‘Bottletop’: [5] - The Rifleman, The Contest, and The Request

A fourth shot burns past, bisecting stray hairs as it passes. In its wake, the thought of sharing Natal’s fate is accompanied by the flash of her jigsaw-puzzle image, printed upon the concrete. The Rifleman strides forwards, firing yet another shot towards my feet which carves just between a patella archway.
    Every available muscle in my body jerks together each time the Rifleman’s index finger twitches but, in the vicious cycle, each triggered movement is countered with another roaming bullet. Behind the bike helmet he wears atop his head, I feel a smile protruding: this figure has missed every opportunity to strike me down, why is he messing about? I feel all this teasing is pointless, no? No matter what this psychopath has done to distract the public, the police wouldn’t dare ignore the sound of open fire, he doesn’t have all the time in the world waiting for him.
    The Rifleman ceases to move closer than a distance of three meters but - with each step I take backwards - he mirrors my movements. In this new placement, his posture takes a more relaxed form and his weapon is pointed towards the west. It’s left coddled gently between two forearms like a baby as he scratches a lump of bushy beard from beneath the helmet. 
    If I managed to outmatch him - always the optimist - he’d be safe as long as he kept that helmet attached to his head. How could I get it off? Still, I would be able to cull the list of possible attackers to rather skinny young men with beards, motorbikes, and the mental capacity to murder another human being. 
    Returning his full concentration to the weapon, he’s reluctant to attack as though he’s waiting for something from me. Sunlight from the waning afternoon bounces off the blackened visor as the clouds shift in my favour, offering me several unnoticed steps towards him. The jacket tied around his waist hits the ground as his arms tense up for recoil and his fingers slithers from the the guard to the trigger. The slightest breath of wind could set that weapon off so why hasn’t he shot me yet? 
    If it’s going to happen, just make it happen alright?
    This is no trained killer, this is no solider. That confident posture is a ruse… maybe, it’s all or nothing in this situation, isn’t it? I take another step forward, testing the turgid waters between our bodies and still, my head remains intact.  “What do you want?” I ask, raising my hands into the air to signal my wilful surrender. 
    Defying all criminal/victim relationships, the Rifleman responds in a strange, muffled voice: “do yourself a favour and drop all the weapons concealed on your person.”
    Concealed weapons? What’s Ireland’s policy on that? “I— I don’t have any.” 
    A brief pause ensues, an almost awkward silence as the Rifleman allows me to step forwards once more, “are you kidding me?”
    “You must have me confused with somebody else,” he’s let his guard go limp, “please, just put the gun down and let’s talk this out.”
    The opposite actions are carried out and the terror of imminent nothingness returns in haste. My guard has fallen too, not that I had much in the beginning. Conversation is my only effective weapon at the moment until the police arrive. They’re cutting it very fine but I can hear them if I concentrate, speeding about the town just a couple of miles away.
    “I’m definitely not who you’re looking for, okay? I’m unarmed, I’m co-operating, just…”
    “Alexis Noel Walker,” he decrees, passing the weight of his weapon back to his forearms as he recites a batch of overnight revision, information given at will to the Internet. His free arm lifts with a careful weight towards his visor, blocking the sun from his gaze.
    Oh, he couldn’t see because the sun was in his eyes.
    “You’re a 21 year old who contracted Lyme disease earlier this year whilst on holiday in Colorado. You grew up in Hay-on-Wye in Wales but moved to Ireland to do your degree in Biochemistry,” the Rifleman takes a moment to lift visor, “Brog University was your first choice.” 
    Bespectacled eyes look out from the all-encompassing black helmet as he narratives his overwhelming research, “you’re a relatively new member to the organisation, bestowed the codename ‘Pennyroyal’. You have failed to examine your commitments to the CEO which means you’ve gone into Open Season, lass.”
    The sirens continue to wail without an audible decrease in distance like they’re just circling the area while I’m being stared down by a freak with a fucking binder-full of my personal information. “Is this why I received Natal’s information? Did you get mine?”
    “You failed design and technology in high school,” he keeps talking, running through my life history and - in particular - it’s my failings that are repeated. “You were in a rather poorly reviewed rendition of The Little Shop of Horrors.”
    “Why are you still talking? What do you want? I just don’t understand.”
    “Don’t play dumb, Walker. You’ve buggered up and I’m hear to claim my reward, that’s just how it works here.” The sirens shut off as the Rifleman cocks the rifle into position. It only holds a single shot at a time as far as I can see which means, if he misses again, I might just have a chance to escape. 
    “Oh shit, okay… okay, please don’t kill me,” I’m begging, collapsing onto one knee like an expectant groom. No matter the scheme I pull from the back of my head, my body reverts to a pathetic damsel-in-distress mode that I cannot shake, “I don’t know what’s going on here.”
    “Oh, shut your lump and stand with some dignity. Why else would you be tailing Homecoming? You know exactly why you got her details.”
    “Homecoming?” Natal must’ve been part of this secret organisation too… I got her information because she defected? Is that what’s going on here? “Was I supposed to kill Natal?”
    “Holy shit, you are actually clueless, aren’t you?”
I’m going to throw up, I’ve been mistaken for some murderer.
    “Dude, there’s a F.A.Q right on the homepage,” says the Rifleman, “you didn’t think to look at it when your computer went haywire?”
    “Shut up, I can’t think right now.” My mind is overworking, grabbing his words as they reach my ears and tossing them far, far away. I can’t understand him, especially through that fucking mask. 
    “You know, you’ve got a serious attitude problem for somebody who’s knee-deep in their own death, lass.” The Rifleman lowers his weapon and flicks on the safety mechanisms. In doing so, the weapon extends itself and, in a flurry of clicks and shifts, it deconstructs into four individual pocket-sized pieces. “I think you and I need to have a little chat but be careful, yeah? You might not have noticed it yet but Brog is the city of killers, lass, and you’ve got a bounty on your head.”
    A city of killers, home of the hit. 
    I should’ve stayed in Hay. 
    “There’s no need exchange names, I’ll come find you.” The visor finds itself flicked down, bouncing the sunlight directly into my eyes as he wanders off in the distance… only to return moments later. “Oh, don’t let the police find you around this place. If they’re at all suspicious of your involvement with the organisation, you’ll win a meet and greet with the Trunchbull Initiative.”

The police refused to show up. It didn’t matter how long I stood beside the bandstand, not a single officer arrived at the scene. As civilians started to return to the park on their solitary commute from work, I consider the idea that I may have dreamt those sirens. After all, did the Rifleman respond to the noise at all?
Not long after the street lamps started their shift, I returned home to be ravaged by tiredness. The adrenaline dissipates and the aches set in as though one of his shots had landed against my flesh. At this time, my body craves is daily detox bath but Bess is my first destination.
    The broken black screen flashes up as I double-tap her face before opening that terminal window which is overtaken by a flood of green text. The usual, unsettling greeting is now followed by three brand new options: <<VIEW PROFILE>>, <<ENTER CODE>>, or <<FAQ>>. The first option leads me to a simple list of data offering the name ‘PENNYROYAL’ alongside the combination of numbers I entered from that bottle cap. It also details a lack of funds in my ‘earnings account’ and the dreaded phrase ‘OPEN SEASON’ coated in a slick red highlight.
    Is the entire organisation out to get me now? I scroll back up and select the FAQ option which happens to be riddled with every piece of information I might ever need about this situation including the ability to forfeit the contract within the first 24 hours after which “the cool-down period ends and the user forfeits the right to exit the existing contract.”
    On the topic of this OPEN SEASON status, the paragraph reads: “an operative must collect a minimum of one warrant per week in order to stay in good favour. If an operative fails to meet such requirements, their contract is temporarily forfeit until a bounty is claimed or their death has been enforced.”
    Jesus Christ.
    It continues, “when a contract becomes forfeit, an operative is placed onto OPEN SEASON status. In this case, a warrant is placed for the extinguishment of the OS-operative by two separate operatives. Once the extinguishment has been completed, the operative in question will receive payment in the form of the OS-operative’s lifetime earnings.”
    “Furthermore, the OPEN SEASON status can be applied for alternative reasons: it is against policy to involve civilians in organisation business in any form. The death of an civilian or contracted operative will result in OPEN SEASON status, you have been warned.”
    I’m not sure I’d believe this nonsense if it wasn’t for today but still, something doesn’t quite add up. It cannot be the case that all bottle caps refer you to this organisation or the entire building would be inhabited by contract killers. Was it a mistake? If you’re running this kind of business, you wouldn’t want to let anything slip through the cracks but now I’m a part of this… Shit, all right. I need to speak to the Rifleman, if he can’t help me directly, he’ll probably be able to answer some questions. 
    It’s not like he had any intention of killing me in the first place which means he must’ve been after Natal’s bounty. If he wanted mine, I’d already be dead. If that’s the case, he wouldn’t be assigned to my OS status. On the other hand, there’s now two complete strangers out there, armed to the teeth and holding my personal information.
     Deep breaths, Alexis. I have to stay strong and keep reminding myself that this would be the worst time to panic. I let myself down today when I collapsed in front of the rifleman and must never show that kind of weakness again, ever. 
    Scrolling back through to the profile listing, I catch my own reflection in the glass of my laptop screen with my awful codename printed onto my forehead: PENNYROYAL. I hate everything about that word; the structure, the connotations, the sound of it. The word itself appears to be a link to a further list of twelve names similar to my own. A leaderboard of sin where I am proud to be placing last in the playlist.

    2. WEAVER
    5. DOE EYES
    6. ONE WORLD
    7. SCANDAL
    9. INVADER
    11. SUNDAY

As expected, HOMECOMING is nowhere to be seen in the blank thirteenth space below my own name. For some reason, it’s knowing that I’m not truly in last place that sends shivers down my spine. I don’t have long to sit and curdle though, as my front door takes a brief pounding before Pudding lets herself in.
    “Alexis Walker, my dearest friend!” she calls out as she wanders into my home, two cans deep into a six-pack of that venomous Scrumpy Jack. I can smell the quote, apples, unquote on her breath from my desk and no matter of fanning can push it back. “I’ve brought a mate, if that’s cool?”
    “A mate?” I feign disgust, “you have other friends?”
    “Oh,” she pauses mid-collapse, hovering above my couch like a lost bluebottle as her eyes cast themselves upon the green text of the terminal window, “are you busy?”
    “No, I’m just fiddling around.”
    Committed to that position, she stands with both arms and legs at 90 degree angles in a display of coordination I’ve not seen since high school gymnastics.  “Ooh, are you hacking somebody? I’ve seen that shit on telly, who are you taking down? Is it Microsoft, I bet it’s Microsoft.”
    “You really know how to take the edge off a bad day, don’t you?” She smiles, it’s infectious. There’s something about waltzing into somebody’s home uninvited that’s almost charismatic, I don’t believe I have the will to send her away. “So, who’s this mate?”
     Gravity attacks, sending Pudding onto her arse like the rest of us peons. “Y’know? I was telling you about him before? Oh yeah, I’ve got your threads, by the way.”
    “In my backpack, washed and dried. Thanks for the save, I’m on my last nudity warning.”
     The existence of Pudding is what drives me to question the possibility of the organisation taking control of the entire building. I just don’t think she could pull it off… why doesn’t that sound like a compliment? “Thank you, what were you saying about this friend?”
    “We talked about him yesterday, I think.”
    “Oh, the acquired taste,” now I can remember and, for some reason, I’m not looking forward to meeting him. What was it she said? I can’t imagine why he would be so unlikeable but then, I can’t really imagine the type of people Pudding would usually be around.
    “That’s him! Hey, Craig. You can come in now,” she demands after her advertisement crashes and burns atop my carpet. A small hand appears in the doorway at first, attached to the hairiest knuckles ever owned by a human being. As he pulls himself through the door, hammered to the point of no return, he waves.
    “Craig McFearson, this is Alexis Walker.”
    He stammers into my humble abode without a care for the holes he’s almost putting in the ground with each step of his steel-toe boots. This man, wrapped in a leather jacket, motorcycle gloves, and a scarf like it’s a blistering January morning, excuses himself. “Sorry, I was riding my bike here so I’m not feeling too good. I get motion sick very easily.”
     “You sound like a barrel of laughs.”
    “He says he…” Pudding hiccups mid-sentence, forgetting what she wanted to say. “Never mind, come here!” she beckons, “join us for a bev?”
Pudding’s allure continues to be impossible to resist. Not five minutes ago, I found myself returning to my own home with a bottle of £6 gin, just to escape the taste of almost-apple cider. 
    My return was welcomed by the initiation of a new drinking game based on my expansive DVD collection: take a shot every time Emily Blunt appears in the credits. If you’re wondering, that’s 23 movies of the 45 she’s been in. I didn’t think I had 23 movies, let alone 23 movies starring Emily Blunt.
    After 23 shots, it seems even Pudding is put to rest. Craig, however, stands proud beside me, watching the first scene of Edge of Tomorrow. When he picked it up, it was still in its wrapping but I can’t remember if I’ve seen it already. 
    “Have you read the book this is based on?” asks Craig, “it’s a Japanese light novel called ‘All You Need Is Kill’.”
    “What an interesting title,” I say, “is it better than this pile of garbage?”
     “Anything would be better than this pile of garbage.”
    Neither of us have the energy to turn it off and, as Tom Cruise continues to die over and over again, it becomes apparent that Craig has something more interesting on his mind. “What’s wrong?”
    “She never lasts long, does she?” he says, “bit of a lightweight.”
    “I haven’t known her for very long, but yeah, that’s one of her defining character traits.”
    “You haven’t been in Brog for too long, have you?”
    “I just moved, I’m—“
    “—a student, yeah I know. We’ve met before, can’t you tell?”
    Oh shit, it must be him. The Rifleman is on my couch, waiting for my response. I try to make a move but a gentle, hairy hand presses against my knee.
    “Don’t make a fuss,” says the Rifleman, “there’s no need. I’m unarmed, I’m not going to hit you, okay?”
    “What makes you think I’ll follow the same rules?”
    He has to stifle his laughter, “I trust you’ve read the FAQ then?”
    I nod, whittling down a list of possible weapons in my home down to the three kitchen knives in my drawer. He’s doing the same but for the gin on the table, I think. I can’t take any chances, “why are you here?”
    “I told you I’d visit, lass. It’s just coincidence that we’ve got a mutual friend,” he says. “How’s her novel coming along? We haven’t had the chance to speak.”
    “Are you trying to kill me, or not?”
    “For fu—,” stifling his frustration, he pulls me towards his face and whispers, “you need to learn when to speak, all right? She’s got nothing to do with this and I intend on keeping it that way.”
    “I’ve got some questions.”
    “And I’ve got some answers, here’s the first one: no, I’m not going to kill you.” Pudding snorks and grumbles, moving around in her sleep something awful. “You might’ve noticed that she’s a heavy sleeper but I don’t want her to even subconsciously pick up on this, okay? Let’s move somewhere quiet.”
If I was going to choose a place to discuss murder, I don’t think ‘outside of my own apartment, beneath a half-lit streetlamp in the dead of night’ would be my first choice. We both perch upon the wooden fence which barricades the parking zone from the building, keeping Craig’s bike from careering into somebody’s expensive car.
    And by bike, he meant bicycle.
    His thick Scottish accent has dwindled somewhat as though he’s been putting it on all day. No longer does it seem powerful or threatening, just irritating and nasal; “I’m not privy to company information, nobody is. Anything that I tell you right now is just speculation, you got that lass?”
    “Stop calling me that.”
    “A— all right,” he curls himself up a little bit, “geez, you’ve turned it up a notch in the past few hours.”
    “I know you’re not allowed to kill me, and you’re certainly not going to try to attack me in public. I’ve got the upper hand, and I’m surrounded by CCTV. Keep going…” 
    This is a little exciting, don’t you think. I’m getting a bit of a rush, how embarrassing. 
    “This is all just a case of mistaken identity.”
    “Oh, wonderful. I suppose that changes nothing, right?”
    “You’re in too deep now, there’s nothing you can do unless you fancy dying. It’s best to just accept it and move on with your life, I heard the same thing happened to Homecoming.”
    “Did you know her?”
    “No, not at all, but her story sounds familiar don’t you think? She inherited an apartment and her details carried over into the system, giving her an account. The rest of us were just given the opportunity through the milk tops.”
Is that why Gareth fled to London? I wish he had at least hinted at something, “does the entire organisation work out of Brog?”
    “Absolutely, City of Killers.”
    He knew this would happen, and he didn’t say a fucking thing. That colourblind bastard, how dare he push this onto me? “Have I taken Gareth’s place? Is he safe?”
     “You might want to strike ‘safe’ from your vocabulary while you’re at it,” he said, “if you were running an assassination agency, would you let people just leave?”
    How long has it been since he left? A week? Two weeks? He’s probably long dead, asshole. 
    “He didn’t have to exit the company, I assume you saw the leaderboard? He could be one of those names, I don’t think the number has gone down.”
    “I don’t want to see his face again, or I’ll… take it off.”
    “Do you want to rephrase that?” 
    I hate him. 
    I hate him so much. If he hadn’t erased his address, I’d be chasing after him and his salty coffee. Why me? Why did he bother getting close to me if all he was doing was shirking his responsibility onto me? I should’ve known the man was a sociopath from the moment I laid my eyes on his advertisement.
    “I see you’re tearing yourself up in there,” says Craig, “are you all right?”
    “It’s not all bad.”
    “Are you trying to tell me that there’s a silver lining to murder?”
    “Are you trying to tell me that some people don’t deserve to die?”
    “Sure, other murderers.”
    “All right, let me put it another way…” he pauses for a moment as a drunken collection of students pass by to enter the residence, waving to one that he recognises. “You don’t have a choice anymore, it’s kill or be killed. But you do have a choice in who you kill.”
    “Please stop using that word.”
    “Sorry, you have a choice in which job you take. If you do the research, you can make an informed decision and opt for the ‘villains’. It costs a lot of money to just get in contact with the company, let alone our reward, which means anybody paying to have somebody ‘taken down’ has a damned good reason, right?”
    “I guess?”
    “Then, there’s the rush. You might not have noticed it but I bet you’ve never felt that alive, have you? Imagine that feeling, but you’re doing the world a favour.”
    Does that make it right? I don’t know why I’m trying to justify myself, I guess there’s no choice. Not until I have more answers for now, “I can’t even fire a gun.”
    “I suppose I can give you a bit of a hand.”
    “You’re going to show me the murder ropes?”
    “I can teach you how to shoot a gun, I can teach you how to take your target down, and I can teach you how to get paid for your work.”
    “And you’re going to have to do something for me.”

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