It was a small, one-off place I’d not noticed before. Probably been past it dozens of times. A hand-painted “COFFEE-LATTE-BAKERY” sign hung in the window. A block from the Metro, two or three at most from the morning’s destination. Good for a quick cup of coffee, a chance to check messages and review my resume once more before my ten o’clock interview at the agency. I’d never heard of the agency, and the employer was anonymous, but the possibility of a new, better paying gig with more benefits was well worth taking a morning off. A small bell on the door jingled as I entered—a quaint touch in an age of everything electronic and digital.
It was dark, very dark. No one came to greet me or guide me to a table. A sign propped on a chair read, “PLEASE SEAT YOURSELF.”
The Game / 2
Almost as soon I sat down, my cellphone and Fitbit vibrated in unison. I looked at the phone screen. Not anyone I recognized. Wrong number? Scam caller? I hesitated a long moment, then, “Hello?”
“I can see you.”
“You can see me?”
“You are sitting at the third table from the door, left side, beneath the Matisse imitation. A bad one, I might add.”
I looked up. Yes, it was Matisse. And, for that matter, a bad imitation. But what was all this about . . .? My anonymous male caller continued, “If you scan about the room — I see you are doing that now — you will note that there are four other parties at four other tables.”
As creepy as this was, I had to verify his observation. He was correct. Four occupied tables, four people. Three men, one woman.
“We are playing The Game. Welcome. Welcome to The Game.”
“The Game? What game?”
“Three of us are regular players. That other party, the female, is unknown to any of us, other than she comes here most mornings, routinely leaving in . . . another five minutes, give or take a few. Now then, here is how The Game is played—“
“—Wait. I don’t know who you are, and I certainly didn’t come here to play any games. I just want coffee.
“You are in The Game, like it or not.”
The Game / 3
I grabbed my laptop and began to stand up.
“I would not do that if I were you.”
At that instant, a brilliant flash shot from the shadows. It lasted not even a second, but I was forced to sit down again, momentarily blinded.
“You haven’t heard any of the rules. How do you expect to play if you don’t know the rules?”
“I already told you I don’t want to play. I don’t need to know any rules.” Even though my vision was still a hazy white blur, I attempted to stand again. A jolt hit me like nothing I’d ever felt before, but I knew it had to be a Taser. I was lying on the floor now, twisting, writhing, screaming. I saw a figure pass. It was apparently the non-player. I called out, “For God’s sake, lady, please help. Call the police.” The bell at the door jingled as she left without responding.
My assailants ripped the Taser darts from my chest. “We can’t let you go around with all this still hanging off of you, can we? Besides, we may need to use it again. These gadgets cost a lot of money, you know. Now then, let us proceed with The Game.”
With little to lose at this point, I made one last attempt at freedom. I squirmed, punched, and kicked as best I could. I flailed at the legs of my attackers and managed to make it to my feet before someone put a hammerlock on me from behind and thrust me back to the floor. The struggle went on perhaps two or three minutes more with much kicking and grunting, then ended abruptly upon a signal from the apparent leader.
As I stared up at the stamped tin ceiling, one of the trio declared, it’s obvious you aren’t
quite ready to play. That’s a shame, because once you play a successful round, you’ll become one of us and you can begin to recruit others, just as we are recruiting you. See you later.”
The Game / 4
The three men left, turning the hanging sign to read CLOSED and pulling down the tall shade in the door on their way out. I heard the lock click and someone tug on the outside handle to make sure it was secure. Hidden in the gloom, I attempted to clear my vision, clear my thoughts. After a few minutes, I noticed a small crowd forming outside, peering through the windows, blocking the reflected glare of the mid-morning sun with the shadow of their hands, then pulling at the door, giving up and moving on, no doubt upset their daily routine had been so disrupted.
There was a neighborhood medical clinic nearby, and as luck would have it, they were able to take me in right away. Seeing that I was bleeding through my shirt, the nurse on duty asked me the usual questions, then asked several more that were not the usual—I assumed they didn’t get too many walk-ins with Taser wounds. She left the room and returned with a young doctor. As they swabbed and bandaged me, a pair of cops entered and began asking their own set of questions.
I told them I’d been assaulted by persons unknown on a side street. I said nothing about The Game since I was still having trouble understanding it myself. All I knew was that with lasers and Tasers, they liked to play rough. After another 20 minutes or so, I had apparently convinced them of my story, and they allowed me to leave. It was already after ten. I had long since given up on the prospect of interviewing, but thought it good form to notify the agency.
The Game / 5
“Yes, Goodwin. Chad Goodwin. Was scheduled for 10 o’clock . . . Had something of . . .
of a minor medical issue. Slipped and fell on the way over and had to get checked out . . .” I hated to lie, even to a stranger, but it was the best I could come up with. The truth would have seemed a bigger lie. “Can I? . . . I can? Today? . . . 3 p.m. . . . I’ll be there for sure. Thank you. Thank you so very much for understanding . . ..”
The address was a nondescript building, with hints of 1930s art deco that had mostly been stripped away in various failed attempts to modernize over the decades. The slow, jerky elevator ride was one of those where you pray you’ll reach your floor without assistance from the local fire department. Finally, I reached the top. My footsteps echoed as I passed long rows of darkened offices. All were vacant, some piled high with boxes and furniture. The agency appeared to be the only tenant left on the floor.
The reception desk was empty. No sign of a receptionist. As I was the sole occupant of the waiting room, I had my choice of chairs. The customary pile of dog-eared magazines in the corner was missing, replaced by a sign reminding us — as if we needed any reminder — about COVID-19, with appropriate apologies for the lack of reading material. A TV screen up in the corner near the ceiling was dark, save for a satellite logo that drifted endlessly from corner to corner.
I waited long enough to get to that point where you become impatient, then concerned. I walked up to the still empty reception desk and peered over it. A telephone. Otherwise, no note
The Game / 6
pads, no pens, no anything else. There was an interior corridor leading off to my left. I convinced myself it was the right thing to do and started down it. It had a faint odor of disinfectant, like a clinic or a hospital. Two more vacant offices, then a third. Framed in the open doorway of the third office was an enormous wooden desk, with a solitary male figure seated behind it. “Come in. We can begin the interview now.”
The interviewer seemed vaguely familiar. I don’t know what it was about him. More his voice than anything else. In his 50s, balding, with a nondescript face. Not a former classmate, for sure. Maybe we’d worked together somewhere at one time. Or an ex-neighbor. He pointed towards a chair that was centered at the exact midpoint in front of the desk. The room seemed as spare as the other two I had passed. Nothing on the stark white walls. Two overhead fans, neither turning. A window air conditioner that clicked on, hummed a few seconds, then went silent again before repeating the routine.
I began to speak. “First of all, my apologies for missing this morning’s appointment. That’s not like me. I’m used to being on time. Very prompt—“
“—No, no, that’s fine.”
I was happy he had interrupted my babbling. I silently admonished myself and sat back in my chair in an attempt to look more composed.
“So, let’s get on with it.” He shuffled through a thick pile of papers, pulling out what
appeared to be a report of some kind. I could see it wasn’t my resume. After perhaps two, three minutes, he said, “You seem to have done very well on your test.”
The Game / 7
“The test you took this morning.”
“I’m not sure I understand. This is my first contact with the agency—other than on the phone and the resume and references you requested.”
“No. No, you have a short memory.” He looked up from the document and smiled. “We tested you this morning. The others verify what I observed myself. The results were atypical. You fought. You showed courage, resistance. Unlike so many others, you exhibited a most sporting, competitive nature. Most everyone else cowers and pisses themselves. You played a successful round of The Game back at the cafe, and now you’re ready to recruit others. It’s the second layer.”
“This is absurd.”
“Life is absurd. Indifferent. Turning it into a game makes it more tolerable, wouldn’t you agree?”
I gripped the arms of my chair, ready to bolt from that godforsaken hell hole. He must have noted my hands tensing, the determination growing in my face. He jerked open a desk
drawer and laid a Taser on the desk. “Care to play another round? I’ll set it halfway between us. Whoever grabs it first is the winner.”
It’s ten a.m. The morning rush crowd has departed the bakery cafe where this all began. The server, the cook, and the baker are in the kitchen, paid well for minding their own business. I’m beginning my field training, seated just across from that bad rendering of Matisse. Besides
The Game / 8
me, there are three others, my interviewer, one of my fellow recruiters, and the unknown woman, each at our own table. We call ourselves The Gamers. It’s been hinted that the mayor and chief of
police are also gamers. I’m stoked—can’t wait to to see what the third level has in store for me. Meanwhile, the small bell on the door jingles. A man is entering. He is alone . . .
John Timm writes short fiction, with a predilection for horror, crime and mystery in noir settings. Among others, his works appear in Close to the Bone, The Coffin Bell, and Switchblade, as well as several anthologies. When not writing, he teaches Spanish language and literature at a university in Phoenix, Arizona.