12PM – 1AM Part 2

I cut laterally through the crowd and down onto the main floor where the bowlers were.  They sat at tables, waited their turns, ate and laughed and joked with their companions.  I cut in front of them, behind them, moving quicker with each game I disrupted.  How could they even see what they were throwing the ball at, what with all the fog down here.

Overhead the announcer proclaimed that a genuine Green Bay Phoenix cheerleader was doing free body shots with the first ten people up to the counter.  I considered going, but the thought of liquor on an empty stomach held me back.  THAT not-fun-part would cancel out the fun part.

Past the ticket counter, and there was still half a bowling alley to go.

I kept moving, cutting through people’s games, ignoring the murmurs and exclamations of disapproval.  Their complaints were nothing though to the commotion I heard come from the end of alley that I was approaching.  Shouts, hisses of water, running feet, it sounded like the entire crowd was running in this direction.  Sounded like a fight was on.  I stepped up out of the pit area and jumped a bit, looking over the people who’d crowded together to form an open area.

Someone was covering behind a soda machine along the wall, shooting it out with five guys just standing out in the open, pouring water at his position.  They were being tactically stupid – you don’t stand still and shoot and you certainly don’t risk assets on the easy kill.  He was being stupid too – you don’t take five armed guards head on.  Of course, maybe they’d driven him there.  Benefit of the doubt.

As inconspicuously as I could, I reamed on the pump of the Vanquisher, bringing it back to full power.

I should’ve done that earlier.

I rotated the soaker to hang more or less in front of me, and stepped into the crowd, shouldered my way until I stood one person back from the edge.  The bodyguards just stood there in a row, alternately shooting at the vending machine and pumping.  A vision of five steel plates rose unbidden in my mind, and I smiled.


While you don’t take on five armed guards directly, it doesn’t hurt to have a distraction.

I sidestepped to the front of the crowd and brought the Vanquisher up to my shoulder, aiming on instinct.  My finger pulled the trigger.  The spring depressed.  The levers actuated.  The valve opened.  The pressure chamber compressed.  Water hissed from the nozzle.  Faster than thought I let up on the trigger and snapped the gun over to the next one in line.  Click, move, click, move, click, move, click.

An El Presidente drill is set up so that you must turn towards danger, draw, shoot both targets twice, reload, and shoot both targets twice again.  Five seconds is an impressive time, though the best are getting their times down towards three seconds.  A Dozier drill starts you out facing five targets that you must score hits on as fast as possible.  Respectable time for a Dozier drill is three seconds, and the record is closing in on one.  Out in the desert, with my dad, against steel knock-down targets, my record had been two point eight seconds of non-stop thunder.

They didn’t even know what hit them.  The five simply couldn’t process what had happened.  They’d gone from being in complete control of a situation to completely soaked in less than three seconds.

Neither could the guy next to the vending machine.  He looked up just in time for me to drill a stream of water into his forehead.

People cheered.

I retreated into the crowd, and tried to stay close to the people as they tried to give me a wide berth.  Apparently, despite my momentary coolness, they wanted to stay away from me.  Probably because of the water I was gonna draw at any minute…

Fourteen minus five is nine.  Nine plus Drake.

Water exploded off the face of the woman to my left – coming from the wrong direction, back by the entrance.  What?  I swiveled and fired twice back in that direction, then rudely shoved my way towards the lanes again.  Easier to move, easier to pick out pursuers down there.

I heard water hiss behind me and angry shouts and the crowd caught the shots that were meant for me.  This would not do.  I jumped with a powerful push, getting my feet up onto a nearby table.

“HEY!”  I’d landed on the scorekeeping sheet a fat Eminem wannabe was working on.  I turned back to the entrance, and well over the heads of the crowd, the shooter was obvious.  I focused a little longer on the front of the Vanquisher, and fired a long bolt of liquid that snapped into the front of his hooded sweatshirt with a drawn out splash.

The guy sitting by my feet was apparently fed up with my shenanigans, and whacked me in the ankle with a meaty palm.  It was a simple movement to angle the nozzle down and stripe a blast from his chin to the top of his backwards Raiders hat.

I jumped off the table and darted through the bowling pit, juking around the bowlers, hurtling chairs, and just generally leaving annoyed people and commotion in my wake.

I had no idea what I was gonna do when I found my way to the other end, where – presumably – Drake was.  Had a lack of a plan ever stopped me before?

I pumped to full power and sprinted out onto the lanes.  I was close enough to the wall – maybe eight or ten lanes away – that I wouldn’t be angering too many paying customers.  And…nobody would expect an attack from this angle.

I jumped a bowling ball that was zooming towards my ankles, picked up my speed, and angled back towards the seating area.  In the dim and the haze the final table came into view and my guess had been right all along


I ducked, juked, and got the hell out of the lane I was in as the bowler – a heavy set guy with a Fidel Castro beard – threw a ball so hard it smashed off the ceiling before slamming into the floor and rocketing down the blond wood like an errant torpedo.  Had to be moving thirty, forty miles an hour.  DAMN.

Drake saw me closing in from the lanes and stood, backing away from the playing field like he was going to retreat to the relative safety of the crowd.

Two of his bodyguards were close at hand, and I bent over the back of the Vanquisher, pulling through the trigger in a flurry of shots.  I was probably shooting tight groups, but they were moving, and while the comets of water connected, they connected just barely, thin stripes hardly creasing their clothes as they retreated as well.  Water splashed to the wood around me, and I continued moving.

I jumped a knee-high rack of bowling balls and jumped again, sliding across the top of a table, my jeans probably protecting me from about fifty different kinds of germs and communicable diseases.  I shot as I slid, taking out another bodyguard who’d stepped out of the crowd with two shots to the right pectoral.  There, that was better shooting.

Drake was edging along the back wall, and I decided to hell with better shooting, holding down the trigger and slashing out a stripe of water that splashed across the wall, his abs, and the wall again.

His goons didn’t seem to get that I’d just soaked their boss out of the fight though, and water pelted around me as I sprinted for the cover of the people ahead.  “Samantha Calloway!  Call it in!” I shouted at the drenched bald guy.

This time there was no niceness, no art, no pretense of civility.  I just slammed my way through the crowd, shoulder leading, a straight-arm clearing the path when the seas didn’t part just the way I wanted.  Angry voices erupted in my path and I dodged, ducked, sidestepped, practically bouncing through the standing-room-only mass of humanity behind the lanes.

I passed the soda machine landmark for my impromptu Dozier drill, and flattened myself against the wall as water blew past.  I returned fire without aiming, finger on the trigger all the time, waving the nozzle around like a liquid paintbrush.

Had to have hit something.

I pushed off the wall as the stream dropped to the floor, and resumed my run.

The wall to the right opened up for the lobby and I hung a right, slamming into the waist-high cord that formed the line for people waiting to drink a shotglass off the navel of a cheerleader laying on a folding card table a few feet away.

I went down, tangled in the rope, and kicked the heavy brass pylons away, throwing the whole tangled fence to the side as I scampered up off the floor and bolted for the door.

Just barely at the doors, and water exploded into a cloud of droplets off the arcade game to my right.  My hasty flight had not been in vain – I WAS being followed.  I ripped the Triple Shot from my satchel and fired back, tagging one guy out as he hopped over the pile of pylon and rope laying on the floor, and driving a woman back to snipe at me from the corner of the ticket counter.

I slammed through the doors and out into the hot night air, and I didn’t stop running until I’d weaved between nearly all the cars in the parking lot and stood next to my own Mazda, the Triple Shot held shakily up, pointed back towards the entrance.

No one was following me.

I leaned against the trunk, sucking in air, trying to slow my heart-rate and the heaving of my chest.  The sweat cascading down my back and face made me acutely aware that the bowling alley had been air-conditioned and the out-of-doors was not.  I flipped my phone open and kept an eye on the parking lot as I checked the time.  A few minutes to two.

Perhaps my insane photographer wouldn’t be joining me for the rest of the game.

With two minutes to go, I saw a tall figure jogging through the cars.  Keith waved as he got closer.  “You really caused the ruckus in there,” he said when he was within earshot.


“There are two police officers looking around for the tall brunette with a watergun who tore the place up, talking about calling for backup, and the alley’s management is directing people who want refunds to the bar.  There’s, like, fifty of them.”

“Tell me you got some pictures, made the destruction all worth it.”

He gestured with the camera.  “I did…but they’ll never see the light of day.  For the sake of not incriminating anyone, we’re just going to pretend this hour didn’t happen.”


“In all seriousness, Samantha.”  He looked at me across the roof of the Mazda.  “You cost this place a lot of money, ruined a whole lot of people’s night.”

I bored my eyes into his.  “I care?”

The phone rang.  Must be two.

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12PM – 1AM Part 1

The following takes place between 12am and 1am

Instead of calling a number to start the hour, the number called me.  I answered the phone and that same automated voice said “Assassinate this man by one aye emm.  A picture will download to your phone momentarily.  They are located at twenty nine twenty nine Allied Street, Green Bay.”

Keith and I got into the car and I pulled out of the parking lot.  The maps app on my phone drew a circuitous route to the destination.  Right out of the parking lot and I got lucky with the lights and traffic.  Two lefts and I was on Mainstreet.  The ancient buildings rushed by, a collection of sub sandwich restaurants, banks, bars, and gas stations.  Out onto highway forty one, and I pushed the car to an insane speed.  There probably weren’t any cops out on highway patrol what with the game going on in town.

It was just a few minutes and the GPS directed me onto an off-ramp.  I hit the brakes and eased it down.  A little too fast.  My stomach did a flip-flop as I stood on the break as the light at the end changed to red, and it felt like the car was going to go end over end.

I waited impatiently at the light, and tore through it as soon as it turned.  Left onto Oneida and we raced past a Menards.  I did a three-lane change, and went right on red as another light flipped right as I reached it.

Mini-mall, bar, hard right into a full parking lot.

The sign said “Ashwaubenon Lanes.”

Rows and rows and rows of cars, SUVs, vans, pickups, all sitting silently in front of a low brown building as long as a highway.  I combat-parked at the back of the lot, and got out.  The night air hadn’t changed in temperature from there to here.  Possibly warmer even.

I retrieved the soakers from the car, checked the load in each.  Pistol could use a bit of a fill, but not bad.  Vanquisher was about the same.  Hopefully there was a blue bucket or two somewhere nearby.

Triple Shot in the bag hanging against my right hip, Vanquisher hanging to the left.  I strode through the parking lot as I clicked through the menus on my phone.  The picture target to be an African American male, twenty five to thirty five, bald, goatee’d, dressed in a black dress pants, blue shirt, and black leather jacket.  Name was Drake Madison.

Looked professional.

Could be a lawyer.

Could be a doctor.

Was gonna get shot.

I scrolled down a little further because it said there were two pages of information instead of the usual one.

“Aw crap.”

“What?”  Keith was keeping up with my killer pace as I wound through the cars.

“He’s participating as part of a birthday party.  With twenty five of his closest friends.”

Keith grinned.  “In addition to all the other contestants that are going to be here, he’s got a presidential bodyguard.”

“Yeah.”  I sounded sarcastic.

“Don’t worry.  You’ll do fine.

Another sarcastic “Yeah.”

There were two fill barrels next to the arched entryway and I dunked both guns, put my back the wall and pumped the pistol back to full pressure before stuffing it back in my satchel.  “Time to go.”

Through the heavy doors was a small lobby, with a door straight ahead into a waiting area for the lanes, and a door to the right leading to a bar.  Lots of people straight ahead milling around, playing video games, waiting for a lane to open up.  The bar would likely have lots of people too.  Possibly less of them would have water guns.

I yanked the battered door open.  Beyond was a tiled floor and a short hallway.  Bar counter to the left, with tables scattered throughout the room.  Glasses hung from the ceiling over the bar, and dozens of bottles lined the shelves behind.  People sat around the bar and at the tables, and a bartender moved like a spastic ferret behind it, dashing drinks around.  Glass walls separated the bar from the bowling alley beyond, the voices of people shouting to be heard over the music was deafening, as was the music itself.

Winkler was singing about being dressed in black with bunnies in his Caddy.  Good song.

The bartender looked up from his shellgame of drinks.  “You can’t be in here.  Didn’t you see the sign?  Twenty one and up only.”

I jerked my head at him.  “Just passing through.”

I pushed through the glass doors and into the crowd, and the music boomed about thirty times louder.  It was one thick crowd from one end of this room to the other.  This was not going to be fun.

Hell, might as well start at the far end and work my way to the other.  My head rotated left and right as I scanned the mob of people while I moved through it.  Restrooms on the right, then a smaller bar, tables lining the left side of the floor, more tables and score-keeping machines just before the lanes themselves.  The thunder of bowling balls hitting the blonde wood was constant.

I stood on my tiptoes and viewed the crowd from slightly above it.  My radar pinged three hostiles in a staggered triangle formation between here and the back wall.  The way they were standing, the way they were looking around, it all told me they were part of the game.  I saw – in an instant – how to take them down.  I shook that particular sequence from my head and refocused my thoughts on how to take them out of the game in a way that didn’t involve bodily damage.

“You’re not moving,” Keith shouted into my ear.

“Now I am.”  I started moving again, pushed my way through the crowd.  The closest target was center floor, twenty five feet away.  Next was twenty five feet back and right, third was sixty feet ahead center.

I walked right into the closest guy, pulled the Triple Shot from my bag and jabbed it into his side before he even got “Excuse me” out of his mouth.  Click click on the trigger and I stepped to his right – close to the wall where the crowd was thinnest – with the pistol extended.  I stepped into the shot while bringing both hands to the grip.  I fired twice and soaked the side of his head.  Diagonally left and I picked up the pace, Triple Shot still at arm’s length.

Third target was a woman about five years older than me, and she caught my movement through the crowd out of the corner of her eye.  She turned and started walking towards me, and I could tell from the movement of her shoulders that she’d taken a two-handed grip on some sort of pistol in front of her.

With three people between us I sidestepped, ducking down just a little.  I dropped below her line of sight and moved a few steps to the right, parallel to the wall.  When I straightened she was looking around and I extended the pistol over a teenager’s shoulder and shot her once in the neck.

I kept moving and scanning, looking around for my target.  Bald guy, dark skinned, professional looking.  The table at the back wall next to the bowling ball rack seated five people, and three Super Soakers lay on the table.  I tucked the pistol back into my satchel as I stood on the fringe of the crowd, then stepped out of that fringe and hosed down the table with the Vanquisher.  I kept clicking through the trigger until the pressure chamber was empty.

Five plus three was eight.  Seventeen plus one target plus change to go.

We both put our backs to the wall and I scanned the crowd for my target.  A thought jumped through my brain and I turned to look at Keith.  “I want you to quit following me.  If anyone’s paying attention, they could track me easier.”

He waggled his eyebrows.  “I’ll keep a low profile.”

“Keith, seriously.”

“No, trust me on this Sam, no one’s gonna be following me.  I’m…that good.”

I sighed.  “Fine.”

Safe to say Drake was probably hanging out on the WAY FAR end.  If I’d gone left instead of right when coming in, I’d probably be done with this assignment already.

Walking again, and my straight-arms and hip-checks got weird looks from the crowd.  Keith moved effortlessly through the sea of people never annoying a one of them, never turning a head.

Jedi, I swear.

We passed the mini bar again, and I took a moment to raise up again to look around.  Three people moving through the crowd, coming from the admissions desk area.  In the dim light, I could just barely see shoulder straps on each of their shoulders.  They were players alright.

Three of them.  Huh.  I smiled at the thought.

I turned and leaned against the bar, looked at the menu.  Whether or not they responded to me would tell whether they were part of Drake’s party.  Walk right past me, they were competitors.  Recognize me, they were bodyguards who’d gotten called.  Either way…


“Take a few steps away.  You might want to photograph this.”

“What are you going to do?”

I set my hand on the grip of the Triple Shot.  “You ever hear of El Presidente?”

“No I have not.”  He looked confused.  He looked like confused wasn’t a look he wore often.

“You’re about to see it in action.”

As the three closed, I tracked their approach in the mirror.  Two guys and a girl, all older than me but not by much.  Large soakers slung at their right sides.  Assuming their dominant hand was their right, that was a slow draw.  Left would be better if you can’t hang it in front on a single-point.

Ten meters away and someone motioned in my direction.


Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.  That’s what my dad taught me.  And my mom.  And a few of my friends, in a different context.

But mostly my dad.  Do something slow often enough, muscle memory begins to take over and you speed up once you have it down perfect.  Smooth is better than fast though.  You can’t miss fast enough to win.

I started left to right, a classic El Presidente.  Right hand gripping the Triple Shot as I pulled it up, back, up, and pushed forward, left hand meeting my right.  I tripped the trigger twice on the girl on the left, tracked fractionally to the right, two gray comets into the chest of the middleman, fractional rotation again, and I shot righty four times in the right pectoral.  Two more blasts on the middleman, and then I blew mist off the girl’s Packers jersey before the first cloud had even settled.

I turned to Keith, a few feet down the bar.  “Please tell me you got that.”

He gave an uncharacteristic grin.  “Video.”


He clicked buttons on the big DSLR for a moment.  “Six seconds.”

Now it was my turn to grin.  Average speed for a professional El Presidente is five seconds.  With a water gun, drawing from a messenger bag, six was not bad at all.

I slid into the crowd milling around behind the lanes and started making my way to the other end.  Eyes up, looking back and forth, checking for more players I slowly pushed my way through the throngs of people.

Someone jostled my shoulder, apologized, and kept moving, and I caught something that didn’t look quite right.  It took less than a moment to review what I’d seen in passing.  Tan skin, short hair, t-shirt over a long-sleeved shirt, and…think…black strap woven with the words “Super Soaker” around the neck, hanging a watergun on the opposite side.  He was less than four feet away, no one between us, and I turned, brought the Triple Shot up and shot him in the back of the head, then had it back down and was turned away before he’d even figured out he’d been soaked out of the game.  There were a few exclamations of surprise from the people around us, but no one made any move to stop me from moving on.  Probably not a bodyguard, just a player like me, given the fact that he hadn’t recognized me.

The colored lights overhead synched with the heavy techno remix music and fog started pouring out of the ceiling over the lanes.  Within seconds it was nearly impossible to see the pins and tendrils of mist had started to creep into the heavily trafficked area behind the bowling area.  Mist plus dark did not equal safety to my mind.  Too hard to see, too easy to miss something.

The crowd seemed to grow thicker, and I actually found myself fighting a losing battle against the current as new bowlers and their friends headed downrange to find lanes.  I pulled back to the wall and flipped open my phone.  One thirty seven.

I’d wanted to be in and out faster than this.  Still wanted to wrap it up fast.

I didn’t even bother to look for Keith.  No matter his denials, I didn’t want him following me – two was way more conspicuous than one.  Now, how to get through this flood…

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11PM – 12PM Part 2

Up a hill onto the sidewalk surrounding a huge angular glass and sandstone building, past the doors and into the courtyard.  A glassed-in dining room jutted into the concrete patio under a myriad of foreign flags.  Jared wasn’t in any mood to stay and ponder cultural differences though, he kept running, hurtling tables and benches – again like a Kenyan athlete – ducking under the limbs of the scrawny trees planted haphazardly around the campus.

To the left was a massive brownstone building that looked like a prison, and Jared’s gate varied enough left that I thought he was going to break for it.  Instead, he ran far right, through a little meeting area between massive planters, and headed for the church I could see up ahead.

I tried taking a shot, but aiming was all but impossible at this speed and this range.  One of us would have to slow down sometime soon, pounding through the warm air, taking humidity into heaving and overtaxed lungs was not at all conducive to stamina.

Jared ducked into an alley along the side of the church, sprinting through the brick corridor with an ease that said he did this every day.  I wondered if he did.

Out of the alley he cut across a parking lot and then a wide lawn filled with trees.  A few students moved between the buildings, shadow shapes in the dim haze of night.  Few lights shone down upon the lawn, and I mused on how many of those students had their whistles with them.  STOP, or I’ll say STOP again!

I followed him between dormitories, massive hulking castles built of heavy block.  The windows glowed an inviting yellow, and I could hear happy voices and loud music from within.  Would my college experience look like this?

Jared crossed another lawn, and then our feet hit pavement.  A cul-de-sac at the end of a street.  He continued across the pavement, vaulted a low stone fence, and kept going.

Son of a bitch.

This was like chasing Jason Bourne.

I glanced left and right as we sprinted along a cement walkway between buildings.  Funky looking house to the left, like multiple houses joined together at their corners in a zigzag pattern.  Normal looking house to the right, the path we were on led between the lawns.  Any zigzag house up ahead, and Jared sprinted right up the steps and inside the open door.

I hesitated.  Trespassing?  Breaking and entering?  Hell, how many laws had I broken already in the past twelve hours?  Another half dozen wouldn’t matter.  My feet pounded the wooden steps up the porch and then I was inside.

Hallway, students already pressed to the walls in the wake of the mad sprinter who’d torn through.  “Sorry,” I said in passing.  I was moving so fast I didn’t think anyone heard me.  The hallway zigged just like the house did, and I slowed imperceptibly to aim around every corner.  I could track his progress through the house by the shouts and exclamations, but I wanted to be sure nonetheless.

Door on the right, a mousy girl with a laundry basket looked shaken.  “He go through there?” I asked breathlessly.

She nodded, obviously confused.

“Thanks.”  Gun up and held so tightly it was shaking, I moved through the door.  Washer and dryer tucked into a stairwell.  I could hear footsteps hammering the steps above.  I heaved another breath in.  “Always gotta be the frickin’ hard way…”

The house was only two stories tall, and I rotated out into the upper hallway with professional smoothness.  Forget a career in the design industry, with these mad skillz I should work for the Secret Service or Blackwater.

To the left, there were people milling about in the hall.  None of them looked perturbed.  Ok, he’d gone right.  Around another corner and the hallway ended at an open wood door and a slamming shut screen door.  I banged through the screen again – to a shout of “Hey man, take it easy!” from a nearby room – and skidded to a stop just before crashing over a second story deck railing.  Below, Jared picked himself up from a stumbled landing and started moving again.

I took two shots – neither of which connected – pumped, and heaved myself over the railing, absorbing the landing with bent knees and a shoulder roll, the bag banging around me.  I hoped I hadn’t damaged anything, I kept all sorts of useful odds and ends in there.

Jared was my equal or better, I had to admit.  Pretty close to peak physical condition.  I couldn’t imagine how far we’d covered, and at such a high speed.

We were off the campus now, and the terrain had changed to backyards.  We were running through gardens and flowerbeds, dodging swingsets and birdbaths.  The river – wide and sparkling in the moonlight – lapped at the shore just a few meters to the left.  This was rich-folk territory, these properties had to command a couple of hundred grand apiece.

The end of the chase came quickly and unexpectedly.  We both knew that one mistake would be the game-changer.

He tried to angle off to the right, and I put a burst of speed and fired, angling the Triple Shot to get better range.  I held down the trigger, sweeping it left, and he skidded, kind of jumped left, and angled that way while I followed.

My sweep of water dissuaded him from forward motion, and with me quickly pulling up in pursuit, he took the only avenue left open for him – a dock along the waterfront.

It was about twenty feet long.  He didn’t have anywhere to go.  For just a moment it looked like he was going to take a running dive into the drink, but then he skidded to a stop at the end and turned to face me, hands up in surrender.  “No need to shoot, ok?” He said between panted breaths.  “I’d kinda like to spend the rest of the night out, and I don’t have another shirt.”

I shot him in the face for my trouble.  He blinked the water away and ran the rest back through his bristly hair with both hands.

“Damn, you’re good,” he commented as he walked past me, punching buttons on his phone.

“You’re crazy,” I told him.  “Running through that house?  Jumping off the roof.”

He turned and corrected me with a waggled finger.  It was a second story balcony, not a roof.  There’s a difference.”

“Fine.  You still shouldn’t have run through those peoples’ house.”



“Gotta record that you killed me.”

“Oh yeah.  Samantha Calloway.  Two ‘ells,’ ‘oh’ not ‘aye.’”

He punched buttons on his phone as we walked.  “That house is owned and rented out by a woman I dated before Kyra and I got back together,” he said.  “I got permission.”

I snorted.  “That had to be an odd conversation.”

“It was.”

His phone beeped one last time and he folded the ancient device and put it back in his pocket.

“Speaking of odd, what do you know about Keith?”


“The question, answer it.”  His voice had grown cold, no longer nice.

“He’s following me around, photographing me for some yousoak newsletter or something.”

Jared snorted.  “Yeah, I bet.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the guy’s dead.”

I felt a tingle at the back of my greasily sweating neck.  “Huh?”

“Long story short, I’m friends with one of his old friends from back in Miami.  Keith Slate is a reported missing person.  Walked into the Everglades with no supplies a couple of days before Hurricane Corrie blew the Hell out of Miami.”

I remembered the news coverage of that hurricane.  I’d been concerned that it’d sweep north and pound Mercy, where my brother David lived.  It hadn’t, fortunately.

“Anyway,” Jared continued, “My friend Brian relayed to me some of the strange crap Keith said to him in the years before he went on his final vision quest…safe to say the cheese slid off his cracker.  If he’s still alive – and it looks to me like he is – I doubt he’s any saner.

“Brian also said he’d had a couple of even weirder near-death experiences involving Keith Slate after getting shot after the hurricane, but…well, Brian’s always been a little fringe.  Not exactly the most normal person I know.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Compared to you, who asks old girlfriends if you can run through her house for a waterfight?”

He laughed.  “Yeah, compared to me.”

“If he is who you say he is – and I kinda doubt it – I’ve got experience with fringe and not-the-most-normal people.  Am one myself.  Not too concerned for my safety.”

He turned to look at me while we walked.  After a moment he said “You don’t care if you live or die, do you?”

The whole mood of the conversation changed, suddenly.  He’d gotten less serious the longer he talked about Keith, but now he chose to put me on the defensive.

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m pretty good at reading people.  I managed to slap Brian in the face with the fact that he was in love within two hours of meeting him.  You…you’re dead from the heart on down.”

Annoyance blossomed within me like an expanding fireball of ignited gasoline.  “What the hell gives you the right…?”

He cut me off.  “I’ll never meet you again, I don’t care what you think.”

Wow.  “Ok, what about you, Mister Perfect?  You wanna lecture me about dead, your photograph for this thing – “

He cut me off again.  “Old photograph.  And yes, that picture was taken during a part of my life that I literally had to drag myself out of.  But I did, and here I am.”

“How…how’d you do it?”

“No idea.  It’s sort of like finding God, nobody can tell you how.”

We walked for a while in silence.  I didn’t see any reason to walk apart, seeing as we were going to the same place.

“What did you do?” I asked finally.

Jared thought for a moment.  “Got used, when I shoulda seen it coming.  Nearly killed somebody ‘cause of it.  You?”

Shit.  There it was.  I thought of all the incidental ways it had been slapped in my face today, the thing I’d managed to avoid thinking about except in an oblique way.  “I…I went a little further than you did.”

He nodded to himself.  “Alright then.”

We crossed the street back to The Abbey.  I could see Keith leaning against the passenger door of my Mazda.  So could Jared.  “Be careful around him,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah.”

I shook his hand.

“It’s almost ten.  Good fighting with you, Miss Calloway.  If you will excuse me, I think my fiancée is waiting for me.”

“Have a good night,” I told him.

“You too.”

I walked back to the car, and paused, turned back to look at the building.  Keith stared at me in my peripheral vision until I turned to look at him.  We raised our eyebrows at each other, and then he got in.

I took one last look.  I wanted to be that guy.

“No, I really don’t care,” I whispered to the night air.

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11PM – 12PM Part 1

The following takes place between 11pm and 12am

The soothing female computer voice on the other end of the line said “Assassinate this couple by twelve aye emm.  A picture will download to your phone momentarily.  They are located at “The Abbey Bar Three Oh Three Reid Street, De Pere.”

Ok, assassination.  Not so soothing.

I threw the car into gear as the pictured downloaded, surfed over to my maps app and punched in the address.  Not too far.  Fifteen minutes if I didn’t break any laws.

Webster Avenue was very similar to the neighborhood down by the river where I’d bought the Nissan.  Grand ol’ houses all glowing soft and warm inside, the occasional blue-white flicker of a TV on a living room ceiling the only harsh light around.  Up on this ridge overlooking the river the property must’ve been at a premium price, ALL the houses were large.  Not mansions, but upper upper middle class.

We raced along the road at speeds approaching ridiculous.  The tires chewed up the pavement behind the stretch of headlights that cut through the muggy night air.

Eventually we passed into a commercial district.  Surprise surprise, more vacant buildings.  Lots of banks though.  Funny how that worked.

I took a right onto Allouez Avenue, cruised through some more expensive houses.  Mostly ranches this time though.  We passed a cemetery on the right.  Well, that was morbid.  Selling a house around here had to SUCK.

Left onto Riverside Drive, and the houses got even nicer, once you got out of the commercial district.  Mortgage and insurance companies mostly, tastefully-sized signs hulking up out of nicely manicured islands of flowers and bushes.

And then it got weird.

It was like the zoning committee had spent a considerable amount of time on hallucinogenic drugs.  Nursing home, pet care center, insurance company, ice cream stand, gravestone store, football field, nature park, and then I was driving through some of the nicest, most expensive houses I’d seen in this state.  Old money houses that looked like historical sites.  Massive sprawling mansions that filled yards that could accurately be called estates.  And they were everywhere.  To the right the houses that backed up against the river were a little nicer, but not noticeably more so than the ones on the left.

We passed through the rich district at a high rate of speed, and then we were downtown.  Past a library I could see a waterfront park on the right.  A Shopko sat squat and ugly on the left.  A fountain burbled quietly as it changed colors, underwater lights set in the concrete rotating through color palette.  I slowed as I cruised through the downtown area, taking a moment to marvel at the ancient looking buildings, to soak in the warm night air and the muted sounds of the nightlife.

I’d never seen a giant roundabout before, and stopped at the entrance.  “What the hell is this?” I asked no one in particular.  I looked at it distrustfully and tried to figure out how it worked.

“It’s a roundabout,” Keith replied from the passenger seat.  “They’re European, and they’re all the rage up here right now.”

“So that’s why I instinctively hate them,” I muttered.  Glancing at my phone’s GPS, I guessed I needed to cross the bridge that lay to the right of the multilane circle.  When there were no cars coming, I just hung a hard right, probably breaking half a dozen traffic laws in the process.

The bridge was quiet and peaceful, the rushing of water underneath a nice white-noise background.  The sidewalks were filled with people, mostly young.  Across the river and slightly left was a set of massive buildings that looked like a campus.  It was nearly time for them to be returning…

The GPS showed me a circuitous route.

I wound through the downtown buildings – mostly bars and restaurants – taking a couple of lefts.  Almost passed the two story building sitting on the corner, and turned a hard right into the parking lot, nearly taking off the bottom of the car as the driver’s side tires rode up on the median.  I pulled a Rockford-reverse and backed into a parking spot, then pulled up the pictures on my phone.

The first was of a woman in her early to mid twenties.  Tan skin, hair a few shades darker, and light blue eyes.  Though the photo was from the shoulders up, I could tell she was slim.  Decently attractive, certainly not me though, I thought with a smile.  Black type at the bottom of her photo stated her name as Kyra MacGregor.

Clicking over to the next photo, I found myself looking into eyes I wanted to look away from.  Sad, dead eyes.  Very sad.  Very dead.  Squarish face and short, wavy brown hair that matched the color of his eyes.  A few days beard stubble completed his almost vagrant look.  His name was Jared Grey.

Great.  Crowded bar, I was hunting the girl next door and an average looking emotional wreck.

I considered the atmosphere I was walking into, and left the Vanquisher in the car.

Music blared in the hot night air, and moving bodies up on the second story balcony were backlit from behind.  Dancing, party on the second floor.  The building was sided except for around the lower level door, that was bricked.  I pushed the heavy, weathered door in, did a quick confirm on the guy who walked out past me, and evaluated my surroundings.

Dimly lit dining room to the right, through another door.  Red walls, high backed wooden booths that looked more like pews than anything that belonged in a restaurant.  Lots of sports and alcohol advertisements on the walls, lots of people at the tables.

The lobby I was in was plastered with handmade signs and contained a fake fichus tree that looked like – despite its artificial status – it was still wilting away.

I pushed through the door to the left and entered the bar.  Long, long as the building.  Back wall and half of the right side was all shelving units containing liquor bottles.  Sports memorabilia hung on the walls, and one spot was noticeably empty.  Spraypainted onto the  bright white wall were the words “The traitor number four’s jersey hung here.”  I’d heard of that drama queen before.  Man squandered his own legend.

Pool tables sat in the middle of the floor, and small tables lined the left side under a few tall, thin windows.  The bar was vaguely heart-shaped, and angled into the room from the middle of the right side.  There was a staircase going up to the second level along the right hand wall, right by the entrance to the dining room.  Lots of people were in here tonight, crowded around the bar, pool tables, sitting along the wall, just generally milling around on the floor.  I adjusted the hang of the satchel against my side, flipping the wide flap over the handle of the Triple Shot stuffed inside.

I took a breath, then another, and put myself in the same mindset I’d been in strolling through the crowd outside Liquid Eight.  Pretty, vapid, here for alcohol and maybe a hookup.  I motioned Keith back with a hand, and then threaded through the crowd, my awareness of my surroundings running like a subroutine in the back of my mind.

I took an empty seat at the bar, and sighed theatrically as I pretended to study the bottles lined up on the shelves behind the bartender.  Like many bars, the wall behind the bottles was mirrored.  Around and sometimes through the bottles, I could see the clientele sitting around me without actively scanning them like a paranoid at a trenchcoat convention.

The bartender said something to me I didn’t pay attention to, and I shook my head.  “Nah, I’m waiting for someone.”

I kept my glance dancing over the reflections.  Didn’t want anyone to know I was looking at them.  Neither of my prey was here.  I slid off the seat and strolled the tabled side of the bar, feigning interest in the pool games when it gave me a chance to look around.  I circled the room to the entrance to the restrooms.

Women’s was deserted.  The guy washing his hands in the Men’s said “What the hell?” annoyed-like.  I held up a hand and swayed.  “Sorry, wrong…door.”  I backed out with a stumble and wove my way back to Keith.  “Not here.”

The dining room was equally packed.  Every table was occupied by at least two people, usually more.  A massive banquet table set deep in the inside corner had more than a dozen people around it, packed like sardines onto the benches around it.

Keith and I wandered aimlessly, like we were looking for a free table, even though it was obvious from the door that there wasn’t one.  None of the people in the room were Jared or Kyra.

“Think we’ll find them together?” I asked Keith as we re-entered the bar.

“I suspect so,” he said gravely.  “Why don’t I stay down here and keep an eye out while you go upstairs?”

I shook my hair out of my eyes.  “Fine.”

He angled out into the crowd, and I lost track of him as I climbed the stairs.  That guy could just plain disappear sometimes.

The second floor was a little different from the first.  Leather couches were arranged so as to create a more intimate meeting area, four facing inwards with a table in the center.  There were probably four or five of these setups, all occupied, with a dilapidated arcade machine in the corner, and a few feet of floor between the couches and the front wall of the building.  The floor was tightly packed with people who swayed in time to the music, half dancing, half standing, all trying to hold conversations while weaving in place like a drunk.

I’m a little taller than most, so I stood on tiptoe and surveyed the couches.  There.  Kyra Macgregor was seated along the back wall, talking with a man sitting kitty-corner from her.  She was wearing jeans and a green Abercombie polo, him black dress pants and a white button up.  The back of his nearly buzzed head didn’t look anything like Jared’s.  I’d have to rib Keith about his failed intuition.  The people around them appeared to be part of the conversation, not lookouts for her team or anything so intelligent.  Tall blond guy, a shorter guy in a corduroy sportcoat, a goofy grin on his face, I tuned out the rest as I moved through the crowd.

I should’ve had some inkling about the control they had of the situation by the setup.  Back of the room, only approach through the sofas…where everyone else was SITTING.  I wasn’t thinking that deep though.  I just excused myself as I moved to stand in front of the sofa behind Buzz-cut.

I was standing directly behind Buzz-cut before I put my hand on the grip of the pistol in my satchel.  Kyra’s eyes flicked to me as I drew.  It was a good draw, smooth, not catching on the bag or anything in it.

Michael Mann incorporates the same line – or a variation of it – into any movie that features polices officers.  “Get clean shots, watch your backgrounds.”

Though his characters are typically receiving that advice regarding ballistic weapons, it’s good advice when dealing with water guns as well.  Nobody like collateral soakage.

My first shot was from my hip, and it hit her square in the stomach.  I could’ve stopped there, but my mind was already committed to the action.  My hands came up to eye level, and I aimed rudimentarily at her for a minute before splashing her in the face with water.

Someone rose in vision, turning as they did so, and then I felt hands on my wrists.  I was face to face with Buzz-cut for a moment and he had the same face as Jared Grey.  The hair was shorter – probably an old picture – but the biggest difference was the eyes.  No longer dead and flat.  There was still intensity there, but this guy was walking the world of the living and liked being there.

Jared pushed me backwards and I tripped over a table and bounced off a couch before landing on my side on the floor.  He, meanwhile, was off and running, weaving between the couches, heading for the stairs.  I apologized to the people who’s drinking I’d interrupted with my fall and sprinted after him.

He was polite, he wove around the couches.  I was less so, and hurtled them in unoccupied sections.  He beat me to the staircase and pounded down it, turning the corner impossibly fast and heading for the front door.  If I wasn’t following him when he got outside, this was probably over.  Halfway down, I grabbed the railing and vaulted over the side.  My heart rose in my throat and slammed back down again as my feet hit the floor with a crash.  I staggered against a pool table and a guy playing pool, and looked around for my target.  He’d frozen, staring with something like shock at Keith, who’d positioned himself by the door.  Upon seeing me, Keith pointed at the man.  “There he is!”

“Yes, I can see that.”

Jared took off running again, pushing a couple out of the way as they opened the door, and then he was outside and out of sight.

I made it out about five seconds later, just in time to see him heading east towards the college campus.

He sprinted like a Kenyan athlete, cutting across the street and onto the college property in just a few seconds.  I was pretty fast too.  Now I just had to catch up.

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10PM – 11PM Part 2

The door below swung open with a creek, and I aimed downwards, splattered the bottom of the stairwell with water as two people moved not-quickly-enough for the steps.

Third floor and I advanced into the hallway through another loosely hung swinging wooden door.  Exit signs glowed red over various doors, and about one in ten overhead lights were lit.

It was dark.

There was another huge laminated map nailed to the wall ahead, and I crossed the hall, stood in front of it, and tried to figure out just where the hell I was.

Ah.  “You are here.”

Far away I heard the sounds of running feet and a distant splash.  At least I was in somewhat the right place.  I hit the map with the flashlight’s beam again.  Nursery….there.

I glided down the hall, heading deeper into the building.  Gurneys and bigger rolling medical beds lined the walls along with portable equipment not easily identifiable.  Stepping from one section of tiled floor onto demo’d grout gave me the impression that the hospital was undergoing some construction.

Up ahead was an intersection, and I ducked behind the head of a gurney as people dashed past.  One caught the wall as he past, crouching down at the foot of the gurney to shoot from the cover of the corner of the wall.

This was ridiculous.

I looked back for Keith.  Nowhere.  He seemed to have dematerialized.  Probably shrunk back into a shadow somewhere, snapping IR pictures of me looking confused and pissed.

Oh well.  Not like he helped.

I stood, stepped around the gurney, and shot the guy at the foot twice in the back of the head as I stalked past.

The intersection ahead was a four-way.  Two nurses desks at stations on either side closest to me.  Across the way on the left, closed offices.  Across the way on the right, a glass-walled nursery the elevated, wheeled cribs that hospitals use waiting in empty row after empty row.

The temperature of my blood dropped and I rotated around the corner, snapped the Surefire on in someone’s face, and shot them in the chest.



Water snapped past, splashing off the earth-toned stucco wall.  I tracked its trajectory backwards as I dropped to a crouch beside the right nurses’ desk, my own stream splattering on the left side desk.  I launched myself across the hall, sliding on my side into the hallway between the offices and the nursery, kicking off the wall and rocking to my feet.  I snapped the light on again, just a flash, I stood at the same time as the girl behind the left desk did.  She was looking the wrong way though, and had to track back to me.  I was already aiming for her, and I stepped into two shots.  The first one slapped into mist against the wall behind her, the second hit her in the throat.

I moved into the intersection, aiming right, and the first person I’d shot was gone, but there was someone new.  Apparently they hadn’t drawn a bead on me when I’d jumped across the intersection.

It didn’t matter though.  My sidestep bounced me off the left-hand desk, and I one-handed the pistol, pointing into the hazy darkness.  I beat him to the trigger, three quick shots to his two that flashed through where I’d been.  Unlike his, mine collided.

From where I was – pressed up against the waist-high desk – I flashed the Surefire around as people filed out.  No one else.

Something tall caught my eye.  A vase on the right-hand desk, a few familiar red flowers emerging from the top.

“You gotta do something Sam, the world ain’t gonna wait for you to get comfortable with all the decisions you’re gonna have to make.”  I heard Stephanie – my best friend, my brother’s girlfriend – as clear as day.

“You think I don’t know that?” had been my reply.

I walked over and pushed the vase over.  The glass shattered, spilling greenery and water all over.  I turned on my heel and pulled the nursery door open.

The bright light of Surefire left a burn in my vision as I bounced it off the blindingly white walls.  Two doors at the back of the room probably led to more offices and examination rooms.  I’d never gotten to see a nursery before, I had no idea.  One dim overhead light in the room made the room seem even more oppressively shadowed.  I let my hand drift over the edges of the cribs as I past between them.  There were blankets in a few, awaiting occupants.

I flashed the light around again, caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye.  Another mylar-wrapped box.  I ducked down below the level of the cribs and after a quick flash of the light, punched the numbers in from memory.

Sitting on the floor in the darkness, phone pressed to my ear, I could feel the ghosts whirling about me, and angry swirl like a funnel-cloud of regret, spinning up to critical mass.  Was I the creator or the eye of the storm?

The voice on the other end had no advice for me other than “Landing Pad.”

I’d not noticed the blue barrels next to the door as I walked in, and I refilled the Triple Shot before leaving.  I took a moment to remember the layout.  I was deep middle of the third floor.  The helicopter pad was on the roof of the garage.  There’d have to be some way to cross from that roof to the hospital.

So.  I had to get to the roof.

Keith was waiting for me by the nurses’ desks as I exited the nursery.  “Real help you are,” I muttered in passing.

He fell in behind me as I moved down the corridor.  I’d transferred the pistol to the satchel and held the Vanquisher at low ready.  The roof was probably better lit with ambient city light than in here, and there’d be better ranges for rifle work.  “How do you mean?”

“I mean you’re supposed to alert me to ambushes, look out for me, that sort of thing.  That was the deal, remember?”

“I must get pictures first.  That is my overriding concern.”

I looked back at the bearded weirdo following me through the gloom.  “Nobody talks like that, dude.”

“Like what?”

“Like you.”

The door to the stairway we’d used pushed open, and it didn’t even require conscious thought to raise the Vanquisher to my shoulder and fire a short blast, sidestep to the right and fire another.

Those had been the first two shots I’d taken with the soaker.  The trigger moved smoothly through its range of motion, letting the water out with a clicky snap-hiss as it left the nozzle.  The stream arced through the shadow, smooth and laminate like a glass rod thrown through the air.

Both shots impact the man who’d pushed through the door, and I waggled my fingers at him in a wave as he brought a hand up to touch the plate-sized water spots on his shirt.  “Hi” I said brightly.

“Hi.”  He turned and pushed through the door again.

Round and round the stairs went, spiraling upwards.  I button-hooked every corner, whipped past every landing.  In the last ten hours I’d run more steps than I’d set food on in the past seventeen years.

There was a yellow metal ladder descending from the ceiling at the top landing.  I aimed upwards for a few seconds, expecting fire from above.  That’s what I’d do.

Nothing, and I slung the Vanquisher, put my hands on the rungs, and started pulling myself up two rungs at a time.

I emerged from an open trap door in the roof of the hospital.  The roof was a black, tacky gravel, like a point zero one grit sandpaper.  Clumps of HVAC equipment dotted the roof, mechanical and borg-like, they rumbled and groaned quietly.  At the back of the roof, another building rose up even higher, unlit windows looking down like dead eyes.

A small building stood at the end of a concrete path set into the black gravel, wide doors presumably opening onto an elevator.  The path led to the edge of the roof and to a fenced in walkway extending to the helicopter landing pad on top of the detached multi-story garage.

I looked back to see Keith climb through the trapdoor.  “I hear people down below,” he stated as he pulled himself to the roof.


We ran across the roof to the walkway.  Wide enough for a gurney and support staff on either side, it was caged in with chainlink.  We crossed it to the helicopter landing pad.

It was actually wider than the roof of the detached garage, with chainlink fencing laid out on all sides like some kind of see-through floor.  The way it was fenced off with highway railing made me think it wasn’t designed to be walked on.  A target was painted onto the roof, presumably to give the pilot a reference point.  Lights blinked, set into the gravel around the outside edge and the center of the target.

In the exact center of the target, someone had written a telephone number in spraypaint.  I flashed the Surefire on it, then dialed.

“Department Of Pediatrics.  Room Three.”

Dammit.  Just…dammit.

I put the phone away.  “We gotta retrace our steps.”

Keith lowered the camera to let it hang against his chest.  “I got what I came here for.”

“Wonderful.  Let’s go.”

At the edge of the walkway I stared down the chainlink tunnel at the five people ahead, on the other side.  I think we were all so shocked to see each other that none of us made a move for oh, about point zero three seconds.

My Vanquisher swiped across the two in front, hosing them with one stripe across the front of their shirts.  I backpedaled as water sped up the tunnel towards me, angling to my right.  The remaining three charged across the walkway, and I expended the rest of my water supply snap-shooting two through the chainlink.  If they’d been smart, they would’ve shot back.  Linear thinking at its worst will get you shot.

My left hand tugged the Vanquisher down to my side while my left found the handle of the Triple Shot and brought it up.

He split left, I circled right as my left hand went to join my right on the grip, and I pulled the trigger time after time after time, jetting water into his path.  He ran into one arcing blast of water, and I didn’t stick around to watch his reaction.

My feet hammered the walkway and the concrete path, and I shouldered between his friends, nearly jumped down the trapdoor.  Keith could catch up or not.  As I ran down the stairs I checked the clock on my phone.

Ten minutes to go.

I shoulder-checked the swinging door at the bottom and painfully hip-checked the floor as I wiped out on a puddle.  I skidded along the tile on my side as water shot overhead, and I rolled right, shooting past my knee, blowing mist off my attacker’s chest with two splats of water.  I rose to one knee, steadied my elbow off that bent knee, and shot twice more as someone came through one of the connecting hallways at the back of the lobby.  The water splashed of the wall and I rose all the way, walking and shooting.  When they peeked out from cover I snapped a stream into their third eye, and then I was bulling through the wide, revolving glass doors.

I managed to catch my breath by slowing down to a half-sprint on the way back to the parking lot.  I pumped the pistol back to something approximating full strength on the way there.  It’d been a lot of pistol work this hour and I was running down.

I heard footsteps pounding the pavement behind me and extended my arm, turning my head to stare down the gun at Keith.  “Hey,” I called back as I kept running.

We rounded the corner to the Pediatrics building and I paused at the door.  Small lobby with more doors just inside.  Desk ahead and I could barely make out a grim looking little waiting room in the gloom past that.

I transitioned back to the rifle, pulled the door open and moved in quick and low.  Keith walked in straight and tall behind me, slipping in and narrowly missing getting smacked by the door.  He didn’t mind the thought of getting mistaken for a competitor and getting shot at, though that hadn’t happened yet today.  Probably everyone saw the camera and assumed he was either staff or just didn’t want to shoot at a five grand piece of equipment.

Once more through a set of doors, and I pivoted, scanning a hundred and eighty degrees around me.  Fenced off pharmacy to the left.  Desk and waiting room ahead.  Hallway with elevators to the right, blackness further down the hallway.

Time was running down, I’d have to be quick about thi – damn it!  Water streaked by my face while I evaluated the area, and I jerked myself out of my thoughts.

I strafed towards the desk, pulsing out a rain of water down the right hand hallway.  I bounced off the desk in what had become an almost expected maneuver, and tagged out one of the two who’d shot at me.  The other spazzed out and tried to sidestep into a wall, bouncing off that in a move even more ridiculous than mine because they then bounced off their buddy.  My gun hissed water at them, and I pumped as I calmly stepped into the waiting room.  “Room Three” the voice had said.  Probably ground level.

There was a massive children’s playhouse set into the right back corner of the waiting room and two doors in the left side wall.  Looked like some sort of admitting desk with access to the street behind at the back.  Plastic chairs lined the walls and stood in two rows in the middle of the room.

For a moment I could hear the squeals and happy shouts of children bouncing around frenetically inside that playhouse.  Hell, I could hear one of them crying as their parent comforted them while they waited for a doctor.  It wasn’t nostalgia that washed over me, it was…something else.  Regret.  Sadness.  Self loathing.

Good parents.

Taking care of their kids.

I kicked the closest door in.  I’d expected it to swing like the hospital doors had, but apparently this one wasn’t meant for gurneys or people in a hurry, because the lock door the door frame away with a satisfying splinter like a spine snapping.  I was in a hallway with exam room doors on either side.




I turned the knob and barged in.  The room was done up in pinks and reds, like a little girl’s room.  Barbie crap on the walls, a ballerina border meeting the ceiling.  Two chairs right hand wall, then a desk and cupboard.  Two blue barrels looking very much crammed in along the back wall.  I flashed the Surefire around the room, then walked over to the examination table and punched the telephone number markered into the paper on top into my phone.

I didn’t dial, it wasn’t ten yet.  By, like, two minutes.

I stepped out into the hall and bumped into another woman.  The creak of plastic as I collided with something hard told me that she was a player in this game, same as me.  I fired the rifle from the hip, Tommy-gun style, before she could get over her surprise.

It was probably her husband who was guarding the waiting room, and he didn’t see me as I edged around the doorframe I’d shattered.


He paid for his inattention to detail with one hundred dollars as I snugged the tank of my rifle into my shoulder and fired twice, tagging him out.  It was a good shot, I could barely see in the hazy shadow.

Keith was right behind me as I pushed out into the hot night air.  The sweltering breeze rattled a beer can in the gutter, and I took a moment to push my hair back out of my face.  I flapped the hem of my shirt a couple of times and succeeded in doing nothing but fanning warm air across my skin.  At least it pulled my sweat-soaked shirt away.  It stuck to me, a tacky uncomfortable layer.

I got in the car, took a few deep breaths, and dialed the next phone number.

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10PM – 11PM Part 1

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.

We ran.

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.”

Damn it.

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.

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9PM – 10PM Part 3

Keith had two fingers pressed to my neck, checking my pulse.  “You ok?”

I put a hand to the back of my head, felt beneath the hair.  Sticky with – but not soaked in – blood.  My head pounded and my legs hurt.  I inventoried every body part I could think of.  Nothing felt damaged beyond repair.

“You hit your head,” Keith explained as I rose unsteadily.

“Mama said knock you out,” I muttered.


“This game is battering me to pieces and it’s not even half done.”  It was true.  Scrapes, cuts, strains, now a knock to the head that had induced some absolutely terrifying hallucinations.  I was having fun, but this was taking a major toll.

I took a few steps and got my balance.  “What’d I miss?”

“Not much.  You were out for maybe a minute.”

Huh.  My nightmares had lasted way longer than that.  I looked up at the tower.  “What was I doing before I fell?”

“You don’t remember?”

“Say five random words.”


“Five random words is the accepted diagnostic for global memory loss.”

Keith thought for a moment.

“Any five words, really.”

He thought for a moment. “Clinic, shake, flower, infant, boat.”

I narrowed my eyes at him.  His blank, bearded face was unreadable, but there was no way he could be poking fun at me.  I had to think back to recall what he said completely.  “Boat, baby, flower, shaking, hospital.”

“Good enough.”

“So what was I doing?”

“Pulling a box off the roof of the clocktower.”

“Oh yeah…” I raked my hands through the dead leaves and debris in the flowerbed, eventually snagging a small jewelry sized box.  I ripped it apart and quickly dialed the number on the piece of paper inside.  “Terrace Room” the voice said.

I tapped the “Disconnect” button and stared at the phone, still groggy.  “That was helpful.”

“Where are we going?” Keith inquired.

“The Terrace Room,” I replied.  “Wherever the hell that is.”

“Terrace would seem to indicate elevation to me.”

I shook my head in an attempt to clear it and immediately wished I hadn’t.  “Gotta find a mall directory.”  I checked the digital clock on my phone.  “We don’t have much time.”

“Even less,” Keith commented, pointing down the hall to the main courtyard.  Lights flashed along the walls, bouncing off the storefronts.

“Aw crap,” I muttered.

The tower I’d fallen from stood at the center of a smaller courtyard.  Ahead was a shuttered storefront for some world-goods-store, and a hallway heading back to the center of the mall.  Behind us lay another hallway.  Far from the skylights and the occasional lit neon pillar, it was crowded with shadows.  Straining my eyes into the darkness I could make out shutters meeting counter-tops.  Food court.

We moved quickly and quietly down the hallway.  The blackness was so thick it was like fog.  I nearly ran into a wide, arch-shaped plastic sign and stumbled away, only to turn back.  “Directory,” I whispered.

I threw a quick look over my shoulder.  Cones of light cast by the flashlights were sliding over the walls of the courtyard I’d fallen into.  Close.  I’d have to risk it.  “Get ready to run,” I told Keith.

I pulled the Surefire out of my bag and took a breath, then flashed it at the bottom of the sign.  In the dark, the flash of light was blinding, and my eyes took a second to adjust to the small print.  Shouting behind me, and I scanned the directory quickly.  Most of the names had been scratched off or simply removed.  Dammit – wait, there it was.  Younkers, fifth level.

I clicked the light off and the chase was on.

We sprinted through the hallway, past the shuttered storefronts, most of the signs or decorations still on the walls, and as our pursuers flashlights skipped over every surface, I got a glimpse of the restaurants that had inhabited this end of the mall before out of control deficit spending, inflation, and apathy took their toll.  McDonald’s, a place for Asian food, one that looked like it had a nautical theme…

There were glass doors at the end of the hall, and Keith and I both hit them shoulder first, bursting out onto a street.  Hot, humid air slapped me in the face and immediately started drawing sweat from my pores.  Above us was a skywalk, shadowing the roadway, giving the impression of a tunnel.  I could see street lights and buildings and bushes on either end, but underneath it felt like I was in a mine.  Ahead, the skywalk connected to another building.  I scanned the  glass doors and storefront for some clue as to whether or not it’d be open.


Another store.

THE store I needed to be in.

I stopped in the middle of the street and turned back, Keith skidding to a stop a few feet away.  He must’ve been in excellent shape, he wasn’t even breathing hard.  I pulled the stock of the Shot Blast into my shoulder and bent over it, eyes to the poor excuse for glass.  “You might want to get some pictures of this.”

He seemed jarred by the idea, but then realized he should probably grab his camera.

The doors ahead opened, and I exploded into movement.  I drilled a blast through the doorframe at the edge of my effective range, pivoted and splashed a long stream of water off a pane of glass as someone slammed the door shut, put another one inside the mall and against their chest as they opened the door again.  Sidestepping, I kept pumping, hammering out blasts of water as I moved.

Three to go.

I ducked, shooting from a crouch as return fire blasted overhead, and stitched someone from groin to nose with three vertical shots in six quick movements.

The remaining two scattered, moving backwards and splitting, and I kicked out of my crouch, sprinting for one, pumping out stream after stream of water, mostly misses.  One did catch them between the shoulder blades as they half turned to one-hand a pistol back at me, and I turned my attention to the other, skidding to a stop and turning so suddenly it was almost a jump.

Heavy streams of water reached for me as they stood still to shoot, and I dodged one on side, shooting as I did.  Thank goodness these guns had better battlefield longevity than the shotguns they were modeled after.

I came up against that capacity as my assailant darted left, running parallel and opposite to me.  My gun quit spitting water, and I pulled it down and to the side with my left hand, right going for the pistol in a classic, instinctive transition.

Left hand came up to the grip and I stepped forward as I took the stance, shooting ahead of my enemy’s intended path.  They ran right into the reaching end of the stream, and I let the gun drop to my side.

No hostilities continued, and I shouldered through the Yonkers door, Keith right behind me.  Looked like it used to be women’s clothing.  I wasn’t here to shop, I was here for the escalator ahead.  Two, crossed right next to each other, an up and a down.

I dodged between the displays, boots slapping the tile, thumping in the carpet, slapping tile again.  I button-hooked with a hand on the escalator railing and took the clanging metal steps two at a time.

This was NOT helping the pounding in my head.

Each level was roughly two stories tall due to the tall ceilings.  I didn’t stop, just kept taking a hard turn at each new level and heading up the next dead escalator.

I bent double at the top, sucking in still, ancient air.  My head felt like it was going to explode, my eyes like they were going to pop out of my head, and my pulse like it was going to deafen me.  Sweating hard was an understatement.  I leaned against a wall and surveyed the scene as Keith came up a second behind me, slowing from a sprint, relaxed and unfazed by the strenuous exercise.  Probably had a resting pulse rate of two beats per minute.

The glass walls gave me an excellent view of the city, which I appreciated just as soon as my vision stopped pulsating and swimming.  A dot the size of my fist was spray painted on one of the windows.  The downtown buildings were monochromatic darks and oranges, the colors cast in circles or cones by the streetlights.  The variation in building height was pathetic, but hey, not everywhere can be Sin City.  The river moved sluggishly, a ribbon of oil black, just barely visible between buildings.

The restaurant had probably been nice once.  Tables were draped with silky looking table clothes, each with a small lamp centerpiece, and an art-deco bar took up one side of the room.  I had a momentary vision of men and women in fine clothes, huddled around the intimately lit tables while snow fell outside the windows and Christmas music played in the background, waiters ferrying bottles of wine and expensive dishes between the couples and the kitchen.

I felt a sudden pang of sadness.  This room had been full of life once.  It had entertained, glowed with an aura of enjoyment, rang with laughter and the clink of silverware on china.  People had been happy here.  People.  Had been.  Happy.  I clenched my jaw.

There was a sign next to the coat rack, probably at one pointed had advertised the soup-of-the-day or something.  Now it just held a white chalk number.  I called it and the voice at the end of the line said “Ten PM assignment.  Circles” and hung up.

Given the penchant of the game’s designers for putting the clues on the walls, I walked over and checked out the dot on the window.  Beyond the fact that it was spray paint, there wasn’t much I could divine about it.

“Perhaps you should stand here.”  I looked back.  Keith was gesturing at a similar dot sprayed onto the carpet.

I walked over to the dot, placed my feet on it, and stood on a line with the dot on the window.  It covered one of the glassed in staircases of a parking garage a few blocks away.  “Huh.  Neato.”

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9PM – 10PM Part 2

The store was wide and “L” shaped, a taller – maybe fifteen foot high – atrium before a central service desk, and then the rest of the room angled off to the right.  The walls were white, slatted wood, perfect for hanging product hooks.  Tall, thin glass display cases – perhaps too difficult to move to the dumpster – still dotted the sales floor like clear towers, a few even containing mementos forgotten in the rush to  vacate the building.  Nearby, one of the cases featured a Commander Riker commemorative plate, and acrylic miniatures acted out a scene just in front of it.

It was safe to assume this was the collectibles store I’d been sent to.

The trees were the reason for my astonishment.  Starting at the service desk, the back of the store was packed full of artificial Christmas trees, all lit, the reds, greens, blues, purples, and yellows all mixing together to glow a strong, yellowish orange.

Looked like something from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Next to the entrance stood two blue 55 gallon buckets.  Obviously, this place was intended for fighting.

I approached the artificial forest carefully, the Shot Blast up and tucked tightly into my shoulder.  I ignored Keith’s presence completely.  He’d help or not as the whim struck him.  The whim struck him as the thought struck me, and he tapped my shoulder and whispered “I can hear people rustling in there.”

I nodded my understanding, and pulled the pump smoothly towards myself as someone stepped out from between a gap in the trees, soaker raised to take a shot at me.  My hand ran the pump forward instinctively as my shot lanced into the trees, and as I sidestepped, my second blast slammed into his way-too-preppy American Eagle polo.

My sidestep had taken me just outside the course his first blast had taken.   I was surprised it hadn’t hit Keith, it had been so close.  It must’ve cut perfectly between us.

We stared at each other over our guns for a moment, and American Eagle sort of looked back into the forest.  “They’re here!  Two of them, a guy and a girl, they’re – “

He sputtered as pressurized water hissed into his mouth, and his eyes widened as I stalked forward.  He got the idea and got the hell out of dodge.

So there was at least one more in the woods.  Probably two or more.  I looked around.  No rule saying I couldn’t alter the battlefield to my favor.  I walked over to the wall and unplugged the powerstrip that lit the forest of fake trees.  Instantly a third of  the forest’s lights winked out, the ambient yellow glow diminishing considerably.

Someone in the darkened portion yelped “What the – “ the rest unintelligible as they tripped over a Christmas decoration and brought down at least three trees.

I smiled and stalked into the woods, Shot Blast hanging by my side, pistol and light drawn and held together.  Keith followed silently along behind, camera up and clicking occasionally.

Walking the tight, narrow, winding path lit only by my flashlight made me think of Dead Space.  So when I saw a guy on the ground, writhing around in a pile of plastic boughs, attempting to untangle himself from Christmas lights and garland, I allowed myself the self-indulgence of not just shooting him in the chest, but also both arms.  Probably confused him to no end.

The amount of time spent wandering in the close confines of the Christmas maze was intolerable.  Jumping up to see over the tops of the trees, I was able to divine my position.  Middle of the back of the store.  Probably a good idea to head for the leg of the “L.”

I didn’t feel like retracing my steps, searching for the one pathway that would take me towards the exit and not the minotaur in the middle of the labyrinth.  I put my shoulder down and bulled between the trees, making for the wall.

The thin, flexible needles brushed at me like a freaky massage, and back here – in the lighted area – I could feel the heat given off by the multitude of bulbs.  I hit the slatted white wall, and the going was easier as I edged around the outside of the maze.  Probably cheating, who cared?

Something about the back room gave me pause.  Some sixth sense started screaming, and on this night, I was listening to all of my senses.  I swapped the pistol and light for the pump-action, and eased around the corner into the large back room.  Big, big enough to hold all the boxes and backstock the employees would have to deal with every day.  Something changed at the edge of my vision, and I turned, eye to the glass as the bathroom door edged open.  It opened farther after my second shot hissed into the gap, and a college girl stepped out, just as preppy looking as the guy I’d shot moments ago.  A blue Super Soaker pistol dangled from its guard on her finger.

I kept the Shot Blast trained on her as she passed by.

There was a plywood desk in the corner next to a metal filing cabinet, both looking like they’d seen better centuries.  A poster for “The Passion Of The Christ” hung over the desk, high up on the wall.  Someone had to have worked to get it up there.  Just what everyone wants to do every day – come into work and see a picture of a dying Jesus.

A telephone number was spraypainted into the battered top of the desk, and I dialed it, pistol pointed at the door.  Keith stood near the door frame, peering out.  The voice on the line said “Clock tower” before hanging up.

I guess that meant there had to be a clock tower somewhere around here.  That’d be noticeable.  The pistol went back in my satchel, and I swept out of the office, low and fast.  Water splattered off the doorframe over my head, and I worked the pump continuously, pulsing out shot after shot.  They were heavier, thicker blasts, but carried little speed and sank quickly, maybe making twenty five feet at most.

Two guys at the tree line surrounding the “clearing” around the door, and I took out one with my second shot.  I cut off the other’s angle by dashing into the narrow space between the trees and the wall, sprinting the little alley next to the slatted particle board like I’d done before.

My foot caught on something – a cord I realized as more lights went out – and I banged heavily onto the floor, skinning my chin on the industrial strength tight weave carpet.  I rocked to my feet with a groan, and smiled at the misfortune of the two still in the fake forest.

Keith was right behind me as I ran the edge of the store, finally just deciding to push through.  I shouldered through the trees like a linebacker, pushing them to the floor, leaving an absolute mess in my wake.  I unscrewed the caps to both of my guns, and gave them a quick dunk at the blue barrels by the door.

Out of the store, and we sprinted along the balcony, keeping away from the visible angle of the edge.  It’d take some serious pursuit for someone on the floor to catch me up here, but that was no reason to tempt fate.  “Where are we going?” Keith hissed at me as we stopped for a quick breather in the shadowy brick arch of a former rustic-crap-you-don’t-need store.

“The clue was ‘clock tower.’  The second level’s safer than the floor, and I’m guessing a tower’s gonna be visible from either level.  I’m just runnin’ around till I find it.”

In the half-darkness, I couldn’t tell if his roll of the eyes was derogatory or appreciative of my genius plan.  I chose the latter translation.

Further down this arm of the mall, past the black marble of an old Suncoast store and a NASCAR apparel outlet, worn stickers still plastered to the windows.  Around a corner and I said “See!?” to Keith.  He nodded.  “I suppose it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

This wing of the mall opened up from a broad hallway to another overlooking balcony set up.  At the far side had been an anchor store and the tacky gold and pink decorations gave away at least one of the far stores as a Victoria’s Secret.  On this side had been a software store, and a lot of potted plants.  Like they’d had no idea what to do with the space.  An escalator descended to the first floor, next to a metal frame clock tower, the internals freehanging and visible to all.

Had to look pretty cool when it was running.

I stepped up to the balcony and looked over the edge.  The clock tower rose out of a wide brick median that had once contained flowers and a fountain.  Now the flowers had decayed into the dirt they’d grown from and the fountain was empty, the blue tiled well containing nothing but dust, soda cans, and the odd forgotten penny.

The frame of the tower was about five feet from the  balcony.  I moved back and forth along the railing and escalator giving the tower and ground below quick flashes with the Surefire.  Nothing that looked like a clue.  I wasn’t expecting flashing neon lights, but it would’ve been nice to see something.  I even made sure there wasn’t anything jammed in the gears of the clock.

Just like Renard Island…I’d have to do it the hard way.

I rotated the Shot Blast to hang at my left side, and swung both legs over the side of the escalator so I was sitting on the thick, wide, rubberized railing.  Slowly I pushed up to standing.  The angle tugged at my balance.  Good thing I’d worn heavy duty boots today.

“What are you doing?” Keith asked as I balanced on the incline.

“Something stupid.  It’s getting to be a habit.”  I pushed off into a jump, and the frame of the clock tower shook as I hit it.  The metal crossbeams dug sharply into my fingers as I grabbed on, and I sought a lower crossbeam with my feet.  There.  I could balance.  The metal frames that made up the skeleton of the tower were about four feet wide by six feet tall, one frame per side.

Now that I’m here…  I edged over to a corner support, and did a pull-up, swinging my body around so I could grab a perpendicular crossbeam and grip the vertical beam with my shoes, like climbing a fire pole.  I pulled up, got a hand on the vertical beam, and pulled again, working my way up the corner of the tower till I could stand on a crossbeam.  I was at the level of the clock face, on the opposite side of the tower.  One more frame up, and I could reach up onto the pyramidal room of the tower and feel around for…something.

I worked my way up to stand on the next crossbeam, and inched along it, feeling overhead for something…anything.  Nothing on the side opposite the clock face.  I rotated around a corner post, and reached up with my right hand while holding onto the beam post with my left, feet shuffling along the crosspiece like a tightrope walker.  I felt blindly along the edge of the roof over my head.  There it was…something.

I ran my fingers over it.  Felt like a small box, perhaps a jewelry box…and it was…taped down?  I strained to reach further up, and worked my nails under the tape, peeling slowly.  It was curious work, working blindly well overhead with very little to hold onto.

The roof of the tower was pyramidal in shape, black or dark green sheet metal.  It was designed as a cap, set in place over the top of the tower, and a short skirt of metal descended from the sides, holding it in place.  In one quick movement I let go of the vertical beam behind me, and whipped my hand forward to press against the inside of that skirt.  With my left arm now not at full extension, I could lean a little more out and…  Got it!  The box came free with a jerk, and so did I.

With nothing supporting me except for the pressure of my hand on the inside of the metal cap, my lean had sent my weight too far outside the tower with too little to stabilize it.

It was quite a fall, and I fell silently.  Even as I tried to bend my knees to absorb the shock, I thought – curiously – so this is it.  This is how I’m punished.

Pressure on my knees as my feet impacted the dirt of the flower bed below, and then I was backwards, and the back of my head hit something hard enough to jar every thought loose with a flash of white light.

I woke up.


I was under a blue tarp, the sun shining through the plastic weave.  I rolled my head left and right, saw a duffelbag and metal walls and floor.  Oh yeah.  Hiding beneath the tarp in the back of Dad’s pickup.  The bouncing should’ve given that away.  Outside, I heard emergency sirens and honking and more than a few helicopters.  I gauged the speed at which we were traveling at over sixty, and it all came back to me.

The nine point three earthquake that had shaken the entire state of California.

Dad’s argument with mom that he needed to go find Brett in San Fran.

His argument with me that I couldn’t come along.

The tall dorm building was on fire, and it rocked crazily in the throes of an aftershock.  The ceiling caved with a crash, the stairs above ripping from the wall and crushing through the stairs below, filling the already smoke filled hall with choking dust.  “Get out the way we came in!” Dad shouted up at Austin and I.  “Meet up with you outside!  If not…Sam, find your way to the hunting cabin!  That’s our rally point!”

I hacked on the smoke and choked out “Got it.”

From below, Brett’s voice.  “Vaet, take care of her!”

Beside me in the blinding fog.  “I will.”

The crying came from the basement of a shattered apartment building.  The front had fallen off, sliding into a massive pile of rubble in the street.  It sounded like a child crying, younger than three maybe.  Drained as I was from picking my way through the shattered city for two days on a nearly empty stomach, I felt a surge of panic and adrenaline fueled energy at the sound.  The top of the rubble pile was level with the second story, and I shown the Surefire down into the depths.  Two cables descended into the hole, which seemed to go all the way down to the basement.  I reached out for one of the cables and Austin slapped my hand away.  “Are you insane?  Those are power lines!”

“I’ve gotta get down there.”

“No, you don’t.  Even on the off chance you don’t electrocute yourself, you could dislodge rubble, get stuck…and I sure as hell won’t be able to get you out.  Even if you do find whoever’s down there – “

I cut him off angrily.  “The kid that’s down there.”

“Even if you do find the kid that’s down there, you can’t take care of them if they’re hurt.  And even if they’re not, what are you going to do, bring them with us as we walk back to LA?  How are you even going to climb back up?”

“I’ll figure it out,” I muttered.

“No, I am not letting you kill yourself over someone you can’t save.”  Austin grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the hole.

I exploited the thumb-forefinger weakness and winded him with a jab to the stomach.  “If you had any idea how little I care if I live or die, and why, you’d beg me to go down there.”  My voice was flat and cold.

He straightened painfully.  “I care.”  He paused.  “I promised Brett I’d look after you.”

I stepped over and grabbed one of the cables.  I felt no surprise at the lack of pain and heat exploding through me.  I smiled.  “See you on the other side.”  And then I stepped into the hole.

We walked through the rain side by side, hands cuffed  behind us.  The child was being carried by one of the National Guard Peacekeepers at the back of the column of refugees.  Water streamed down my face and I couldn’t wipe it away.

Austin shifted closer to me and whispered “Do you have ID on you?”


“Yes or no?”

“Yeah, driver’s license in my wallet.”

“Back pocket.”

“Pull your wallet out and drop it.”

“What?  Why?”

“Sam, I need you to trust me.  Toss the wallet.”

I inched the wallet out with my fingertips and let it fall to the muddy street.  It occurred to me that now I was nobody.  My prints weren’t on file with anyone, neither was my DNA.  Dental records were probably trashed in a crushed harddrive a few miles ahead in San Fran.  I felt panic I had not felt for myself in some time.

I burrowed closer to Austin on the cot.  “Why’d you say we were married?” I whispered.

We were housed in a slightly glorified chain link dog cage.  Concrete slab beneath, chain link walls and ceiling covered with tarps, a padlock on the wire door.  One of thousands of “homes” in the San Fransisco refuge camp.  The refugee column had been checked for outstanding warrants, strip searched, hosed down, given MREs, and then locked in these cages.

The room was divided with another tarp, and on the other side, the child slept.  I’d sang quietly to him, stroking his hair until he drifted off.

“Friend in the law enforcement program told me once that they can’t make husbands and wives testify against each other,” Austin said quietly. “They’re breaking up friends, relatives, probably brothers and sisters in this camp, but I don’t think they can legally separate a husband and wife.  I promised I’d take care of you, that’s what I’m gonna do.”  He chuckled.  “What, you don’t think we pretend well?”

I smiled in the darkness and kissed his shoulder.  “Very well.”

Flashes of light from the hill ahead mixed with never-ending booms and super-sonic cracks closer by.  The child was bawling into my shoulder and wiggling to get away as I held him tightly.  We were covered against the superstructure of a large yacht, one of the few still upright in the marina.  The NG hadn’t been happy with Brian’s breakout and Daniel’s rescue attempt.  Getting out of sight and behind cover had been of utmost importance, and the yacht had offered one of the few pieces of cover on the pier.  Across the pier, Brett was crouched behind a crate, also trying to stay low.

“The boat’s at the end of the dock,” Dad said.  “Go for it, I’ll make sure you get there.”

Austin pulled at my hand before I could offer a protest and then we were jumping from the deck of the yacht to the pier.

There was a crack, all too close, and he folded at the waist, feet slipping on the deck, and his head made sickening thunk against the wooden dock as he lost balance and dropped to the water below.

My feet hit the pier as I screamed in shock, and then I felt a punch in the ribs.

The world went away in a flash of black.


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9PM – 10PM Part 1

The following takes place between 9pm and 10pm

The box was close and humid, and I felt as if I was disturbing a tomb as I lifted the ancient receiver and pressed it to my ear.  “Hello?”

“Washington Commons, Three Twenty North Adams Street, Exploration Museum.”  The line went dead.

I was punching the address into my phone before my feet even hit plank.  Keith was waiting.  “Think about my offer yet?”

“Dude, I’ve been gone like five seconds.”

He shrugged.

“How’d you get here?”

“Got a small motorboat tied up at the back of the island.”  He gestured vaguely off into the darkness behind him.

“I don’t want to swim again.  Take me back to my dock, and I’ll mull it over on the trip.”

Keith thought we had all day, but I set a sprinting pace across the island, pushing through the waist high grass, ignoring the bugs that swarmed up in the wake of our disturbance.  I was first into the boat, and Keith jumped lightly in beside me with the mooring rope, pushing us off from the rocks.  The engine started with a growl like a lawnmower, and Keith maneuvered us away from the island with the tiller.

I just sat in the bow and stared at the dark lake.  With the black but occasionally twinkling shore and the oil-slick dark water, I felt like I was on an alien planet.  I was in the middle of an alien decision – should I trust this stranger?  Allow him to tag along in exchange for being my spotter?  Could it hurt?  I kept my hand on the Sandshark the whole time.  There was still something about Keith that made me nervous.  I felt like I was meeting one of the “V” aliens in real life – an imposter wrapped in human skin.  But hey, didn’t people call me the artificial girl?

We made excellent time back to the beach.  Instead of taking the longer diagonal route I’d swum, Keith angled the boat straight back for the shore, and then skirted the coast all the way back to the dock I’d jumped off of.  With the pace Keith kept, we managed to reach the dock in ten minutes.

I pulled myself up on the dock as Keith roped the boat to a post.  My gun wasn’t there.  I kicked a bollard.  “Son of a bitch!”

“What?”  Keith looked surprised by my outburst.

“Someone took my gun.”  I was literally seething with rage.  I could feel it burning in my heart.  My money, my time, someone took it.  Damn them.

He pointed at my shoulder, where the Vanquisher hung, and then walked calmly up the pier.

I checked in with the girl in the cramped phonebooth office.  “Anybody turn in a Super Soaker?”

“No.  Couple of guys from the beach took one they found unattended though.  Said to tell you thanks for the show and that next time you should keep going.”  Her tone was derisive, and I had to restrain myself from punching a hole through the cheap paneled wall.

It wasn’t worth the time to go and look for the Pulse Master, maybe beat the crap out of whoever’d taken it.  I sure wanted to though.  Instead I burned off some angry energy sprinting for the parking lot.  Nobody shot at us, and Keith kept up with my punishing pace easily.

“Which car is yours?” I asked, out of breath as I slowed to a trot.

“I walked.”

“Like hell.  You don’t walk that far in an hour.”

“Ok, I ran some of it.  Either way, I’m lacking a means of conveyance.  May I ride with you?”

I turned to face him and realized I hadn’t made my decision until right then.  The outcome surprised me. “Fine.  You can follow me, ride with me.  Try any funny stuff and the situation gets thorny.  Got it?”

He didn’t seem fazed at all that I’d just threatened him.  “Perfectly.  I would expect nothing less.  Every rose has its thorns.”

I whirled, his words burning into my heart like a branding iron.  “WHAT did you say?”

“Merely making a pop culture reference to your metaphor.  Do you attribute some other meaning to my words?”

I regulated my breathing, got into the car.  “You have no idea.  And you’re seriously weird, you know that?”

He got in beside me.  “I have been informed of this by several notable authorities of unimpeachable character.  I suspect they can diagnose it far better than I.”

I rolled my eyes and threw the car into gear.

My phone’s GPS said the trip should take seven minutes.  I got lucky with the lights and the lack of police presence.  I made the trip in four, pedal to the floor the whole time.

The trip to Washington Commons took us along the blighted stretch of North Webster Avenue.  Lined with dilapidated houses all sagging to the ground amid overgrown yards, it looked like it belonged in one of the Chicago ghettos.  Girls in sparkly shirts, tiny denim skirts, and Ugg boots, guys in barely-hanging-on pants and wifebeaters all prowled the corners, large dogs on thick chains, their profanity-filled barely-English wafting through the Mazda along with the scent of several illicit substances.  Must’ve had a damn campfire of green going out there somewhere.

Keith sniffed audibly.  I didn’t peg him for a user, but then I’d only known him for a couple of minutes.

I turned from Webster onto my old stomping grounds of University, crossed the river, and entered the downtown.  It was a schizophrenic street.  On the right stood respectable looking buildings – the Sierra, an apartment building, a not-sinister looking parking garage, banks, a few insurance companies.  On the left were rundown auto repair shops, a few dingy brick buildings of indeterminate use that had been in every shooter videogame ever made, and what looked like a two-story house with a sign out front promising “Amateur Night!  Girls’ Clothes 95% Off.”


The stop-n-rob gas stations on every corner looked like they had bulletproof glass windows, and under the white-orange streetlights, the cracked and weed-filled parking lots were home to an amazing assortment of high-end vehicles, Cadillacs and Lexuses that would’ve seemed out of place in the day time.  Their owners leaned and lounged against them, a slightly more upper-class set of the men and women currently strolling the cooling sidewalks of North Webster Ave.

Right on Pine, and Keith said “And another right, please.”  I spun the wheel to the right and pulled into a dimly lit parking garage.  Ramps led in all directions, and row numbers were painted on the I-beams above.  I slowed to a crawl.  “Where to now?”

He pointed vaguely left and up.  “Third story.”

I had a feeling we were going to get lost on the way out.  The dark corridors led all over the place, and none of it seemed to make any logical sense.  Fortunately the “gangstas” from the street below hadn’t infected this area.  I felt more or less sanguine about the idea of leaving the car.

There was a checkpoint set up on the third level, and I parked around a corner from it.  Close enough to get to on a run, far enough away that nobody’d see the car and set up camp.  I checked my weapons – full and full – and then Keith and I headed for the checkpoint.

It was a ten foot tall tent set up in the only gap between pieces of tall, moveable metal fencing.  The overweight balding guy standing next to it looked bored.  He cut right to the chase: “Primary soakers please.”

“Dude, how’m I supposed to fight?

“Pistols and shotguns only this hour.”  You leave your primary in the first room of the tent, and I give you a ticket.  This one will do.”  He handed me a ticket from a roll, number four thousand eight hundred and fifteen.  “I place a sign on it with your ticket number.  From the second room, you take one of the shotguns.  When you leave, we trade.”

I shrugged out of the Vanquisher strap and set it on the tarp floor of the tent, off away from the scatter of other soakers.  There were a lot of them.  “And this is just one entrance,” Keith whispered.  “There are at least five more.”

“Thanks for the confidence,” I hissed back.  Why were we being quiet?

The next room contained stacks and stacks of – if the labels could be trusted – Super Soaker brand Shot Blast.  It looked vaguely shotgun-like, with the exception of the pistol grip, scope, and collapsible stock.  The stock felt flimsy, the scope was a painted piece of glass in an ACOG-styled plastic tube, and the grip lacked a trigger.  Wonderful.  Slide-action piston gun.  A glorified syringe.

“I feel like a retard,” I muttered.  At least the gun was full.  They’d given me that slight courtesy.

“You look the part wonderfully,” Keith said happily.

Everything about this guy made me either doubt his sanity or want to punch him.

Two choices presented themselves on the other side of the tent.  To the right were double doors that opened into a dimly lit used-to-be-a-department-store.  To the left were double doors opening into…a hallway it looked like.

I picked the hallway.

It was dimly lit just like the department store.  The walls were a blank gray, several empty glass display cases set into recesses.  Ahead, a rotted ceiling tile lay on the flecked tile floor in a puddle of yellow-ish water.

The hallway opened – roughly – onto a wide balcony surrounding a central courtyard area.  At the exact end of the hall was a restaurant, now shuttered with a chainlink door, ancient dusty barstools sitting on the bar.  “Diamond Dave’s” the dead neon letters above the wide door proclaimed.  To the left was a storefront, and a little ways past that, a railing looking down onto the first floor atrium.  The storefront said “Children’s Exploration Museum” in sagging wooden cutout letters, their bright colors faded and stained by dripping water.

The door was open and I stood at the entrance, staring into the pitch-black interior.  It registered in my head that this would be Surefire and pistol work.  It also registered that it seemed a little too early in the hour to be claiming a chip.

First and foremost though was a rising sense of panic.  Why?  Why this place?  Why now, on this trip, why did I have to see what I couldn’t face?  Why couldn’t it have been a jewelry store or a restaurant like Diamond Dave’s?

“Something wrong?” Keith asked quietly.  The tomb-like atmosphere must have been affecting him as well.

“Yeah,” I whispered back.

He didn’t reply.  Even if he had, it was nothing I wanted to explain.  I pulled the Surefire from my bag, transferred it to my left hand, drew the Triple Shot, and crossed my wrists in a Harries Hold.

We moved into the store slowly, the spotlight beam from the Surefire sweeping through the darkness ahead.  The dark seemed to close in like a fog, a cloud of two decades’ ghosts and my regret stirred up with the dust we raised in passing.  At the front of the store were a long row of kids’ sized checkout counters, mini plastic registers and conveyor belts a great place to teach basic math skills.  I stumbled as my foot contacted something, and I reached down, picked up a plastic hamburger, velcro’d to plastic hamburger buns.  I clenched my jaw and sidearmed the toy to crash into a corner like it was burning my hand.

To the left was a plexiglass sandbox, mounted digging tools rusting in place.  I looked over my shoulder at my trailing photographer, and noticed he wasn’t there.  I gave the store a cursory sweep with the flashlight beam.  Nowhere.  Probably hiding in a corner getting excellent footage of me tripping over crap on the floor.

There was a thick rubber mat on the floor, a quick flick of the light showed me cartooned houses and trees and roads – meant for playing with Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars.  Across the room – on the right side – was a massive dollhouse, its open back facing the room.  A six foot by six foot display case of little rooms and cubbyholes, filled with little knickknacks?  Great place for hiding a clue.  I ran my flashlight’s beam over the walls, the white light bouncing off plastic trees, beds, furniture, toys…it caught something odd in passing, and I jerked the beam back in surprise.  The dollhouse room was a nursery, done in pink.  A miniature crib sat along one wall, the center of the tiny room dominated by a fresh rose blossom.

My breath caught in my throat.



I glared at the little room, and moved the beam over to the next.  An index card, neatly folded sat in the middle of that room.  I grabbed the card, glared at the dollhouse one last time, and ducked back to the other side of the room.  Near the back was a castle-shaped play area, tall walls, small door, and a slide.  I crouched in a corner, Shot Blast on my knees as I typed the telephone number on the card into my phone.  The voice on the other end said “Pee Jay’s Collectibles.”  Wonderful.  I’d found this place by accident, how was I gonna find another store without a sign?

I hurled the folded card across the room and stood, once more taking up the Harries grip on the Triple Shot and flashlight.  I crossed the room quickly and deliberately, sweeping the bright beam of light over everything, making sure no one was waiting to ambush me.  Keith could catch up – or not – on his own schedule.

He was waiting outside the store for me.  “Dude, where were you?  I thought you were supposed to be taking pictures.”

Keith tapped the camera hanging from the strap around his neck.  “I got everything that I need.”  That solemn voice of his was getting annoying.

“Well c’mon, I’ve gotta find ‘Pee Jay’s Collectibles.’  Time’s a-wasting.”

I walked cautiously deeper into the second level.  Past Diamond Dave’s was a shuttered counter-top that looked like it had been a snack stand of some type.  Across the hallway to the right was a stucco storefront with arched windows and doorways.  Beneath some of the windows were glass display cases.  Probably had been a jewelry store at one point.  The hallway opened up to the second level balcony, and I glanced around the darkened level before stepping carefully up to the edge of the dead escalator before me.  The abandoned mall felt like it was crumbling, decaying, reading to implode and slump to the earth at any moment.

The chaos below was hard to describe.  The center of the atrium had once been a waist deep pool.  Apparently they’d covered it occasionally, for events.  Half was full of trash and half of it was covered, the artificial flooring over the now-empty pool supporting a pink plastic gingerbread house the size of a shed.  At the four corners of the balcony, palm trees had been planted.  One had – in the interregnum – crashed to the floor, crushing tile and smashing the edge of the pool.  Another was leaned crazily against the balcony railing.  All were dead, the withered fronds in rings around the trunks.

A tower containing a dead elevator stood in the balcony corner kitty-corner from us, the panes of glass fitted into the supporting metal framework spider-webbed with cracks or just shattered altogether.  A similar story was played out overhead – the broad skylights cracked or replaced with sheet-metal where they had given way.  The moonlight filtering in gave the desolate scene a haunted look.

Once, this place had been alive, active, bustling with people.  They’d brought their kids here, shopped here, eaten here, worked here.  Countless little dramas and excitements and tragedies played out here, boredom and fun, the fear of a lost child, the joy and jitters of opening days.  Here they’d escaped the same acidic sunshine that had shone on me this afternoon, kicked the snow from their boots onto sopping wet industrial rugs, tracked in the autumn leaves, walked out into gloriously cool, dim summer evenings after a long day’s work…and now the old, untended building creaked, shifting on its foundations another millimeter towards the earth.  The creak seemed to say “Everything ends.”

Flashlights from the atrium floor jolted me from my reverie, and I stepped back from the edge.  I glanced around the upper level, and something out-of-the-ordinary caught my eye.  In the sea of chain-link doors, one storefront was open.

Had to be a clue.  Or a sign.

It was across the upper level, and I motioned for Keith to follow me.  We moved across the brown tile floor, low, keeping away from the railing.  The locked storefronts we passed were eerie – I’m not superstitious or afraid of the dark, but now that I had a reason to move and to look at everything carefully, all the doors looked like waiting mouths, eldritch horrors waiting in the cavernous blackness of the emptiness beyond.

The black doorway of the open storefront I’d seen was solid.

And slippery.

For a single irrational second I thought I’d run into some sort of membrane from those Lovecraftian terrors I’d been imagining moments before, and bile rose in my throat.

It was a garbage bag curtain.  Overlapped curtains, actually.  I tapped on them and they swayed inwards.  I ducked under, and kenned the entire scene in one astonished second.

The curtain had been to keep out the light.

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Super Soaker Shot Blast

“The Shot Blast could’ve been so great.  It actually had a stock.  It looks powerful and aggressive but it’s really just a big syringe.  The reflex sight on top would’ve been nice if you didn’t need to pump in order to shoot, the motion of pumping moves the gun in your hands.”

- Samantha

Download the Super Soaker Shot Blast Blaster Sheet PDF file.

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