Warcross

Page 2

I wander past the shelves, my attention shifting from table to table. Most people never really observe their surroundings; ask anyone what the person sitting nearby was wearing, and chances are good that they can’t tell you. But I can. I can recite to you the outfits and demeanor of every person in that coffee line, can tell you exactly how many people are sitting at each table, the precise way someone’s shoulders hunch just a little too much, the two people sitting side by side who never say a word, the guy who is careful not to make eye contact with anyone else. I can take in a scene like a photographer might take in a landscape—relax my eyes, analyze the full view all at once, search for the point of interest, and take a mental snapshot to remember the whole thing.

I look for the break in the pattern, the nail that protrudes.

My gaze pauses on a cluster of four boys reading on the couches. I watch them for a while, waiting for signs of conversation or the hint of notes being passed by hand or phone. Nothing. My attention goes to the stairs leading to the second floor. No doubt other hunters are closing in on this target, too—I have to get to him before anyone else does. My steps quicken as I head up.

No one is here, or so it seems. But then I notice the faint sound of two voices at a table in a far corner, tucked behind a pair of bookshelves that make them almost impossible to see from the stairs. I move in closer on silent feet, then peek through the shelves.

A woman is seated at the table, her nose buried in a book. A man stands over her, nervously shuffling his feet. I hold up my phone. Sure enough, both of them are set to Private.

I slip to the side of the wall so that they can’t see me, and listen closely.

“I don’t have until tomorrow night,” the man is saying.

“Sorry,” the woman replies. “But there’s not much I can do. My boss won’t release that kind of money to you without taking extra security measures, not when the police have an arrest warrant for you.”

“You promised me.”

“And I’m sorry, sir.” The woman’s voice is calm and cynical, like she’s had to say this countless times before. “It’s game season. The authorities are on high alert.”

“I have three hundred thousand notes with you. Do you have any idea what that’s exchanging for?”

“Yes. It’s my job to know,” the woman answers in the driest voice I’ve ever heard.

Three hundred thousand notes. That’s about two hundred thousand dollars, at the current exchange rate. High roller, this one. Gambling on Warcross is illegal in the United States; it’s one of the many laws the government has recently passed in a desperate attempt to keep up with technology and cybercrime. If you win a bet on a Warcross match, you win game credits called notes. But here’s the thing—you can either take those notes online or to a physical place, where you meet a teller like this lady. You trade your notes to her. She gives you real cash in return, while taking a cut for her boss.

“It’s my money,” the guy is insisting now.

“We have to protect ourselves. Extra security measures take time. You can come back tomorrow night, and we can exchange half of your notes.”

“I told you, I don’t have until tomorrow night. I need to leave the city.”

The conversation repeats itself all over again. I hold my breath as I listen. The woman has all but confirmed his identity.

My eyes narrow, and my lips turn up into a hungry little smirk. This, right here, is the moment I live for during a hunt—when the bits and pieces I’ve exposed converge into a fine point, when I see my target standing physically before me, ripe for the picking. When I’ve solved the puzzle.

Got you.

As their conversation turns more urgent, I tap my phone twice and send out a text message to the police.

Suspect in physical custody.

I get a reply almost immediately.

NYPD ALERTED.

I pull the stun gun out of my backpack. It catches for an instant against the edge of the zipper, making the faintest scraping sound.

The conversation halts. Through the bookshelves, both the man and woman jerk their heads toward me like deer in headlights. The man sees my expression. His face is covered in a sheen of sweat, and his hair is plastered against his forehead. A fraction of a second passes.

I shoot.

He bolts—I miss him by a hair. Good reflexes. The woman darts up from her table, too, but I could care less about her. I race after him. He hops down the stairs three at a time, nearly falling in his rush, scattering his phone and a bunch of pens behind him. He sprints for the entrance as I reach the first floor. I burst through the revolving glass door right behind him.

We emerge onto the street. People let out startled shouts as the man shoves them aside—he knocks a camera-clicking tourist flat on her back. In one movement, I swing my electric board to the ground, jump on, and slam my heel down as hard as I can. It makes a high-pitched whoosh—I lunge forward, speeding down the sidewalk. The man glances over his shoulder to see me gaining fast on him. He darts left down the street at a full, panicked run.

I veer in his direction at such a sharp angle that the edge of my board protests against the pavement, leaving a long, black line. I aim my stun gun at the man’s back and shoot.

He shrieks and falls. Instantly, he tries to stand again, but I catch up to him. He grabs my ankle. I stumble, kicking at him. His eyes are wild, his teeth clenched and jaw tight. Out flashes a blade. I see its glint in the light just in time. I kick him off me and roll away right before he can stab at my leg. My hands get a grip on his jacket. I fire the stun gun once more, this time at close range. It hits true. His body goes rigid, and he collapses on the pavement, trembling.

I jump on him. My knee presses hard into his back as the man sobs on the ground. The sound of police sirens rounds the bend. A circle of people have gathered around us now, their glasses recording away.

“I didn’t do anything,” the man whimpers over and over again. His voice comes out garbled by how hard I’m pushing him into the ground. “The lady inside—I can give you her name—”

“Shut it,” I cut him off as I slide handcuffs onto his wrists.

To my surprise, he does. They don’t always listen like that. I don’t relent until a police car pulls up, until I see red and blue lights flashing against the wall. Only then do I get up and back away from him, making sure to hold out my hands so that the cops can see them clearly. My skin tingles from the rush of a successful hunt as I watch the two policemen yank the man onto his feet.

Five thousand dollars! When was the last time I had even half that much money at once? Never. I’ll get to be less desperate for a while—I’ll pay off the rent that I owe, which should calm my landlord down for now. Then I’ll have $1,550 left. It’s a fortune. My mind flips through my other bills. Maybe I can eat something other than instant noodles tonight.

I want to do a victory jump in the air. I’ll be okay. Until the next hunt.

It takes me a moment to realize that the police are walking away with their new captive without even looking in my direction. My smile falters.

“Hey, Officer!” I shout, hurrying after the closer one. “Are you giving me a ride to the station for my payment, or what? Should I just meet you there?”

The officer gives me a look that doesn’t seem to jibe with the fact that I just caught them a criminal. She looks exasperated, and dark circles under her eyes tell me she hasn’t gotten much rest. “You weren’t first,” she says.

I startle, blinking. “What?” I say.

“Another hunter phoned in the alert before you.”

For a moment, all I can do is stare at her.

Then I spit out a swear. “What a load of bull. You saw the whole thing go down. You all confirmed my alert!” I hold up my phone so the officer can see the text message I received. Sure enough, that’s when my phone’s battery finally dies.

Not that the proof would’ve made a difference. The officer doesn’t even glance at the phone. “It was just an auto-reply. According to my messages, I received the first call-in from another hunter on location. Bounty goes to the first, no exceptions.” She offers me a sympathetic shrug.

This is the dumbest technicality I’ve ever heard. “The hell it does!” I argue. “Who’s the other hunter? Sam? Jamie? They’re the only other ones canvassing this turf.” I throw my hands up. “You know what—you’re lying, there is no other hunter. You just don’t want to pay out.” I follow her as she turns away. “I saved you from a dirty job—that’s the deal, that’s why any bounty hunter goes after the people you’re too lazy to catch. You owe me this one and you—”

The cop’s partner grabs my arm and shoves me so hard that I nearly fall. “Get back,” he says with a snarl. “Emika Chen, isn’t it?” His other hand is wrapped tightly around the grip of his sheathed gun. “Yeah, I remember you.”

I’m not about to argue with a loaded weapon. “Fine, fine.” I force myself to take a step back and raise my hands in the air. “I’m going, okay? Leaving now.”

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