Someone was after him already. The game didn’t start until midnight tomorrow. There should be no immediate danger. Most likely, the assassin planned to follow Mac to his rented apartment, where he would lay in wait. But that wasn’t where Mac was heading.
Mac stopped suddenly. No footsteps behind him. Was he mistaken? Mac got to the bus stop and put his hood up. It wasn’t raining, but the air felt muggy enough for there to be a storm. The buses only ran for another hour. He wouldn’t be able to get one back.
If the prospect was promising enough, Mac would find a hiding place. He didn’t have to be back at work until two on Monday. By then, he meant to be at least two targets down.
The number 5 bus appeared at the far end of the street. Just then, the first drops of rain began to fall. First rain in weeks. It was warm, yet refreshing. As the bus came to a halt, a guy arrived from out of nowhere. Middle aged, bald, he paid his fare and sat three seats back from Mac. Was he the assassin? Mostly, it was young people who played the game, but there was no upper age limit. The rules only stated that you had to be over fifteen.
The light on the bus flickered on and off. A faulty bulb, nothing more. Raindrops glistened on the window, backlit by street lamps. When Mac got off the bus, the balding guy didn’t follow. Outside, the rain had stopped almost as soon as it began. The evening had become even more humid, unseasonably sticky.
Mac examined his laminate. A scruffy guy with thick glasses had given it to him in the waiting room of a derelict bus station. For no good reason, Mac had been expecting a guy as his first target. Instead, the guy had given him a grown woman. Jal, aged twenty-four, worked in an elementary school and lived in a shared house on the east side of the city. Her name wasn’t her real name, any more than Mac’s was. Many Spray players chose three- or four-letter names or silly nicknames as their player ID. Jal was pretty, if the photo was anything to go by. Mac wondered what she did on Saturday nights.
He had checked the phone book. Her house was around the next corner. It felt a little evil, arriving at a stranger’s house after midnight, staking her out. What if someone called the police? The authorities knew about the game. They had tried to ban it, but there was no law against people using water pistols. To stop himself from being arrested Mac only had to show his laminate. By giving their details, targets gave you permission to enter their house, as long as it was to spray, not steal. And as long as you didn’t actually break in.
The house was a nondescript two story with red paint flaking off its brick walls. There was a light on inside. The curtains were half open. Mac ducked beneath the fence at the front and waited. After a while, he used his binoculars. That was her all right: Jal, with two guys and another girl. It looked like they were watching a movie.
Mac had confirmed his target. Now he needed a place to hide. He walked around the perimeter of the house until he found a back gate with no lock. He let himself in, hood up, hands thrust in pockets. The best thing to do would be to sneak inside the shared house, be ready to do her as soon as midnight struck tomorrow. But twenty-three hours would be a long wait, and he had just pulled a long shift. To play Spray, you had to be patient. The game was three weeks long and it hadn’t started yet.
Mac would return tomorrow.
Saturday 11:52 P.M.
“Where did you meet him?” Cliff asked Shell.
“A rundown garage near the mini-mart. He was wearing a Yankees cap and this disgusting old raincoat. Yours?”
“He had a false beard and glasses when we met, really obvious fake, like he didn’t care who knew. About my height.”
“Mine wasn’t as tall as you. Maybe there’s more than one.”
“Who cares? Want to compare targets?”
Cliff gave her one of his easy, cheeky smiles. Shell and Cliff had rooms in the same dorm building but this was the longest conversation they’d ever had. Cliff usually gave the impression he was looking down his nose at her. His attitude made Shell come over all perky and girly, a side of herself she didn’t like. Yet, recently, Cliff seemed to be interested in her. Earlier in the day, when they’d been testing out their water pistols at the city park, he’d followed her around until he’d given her a good soaking. Tonight, he kept flirting with her.
“I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours,” he went on.
Shell was crap at saying no. But no, she decided.
“Maybe later,” she said. Several boarders at the City Academy had paid their money and tried to register for the game. There was a limit of two hundred players. So far, only the two of them had been accepted. At some point, they might be up against each other. Secrecy, as Shell saw it, was essential.
Cliff put his arm around Shell. He was very touchy-feely with other girls but never, before, with her.
“Come on, Shell. You know you want to share.”
Before Shell could reply, Maiko knocked on her door. Shy Maiko had also applied to join the game. She seemed an unlikely assassin, but Shell suspected she had ulterior motives.
“Hey, Maiko! Did you hear yet?”
Maiko tossed back her long, dark hair and shook her head.
“Look at this.” Cliff handed Maiko his card. She read it out loud:
“Prak. Works in a bank, lives on the other side of town. That sounds like a high-rise building, Cliff. Could be a tough one.”
“We’ve got twenty-four hours before the game begins. By Monday, I’ll know his routine, get him on the way to work maybe.”
“It’s weird,” Shell said, “knowing someone out there has my location and my e-mail and they’re coming to get me.”
“Not if somebody else gets them first,” Maiko pointed out. There was a loud ping from her laptop. Maiko opened it. Cliff looked over her shoulder.
“Too late to back out now,” he said. “That’s your contact e-mail from the gamekeeper.”
The Game Is On! read the subject line. Maiko opened it:
Return-Path: <email@example.com> Received: from aamtain07-winn.ispmail.nodoby.com ([22.214.171.124])
for <firstname.lastname@example.org> 10:00:33 +0100
Thank you for your contribution. You have been registered in the game that begins at midnight tomorrow. Please read the following carefully.
You must be available to meet the gamekeeper at any time during the week before the game begins. He will e-mail you a time and a location where you must meet him the next day. At the meeting, he will give you a manila envelope containing a laminated card that displays the following:
Your first target’s game name and a recent photograph
Your intended target’s home address
Your intended target’s work address
Your intended target’s real name and contact details
Keep this card with you at all times. Your mission is to find and spray (by water gun, water balloon, or Super Soaker) the target.
You can hunt your target down however you see fit; you can pose as a delivery person and spray them when they open the door. You may disguise yourself and soak them in the street, etc. You may not hunt them down at work (or within a block of their work), at their place of study, or on public transportation (including waiting areas). Breaking and entering is also forbidden. Any infraction will result in disqualification and your target’s reinstatement. You may work with other players, but there can be only one assassin, and only one winner.
Further refinements to these rules will be given to you with your target card. Rules may change or be added to. You must inform the gamekeeper of all successful soakings within four hours. Cooperation is mandatory. When you are assassinated you must surrender your target card to your assailant. If you are successful in your assassination attempt, the person you sprayed will give you their laminate. The person they were supposed to spray next becomes your new target. This continues until you have worked through all remaining players and retrieve the laminate with your name on it. At this point, you may claim your prize.
“It’s so exciting,” Maiko said. “Now all three of us are playing!”
“But only one of us can win,” Cliff pointed out. “Let’s make a deal. Whoever lasts the longest, the other two will help them. Deal?”
“Deal!” the other two agreed.
They began to discuss game strategy. It was just after midnight when Maiko’s e-mail pinged again. The new mail was from the gamekeeper.
You are to meet me this evening on the third floor of the multistory parking garage at 216 City Road. I will be by the pay machine at 6:15 precisely. Do not be late or your place will be forfeited.
Her computer gave another loud ping. The three of them read the e-mail highlighted on the screen. The sender was anonymous. You are my first target, it said. I shall take you out on Monday, at 12:01.
Sunday 9:04 A.M.
Two men stood outside the dorm building.
“Spray surveillance?” The dude talking had wiry hair and a thin mustache. Age: thirty at most. “Maybe we can help each other.”
“Sure,” Green said. He held out his laminate. This dude wasn’t his target. “Let’s see yours.”
He looked at Mustache’s laminate. Her Spray name was Maiko. She lived in the same mixed dorm as Green’s target, on a girls’ wing. She had no part-time job, unlike most students. Mustache wasn’t allowed to break into her room or attack her in buildings where she studied, so she might be tricky to spray in the short term.
“I want to hit her at 12:01. Are you a student?”
Green shook his head. “I’m IT support all over the Academy campus.”
“Nice. Means you can’t be sprayed here. I have a plan.”
Green listened. He had a few plans of his own. He was going to win this game. But you had to use other players. He was happy to steal their ideas. That was how you got on.
The plan was a good one.
“Okay,” Mustache finished. “All we have to do is swap cards.”
Sunday 11:28 A.M.
“Are you the gamekeeper?” Han asked the clean-shaven man wearing thick, dark glasses.
“No. I’m his assistant. How old are you?”
“Nearly sixteen,” Han lied. “Do you want a birth certificate?”
“No,” the gamekeeper’s assistant said. “I’m aware that you sent in proof of age and identity, but, in person, you look very young.”
“I’m trying to,” Han said. “That way, my targets won’t notice me coming. I thought I might wear a school uniform some of the time.”
“Most high schools have spring break soon,” the assistant said. “A uniform would make you conspicuous.”
“Thanks for the advice.”
He handed her the card containing the name and details of her first target. Han glanced at the contents. It wasn’t who she wanted.
“Thanks,” she said to the man, whose shape and face were largely concealed by his coat and the woolen ski mask he wore.
“Good luck,” the gamekeeper’s assistant said. “I’m sorry to give you the information so late. We’re short staffed. Please wait here for two minutes before leaving.”
Han stood at the door, watching him go. He had sensed that she was too young but didn’t seem to care. Not much, anyway. Behind her, in the musty, derelict church, a rat darted between the pews. Less than a minute had passed, but it was long enough. She hated waiting.
Sunday 4:17 P.M.
Shell opened the door to a plump guy with dark, curly hair. She didn’t recognize him. At first, she thought he was another student. She could usually tell students and civilians apart. The guy wore no-brand sneakers, a plain T-shirt, and baggy jeans. A screwdriver handle poked out of a front pocket. Not a student, Shell decided.
“I’m here to help with Maiko’s computer,” he said.
“Tech support on a Sunday?” This had to be part of the game.
“I was called in.”
“Can you show me some ID?”
He showed her a staff card that looked genuine, with a photo ID. As he was putting it away, Shell glimpsed another card beneath it, a credit card–sized laminate like the one the gamekeeper had given her.
“Can I take a closer look?”
She snatched the guy’s wallet and, before he could object, had lifted the laminate high enough to read Maiko’s name.
“Maiko’s not in,” she told him. “She’s meeting the gamekeeper, getting her target details. So I’m afraid you’re a little early.” She turned around and yelled down the corridor. “Cliff!”
Cliff stumbled out of his room. “What is it?”
“You ought to meet this guy. He’s Maiko’s assassin.”
“Really?” Cliff reached into his pocket. There was a whirring noise. The big guy seemed not to hear it, for he didn’t hurry off. He had a sheepish smile on his face, like he’d been caught out but didn’t mind. A real loser.
“It’s only a game, right?” he said. “Spray and be sprayed. You playing, too?”
Cliff nodded. Before the fake tech guy could turn around, Cliff whipped out his phone and took a photo.
“Neat,” the big guy said. “Let’s see.”
He leaned over and looked at the picture. “Not a bad likeness. See you later, dude.”
“I hope they’re all as stupid as him,” Cliff told Shell when the big guy was gone. “One of us might have a chance of winning.”
Sunday 10:39 P.M.
It was warm enough to be in shirt sleeves, but Mac wore an old gray windbreaker with big pockets. He had been home for sleep, a shower, a shave, and something to eat. The game started in eighty minutes. Jal—if she was here—would be on her guard. There were no lights on in the house. Mac guessed she was away, staking out her own target. Or she and her house mates might have gone out.
He tried the back door. Locked. He had two options. One was to sneak into the house when one or all of the residents returned from wherever they were. The other was to hide out. Jal didn’t drive. He’d checked her route to work. A bus would drop her off within a block of her school, so he had to get her before she got on the bus.
He heard footsteps. One set. Was this her coming back? No. Too heavy. Mac crouched behind the garbage cans at the rear of the house. The back gate had been left open, not by him. He had a narrow view of the street. A silhouette passed. It could be, almost certainly was, the bald guy from the night before. Luckily, Baldy didn’t pause, or look around, but kept walking.
Okay, so Baldy must live around here. No need to be paranoid. No, take that back; there was a need to be paranoid, but the guy hadn’t spotted him. If he was playing the game, he was probably on his way to Mac’s home, staking him out there. Mac had left a light on in his first-floor apartment. Let Baldy watch as long as he wanted. Mac had no intention of returning tonight.
The street was quiet again. Time to find a hiding place.
Sunday 11:58 P.M.
“Why aren’t you out stalking your targets?” Shell asked Cliff and Maiko.
“I’ve taken a look at mine,” Cliff said. “There’s no hurry. Everyone’s going to be on their guard at first, running around like crazy. I plan to lull mine into a sense of false security.”
“If your assassin doesn’t get you first,” Shell pointed out.
“We’ll be fine if we stick together,” Cliff said. “And we already know what Maiko’s looks like.”
“You could hardly miss him!” Shell said.
“He’s there now!” Maiko said, pointing out of the window. “He said he’d get me at 12:01 and there he is, waiting to come in!”
Something felt wrong. Nobody would be so brazen, Shell thought, no matter how stupid they were.
“Let’s go and scare him off!” Cliff said.
“I’ll stay here with Maiko and watch,” Shell told him. Cliff shot off down the corridor, yelling. Doors opened. Other students hurried out after Cliff, wanting to know what the fuss was all about.
“This is exciting, isn’t it?” Maiko said. “I’m glad I let Cliff persuade me to join.”
“You like Cliff, don’t you?” Shell said.
“Everyone likes Cliff,” Maiko said with a shrug. “Isn’t he why you joined the game?”
“No!” Shell said as a crowd of students clattered onto the concourse outside the dorm. No campus security yet. The Academy authorities said the game was irresponsible. Bystanders could be frightened. But the Academy hadn’t banned it.
Shell would run a mile from a real gun. But you’d have to be pretty dumb to mistake a brightly colored plastic water pistol for a deadly weapon. People might get wet; that was the only risk. And only if they got in the way of those who chose to play. The game was harmless fun, was how Shell saw it: a welcome release during exams. As long as assassins didn’t spray each other in assembly halls and classrooms, there was nothing any authority could do to stop it.
She looked at her watch. Only a few seconds before the game began. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
Monday 12:00 A.M.
Everything went according to plan.
Cliff, the arrogant guy who Green had met earlier, came charging down the stairs. There was a posse of students behind him, most of them giggling like infants in nursery school. They opened the security doors as wide as they went, then charged outside. None of them noticed the dude with the mustache as he weaved his way through the crowd, ambling into the building.
“Hi, man,” Green said, affecting a laid-back, surfer drawl. Cliff gave him a smug grin. He was a year younger than Green, seventeenish, and, even if he was a straight-A student, no better qualified. But Cliff looked good and, in this world, good looks were all you needed to feel superior.
“You’re not getting inside,” Cliff told Green. “Maiko’s protected. So you might as well go home. Leave her alone.”
“I’ll leave her alone, all right,” Green said, pointing his Super Soaker. “She’s not my target. You are.”
As Green sprayed Cliff, the posse of students burst into laughter. Cliff, drenched, gave Green one terrible, furious look. Then he realized that he had to take his soaking lightly or he’d appear even more stupid.
“Oh, you conned me, all right,” he muttered, shaking the water from his curly hair. “I suppose you want this.”
He handed Green his target card. Green shoved the laminate in his pocket without a glance and walked away. The watching students applauded. All the hundreds of computers Green had fixed for kids their age and older, and nobody had ever applauded him before.
He wondered how the dude who’d helped him was getting along. What name did the mustachioed man go by? He should have asked.
Monday 12:01 A.M.
Watching from an upstairs window, Shell wasn’t sure whether to feel sorry for Cliff or pleased that he’d had his comeuppance. The boy who sprayed him was clever. He’d even showed them a laminate with Maiko’s details on it. Which meant that he must be working with Maiko’s assassin….
Shell hurried up the stairs to the floor where she and Maiko had rooms. Maiko’s door was ajar.
“Maiko. It’s me, Shell. You’ve got to lock your door!”
“Too late,” said a warm, deep voice.
The guy at the door had a pencil mustache and long, thin hair.
“He knocked on the door and I opened it,” Maiko said. Her T-shirt was soaked through.
“I said I’d get you at twelve-oh-one,” the shooter said. “Can I have your card, please?”
Maiko reached into her pocket. Shell only got the briefest glance at the picture on the card. A good-looking young guy. Mustache looked at her looking at it.
“You playing the game, too?” he asked.
“Catch you later,” he said with a grin.
Monday 7:49 A.M.
Mac wished he had a car to sleep in. The shed he’d found was extremely uncomfortable. He’d spent the night scrunched up between a bunch of tools and an old bike. Now his legs ached. He was tired, but he was in position, crouched behind the garbage cans at the back of Jal’s house. Any moment now.
A door slammed. Mac didn’t know what the other people in the house did for a living, but elementary school teachers had to wake up early, so this was likely her. He lifted his head above the can’s lid just high enough to see out. It was Jal, all right. She stopped at the front gate and looked cautiously up and down the street. She was within range. He had to move now.
Mac tried to stand. Disaster! His leg had gone to sleep. He leaned on the can, pressing his foot against the concrete, trying to get some feeling back. At least Jal hadn’t seen him. She turned left out of the front gate. The bus stop was three hundred yards away. If she ran, Mac might not reach her. Still holding on to the can, he overbalanced. It fell onto him, bruising his thigh.
Nobody came out to investigate the noise. That was something. Mac forced himself to stand, then limped through the back gate into the street. He had worked out Plan B the night before. There were two streets that ran parallel to each other. If he ran fast enough along the back one, he could overtake her.
Mac had to work his way through the pain. He ran along the street, picking up speed, ignoring the puzzled glances of a postal worker on her rounds and a cyclist wearing a helmet. A tiny dog with big ears, perched at a window, barked loudly. As Mac passed, it scratched at the glass, as if about to leap through it. Mac turned the corner and almost ran straight into Jal, who was walking at a fast clip, her bus stop only a hundred feet away.
“Watch it!” she said in a stern, schoolteacher’s voice.
“Sorry,” he said. Pulling open his windbreaker, he revealed the pistol concealed beneath it. He gave it a couple of pumps, then sprayed her across the chest and shoulders.
Jal looked angry, angrier than he had seen a woman since his stepmom walked out on his dad. “How am I going to go to school looking like this?” she asked him.
“You should have thought of that when you entered the game.”
“Touché.” She shrugged hopelessly, her makeup running, then opened her purse. She got out the laminate containing the name of his next target. “Good luck.”
Taking the laminate, Mac felt more alive than he had in months. He was aware of everything going on in the world around him. It was like being in the movies, in wide screen, high definition, surround sound, and even—sort of—cinematic slow motion. He was aware of Jal noticing something, reacting. What?
Mac spun around. The bald guy from the bus the night before was walking toward Mac. He had an orange Super Soaker in hand. In another moment, he would be in range. Mac tensed, scoped his surroundings. There was nowhere to run.
“Excuse me,” Jal said, and stepped aside. “I don’t want to get even wetter.”
Mac was trapped. Baldy wasn’t his target. Even if Mac’s pistol weren’t empty, he would not be allowed to shoot back. Mac had to take his punishment like a man. The only witnesses would be Jal and the cyclist wearing a helmet. The cyclist, oddly, seemed to be coming back in their direction. Baldy pointed his gun. Mac stood his ground. Braver to take a soaking than run and avoid the full force of the blast.
Mac managed to smile at his assailant. He felt like the condemned man facing the firing squad. But there was no shame in getting caught. At least he’d made one kill. The bald man’s middle-aged face was serious, full of intent.
Before Baldy could press the trigger, the cyclist passed alongside him. The cyclist appeared to say something. Baldy turned to look at him, or her. The cyclist grinned and pressed a button on the bike’s handlebars. A spray of water soaked the bald man. He dropped his Super Soaker, glanced at Mac, and shook his head.
The cyclist did a U-turn and returned to Baldy, who began to laugh in a creepy, empty way. Then he surrendered his card.
“Shouldn’t you be running?” Jal said to Mac. “The cyclist’ll be after you in a moment!”
Mac took another look at his new assassin but couldn’t make out his or her face. Then he sprinted away.
Mac didn’t look back, but ducked in and out of streets and alleyways, his heart pumping and head spinning, not slowing down until he was sure he couldn’t have been followed.
Tuesday 8:50 A.M.
Their living space was a metal box, little more than six feet cubed, with bunk beds on one side and a fold-up table with laptop, radio, and electric kettle on the other. Their clothes were piled on the floor, except for their uniforms, which were on hangers at the end of the bunks. For washing, they had wet wipes. The portable toilet was for use only in emergencies. The overhead fluorescent light, leeching power from the street supply, flickered.
“When you suggested we move in together, this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” Zed said.
“In the future,” Yogi replied, “most people will live like this, in storage containers. When you get a job in a different city, your home will be forklifted onto a flatbed and away you go.”
“I think most people would want windows, if only for better ventilation. Still, it keeps us safe from our stalkers.”
“How did it go last night?” Yogi asked. He’d been asleep when she got in. He slept like a log. Full of adrenaline, it had taken hours for Zed to pass out, hours listening to Yogi snore in the dark.
“I got him on the street. He’d been out on a kill himself, had a couple of drinks to celebrate success.”
“Fatal,” Yogi said. “Come on, details.”
Zed gave him the details, downplaying what a thrill it had been, dwelling instead on the long hours she’d spent waiting behind a low hedge, doing occasional crunches to keep herself supple.
“How’d you do?” she asked when she’d finished.
“We’re a team, right?” Yogi said to Zed.
“Until we end up facing each other,” Zed said.
“So help me track down my target.”
“She lives in a dorm at the City Academy, doesn’t she? Can’t be that hard.”
“I went over there during work. There’d been reports of an intruder and all the witnesses were really anxious to tell the story, make it clear that this was just a game. Seems there were three of them in the same dorm building playing the game. Two got blown away in the first five minutes. That just leaves my girl.”
Zed laughed. “Five minutes! That was an expensive experience.”
“My target’s a science major. When I asked to see her, everyone closed up on me. I figure she might talk to a girl….”
“More than half the people in the game are women,” Zed pointed out. “They’re protecting her, and they’ll suspect me.”
“Not if you don’t have a Super Soaker on you,” Yogi said. “Come on, you’ve made one kill already.”
Zed smiled, remembering the sweetness of the feeling when she’d sprayed her target. She had the laminate for her next target, but he wasn’t at home and didn’t start work until this evening, when she, too, had to be at work.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll see what I can do. Is it clear?”
Yogi raised the periscope. “Clear.”
While Yogi dressed, Zed checked her makeup, zipped up her boots, pulled on her biker jacket, and unlocked the door of their immaculately concealed hideout.
“You follow thirty paces behind, like we agreed.”
Yogi finished putting on his uniform. “You look nothing like your photo. You’re being needlessly paranoid.”
“Do you want my help or don’t you? Peel off when you’re sure I’m clear,” Zed said. She pushed back her long hair to reveal the gold stars that studded each of her ears. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
Zed stepped outside. A hot sun beat down on the city streets. When she was sure she was clear, Zed boarded a bus heading for the City Academy.
Tuesday 11:55 A.M.
Shell was safe in the classroom and the corridor immediately outside. It counted as a place of study. Nevertheless, Cliff and Maiko walked her across the Academy campus. One strode in front, the other behind, ready to intercept any potential assassin. She’d thought of skipping the class but that was too paranoid. Her assassin would have to be very sharp to get access to her schedule. Also, walking around with a pair of bodyguards was a thrill. This feeling—like you were on stage all the time—was one of the reasons she’d joined the game.
“I’ll meet you when class ends,” Cliff said when they reached the lecture hall. A brief flash of resentment crossed Maiko’s face.
The door was locked. It wouldn’t mean anything that Shell didn’t recognize the young woman who stood next to her. The Academy was very popular and new students transferred in all the time. The girl looked slightly older than Shell and was in Goth gear. All black apart from gold studs and silver bangles, a leather jacket too heavy for the time of year, and round John Lennon glasses. Shell tried to spot where she might have a water pistol concealed.
“Are you famous or something?” the Goth asked as she pulled a small notebook out of her tiny bag. “Those two looked like bodyguards.”
“Nothing like that,” Shell said.
“Or maybe your boyfriend’s just very clingy. He’s a hunk, though. I wouldn’t mind him clinging to me.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Shell said.
Their teacher was nowhere to be seen. To avoid talking to the Goth, Shell reached into her bag for lip balm. Mistake.
“Is that a water pistol you’ve got in there?” the Goth asked.
Shell gave what she hoped was an aggressive look. “You don’t belong in this class. So tell me straight. Are you my assassin?”
The Goth gave a wide-open smile. “I’m not. Pat me down if you like, but I’m not carrying. Here.”
She held out a target card like the one Shell carried. Her target was a guy, not Shell.
“I’m playing the game, like you. Maybe we could team up.”
“Where’s your Super Soaker?”
Gothgirl shrugged. “My target’s staying away from home and doesn’t start work until this evening. No point in carrying it.”
A man in a suit walked up to the door.
“I’m afraid Mr. Callan has been called away on short notice. Sorry for your wasted journey.”
“My name’s Zed, by the way,” said Gothgirl. “Want to grab a coffee?”
Cliff was coming to pick Shell up at five to one. She had to hang around until then.
“Sure,” she said.
Tuesday 12:10 P.M.
Mac’s new target had an unfair advantage. Mac couldn’t spray him at the office, or when he was sitting in the car, because—in his job—the car counted as a place of work. Not only that, but Mac didn’t have a car himself. He couldn’t follow the car until the target got out of it. People in the target’s job shouldn’t be allowed to play the game, Mac figured. He’d watched him go into the office; now he watched him come out. His cell phone rang as he unlocked the car. The target hunched his shoulders as he answered. Was this a chance?
It was a four-door car and a three-second run. Mac risked blowing his cover and ran. He opened the rear passenger-side door. The target wasn’t too tall. The driver’s seat was pushed a fair way forward. There was room for Mac to squash into the well between the front and back seats. He closed the door behind him and waited to see if he’d been heard. A car door opened. The passenger door.
“Get a move on!” The voice was loud. Mac had hoped for time to get his Super Soaker primed. He wanted to make a kill as soon as the target got out of the car. But now he had to keep still and hope the Super Soaker’s reservoir was sufficiently pressurized. There wasn’t much space. Mac risked repeating the problem that had nearly cost him this morning’s kill. Cramp. The other car door opened.
“What did the boss say about using your private cell on duty?” Loudmouth asked. He sounded a fair bit older than the target.
The target chuckled. “Not as much as she’d say if she knew what the call was about.”
The engine started.
“You joined the game, didn’t you?” Loudmouth asked.
“I’m planning on making my first kill today. A student.”
“There’s a special briefing notice in the patrol room. Watch out for idiots with water pistols. Members of the public might mistake them for terrorists or armed robbers.”
“Sure. You get an awful lot of armed robbers using bright pink and green water pistols.”
Pause, then Loudmouth again.
“Where are we going? This isn’t our normal route.”
“Just a brief detour. I got a tip.”
As he drove, the target explained how the game worked, why he had to be part of it. Loudmouth wasn’t impressed.
“Water pistols are wimpy things. Kids’ stuff.”
“They’ve come up since your day. Do you know how a Super Soaker works?”
“Science isn’t my strong point.”
“Air pressure. Each time you drive water from the large reservoir of your Super Soaker into the small reservoir, it pushes up against all of the air inside. Air is compressible—you can reduce its volume by squeezing it—but water isn’t. The more water you squeeze into the reservoir, the higher the pressure of the air inside. This cushion of high-pressure air pushes on all of the water in the reservoir; the water presses on the sides of the gun, trying to get outside to restore the pressure balance.”
“So why doesn’t it leak?”
“The only thing keeping the water in the gun is the trigger,” Mac’s target explained. “The trigger works as a lever, pressing against the plastic tube that the water goes through. The stronger the lever, the better the gun. Release the lever and the pressurized air shoots the water out.”
The car did a sudden swerve and Mac’s Super Soaker rammed against his left kidney, making him groan. The guys in front didn’t seem to notice. Mac’s gun used CPS—the Constant Pressure System—his gun had a flexible bladder that kept the water under extra pressure. It was better at retaining water pressure over long periods of time. At least Mac hoped so. He hadn’t had to field-test it yet. Also, the CPS had a bigger range and you didn’t need to keep squeezing the trigger.
“I still don’t get why you’re playing,” Loudmouth said from the driver’s seat. “It isn’t going to make you popular at work.”
“The game makes you feel more alert, more alive, when you know that somebody’s after you all the time,” Mac’s target said.
“Don’t you get enough of that in this job anyway?”
“No, there’s too much sitting around. Here we are.”
“A café? Didn’t you say places of work were out of bounds?”
“Classrooms and bedrooms are out, not coffee bars.”
Mac heard a rustling noise. Something landed on the backseat. A tie. It was followed by a jacket. The target wanted to be out of uniform. The car door opened and closed. Mac had to risk getting up. He half stretched, half rolled onto the backseat. No way could he do this silently, so he spoke before he was spoken to.
“Don’t panic,” he told Loudmouth. “I’m part of the game.”
The target’s partner could grab Mac, warn Yogi in time for him to run. But Mac sensed that the two men weren’t buddies. Mac gave the loudmouthed partner a big grin. The partner grinned right back.
“Go get him, cowboy.”
Tuesday 12:21 P.M.
Zed handed Shell a coffee and they sat in the window. They were too near the door for complete comfort. At least Shell knew there was a back way out. Zed had checked for her when she went to the bathroom earlier. If a threat appeared, they could bolt.
A police car pulled up outside. You didn’t see them on campus very often.
“You should get yourself a CPS,” Zed told Shell. “They’ve got a fifty-foot range.”
That was exactly the kind of gun Shell had. Why did people always assume Shell was a wuss? She was about to explain this to Zed when she saw something that distracted her.
“Look,” she said to her companion.
The policeman—if he was a policeman—was out of the car and walking toward the café. He wore an open-necked shirt and had his right hand behind his back.
“Oh no,” Zed said as the policeman’s right hand appeared, holding a bright yellow Super Soaker. She stood up.
A boy with scruffy blond hair was getting out of the backseat of the car.
“He’s cute,” Shell said. “Think one of them’s after one of us?” She wanted to bolt but didn’t want to miss the action.
“Doesn’t matter,” Zed said as the cute guy blasted the policeman with his Super Soaker. “Now he’s got CPS.”
Shell watched the soaked police officer reach into his pocket and hand over the laminate.
“His new target’s bound to be you,” Zed said. “Let’s get out of here.”
She opened the café door.
“What about the back exit?” Shell asked.
“This way’s quicker,” Zed said. “Don’t worry, he hasn’t had time to reload.”
Funny, Shell thought, the way Zed seemed sure that the target was me, not Zed herself. Zed was a student, too, wasn’t she? Shell got a good look at the blond guy as they hurried away. Behind him, another police officer, in full uniform, got out of the car. He was laughing his head off.
Wednesday 6:54 P.M.
“Where do you keep your weapons?”
“Would you like to see them?”
Han nodded enthusiastically. The assassin pulled out a large tray from beneath his single bed. It was covered with brightly colored plastic. He pointed at them one by one.
“This is a Super Soaker with a water burst attachment. This one’s got a three-way directional head for shooting around corners. This is a standard water pistol for traveling. Only a fifteen-foot range but that’s good enough for most assassinations. These are fake cigarettes with a built-in water pump. Over there’s my supply of water balloons. And this is a standard Super Soaker.”
“Can I hold it?”
Han lifted the empty gun. “How long does the contest last?”
“In theory,” the hairdresser told Han, “the game could go on forever. Some people hide out and don’t make any kills for the first few days, slowing everything down. That’s why there’s usually a rule that, if you have a week with no kills, you’re out. Also, no two games are the same. In the final week, the gamekeeper always revises the rules a different way. First time, the person with most kills won. Next time, there was a last man standing, time-limited knockout. Ideally, it ends in a classic duel, a gunfight at the O.K. Corral kind of thing.”
“You’ve read all this up, haven’t you?”
“It’s all on the Net. I can show you where to look.”
“That’d be cool,” Han said, flicking her hair back to let him see her wide-eyed smile. “What about the gamekeeper? Is he one person or a team?”
“As far as anyone knows, it’s just one guy. He must have support. And money. The game takes place in cities all over the world. The entry fee isn’t exactly high.”
“Did you meet him?”
“He handed over my first target card. The way he was dressed, big coat, sunglasses, hat, I couldn’t even be sure he was a ‘he.’ What about you? Did he give you my details in person?”
“No. By e-mail.”
“Most stuff gets done by e-mail. I’m surprised he granted an interview to a school magazine, though. This game gets attention from all of the big papers and magazines. TV, too. It’s a phenomenon.”
“Really? How exciting,” Han said. “Maybe he responded to me because I asked nicely. Could you do me a favor?”
“Anything,” the hairdresser said.
“Could I try out the gun?”
Han was wearing her school uniform. She’d told her interviewee she was fourteen and that her dad was outside in the car (there was no car; no dad, either). As the hairdresser loaded the Super Soaker, she showed him a photograph.
“I don’t suppose you recognize this person? They could be playing the game. It’s a couple of years old.”
Her target shook his head. He handed her the water pistol.
“Will you take a picture for the magazine?”
“Sure.” He snapped her playfully pointing the Super Soaker at him.
She took the camera back. “Okay if I shoot you?”
“Sure. By the time it comes out, the game will be long over.”
“I didn’t mean with the camera.” Han gave him a sweet smile before using his own water pistol to soak him.
Five minutes later, when the hairdresser had calmed down, toweled off, and given her his target laminate, Han made nice.
“I know you’ll be following the game,” she said. “If you come across the person from the photo, please e-mail or text me. Here.”
She gave him the laminate with his details as a souvenir.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Does it matter?” she said. “And do you think a real fourteen-year-old would turn up to interview you wearing a school uniform?”
She glanced at the laminate.
“Done any research on this guy yet?”
The hairdresser shrugged. “He lives in a very secure apartment complex, and when he’s not there, he’s working. Good luck. You’ll need it. I can’t see him falling for the interview scam.”
“Don’t worry,” Han said, “I never play the same trick twice.”
Thursday 12:11 A.M.
Finishing up a shift was the dangerous time. Zed knew she was being watched, but they weren’t allowed to hit her in the building. Would her assassin spot her when she left? Not easily. She had called a taxi. Her plan was to swing by her next target’s place on the way back, check it out. She had a pistol on her but wasn’t planning to take her out tonight, not unless an opportunity presented itself.
Then she would go back to the hideout. Would Yogi be there? He had been eliminated, so there was no reason for him not to go back to his own place. She hoped he had. His joining the game was meant to bring them closer together, but he had screwed up from the start. She’d gift-wrapped Shell for Yogi and he’d bungled the hit by bringing his own assassin with him. You’d have thought, as a police officer, he’d be cleverer than that.
Zed changed into her street clothes, put her uniform in a shoulder bag, and left by a maintenance exit. She spotted her assassin as she was getting into her taxi. He glanced in her direction then returned his gaze to the main entrance. Not a clue.
Thursday 6:02 P.M.
Work was a haven but hardly relaxing. Every time a bike passed, Mac went into a state of hyper alert, thinking this might be his assassin. The bike was his only clue. He wasn’t even sure of the rider’s sex. But s/he had sent him a text that morning, signed D.C.
You’ll need cooling off after flipping those burgers, it read. Soak you later.
D.C.: Dangerous cyclist? S/he would be watching him now. D.C. would know that the burger bar closed at midnight on week nights, might follow him on the bus the way Baldy did. Mac was safe until he got on the bus. The stop was on the same block as the burger bar. But when he got off, he was a sitting target. So he had to find another way to get home, or set up a decoy. Also, he had his own target to track down. A seventeen-year-old student called Shell.
Shell had seen him. She was one of the two girls sitting in the window of the café at the Academy. She had hurried off with her friend, the Goth, as he was collecting the laminate from Yogi, the game-playing police officer. He could have gone after her. Mac didn’t have time to reload. Even so, he could have borrowed Yogi’s water pistol and got two for the price of one. But it would have felt wrong, against the spirit of the game. Yesterday, he had been given a narrow escape. Today it was Shell’s turn for the get-out-of-jail-free card.
Mac could wait outside her dorm all night, stalk her. But he wanted to play it smart. There must be a way of drawing her out. Mac had two hits already. If he could spray a policeman, he could surely soak a high school student. But, first, he had to avoid being soaked himself. He turned to Ben, his coworker.
“Can I stay at your place tonight?”
“You’re hiding out because of your stupid water pistol game?”
“You’d find it exciting if you gave it half a chance.”
“To each his own. It sounds like tag for grown-ups to me. But you can have some floor if you want.”
“Where are you parked?” Mac asked.
“Back of the supermarket.”
That was two streets away.
“Would it be all right if you left before me, picked me up from here?”
“What am I, your chauffeur?”
“I’m being hunted,” Mac said.
“Okay, okay. You finish closing up tonight and I’ll give you a lift back to my place. I’ve got a spare blanket.”
“You’re a pal.”
Outside, a bike drifted by with no lights on. Dangerous.
Thursday 9:24 P.M.
Green was famous for pulling late shifts. He liked his own company and, though things still went wrong at night, there was less to do. He played games, designed software, e-mailed and messaged buddies. Since finishing school at sixteen, most of his friends were people he’d never met. He was more comfortable that way.
This whole building was Green’s work zone. When the game was on, work was the safest place for him to be. He had even started sleeping here. Green had a flashlight and a master key that let him into the bathroom. He had a sleeping bag and a pillow that he kept in the video recorder cupboard (nobody had used videos for years). He might stay tonight. Or not. It depended what he saw on the screen.
On Monday, while his target was at work, Green had erected two battery-powered video cameras outside his victim’s riverside apartment. He’d leeched a wireless connection from her neighbors. For thirty hours, he’d had a high-res video feed of the front and back entrances. Not that there was much to see. He had only scoped her once so far. A car with shaded windows dropped her off after work on Monday. She was some kind of company director. The driver got out of the car, checked out the street, then opened the front door of the apartment for her. She rushed inside. Next morning, the driver collected her and they did the procedure in reverse. Yesterday evening, she didn’t come home. She could be hiding out at a friend’s, or she could be staking out her own target.
Academy security only did one circuit of the building after it closed, at ten. Green had hacked into their cameras, too. Thanks to them, he was pretty sure he’d discovered who his own assassin was. She’d been hanging around the main entrance yesterday. He’d also seen her peering into the IT suite earlier, trying to make him.
The assassin probably had him down as a big, slow-moving target. But Green had his moves. He looked at the bank of screens. No sign of his assassin. There was a light on in his target’s apartment. Had he missed her going in, or was it on a timer? If it was a timer, he’d have seen it the night before. He rewound the recording until he saw a van in front of the main entrance. It had been there such a short time, he’d thought it was stopped in traffic.
A worthy opponent. He wondered how many kills she’d made.
Green wanted a night in. Some TV, a frozen pizza (no way would he risk having one delivered), and a couple of beers. If he was going to go home, it had to be now, before the building shut down. But Green didn’t want to exit until he knew where his assassin was.
There! He caught her on one of the surveillance cameras, skulking near the front entrance. She dropped out of view almost immediately, but her body language had given her away, as had the baseball cap she always wore. Green used his cell phone to order a taxi. Then he rang campus security.
“Hi, sorry to bother you guys, but I want to report a suspicious person on campus. I’m pretty sure she isn’t a student….”
Thursday 10:32 P.M.
Shell checked the game’s Web site. The first kill reports were starting to appear. They were boastful accounts that used first names for both the targets and the assassins. Cliff and Maiko were among those listed.
Some of the assassins used pseudonyms online. One, calling him-or herself D.C., described stalking her target (“hard to miss, with his polished bald head”) as he stalked his, and getting him just before he made his own kill, who was now her next target. Sometimes, targets shot back, making a kill into a water fight. But it didn’t matter who shot first. If you got soaked by your assassin, you were out.
Shell had yet to sight her own target. She was wary of going out unescorted, so she’d shown Cliff her target card, and enlisted his help. She’d thought the game would make her brave. It was like the Web site said: Playing this game was like being in an action movie. Only Shell was the stereo typical female victim, the damsel in distress, the one the hero tried to protect. And Cliff, despite being out of the game, seemed determined to cast himself as her hero.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m going to see your target. He went out for the evening, so he might be heading home pretty soon. Will you be ready to join me if an opportunity presents itself?”
“You bet,” Shell said.
“I’ll stay with you,” Maiko said.
“Thanks,” Shell said, though she didn’t want Maiko around. Maiko was here because she wanted to get next to Cliff. And she could have him. Until today, Shell had felt indecisive about Cliff. He was convenient, but he didn’t set her heart racing. As of this afternoon, she was much more interested in the guy she’d seen earlier. Another clichéd scene from an action movie: the girl who fell for her assassin. Although, in the movies, it usually happened the other way around.
“Give me a ring if he’s waiting outside,” she told Cliff. If the guy was there, she would go to one of the hall windows to sneak a peek.
“Sure,” Cliff said, pulling the brim of his baseball cap down so that it covered his eyes.
“I wish I knew what my target looks like in the flesh,” Shell told him. They hadn’t spotted her once yet. All she knew was what was on the laminate. Name: Han. Age: 15. Occupation: high school student. Shell, Cliff, and Maiko had both hung around the exits to her school at the end of the day. None of them had spotted her. Han supposedly lived in an apartment, on her own. But she was never in.
“Maybe you should come with me to her place now,” Cliff suggested. “Try to get her to come to the door.”
“She’d never fall for it,” Maiko said.
“And what if my assassin’s waiting outside?” Shell asked.
“I’ll tell you what,” Maiko said. “Let’s do an early morning attack. I have an idea how we can make it work. Up for that?”
“Sure,” Cliff said. “But I’ll go and check her out now anyway.”
They agreed to meet at 6:30. When they were gone, Shell switched off her lights, then went to the window. A guy who had been standing under a tree abruptly turned and walked away. Was that her assassin? It was too dark to tell.
Friday 12:15 A.M.
Mac pulled down the shutter and waited for Ben’s car. It was lucky, he thought, that the burger bar closed at midnight. Some places stayed open until one, even two. He’d chosen this job because it was the sort of place where they didn’t check your references too closely. He’d lied about having experience. Luckily, you didn’t need any experience to flip burgers.
No sign of the cyclist. It was another hot night, unusually so for the time of year, but very windy with it. Not a night for staking out a dormitory. By now, Mac thought, D.C. would be outside his home. But s/he wouldn’t have any idea where Ben lived.
According to the rules of the game, it was okay to spend one night away from your home. You must inform your assassin (via the gamekeeper) if you went outside the game area. In theory, if you were gone for two consecutive nights, you could be eliminated. However, this rule was unlikely to be enforced. After all, you could be on a stakeout.
The gamekeeper communicated solely by e-mail. Mac would check his at Ben’s before going to sleep.
A car pulled up in front of him. Not Ben’s. The door flew open.
“Quick!” said a guy in the backseat. “They’re onto you. Get in!”
“What are you talking about?” Mac asked.
“Look behind you!”
Mac looked. Four people were running down the street. One appeared to be carrying a baseball bat.
“They want the keys. Come on. We’re on your side. Get in!”
Mac’s heart pounded. He was in danger, he knew, but where was the threat? The guys in the car or the guys on foot? Where was Ben? It was too late. The group with the baseball bat was almost upon him.
“It’s your funeral,” the guy in the backseat said, slamming the door. As the car drove off, the four guys reached Mac. They launched into a stream of obscenities that concluded:
“Give us the keys and get out of here!”
Mac stood his ground. He was pretty sure that he was being set up. These guys were working with the guys in the car. And if this was part of the game, these four weren’t allowed to use violence. But what if they weren’t?
“This is your last warning!”
Should one of them hit him, Mac would run. Otherwise, he had to stay put. Where was Ben?
The guys surrounded him. They were all a little older and taller than Mac. Now he saw that the thing one of them—the leader, he assumed—held was not a baseball bat. It was a Super Soaker, extended length, special edition, blue and silver.
“I’d run away if I were you, squirt,” the leader said, “or you’ll get very wet.”
“Do your worst,” Mac said. “I’m outside my place of work. Soaking me here doesn’t count.”
At last, he heard the bronchitic engine of Ben’s old car. Some instinct made him glance behind him. There, silhouetted in the car’s headlights, was a cyclist. She or he waved. Mac waved back. By unspoken agreement, Mac’s four pursuers began to laugh. The one holding the Super Soaker slapped Mac on the back.
“Worth a try, eh?”
Friday 12:19 A.M.
There was a gentle knock on Shell’s door. Shell felt her heart thump. She wasn’t expecting anyone. Maiko had gone to bed. What if the curly-haired guy had persuaded someone to buzz him in?
“Who is it?”
She opened the door for him. “Any luck?”
He sat on the edge of her single bed. Shell took the chair.
“I hung around that seedy building for an hour. No lights. No noise. Either she’s out stalking her own target, or she’s laying low.”
“Thanks for looking, anyway,” Shell said. Cliff deserved a hug or something, but she didn’t want to lead him on.
“We’ll get her. Even if she’s cheating by living somewhere else. Maybe it’s time for you to get in touch with your target, taunt her. You have her e-mail and cell number?”
“I don’t want to speak to her,” Shell said, sorry to come off so wimpy. “I can’t make myself sound threatening.”
“Why don’t we compose an e-mail together?” Cliff suggested.
“I dunno.” Shell looked at her watch. Twenty past twelve. They were getting up at 6:30. But she wouldn’t doze off easily tonight. She opened her laptop and sat on the bed next to Cliff.
“What should we say?” she asked as he leaned closer to her.
“How about you can run, but you can’t hide.”
Friday 7:21 A.M.
GAMEKEEPER COMMUNIQUE NUMBER 1
Received: from aamtain07-winn.ispmail.nodoby.com ([81.103.981.35])
for <addresslist concealed> 76:00:36 +0800
Four days in and already a third of you are gone. Most of you receiving this are serious players with one, or even two, kills under your belt. As for the rest—you don’t deserve to be in the game if you can’t make a kill by the end of tomorrow. If you don’t make a kill by then, your target will be reassigned, and you’re out. Oh, and those of you who gave fake details in order to join in, you’re out, too. What do you think this is, a virtual game?
Han read the e-mail twice. All week, she’d been dreading the notice throwing her out. But this wasn’t it. The gamekeeper was bluffing, she decided. He hadn’t busted her or she would have heard directly. Han didn’t live where she had claimed. There were bound to be other players in her situation. They wanted to be in the game but didn’t live in the city, so they got a fake address. Most would stay with friends, but Han didn’t have any friends in the city, so she was squatting in an empty apartment. She could have raised the money to rent, but that would have left traces, which she didn’t want to do.
The squat had no electricity. That was okay. Han wasn’t there much. She could recharge her laptop and phone when she went home. Spring break began today. Mom thought Han was off on a school trip until Tuesday. The cash fee Mom gave her for this had come in useful, providing Han with water pistols and other incidental expenses. If she survived into the game’s final week, things would get a lot trickier. But Han’s aim wasn’t to win.
Han was leeching a wi-fi connection from an apartment across the street. Her only other e-mail was a threat, evidently from her assassin. Threats were meaningless, Han thought, then changed her mind. They were a way of raising the temperature. She e-mailed her target.
Don’t think that working sixteen-hour days will keep you safe. You’ll be too tired to see me coming.
Then she shut down her laptop to save battery power.
Friday 7:30 A.M.
It was hot, even this early in the morning. Mac felt conspicuous in his oversized denim jacket, beneath which was concealed his Super Soaker. Ben had spent the night on his sofa. This morning, while Ben slept, Mac borrowed his car to get to his target’s place, arriving just in time to see her head off with two of her friends. He didn’t have a driver’s license, but Ben didn’t know that.
Mac followed them from a distance, like they did on TV, and nearly lost them a couple of times. Stupid thing was, the place they were heading for was two streets away from his apartment. He didn’t see them park but saw the target’s two friends on the street, talking to a postman. Money changed hands and the dude put on the top half of the post guy’s uniform. Then he headed around the corner.
Shell was already laying in wait, hidden in a doorway, her water pistol in her hand. Mac tried to work out his tactics. He didn’t know which building Shell’s target lived in. He could drive up to Shell when she broke cover. But would it work? He’d have to find her, stop, roll down the window, and get out his pistol before spraying her. She’d have every chance to notice him and run away.
Mac should have persuaded Ben to get up and come with him. Might as well let Shell spray her victim, then catch her not paying attention. That way he’d get the new target laminate from her. As far as Mac could tell, there was no advantage to be gained by spraying more targets than your competitors. Let Shell do the work and have her moment of glory.
Friday 7:51 A.M.
Someone knocked on the front door. Her first visitor. Ten to one it was her assassin, making good on the threat of the night before. Han looked through the door’s fish-eye peephole. A guy, twentyish, in a postal worker’s uniform. Should she ignore him? Han didn’t want to give the impression that she was never home. But why would she get mail? Nobody outside the game knew that she lived here. And the guy looked very young for a mailman. She called out.
“I’m not dressed. What is it?”
“Letter that needs to be signed for.”
“Put it under the door. I’ll push it back.”
“Sorry, I have to see you sign it.”
“Tough luck. I’m in hiding. You’ve heard about this water pistol game that’s going on all across the city?”
“I’ve heard about it, but I’m not in it, I swear.” He held up his hands, which contained only a single letter. “Look, no water pistol. You’re safe.”
He’d reacted too quickly, Han decided, too smoothly.
“Sorry,” she said. “I can’t trust anyone, and I’m not expecting any mail. Why don’t you push one of those I’m-sorry-you-were-out forms under the door and I’ll collect the letter from the post office when I’m out of the game?”
“This is a guaranteed-next-day-delivery letter,” the guy said, sounding a little too anxious. “It has to be in your hands today.”
“Then whoever sent it shouldn’t have insisted on it being signed for, should they?” Han argued, more convinced than ever that this guy was her assassin. “Look, I’m going back to bed. Forget it.”
She went to the window. The mailman waited a while to see if she changed her mind. Then he went around the corner without leaving any kind of form for her to fill out. The mirror she’d positioned on the window frame showed him walking away. He didn’t visit any other buildings. Han was about to go back to bed when she saw a girl with long hair step out of a doorway. She was carrying a Super Soaker. Now Han knew what her assassin looked like.
Friday 7:54 A.M.
Mac pulled up a few feet from the jacketless postman, who was waiting with the other girl, facing away from Mac. They were too preoccupied to turn around. Any moment now, Mac thought. He leaned down, grabbed his pistol, and pumped it a couple of times to ensure maximum pressure. He looked in the rearview mirror. Shell and her friend hadn’t returned. They were probably celebrating while collecting the card off the victim. Mac shuffled from the driver’s seat to the passenger seat, ready to get out. It would only take him a moment to exit the car, soaking Shell from head to toe.
A green car pulled up behind him. It was the car he’d been following, only now the guy who’d been driving was in the passenger seat. Shell was in the driver’s seat. Damn! The guy got out, shaking his head. Shell stared straight ahead. Mac cursed. He hadn’t expected her to be so clever. To get her in the car now would be too difficult. Shell would see him get out and lock the door before he got to her. Better to lay in wait for her on campus. Could Mac shuffle back into the driver’s seat and get away without being noticed? He checked the rearview mirror. The postman put his gear back on while the guy got back into the car. Mac would duck, wait for them to get out of sight, then follow. With luck, he’d get her in the parking lot.
A horn sounded. Despite himself, Mac looked around. The green car was alongside him, rolling its window down. Shell gave him a big grin and a little wave. The guy—her boyfriend, presumably—pointed a Super Soaker out of the window. He sprayed the side of Ben’s car. Shell pounded the horn again and sped off.
No point in following her. Mac drove around the corner. Had Shell just made a kill? If not, he might be in a position to check out the home of his next victim. These were old buildings, a couple of them derelict, all of them divided into apartments. Any one of them could belong to Shell’s target. Slowly, carefully, Mac drove back to his own place, circling around the block before parking outside, keeping a wary eye out for his own assassin, with or without her bike. But the only person he recognized this warm morning was the postman who had helped Shell earlier, going on his rounds.
Friday 11:02 A.M.
Green showered at work then, thinking he was safe, took the bus that ran from the Academy to the center of the city every fifteen minutes.
He knew as soon as he got on that he’d made a mistake. He was preoccupied with his target. She was hardly ever home and seemed to spend the time when she wasn’t working stalking her own target. The video camera he’d trained on her apartment was a waste of time. She never took risks with her exits or entrances. The key must be to get her during work hours, but out of the office. Which meant he had to do her today or wait until Monday.
He’d taken a stupid risk. His assassin came from nowhere and got on the bus just before it left. She had jettisoned the baseball cap, but he still recognized her at once. She wasn’t allowed to spray him on public transportation, but as soon as Green got off, he would be in trouble. Either Green had to stay on the bus until it reached the end of the line, or he would risk being sprayed.
He thought she’d take a seat by the door, for an easy exit. Instead, she came and sat next to him, then started talking like they were old buddies.
“That was a good move last night, getting security to kick me off campus.”
She was about his age, snub nosed, kind of pretty. Small but built. Girls like this didn’t normally talk to Green, not unless he was fixing their computer.
“So you aren’t a student there?” Green said.
“No, I go to a public high school. Those rich kids live in a different world, don’t they?”
“Tell me about it. Have you got any kills yet?” Green asked, keeping his voice low.
“You’ll be my first. You?”
“Well done.” She held out her hand. “I’m Jenny.”
Her hand was surprisingly slender and cool. “Green.”
Green shrugged. “It’s okay, I guess. My parents like it more than I do.”
“What are they, ecologists?”
“No, fans of a British pop group from, like, twenty years ago.”
“I’ve been watching you for four days,” Jenny said. “And I like what I’ve seen. I’d like to get to know you when all this is over. Would it be okay if I called you?”
“You’re just trying to soften me up for the kill.” Green’s words stumbled out.
“What if I am? I still like you.”
Green felt himself blushing. “You can call me,” he said.
“Thanks.” There was a long, awkward pause before she spoke again. “How are you going to play this?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” Green said.
“This bus goes in an endless circle. Did you know that? We could stay on it all day.”
“Then I guess we’ll get to know each other pretty well.”
Jenny grinned. She had a nice grin. “What kind of ticket did you buy?”
She held out hers. An all-day pass. “Your ticket runs out as soon as we leave the central zone. I can get you thrown off the bus. Looks like I’ve got you trapped, big man!”
Friday 11:23 A.M.
“Let me help you,” Yogi said as Zed raised the periscope of their storage container. The street looked clear.
“You’re not in the game anymore,” Zed pointed out. “You could lose your job. I don’t want to be responsible for you getting fired.”
“Let me worry about that.”
“But I do worry. Anyway, it’s cheating. You’re allowed to have people help you, but a police officer? That’s crossing a line.”
“How about if I don’t help you get your target, but I watch your back? If I’d had somebody watching my back I’d still be in the game.”
“That makes sense, I guess….” Zed didn’t like to argue too strongly. Yogi was still her boyfriend. He’d stayed in the hideout with her last night but wouldn’t tonight, because she was going back to the nurse’s quarters, where she was supposed to live, in order to fulfill the game’s residency rule. There was no point in playing a game if you didn’t stick to the rules.
That said, all rules could do with a little bending.
“There is one other favor you could do me,” Zed said. “You’ll need to be in uniform.”
“Anything,” Yogi told her. “My shift doesn’t start until one. Until then, I’m yours.”
Friday 11:30 A.M.
Jenny was so nice that Green was almost tempted to let her spray him. They talked about his job, movies, the shop where she worked, and where they bought their water pistols.
“Mind if I get up?” he asked when the bus reached the business district.
“Getting off?” Jenny asked, with a sassy twinkle in her voice.
“I’m going to change my ticket to an all-day pass.”
“Good move. I’ll be right behind you.”
A trail of people were getting off the bus. Green stood but waited until those exiting were gone and the bus was loading before he went to the front. He had to push his wide body around the people who had just bought their tickets.
“’Scuse me. Coming through. ’Scuse me.”
Jenny followed in his slipstream. This wasn’t going to be easy. She had an open bag at her side. A Super Soaker or water balloon was bound to be within easy reach. A woman with a stroller got on and Green saw his chance.
“Let me help you with that,” he said as she folded up the chair and sat her son down in an empty seat. Green took the folded chair from her. He lifted the contraption up.
“Thank you. That’s very kind,” said the young mother.
“Not really,” Green said, looking behind him. The last person was getting on the bus. He only had a moment. Instead of putting the stroller down, he thrust it at Jenny.
“All yours,” he said, and let go of it.
Despite herself, Jenny caught it. Green backed off the bus.
“Don’t let her off,” he called to the driver. “She’s trying to steal that stroller!”
The driver gave Green a confused look. Then, as Green was hoping, he closed the door. Green strode into the busy street. By the time Jenny got the driver to open the door again, Green was out of sight. His heart leaped. Whether Jenny liked him or not, it was good to know he had a worthy opponent.
Friday 12:38 P.M.
Yogi met Zed on the corner by the hotel. He had questioned the hotel manager, as she’d asked, pretending her target was a witness he needed to find.
“His shift starts at one, so he should be here soon. Great timing.”
Zed thanked him. “You should go. I can manage from here.”
“If you say so. But first, there’s someone I need to talk to. Don’t look around yet.”
Yogi charged off. Zed gave it a moment; then she turned to see what was going on. Yogi was in conversation with a slender guy who had a thin mustache and long hair. Despite the dry summer heat, he wore a trench coat. No wonder Yogi was suspicious.
How had Zed’s assassin made her? He must be good. She had covered her tracks so carefully. Zed decided there was only one thing to do. She strolled off in the opposite direction, past the hotel entrance. She wanted it to look like she was running away.
When she was out of sight, she doubled back on herself. An alley ran along the rear side of the hotel to the service entrance. That was the way her target, a porter at the hotel, would come to work.
A hot breeze from a ventilation shaft ran down the alley, adding to the sultry heat. Zed rang Yogi on his cell.
“Did you get rid of him?”
“Sure. I watched him walk away. We could find an excuse to arrest him if you want. Concealed weapon.”
“It’s a game. The whole city knows about the game.”
“Yeah, but everybody knows city cops are stupid. Love you.”
“Love you, too,” Zed said, though she had her doubts these days. “Can you keep an eye out until just before one?”
“That’s why I’m here. We’re around the corner from the station. I can be a few minutes late for my shift.”
Zed already had a place to hide in, a big, metal Dumpster. The Dumpster was emptied daily so it shouldn’t be too filthy. Zed opened the lid, took a quick glance at the disgusting debris clinging to the bottom, then clambered inside. Oh well. She was wearing old clothes. Being smelly was part of the price of playing the game.
Zed checked her watch. The more conscientious workers would be arriving for their shifts soon. She didn’t close the Dumpster completely, but jammed the lid open with her pocket periscope. Then she pumped her Super Soaker, priming it for action.
Friday 12:51 P.M.
The sleek black building soared so high, Green couldn’t see its apex from the city street. His target worked on the twenty-third floor. He had never seen her in person, but should recognize her from a distance. Only trouble was, he had yet to observe her leaving the office at lunch. He might have to hang around until the end of the day. If he did that, there was a big risk Jenny would find and spray him.
One good thing about the target’s office: It had no parking garage, only a covered drop-off bay at the front. So, wherever she parked, his target would have to leave the building by foot. Probably.
Green reexamined the target laminate. Age thirty, investment banker, single, narrow glasses. Whenever he’d seen her, she wore jeans, even for her high-flying job. She was cool, a big shot. In no other circumstances would Green get her phone number. He hoped his story was good enough to fool her.
Friday 12:55 P.M.
Zed’s cell vibrated against her thigh. She checked the message from Yogi. Her target was about to turn down the alley. She looked through the periscope. There were three men coming. All wore the porters’ gray uniform. At this distance, Zed couldn’t tell which of them was her target. She could spray them all but that was against the spirit of the game, and anyway, Yogi could be wrong. These could be decoys. She had to wait for them to get closer.
Her heart pounded against her chest. Any moment now. The periscope wasn’t as effective as she’d hoped. The images were too small for her to make a definite identification. At a guess, her target was the man in the middle. He had his shoulders hunched and his head down, like he was trying not to be noticed. Yes, that had to be him. He was three paces away.
Zed withdrew the periscope and punched the metal lid open. The guys on either side of her objective looked shocked. As well they might. A tall woman with huge hair, a military jacket, and filthy jeans was pointing a giant red Super Soaker at them. She grinned. They broke to either side of her target. Zed squeezed the trigger.
The target ducked, then hit the ground. He tried to roll over. But it was too late. He was already wet and getting wetter. The target put his hands up.
“Stop, stop! You win!!”
Zed hauled herself out of the metal Dumpster, bits of greasy paper sticking to her behind. She landed heavily on the ground, dusted herself off, and walked over to the very wet porter. His coworkers were grinning. Zed held out her hand. He shook it.
“Every day this week I got somebody to check that in there. Today, these two told me I was being paranoid. You were lucky.”
“You make your own luck,” Zed said. “Can I have your target laminate?”
The porter reached into his pocket for a wallet. From the other end of the alley came a call. Yogi.
“Hey, Zed. Gotta go to work. You be careful out there!”
“I will!” Zed called, taking the laminate.
She was about to read her new target information when there was a tap on her shoulder.
“We meet again,” said the cool-looking guy with the mustache.
From his trench coat, the long-haired guy pulled out the biggest Super Soaker she’d ever seen. Its spray was so wide, so dense, that within a second she was soaked. She turned and tried to run away. This only made her backside even wetter than her front.
“Had enough?” asked the mustached man.
Zed nodded. She handed him the laminate, which he wiped dry. “You got me good.”
“At least,” the slim stranger said, “you have had the honor of being beaten by the game’s eventual victor, the legendary Zorro.”
Friday 12:59 P.M.
Green called his target’s office and established that she was on her lunch break. Then he double-checked the location. The office building only had a single exit. At one o’clock, floods of people left through the double doors, but not her, not unless she was a master of disguise. If she were going out for her lunch, she’d have gone by now. It was time to activate Plan B.
The police station was a two-minute walk from the office. In the foyer, Green brushed past a very wet woman wearing a military jacket and filthy blue jeans. She was with an officer in uniform. The woman was either a Spray player or she had just taken a swim in the pool by the ornamental fountain. The uniformed officer was distracted. He seemed to be apologizing to her.
“I’ll get you dried off.”
“You said you could start your shift a few minutes late. I thought you were looking out for me!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“I had two kills. It was going so well!”
“Will you get her out of here?” the desk sergeant called. “She’s dripping all over the floor. It’s a health hazard!”
“There’s a bathroom through here,” the officer told the woman, flustered. He turned to Green. “Can you hold this thing open?”
The officer swiped his card and the security gate opened. Green had an idea. He was going to call his target on his cell phone, but this game was all about seizing your opportunities. He walked confidently through the barrier, following the wet woman. There were several open desks ahead to his right, but Green didn’t want anybody to hear his call. This was lunchtime, so most offices should be empty. However, he didn’t know the police’s shift system. He’d never been in trouble with the law and didn’t want to start now. The secret was to move fast, and with confidence. A door to his right was ajar. He prepared an excuse and pushed it open. Empty. Yes!
He closed the door and picked up the phone. Most places, you dialed 9 for an outside line. Here, it didn’t work. He tried 0 instead. Success.
The phone was answered on the fifth ring. Green gave his target’s full name and the name of the officer whose office he’d “borrowed,” Inspector White.
“I’m afraid there’s been a complaint about you.”
“From who?” Her voice was clipped, calm.
“I’m not at liberty to say but it involves an allegation of assault.”
“That’s ridiculous. This must be some kind of a joke.”
“I’m afraid not, ma’am. We have to take allegations of this sort very seriously even if we suspect that there may be ulterior motives.”
“Ulterior motives? This is about the game, isn’t it?”
“What game would that be?” Green tried to sound ignorant.
“How do I know that you’re a police officer?”
“You can call me back on this extension if you want, ma’am, but you must call me back at once. Otherwise I’m afraid I’ll have to come and interview you in your office.”
“This is nonsense. I’m calling the police station now.”
She hung up. Green waited for the phone to ring. And waited. Was she going to call? Or was the police switchboard busy? He had heard stories of people making emergency calls and being kept on hold for hours. This was hardly an emergency but it was the police. Come on!
The office door opened.
“Who the hell are you?”
Green nearly panicked. He was used to working with teachers. If one of them found a stocky eighteen-year-old sitting at their computer, they assumed that he had a good reason for being there. But this guy sounded like a bully. Green gave the only answer he knew.
“Inspector White? I’m tech support. They told me there was a problem with this computer but it seems okay to me.”
The inspector cursed. “Thing keeps freezing up. Annoying as anything.”
“Is there a particular application you’re using when this happens?” Green asked, knowing that, at any moment, the phone could ring and give him away. He had to get rid of this policeman pronto, or get out himself.
“Word processing’s the only thing that’s always on.”
“You’ve probably got some kind of software conflict. There’s a program I can run. Can you spare the computer for a few minutes?”
“How many are a few?”
“Very well. I’ll come back in fifteen. Thank you.”
“No problem. It’s what they pay me for,” Green said.
The phone still didn’t ring. Best to fix the computer if he could, so Green ran a quick diagnostic check. There was a common conflict. The officer was using the wrong version of a mapping program. Green downloaded the right one and replaced it. Two minutes’ work. He picked up the phone to call his target again. Busy. What should he do now? Maybe it was time to get out of here.
The phone rang. Green answered at once.
The target apologized. “They kept me on hold. Look, I realize you’re genuine but I guarantee that this is a joke.”
“I see,” Green said. “But we have to take all complaints seriously. Now, I presume that you don’t want me to come to your office to question you?”
“That would be seriously embarrassing.”
“Then perhaps you can get safely over here for a brief interview.”
“I guess…I can call a taxi to our entrance. He or she’s not allowed to attack me there. Can I count on you to cover me at the entrance to the police station? I’m sorry, I know it sounds silly. But this is a game that you have to take very seriously.”
“Very well,” Green said. “But please try to get here within ten minutes. I have a number of other people to see.”
“I’m on my way.”
“Call me on this number when you’re about to arrive and I can make sure there are no people with water pistols waiting at the door.”
Was getting her to call him again ridiculously risky? Jenny would be impressed. Green sat at the desk and, to distract himself, goofed around on the Internet. He read the accounts of recent kills on the game’s Web site. Some people were up to three already. One player was described as a “legend” who had won two previous tournaments. He called himself Zorro. According to the Web site, Zorro had long hair and a thin mustache. Green wondered if he was the guy who he had helped get into the Academy’s dorm earlier in the week.
He was clearing the browser cache when two things happened. The phone rang and the door opened. Green answered the phone.
“My taxi’s just pulling up. Do I ask for you in reception?”
“No need,” Green said. “I’ll meet you there.” He cut off the call but kept talking. “Yes, I thought that must be the conflict. Before I reactivate the system I want to be sure that there are no more potential problems.” He paused. “I see. Okay, thanks.”
Now he needed to get out as quickly as possible. He stood up and spoke to Inspector White, who didn’t look too happy about Green using his phone.
“All fixed. To avoid this sort of thing from happening in future, please check with us before you download any new software. I know it’s inconvenient, but, in the long run, it will save you time and keep the department working within legal guidelines.”
The officer gave Green a shifty look. Good guess. Ninety percent of computer users, including police, had some kind of shady software. Now the guy couldn’t wait to get rid of Green.
“That’s most helpful, thank you. Now if you don’t mind, I…”
“I’m already late myself,” Green said. “I’m out of here.”
He hurried back out of the office, hoping he would be able to intercept his target with the water pistol concealed in his baggy jeans.
Friday 1:26 P.M.
Zed left the women’s restroom at the central police station. She had dried herself off the best she could, leaving her with ratty hair and a particularly smelly left leg where she had brushed the inside of the Dumpster. Yogi was waiting by the main entrance, looking anxious. He was supposed to be out on patrol, not looking after his humiliated girlfriend.
“You got two kills,” he reassured her. “That’s two more than I did.”
“Thanks for reminding me I’m going out with a loser!”
A woman charged through the door. She looked like a lawyer—fancy, with expensive glasses. And she sported a telltale bulge in her large Gucci bag. Seeing Zed clocking her water pistol, the woman’s gaze moved to the fluorescent handle poking out of Zed’s shoulder bag. The woman began to back into the door.
“It’s cool,” Zed called. “I just got eliminated from the game.”
The chic woman forced a smile. She turned to the desk sergeant. “The officer said he’d meet me out front.”
The sergeant gave a pretty good approximation of a growl.
“Which officer would that be? Presumably one who knows you’re trying to enter a police station while carrying a concealed weapon.”
“Um…” The woman wasn’t going to snitch on the officer by giving away his name. The desk sergeant started to go off on a rant.
“Because I am pretty fed up with constant security alerts caused by a childish game that involves people pretending to be terrorists while wasting gallons and gallons of tap water, of which, in case you hadn’t noticed, there is a shortage. And this officer here is already thirty minutes late for his shift because he’s been helping his very wet girlfriend get dry which she could just as easily have done at home. But if you’d care to tell me which officer has promised to protect you, I’ll buzz him—and I presume it is a him because my officers only tend to make a fool of themselves over women offenders—and get him to come and collect you. But only if he can make it through me, first!”
The desk sergeant paused for breath and, as he did, noticed someone behind Zed. “You, did you want something?”
Zed, Yogi, and the water-game woman turned to see a fat guy with long hair and the world’s baggiest jeans. He had a zen smile and his hands in his back pockets. His voice was high, a little nervous.
“Sorry to interrupt, but is this lady here to see Inspector White?”
“I am, and I have less than half an hour of my lunch break left. Where is the inspector?”
“He’s waiting on the other side of that door, ma’am. I don’t know how you missed him.”
“If you’d just go ahead of me.”
“Very well, but I thought we were meeting in—”
The fat man interrupted her. “You can’t take that water pistol inside a police station, ma’am, it counts as a concealed weapon. That is a water pistol in your handbag, isn’t it?”
“Just go through that door, please.”
Yogi and the desk sergeant exchanged bemused glances. As he followed the woman through the door, the fat guy began to pull a long, thin Super Soaker from the back pocket of his jeans.
A moment later, they all heard an angry scream.
“Why couldn’t you be more like him?” Zed asked Yogi.
Saturday 9:14 P.M.
The e-mail from the gamekeeper was very clear. Either Shell got a kill by midnight tonight, or she was out of the game. The gamekeeper, unlike her assassin, had her cell number. She could get a call eliminating her at any moment. And her target wasn’t home. Shell hadn’t even set eyes on her yet. The only proof of Han’s existence was that Cliff had spoken to her through a door.
Han, whoever she was, didn’t have a job, and didn’t appear to attend the school she claimed to attend on the target details. But she lived where she was supposed to live—Cliff had spoken to her, in his postman disguise. So Shell couldn’t report her for cheating. Shell had one chance. She’d managed to talk herself in to a house across the road from Han. From here, she was within range to soak her target at a moment’s notice. If she came home. And if Shell’s own assassin didn’t get her first.
Saturday 10:43 P.M.
“You want fries with that?” Mac recognized the guy he was serving but he wasn’t sure where from.
“Yeah. So you haven’t got her yet?”
“I beg your pardon?” Mac took the guy’s money.
“My girl Shell. You’re stalking her, right? I’m Cliff.”
Mac remembered him now. “Are you in the game?”
“Got taken out.”
“Bad luck,” Mac said, though this guy looked like the lucky type—more likely he was out because of bad play. “How did you find me?”
“Spotted the car down the road. Total giveaway.”
Mac hadn’t thought of that when he borrowed Ben’s car. Stupid of him. What was this guy leading up to? Mac made conversation.
“Thought I had Shell the other day. You guys were too fast for me.”
“Might as well give up now,” Cliff said. “Her protection is too good.”
“Hard to protect someone all the time,” Mac pointed out. “How many hits does she have?”
“None of your business,” Cliff said, taking his change. He hesitated. “You seem like a smart guy. What are you doing working in a place like this?”
“Lots of smart people work in places like this,” Mac pointed out.
Cliff gave a brief nod, then left. Mac was good at reading people. Cliff’s visit had told him two things. First, Shell wasn’t Cliff’s girlfriend, not yet, anyway. And second, Shell hadn’t made her first hit yet. So chances were she was still stalking the place he’d nearly caught her at yesterday morning. Question was, could he get over there without alerting his own assassin, the anonymous cyclist? He turned to Ben.
“Can you give me a ride tonight when we finish our shift?”
Saturday 11:09 P.M.
In a dark, expensive city bar, the guy with the shaved head and the heavy gold jewelry was showing off to anyone who’d listen.
“My assassin will be waiting for me outside my house. But I’ve got no intention of going home tonight. I’ve got two kills already. This is my night off. Only question is, who will I be spending it with?”
The woman he was flirting with gave a fake smile, then turned back to her friend. Certain she’d found her target, Han took the free seat to his right. It was a risk. This was a twenty-one-and-over place. Even in this low light, and with the amount of makeup she had on, Han couldn’t pass for eighteen, never mind twenty-one, not close-up. Whereas her target was almost thirty. She didn’t know how to talk to a guy like this. She didn’t know how to talk to a guy at all. She got out the photo she always carried with her.
“Excuse me. While you’ve been playing this water pistol game, have you come across this guy?”
Han’s target glanced at the picture; then he glanced at her, to make sure that she wasn’t carrying. He took in her tight dress and tiny purse, decided that he was safe. “He’s a player?”
“I think so. He’s an old friend I need to track down.”
“Need? Sounds urgent. Tell you what, give me your number, I’ll call you if I see him.”
“That’s nice of you, thanks. But I can never remember my number. Give me yours and I’ll call you.”
He did, and she typed it into her phone.
“Maybe I can buy you a drink,” he said.
“A lager would be great.” Han didn’t want the bartender looking at her and she needed to get to a tap, so she made an excuse.
“I just need to visit the little girls’ room. Back in a sec.”
In the restroom, the water pressure was really low. It took Han a couple of minutes to fill the balloon she had hidden in her purse. When she’d got it to the bursting point, she tucked the bloated balloon behind her back and returned to the bar. Her target was paying for the drinks. He had his back to her, with his phone out, ready to take her number. Han stopped at the far end of the long bar. She couldn’t resist using her free hand to text him: Got you at last.
“You were going to call me,” he reminded her as she sat down and took a sip of her drink. His phone vibrated. He smiled again, then checked the message. Han smashed the water balloon all over his shiny head and trendy suit. Her victim swore.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the bartender asked. “I’ll call the police.”
“Be my guest,” Han said. “And while you’re at it you can tell them what you were doing selling booze to a fifteen-year-old girl.”
It annoyed her, having to add a year to her age, but she didn’t want her target to know she was too young to be in the game. Humiliated, the soaked slaphead handed over his laminate without protest.
Han hurried out of the bar before the situation turned nasty. She could have pumped her victim for info about her next target but she wouldn’t trust anything he told her. Time to return to her stuffy squat. She would e-mail the gamekeeper with news of her triumph.
Saturday 11:59 P.M.
The building’s occupants were away for the weekend but had lent Shell a key. She could get into the stairwell, but not the apartment itself. There was a peephole through which she could see her target’s place and whoever came to the door. She’d been looking through it for two hours and needed to pee.
Just before midnight, there was a light knock on the door. Shell let her visitor in.
“You’re safe,” Cliff assured Shell. “Mac’s shift doesn’t finish until one tonight, so he can’t get away for another hour. And he’s paranoid about his own assassin.”
“It’s nice of you to come,” Shell said. “I thought you were going out with Maiko.”
“A bunch of us went to the movies, but I made an early escape. I put you first,” Cliff said.
Shell didn’t know how to interpret that. She knew how much Maiko liked Cliff but not how much Cliff liked Maiko. Or her. If Shell didn’t encourage him soon, it might be too late. But she couldn’t make up her mind. And maybe that meant he was wrong for her.
“There’s a way you can help me,” Shell said.
“I think she’ll come back in a taxi and only stop if the road is clear. Then she’ll use the taxi for cover while she slips into the building before I can get across the road to spray her.”
“So what do you want me to do?” Cliff asked.
“Delay her. Wait in the street where you can’t be seen, then block her door when she gets back.”
“She’ll assume I’m her assassin.”
“Exactly. While she gets out of your way, she won’t be looking for me.”
Sunday 12:21 A.M.
“No cyclists in sight,” Ben said.
His car was in front of the burger bar with the engine running.
“Hey, what’s going on?” A male voice.
Mac twisted around, worried that the speaker was his assassin. But he recognized this guy, a regular.
“You’re supposed to be open until one on Fridays and Saturdays!”
“I know, I know, but these are special circumstances.”
“Can’t I just…?”
“Sorry.” Mac pulled down the metal shutter. “You can buy a microwavable burger at the gas station down the road.”
“I don’t have a micro wave.”
“They’ll heat it up for you there.”
“I don’t want to walk to the gas station. Do you know how hot it is out here?”
“So get an ice cream instead,” Mac said, padlocking the shutter. “Gotta go.”
As they drove off, Mac passed a posse of people on the corner. One of the silhouettes looked familiar. It was D.C. He still couldn’t work out his assassin’s gender. Mac was trapped by his shifts. D.C. was bound to catch him sooner or later. How was anybody supposed to win this game? That was it, Mac decided. He was always going to quit the burger bar when the game was over. But his game would be over much quicker if he didn’t quit now.
Sunday 12:31 A.M.
Han didn’t go straight back to the squat. The club where she’d sprayed her victim was on the far side of town. Han used her bus pass to check out her next target. He wasn’t home, which was probably for the best. Han had only one spare balloon on her and balloons were only good for close work. She would collect her Super Soaker and return the next day.
Han caught the last bus and got off two stops from her place, where there was a taxi stand. The bus conductor had given her a funny look when she flashed her child’s bus pass—not many kids under fifteen were around after midnight. The taxi driver gave her an even funnier look when she told her how short a distance she wanted to travel.
“You can walk there in five minutes.”
“I know, but I don’t feel safe. There are people after me. I want you to park right in front of the building and wait until I’m safely inside. Can you do that for me?”
The woman gave her a sympathetic look. “I’ll do it, no charge, but take a bit of advice from me. You’re never going to be safe in an area like this. How old are you? No more than fifteen, I’d say. Haven’t you got some family you can go back to?”
“I do. I’m going home soon,” Han said.
But not, she hoped, too soon.
Sunday 12:34 A.M.
Cliff waited outside Han’s place. He tensed up when he heard a car coming. Not many car owners on this street. Could be her.
Tonight could be the night Cliff made out with Shell, but only if she had a successful hit. Cliff couldn’t tell how much Shell liked him. It turned him on that she was in the game when he wasn’t. And neither was Maiko. Maiko was beautiful but she kept making it clear that she had a crush on Cliff. For some reason, this was an enormous turnoff. Whereas Shell never flirted with him, rarely even smiled, no matter how much he helped her out.
A taxi rounded the corner. Han, the target, sat in the front passenger seat. This was going to be easy, if they played it right. As the car stopped, a phone rang. Nearby, but not his. Cliff didn’t dare step out of the doorway to find out where the noise was coming from. At least Han couldn’t hear it, not while she was in the taxi.
The phone stopped after the third ring. The taxi door opened. Han got out. Seeing her for the first time, Cliff was impressed: black cocktail dress—very elegant, not your typical assassin. Han slouched like a sulky teenager, rather than the smart ninja assassin Cliff had built up in his mind. She couldn’t know she was being watched.
The taxi door stayed open. Han didn’t appear to have paid yet. But she was almost at the door of her building. Timing was everything. Cliff made his move. He charged out of his shaded doorway, almost smashing into Han.
“Who the…?” Had Shell been standing in the shadows, she would have sprayed Han by now. Where was she?
“What is this?” The taxi driver was getting out, a phone in her hand. “I’m calling the police, I warn you.”
“No need!” both Cliff and Han said at the same time. Han, close-up, was surprisingly young. She reminded Cliff of his little sister, who was fourteen. But you had to be fifteen to play this game. The girl looked Cliff up and down.
“Where is it? Your water pistol?”
“I’m not in the game,” Cliff said. He pointed over her shoulder. “But she is!”
Shell was holding her Super Soaker but did not point it. The taxi driver, seeing Shell with the gun, seemed to get the message.
“You’re all playing that stupid water pistol game. I should have known. Biggest water shortage in the country’s history and a bunch of kids decide it’s a great time to waste water by spraying each other on the streets!”
She got back into her car and drove off, the passenger door bouncing shut as she rounded the corner at the end of the street. Han was fumbling with her key to get into the building.
“Spray her!” Cliff shouted. “Spray her!”
Shell shook her head, and the girl was gone, inside the house.
“I set her up for you!” Cliff said. “What are you doing?”
Before Shell could answer, another car turned the corner.
“Quick!” Cliff told Shell. “Get back inside! That guy’s your assassin!”
“He can have me,” Shell said.
“What’s got into you?” Cliff asked her. “Why have you given up?”
The car pulled up alongside Shell. Mac, the guy from the burger bar, stepped out of it. Shell put her hands up. Mac looked surprised, like he couldn’t believe his luck, but he pressed the trigger. He had his pistol set to intense stream. A thick torrent of warm water belted Shell. Mac seemed determined to empty his chamber. His spray moved up and down Shell’s body, giving her a full soaking, from head to toe. Shell smiled like she was having fun.
“That feels great,” she said. “It’s been so hot all day.”
Mac smiled. “You’re taking it very well. Can I have your laminate please?”
“I’m afraid not,” Shell said.
The smile faded from the assassin’s face.
Shell explained. “The gamekeeper called me five minutes ago. Since I haven’t made any kills in my first six days, I’m eliminated from the game. So your soaking me doesn’t count.”
The guy driving Mac’s car called out to him. “Did I hear right? This was a wasted trip? We risked closing early for nothing?”
“Afraid so,” Mac told him.
“I’ve had enough of this. I’m going home. You coming?”
“I just need to talk to this girl for a minute.”
“I’m going now. If you want a lift home, get in!”
“I can’t go home,” Mac said. “Too risky.”
“Suit yourself.” The guy in the car drove off.
Mac shook his head. “So who’s my target now?” he asked Shell.
“Dunno, sorry. I guess you’ll get an e-mail about it tomorrow.”
“Let’s hope I can find somewhere safe to read it. Anyway, you had me going there. So you’re not exactly a loser.”
“And you could still win.”
“Yeah, only I don’t have a target or a safe place to hide.”
“Do you want somewhere to hide tonight?” Shell asked him. “It’s the weekend, so there are lots of empty rooms in our dorm.”
“Really? That’d be great. Where is it?”
“Cliff will give you a lift. Won’t you, Cliff?”
“Eh, yeah, sure,” Cliff said, though he didn’t like the way this guy seemed to have taken a shine to Shell. The wet girl, together with her new friend, got into the back of Cliff’s car. So much for tonight being his lucky night.
Sunday 11:34 A.M.
The doorbell rang as Green was getting out of the shower. Nobody visited him on a Sunday. Most of his friends slept even later than he did. Suspecting a trap, Green nearly didn’t answer it, but the second ring was more insistent. He pressed the intercom button.
“Who is it?”
“It’s Jenny, from the bus the other day.”
“That’s nice,” Green called back. “You’ll understand why I can’t let you in.”
“I’m safe,” Jenny said. “I’ve been assassinated.”
Green hesitated. “How do I know you’re not bluffing?”
“Have a look at the game Web site. I was sprayed last night.”
“Thanks,” Green said. “But let me take a look at the site first.”
He pulled on some jeans and a sweatshirt while his laptop booted up. No time to dry himself properly. Was this girl interested in him? What could she see in a fat slob who repaired computers for a living? More likely this was a trap. But no, there it was on the site, a boastful account of how this dude who called himself Drizzabone had “offed” Jenny by hiding in her parents’ garden and catching her on her way back from a failed attempt at her target.
Green opened the door to Jenny. She was wearing exactly the same clothes combination as him.
“Either you’re really good at hacking Web pages or you were eliminated from the game on Friday,” Green told her.
“I thought I ought to warn you what your assassin looks like.”
“Nice of you, but he’s already had thirty-eight hours to spray me.” Green felt bad about moaning. He really liked this girl.
“Not really, since you worked a double shift yesterday.”
“How do you know that?”
“I persuaded one of the tech assistants in audio-visual that you were my boyfriend.”
“I did this little girl act like I was worried that you were cheating on me because you worked all these odd hours. So she told me I could check your schedule with her any time and what a nice guy you were and she was sure you wouldn’t mess around.”
“Clever,” Green replied.
Jenny got out her phone. “Here’s your new assassin.”
She transferred two photos to his laptop.
“Anyone you’ve seen around?” Jenny asked.
Green shook his head. The guy had studs in his eyebrows and a barcode tattooed on the side of his neck. That was so last century.
“Maybe you could use a little help,” Jenny suggested. “And it so happens that I suddenly have time on my hands.”
SPRAY Copyright © 2008 by Harry Edge.