There were plenty of exits, but there were also plenty of them. The memory of what had already happened to Drew made a thin sheen of sweat pop out on his forehead and his guts to cramp in a knot just thinking about what lay in wait for him. A perverse part of his mind couldn’t help thinking about when someone might possibly think that the guy in the bathroom stall wasn’t just taking the world’s longest-
“Turn around Stephen.”
He whirled around, only to come close to colliding with a young woman that backed away suddenly, a drink cup sloshing in one hand and a slice of pepperoni pizza almost falling out of her other hand. She gave him a scathing look as he wiped at his forehead, muttering a muted apology as she moved away. His throat was parched at that moment and the clatter of ice cubes jostling against one another almost made the nauseous feeling his stomach give way. Almost, but not quite.
There were people all around him, standing still, moving about, and otherwise engaged with the stalls and merchants that made up the greater portion of the comic-con. The space in which the convention was being held was nothing compared to the main show that was held in San Diego, but Portland at least knew how to cater to the geeks and freaks that enjoyed such shows. Despite the fact that the voice had been right behind him, Stephen could see nothing, not even a hint of someone that might be waiting, or watching too closely.
To be fair he wasn’t a cop or even fully aware of his surroundings most of the time. He
was a game analyst that was paid to attend these shows to see what kind of new product and
ideas might be hitting the market soon. He and Drew had managed to get here early every day of
the event, which had started on Friday. They’d attended panels, taken their turn testing their
hand at the gaming stalls located in the far northwest corner of the cavernous space, and had had a good time in general on their company’s dime. It was good life, but sometimes it had its pitfalls. For instance, the crazies that already explained their rhyme and reason for wanting him and Drew dead.
They’d caught Drew slipping obviously, but then the overweight, self-absorbed game designer had never been that aware anyway. Where Stephen was careful and at least humble enough to admit that he was hopeless in many ways, Drew had always been a little reckless and didn’t think through what he said or did all the time. Maybe that was why their latest venture, a first-person game titled “Silent Nation” had elicited this type of reaction from those that were even now stalking him. The material that Drew had insisted upon putting in the game had almost gotten it banned in more than one country, but the team of lawyers their company kept on retainer were the type that could convince a person that “Nightmare on Elm Street” was a kid’s fairy tale, and so “Silent Nation” had gone global with a vengeance.
The first reaction to the game and its graphic violence had been as expected. Fans had either loved the disturbing visuals, no-holds barred sequences that entertained torture, mutilation, and crimes against humanity that were never shown but were implied. They’d eaten it up despite the next wave of reactions that had included shock, horror, and outright anger levied by groups that had attempted to file lawsuit after lawsuit against their company. Freedom of speech had won out time and again however, and “Silent Nation” had continued to roll. It was only when the most disturbing letters started arriving that Stephen had found reason to believe that what they were doing wasn’t right.
He’d received a handwritten letter nearly a year ago telling him that if the game wasn’t
pulled that eventually the only silence he would enjoy would be that of the grave. It was simple,
cheesy, and to the point, but it had struck a chord he hadn’t been ready to ignore. Drew of course had laughed and waved it off as another nut job making the obligatory death threat. Such things did happen in their business, but nothing ever came of it. No matter how much someone didn’t like the games they produced, they were either too afraid of legal actions that could be taken or were all bluster. But still, this had felt different, and now he knew why.
He’d already thought about telling security about his friend’s death, but for some strange reason he hadn’t done so. It wasn’t a need for vengeance, Drew had been a jerk in his opinion and probably gotten what he deserved. But somewhere in this convention was a killer, or many killers according to the letter he’d received, and he couldn’t be sure of who was who. It was paranoia, it was fear, and it was working. For all he knew the costume his killer would wear would be something completely innocuous. They could be dressed in street clothes and he wouldn’t know until the blade slipped in between his ribs.
Stephen knew his overactive imagination was messing with him, but looking around at the press of people he knew it wasn’t the only thing that was making him nervous. He had no idea who his attacker might be, or where the attack might come from. In front of so many people it seemed unlikely, but just as in the game he’d helped create, there were too many choke points that could offer a tempting opportunity. The mere fact that Drew had been killed in the men’s room attested to the bold nature of their assailants.
“Just run Stephen,” said a voice from his left, forcing him to gasp as he turned in that direction.
“Just run,” said another voice, feminine this time, from somewhere to his right.
“More fun if you run,” said a voice in a singsong manner that left chills running down his
spine. They were all around him evidently, watching from every angle possibly, and constantly
on the move. Figures moved by in full costume, many dressed up to represent their favorite movie characters, others depicting popular television characters, and more than a few dressed in regular attire. He couldn’t look in any direction without seeing people, and continuing to turn around in the midst of the crowd would surely draw people’s attention in a way that would not help him.
“Are you okay man?”
Stephen spun about, sweat glistening on his brow as he felt the pack he was wearing shift with the sudden movement. The person standing in front of him couldn’t have been out of his teens, but the look in his eyes denoted an intelligence that was far beyond his years. Stephen found this an odd thought to have, but as the young man, dressed in a faded Star Wars t-shirt and equally faded jeans, opened his mouth again, Stephen felt his blood turn to ice.
“Don’t draw attention, don’t look out of sorts, and definitely don’t get any funny thoughts. Wherever you go, we’re watching.” The younger man said this with a friendly smile on his face, as though he and Stephen were old friends just catching up. It made the words that much more jarring in Stephen’s opinion. “Shake your fat butt to the exit and we’ll see it. Exit the convention before it ends and you won’t make it home. Draw attention to us in any way and you won’t make it two steps to the exit. For now just know what we have you, and you won’t be going anywhere until we say so.”
Stephen was about to protest, to say something, but as he opened his mouth he felt a light tap on the back of his left shoulder.
He spun about only to see that no one was there. His heart was hammering in his chest
now as he turned around to speak to the younger man again. But he was gone, much as Stephen
should have expected. It should have been impossible to move so fast and without notice, but in a crowded space such as this Stephen found that he could easily explain how it was done. After all, wasn’t that one of the main premises of “Silent Nation” that you could disappear with the proper misdirection?
Licking his lips Stephen did the one thing he’d never done in his life, he made a quick and decisive choice to simply go for it. He’d heard the warning quite well, and believed the young man without a doubt. But he didn’t want to be here anymore. If what had happened to Drew was any indication he wouldn’t be making it out of here alive if he went by the rules of those stalking him. They were playing with him much the same way that the assassins on “Silent Nation” were designed to play with their prey, and fortunately he knew a way out of the system that they might not have accounted for.
So thinking he began to make his way for the nearest exit, keeping his peripheral vision sharp and his ears perked just in case. He wasn’t an expert tracker or even a good fighter, but he knew how to listen and how to pay attention. There were two security guards, a man and woman, conversing with one another as he came close, and by the third step he could see motion in his left peripheral vision. He kept going anyway, daring the fates to deal him that next card that he could play, hoping for his chance to pull the ultimate trump card to stymie the efforts of his would be killers. He was a game analyst after all, he knew all the secrets and how to stack the deck.
He could sense motion on both sides of him as he approached the security guards, who had finally noticed his approach. At his smile the woman, nearly half his size and quite pretty, stepped forward and held up a hand, her dazzling grin stopping him cold as she spoke.
“You were told to run.”