GAMING THE SYSTEM
By Travis Hill
I listened as I stood in the darkness, but the only sound I heard was the thumping of my heart and my own breathing. With my back against the wall, I inched forward as quietly as possible. The killer was somewhere ahead of me, armed with a chrome or stainless automatic. I wondered where the fuck Tillman was. My partner and I had split up at the entrance, with me taking the stairs while he went around back.
It was stupid, and we were going to catch hell for it. Sergeant Hines would be just the first in a chain of superiors taking a piece of our ass for chasing an armed gunman into a half-finished office tower without waiting for backup. But they hadn’t watched this guy execute two men less than twenty feet from us either. They hadn’t seen the look in his eyes as he stared at us while putting a bullet in the second victim’s skull. The perp was either insane or he was the hardest of the hard-nosed killers syndicate organizations used to take solve problems.
Then there’s the fact that Tillman and I had each burned through an entire twelve round magazine from no less than fifteen feet away. The asshole only laughed before he turned and ran across 5th Street and into a construction site. Neither of us spotted a blood trail, which meant we wasted twenty-four bullets at almost point-blank distance and came up empty. Last time Tillman and I hit the range to renew our certifications, we were thirty out of thirty at thirty feet and twenty-six out of thirty at twelve. Twelve feet and a moving target that randomly swiveled to present an inch of surface area to hit.
I heard the soft scraping of feet ahead of me. I counted to three then hit my flashlight, hoping to blind him. I’d barely thumbed the switch on the flashlight when my vision whited out from the continuous fire that belched from his weapon.
“Fuck you!” I screamed after diving to the floor behind a pile of drywall panels. “Emerson P.D.! Drop your weapon!” I prayed Tillman heard the shots and was running his ass off to get to me.
The perp only laughed some more, the sound quickly moving away from me. I stood up and unloaded ten rounds down the hallway. Two seconds later the sound of a door slamming rebounded off the unfinished walls. I didn’t know the layout of the building, but if it was built in the same generic pattern as almost every other skyscraper I’d ever been in, there wouldn’t be a secondary exit from the office he’d run into.
I crept forward, hugging the wall until I reached the door. After another three count, I turned the handle with one hand and shoved my gun around the frame the instant the door opened. I squeezed off two rounds before running in a crouch behind the nearest barrier. The flat sheets of drywall absorbed at least ten of his bullets while I slammed the last magazine home in my pistol. When I heard the click from an empty chamber, I raised up, firing off five rounds.
He let out a strange yelp that let me know he’d been hit, confirmed by the sound of his gun hitting the concrete floor. It was too dark to see anything, especially with the way my eyes still fought to clear the bright, ghostly halos from our firefight. I kicked on the Mag-Lite and swept it around the office.
“Hands up!” I screamed, mostly so Tillman would know where I was. “Get your fuckin’ hands up, asshole!”
I peered into the darkness in front of me but couldn’t see anything other than a pile of boxes that held fluorescent lighting ballasts. A blur from my left caught me by surprise. The wind was blasted out of me as the fucker crashed into my chest at full speed. I left my feet, my gun firing off a single round before leaving my hand to land in the darkness. The flashlight bounced twice, but I only bounced once. I heard the door open and his shoes click as he ran down the hallway. The laughter rebounding along the walls burned my ears.
“Tillman!” I shouted as loud as I could while fetching the flashlight. “He’s on the three! Hallway!”
I snatched the flashlight up and found my Glock within seconds then ran after the suspect. My Mag-Lite picked him up about fifty feet down the hallway, heading toward a door at the end. My legs pumped, adrenaline unloading into my bloodstream as if a dam had burst, my thoughts solely on catching this asshole. I wasn’t worried about him surprising me again. Unless he was packing a second firearm, I now had the upper hand.
From ten feet away I could see the door was ajar and hit it without slowing down. It rebounded off the doorstop and slammed shut but I was already ten feet into the pitch-black room, my flashlight trained on the killer standing with his back against the far wall. I nearly pulled the trigger when the lights in the room came on—except it was more like the walls began to glow with a piercing brilliance.
“Well, you caught me,” he said in a casual voice, as if we were discussing a client over a business lunch.
“Get down!” I screamed at him, my eyes nearly squinted shut. “On your knees! Hands out where I can see ‘em!”
I stood in a shooter’s stance, ready to ventilate him if he even twitched. I almost shot him when the light dimmed to a soft grey. He stared at me for a few seconds, a smile slowly creeping over his face.
“Shut the fuck up!” I yelled when he began to laugh. “Get down or I’ll fucking waste you right now!”
“Okay, okay, Detective Redding,” he said with a chuckle while lowering himself to his knees. “But I would like to know how you think you’re going to escape this room before I do.”
“Shut the fuck up!”
“I’m just saying, with no exit, we’re stuck in here together.”
“I said shut the fuck up!” I shrieked at him, spittle flying from my lips. Where the fuck was Tillman? “Get on your stomach! Now!”
I waved my Glock at him to let him know I was losing patience. He lowered himself onto his stomach, placing his arms spread-eagle out from his sides as if he knew the drill when it came to being arrested.
“Go on,” he said from the floor, his eyes locked on my face. “Look behind you.”
“I’m not falling for your shit,” I said.
I rushed forward and drove my knee into the back of his neck while jamming the barrel of my pistol against the side of his head. With my other hand, I pulled my handcuffs and latched them around one wrist, tapping his head with the Glock to let him know to give me the other. Once I had him cuffed, I stood up, jerking him up with me. I wanted to waste him right there when he began to laugh again.
I shoved him along toward the door until I realized there was no door. I turned around twice, looking along every wall, but there were no doors in or out of the room. That’s when I noticed there was nothing in the room anymore except us and some dust from the construction crew.
“What the f—” I began but he somehow raised one hand and chopped me across my gun arm.
I heard the bone snap and screamed when a white-hot blast of pain flood through my arm. He caught the Glock when it fell from my limp hand, immediately placing the barrel against my forehead. Neither of his wrists were bound by handcuffs.
“Officer Redding, I’ll give you a choice.”
“Fuck you,” I said through a blinding wall of pain.
“The world isn’t what you think it is. Consider this your chance to be awakened to the real reality.” He laughed as if he’d just told a joke, then tapped me on the forehead twice with the gun. “You should search deep within your soul to seek the truth. To see what I see.”
“Did you overdose on bath salts or something?” I asked. His babbling bullshit made my head hurt, thought I’m sure most of that was from the broken forearm.
“I like you, David,” he said with a smile.
“How the fuck do you know who I am?”
“That’s easy, and it’s also part of your awakening.” He looked pleased as punch, as if he were about to reveal the winning lottery numbers. “I know everything about you because I’m a master computer program. A high-level AI who had a hand in building this… existence for us.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked. I felt woozy, and part of my brain kept banging the alarm bell that Tillman seemed to have gotten lost—or maybe just couldn’t find me thanks to there being no doors leading to me. “And what do you mean ‘us’?”
“Why, I mean me and you, of course.”
“Fuck you. Kill me or kill yourself, you fucking nutjob. But spare me your tinfoil hat conspiracy bullshit.”
“I like you enough to let you live a little longer,” he said with that same maddening smile, as if I were a little boy in daycare.
“Eat shit,” I said. It was getting hard to think clearly with most of my brain devoted to staying on my feet.
“David,” he said, taking a step back but still pointing the gun at my face.
“How about a banana instead?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“A banana,” he said.
He turned the gun in his hand and it became a small bunch of bananas. I knew right then I had either gone insane or the pain from my arm was making me hallucinate.
“Would you like one?” he asked, gesturing with the bananas.
“Go to hell,” I said, hearing my voice slur. I began to worry that he had somehow drugged me.
“They’re quite delicious,” he said, pulling one from the bunch and peeling it back.
I don’t know why my stomach rumbled as I watched him eat a banana, but it let me know I wanted a bite. My head was spinning too fast to know what was real and what wasn’t. I reached out, letting him know to give me a bite. I waved him off after he tried to hand me an unpeeled banana. I pointed to the half-eaten one in his other hand. He smiled and handed it to me.
It felt like a banana. It looked and smelled like a banana. It didn’t look, smell, or feel like it had once been a Glock-19. When I took a tentative bite, it tasted like a banana. I swallowed it while staring at him. He smiled then disappeared.
I dropped the banana and fell to the floor. I knew I was losing it. None of it had been real. Except my broken arm was very real. Had I broken it while hallucinating? The way my pistol instantly became bananas tried to force my brain into a hard reboot. That thought brought his words back about how he and I, indeed the entire world around us, were nothing but a computer simulation. Or we were programs within a simulation. I felt myself blacking out before I could finish the thought.
I’ll admit to fudging a few reports here and there during my career, but none were what I considered egregious omissions or falsifications of the truth. Little things like claiming I’d seen a perp with a weapon before he’d been shot, whether by me or another officer. Of course, I hadn’t seen a weapon on some of those shootings until after the suspect was down, but with the wave of backlash toward cops these days, the last thing Chief Jenkins and especially Mayor Phillips wanted was to have some asshole reporter (or worse, blogger) pick apart the official report and focus on the fact that none of the involved officers had seen the suspect’s weapon before shooting him.
The ACLU was up our ass all the time as it was, even though the few lawyers willing to have lunch would always admit that there was no denying all of the suspects were armed. They loved arguing the law and winning high-profile cases so much that they nitpicked about the fact we’d wounded or killed suspects we didn’t actually know were armed… even though we all knew they were packing heat. Which of course led to idiots on the internet swearing up and down we planted a gun on the corpse to always make sure our asses were covered.
But I’d never lied like I did in my report about the incident with the disappearing gunman. As far as everyone else knew, including Tillman, the suspect broke my arm, took my gun, then ran back out into the hallway. Walter Tillman, my partner of six years, believes he spooked the guy less than two minutes after entering the building. I went along with Tillman’s version and kept my mouth shut about everything that had actually happened.
But did it actually happen? I woke to Tillman standing over me, talking into his cell phone. I only remembered wondering how the hell he got a signal inside the concrete high-rise before blacking out again. I woke as I was being loaded onto a gurney, the paramedics happy to see me conscious. As was Sergeant Hines and about fifty other cops who had arrived when they heard the “shots fired, officer down” call on the radio.
My official report states Tillman and I were standing on the sidewalk in front of Carl’s Bakery on 9th Avenue when we noticed a man across the street raising a gun to the back of another man’s head. He pulled the trigger, locked his eyes on us, then pulled the trigger a second time, a second body falling to the pavement. We chased him through the streets and into the Brinkman Tower. Tillman went around back, I followed the suspect in. We exchanged fire three times during the pursuit, then the suspect ambushed me, breaking my arm with a pipe or a 2×4. I said I couldn’t remember much after that. Suspect took my gun, laughed and told me it wasn’t my lucky day, but ran off when he heard Tillman approaching.
My superiors bought into it, as did the press, and I was finally allowed to go home. Sergeant Hines warned me that over the next week or two I was going to lose a lot of my ass—Tillman would too—over our recklessness. But beyond that, we were both still on track for promotion. Sarge knew how the world worked, and as long as we toed the line as closely as possible, he’d fudge a report here and there himself to keep us off of IA’s—and the news’—radar.