Monday at 9:30 Gilbert parked in front of the Szarvas’s house. He was met at the door by Katalin, who closed it behind her. As usual he held the passenger-side door for her and they were soon off.
She said, “All my shopping this morning is at the Galleria in Glendale. I thought we’d have lunch there too. Sound good?”
“Fine by me. Now, you never did tell me much about yourself. What was life like in France?”
Life was a combination of familiar and strange. The school system was in many ways the same as the American, but with several significant differences, the most important being the French language. Gil explained how high school would be different when she began Senior Year at the end of summer.
“Your English is so good,” he said. “How is that?”
“I studied after hours for six years with private tutors. We always planned to move here eventually.”
One similarity of her life to his had nothing to do with school. She had never made very close friends. He thought this must be because she was a princess. He wondered about his own lack; he had no such excuse.
The first stop at the Galleria was an athletic shoe store. She bought two pair, one in white and one in black, and a collection of socks.
Next was Macy’s where she bought basic lingerie and pants and dresses and blouses in several colors, mostly cooler colors without patterns. She was a very focused shopper, making decisions quickly. It was very different from his sister Elaine, who played with different combinations and looks.
At Nordstrom’s she bought more dress-up than everyday clothing, including a couple of gowns suitable (to his mind) for red-carpet movie premieres or formal parties. Her method there was more like those of his sister. She also tried out the looks on Gilbert, very unlike his sister, who had very definite ideas her younger brother wouldn’t understand. Somewhat to his surprise he enjoyed this.
Of course it helped that while he waited for her to come out of the dressing rooms he got to look at the several other women shopping that morning. A couple of them were super-hot to his eyes.
By now they had more than a dozen shopping bags. Katalin took advantage of a Nordstrom’s service to have all of them delivered to her home for a fee. Her father worked at home except for Fridays when he visited clients, so he’d be available to receive the shopping bags.
They’d passed by the food court on the way from the parking lot, so they returned there for lunch. On a side hall near the court they passed by an Italian restaurant and turned in there.
They sat down to order food. Receiving their drinks they dipped into the bread sticks while waiting for their food.
“I have some more shopping this afternoon. I can take a taxi where I want to go if you’re tired of shopping.”
“No problem. It’s not like I have a full schedule! What do you want to get?”
“I need a cell phone. And a car.”
“A car! That’s a big purchase.”
She smiled at him. “Not for me. Princess, remember? I’ve got an Osmium Black card.”
He looked at her doubtfully. Was she joking?
“Well, you came to the right place. Main street south of here for two miles is lined with car dealerships.”
“I know. Dad and I researched it online. I know exactly what I want. Or a list to choose from, anyway.”
“You ought to go with your dad. The sales people will eat you alive.”
She laughed. “They won’t know what hit them. We really researched this. And I’m really a tough bargainer.”
Gilbert said nothing to that. She seemed so sure of herself. But he had a bad feeling about this.
The first lot they visited was the Mercedes-Benz lot. It was big, seemed to have been expanded recently, and had the usual gleaming vehicles. Gil parked out front and they went in.
A sleek young man dressed in a suit and tie made a bee-line for him. Which was his first mistake, ignoring the slender plain young girl beside Gil.
“Welcome to Glendale Mercedes, sir! How can we help you?”
Gil turned toward Katalin. Somehow she looked ten years older now. Perhaps it was her manner, aloof, imperious. She was holding out a black credit card.
The salesman recovered quickly and gave her a dazzling smile. He was really quite handsome in a darkly European manner. Armenian? Italian?
The smile was wasted on her. She looked bored.
He took the card and glanced at it. Then he looked closer.
He handed it back and his manner changed to something more suited to the royalty of money.
“You can help me by showing me your highest-end four-door mid-sized sedan. I’m partial to blue, silver, and gold.”
Gold was the first vehicle he escorted her to as it was on the display room floor. He held the door for her and she seated herself. He began to explain the amenities but she interrupted him.
“Just show me how to adjust the seat to my size, please.”
He did so and then tried to explain something. She shut him up. “I’m sure everything would be satisfactory. Please let me think about matters.”
With that she moved her hands on the steering wheel, turning it marginally to the left and right. She placed her hands on various controls, testing out the ease of reaching them. Looked in the rear and side mirrors, and then just sat for a minute, seemingly communing with herself. Then she got out.
“This seems adequate. I’ll take it for 9% off the factory sticker price.”
“I’m afraid we can’t do that, Madam.”
“I’m prepared to buy this vehicle this instant. But only on my terms.”
The salesman looked thoughtful. “Let me talk to my manager. I’m sure we can work something out.”
“Very well. But please be brief. I have other business.”
He walked rapidly away.
Gil made sure he was facing away from the other sales people who might be watching. He smiled at her, spoke in a low voice.
“I see what you meant by not knowing what hit them. Are you really set on 9% off? And buying now?”
“I’ll go down to 7%. But no lower.”
“Wow. I’m beginning to believe you really are a princess!”
She smiled at him. “Never doubt it, dear friend.”
The salesman was back in just a minute. He was shaking his head.
“I’m sorry. The best my manager will allow me is to offer you 2% off.”
“I don’t have time to haggle. I’ll go down to 7%, no lower. And I’d expect you to handle all the administrative costs, fill the tank, and deliver it to my home within the week.”
The salesman looked as if his heart would break. “I’m really sorry. Let me see if I can get him to come up to meet you halfway.”
“Thank you for your time. Have a good day.”
She smiled at him and wished him a good day again.
The BMW dealership was just as unwilling to meet her demands. But Lexus was more adaptable. Or Katalin’s father had better calculated their profit margins. Inside of another hour Katalin was signing paper which made her owner of a gleaming silver Lexus.
As they drove away he said, “So by the weekend you won’t need me to chauffeur you around.”
“Not true. My appointment with the DMV isn’t until next Wednesday afternoon.
“Now, how do you feel about driving around and showing me more of the area?”
That night at dinner Gilbert regaled his parents with his experiences that evening.
“You should have seen those auto sales people. They thought they had a juicy little deer to fleece and found out too late that they were facing down a tigress.”
His mother said, “There’s certainly more to Katalin than meets the eye.”
She hesitated, said to no one in particular. “I wonder if it’s healthy that she has complete access to so much money.”
Her husband said nothing. He was looking at Gilbert as he ate.
That was so like his parents. They insisted that their children think for themselves, and think carefully. So Gil reviewed how Katalin had acted.
“When she bought those expensive dresses at Nordstrom’s she spent a lot of time trying things on, or sometimes just holding them up in front of her while she looked at herself in a mirror. She didn’t buy a lot. When she finally bought something it was simple, mostly one color. Quiet colors, nothing bright red or yellow. Simple designs. Tasteful, I think.
“Not that I know much about taste in clothes. But I’ve watched Mom and Elaine buy stuff. And it seemed as if Katalin was doing the same.
“At Macy’s she bought more everyday stuff. There was more variety, brighter colors, more blouses and skirts and pants than dresses. I think she was buying stuff she could mix and match so she could have something for just about any situation without buying a lot of clothes.”
He thought some more and ate a mouthful of food and washed it down. His parents let him think.
“We’ve only known her a few days. But so far I get the impression that she and her parents are pretty level-headed people. They wouldn’t let her have that Unlimited credit card and let her shop by herself if they didn’t trust her to be responsible.”
Gil’s mother said, “That sounds reasonable. But there’s something else that bothers me.
“I stood watching out our bedroom window today while she did her martial arts exercises. Brandon, I’ve seen people like her before. They trained me for my action roles. She’s very advanced in her studies and an extraordinary athlete. She’s also deadly serious. I’d almost call her obsessed.”
Gil’s father was thoughtful as he chewed his food and drank. He rarely made quick judgments.
“I respect your opinion, dear. But we don’t know all the facts. And besides…”
He looked at Gilbert. “What is your assessment?”
There they went again! Putting him on the spot.
He thought a bit, said slowly, “I know lots of kids–and grownups too–who are obsessed about sports. Heck, I would be too if I was really good at basketball instead of klutzy. I’m not sure if any of it is healthy, to tell the truth.”
“But,” his mother said. “What she’s studying is how to kill people. I studied that too, but only enough to look like I could do it. She actually can.”
Gilbert thought of Katalin’s claim to be a princess, and Barbara Szarvas’s acknowledgement that it was true. Maybe Katalin had to know how to fight because of that.
But they hadn’t given him permission to tell anyone else, even his parents. So he just shrugged and changed the subject.
The next day Gil’s “lots of nothing” included reading a couple of books, watching some porn in his bedroom on his computer with its usual ending, and doing some of the exercises Katalin had taught him.
He was feeling pretty loose and ready that afternoon for his second martial-arts lesson with her. He said Hi to her when she met him at the door to her house and quickly changed into the practice gi she had laid out for him in the bathroom. He noticed that it smelled nice; it had gone through the washer since he’d worn it on Sunday.
Katalin reviewed what she’d taught him and added more exercises or variations on the exercises. Then she expanded her previous lessons in fighting techniques.
“You’re coming along very well,” she said to him after his hour was up. “Maybe we can add a bit of sparring before the week is out. If you still want to continue at this.”
“Thanks. And I’ll repeat what I’ve said. You don’t have to keep checking if I want to keep on. I’ll tell you if I ever want to quit.”
“OK. Sorry. So, you want to go to every day instead of every other day?”
“Yeah. I’m really liking this.”
And he was.
The next day he went to school in mid-morning even though the main building was closed for the summer. Some of the high-school basketball team practiced year-round. They were always short during summer practice with so many of them on vacation. So he was welcome to make up the numbers needed for two full-court teams even though he wasn’t all that good because of his klutziness.
Though strangely it seemed to have gone away while he wasn’t looking.
Thursday he ate at Katalin’s house again and stayed to watch an old black-and-white comedy film with the family.
When he checked his email the next morning he found he had a message from Duke Grainger.
“Hey, guy. I’m having a games night at my place on Saturday. You want to come?”
He answered back. “To the legendary Duke Grainger Games Night? Sure. Can I bring someone?”
“Sure. Especially if it’s a she.”
“See you then.”
The long southern-California summer dusk was in full swing when Gilbert and Katalin drove onto the 134 Foothill Freeway heading west. Traffic was a bit heavy but flowing smoothly. A few high clouds spread red and violet on the western horizon, high up where the sun still shone.
“Duke Grainger is a bit of a rarity. A lot of child movie stars don’t make it into adult movies. Maybe because they don’t have the right look, or they’re poor actors, or their agents don’t get them the right parts. But Duke did. Mostly in action-adventure movies, and a few romantic roles.
“Another reason is if they get mixed up in drugs and alcohol. You won’t find any of that tonight. His older brother was another child actor. He died of a drug overdose in a night club and Duke is Hell on wheels when it comes to drugs of any kind.”
“That’s good. If I get mixed up in any of that my parents could lose their foster status. And I’d hate that.”
He glanced at her. Her face was serious.
“Duke has a former horse ranch out in Bel Air–“
“Former? Too bad. I like to ride. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid.”
“Then you can do that not far from here. A few miles up on the right in Burbank there’s a big equestrian center. I’ll point it out as we pass by it.
“Anyway, he converted the pasture and tree area next to it into a big virtual-reality game area. It’s outdoors but wired electronically so when you put on 3D glasses it can look like city or country. It’s systems like that which the military uses to train its soldiers.
“We probably won’t get invited to play in it. Instead he has a couple of big game galleries inside the house. There’s one for littler kids and one for teens and twenties.”
“That must have cost quite a bit.”
“He can afford it. Some of his movies have been pretty popular. But also he has some kind of game industry connection. I don’t remember exactly what. One of his movies was adapted from a game, or adapted into a game. It’s kind of a showcase. They even have tournaments there sometimes.”
He broke off and pointed briefly to their right. “See, there’s the exit you’d take to the EquestrianCenter. And up ahead the Center itself is in that tree-lined part of Burbank.
“I’ll be happy to go with you sometime. I learned to ride when I was fairly young, too. Mom had a part where she had to ride and the whole family took lessons. I stuck with them a couple of years afterward and spent a summer at a dude ranch.”
“How did you get to be friends with Duke?”
“I’m not. But we got to talking at one of those big parties for show-biz people. Mom goes to them. They look all glamorous in the magazines and blogazines, but she says they’re where a lot of deal-making happens. So she has to go.”
This led to more chatting about the movie industry and his experiences in it. At one point he laughed.
“I even had a couple of bit parts a few years ago. One of them was cut. The other was pretty short. I came in, said a line, and was sent off to bed by my movie mother–who was my actual mother!”
Shortly they came to the cut-off to the 405 San Diego Freeway and veered off the freeway they were on, then did a complete circle under it to go south and uphill.
Gil pointed to the right and left after they’d entered the 405.
“Lots of upscale homes in the valleys that run uphill from here. There’s a fancy country club somewhere around here. I’ve been there once.”
He was silent for a time. The traffic was heavy now and he wanted to concentrate on it. Just after he’d gotten into the flow the freeway came to a peak and began a long gradual downhill slide.
“See over to the right? That big grey castle-like building is the GettyCenter. It’s a museum and they have events there. And here is where we get off the freeway.”
He got off and went over the freeway. “Not long now,” he said as he turned into a winding tree-lined street. A few twists and turns and he pulled into a gated driveway. He stopped at a gate house, told them who he was, where he was going. The guard checked him off a computer roster and waved them on.
“Impressive security,” Katalin said.
“Yeah. Lots of celebs and rich people here. Not as many as Beverly Hills a little way south of here, but quite a few.”
Duke Grainger’s main house was white, two stories and quite wide, with two white pillars on each side of the big double doors. They were open and Duke Grainger stood just outside them.
He was as tall as Gilbert, an inch or two over six feet, but wider in the shoulders. He had the look of a stereotypical action hero, tough jawed and rudely handsome. He didn’t look so tough now, however. He was smiling and holding out a hand to shake.
“Gil! Glad you could make it. How’s your lovely mother? And your dad?”
“Just fine. She sends her regards. And I want you to meet my friend, Katalin.”
Gilbert turned to let Katalin pass in front of him. She held out her hand to shake.
Duke took it but turned it so he could bend and kiss the back of it European style, more of an air kiss than an actual one.
“I’m charmed. Katalin? Hungarian? Austrian?”
“Hungarian by way of France. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Grainger.”
“Duke, by all means. Go on in. There’s snacks and drinks in the side room there. And the game rooms are a little further in. Please excuse me, I have more guests coming.”
Katalin smiled at him and walked ahead of Gil. But she stopped just before the snack room. She was looking at a line of miniature paintings on the wall.
Gil said, “Interesting paintings?”
“No. Don’t look back. But I want to see this.”
“Oh. OK.” He pretended to look at the paintings with her. Then voices came from the doorway and he and Katalin turned casually to watch what was happening.
The first thing he noticed was a medium-height man nearby of middle years dressed in a suit which reminded him of a tuxedo but wasn’t quite. He was standing behind and to one side of Duke just outside the doorway to a room. He’d just come out of it. He had the look of a tough soldier.
Gil kicked himself mentally. He’d been so proud of his exercises in situational awareness but had barely paid attention to the open doorway and what was inside the room behind it. But Katalin had paid attention.
The man focused on Gil and Katalin for a few seconds, lingering more on her than Gil. Then he turned to support his boss, as Gil guessed Duke was.
In front of Duke was a thirty-something man dressed in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. Behind him ranged three men friends, also dressed casually. Two of them were leaning on each other as if they’d had a bit too much to drink.
The front man was a movie star whom Gilbert vaguely recalled. Not quite a star anymore. And he’d been in some kind of trouble with the law. More than once.
“Alain,” said their host. “I’m only going to say this once.
This time if I find you or your friends have brought drugs of any kind into my house I’m detaining you and calling the police. This is no bluff.”
Alain was still handsome but had a somewhat dissolute look, including a two-day old beard and ruddy cheeks. He was smiling widely.
“Duke, old friend! Old chum! Of course I’m respecting your wishes. We may have partaken of the fruits of Dionysius before coming into your charming abode. But we’ve brought nothing with us. Isn’t that right?” He half turned and his friends all nodded solemnly.
“Then be welcome and have fun.” Duke stood aside to let the four men by him, then turned back to greet more guests.
The soldier behind Duke, as Gil thought of him, watched the men as they paraded by him. When they’d passed into the snack room he turned and re-entered the side room. In doing so he eyed Katalin carefully.
“Well, that was interesting,” Gil said. “Did you notice that guy behind Duke? Scare-ee! I’d faint if he started for me.”
She smiled at him. “No, you wouldn’t. But you’re right. He is a dangerous man. Now, let’s get some snacks and drinks and see what games they have here.”
There were quite a few. They were in two big rooms, both noisy with game noises and the people playing them. One room was more for the younger crowd. But the age groups mixed easily. More than once Gilbert saw a group of very young and much older players arguing or discussing some esoteric game point, the very young as vocal as the older.
Gil was not a game aficionado. But he was in comparison with Katalin. She knew nothing of them.
She especially liked the combat games, though she watched and even played a few other types of games. It soon became very clear that she was very good at combat games. She developed a bit of an entourage as the evening progressed.
Her reflexes were awesomely fast. After a few practice shots with the plastic game guns, short or long, she never missed. She could see the whole game-play field in the 3D virtual reality glasses and avoid ambushes while concentrating on one enemy.
Gil didn’t play. He just stood near enough to answer questions and give encouragement. Somehow it seemed right, as if he were indeed Shield to a Sword.
After about an hour Katalin grew bored. She finished the last game and they wandered out of the adult game room, leaving behind congratulations and complaints that she was leaving.
They got a new batch of snacks and drinks.
“Didn’t you say something about another game area?”
“Yeah. The outside one. Let’s go in here.”
“Here” was a big room with several rows of comfortable easy chairs and couches. They faced a row of big flat-screen monitors. Above and behind those monitors was a huge flat-screen.
They found seats near the back of the room and he explained in a low voice.
“The big screen shows the whole area. See those colored circles on it? Those are players. Notice how they disappear sometimes and appear a little later? That’s when they hide behind or under something. That’s supposed to give us an idea of how they are maneuvering from the viewpoint of the players.
“The smaller screens are cameras mounted in some of the glasses which all players wear. They show the scenery in front of them.”
They could see images of terrain, mostly long grass and bushes and sometimes trees. There were also houses and fences and a stream bed. It looked as if it had water in it, but Gil explained that it was actually dry. The water image was superimposed over it by the virtual-reality glasses the players were wearing.
“If you walk ‘in’ the water the computer generates the appropriate noise and the enemy can hear you.
“The houses and fences are physically there but they’re plain surfaces with images superimposed by the glasses. So you can lean on them or even climb atop them, but they only look like the battlefield they are simulating.”
“You seem to know a lot about the game. Have you ever played?”
“I’d like to. But I’ve only read about it. Only the best players get invited to do it.”
“Couldn’t you ask Duke to let you? He seems to have a high opinion of your mother.”
“Well– Yeah. I suppose so. But it would be my first time and I’d blown away pretty quickly.”
“All the more reason to play. You’d learn better from the mistakes.”
They watched three matches. Two were between two groups, represented by red and blue circles. One was three groups, red and blue and green. This one went on longer than the others.
Perhaps an hour went by. Then Duke came in the room at the end of the last game and circulated, greeting and chatting with various people. At last he came over to Katalin and Gilbert.
“How are you two doing?”
“Really enjoying ourselves,” Katalin said. Gil nodded enthusiastically.
“I’m glad to hear it.” He sat down and the three chatted, mostly about Katalin and her parents. When that topic seemed exhausted Duke stood up. So did Katalin.
“Do you suppose Gil could play a round? Maybe with me?”
“Sure. Let me check the schedule.” He pulled a phone from a pocket and brought up a screen image which displayed on the 3D glasses he was wearing.
He frowned. “The next up is Alain Anders. He was the guy in the loud shirt just behind you. But he’s super good. And won’t fight anyone but the very best. Still–” He gazed at the invisible screen before his eyes that only he could see.
“No one has accepted his challenge. He’s too good, I suppose. And he’s a poor winner.”
“And an even poorer loser, I suppose,” said Katalin.
“You got that right. Not that I’ve seen him lose in a long time.
“Wait– He just dropped his qualification for opponents. He’ll fight anyone.”
Katalin half-turned toward Gil. His stomach seemed to sink to his feet.
He really hated to lose as badly as he would if he fought. But he’d seem a coward if he didn’t stand up against Anders.
Gilbert nodded. Katalin’s smile was like sunrise. And suddenly Shield Gilbert didn’t feel bad at all.
Duke lifted the phone to his ear. “Alain? We’ve only got a newbie to play against you. You want to give up your turn?”
The answer apparently was No. For Duke said, “Come with me. Let’s get you suited up and the game reset.”
The three left the room and walked down a long hall. At the end of it was a set of double doors opened all the way.
Inside were racks of coverall-like suits and weapons. Several people were in there, including Anders and his three friends. Most of the people were taking off the suits and laying the plastic guns on a table. Behind it a young woman dressed nicely all in black was checking the suits and weapons, then slotting the weapons into the racks and dropping the suits into a laundry basket.
“Anders. Here’s your opponent. He OK by you? Or do you want to give up your turn after all?”
Alain had a sneer worthy of a movie villain. Which is what he’d mostly been playing the last few years.
“Little boy Laurent? He thinks he can play me?”
“No,” said Gil. “But I’ve got to start sometime. And who best to fight but the best? I’ll learn more being beaten by you than winning against other newbies.”
“That’s for sure.” Anders seemed to be mollified a bit. But Gil didn’t think for a second he’d hold back on the playing field.
Anders was already suited up. Duke personally selected a suit and helped Gil into it, explaining all the while. Most of it Gil already knew from reading but he listened carefully.
The suit was actually light plastic coated with photosensitive material. It would register “hits” from the laser gun and send the info to the game computer. It would grade the hit and issue various commands. One might be a scream of pain or death from a speaker on the suit. It would also show a splotch on the suit showing simulated blood flow if the hit demanded it.
Areas of the suit were “armored” with simulated battlefield armor appropriate to the era. In this case it was 21st Century boron-carbon bullet-resistant plastic. Weights on the suit matched the actual weight of such armor. A battle backpack of about 30 pounds went over the suit. It also had a photosensitive surface.
The rules were fairly simple. The only weapons which could be used were the issued ones. No actual physical combat was allowed. As a newbie against an advanced player Gil got a five-minute handicap. Then Anders would be let upon the field. The computer would grade the play and tell the players how badly they were hurt. If dead they were supposed to lay down and stay there until combatants left the immediate area. Then they were supposed to get up and leave the field.
Finally Gil was ready. He and Anders shook hands and he walked to the gate into the playing park. Gil jogged until he entered the forest. Then, hidden from view of the entrance, he walked more slowly, making as sure as he could that he left no tracks or other sign. He avoided anything which might betray him. Some of it was real vegetation, some of it simulated. It was hard to tell the difference in the simulated near-evening light of the “jungle” he’d entered.
Nevertheless he curved to the right and made a big semicircle to come into a heavily overgrown part of the “forest” not too far from the entrance. He hoped he could ambush Anders.
No such luck. His view of the entrance was none too good (for otherwise Anders would have seen him). And the man apparently got down on his belly and crawled into the forest in the heavy grass and simulated bushes.
Now Gil had a problem. Should he maneuver against Anders? He decided not to. The man would be too good for him. And Gil could only give himself away.
Fifteen minutes at least went by. It seemed like an hour.
Suddenly a shot rang out and Gil’s suit gave a scream. A tightness on one thigh told him he’d received a flesh wound.
He fell, rolled away from his position. Lay panting as quietly as he could despite his fear. For he was fearful. The scene was very convincing and he’d had time to get into it emotionally. He aimed back toward where the shot seemed to have come.
Nothing. Long minutes passed. Gil began to look all around him.
Another shot. Another flesh wound. Gil recovered from it, made the motions which simulated adding a tourniquet to his other leg while trying to keep as quiet as he could.
The next half hour was more of the same. Anders was toying with him, whittling him down. Gil recognized the tactic but could do nothing about it.
Finally he decided how he’d end the game. Or try to. He lay perfectly still, prone, his gun only loosely held in his hand.
Maybe ten minutes passed. Then he heard very faint sounds. He was being stalked. He turned his head away from the source of the sound.
Anders loomed over him. He kicked the gun away. Aimed down at Gil. Who pulled the pin on the fake grenade he’d hidden with a fold of the jacket.
A loud blast of sound crashed. And both his own and his opponents suits began to scream.
Anders yelled over the scream. “You little shit! You bastard!” He began to curse and kicked Gil in the side.
Gilbert rolled away, then more as Anders pursued him, landing the occasional kick but mostly not as Gil got to his feet to better avoid the man. He was also was using all his beginner’s skill in aikido to ward off the attacks.
A siren began to wail. Anders stopped his efforts and stalked off toward the exit to the playing field.
After a moment Gil cautiously followed his former opponent. He had to favor one side; ribs there were at least bruised.
The two were met inside the entrance by Duke Grainger and his soldier employee. Katalin was also with them.
Duke walked up to Anders and pushed him. “What the Hell were you thinking of? No physical fighting! No physical fighting!”
“The little shit deserved it.”
“This is a fucking game you fucking idiot!”
“Whatever. I’m done with you and your wussy ways.” Anders walked around his host, who turned toward Gilbert.
“Are you hurt? How bad?”
“No. I’m fine. But I do need to sit down.”
He did so. And Katalin was beside him, kneeling. She looked at him carefully.
“Don’t even think of lying to me. Where are you hurt? How bad?”
He could not lie to his Sword. He told of his ribs and one barked shin. A medic approached and examined him, opening his suit and pulling up the T-shirt below it. He declared that there were no broken ribs but that Gil would have a bad bruise for a few days. He covered the area with a large bandage which immediately began to give off soothing coolness.
The medic and he went to a small infirmary. Gilbert was given a more complete examination and his cut shin was cleaned, disinfected, and bandaged. In the process he was re-dressed in a shirt and pants that fit him loosely but not too badly. They were Duke’s.
Finally the medic directed him to Katalin and Duke. They were in the suiting room for the outdoor game.
“What’s going on?” he said.
Katalin was suiting up. So was Anders and his three pals.
“What’s going on is that your girl friend has challenged Duke. I couldn’t persuade her otherwise. And he agreed because otherwise he was going to jail.”
“This is crazy! Four against one?”
“She’s very persuasive when she wants to be. I argued like Hell and she threatened legal action against all of us. And–” He leaned forward and spoke quietly.
“I don’t know why. But I think she’s going to clean the clock of all four of those ass-holes.”
Gil stormed over to Katalin. She looked at him calmly.
“You can’t do this!”
She just kept on being fitted into the suit. He tried to grab her but found his hand sliding away from her. He paused, trying to get his breath under control.
She adjusted a last strap and confronted him.
“I can and will. The honor of our houses has been injured. I will have balance.”
“Four against one. And one is an expert.”
She smiled gently. “Against me they are the merest beginners. Calm yourself. Be my Shield in truth.”
He stood looking at her. His breath eased. And a completely illogical faith slipped into him like a ghost settling gently upon him.
“My liege. I will support you.” The words came unbidden to him.
“Never my liege. Always my Shield.”
She took his shoulders in her hands and leaned in to kiss both his cheeks. Then she chose a pistol from the armory and walked out of the room.
Fifteen minutes passed. During that time Gilbert and Duke retired to the virtual-reality game room. They had to forge through a gathering crowd which spilled out into the hall. The word had gotten around that there was a very unusual match. The crowd parted before them.
Seated Duke spoke into a phone. “Bring me an iced tea and–” He glanced at Gil, who nodded. “Two iced teas and sweetener. Thanks.”
He spoke to Gil. “Your girl friend challenged Duke while I had him held in the suiting room before I called the police. I thought if I could get him to apologize to you, and you decided not to press charges, we could get through the evening without lots of paparazzi bothering anybody.
“But she cut that possibility short. When he refused her challenge she called him a coward, scared of being beaten by a girl. And she said he could have his friends fight with him.”
He shook his head. “I tried to talk her out of it. But she threatened legal action. Not like she was angry, but in a calm voice. She argued very persuasively. I swear she’s going to be a lawyer someday.”
He grinned. “And wind up D.A. Or Attorney General.”
“No,” thought Gilbert. “A queen.” And the silly thought didn’t seem silly at all.
“So where is she?” Gil said. “I don’t see anyone on the big screen.”
“She’s blue. She walked straight to the middle of the ground and her icon disappeared.”
Someone behind them spoke. “That means she’s lost already. The first thing they’ll do is approach the center and spiral out. She can’t hide long.”
Gil didn’t know. He read a little bit about battlefield tactics in games but not a lot of it had stuck. He’d never intended to play such games; all games were just mild interests.
But he was sure that Katalin had not lost. He said so.
The voice behind them–a young teen wearing rimless glasses, he saw–said, “She’s an obvious novice. They chose automatic weapons. She chose only a pistol.”
Duke said to Gil, “She said she only needed four shots. But she’d take a full magazine and two backups just in case.”
“There they go!” someone said. On the big screen four red circles entered the field. Each had a number inside them. They were arranged in a diamond shape. Number 1 was the rear circle.
Glasses boy, as Gil thought him, explained to a friend. “Notice that the captain is staying back and letting point go into the most dangerous spot. As long as he’s alive he can still win.”
The diamond cautiously moved toward the center. Then as predicted the four circles began to move outward in a spiral.
Suddenly a blue circle appeared and one of the red circles disappeared, as did the blue circle. A scream came through the speakers in front of the room. But no sound of a pistol shot.
“She got one! She lost! She’s only a pistol shot away and they have semiautos!”
A fusillade of fake shots blasted out of the speakers. The remaining red players apparently were hosing down everything in the forest.
The shots tapered off. Stopped. No blinking blue light showed on the screen, no scream sounded. Katalin was safe.
Gil glanced at Duke. “I didn’t hear a shot when she got her target.”
“She took a silenced pistol. So we don’t know how many shots she used. But I’d bet only one.” Duke was smiling.
The red circles stood still, no doubt listening. Then they moved closer together. One of the circles (number 2) apparently was racing to meet his friends. The other two took their time.
Glasses said, “One of them is losing his nerve. At least one.”
The red team didn’t move for a long time. Conferring. Maybe arguing.
Then they began to spiral out again. Then the “dead” red circle, now dimmed, began to move toward the exit as required.
The now-triangular red pattern continued to expand. And expand. It expanded till it met the edges of the playing field. Then the pattern froze.
“They can’t find her. I wouldn’t have believed it,” said Glasses.
The red circles paused for a time then one by one they began to spiral back toward the center. Number 2 stopped suddenly. He was the closest to the exit. Then he began to move that way. Stopped. Continued the inward spiral.
Gilbert did not need Glasses to tell him that Number 2 was panicking.
The triangle became small. And one of its number winked out with a scream. But again no gun shot sound.
This time the torrent of shots went on for a long time. But again no blinking blue circle. Katalin was safe.
Duke said to Gilbert. “I think the red team has already run through at least half of their ammo. She has them on the run.”
Gil pressed his sweating hands together. He reminded himself that this was only a game. Nobody was dying out there.
He deliberately dried his hands on his pants legs and picked up his glass of iced tea. It was empty. He refilled it from a pitcher, sweetened it. Drank.
The two remaining red circles didn’t move for a long time. Then one of them began to move. Toward the exit.
“He’s quitting.” HE was not number 1: Anders.
The escapee stopped. Gil guessed there was a furious argument going on in the playing field. Then the escapee continued escaping.
A volley of shots rang out. A scream signaled the “death” of the escapee.
“My God,” said Glasses. Or one of his pals? “Anders shot his own man. He’s completely lost it.”
And Katalin had saved a bullet. Gil chuckled at that. She might not even need four bullets to finish the game.
The remaining red circle stood still for a minute. Then it began to move toward the “dead” man’s location.
Duke said, “He’s taking his man’s gun. He’s low on ammo.”
That seemed to be the case. Minutes later when Anders moved away from the “corpse” it got up and left the field. Shortly Duke got a phone call. He listened, gave an order, turned to Gil.
“Anders’ three friends want a taxi. They’re disgusted with him.”
“Did they ever see Katalin?”
Duke spoke into the phone, listened, said to Gilbert.
“No. She’s a ghost out there.”
The red circle seemed to move aimlessly for a time, though maybe there was a pattern not obvious to onlookers.
Suddenly a blue circle appeared on the screen. It was following the red one. The red circle stopped. The blue one vanished.
Glasses said, “Maybe he heard something.”
No shots came. If Anders had heard something, he didn’t have a direction.
He stood still for a while. Then he began moving again.
The blue circle appeared. It was off to the side, paralleling the red circle. Which stopped again.
Shots were heard. Then silence. Then more shots. Then a very long silence.
Red circle began to move. This time Gil thought its motion WAS aimless.
Then the motion was no longer aimless. It was moving quite fast. Toward the exit.
“He’s running scared! He’s running.”
The red circle exited the field. An instant later the blue blinked into existence near the exit and left also.
“God damn,” said Glasses. “How did she get so close to him and still not show up on screen? And why didn’t she kill him? She could have done it a dozen times.”
Gil and Duke stood up and pushed through the crowd. They were headed toward the field exit. They met Katalin as she was halfway to the house, walking leisurely. He scooped her up and whirled her twice around.
When he let her down she smiled at him. “Did I worry you?”
“For a while. Then certainty took hold. I knew you were safe.”
Duke was beside him them. He hugged Katalin and drew back.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. You’ve just become legend.”
She shrugged. “I’d rather get away without any crowd. Can I return your property some other time?” She motioned toward her suit and the play pistol in its holster.
“Certainly.” He took out his phone. Within a minute a black-uniformed security guard, an Oriental woman, appeared and led them to a side entrance. Meanwhile Duke was keeping the crowd spilling out of the house from his two guests.
The guard gave Gil his keys and he found his truck. Soon they were on their way toward the freeway.
On the way they passed a red luxury vehicle. It had wrapped itself around a lamp post and medics were taking a person out of it. They zipped up the body bag into which the body went.
“Think that was Anders?” Gil said. He felt chill all over.
“I hope you won’t think less of me,” she said. “But I don’t care.”