The following takes place between 10pm and 11pm
I didn’t stick around to admire the dead restaurant further. It had been a restful moment, but as soon as I saw the next objective, I was back on the escalator, sprinting down, Keith right behind me.
Down down down down…
I was counting floors, and practically vaulted the railing onto the second floor. More ancient displays for women’s clothing. Now, I like looking at clothing just as much as the next girl does, but didn’t this store have any diversity?
I’d been flashing the Surefire around the escalator track, and now clicked it around the interior of the store. “Door, right there,” Keith said, pointing. The tenants had boarded up the glass wall that had separated them from the mall, but there was still a door set in the plywood. We crossed the dusty tile floor, and I angled the door open with the nozzle of my pistol, then kicked it wide, exiting out into the mall proper with my gun and flashlight crossed.
Ahead was my old friend the clock tower.
Feet pounding across the tile floor, we sprinted past the tower, down the hall past the NASCAR store, the old Suncoast and right into a group of three people coming the opposite way. The empty Shot Blast was banging against my left side – I was down to my Triple Shot.
A shooting match – with anything, Super Soakers, the now tightly regulated Airsoft and paintball, guns, anything – at close range means everyone’s likely to get shot. It’s like a knifefight with ballistic knives, and the first rule of knife fighting is that at least one person goes to the morgue and maybe one goes to the hospital. The only thing that has even a slim chance of saving you is fast reaction time, getting off the “X” fast and shooting first.
How they’d survived this long in this game was a miracle. They didn’t have flashlights, and their aim was terrible, even with the dusky half-darkness that pervaded the mall.
I’d had the Triple Shot up and more or less at the ready, while they had to raise to aim. I was backpedaling even as I gave the trigger a solid press, water hissing into out to splash against the chest of the one in the center. Sidestepping right, I tracked my aim to the closest, missed with a shot, missed with the next, and tagged her out, two shots to the face. The guy on the left scattered, moving left, going for the far side of the hallway, shooting blindly over his shoulder. Unaimed fire is still dangerous, but with the ranges on these things it quickly isn’t. I aimed, took a breath, fired, and while it wasn’t a one-in-a-million shot, it was probably one-in-fifty. The comet of water lanced out and connected with his right shoulder blade in a splash.
Sprinting again around the central courtyard balcony, I reflected on how lucky I’d been not to get in many fights last hour. Below I could hear the footsteps, shouts, and splashes of quite a few people who were not so lucky.
And here I was, about to lose that luck. I skidded to a stop in front of the children’s museum as a group started sprinting down the hall. “Time to go,” I said to Keith as I backpedaled.
The events of the last hour zipped through my head as I sprinted past that stucco storefront I’d past earlier. Two ways back to the parking garage, and about six of the enemy was heading down one of them. I hung the next right, and around the corner was another courtyard area. Significantly smaller but still large, it was triange shaped, bottlenecking where it connected to the main atrium, but then opening wider until the now-boarded front of a department store dominated the back wall.
Pounding footsteps sounded behind us, and we skidded to a stop only to throw open the plywood door to the storefront. Inside was pitch black, and I clicked my Surefire around the interior. The displays were up but missing product, and the signs made it unmistakably clear we were standing in the “Intimates” department. Straight back were two escalators. Further back into the darkness and to the right I could see displays that once held curtains. Back and right was where I wanted to go. First though…
I shrugged off the Shot Blast and handed it to Keith, who looked surprised. “What are you doing?”
I didn’t answer until he was holding my keys as well. “To the right you should find doors opening into the garage. Get my gun, pick up my car, and meet me at the top of that parking garage we saw.”
He looked confused, almost panicked. “I don’t know if I can.”
I raised my eyebrows at him. “Of course you can. Go!” I gave him a shove, and as the plywood door flew open, I took two shots into the slightly-less-dark beyond.
I split off away from Keith and ran to the left. I didn’t have much water left, and while I wanted to get them away from Keith and my keys, I didn’t want to waste everything I had.
My Surefire illuminated a yellowing patch of corroded ceiling tiles and I shouted “I’m over here!” I thought maybe by the cast of the light I could see Keith making his way across the store, but the darkness had swallowed him completely. I could see, vaguely, a few shadowy people making their way through the displays towards me. Oh fun.
To the left of the entrance was the “Misses” department where I was standing now. The center of this level was the escalators, and I wove silently through the displays towards them. There had to be a door on the bottom floor. Get to it, get to the street, get to the – “Shit!”
Alarm bells clanged in my head as intuition told me someone was close, and I pressed the button on my Surefire. With my wrists crossed, the beam went where my pistol was pointed, and I clicked the trigger three times at the shadowed figure I’d nearly run into.
One blast of water slapped into the glass fencing surrounding the cut in the floor that the escalator descended into, and the two others caught him in the torso. I didn’t bother to wait for his friends to show up. I ran forward, got a hand on the railing, and vaulted over. My stomach rose as I dropped, and it wasn’t fear I felt but disappointment as I considered the possibility that I’d overshot the escalator and was pitching into the two stories of darkness below.
My feet hit the metal steps with a clang and I staggered against the railing. I made sure I got their attention by flashing my light upwards, and then I sprinted down the steps. More clothing – men’s this time – at the bottom, and I ran forward off the escalator. Straight ahead had to be more doors opening onto the first floor of the garage.
There was sharp pain as I hip-checked a table, and I fired back over my shoulder as I heard water hiss into the darkness. A flash of the light forward illuminated my path, and I memorized the tile route between the displays instantly.
I stopped at the glass doors, tried to breathe deeply but silently. Beyond I could see the parking garage, and through the wide entrances to that, the streets and night sky. A blue barrel sat next to the door, and I gratefully filled the pistol, and brought a cupped hand to my mouth to drink. It tasted like it had been filled at a hose, but it took the tackiness out of my mouth, at least for a moment.
Water splashed off the glass windows beside me, and I bulled through the door. Why were they still following me? There was no percentage in it – they had to collect telephone numbers, same as me.
On the other hand, there could be multiple objectives, like “shoot five random people.” I didn’t stick around to overthink it, I just ran. I hopped curbs and ducked under the blocking arm that kept cars from bypassing the ancient ticket booth, and then I was running through the streets of Green Bay.
Ahead rose a massive building of cut stone, vines crawling the sides. The sign said “YMCA.” Next to it stood a more modern brick building that wrapped around the corner, storefronts lit at ground level and windows lit above. Christmas-light-bedecked trees were set into the pavement every thirty or so feet, and scattered knots of people moved along the sidewalk.
I kind of stood out by running.
So did my pursuers. Only two. The remaining three had stayed indoors.
The street ended with a road going right – to the main mall entrance, a street going left – towards the downtown area, and a brick building straight ahead. I went left, cutting through that building’s parking lot. A sign nearby said “APAC employees only” and I smiled to myself.
The parking lot was pretty full for ten pm on a Saturday night, and I ducked behind a Geo Metro.
I’d never really regained my breath, and I felt greasy with sweat as I waited for the two to catch up. My head thudded from the impact I’d taken in my fall and the exertion of running, my vision pulsing none-too-subtly with my circulatory system. Damn I was tired.
I stood as footsteps approached, and the girl on the other side of the car raised a hand to shield her eyes from my flashlight’s intense beam. I shot twice, once over her shoulder, the last shot splashing off her neck, and then I was ducking return fire. The hell…?
From the right, a pincer attack. Water splashed off the cars around me, and I sprinted out of the narrow alley, weaving between the vehicles. Now I was headed laterally across the APAC parking lot, heading in the direction of the river. The block of buildings along the riverfront were all bars, and people crowded the sidewalks. I had a vision of a white-haired guy in a suit pushing through a crowd in a club called Fever.
Again, I smiled.
The stars, streetlights, and the barfronts were the only illumination now that the sun had descended, and I slipped into the crowd without difficulty, slowing to a walk. Act confident, look like you’re supposed to be here. You’re an artificial girl remember?
I stepped with ease into the mindset of a pretty, vapid young woman out clubbing, my senses scanning for pursuit running like a hidden volume on a hard drive. Confident walk, arrogant tip of the head, slightly closed eyes…I even threw a little Dixie into the “Pardon me’s” I said as I slipped between people.
I enjoyed the attention it got me, in a clinical sense. A shift of my posture, a shift of my mindset, and I KNEW I had every girl in this crowd competing with me for a guy’s attention. I knew I had the eye of every guy I passed, knew they’d think of me at least three times in the next twenty four hours and I liked that entirely too much.
Someone swore behind me, and I looked lazily over my shoulder to see a jock with a water gun, looking completely foolish as he elbowed his way through the crowd. My gun was tucked into the satchel now hanging front left, a sort of cross-draw carry that put it out of sight of anyone behind me.
I crossed the street after passing a bar called “Liquid 8.” To my right was an alley that led to expensive looking riverfront apartments, and a little further beyond, a walkway along the river itself. I kept going straight, cutting through the parking lot of a bank that looked like a Sultan’s palace, and jaywalking on a dead red light to the back corner of the monstrous parking garage. Next door to it was another block of buildings, and behind me was at least one nightclub. From somewhere nearby, My Darkest Days sang a rather raunchy song with Chad and Luda. I smiled. Always liked that song.
Always liked dancing for Tim to that song.
A tower ran up the side of the parking garage, glass sides revealing alternating stairways. I pulled the door open at the bottom and starting running.
My head didn’t feel like it was going to explode when I reached the top, but it was close.
The roof was mostly flat, with a central ramp leading up to the parking spaces. A waist-high concrete wall fenced in the roof, and there was another door set into the upper part of a stair tower straight ahead. My Mazda was parked along the far side, and at this distance I could see Keith sitting motionless in the passenger seat.
I didn’t bother with him, I ran for the door across the roof. It was aquamarine blue and rusting through, with a wired glass window set in the upper half. I yanked the knob, aimed in as the door flew open, and rotated into the top landing of the stairway. Green wire fencing kept anyone from falling down the open central area, and the corners were full of trash. Beautiful space. It smelled of urine.
I scanned the landing quickly for anything indicating my next clue. Roughly ten minutes into the hour, and I didn’t want to take much longer at it than I absolutely had to. Nothing at ground level…I jumped up and down a couple of times to look at the tops of the low-hanging pipes. THERE.
I grabbed the mylar wrapped box and had it open before I’d even stepped out on the roof. Walking to the edge, I dialed the number I saw by the light of the phone’s screen.
Below, cars and people moved through the streets, small in the patches of orange cast by the streetlights. Storefronts and signs were lit, and the bridge glowed like a white ribbon over the black-as-oil water of the Fox River. Across it, I could see factories and refineries and homes and more of the downtown district lit up. At night, the beauty of a landscape is what you don’t see, coupled with the little bit that you do. The small areas of light and movement and life are made infinitely more beautiful and comforting by the darkness that surrounds them, just as day is merely a respite between nights. I took a breath of the warm – but slightly cooling – air, let it out and felt relaxed. A perfect view. Busy city night life for a small city. I’d come back here after this was all over, look out over this city again.
The voice on the other end of the line drained all the relaxation out of me, replacing it with tension and apprehension. “Nine hundred South Webster Street, Saint Vincent Hospital. The Nursery.”
I threw the index card clue on the ground and ran for the Mazda. Keith didn’t look surprised at all when I threw the door open and got in. “That took less time than expected.”
I didn’t answer, other than to say “Hang on.”
I tore through the parking garage at just under the speed that would have the car doing cartwheels on the corners, and I felt the tires leave the pavement for just a moment when I came off the curb at the bottom. Rolling through the stops, I made a “U” around the building and just made the yellow light turn onto Walnut.
Past the nightclubs and theaters there was no one out and about. I put the pedal to the floor, did the same after the GPS recommended turn onto Webster. The maps app on my phone said the trip should’ve taken about seven minutes. I took four, and it wasn’t because I was lucky with the lights.
We hadn’t talked in the car. Tearing through suburban neighborhoods under black canopies of trees, the yellow-lit interiors warm and inviting looking, the scenery flowing by like a screensaver, I kept my eyes on the road as the car chased the headlights down the shadowy pavement.
Keith tried to talk as we exited the car, stepping into the parking lot. The location the GPS had given me was a small two-story building at the back of a parking garage, across the street from the hospital proper. The sign above the door said “Department Of Pediatrics.” The windows were dark, and there was a For Sale sign on the grass in front. “You seem tense.” Keith’s voice, and I only just barely noticed it as I adjusted the Vanquisher’s sling.
“Whatever you say,” I muttered. We ran across the street to the massive hospital building. The sense of scale boggled my mind, it was like approaching a cathedral. Closest was a low brick wing, the rest of the hospital rising up behind it, first four stories, then ten or more in towers. The towers, to my uneducated eyes, looked like offices or patients rooms, not actual working space. Dozens of windows dotted the brick walls, reflecting both the night sky and the orange street lights.
Ahead was a glass canopy arching over the front entrance, and beyond that, what looked like a parking garage for emergency vehicles, a helipad on its roof. We took a left under the canopy, and I pushed through wide glass doors into the atrium.
Water sliced past me, and I ran low towards the admissions desk ahead, ducking down along side its faux wood paneling. The atrium would not have looked out of place in a hotel; Long, with windows facing the street and skylights above, a fireplace and sofas at each end, admissions desk in the middle, hallways opening into the atrium from the hospital side.
The shot had come from the left, and I rose to fire over the desk, spraying the hallway entrances with short blasts. In the luminous half-dark it was impossible to tell what was shadow and what was person.
At least until they stepped out to take a shot at me. Three doorways down. A thick stream poured into the side of the desk and then they stepped back. Vanquisher at low ready, I stood and hustled for the closest doorway.
Pressed against the white plaster, I switched the bullpup shaped soaker to my left hand, and peered out, backing up from the edge of the wall. Keeping your distance from your cover is smart. When it comes to bullets, there’s more room for them to deviate and miss you if they penetrate. When it comes to water, there’s more room for the spray to dissipate if someone tries bouncing the shot off the wall.
The shooter had been waiting for return fire, and when none issued forth, they leaned out, looking around. Left-handed, it took me a few nano-seconds longer to walk my water onto my target. They hadn’t learned to keep back from cover, and I angled a few blasts off the glossy white paint, skipping them into my target’s chest and face.
I pumped to bring back full pressure, and rotated back out into the lobby, soaker up, bent over it.
The lobby was shadowy, a few columns of light lancing through the skylight, dust motes visibly dancing around their periphery. I stalked across the tile floor, Keith following silently in my wake. In the middle of the back wall I found a laminated hospital map. Nursery was on the third floor.
I slung the Vanquisher, and drew the Triple Shot from my satchel, crossed my wrists with the Surefire parallel with my gun, and pushed through the swinging door into the nearby stairway. I lit the well with brief flashes, and advanced up the steps, pistol aimed at the next landing. About halfway up I realized I hadn’t been breathing for the last ninety seconds, and let my tension-filled lungs expand. I felt like a lone SWAT team member going into an Al-Qaida stronghold. Me against the world.