railing and stepping into air.  Like walking up University into the ghetto and mercilessly beating the first guy to give a pretty teenage girl any grief.

I felt presence at my side and so unconcerned was I with anything that I didn’t even acknowledge the person.  Eventually I looked over.  “Oh.  You again.”

“Me, again,” Keith said.

“Don’t you have anything better to do than follow me around?”

“No.”  He was very matter-of-fact about it.  Not sarcastic.  It was what it was.

“Dude, who are you?  WHAT are you?”

His face crinkled as the thought for a minute.  “I think I’m an angel.”

“An angel.” I repeated quietly.  I wasn’t even shocked.  Of course he was nuts.

He shrugged with his shoulders and eyebrows.

“Somehow, I don’t think there are angels named Keith who stalk teenage girls through waterfights.”

“You’d be surprised.  For some reason, this stupid game seems to attract the people I need to talk to the most.  I suppose if we’d both been born in the past, I’d be talking to you during your vision quest or during agoge or something.”

“Women didn’t go on agoge, you idiot.”

Keith shrugged again. “Whatever.”

“How do you know so much about me?  What do you have to tell me that’s so damn important you decided to infiltrate my life last night?”

Another shrug.

“You’re valuable.  Chosen to do great things.  A human weapon, if you will.  You can and do fight harder than most people can even imagine.  Unfortunately for you, some branches need to be trimmed before it can become a spear.

“You’re going to lose a LOT of people you love, and very soon.

“But it’s worth it for what you’re going to do.  “You have a destiny to fulfill.  You’re never going to know peace or sustained happiness ever again.  You’ll always end up doing good at the end, but there’s about a fifty-fifty chance of your soul actually tilting towards what’s right.  You’re worthless now, but you may just find your way back into the light.  Just something to keep in mind.”

He didn’t sound mocking or sarcastic or insane, or anything other than perfectly straightforward and serious.  So I punched him.  Elbows on the railing, I moved from a state of rest to drive my right elbow into his left cheek hard enough to numb my arm, using momentum to pivot me and add heft to the left hook I slammed into the same spot.  My hand exploded with pain, and I ignored it as I stepped back, putting my hands up defensively.

Keith reeled back from the hits, his face already going purple, blood pouring down his split cheek.  “What was that?” he asked mildly, touching a hand to the wound.

“You’re an angel, right?” I asked mockingly.  “Surely you’ve heard of the story of Jacob and the Angel of The Lord?”

“Never.”  Again that infuriatingly simple, honest voice.

I approached, hands up, ready to ward off any punches he might throw.  Within distance, I kicked low, aiming for his kneecap.  He angled past the kick with an astonishing economy of movement, closing the gap and slamming his right forearm into my collarbone while hooking my leg with his own, dumping me flat on my back.

Pain jolted through my entire body, and I shifted on my side, kicked out the back of Keith’s knee instead of the front, dropping him on the ground beside me.

I was so angry, so worn out, so sick and tired of all this bullshit I attacked him with a fury so venomous and evil that Satan himself might never have known its equal.  I swung an arm over his neck, yanking his head back and pulling myself close.  He struggled to get a hand under my arm, and I rolled us over until I was lying beneath him and could keep him from twisting out of my trap by wrapping my legs around his hips from behind.  He drove his left elbow into my ribs again and again and I responded by working my left hand behind his head, pushing it forward from behind, driving his neck further into the joint of my elbow, grabbing my left arm with my right hand to tighten the hold.  Ten seconds and out.

Keith ducked his head and bit my right arm.  Bit and chewed.  I hissed and hung on.  Seven seconds.  I had to let go.  Dammit.  He reached almost casually behind his head and angled my left arm out, then snapped his head in a reverse headbutt that split the bridge of my nose and broke the cartilage with a fountain of blood.  Keith flipped back over my head, aided somewhat by the quick bridge I gave him, and we both rolled over, pushing to our feet.  I got there second, and realizing what was going to happen, brought both forearms up to cage my face in.

The blows came blindingly fast, so quick the pain barely had a chance to register. Left right left right over and over into my ribs, a yank to my elbow followed by a left to my face.  I put my head down and charged, and Keith collapsed as my head and the concrete retaining wall sandwiched his diaphragm.

Even possessed by rage, so furious the edges of my vision were going black, I had enough presence of mind to alter my tactics.  I didn’t go for the KO.  I wanted to hurt Keith instead.  A slap to each ear, a knee to the groin, an uppercut that slammed his jaws together, a punch to his already spasming lungs…he swung a left at me, and I trapped it between my side and my arm and headbutted him in the face, then caught his hand as he pulled it free and wrenched his wrist and fingers back.

He shrieked, and I’d been so concentrated on lefts he was throwing, I’d forgotten about the rights.  His cross caught me in the face, tipping me backwards from the kneeling position I’d had over his slouched form.  The toe of his boot slammed into my side, flipping me over with a crack from my midsection.

I sucked in a breath over cut and smashed lips, felt blood bubbling in my throat as I elbow-crawled away, felt it streaming down my cheeks and chin and neck from my now-flabby nose and a cut in my hairline I didn’t remember getting.  My entire face felt broken, and one of my eyes was swelling shut, constricting my view.  I hurt – simultaneously dull and intense – all over, and I was so tired.  I didn’t think I could stand on my own, but if got to a car, I could drag myself up by a tire or a door handle or something.  A look over my shoulder showed Keith bent double, hands on his knees, taking deep breaths.  Aside from bloody, he didn’t look any worse for wear.

I kept crawling even as I heard footsteps above me.  Get to a car.  Get to a car.  Get to a damn car.  Keep crawling, Samantha.  One arm in front of the other.

I felt hands grip the back of my shirt, and Keith hauled me up, more or less to my feet.  I swung at him – flailed really – and managed to land a limp blow to his chest before he heaved me across the ramp into one of the concrete tunnel walls.  I slammed into it side-on, all breath leaving me, pain spiking in my left arm, and dropped to the ground in a heap, rolling slightly down the incline further into the parking garage.

I sagged against the chainlink fencing used to separate the rows of cars from each other.  I couldn’t win.  I was too tired, too hurt.  Everything I was was pain.  Every breath felt like a stab.  This would go on for as long as Keith wanted.  I was a toy.  I had no choice in the matter.

Screw that.

My hand skittered over the wire, my fingers hooking through it loosely, and I pulled myself up with a groan.  I could see Keith approaching through the half an eye that was open.  One was blinded with blood, the other swollen half closed.  I had to look a wreck.

Keith batted aside my weak punch, and tipped me on the ground with the same forearm bar he’d used earlier, then knelt by my side.  I looked up at his blank, empty eyes and willed my hand up, clawing at them.  The bastard smiled and grabbed one wrist as I punched at him, then the other.  He slammed me back against the fence hard enough to shake its entire length, and just stared into my eyes.

“You’re dead inside.  You’re a perfect artificial human, just like you’re an artificial girl.  You don’t – can’t – care if you lose.  Not anymore.  That’s why you fight so hard.  Not even Brian Tanner fought as hard as you did.  That’s why the universe chose you.  That’s why you’ll make a difference.”

Keith let me drop as he rose and then walked away, back up onto the roof, where he disappeared around a corner.

I think I blacked out and then woke up.  Maybe I did that several times, I wasn’t sure.  It was much, much later by the time I could stand again.  I pulled my aching body up alongside the chain link, and hobbled towards the roof, my aching left arm held tight to my aching ribs.  My right leg felt dead.  I’d never given the stab-wound a chance to close, and my pants were saturated with blood from mid thigh to hem.

Between Keith and I, there’d been a lot of damage inflicted on me today.

Most of it couldn’t be seen.

The Mazda felt good to lean against, and after a few minutes I slipped inside.  I felt like I should cry.  I couldn’t though, and would’ve held it back even if I could’ve.  I was dead inside.  Just like Keith said.  Broken, burned-out, empty.


Empty as Keith’s eyes.

I fell asleep, bleeding on the driver’s seat.

When I woke up again, the sun was much higher in the sky.  With a groan, I straightened in my seat – I’d need to have the blood professionally cleaned off the leather and upholstry– and turned the key in the ignition.  I kept my left arm curled in tight to my body and handled the wheel with my right hand.  There was pain from my left shoulder down to a numb tingle in my hand.  One more thing to have checked out.

Around and around the empty structure the car crawled, and my head lolled with exhaustion several times before I hit the ground level.  All the concrete walls looked the same.

There was a cop in the tollbooth, and his eyes got wide as trash-can lids when he saw me.  “Are you ok, miss?” he asked.

I coughed and chuckled.  “Just peachy.  Guy who did this ran off immediately after.  Probably took one of those back sets of stairs.”
He looked at me even more concerned.  “Are you sure you’re ok?  Did you hit your head?”

I nodded and the throbbing made me wish I hadn’t.  A lot.  “Yeah, I got hit in the head.  A bunch of times.  Why?”

“’cause you got here right after my shift started, and nobody’s gone up since.  And all the stairwells are locked too.”

Panic and irritation welled up inside me.  “Well do you remember me looking like hell when I drove in?  And surely you have video cameras around this joint…”

He made a waving gesture, probably meant to mollify me.  “Miss, you got your ticket out of a machine, I only see you when you come back down.”

“And the video footage?”

He signed.  “Let me see if I can pull that up.”

The monitor was on a swivel arm – thankfully long – and the cop rotated it until I could see it without doing too much stretching.  Cameras from every door on every level occupied grid squares on the screen.  He dragged the slider around the progress bar until he found my car driving in.  Dragging it forward got two distant views of me standing at the railing, staring off into space, the pictures small and grainy in the upper right of the screen.

I pointed.  “There, he walks up next to me any second.”

The video played interminably, and then the four roof screens went black.  A few seconds later, the cameras for the level below it went out too.  The cop hit the “pause” button a few times.  “Weird.  We only get power outages like that when one of the lightning rods around takes a hit or the generator surges.”  He dragged the slider forward and the cameras came back on as my video self limped out of the tunnel.

“I hate to say it ma’am, but it looks like there was an equipment malfunction.  Tell’ya what, I’ll check the printout for the electronic locks, see if anyone tried to use the doors.”

I slouched in my seat as he consulted a different screen.  I ran my good hand through my hair, found it crusty with blood.  Of course.  I needed a shower and I’d just taken one.

I wondered if Keith would walk in on me again as I got dressed.

If he did, it would be the last mistake he made.  My punches might not have an effect, but he’d have to be superhuman to shrug off the bite of a thousand dollar knife…

“Ma’am, you still awake?”

I shook myself and looked blearily at the tollbooth through my one open eye.  “I’m here.”

“I said the doors all stayed locked.  Nobody tried to open them.”

I groaned.  “So how did he get down?”

“You were the only one up there,” the cop insisted.  “No one else entered or left the building.”

“I was NOT the only one up there,” I said with ferocity.  “How did he leave?”

He shrugged.  “I dunno.  Maybe he flew.  Maybe he miracled his butt down to the street, or disappeared into thin air.  Look, I can call you an ambulance, or get another officer over here to take a report, but – “

I lost the rest of his words in the squeal of my tires.  He looked outraged in my rearview mirror, and I didn’t care.  I was not in any mood to deal with anything that wasn’t going my way.  I was hurt badly, tired, hungry, and my guilt and fear and apprehension for Tim was burning at my mind like a wildfire.

I crossed the blazing hot Hotel Sierra parking lot – now lit gold by the descending sun – and limped across the lobby to desk clerk.  She looked shocked to see me.  I’d first met her yesterday afternoon as she misspelled the word “dumb” and told me to stay out of uSoak.  My appearance had changed somewhat in the interim.

“I’d like to change rooms please.”

“Uh….umm…was there a – “

I cut her off.  “I didn’t bleed in the room, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“Do you need help?  A doctor maybe?  Police?”

“I need a new room.”

Her keyboard beeped a few times and she fixed a false smile on her face.  “We’ll be sending someone to move your bags to the new room shortly.  The changes should already have propagated to your keycard, so you can use the same one to get in.  Anything else?”

I gave her the thumbs up.  “Groovy.  Thanks.”

I think I drew a glance from everyone in the atrium as I made my way over the bistro.  My stumble that nearly tipped over a table didn’t help with being inconspicuous.  I leaned on the bar and dug my wallet out of my satchel, flipped through the cards one-handed, and flipped dad’s credit card and my fake license onto the counter.  Like the desk clerk, the waitress looked at me in shock.  Cute little blond girl, looked barely old enough to be serving alcohol here.

Looked kinda like Allison.

I narrowed my eyes at her.  Allison had looked like a pale version of myself.  Perfect, but pale.  This young woman did not look perfect.  I shook my head.  Seeing things.  “Still serving lunch?”

“For another five minutes.”

“Yippee skippee.”  I glanced over the lunch menu.  “Club sandwich and a double jack and coke.”

“I’ll have to see your driver’s license.”  She said it hesitantly, like I might hold the place up if she asked.

Apparently they don’t see too many assault-with-a-deadly-angel victims in here.  I snorted at the stupidity of my own thoughts.  Shook my head.  Ow.  I’d have to stop doing that.  “Right there on the counter.”

She scrutinized it and handed it back, then ran the credit card.  “If you want to take a seat, those will be out shortly.”

I took a seat in the atrium and tried to relax in the hard wire chair.  Not easy to do.  I had a feeling Keith was out of my life for the time being, but I had another feeling screaming that he’d step out from behind the palm tree I was sitting next to, berate me about destiny, and then berate me with a table.

The fountain hissed and burbled in the background, and in the gently shaded sunlight, I could feel myself growing sleepy.  Good, that was good.  I might just fall asleep in the shower.

The sandwich and drink arrived shortly, and I stared at my food.  Too tired to eat, even to drink the liquid painkiller.  I’d take them up to the room try and get them down before passing out under the spray.

My phone rang.

I ignored it, lost in my own world.

It rang again, the annoying MIDI tone cutting through the peaceful atrium atmosphere.  And again.  And again.

A few tables ahead, a burly older guy sitting across from his wife leaned out to glare at me.  I just stared back, and a slightly scared expression crossed his face before he returned to his meal.

Should probably get that.

I leaned down painfully, scooped my phone out of my satchel where it sat by my chair.

The digital clock on the front clicked to five as I watched.  Twenty four hours ago…

The afternoon sun shone through the canopy of palm leaves above, turning the ones nearest the middle of the atrium to a greenish gold.  I angled the phone out of the sunlight and flipped it open.  The display said “Tim.”

My eyes went hot and heart dropped to the floor and bounced towards the ceiling, stopping only for the back of my throat.  How…

Keith had said Tim wouldn’t take any more of my calls.  He hadn’t said anything about not calling ME.

I knew everything would change.  I knew I couldn’t stay feeling as perfectly happy as I did in that moment, but I reveled in the feeling anyway.  Maybe not the next, but right at this second, the world was good.  Maybe not tomorrow, but today, today I had hope.  That little computer display might spell out damnation on the line, but all I could think about was salvation.

I put the phone to my ear and pressed the “send” button.


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4AM – 5AM Part 2

I glanced around the hall.  White walls, blond wood baseboards and doors, bright fluorescents overhead, thin green carpeting that looked “all weather” and “expensive” all at once.  Bob was far ahead of me, and after picking up my battered pistol, I jogged to catch up.  Doors lined both sides of the hall, and occasionally one would have a window through which I would catch a glimpse of a very typical looking office.  Way up here, and they still worked in cramped little boxes.

At the end of the hall was a set of double glass doors emblazoned with the Packers logo.  On the other side were theater-like rows of chairs.  There was a shuttered bar at the back and a massive curved window at the front.  Pushing through the doors, I walked down to the floor-to-ceiling glass and looked down.  A long, long way down, the manicured field was lit up bright as day.  In a few months, I’d probably have to pay a whole year’s college tuition just to sit one game up here.

The things people will spend money on.


There were two blue barrels along the back wall by the bar, and I decided to refill.  “So, how close are we?” I asked Bob.

He shrugged.  “If you’re worried about time, don’t.  We run until it’s done, which is probably around five.  So about another twenty minutes or so.  The actual goal we’re going for is a lockbox on the roof that contains the prize check.  But I’d worry less about time and more about the sixty plus people hunting for you.  None of them are quite the caliber of Ms. Frank, but you really don’t want to be diving out of any windows up here.”

I sneered at him, set the pistol on the bar counter, and dunked the Vanquisher.  The cool water felt damn good on my scratched up arms.

Which is why I was bent over a bucket with my arms up to my triceps in water when someone came rushing in through the opposite doors.

I hate it when that happens.

I dropped down to crouch behind the bucket as water hissed overhead, losing hold of the Vanquisher in the process.

Gunless, under fire, and I couldn’t even draw my backup which was…I rose enough to get my eyes over the top of counter and looked around.  Too far away.

The shooter was still at the far end of the room, though down a step and working his way towards me through the aisle of chairs, coming closer.  I rose, snatched the pistol off the bar as water flew towards me again, and ducked down behind the barrel, my back to the wall.  I looked around for inspiration.  None, and Bob was standing far away, trying to stay out of the fight and dry.  Water impacted the wall over my head, showering me like rain.

Could I accumulate splash damage?

I leaned out from behind the barrel and returned fire, managing to wing one close to his head before we both dropped down again to our respective cover.  Me behind the barrel, him below and behind the chairs about six feet in front of the barrel.  Water sliced past my elbow and I risked a glance out to see he’d stuck his soaker between two of the seats.  I crunched myself further into the small space between the barrel and the wall.

The idea came to me quickly, and I grinned.

Talk about thinking outside the box.

I’d been sitting, and a few wiggles got me crouched behind the barrel, feet flat on the floor.  I tucked the Triple Shot in my satchel, put my hands on the rim of the barrel and pushed.

Full of water, the barrel was massively heavy.  I gritted my teeth and HEAVED, thought about all the hours lifting weights, sparring, and climbing with Tim.  C’mon you son of a bitch, GO OVER!

Bob shouted “Hey wait!  Sto – “ about the time that my plan came to fruition.  The barrel went over with a room-shaking thud and a splash, a wave of water gushing out and flooding the chairs in front of it.  I fell back against the wall and pulled the pistol from my bag with shaky hands, aimed it at where I thought my assailant was.  “You can come out now.”

He rose, his clothes hanging dark and soggy on his frame.  “I…” he seemed to be at a loss for words.  I motioned towards the doors with the pistol, and he headed for them, seemingly shellshocked.

I rose, grabbed the spilled Vanquisher off the floor and filled it at the remaining barrel, then looked over at Bob.  “Uh, c’mon?”

He had his head in his hands.  “Oh my God,” he said, sort of a moan.  The hands came away from his face and he looked furious.  “Do you have any idea what you just did!”

I looked left, then right, confused.  “Tipped over a barrel?”

“You just ruined this box!  Do you know how much this is going to cost me?!”

I looked around at the ceiling.  None of the little black bowls were hanging from it.  “Wasn’t me.”

He covered his face with his hands again.  “Oh my God…”

The boxseats were pretty much carbon copies all the way around the bowl.  A couple dozen yards of cramped hallway, boxseats, rinse and repeat.  I was a little surprised we didn’t encounter more resistance, but it was a big stadium, and they were probably weeding themselves out by fighting amongst themselves.

I wasn’t going to complain.

Not until the firefight two boxseats further down the hall.

I shouldered through the door and immediately ducked down by a seat to escape the water that lanced towards me.  Bob was not quite as quick on the reflexes, and took three large streams in the torso before retreating behind the glass doors.  “There he is!” someone shouted.

I leaned out from behind the chair and snapped a stream off the window, adjusted my aim and soaked out someone ducked down in the bottom row.  They’d been shooting away from me, but they were an easy “kill.”  The enemy of my enemy is still my enemy.  Movement caught my eye.  Third row, advancing.  Leaned the other way.  Back row, also advancing.

They were the closest threat and I stood, rushing forward and left – towards the bar – shooting with every step.  They turned towards my strafe just a little too slow, and I striped them across the chest, then shifted my aim towards the chairs.  I hipchecked the bar painfully and bounced off, backpedaling for the far doors at an angle, pulsing water at the third row.  At the end of the aisle I stopped and looked for my opponent.  Still in the third row, crouched down, waiting.

I walked down to the third row and began stalking forward, keeping ready and loose, telegraphing the next moves in my head.

“I will shoot you,” he said.  Looked like he was in his middle twenties.  In reasonable shape.  Athletic shorts and a t-shirt.  Probably a college student.  Probably played sports.

Probably didn’t think outside the box.

I didn’t say anything, just kept advancing.

“I WILL shoot you,” he repeated.  I think he knew he was outclassed, because he sounded like he was working himself up to it.

I had the Vanquisher shouldered the whole time, and I made it well inside his range and mine before he made his move, bringing the soaker up from his side to point at me.  I held down the trigger as I vaulted left over the seat back, drawing a line from his shoulder to his hip as I dove out of the way of his shot.

The armrests were NOT soft when you land on them, and I rolled off to land on the floor with a thud.  Oww….

He approached, a concerned look on his face.  “You ok?”

I dragged myself to my feet.  “I’m good.”

I limped to the end of the aisle as he and Bob passed each other at the doorway.  The door closest to me opened and someone charged in, leading with a watergun of their own.  Standing next to the door, it was a simple matter to shoot them in the side.  They skidded to a stop and glared at me.  I shrugged, and then leaned against the wall, watching them through hooded eyes.  Damn I was tired.  And sore…

The cut across my stomach burned as sweat slid over it, and my leg ached with every step.  And that was in addition to every other scrape, scratch, bruise, strain, and general soreness I’d collected through twelve hours of running and gunning all over Green Bay Wisconsin.  I was looking forward to this being over, but I was looking forward to the twenty grand way, way too much to quit.

Bob approached.  “Gonna be alright?”

I pushed off the wall.  “Never better.  Let’s get this over with.”

My few “kills” between there and the stairs were routine, nothing out of the ordinary.  Boring even.

I soaked a guy stepping out of an elevator, sprayed down a couple making out in front of the window over an endzone – why pay all this money and get this far to get caught unaware, seriously, does football mean THAT much to you? – and shot a woman in the back as she was walking down the hall.


Bob unlocked a door on the left side of the corridor and looked back at me.  “If you didn’t want to jump out any windows back there, you really don’t up here.”

The staircase wrapped around and around and around the inside of the shaft, and we were both breathing pretty hard by the time we reached the door at the top.  Another key, and Bob pushed the door open.  Lukewarm wind curled around us, whipping at my hair and drying the sweat on my bare arms as I stepped out onto the catwalk.

About four feet wide, corrugated metal, waist high rails on all sides, it was attached to the back side of the stadium.  The parking lot lights twinkled dizzyingly far below.  A few hundred feet maybe, I didn’t know.  Metal stairs climbed the back side of the boxseats extension, leading onto the roof a few dozen feet up.

From below, I could hear the sounds of feet hammering the stairs we’d just climbed.

“Let’s hurry.”

I followed Bob as he jogged up the steps, seemingly aloof to the drop off just beyond the railing inches to the right.  While I’d been perfectly happy to risk my life earlier in the day – driving at insane speeds, swimming a klick into the lake in the dark, jumping through third-story windows and off bridges – but the void so close by made my stomach queasy.

The roof of the boxseats was metal, maybe fifty feet wide, with a lit path fenced in by those same waist-high railings leading down the center.  The door below slammed open, and I picked up the pace to a full out sprint, pushing past Bob.

I had a feeling I’d be running right to the very end.

I was right.

The fence widened into a clearing to encompass a massive HVAC unit a few feet before the roof ended, and I stood next to the machinery, breathing hard.

Nowhere left to run.

I pumped the Vanquisher to ensure full pressure, checked the Triple Shot.  Along the path, figures advanced towards me.

Taking their time.

Where did I have to go?

There were no words, no banter or threats, no taunts or jeers as I had expected.  This close to the end, I didn’t want to draw out the coming inevitability, but I thought someone else would.

I was wrong.

The action started suddenly, with the man in the lead charging forward, water leaping at me.  I sidestepped to the side of the fence, holding down my own trigger, and though I didn’t hit him the way I was aiming, he ran into my shot.  My hand worked the pump automatically, and I vaulted the railing, stepping out onto the roof unprotected.  The edge was a few yards away to my right – I could fall and roll and not go over – but my stomach still lurched like I was walking on a wire.

I ran at the group clustered a few yards away, shooting all the while.  I ducked, juked, sidestepped, pumping as I strafed by, and not one of the streams caught me.  Past them – halfway between the group and the distant Bob, I dropped to a crouch, evaluating.

They were out.  Done.

I’d been expecting a big boss battle somehow, but I’d just gotten average people, just liked I’d gone up against all throughout the day.  I rose shakily and walked back along the railing, feeling exuberant and exhausted.

It was over.

I’d won.

The lead guy coming back extended a hand over the railing.  “Good game.”

I shook and chuckled.  “Yeah.  Glad its over though.”

A voice from the back of the group was all the warning I got.  “Not quite.”

The hand around mine gripped tightly as water sliced past his elbow.  I hadn’t gotten EVERYONE.  I sidestepped, dragging him along, keeping his body between me and the shooter like a human shield while I fumbled around my pack for the grip of the pistol in my satchel.

The seconds dragged on like years, and I rejected probably a dozen options and choices within each one, my brain skipping clinically and efficiently from possibility to possibility.

I let myself fall, collapsing backwards, dragging his arm down and banging the funny bone off the railing.  Holding my full weight, that had to hurt.  A LOT.

He howled and let go, and I rolled left, painfully onto the Vanquisher, but also freeing my satchel.  I drew the Triple Shot in less than a second and fired past my knee at the new guy who’d pushed to the railing.

I expended all the pressure pouring water into his chest.

I rocked to my feet, and tucked the pistol back in the bag and transitioning to the Vanquisher.

No one else shot at me.

No one else seemed in a talkative mood after their diversionary tactic failed.  They went one way, I went the other.  At the clearing, I sat down, back to the railing, and just relaxed.  It felt good to just sag out and let something else support me.

Bob approached.  “Would you please get back behind the railing?  Knowing you, you’ll fall and cost me even more.”

“Thanks for the consideration,” I muttered and clambered back over.

He reached into one of the crevices of the HVAC unit and withdrew a small safe, which he unlocked.  Inside was a check.

My check.

My heart started beating faster, and I leaned over his shoulder to watch him fill it out.  “Samantha Calloway, correct?”

“Yup.”  My voice sounded excited.

“And it’s now the twenty seventh?”

“I think so.”

He signed the check with a flourish, shut the box, and turned to hand it to me.  “Congratulations.  You’re the first winner of a uSoak tournament.  Good job.”

I took the check with shaking hands.  “Thanks.  Much.  A lot.  This is…wow.”

He smiled.  “Don’t spend it all in one place.”

“I won’t.  Thanks.  Again, really, thanks.”

Bob shook my hand.  “Let’s get going.  I have to clean up a couple of your messes.”

I had to laugh at that.

The End

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4AM – 5AM Part 1

The following takes place between 4am and 5am

We charged across the pavement, down the short street between the two stadiums and the training center.  The massive hulk of Lambeau Field lit up the sky a few hundred yards ahead.  It seemed like it was mocking me.

We had just reached the stop lights at the intersection when I heard the faint sounds of doors swinging open from the Resch Center, pounding feet, and fighting going on behind us.  I slow to risk a look backwards, just in time to see a crowd maybe fifty strong run out onto the sidewalk, heading for us.

Kinda reminded me of zombies.

A car screeched behind us, and I put on a burst of speed as I crossed the intersection, more than a little apprehensive of feeling a bumper against my back.  Up onto the opposite curb, and I hurtled the short guardrail that ringed the parking lot, Bob a moment behind me.

The vehicle I’d heard screeching – a Suburban – roared up the driveway into the lot at a ridiculous rate of speed, tearing past us and then arcing across our path.  From the two open passenger side windows, people shot at us, probably expending entire pressure chambers, what with the seemingly endless waves of water that poured out of the SUV.  They were just outside the range of their soakers though, and those endless waves simply dropped to the concrete a few feet away, and then the SUV was past, speeding towards the over-sized press tents far to the right.

The lack of reach hadn’t stopped me from taking a few shots of my own though.  As soon as they’d opened fire, so had I.  I wasn’t entirely sure they weren’t planning on running at least me down, and even if all I had was a water gun, I wasn’t going out without shooting.

We kept running.  I kept an eye on the SUV, tracking its movement around the parking lot.  They headed up to and disappeared around the right hand corner of the building, out of sight behind a tower.

Probably meet up with them later.

Up close, the stadium was impressive.  The lower half was brick, but the upper half and exposed skeleton were dark green, and mixed with the brown of the stone, it looked very retro.  Very big, too.  It towered over us, even the gates we were approaching were four or five times as tall as I was.

Both of us were breathing hard as we climbed the steps up to the gates, exhausted from the run.  My leg – hell, my whole BODY – ached, and my head was pounding like an African war drum.  I glanced down to see a wet patch forming on my right thigh.  I wasn’t giving this a chance to heal.  Or even close.

“Where to, chief?” I asked Bob.

He straightened from bent-double, and took a deep breath.  “Through those doors.”

“Yo!  Bob!”  A voice behind and below, and since I didn’t have the Vanquisher shouldered, I pulled the Triple Shot, one-handing it towards the source.  In the bushes, below and to the side of the steps.  I pulled the trigger, water hissing away.  A wide shot, and I corrected, slamming a stream into his chest.  Probably someone from the SUV.  A glance over my shoulder showed a couple dozen people sprinting through the parking lot, all spread out to avoid each other.  Son of a bitch, it WAS like a zombie horde.

I yanked the doors open and we ran in, into a massive atrium.  Built onto the side of the stadium, there were three or four levels shops built into both the outside wall and the outside of the bowl.  These were connected by green metal catwalks, all merging at a central platform hub, supported by green metal spans and girders and I-beams, a glass-walled elevator lost in that tangle somewhere.  Ahead, dead escalators rose towards the first level.

I could see people running across the atrium towards us from the enormous glass wall in front.  Two in front, two trailing behind, obviously slower.“Where to?”

Bob nodded at the escalators.  “Up there.”  I pushed him towards the escalators and moved forward, Vanquisher up, aiming for the two in front.  I shot one at the edge of my range, and moved off the “X” as water reached for me, interrupting the shot I was setting up on the other guy.  A jerk of the head showed me the back two had taken cover at a shopfront and were hanging back.  My target was also hanging back, dropping into my range occasionally to take a few quick shots and then retreat.

The worst kind of stand-off.

I hated to, but I retreated, backing up for the escalators.  With the people rushing in from the parking lot, I didn’t have time to screw around with a duel.

I reached the first step, and the shooter rushed me, holding down the trigger, sweeping left and right to make sure he hit me.  He started from a far edge of his sweep, and it was simple to duck down below the metal side of the escalator, then rise when the beam passed and drill a stream of my own into his chest.

The run to the first level was brutal, our feet clanging up, up, up.  At the platform, and we turned left, took another escalator up.  Halfway up that one, I started hearing feet on the one below.  I leaned over and took a shot down, stitching the lower escalator with splashes of water.  Then we were moving again.  Next platform, right turn and up another escalator.  Three stories…in very little time.  I took a moment to lean against the railing at the top, even though the clanging below told me that my opponents weren’t stopping.

Breathe.  Just breathe.

Up another level, and Bob motioned me to stop. “That way.”  He was pointing to the left, down the catwalk that ran around the bowl.  I sucked air in to calm the heaving of my lungs, and then we took off again.  The elevator dinged behind us, and I whirled, setting myself in a shooting stance.

“Have you ever thought,” Bob asked “that it might make more sense for your enemies to work together and then eliminate each other than to just all ‘die’ in a big free-for-all?”

So that was why there were five people in the elevator.  Four men, one woman.

I dropped my stance to one knee, placing me below the level of the railing.  They came around the corner onto the catwalk, and I placed a liquid comet right into the navel of the man in the lead.  That drove them back a little, and I rose, advancing slowly, shooting with deadly deliberateness to drive them back farther.  Then I turned and ran again.

Around the curve of the bowl, almost to the doors out of the atrium, and I flattened my back to the wall, slinging the Vanquisher with my left hand and drawing the Triple Shot in a textbook transition.  I could hear their feet thumping on the thin carpeting, getting closer.  I breathed deep, preparing for what was coming, sliding the pump quietly to bring the gun to maximum pressure.

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

I stepped away from the wall and two steps forward and pushed the large water gun held by the guy in the front away with my palm.  I pulled the Triple Shot back to my side and shot him twice in the stomach and brought my left hand from his gun to his chest and pushed him backwards.  “Hey!” he exclaimed as he backpedaled to stay upright, and I slammed him into the crowd of his friends behind him, extending my pistol over his shoulder and shooting both a man and a woman in the face.  Mist exploded behind him, and I guessed – in a mind-racingly clinical sort of way – that his friends had gotten trigger happy and shot him in the back.  A sidestep to the right put the last person in a free angle, and I fired without aiming.  This was nearly contact distance, while it was possible to miss, it wasn’t likely that I would.

I stepped back, the pistol up and held lightly in their direction, breathing hard from the rush and the apprehension.

“No frickin’ fair!” Someone said from the back as he elbowed his way to the front.  “You can’t just assault people…”

I got out of there.  He was about five seconds away from shaking a finger in my face, and if that had’ve happened, I would’ve broken it.  I was fast coming to the realization that I didn’t want to be messed with tonight.

“Bought us some time,” I told Bob when I caught up back up with him.

“Not as much as you think.”  He pulled that damned walkie from his pocket and fiddled the buttons on the front.  “We’re leaving the atrium, heading for the boxseats” he said into it.  His voice boomed over the loudspeakers.

For just a moment I was tempted to take the little plastic box and drop it the four stories to smash on the floor below.  I did want to win this thing though, and that would be tempting fate.

The doors out of the atrium were thick and heavy and the air on the other side was surprisingly warm and humid.  I stopped and looked around.  Oh.  Outside.  Open-air balconies ran around the outside of the stadium, doorways to the bowl set into the wall on the left every few dozen yards.  To the right, I had a great view of the road that split Ashwaubenon and Green Bay, the businesses that thrived on football traffic.  I was only up four stories, and everything seemed so small…

“Ok, we’re heading for the boxseats, how do we get there?”

Bob pointed ahead.  “There’s an elevator just above the main gate, a few hundred feet ahead.”

The door slammed open behind us, and I turned, Vanquisher up, pulling the trigger as I backpedaled, rolling flat-footed like I’d been taught.  Pull, pull, pull.  I hit someone, because they slipped back inside the door without even shooting at us.

We sprinted along the balcony, past all the doorways leading onto the field.  How many people would pay hundreds of dollars for this in just a few weeks?

There was an elevator set into the wall on the left, right between two glass doors that opened onto brightly lit stairwells.  I held the stairway door for Bob.  “Why not the elevator?” he asked.

“I recall you didn’t particularly like the last trip we took in one.  Something about getting drenched.”

“Something like that.”

I ran up the steps, Bob lagging behind.  The stairs spiraled around and around and around the inside of the shaft.  About three quarters of the way up, I heard the door below swing open.  Damn.

We picked up the pace, and as I pushed open the door at the top, the elevator dinged nearby.  I stepped through the doorway as she stepped out, and I blasted a stream off her collarbone.  Bob ran past, paused long enough to say “Right behind me” and kept running.

I shot the first guy through the door in the back, a plate-sized water spot appearing dark between his shoulder-blades in the harsh white lights.

Some buried-deep-reptilian-part of my brain started screaming the moment I passed the slowly closing blond wood door.  That was all the warning I got before it flew open again.  Another guy came rushing through, college linebacker big, and it was only because I’d already turned that I was able to slam my palm into his gun and drive the shot wide with my right hand, letting the Vanquisher fall to swing on the sling.

He muscled the gun back towards me, and I pushed across my body, driving it away from me.  We circled twice as he fought to bring the bright orange nozzle onto target.

I was gunless, wrestling with someone better armed and much stronger.

This could be going better.

I reached behind my back with my left hand, grabbing at the grip of the Triple Shot as we turned, each fighting for control of the soaker.  My fingers brushed the slick plastic grip a few times, and then it was in my hand.  I swung it from behind my back, one handing it up and getting off one good shot into his sternum before he slapped it out of line like I’d done to him.  His slap was a bit more forceful though, and the pistol bounced off the wall and floor, landing a few feet away on the green carpeting.

We looked at each other over the soaker held between us, and then I let it go.

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3AM – 4AM Part 2

I tucked the Vortex back in my satchel and got out of the car.  The Triple Shot was still in the bag, and I dragged the Vanquisher out of the passenger seat.  Both were a little light on water.  Hopefully, there’d be a refill barrel or two nearby.

I crossed the street, pumping as I went.  There was a wide, wide courtyard area in front of the curved glass front of the building.  Statues of football players rose from the concrete, and here and there, a few benches were strategically placed for passersby.

No one contested my approach, but I kept the Vanquisher up to my shoulder anyway.  I approached the doors, and it didn’t look like there was anyone in the lower level.  I slipped in and looked around.

Lots of white.  White paint on the walls, white tiles, a white shutter closing off the white tiled concession bar ahead, white pillars supporting the next level.

Blue buckets next to black doors to the left and right of the concession bar.  I walked over and filled both guns, and tried the doors.  Locked.  The windows looked down a long cinder-block corridor into the stadium.  Large HESCO barriers dominated the wide-open floor.

Don’t see that every day.

Unless you’re in Afghanistan.

I chose “left” and set off metal detectors as I walked through a deserted ticket-taking checkpoint.  I smiled grimly at the irony.

The ceiling rose beyond the checkpoint, rising several stories to arch above the balcony far above.  A wide set of stairs divided by a banister climbed to the next level.  As I watched, a woman ran up to the railing above and fired down at me.  The stream of water jetting down at me galvanized me into movement.  I sprinted for the stairs as she tracked the blast towards me.  She let go of the trigger and what was already in the air snapped hard off the tile, erupting in a cloud of mist right behind me.

I button-hooked the railing and pounded up the steps, Vanquisher held tight to my shoulder, eyes tracking right and ahead, then back again.  Movement at the railing looking down, and my rifle tracked with my eyes and I snapped two shots into the chest of a man aiming down at me.

A few more steps and I turned right, bent over the back of the Vanquisher, my footwork steady, my eyes perfectly forward and on target.  Click click and two gray comets connected me with the woman who’d shot at me.  She had a massive soaker connected to a backpack (CPS3200?), and if I hadn’t been on my game, she would’ve unleashed some massive soaking on me at the close range between us.  Water shot past me, a hail of it, and I stepped into her angle as I crossed the few yards between us.  “Wha – “

I didn’t let her complete the thought, and she was so shocked at my movements that she didn’t put up a fight at all when I let my Vanquisher fall to hang from its sling and ripped the watergun from her hands and stepped to the side, nearly yanking her over as the line from the gun to the pack stretched.

I held down the trigger, playing a nickel-sized beam over the wide, arched hallway.  Two took stripes across their chest and more retreated into doorways, behind pillars, into little glass cubicles that lined the outside glass walls.

I think that – for a moment – the fact that there was a new player on the scene and she wasn’t screwing around took all the different teams by surprise.

Everyone was expecting me to go right, into the hornet’s nest I’d stirred up.  I tossed the now empty rifle at her and ran left.

This hallway was mostly empty.  It curved gently around the outside edge of the bowl of the stadium, and as soon as I saw a door leading inwards, I took it.

The stadium was pretty massive.  If I had the time to range it with my Vortex, I guessed it would say at least three hundred feet wide and deep and five hundred long.  I was on the top level of seating, and the grade dropped in steps steeply down probably eighty or a hundred feet to the basketball court sized floor.  About thirty feet above the top level of seating were luxury seats, cut long into three of the four walls.

Below on the floor, HESCO barriers formed a battlefield maze.  There was an open-topped rectangle, a cut-out in one side allowing access to the room it formed.  If I had to put money on it, the guy I was hunting was probably inside.  Two rows of barriers were spaced out, notched to allow access through, and were placed about thirty feet apart from the rectangle on all sides, creating an insanely dangerous courtyard area.  Below I could see dozens of players shooting at each other, all of them engaged in their own private, furious fight for survival in this game.

All of this fed into my mind in less than a second, and I’d barely paused before I was moving again.  Someone in the second row was ducked behind one of the plastic chairs, rising intermittently to shoot at another player on the floor, right up next to the six foot high fence that separated the floor from the seating around the bowl.  The hider rose as I hammered down the steps, and both of us shot him as he stood to aim at me.  One step past him, and I drilled a beam of water into his dueling partner, the change in aim and target taking less thought than breathing.

I kept my left hand supporting the Vanquisher’s pump and grabbed the top edge of the fence, vaulting over without ever breaking stride.  I dropped the six feet to the floor, and my leg gave out as I hit the concrete.  It’d been aching with every step, but the shock of slamming into the hard sent pain spiking through me. I gritted my teeth, pushed to my feet, and started running again.

I wasn’t running through the crazy HESCO killzone though.  I’d seen a guy in a red cap following two people up the opposite side of the bowl, and I figured rather than fight through the trench warfare below to find out if possibly my target was in the room, I’d just try and intercept.  Made sense that if people were leaving, they had a reason to, and the game’s organizer was known to be in possession of a red hat occasionally.

Red hat.

I wondered if he was a Linux fan.

I arced wide around the HESCO battlefield, and jumped as I approached the fence.  My fingers caught the top, and I pulled myself up in one smooth, teeth-gritted motion.  That did NOT feel good.  I dropped to the other side and started sprinting up the aisle.

My foot caught on one of the steps, and I stumbled, rose and kept running.  I pushed through the heavy black curtain blocking the doorway at the top and emerged into the second level hallway wrapping around the outside of the stadium.  Glass walls ahead sectioned off small conference rooms and cubicles complete with designer furniture.  Weird.

Left.  My target would be to the left.

They heard my feet pounding behind them, and the advance warning did them no good.  I shot one in the back, and seeing as the target was to the remaining soldier’s left, he was probably going to turn right.  While strafing left, I fired three short bursts of water to the right that he obligingly ran into.

When they’d stepped away, I walked up to the event’s organizer.  I made sure to stand with him between me and the hall, and extended my hand.  “Samantha.  Which way do we go?”

He shook my hand.  Still wearing those sunglasses, which made it hard to tell where he was looking.  Which was…unnerving.

“Behind you.  I’ve got to retrieve some keys from the boxseats above us.  There’s an elevator at the end of the hall.”

I set a killer pace, but it still wasn’t enough to get us out of the warzone without difficulty.  Water sliced past my arm and I whirled, strafing left, shooting as I ducked into the cover of a doorway.  I posted up next to the cinderblock wall and leaned out just enough to take a look at the situation.

A man and two women, in the center of the hall.  The man advanced on the game organizer – who was apparently completely unfazed by being handed off again – with the two women providing cover back down the hall.

I edged around the wall and snapped long stream of water into the man’s sternum, then shifted my aim and fired three short blasts at the nearest woman.  One hit her in the shoulder blades, and she turned to meet the other two with her neck.  I ran forward as her companion turned to face me, just a hair too slow.  A shot to the right temple, and then I was heading farther down the hallway towards the elevator, the game’s organizer in tow.

We waited at a dead end for the elevator to descend.  The fact that it was “up” indicated bad things to me.

“What’s your name?” I asked, trying to make conversation.

“I’m kind of a private guy, but you call me ‘Bob’.  ”

“Nice.”  Who calls themselves, ‘Bob’.  Likely some alias for something else.

“You’re Samantha Calloway though, right?”

My curtsey was as sarcastic as I could make it.  “In the flesh.”

He smirked.  “You have no idea how many calls I’ve gotten about you.”

The elevator dinged open, and we stepped inside.  I pushed the button for the third floor, and it started upwards with eternal slowness.

“I’m just that popular,” I said with a winning smile.

He counted off on his fingers.  “You started the games by shooting a man before he’d even had a chance to fill.  Nearly blinded another three players with some kind of miniature spot light.  You…and I’m not sure I have this completely straight…ran on top of bookcases at the University – they were not happy about that, by the way.  The Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary called me to complain about insurance rates because someone matching your description climbed up and down a four-story observation tower on THE OUTSIDE.  Bay Beach Amusement park called to tell me that someone matching your description stole a free turn on their slides, and then did a striptease on a pier.  I’ve got multiple complaints of property damage from Saint Vincent Hospital, and trespassing at Saint Norbert College.  You pretty much ruined the night for everyone at Ashwaubenon Lanes, and then I get a complaint – and this is just hilarious irony, from Allison Frank of all people, who’s got just as many complaints against her – that you shattered a church window by jumping out of it, and then beat her up when she tried to call for an ambulance.”

I spread my arms like I was welcoming the charges.  “And yet…here I am.”

“If we’d gotten a hold of you earlier, you probably would’ve been kicked out.  Now…what’s the point?”

The doors clanked open and I stepped through with authority, aiming down the hallway.  No one ahead.

“You’ve got a lot to account for too,” I told him.  “That photographer you hired to follow me around threw a little girl off a bridge about an hour ago.  Perhaps you should be screening your employees a little more carefully.”

He reached out and grabbed me by the arm.  “Hold up.  What did you say?”

“The photographer you hired to get pictures of me fighting, for promotional material or something…he tried to drown a kid around two thirty.”

“We never hired a photographer to follow you – or anyone else – around.  Did he tell you he worked for uSoak?”


“Did you see a company ID?  Get his name?”

“No ID, but he was at a couple of the matches taking pictures.  Said his name was Keith Slate.”

“Keith Slate, where do I know tha…” Hey-You’s voice trailed off as, apparently, connections were made in his brain.  “Oh my.”


“I also run a water warfare website not affiliated with this game.  Someone uploaded a war story describing their experiences in a similar contest down south, it kinda inspired me to put this game together.  Keith Slate…uh…figured prominently.”

Despite the warm air, a chill rode up my arms and neck.  “In what way?”

“Umm…apparently he thinks he’s some kind of prophet, weird as that sounds.  Plus…he died.  In two thousand and ten, during Hurricane Corrie.”

This was too creepy.  I’d let some freakshow ride around with me tonight for hours and take my picture. “Jared was right,” I muttered.

“The little girl,” Bob said as we kept walking.  “What happened to her?”

“I dove in after her.  Got her back to her mom.”

“That’s good.  You gonna file a police report?”

I snorted.  “Why bother?  I’m the only one that saw it.  He moved so fast the kid thought she fell.  Nah, I see him again, I’m gonna kill him.  Make sure he stays dead this time.”

Bob grabbed my arm again, stared me in the eyes.

I think he was trying to figure out if I was joking.

I didn’t give him anything to go on.

He shook his head and we kept walking.  The hall opened into a wide deck cut into the side of the building, glass fence overlooking the bowl below.  Barstools stood next to a wide bar, soda and beer signs along the back wall.  Behind the bar were taps for the various drinks, refrigerators, all the paraphernalia of the perfect boxseats.  There were also two refill barrels, thank goodness.

There was also a guy with a monster-sized Super Soaker sitting on the railing on a bipod.  He turned at my approach, and the huge watergun was too large to swing towards me quickly.  I splashed a long blast of water off his collarbone and moved looked over at Bob.  “You said there were keys up here?”

While I refilled, he walked behind the bar and rummaged through a cabinet, came up with a set of keys on a chain.  “Good to go.”

“Why did we have to come all the way up here?”

“To get the keys,” he said, puzzled.

There was nowhere to run in the hallway, no way to get out of the way when the elevator door opened and a guy stepped out with two pistols leveled at us.  He pulled both triggers at once, and one of those nozzles seemed to be looking me right in the eye as it spit water.

I dropped to a crouch in an instant, balanced on the toes of my boots, shooting upwards, drawing a wet stripe from his left thigh to his left pectoral.

Bob looked particularly annoyed at the blast he took in the shoulder.

I was particularly annoyed by the elevator.  An elevator was a shooting gallery.  We were fish in a metal barrel.

I charged out of that barrel as soon as the door opened just enough to let me slide by.

Water sprayed against the walls, and I ran forward, the storm somehow parted around me.  I tracked my targets, shooting quickly, starting on the left, pulling through the trigger three times.  I couldn’t very well stand in the middle of the battlefield and not get shot…I ran left, ducking inside the doorway of the glass cubicle.  It offered cover AND visibility.  Through the walls I could see the one woman I’d shot retreating, while the two guys that remained attempted to find positions where they could shoot me, but were out of the angle of my return fire.

I backed up a few feet from edge of the door, and edged just far enough out that I had an angle on the closest shooter.  Always get back from cover – you get new angles and cut down on splash damage.  Water hissed between us, exploding with a splash on his shirt, and while his companion was looking over at this new attack, I edged right even further and shot the last assailant twice in the stomach.

Stepping out of the cubicle, I motioned Bob out of the elevator.  He looked even more annoyed now, and there were several wet patches on his shirt.  I shrugged.

We took the first staircase down, and I made sure to hug the outside railing, tracking inwards with the Vanquisher, Bob following behind me.  Two people below and I tapped each of them out with a quick scatter of shots.

At the bottom of the stairs, I opened the glass exit door and held it for Bob.  Before leaving, he pulled a walkie-talkie out of his pocket.

“What’s that for?”

He checked his watch.  “Eh, just about time.” As an explanation to me, he held it to his mouth and spoke.  “I’ll be heading over to Lambeau Field now if anyone wants to try and catch up.”

I just stared at him, shocked.  “What the hell?”

“You didn’t think this was going to be that easy to win, did you?”

Back out in the warm night air, I looked down the road at the stadium, lit up like a runway.  “So, Lambeau Field.”

“Yeah.  The very top, to be specific.”

“We might as well start running now.”

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3AM – 4AM Part 1

The following takes place between 3am and 4am

I redialed the telephone as I threw the car into gear with a ferocity somewhere between “numb” and “furious.”

“Your mission is to rescue this man and protect him for the next two hours.  He will be giving you your next assignments.  He is located at nineteen oh one south Oneida Street, Green Bay.  A picture will download momentarily.”

While the picture downloaded, I punched the address into the maps app one handed, navigating out of the hotel parking lot.  I went right and sped across the Dousman Street Bridge I’d jumped off of less than an hour before.  I didn’t look right or left, only straight ahead.  I didn’t want to be reminded of this place.

The phone beeped to signify that the download was complete, and I booted up the picture.  It was the game’s coordinator, the one who’d given the briefing earlier in the day.  Same sunglasses, red hat, linen shirt, jeans, and Jordans.  The picture didn’t look new; did he own any other clothes?

Left on Broadway, and the downtown mocked me with its happiness.  It seemed that every other brightly lit storefront was a bar or restaurant, and over the growl of the engine, music and laughter drifted through the night air.  Even the furniture and clothing stores were open and looked like they were hosting parties.  I growled my frustration, angry enough to match the engine, and pounded my fist on the wheel.

The car tore past an old, tall brick building.  Public school office.  I’d paid for this car just a few blocks away.  My whole reason for being in this town, the whole damn journey had started less than twelve hours ago and a couple hundred yards to the right.  Less than half a day, and it felt like weeks.

Weeks ago since I’d been happy.

More or less carefree.

At the very least, OK.

I punched the steering wheel again, as hopeless, unreasoned anger surged through me.  I wanted to do something evil.  To cut myself.  To break something beautiful.  To hurt someone.  Just to relieve this overpowering ache of fury and guilt and helplessness.

I blinked back the tears I didn’t have, but knew I should and dug around in my bag for my phone.  I flipped it open and dialed the number I knew by heart.  A pause before hitting “send” and Keith’s words came back to me: “If you tell him what I told you, you’ll put the idea in his head even sooner.”

Why did I believe Keith?

This would be a VERY careful conversation.

I hit “send.”

The phone rang, and rang, and rang.  And rang.  And rang again.  Panic grew with every ring.

Finally a groggy, slurred voice answered.  “Yeah?”

I didn’t know what to say.  I was so damn grateful just to hear his voice again that I couldn’t speak.

“Yeah?  Who…who is this?”

“Tim,” I said gently.  “Hey.”

He swallowed and his voice was stronger when he spoke again.  “Sam.”

“Yeah, it’s me.”

“Why the hell are you callin’ me?  And atone in the morning?”

Oops.  Vegas was two time zones behind Green Bay.  I’d woken him.  For a moment the thought of watching him sleep again choked me up.

“I…” I thought of Keith’s warning again, crazy as it was. “I had a bad feeling is all, wanted to know you were all right.”

“I’m not alright and you know that.  Shit, you’re the reason why and you know that, too.”  His voice grew mean.

“Just wanted to check on you is all.  Make sure you’re still…that you’re ok.”

“It’s not appreciated, Sam.  Now, if you don’t mind, I’m gonna go back to bed.”  There was a rustling noise like he was laying down again.

“Wait.  Wait.”  The thought of not talking to him right now was painful and panicking.


“I…I miss you.”  There it was, heart on the line.  And yet, my heart wasn’t on the line, because it was calculated to keep him on the phone.  I didn’t say it because I wanted to have a heart to heart conversation with him, I said it because I didn’t want to disconnect.

“Probably should’ve thought about that before…”  His voice trailed off.  “Well, you probably should’ve thought about that.”

“I’m sorry, Tim.  I know saying that doesn’t change anything, just like it didn’t the last time I said it, but I want you to hear it again.”

“Apology not accepted.  You can’t just kill a part of me and make it all right with a ‘sorry.’”

“I know.  I can’t take it back and I wish I could.”

“You can’t.”

I pressed the phone to my chest and stared out at the night as the Mazda plowed through it.  I breathed deep.  Seemed like I hadn’t gotten a chance to do that very much recently.  I put the phone back to my ear.  “Good night, Tim.”

“I hope you don’t have a good night, Sam.  Ever again.”  The line went dead.

“Love you,” I whispered.  The tears I should’ve had at the beginning of the conversation appeared without warning.

I couldn’t blame him for hating me.  If I was justified in myself, he had just as much right.

“Are you going to be alright?” The nurse had asked.

“Fine,” I replied, answering on autopilot as I signed out.

She smiled and handed me a flower.  “I’m glad to hear that.  We give these to everyone as they leave.  Just a little reminder that you’re still beautiful.  This was just a minor detour in your life.  Still, if you need counseling, you have our number, please call.”

I stared at the flower as I stood out on the sidewalk.  I studied the number and curve of the petals, the veins, the slightly ragged edges, the texture of the stem, the point of the thorns.  Hell of a trade.  Gained a flower, lost my soul, regained my normal life.  No one could tell I was going around without a soul.

I let the rose drop to the pavement and walked down the street, dialing Stephanie to come pick me up.

Fury washed over me for a moment, and then I let it wash back out.  I replaced the phone in my bag and refocused my attention on the road.  Nothing else to do now.

The houses on either side indicated I was in “the hood.”  They were peeling paint and siding, the wooden porches rotting away, doors and windows all in a state of disrepair.  The yards were mostly dirt and weeds, and piled high with broken children’s’ toys and broken furniture.  Lights were on in many of the houses and rap music and angry shouting filtered out of alternating buildings.  The short street was bookended by bars, seemingly too no-collar and working class for the kind of disrepair I saw here.  I had a feeling that the inhabitants of these houses didn’t know any kind of collar other than the ones that came on massively oversized Sean John polos.

I turned right onto Ninth, and the hood continued.  Why did such macho looking men walk such small ridiculous looking dogs up and down the same stretch of sidewalk over and over?

I sat at a red light for what seemed like forever.  I would’ve run it – there was no one coming on either side for miles and I was feeling rather uncomfortable about sitting in the middle of Green Bay’s version of Brooklyn in a racecar – but there was a black and white facing me from the other side and I didn’t want to waste any time on a ticket.

Ninth Street was marginally nicer than the end of Broadway I’d turned off of.  The houses didn’t ALL look like crack dens.  The further up Ninth Street I went, the less it looked like a ghetto.  It was still shoulder to shoulder ancient middle-class mansions, but they were in a decent state of repair.  There were even businesses that didn’t look like fronts for chop shops numbers rackets.

Left onto South Oneida, and it actually looked suburban.  People lived in these houses that didn’t get into line-ups on a regular basis.  The houses were mostly dark, and the tree-lined street mostly quiet, the canopy a darker black than the sky due to the street lights beneath.

The street was peaceful, no other cars, no people, just me and the car and the road and the warm wind streaming in through the warm windows.

Red light at a massive intersection, and I had an opportunity to look around.  Stadium to the right, sitting in the middle of a parking lot big enough to comfortably park a few Boeings.  And the stadium wasn’t that small either.  To the left was a big old-looking brick building that also looked like a stadium.  Not the modern temple of excess tax dollars kind though.

The app said I was here.

I doubted I was.

At green, I rolled through the intersection, my head swiveling side to side, looking for…something…anything…

The old stadium had a small ticket building in front of it, big illuminated letters saying “Brown County Arena” on the roof.  I knew the stadium to the right was Lambeau Field, home of the Packers.

Driving slowly forward, another stadium came into view.  A hulking monstrosity that was mostly white metal and massive sheets of glass.

That was probably the place…

I turned left at a war memorial and drove down a short street, turning right into a parking lot next to a massive warehouse-style practice building that given the proximity and color scheme probably belonged to the Packers.

The parking lot was mostly full.  A look at my phone told me the hour was already fifteen minutes over.  Probably wouldn’t lose anything by taking a moment to survey the area.  I pulled the battered Vortex from my bag and moved the lens slowly over building.  The second floor was a ribbon of glass running along the outside, and through it I could see concession stands, waiting areas, people.  People running, shooting, walking away from fights they’d lost.

Lots of people.

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2AM – 3AM Part 2

Her mother was frantically racing from one end of the bridge to the other calling out “Rose?  Rose?  Where are you?”  So that was her name.  How did Keith know?
I set Rose down and she walked unsteadily over to her mother.  My Spanish is ok but not great, and from what I could tell, as she cried and her mother smothered her in a hug, Rose was saying “I fell, I fell.”

The rest was a garble of Spanish.  I live in Nevada, so I know some.  I don’t need it, so I don’t know much.  The mother wanted to thank me, hug me, pay me, make me part of the family.  I didn’t want to be touched.  I didn’t want to talk.

I said “You’re welcome, keep a better eye on her” in broken Spanish, and walked away.  She quit following me after half a bridge.  I collected my stuff and kept walking.

The walk back to the Sierra was over too soon.  I felt hollow.  Empty.  Emptied.  There was a hole in me where there should be something.  If there had been traffic, I would’ve stepped in front of a car without hesitation.

I dripped through the lobby and dripped in the elevator and dripped down the hall.  My room was dark and warm and empty, and it was only in the bathroom that I turned on the light.  One look at my soaked, haggard looking reflection, and I choked, rushed to the sink, and puked for the second time that day.  I raised my head from the mess and looked the glass Samantha in the eyes.  “You recognize me now?” I asked her hoarsely.

The little girl I used to be didn’t recognize the woman I was.  She stared back at me from the mirror, unanswering.

I splashed water on my face, getting the river grit out of my eyes and mouth, dropped my satchel on the counter, and stripped off my wet clothes, throwing them in the tub.  I set the water in the shower to scalding and stood under it for exactly three minutes, letting it wash and burn off all the crap from the river and bay.

I could feel the child against my shoulder, still.  Rose.  I stared at the door, willing my steely gaze to keep down the emotion rising inside.  When that didn’t work, I slammed my fist into the tiled wall hard enough to spike pain up to my shoulder.  “DAMN IT!”

What do you do when you’re stuck in the past and the world ignores you, keeps on spinning?  You keep moving too.

After I dried off I got my satchel and pulled out the first aid kit, then hiked myself up on the counter.  I’d bought a Cavalry Arms Individual Combat Medical Kit years ago.  Now it was doing some good.  I opened the bag and got out the antibiotic gel, unscrewed the cap.  This was going to hurt…

I jammed the nozzle of the tube into the cut in my leg, squeezed the tube, stuffing the wound with gel.  I groaned at the pain and pounded a fist on the counter.  “Son of a..”

The antibiotics went back in the bag, and I cut a roll of gauze in half with the Sandshark.  One half I folded and pressed over the hole in my leg.  The other half I wrapped tightly over it.  I added a few strips of medical tape and tried limping around the bathroom.  It wasn’t perfect, but it’d do.

Tomorrow…later today…I was going to the hospital to get some real antibiotics, maybe get this thing sewed up.

Keith walked in as I was doing the zipper on my new jeans.  I hadn’t heard him open the door.  I should’ve felt embarrassed with him walking in on me half naked, but I’ve never been self-conscious, and I didn’t think he would really care if I was wearing just underwear or a burqua.  I didn’t think he was human like that.  Or at all.

I had my back to him, and looked over my shoulder.  “How’d you get in?” I asked.

“You left the door unlocked,” he said mildly.

I finished dressing in a new black tank top, and retrieved the satchel from the bathroom.  I slung the satchel over my shoulder and briefly considered taking the Pea Two Thirty Eight it contained and shooting Keith dead on that ugly floral comforter.  Considered how much more satisfying it would be to use the Sandshark it also contained, or the strike bezel on the Surefire.

It’d make a mess though.  And I didn’t think Dad would want to pay a few thousand bucks to get blood out of hotel room carpeting and bedding.

“What the hell?” I said when I finished.

He was sitting ramrod straight on the edge of the bed, hands around his crossed knees.  “You risked your life to save a little girl named Rose.”

That hurt.  A lot.  “You’re a real son of a bitch.”

He shrugged.

“What was that for?  Why?  Why’d you do that?  What the hell possible reason could you have for trying to drown a little girl?”  I realized I was shouting and didn’t care.

“I got your attention.  And it makes what I’m about to say carry much more weight.  It’s exactly what you need to know.”

I folded my arms.  “Which is?”

“Timothy Kaanen is going to commit suicide in three days.”

I felt cold.  Like I wanted to throw up again.  My hands started shaking again.  “What?”  My voice sounded very small.

“He’s going to sit in the food court at the Meadows Mall where the two of you used to meet for lunch.  He’ll watch a little girl stand on a chair and pull on her tongue and make faces at him, and then he’ll go out to his car and open his radial recurrent artery four times.”

My hand was halfway to my ear with my phone when Keith said “Stop.”

“Try and make me.”

“If you tell him what I told you, you’ll put the idea in his head even sooner.  If you call him and don’t tell him, he’ll get angry and hang up, and will not return any more of your calls.”

I put the phone away, returned to staring straight at him.  “How…how do you know this?”

“I can see every choice.”

“Tell me how to stop it.  Please.”  Tears ran down my cheeks.  I didn’t care.

“You can’t.  This is the price, and it is yours to pay.”

I tried to say something.  Nothing came out.  I blinked away the tears, blinked again and again until the world looked different.

“Get out now.  NOW.”

“Ok.”  He didn’t react at all to the anger in my voice.

“And if I see you again, I swear, I’ll kill you.”

“You’ll try.”  He rose and walked over to the door.  He had it half open when he turned back.  “I think the ‘Like A Rose’ paint job would look better than ‘Los Angeloser.’  More artistic, and it was a better song anyway.”

He shut the door quietly, leaving me standing there.  I looked around the hotel room.  I didn’t know what to do.  I didn’t know if there was anything TO DO.

Artificial girl.

I breathed deep and pushed down my shock and regrets.  Time to move.  I limped over to the bed and grabbed up the Vanquisher.  It felt half empty.  Hopefully there’d be a filling station wherever I was going.

The door shut with a click of the lock, an exclamation point to the previous turmoil.  It was over.  It was behind me, behind the door, locked away.  The elevator ride was dead quiet, and the only sound as I walked through the lobby was my boots on the tile and the burble of the water fountain.

I spotted the two guys staking out my car nearly from the door.  Concern, apprehension…it didn’t even register.  It flowed well beneath the active level of my mind.

One of them was behind a car four down from mine, the other two behind.  It was a simple matter just to walk up to the closest one and shoot him.  Twice in the chest, once in the head.  Then I ducked.

His comrade came running, shooting over the roofs of the parked cars.  When the water stopped flying overhead I stood, one-handing the pistol over the roof, spraying a scatter of shots right to left.  He ran into one with his throat, and it paused him.  I brought the soaker up into a two-handed grip, and fired twice more, blowing mist off two big spots on his shirt.

I stalked back to my car and got in, shut and locked the door.  Turned the key in the ignition.

The clock flipped from two fifty nine to three.

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2AM – 3AM Part 1

The following takes place between 2am and 3am

I thought long and hard about whether to include a description of this hour.  Not only do I admit to something very close to cheating, but it’s…intense…I guess?  If you’re just here to read about the waterfight, and have no interest in Keith’s insanity, skip on down to the next hour.  The next few pages do tie up a lot of things I’ve talked about so far though.  If, for example, you skip to 3am-to-4am, and you wonder why Keith’s no longer in the car, well, the explanation’s in here. – Samantha Calloway 8/31/11

I didn’t answer.  She didn’t shoot.  I had a feeling she regarded me as dangerous enough to be faking injury.  After a long minute I heard a rustle.  Cracking one eyelid, I saw she was standing over me, very close.  She removed a cellphone from her pocket.  Probably to call emergency services.

Now or never.

I kicked out, snagging the backs of her calves with the toes of my boots, tipping her over.  Absolute pain spiked through my right leg, intense and unyielding.  I could feel myself going out again.  I raised the Triple Shot and held down the trigger, drawing a stripe up Allison’s shirt from belt to collar as she fell.

The world got kind of hazy again after that.  Maybe I blacked out, maybe I didn’t.  The next thing I remember was Keith kneeling beside me.  Allison was gone. “You ok?”

I hacked out a laugh.  “No you dumbass, I just jumped out a window and fell three stories.”

“Should I call someone?”

“Nah.  I could use a hand up though.”

“I should warn you, you have a piece of the window stuck in your right thigh.”

So that’s what had caused that electrical surge of pain.  “Lovely.”

I lifted my head and looked down.  About the size of my fist, a shard of glass stood out from my leg at a weird angle.  These sort of things never happen in the movies, when the hero dives through a window.

I steeled myself then reached down, and staying away from the edges, got a grip on the glass.  And pulled.  It jerked free with a spray of blood.  Not a jet, thank…nope.  Not thanking him.  I could feel my leg leaking though.

“Help me up.”

I caught the shoulder strap of my satchel as Keith yanked me to my feet, and I leaned against him as I dug the Sandshark out.  I handed him the automatic knife.  “Please cut my sleeves off.”

He cut one, then the other, and handed me both pieces and the knife.  The knife went back in the bag, and I folded one sleeve up carefully, pressed it against the hole in my jeans.  “Can you hold that there?”

“Sure.”  Keith leaned down to keep the improvised bandage pressed against the wound, and I wrapped the other sleeve around my leg, tied it tightly over.  It didn’t feel good, but pressure made it feel better.

I took an experimental step away from Keith.  Experimental hobble was more like it.  I managed to stay upright, and took another step.  This mobility thing was highly underrated.  I found the Vanquisher – grass and mud stained but otherwise undamaged – a few feet from where I’d landed.  “Let’s get back to the car.”

“I got the number for the next assignment from Allison while you were out, but really, you can’t finish this game out,” Keith told me as we walked back.  “As injuries go, that’s about as serious as you can get without needing professional help.”

“I’ll gonna win this thing, you’ll see.”

“No Sam, you can’t.”

I pulled the phone out of my pocket and started punching buttons.  “There’s nothing I can’t do.”

For some reason, Keith found that funny.

I called the uSoak number he gave me.  “Survive for the next hour.  Redial this number at three.  Or give this number to whomever “kills” you.”

“What does ‘survive’ mean?” I asked Keith as we walked back through the parking lot.

“It means you’re a target.  There are a lot of players gunning for you this hour.”

I grimaced. “Wonderful.  Wait, how do they know where I am?”

“My contact in uSoak says they send your phone’s GPS coordinates to the players tasked with shooting you.”

“Do they get a picture of me?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Huh.”  I folded myself into the Mazda and started it.  I had a good idea of what I was gonna do this hour.

Left on Larsen, right on Packerland, and the lights were with me as I took a right on Mason Street and cruised most of its length.  Keith sat silently in the passenger seat, possibly asleep. Possibly meditating.  Possibly comatose.  He was an odd duck.

I didn’t look at anything beyond the road.  The dark houses and cityscape on either side of the car held no interest for me.  I had a feeling that if I looked out at anything beyond the cone of headlights, my mind would drift, my eyes would close, and I’d be involved in yet another crash, this time of a vehicular sort.

I checked myself out in the visor mirror at the one stoplight that didn’t go my way.  Joints all flexed.  Teeth were all firmly ensconced in their sockets.  Motor skills and thinking were about ninety five percent, but that was just ‘cause I felt like hell.

Besides the gouge in my leg, there was a slash across the lower half of my t-shirt, from the short ribs on the left side to my belt on the right, an angry red but bloodless cut across my abdomen.  My arms were scratched up and my vest was pretty much stained and ripped beyond salvage, but overall, I’d survived pretty much intact.

I turned left on Monroe, and we were back downtown, cruising between the old-looking government buildings again, the darkness held at by acidic orange street lights.

Left on Main, and it was just a few yards until the Hotel Sierra parking lot.  I combat-parked and nudged Keith.  “C’mon, we’re here.”

He exited the car without a sound, and I pitched my cell on the seat.  I’d be back in an hour.  Right now I was going to take a shower, patch myself up, get something to eat, and take advantage of the fact that the people hunting me would find an empty car and have nothing else to go on.

“Got something to show you,” Keith said as we crossed the parking lot.


He pointed past the hotel towards the river.  “Just over there.”

I groaned inwardly.  “It can wait until after I get myself patched up.”

He smiled, and the effect was kind of creepy.  “No it can’t.  Trust me.”

“Keith, I’m tired, cut, beat up, hungry, and I’m in no mood for games.  What is it?”

“I’ll show you.”

This time I groaned outwardly.  “Fine.”

“I promise,” he said solemnly, “you’ll be back in time for a shower and food.”

The streets were mostly empty.  One guy jogged by over by the parking garage.  A few people standing under the awning at a bar behind the convention center.  Behind that was another, cheaper hotel, and a bridge over the river.  Keith led the way past the hotel.

We passed a mother pushing a stroller as we walked along the bridge.  Below, the water was black as an oil slick, orange in patches where a streetlight looked down on us passing pedestrians.  Ahead, a little girl – maybe three or four – looked back at her mother like she was like she was looking for approval, and then ran ahead, hard to see in the night.

“Bad mother,” I said to no one in particular.

“You’re one to talk,” Keith said mildly.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, feeling cut.  “I don’t have a kid.”

“No, you don’t.”

I rolled my eyes.  “What is it you wanted to show me?”

“It’s up here.”

The little girl had hiked herself up to lean way over the railing at the crest of the bridge, looking down at the midnight depths.  She looked back and said “Hi!” as we passed.  “Hi,” I said.

Keith stopped, and walked over by the railing to stand next to her.

Most people, when they decide to do something, it takes them a moment to go from decision to action.  And depending on the action, you’ll get some clue what they’re planning on doing.  They’ll tense up, look away, you’ll see some sort of tell.  Other times, all you’ll get is the “Oh shit, this is about to go bad” feeling in the pit of your stomach.

None of that happened with Keith.

As calmly as if he was pressing a button in an elevator, he palmed the back of her head and pushed her over the railing.  There was a moment of silence, then a splash, and choked shouts and the sounds of flailing in water.  He stared straight at me.  “Her name is Rose.”  Then he took off running.

My mind was in shock.  Blank.  But my hands were moving.  I had taken a few steps back, and I came back to earth as I was shrugging off my vest and satchel, grabbing the Surefire as I dropped everything in the street.  My boots slapped the pavement as I sprinted, and I pushed up into a jump as I neared the railing.  My foot hit the top of the railing and I pushed up again.

“Motherf- “ The impact of the water took the rest away.  I’d leaped out over the water far enough to clear the kid and any pylon moorings that might be along the edge of the bridge.  I hit the water at an angle so as not to break ribs in a bellyflop, or legs or head if it was shallow, but the impact still hurt.  The height wasn’t too great, I’ve gotten better air on jumbo trampolines.  But the water was hard, and cold.

I sank and I couldn’t find the bottom with my feet as I sank.  Good and bad.  I swam back to the top to tread water at the surface for a second, and clicked the Surefire on, shone it back towards the bridge.  A disturbance in the water a few feet away turned out to be weeds caught on a branch as it floated lazily by.

Where are you, kid?  I caught myself before asking God for help.  I’m not a hypocrite.  C’mon kid.  Please.  Rose, please.  I hurt inside, anguish and panic combined.

The serene surface broke in a flurry of spray and a choked scream.  Thank you – no, not saying it.

I stroked like mad over to her just as she went down again, and then dove under the water.  The beam of the flashlight didn’t illuminate much in the disturbed, silty river, but it did show me a shadowy, sinking form.  I reached out and grabbed the back of her shirt, hauled her to the surface.  She started thrashing again, and I had to let her go briefly to get an arm around her from behind.  My lifeguard training came back hazily – don’t get punched in the face by a struggling swimmer.

Fortunately the Surefire was in my other hand, and I was able to kick while I put it in my pocket, then I one-armed my way through the water over to a brick stanchion.  I dug my fingers in between the blocks and held us there, the river swishing softly around us.  Rose – why did I take that homicidal bastard’s word for it that was her name – was shivering and crying against me.  I ignored her for the moment, concentrated on the burn in my arm as it supported us, concentrated on getting my breathing under control.

Ok.  Next?

The side we’d come from was lined with slick sided docks where people parked their boats.  Not a ladder in sight, thought sight was obscured by the darkness.  The far side was lined with boulders butting up against shore.  No contest.  “Honey,” I said.  “What’s your name?

She kept shaking and crying.  “I need you to tell me your name, ok?”

Nothing.  Dammit.  She wasn’t going to be helpful.  Could I blame her?

I couldn’t do a normal stroke through the water with her held to my chest.  A one-armed backstroke is difficult enough across when you’re crossing a river.  With a struggling child held against you, it’s a real bitch.

I was already tired, and by the time I could pull us up on the rocks, I was exhausted.  I checked to see she was breathing, and then rolled over to stare up at the stars.  What the hell.  Seriously.  What.  The.  Hell.

I rose and picked her up, putting her over my shoulder like a baby.  Small enough to do that, and she felt smaller.  Much smaller.  Something hurt inside and I ground my teeth together.  I wanted to die it hurt so bad.

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1AM – 2PM Part 3

“Got any ideas?” I asked Keith quietly.  The discarded glowsticks from Allison’s first attack were still burning bright, and they cast weird shadows across his face.

Keith dropped down to crouch beside me.  “Why do you think I do?”

“You said you were gonna be my spotter, right?  Warn me of upcoming traps and dangers?  I gotta think you’ve got a few ideas.”  I hacked up a ball of phlegm that had been choking me and spat it out into the trees.

“Allison fights like you better than you do.”

“I’m pretty good at reading people.  You fight like a robot, but I don’t think that’s because that’s who you are.  That IS who Allison is.  You read as many after-action reports from other players she’s “killed” as I have, you get a sense for someone.”

I narrowed my eyes.  “I haven’t said this in a while, but you’re seriously weird.”

“She’s a machine, you’re trying to be one.  I’ve got no idea why, but that’s what I see.”

“And that has WHAT exactly to do with me beating her?”  I was getting annoyed, and was starting to think Keith’s car door might be locked when he tried to get in.

“You can’t beat her playing a good imitation of her.  If you’re gonna win, you’ve got to stop that, start playing like yourself.”

“Thank you Rhonda Byrne,” I snapped.  “What do you MEAN?”

“Who are you?” Keith replied. “Who were you before you started acting like her?”

I took a breath and tried to relax my mind, tried to get it to fit around what the whacko next to me was saying.

“Dammit.”  I rose.  “Ok.  Here we go”

I grabbed up one of the glowsticks and shoved it in my bag, and then moved quickly up the path.  The trees grew closer and closer around us, and a smell of…cheese…filled the air, and then we were in the main flower gardens.  Small sheds rose from the ground across the garden, and concrete paths lined with tall bushes and flowers led between picturesque clearings.  I reacted without thinking and took a snapshot at someone sprinting down the path towards us.  They became aware of our presence there when the water impacted their shirt.  I advanced methodically down the path, nozzle whipping over the angles, covering every possible ambush point.  I turned the thinking down to point where my consciousness was like a first person shooter.

Reflex, move and shoot.

At the arched entrance to another garden, a woman was standing, covered behind the tall bushes, trading shots with someone inside.  I splashed her against the side of the head, rounded the corner into the garden and fired three shots, driving her attacker to cover behind the edge of a bush.  I shifted my aim over a hair and held down the trigger, pushing the water through the leaves and into their shirt.  I stepped out of the garden, back onto the path, and kept moving.

The edge of the garden we were on looked down into the valley from the opposite side we’d been seeing.  A rustic wooden fence strung between the church and the gazebo kept people from falling down the steep grade.

I looked around, plugging the variables into my calculations.

This was it.

I reached into my satchel and pulled out the glowstick, and gave it a powerful underhand loft into the air.  “Hey Allison!” I shouted.  “Bring it!”

I led the way over to the church and turned the handles of the double glass doors.  They opened, and we walked into the cool, shady interior.  Those white plastic chairs formed an aisle down the center to a podium.  Behind the podium were two more doors, leading out onto a small deck.  The air was oddly still despite the screens over the windows that made up each side.

“Well.”  I dropped into one of the chairs and turned to look at the door.  “Now we wait.”

Keith walked over to the podium and gripped either side like he was either going to rip it up and throw it at me or deliver the most hellfire-and-brimstone-speech ever given.  The beard really did make him look like Obi-wan.  “And when Esau lifted up his eyes and saw the women and children, he said, ‘Who are these with you?’ Jacob said, ‘The children whom God has graciously given your servant.’”

I stared at him, confusion gradually growing hotter and more painful.  “…the hell?”

“My favorite verse,” he said simply.  “Genesis thirty three five.”

“What are you talking about?  Why…?”

Keith pointed out the glass door.  “We’re about to have company.”  Then he retreated to the farthest back corner of the church, bringing his camera up to eye level.

I shook my head to clear it of errant thoughts, and stalked towards the doors, threw one of them open.  I stood as much behind it as I could, Vanquisher pointed towards the lawn outside.

Allison stood a few yards outside the doors, what looked like the CPS Two thousand I’d seen earlier held loosely by its carrying handle.  “Hey Sam.”


“Any reason for us to talk?”

“None at all.”

“Okay then.”

She brought the long cylindrical water gun up with remarkable speed, stepping away as I blasted liquid through where she was standing.  Her return fire splattered all over the door next to me, and then she was weaving all across the lawn, never retreating, always coming closer.

Mist blew across my face in large drops, and as much as it pained me to do so, I retreated back into the church.  Allison took the door in an instant, posting up behind it and sweeping the interior with water.

I threw myself to the floor and pulled myself into the cover of the chairs, then elbow-crawled to the podium.  I put my back to it and pumped back to full pressure, then leaned out to take a shot at Allison.  It was a simple matter for her to duck back behind the doorframe, and I didn’t have a good angle anyway.

Trapped.  Keith had said I had to stop playing like her.  Smart.  So I had, apparently.  I’d started playing like an idiot.

I rose and fired over the podium at the door, keeping Allison pinned outside.  I didn’t have a chance in hell of hitting anything, but that wasn’t the point.  I had to put as much distance between myself and her as I could.  My back hit the doors behind the podium, and I reached behind with my left hand to fumble with the knobs.



I fired off one more burst at Allison, and then dropped behind the podium again, repressurized.

I was trapped.

My plan had been to escape out the deck doors at the back of the church, climb down the hill and into the valley again.  Now, I couldn’t get out at all.

Well, that wasn’t true.  The windows were only covered by screens.  But the side facing the visitor’s center was thickly wooded – dive out that way and I’d be a sitting duck for Allison.  Dive out the right side, and I’d likely do a barrel roll down all the way down into the valley, probably get hurt.

I looked around for Keith, maybe he had some advice.  He was gone, Allison must’ve let him out.  Water skipped off the floor by my feet, and I one handed the bullpup soaker around the side of the podium, took a few shots without looking.

Play like yourself.

I tried to imagine what it would be like bouncing and falling down that hill uncontrollably.

Like pushing the car up to a hundred and fifty, looking deep down inside, I could honestly say I didn’t care what happened to me.

Screw it, let’s go.  I’d drop a couple bucks for the screen on my way out.

I stood, expended the whole pressure chamber at the door, pushing Allison back behind cover.  I pushed off explosively, two long fast strides to the right and then I propelled myself upwards, hitting the screen with my shoulder and ducking my head.

The shatter of glass was as loud as gunfire.  So that was why the air had been so still…

The strike of my head against the glass was like hitting concrete, and my thoughts scattered as I went airborne out the window.  The resistance of the glass retarded my jump, and I dropped quickly onto the slope.

I fell.

And bounced.

And rolled.

Covered with manicured grass, the steep slope should’ve been soft.  It wasn’t.  I felt every rock, every stick, every rise and fall in terrain.  Every impact of my body against the ground.

By the time my wits had returned enough to consider doing anything about my descent I was most of the way down, and I weakly tried to cover my head to no success.

I hit the path with a jarring impact that flopped me limply in the woodchips.

I tried to raise my head and didn’t have the strength.  Every part of me hurt, so bad it didn’t hurt at all.

I couldn’t muster up the conviction to care.  Maybe I’d gotten my wish.

My head fell back to the ground and the world faded away with loud rush.


I walked out of the hospital onto the busy Phoenix street.

I felt numb.

Well, they say knowing is better.  At least I knew why my hands had been shaking.

I opened my cellphone and punched up my contact list.  There were people who could help me feel better about this, or at least take my mind off it.  And right now, I was going to meet them in a bar.

The Mexican soldier draped a piece of black cloth over the driver’s side rear view, then walked around to the other side of the semi’s cab and did the same thing on the passenger side.  Apparently they were following John Callan’s instructions that I not find out the cargo to extremes.

He’d told me that if I stepped out of the cab I’d be shot, making sure I couldn’t look behind the truck probably seemed logical to them.

I could feel the vibration of the trailer’s door sliding up, and then boots hammering the floor inside.

I was sitting in the cab of a semi on pain of death, on the wrong side of the Mexican border, while soldiers loaded an unknowable cargo into the trailer.  If I was caught hauling whatever it was, the police unit that had contracted me would disavow all knowledge of my actions.

The things we do for money.

I set the army bag down on the church floor with a heavy clunk and leaded against the podium.  “Hey.”

No one answered.

“So…we gotta talk. The guy out in the lobby says you’re responsible for all the good in my life…I guess that means you’re responsible for all the bad too.  Not my mistakes, those are mine, I made ‘em.  But mom, dad, Austin all dying in front of me, this…thing in my head?  Yeah, if you’re responsible for it all, you’re responsible for it ALL, you feel me?

“Last few years, I kinda…declared war on you.  I wanted to hurt you like you hurt me.  For what you’d done.  For what you MADE me.  And you’re kinda hard to reach, so I tried, really tried to piss you off.”

I sighed, tried to think of what to say, thought of how ridiculous this was.  “I stacked my sins to heaven, I guess I hoped that the sight would offend you.  And still you ignored me.

“Recently occurred to me that if I was trying to offend you, I guess that means I believe in you.  Things kinda got put in perspective recently…and I am sorry.  I ain’t gonna ask you to forgive me, I wouldn’t forgive me, and I don’t think you’re that nice anyway.  But I really do hate that I wasted the short life you gave me trying to make you ashamed of me.

“I know it’s too late for me, I can’t be helped, I can’t be saved.  But those kids can be.  From a life even worse than mine.  So I’m gonna go out tonight and do my best, and leave the end in your hands, where it’s always been.  Do what you want with me, I’m yours.  Help me or stop me, it’s up to you.  Just please…”

I’d been talking fast, nervous.  I stopped, took a breath.  “Please don’t let me die before I get them out of there.  After that…” I smiled.  “I’ll see you soon.”

I picked up the bag.  The contents inside settled with a clunk, and near the top, the heavy black welder’s mask slipped out and fell to the floor with a clatter.  I set the bag down again and picked it up, turned it over.  Polarized black lenses over the eyes, flat from the bump of a nose on down.  Matte black.  It looked like some sort of ancient death mask.  Tonight that was probably symbolic of something.  I’d just bought it to protect my face from shrapnel.

I tucked the mask back in the bag and walked out without a backwards glance.


The world came back in haze, blurry becoming clear in patches.  The night sky overhead was only differentiated from the blackness behind my eyes by the big full moon.  Allison was far down the path, getting nearer.  I could tell it was her from the moonlight shining on her almost albino-colored hair.

I could move my head and my hands, and I rolled my head from side to side, looking around.  My satchel had come off during my descent, and was laying well within arm’s reach.  The Vanquisher was nowhere to be seen.  I reached out and dug my hand into the bag, pulled out the Triple Shot.  Looked like it was still intact.  I pushed it down until it was concealed next to my right leg, then let my head roll to the side, and closed my eyes.

After a moment, crunching footsteps approached, and then I could feel someone staring at me.

“Hi Sam,” Allison said.

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1AM – 2AM Part 2

Someone ran down the trail towards me from the direction I’d chosen, shooting over their shoulder.  I bent forward over the back of the Vanquisher, pulling it tightly into my shoulder.  Two pulls on the trigger and I splattered water into one spot on his shirt.  Four steps forward and the person he was shooting at came into view, also sprinting down the path.  I strode forward, sidestepping and shooting.  Two more shots, and they too were out.  I amped up the pace, sprinting down the path.  Tall, steep, greenery covered hill on the right, wire-fenced vegetable gardens at the bottom of the steep hill on the left.

A quick glance around showed me a few more features of the landscape: a squat yellow church at the top of the hill on the left, much further down that ridge was a little gazebo.  The top of the hill on the right was dominated by a wooden pavilion.  Weird lights glowed around it.  The way the plantlife grew, I could tell there was another path cut into the side of the hill about half the way up.

The end of the path I was on arrived, again with a left or right decision.  Keith skidded to a stop beside me.  “Right.  Get up on that ridge, it’ll give you a serious tactical advantage.  Cover, concealment and elevation.  If you’re gonna make a stand, that’s the place.”  It was like he’d read my mind.

I pumped the gun back to full pressure as I made a slow sprint to the right.  The path was picturesque, winding through gardens of lawn ornaments, even passing through a vine-covered bridge.  Through a thin treeline we entered another section of garden, much more sculpted.  To the left was a set of playground equipment, and what looked like a small maze of hedges.  A small series of ponds and streams was set into rock-lined basins along the edge of the play area.

The view to the left was magical.  Like something from Neverland, but with neither weird cats nor allegedly pedophilic aging popstars.  The landscape was a rather steep grade climbing to the top of the hill, but pebbled, flower-lined paths were cut into the ground, twisting and serpentining alongside and occasionally over a quietly babbling brook.  The main area of the garden was open, but trees along the path created a low roof of branches.

At the base of the hill sat a massive, roofless, three-walled stone house, like the garden visitor had stumbled onto some long-forgotten, decaying arboretum, a place time and people alike had forgotten.

The full moon bathed the scene in bright white light, and small candles were set into the ground in stone holders, twinkling merrily.  Through the low-hanging tree branches I could see the pavilion – its supports were set with lit torches, and it appeared that the stone retaining wall that protected its visitors from a painful drop was lined with candles.

Unless you stepped off the path, the only way up to the top of the hill was through the house.  Someone was filling at a blue barrel in the corner, and when I shot them in the back, they turned around looking positively wrathful.  I suspected that wasn’t very sporting.  I didn’t care.

I dunked both the rifle and the pistol in the barrel, and screwed the caps back on, then started climbing the hill.  Despite the grade, the cut of the paths made the trek quite easy.  The gravel crunched under my boots like I was walking on cereal, and the stream clicked happily as it shimmered over rocks that looked way too new to be that perfectly round and worn.

The pavilion on the ridge was definitely a meeting place of some sort.  Not only was it set into slab of concrete instead of just dirt, but a few yards away, the retaining wall looped around to create a semi-private seating area filled with benches.  The wall was brick, and lined with candles in hurricane glasses.  I tried to move one.  Glued down.  Good deal too, candles out here could cause a fire.  A refilling barrel sat in the exact center of the slab.

I set my guns down on a section of wall unoccupied by candles and pulled the little Vortex spotting scope from my bag.  I moved the illuminated reticule down the hill – over the path about ten feet straight down below us – to the path at the bottom of the valley, and slid it left, back where I’d come from.  Had Allison run pell-mell after me?  Had she been delayed by other contestants?  Was she stalking deliberately and methodically after me like a Terminator?

I played the Vortex up and down the floor of the valley, looking for her.  Across the valley – in the main gardens – I could see small shadowed figures moving at high speed, sprinting and dodging and shooting.

“There.”  Keith nudged my arm, and I focused in on one of the vegetable gardens far below.  A figure crouched in the dirt, scanning her surroundings through a long, thick tube.

I ducked below the level of the fence.  “Dammit!”

“What?” he asked, seemingly puzzled.

“Bitch is using FLIR,” I murmured.  I couldn’t believe it.  My little spotting monocular had cost a few hundred bucks.  FLIR cost thousands.

“I think I told you,” Keith said, “She’s kinda like you.  Little on the crazy side.”


FLIR scopes look for heat signatures and there was a chance that surrounded as we were by small fires that her spotting scope wouldn’t work, or would mask our presence.  I stood and found her again through the scope, took it away from my eye, and found her again without it – a small, indistinct shape moving methodically through the dark valley.

“I’m gonna take the shot,” I told Keith.

“You don’t have the range.  All you’ll do is alert her.”

“If I elevate the nozzle, the range will increase, I should have enough to arc it out over the valley, catch her in a rainstorm.”

He rolled his eyes.  “You got a plan for if it doesn’t work?”

I glanced around, taking in the variables, plugging them into my calculations.  “Now I do.”

I pulled the Vanquisher to my shoulder and angled the nozzle upwards, all the while looking downwards.  Putting this kind of elevation on it made aiming worthless, and it’d be better to watch and see where I hit, adjust on the fly.

I took a breath, let it out, and pulsed the trigger a few times.

“Shrubbery,” Keith said quietly.  “Didn’t even make it off the hill.”

I tilted the gun a little more skyward and held down the trigger, washing the valley below with water.

“Edge of the path,” Keith announced. “And you got her attention.”

I let the Vanquisher fall on its sling and grabbed up the spotting scope.  Allison still knelt in the gardens along the bottom of the far hill, and now she looked right at me through her own scope.  As I watched, she raised a hand and waggled her fingers at me in a wave.

I dropped back down below the level of the wall.  “You’ve got two minutes before she’s coming up this hill,” Keith stated.  “What was that other plan?”

Time to move.

I ran to the barrel and submerged the Vanquisher, pumping as I did so.  I wanted a full load of water onboard for this.

I hadn’t shot much, and it took just a quick dunk to refill.  I screwed the cap on and ran to the edge of the ridge looking back down the hill we’d climbed.  Illuminated as the garden was, Allison didn’t have a chance in hell of sneaking up.

At the edge my hearing, I noticed voices, the crunch of shoes on woodchips or rocks.  More people in the area.  The back of the hill was wild, nobody was coming up that way.  I’d have to deal with these newcomers as I saw them.

A figure appeared down below, running like a madwoman up to the bottom of the hill and then ducking into the stone house.

“Come out from behind that wall and I got you,” I whispered.  “I got you.”

The violence, speed, and grace with which she attacked my position astonished me.  One moment she was covered behind a wall, and the next she’d shot, run forward, shot again, moving off the “X” with each shot.  Each blast that splattered around me was quickly aimed and quickly fired, arriving less as a collection of individual comets of water and rather as an indistinguishable storm.

Kneeling at the crest of the hill, I fired rapidly, pivoting like a sentry turret as I tracked her insanely quick bounds around the trails below, quickly approaching.

“Dammit!” I hissed, and rose, sprinting back to the wall.  “Time to go,” I told Keith.



I swung a leg over the wall, then the other, and paused a moment to shoot the two combatants jogging the path below.  Four quick shots connected me to them, and I attempted to walk down the nearly vertical hill, digging my heels in to arrest my descent through the vine-y groundcover.  It didn’t work very well, and I went over, falling five or six feet to land on my side with a thud.  Ow.

Keith dropped beside me with cat-like grace a moment later, landing in a crouch with one hand pressed to the dirt.  Looked like Superman before take-off.

“Where to now?” he inquired.

I rose painfully.  “Now we run.”

Water spattered around us like massive drops of rain, and I blindly returned fire as we sprinted away down the trail, deep into the forest.

Unless Allison wanted to take the crazy, pain-filled, straight-down-drop way off the hill, she had to take time coming back around to get onto this path.  I didn’t trust her not to take the crazy way.

We didn’t stop our full out sprint for probably half a mile.  We stopped at the far corner of a rather square looking artificial lake.  I bent double, coughing tackiness out of my throat, chest heaving, trying to gasp down a breath.  My clothes were as wet with sweat as I would’ve been if I’d let Allison hose me down, and as if to purposefully add insult to injury, every flying insect imaginable seemed drawn to the perspiration and body heat.

I hadn’t been this miserable since I’d stood on the shore of Renard Island in my underwear and puked up probably-toxic riverwater.

“The hard way,” I muttered.


I straightened.  “Let’s keep going.”

“Samantha?”  A shout from back the way we’d run dragged my head around.  “You can stop running any time!”

The trail we were on dead-ended in a marsh and led off to the left – around the lake – and the right – back to the visitor center I guessed.  Flashlights shown down the trail to the right, bouncing wildly.  There weren’t any candles or bonfires out here this far, but the between the flashlights and moonlight, I could see about half a dozen people running down the trail.

Shoot it out with them with Allison at my back?  Turn and face her?  Take the trail back around the lake?

For a moment, real panic gripped me.

This was about to end.

I hadn’t been good enough.

Left.  Right.  Back.  Or…I strained to see straight ahead into the swamp.  Wooden pylons.  Like a…dock…?  There was definitely a platform there, about six feet off the path, raised about four feet off the fetid water, hidden by the ten foot tall weeds.

I pushed off into a sprint.  “Where…?” I heard Keith say, but I was already past him.

At the bank of the marsh, I JUMPED.  Drew my legs up in the air.  This would either end with a thud or a splash.


I hit the dock in something like a crouch, shaking the wood like an earthquake, and stumbled forward to spill onto the platform.  I looked up.  Not a dock.  An elevated walkway leading through the marsh.  A few feet ahead was a “No admittance” sign strung between the railings on a chain.  That would explain why it had been disconnected from the path…

I rose with a groan and ran farther down the walkway, deep enough in that no one with a flashlight could see me.  I didn’t know much about FLIR, but it was safe to assume it had a maximum effective distance.  I intended to put myself well beyond it.

The hairs on the back of my neck rose, and I spun, setting myself in a shooting stance.  Keith materialized out of the gloom.  “They’re really going at it back there.”

The thick weeds around us blocked out much of the noise, but it did sound like there was quite an epic battle going on.  It also could’ve been drowned out by the whine of the mosquitoes in my ears.  I ducked and slapped at my neck, thankful for the long-sleeved t-shirt.  “Let’s get moving.”

The walkway continued forward a few dozen yards, and then turned right.  The wood was soft under my feet, and I was constantly thinking it might give way.  I kept a hand on the railing.  We moved fast, trying to escape the clouds of biting insects and the oppressively still air that was held close in by the thick and towering weeds on either side.

I guesstimated the distance we’d traveled at maybe a hundred yards before the walkway turned right again and led us back to the main trail.  There was a rusty chain fencing off the disconnected dock from the bank six feet away, and I kicked it down before I could jump over.

Then we were sprinting back to the main building.  The heavy satchel slapping against my leg had long ago stopped annoying me, as had my now-sticky clothes.  Everything except the trail and what was on it had simply ceased to be a consideration.

The visitor’s center came into view through the trees, as did the hill we’d originally climbed, the one wrapped with paths and riddled with clearings.

Someone emerged from a vine-draped wooden archway, and it required no conscious thought to raise the Vanquisher and drill them in the chest with a stream of water.  “I’m out already,” the guy complained.  “Can’t you see that?”

The man that came running out behind him apparently was still in the game, because he raised his own soaker at me.  I’d moved diagonally left towards him before he pulled the trigger, and while his own shot splashed down into the grass, my first streaked across his chest while my second erupted into mist off his neck.

Keith and I sprinted further up the hill, and I turned right onto the sunken pathway where Allison had first shot at us.  I dropped down into a crouch below the level of the embankment and tried to get my breathing under control.  My legs felt like they were made of hot cloth, and my ears were full of the sound of pounding blood.

I’m in great shape, but the past eight hours had pushed me farther than I’d ever gone, for longer than I’d thought possible.  My body simply didn’t want to do this anymore.

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1AM – 2AM Part 1

The following takes place between 1am and 2am

The automated voice on the other end of the line gave me my assignment.  “Assassinate this woman by two aye emm.  A picture will download to your phone momentarily.  They are located at twenty six hundred Larson Street, Green Bay.  You are their target.  Call this number again when you complete your mission.”  I punched the coordinates into the maps app while the target’s picture downloaded.  Green Bay Botanical Gardens, quite a ways away.  Fortunately most of it was by highway, and I planned to cut the travel time considerably on the straight-aways.

I checked the picture as I headed for the highway.  I was surprised by who I saw.


Or rather, a young woman who looked quite like me.  The only real difference was nearly albino white hair instead of my thick mane of brown.  Other than that, she had the same strong, square-ish face, the same hard set to her eyes.  The second picture was full-body, and again, she could’ve been my twin, lithe and muscular.

Her clothing seemed a dark mirror of my own though, almost exact.  White jeans instead of my black, black longsleeved t-shirt with a white tanktop over it, opposed to my white t-shirt and black vest.  I shook my head.  Human beings look for patterns where there aren’t any.

“Allison Frank,” I said aloud as I turned onto Highway Forty One.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Who did you say?” Keith inquired, suddenly roused from his passenger-seat-stupor to something approaching interest.

“Allison Frank.  I gotta shoot her this hour.  Supposedly she’s gonna be hanging out in a park or something.”

Keith chuckled, and it was an unsettling sound.


“My guy at yousoak gave me a couple of choices when it came to photography subjects.  You were the top of the list, Allison Frank was second.”

“Why’s that?”

“Besides the aesthetic part – as I said earlier, you are exactly what customers and advertisers want to see, you both have high numbers of complaints due to your…how shall I say…unorthodox tactics.”

“What’d she do that’s complaint worthy?”  Mentally I reviewed the long list of possible grievances that I might’ve racked up.  Ok, yeah, unorthodox was a good descriptor.

“For one, she shot up a grocery store.  According to the surveillance footage that I ‘just happened’ to get my hands on, she favors a really old, really long Super Soaker that can dish out quite the soaking.  Someone got it into their head to run through a crowd, that crowd didn’t know when to duck…

“Two, she did a reservoir dump into a man’s convertible when he complained about her sneak attack tactics.  Probably ruined the interior.

“And that doesn’t even include the complaints we got because no one can accept the fact that she’s just…better…than them.”
“Sounds like a sweetheart,” I said.  “My kinda girl.”


The Mazda tore up the highway at a leisurely hundred, wind screaming in the open windows as the tires devoured the concrete.  The scenery changed constantly – businesses, homes, forests, fields all passed by to the right and left.  The road was deserted this time of night, and in the absence of traffic, I gave the race car more gas.

I was going so fast I nearly missed the off-ramp to bring me up onto Mason Street.  As we waited at the stoplight for the left turn, the Pizza Hut sitting squat in front of the ancient and abandoned Circuit City building reminded my stomach that the last food I’d had I’d yakked up onto Renard Island with about a gallon of rancid bay water.

When would I get to eat again?

And how did Jack Bauer do it?

The light didn’t take long to turn, and I took Mason at fifty instead of the recommended thirty five.  Grocery stores, a Wal-Mart, and gas stations dominated the right side of the street, while a hospital glowed brightly against the backdrop of a massive forest on the left, a few restaurants half hidden among the trees as well.

Mason climbed to quite the elevation, and I could see a huge arched bridge in my rear view as we crested the hill.  Right at the top, and we whipped down Packerland past canneries and banks and metalworking shops.  Strangely industrial out here, right off a commercial district.

The app said left at the next lights, and the car climbed another hill.  I scoffed at the posted speed limit of twenty five.  What a joke.

Green Bay Botanical Gardens was fenced off from the rest of the world by – at least here – wrought iron.  Further down I could see chain link as high as these eight foot posts, but close to the entrance, it was all fancy fencing.

The parking lot was half full – oh joy of joys – and I backed the car into a spot.  Combat parking I’ve heard it called.  Never enter a gas station if you see someone parked out front like this.  You only park like this if you expect to have to un-ass the area of operations in a major hurry.

I grabbed both soakers, slung the Vanquisher, tucked the nearly empty Triple Shot into my satchel, and then Keith and I got out.  Without the rush of it past the car, the night air quickly became oppressively warm and sticky.  Given the exertions of the past hour, I knew I should be sweating, but the suffocating atmosphere exacerbated that to a greater degree.

I carried the Vanquisher up and ready, finger off the trigger but alongside it.  Some warning bell clanging in the back of my head told me that this was going to be a tough assignment.

There was a wooden door set into a brick wall along the garden’s edge.  Locked.  The main building a few yards right was dark.  Seeing as a wall or fence wrapped around the garden, it was probably the only way in that didn’t involve climbing equipment.

The entrance was not locked, and I threw the glass doors open, moving quickly inside.  The interior was two stories tall, with a peaked ceiling, white walls, and blond wood trim.  The lights were off, and shadows started collecting along the floor, compounding in darkness the closer they got to the ceiling.  Doors along the right led to what looked like classrooms, there was a gift shop close by on the left, and a hallway leading out of sight.  The whole back wall of the building was windows looking out on the gardens.  Not only were they lit by moonlight, but in several places it looked like there were tea-lights set in the manicured trees and shrubbery, and perhaps a bonfire or two.

A sign stood at the main desk, propped up by a bowl of wax-paper wrapped caramels.  “No shooting indoors.  Caramels, one dollar.”

I took two, ate one, stuck the other in my pocket for later.  “Don’t mind if I do.”

The hallway to the left led into the main gardens, and we were halfway down it when Keith said “Stop.”


“This probably isn’t the best way to go.  This is like…the main entrance.”

“Oh.  Ok.”

We retraced our footsteps, headed down the staircase behind the admissions desk, and found ourselves in a glass-walled meeting or lounge area looking out on the clearing behind the building.  I posted up alongside frame of the sliding glass door and looked out.

A bonfire roared in the center of the clearing, throwing spooky shadows on trees that ringed the area.  A hill climbed to the main gardens along the left side of the clearing and from what I could see, there were at least two smaller clearings set into trees further up the slope.

A wide path was cut through the forest heading straight back, while to the right it looked like a prairie-style field had been cultivated in a multi-acre clearing.  Several paths wrapped around the hill to the left, leading to the main gardens.

“Got any ideas how we’re gonna find Allison?” I asked Keith.

His smile was ghostly in the darkness.  “I’d say it’s pretty likely she’ll find us first.  If not…we’ll just have to wander until we find her.”


I opened the patio door and slipped out into the night, staying in the shadow and concealment of the wall.  I came under fire almost immediately, water splashing off the siding next to me, launched from further up the hill.  At night, with no sights….yeah, I had no prayer of aiming.  I did hit them though, taking a little longer on the trigger and angling the Vanquisher upwards like a grenade launcher.  I tracked the water onto them as they pumped, and they stopped charging their watergun, moving away through the trees.

“Was that her?” I inquired.

Keith shook his head.  “You’ll know her when you see her.”

“You’re really doing a lot for my confidence, you know that?”

He didn’t answer that other than to say “We should get moving.”

If we were going to be looking for Allison, it made sense to go where there were people.  We should approach from an oblique angle of course.  I started jogging up one of the roundabout paths, Keith following behind.

Halfway up, I nearly walked into a beam of water as thick as my arm.  The path was cut into the side of the hill, a three foot embankment on the left, thick forest descending to a cut clearing on the right.  I ducked, dropping below the level of the embankment.  It was forested too, so I had to guess that whoever was shooting at me was a decent shot.  “Can you see anything?” I hissed at Keith, who was still standing.

“No.” His head rotated back and forth slowly as he scanned for my assailant.

A glowing light appeared overhead, and then fell through the canopy to drop onto the path nearby.  A foot-long rod of plastic radiating bright yellow.


Another one pinwheeled overhead and dropped on the path behind me.

Keith smiled, and the effect was creepy in the weird light.  “Now that’d probably be Allison.”

Screw this.  Only crazy people threw chemlights in a waterfight.  No way I was going up against a crazy person.

I broke right, catching trees and high-stepping my way down the hill in an attempt to keep from falling over.  The terrain was uneven, fallen branches and roots impeding my footwork.  I bounced off trees, stepped off the grade, and promptly stumbled.  The clearing was filled with white plastic chairs all facing the back, and a bonfire burned in the center.  Probably a wedding tomorrow.

I hurtled the chairs and sprinted further into treeline on the other side, ducking branches and hopping the small ravines that cut through the forest floor.  The trees thinned, and I broke through into another clearing.  Giant pillars rose from the manicured grass, metal ribbons cut with words connecting the tops in intricate loops.  Brick planters were randomly scattered throughout the clearing, and I hurtled those like I’d done the chairs.


A female voice shouted my name from well behind me.  I ignored her, continued my mad dash across the clearing.  The far side was open – no trees – and I descended the grade down to a woodchip covered path at the bottom of a steep hill.  Left or right?  Right was more or less back to the visitor’s center.  Back to Allison.

Left, of course.

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