Gaming the System (short story)

(Probably rough, hasn’t really been edited yet, just sort of banged this out tonight! I could probably expand this to a novella if not more. Maybe a serial?)


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 on 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 nearly-finished office tower without waiting for backup. The they didn’t watch this guy execute two men less than twenty feet from us either. They didn’t see the look in his eyes as he stared at us while putting a bullet in the second victim’s skull. The perp was insane, or he was the hardest of the hard-nosed killers that organizations like the Russian mob used to take care of 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, and this asshole only started laughing as he turned and ran across 5th Street and into a construction site. Neither of us spotted a blood trail, which means we wasted twenty-four bullets at almost point-blank range and came up empty. Last time Tillman and I hit the range, 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 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 and behind a pile of drywall sheets. “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 instantly 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 an exit from the office he’d run into.

I crept forward, hugging the wall. After another three count, I pulled the handle with one hand and shoved my gun around the frame the instant the door pulled away. 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. I heard the click of a hammer on an empty chamber and stood up.

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, a new magazine clattering as it fell next to the pistol. It was too dark to see anything, especially with the way my eyes were still seeing bright 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 behind a pile of boxes that held fluorescent lighting ballasts. A blur from my left caught me by surprise, knocking the wind out of me as the fucker crashed into me 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 feet scrabbling along the hallway.

“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 and was back out the door. 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 broke, my thoughts solely on catching this asshole. I wasn’t worried about him catching me by surprise again, and unless he was packing a second firearm, I had the upper hand.

From ten feet away I could see the door was ajar and hit it at full speed. It rebounded off the doorstop behind it 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 pulled the trigger when the lights in the room came on, except it was more like the sun had suddenly appeared in the middle of the room.

“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. “On your knees! Hands behind your head!”

I was in a shooter’s stance, ready to ventilate him if he even twitched. “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 then 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 roughly jerked 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 the white-hot blast of pain flood through my arm. His other hand snatched the Glock from my limp hand, immediately placing it against my forehead.

“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 really should search deep within your soul to seek the truth. To see the ‘real’ world.”

“Did you overdose on coke or something?” I asked. His babbling bullshit was making 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 was about to reveal the winning lottery numbers. “I know everything about you because I’m a 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.”

“Bullshit. 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. “Are you hungry?”


“Would you like a banana?”

“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 gone insane, or the pain from my arm was making me hallucinate. “Would you like one?”

“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, peeling one 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, pointing to the half-eaten one in his other hand. He smiled and held it out to me.

It felt like a banana. It looked and smelled like a banana. It didn’t look, smell, or feel like it 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 on 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 HAD been armed. They loved arguing the law and winning high-profile cases so much that they nitpicked about the fact we’d wounded or killed a civilian that we didn’t actually know was armed… even though we ALL knew they were packing heat.

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, and I of course 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 wake. As was Sergeant Hines and about fifty other cops who had arrived when they heard the “shots fire, officer down” call on the radio.

My official report says that 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 he 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, as was Tillman, 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.

Tillman dropped me off and made a show of asking me if I wanted some company. We were friends outside of work, but tonight I just wanted to be alone with my wife. He grinned at me through the open window of his Ford and let me know he was going to decompress with one of his various girlfriends. He was shaken up, but he hadn’t been shot at at least thirty-five times, according to the CSI team. Thirty-five times a bullet had raced toward me, and not a single one of them hit me. Of course, I hit him only once in about as many tries, so that gave me the win. Minus the part where he disappeared into thin air after eating my banana gun. I couldn’t remember if he had a bullet wound or not when he stood in front of me offering me a banana.

I couldn’t stop thinking about any of it. His bullshit claim that we were computer programs. The way he morphed my Glock into a tropical fruit (well, herb, but whatever). How he moved faster than any human. The disappearing act. What had he said? “Seek inner peace” or some bullshit?

I felt stupid, but I sat on the carpet in my living room after removing my coat and shoes. I counted to fifteen, trying to clear my mind. When that didn’t work, I counted to fifty. Then to two hundred. The only discovery I made about myself was that my ass didn’t like sitting on the carpet in one position for more than an hour.

I gave up with Avril came home. She’d just finished a shift as a flight attendant for Delta and would be home for two days. She freaked out about my arm, of course, and cried for a while when I told her I’d been shot at thirty-five times. I almost told her about what really happened, but decided to keep it to myself. I still hadn’t fully processed it, if I would ever be able to. Avril and I had been through some rough times recently, thanks to my inability to be monogamous. But we were in love, and both of us were trying hard to keep our marriage together.

I got a sympathy lay, though twice she knocked her knee or elbow into my cast, which made me limp for a few seconds until the pain receded. We laughed about it, and for the first time in at least a year, I was happy we were still together. Not that I had hoped we would get a divorce, but with the coldness, the silence, our schedules, my infidelity… I had thought for a long time I just wanted it to be over. After thirty-five attempts on my life within the span of about twenty minutes, I guess my brain began to clear out the clutter and focus on the important shit. Avril was important.

I fell asleep annoyed that I hadn’t been able to see the “real” world the perp claimed we really lived in. I began to doubt that any of it had been real, that the stress of my failing marriage combined with the shock of watching two men executed twenty feet from us, plus the whole “nearly dying” thing, all of it had sent me over the edge. I was cracking up. I didn’t want to see a psychiatrist, especially not one assigned by my job. Cops cracking up makes for terrible PR in a department rocked by regular minor and medium scandals over the last decade.

I dreamed about the day’s events, except I dreamed in ones and zeros. I somehow knew it was binary code, but I wasn’t a techie beyond knowing how to use a computer to find porn or collect surveillance footage from around crime scenes. I’d seen “The Matrix” and it was sort of like that, except these were ones and zeroes instead of odd characters that looked made-up. I could see the 3D wireframe world, but I could also see it as a solid, textured, modeled world.

When my alarm went off, I tried to grasp at the last wisps of the dream so I could remember, ponder it until I could sleep again. By the time I stood in front of the toilet to relieve myself, I couldn’t remember any of it beyond the fact that it was somehow weird like “The Matrix.”



Over the next four months, I slowly began to believe it had been a stress hallucination. For the first week after the encounter, I attempted to meditate every night. I grew frustrated when Avril began to make fun of me. She didn’t mean it as a real insult, just a bit of a fun dig at me. She had no way of knowing how much it actually hurt since I’d never mentioned the gun-banana or anything else that would have landed me in a psychiatric facility. Mostly I was frustrated over the fact that I’d let my brain believe the unbelievable.

I didn’t feel like I was cracking up after the third week, and by the sixth week, I was back to my usual self. I’d even woken three days ago with the firm belief that I’d imagined it all, that the stress of the murders and the chase, the close call with death, all of it had combined to fuck my head up for an hour or so. I was feeling so upbeat that I didn’t even care that Leron was lying to me.

“Come on, dipshit,” Tillman said to the young black kid in the back of our unmarked car. “We know your pal Lagos was the trigger man. We know Devon was the driver.”

“Man, I’m telling you,” Leron said, his face hard, his eyes full of worry that we might pin a murder or some other charge on him if we didn’t get what we wanted. “I don’t know nothin’ about that shit. All I know is Lagos and Kendrick had some kind of beef over a girl or something.”

“We heard it was over a couple kilos of smack,” I said, shaking my head. “Now why you wanna lie to us, Leron? You know we can just call your P.O. and get you back in coun—”

The words died in my throat as I watched the same asshole who tried to kill me then did a disappearing act on me wrapped his hands around another man’s throat right in the alley across from us. I immediately exited the car and yelled back to my partner.

“Call it in! Don’t let this fucker get away!”

I didn’t wait around to find out if Tillman had even heard me. My feet thundered across the pavement straight toward the magician. I pulled my new Glock as I ran, keeping it pointed at him.

“Freeze motherfucker!” I screamed.

His face registered surprise for a split second before snapping the other guy’s neck then taking off on foot. He turned right at 32nd Street, then left into the next alley. I kept pace with him, but couldn’t seem to gain any ground as we crossed over Pace Blvd. And into the traffic choking Sunset Parkway. We dodged, weaved, and even ran over the hoods of cars as he led me into the alley between 29th and Jefferson.

I smiled when I saw the alley ended in a dead end, a six-story apartment building blocking the way. I stopped smiling when he wall-walked straight up the wall at the corner where the apartment building butted-up against an eight-story office building. I felt my rage intensify as he grabbed the lip of the roof and hoisted himself over as if he were a contestant on “American Ninja.” I screamed in rage and ran straight at the corner he’d ascended, knowing I’d lost him.

I thought I might get six or even ten feet up, as I’m pretty athletic for a guy who just turned forty the year before. When my feet kept propelling me up the wall higher and higher, my brain sort of blanked out for a second, then went sideways when I made the mistake of looking down while my legs and feet kept me going up. My stomach clenched and my bowels got a little loose when I realized I was at least five stories up. I concentrated on keeping my feet moving, praying my shoes wouldn’t slip a foot from the top.

The grip my shoes delivered was not only perfect, but somehow it felt as if the soles of my shoes were connected to the soles of my feet by a million nerve endings. A small part of my mind marveled at how I could almost feel every ridge, every notch, every square inch of brick each time my shoes touched down. Before I could take a moment to think about what I’d just done, I reached the lip of the roof. I pulled myself over harder than I expected, landing on my feet. I didn’t miss a beat, my legs pumping harder than ever as I chased the suspect across the roof.

It didn’t seem to surprise me at all when he didn’t even pause at the edge of the roof. He leaped out into space in a perfect arc. I half-expected a cartoon rainbow trail to bleed out behind him as he sailed across a 26th Avenue, a two-lane road, and onto the roof of the building on the other side. It was an impossible jump, especially considering the roof he landed on covered an eight story office building filled to the brim with two of the city’s top legal firms.

I didn’t even think twice about it. I’d made it up six floors like a parkour expert on steroids. I didn’t believe for a second I wouldn’t make the jump. I don’t think I believed for a second that I was having a coherent experience. What if I came out of my hallucination and was screaming at a little kid in the middle of a busy street?

I hit the edge and pushed off with everything I had. I forced myself to look straight ahead instead of down. That was a good idea since it kept me from seeing proof I had just jumped off a sixth floor roof over two lanes of traffic toward an eighth floor roof. It was bad as I saw too late wasn’t going to make it. The speed I approached the lip of the roof frightened me. I knew it was going to hurt. I cracked a tooth and bit off the very tip of my tongue when I crashed into the lip, nearly caving my face in. Blood poured out of my mouth, which felt as if I’d shoved a flaming torch into it. My ribs were probably cracked, and if not, the cartilage holding them together would certainly be damaged in some way. Human bodies weren’t meant to impact sandstone walls at such velocities.

The pain made me almost black out, and I felt myself slipping. One of my fingers was either broken or dislocated, which didn’t help my grip. I realized at that moment I should have never attempted the jump. I wanted to laugh but I was about to fall almost a hundred feet to my death. Whatever had powered me through the wall-walk and the roof-jump seemed to have disappeared. Unlike the asshole who got me into this mess in the first place.

His face peered over the edge. His smirk made me scream in fury.

“Get me up!” I yelled when he only stared down at me.

“Tell me, David,” he said in a casual voice. “Did you find your inner peace? Have you seen the real world?”

“You motherfucker! Lift me up!”

“Tsk tsk,” he said, placing his hands over mine. “I thought you might be different, David.” He began to pry my fingers from lip one by one. “I had hopes that you would try hard enough to see for yourself, especially after my little disappearing act.” I lurched as my left hand came completely free of the edge. I was down to four fingers between me and a fatal fall to the sidewalk below. “I thought the banana was a nice touch, but maybe it was too much?”

“Fuuuuuuuck you!” I screamed, putting everything I had behind it and my four remaining fingers.

I felt myself rise enough to get my other hand on the lip, and in a single motion, vaulted myself up and over the edge. The instant my feet touched down I turned toward him, remembering I’d holstered my Glock before making the jump. The gun was out and pointed at him before he could make a move.

“Down! Get down!” I yelled, taking one step toward him. I didn’t want to get too close, but I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t miss him this time if it came to that.

He laughed as if it was the funniest thing that had ever happened in the history of man.

“Get the fuck down NOW!” I shouted. “Down! Down! DOWN!” I fired a warning shot high and wide of his shoulder.

He stopped laughing, looked at me for a moment, a smile spreading across his lips, and put his hands above his head. Any other time, it would have been funny, as his hands were literally pointed straight up in the classic black and white movie bad guy surrender. I tensed when he crouched down, as if he was going to jump straight up in the air.

Then he did jump. Straight up in the air. I watched in disbelief as instead of getting maybe six feet of air, he continued to rise as if he had a rocket strapped to his back. I roared in rage and got a running start. I willed myself to jump with the power of an Atlas rocket. I rose up for almost fifteen feet before I began to fall back to earth. My feet hit the roof less than a foot from the edge, and I nearly went over when my knees buckled and pitched me forward. Somehow my hand shot out and grabbed on to the brick lip. I swung for a few seconds until I could get my other hand on the lip as well. I hung there for a bit, face pointed at the sky as I waited for him to fall back to earth as I had. When my arms protested loudly, I grunted and pulled myself onto the roof again.

I looked at the sky one last time as I called Tillman on my mobile to let him know where I was. By the time half the cops on the force poured through the door and onto the roof five minutes later, I’d already made up my mind I would meditate or eat peyote or whatever it took to find my inner peace. If I could interact with the “real world,” maybe this asshole wouldn’t get away a third time.


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