Home > The Trap (The Hunt #3)(17)

The Trap (The Hunt #3)(17)
Author: Andrew Fukuda

“I’m sorry,” she says as we sit down. “It just got to me. Too many of them, penning us in. The air went thin, I felt suffocated.”

“It’s okay. Let’s take a minute to regroup.”

She takes slow, deep breaths. Shakes her head in frustration, catches herself. “Thought I was stronger than this,” she says, a hoarse whisper issuing from her throat. “What’s wrong with me?”

“You’re not used to it. Listen, we can stay together. Maybe it was a foolish idea to separate.”

But she’s already shaking her head. “No. We stick to the original plan.”


She touches my hand. Withdraws it quickly, remembering. “No, Gene. We decided it was best. You in the upper levels. Me down on the floor. You take her out with the sniper, make a quick getaway. If you miss, or your sniper jams, or . . .”—she bites her lip for just a second—“I’ll take her out.”

“That’s not going to happen, Sissy.”

“We just have to—”

“I won’t let it happen. I won’t miss. I’m not going to make you take the shot on the floor because we know what that means. Down there, you have no escape.”

“I know. But we should plan for every exigency.” She brushed her hair to the side. “Regardless of how it goes down, we try to meet out front by the fountain. And worse comes to worst, we’ll meet back at the boulders in the desert.”

I want desperately to run my hand under her jawline where the hardness of bone and softness of flesh meet. But all I can do is stare at my stationary hands.

“We should check the TT,” she says after a while.

I take out the TextTrans. Nothing. I type out a quick message.

Epap, we’re at the CC. Where are you?

It’s risky to give away our position like this, and my finger hovers over the SEND button, hesitating.

But Sissy urges me to send it. “It’s the right move,” she says. “Maybe his TT’s broken, can receive but not send messages. If that’s the case, we need to let him know we’re here. Give him at least a chance of connecting with us.”

“You really think he might be here?”

She nods. “If he wasn’t able to kill her last night—and judging from the fact that the event is still on, he didn’t—he’d want to come here. For the very reason we’re here: she’s here.” Sissy nods. “Let’s send it. Play big, win big.” She taps on SEND.

Or lose big, I think, but don’t verbalize.

Behind us, the crowds grow larger by the minute. Their footsteps are thunderclaps bouncing off the walls and ceiling.

Sissy half-turns to look at them. Under the table, she clenches my hand tighter.

“This is not something we didn’t anticipate,” I say.

“I know. But this is so much worse than I thought it’d be.”

I lean closer to her. “We can still leave. Just forget about—”

“No. Let’s do this.”


She nods, tensely.

Someone sits at the table next to us. The food court is getting crowded, filling with people who walked here on empty stomachs. “We should move on,” I say reluctantly. “Before we attract any attention.”

Her hand squeezes mine one more time before letting go. “But this is where we part ways, Gene.”

“Don’t put it like that.”

A flicker of a smile. “I’ll see you later then, okay?” she says.


But neither of us moves. We don’t want to separate.

Using her body as cover, she takes out her handgun and pockets away a silencer. “We stick to the plan, Gene. Don’t deviate, okay?” She slides the gun into her the waist of her pants, pulls her shirt over the bulge. “See you in a bit.”

I nod, not trusting my voice.

One last look at me, and then she parts. I want to grab her hand, stop her from leaving. But I stay rock still, arms lashed to my sides, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. She walks along the edge of the crowd—to her, it must feel like touching the sharp edge of a razor—then disappears into it like a raindrop into a river. She is there, and then she is gone.

A minute later, I join the masses. My feet fall in step with theirs. I want to catch a glimpse of Sissy ahead, but it is all darkness. I walk on, backpack slung over one shoulder, unable to shake the thought that, in letting Sissy go, I’ve made a fatal mistake.


COMING OUT OF the tunnel, the throng of thousands moves efficiently and quietly along slate-gray walkways. At every level, thousands leave the ramp to find their sections on that floor. By the time I’m on the fifth and top level, the crowd has noticeably thinned.

I clutch the strap of the backpack. A different sort of crowd up here, better dressed, with more airs about them. The men in ritzy suits with wide velvet lapels, the women garbed in the luxuriant colors and swanky dresses of the affluent. The cream of society rising to the top where it’s all about private luxury suites.

And not a Visor in sight. Other than mine, of course.

The layout of the arena is a mystery to me, and I’m unsure which doors lead where. When an announcement comes over the PA system that the event will start in five minutes, I start to panic a little. I don’t know how to get to the rafters. I quickly decide to go to plan B: find an empty suite. Private and isolated, the suites are actually the perfect places to set up for the kill. I can still sight the target from a high vantage point. Then pull the trigger, drop the target, and escape quickly by merging with the panicking crowds.

The only problem is finding an empty suite. This is a packed event, and every suite I walk past is either fully occupied or fast getting there. I quicken my pace. A little too quickly. From the corners of my eyes, I observe two staffers conversing, their heads swiveling around to study me. They see a person walking too fast, whose attire and demeanor don’t fit in with the upper-crust denizens of the Luxury Level. Who’s wearing a Visor. Indoors.

I slow my pace, walk around the natural bend of that level. Once out of their view, I move faster, legs scissoring past each other with contained panic. My eyes again cut into every suite I pass, wishing for a miracle I know will not come. There’s little hope of finding an empty suite.

An announcement is suddenly made over the speakers. “One more minute. Take your seats.”

The small clusters of people milling about disappear into their suites. Leaving me virtually all alone and completely exposed.

There’s one suite coming up. Unlike the others, the door is closed. As I draw nearer, the words The Palace embroidered in gold letters come into view. It’s empty, I think to myself. It’s got to be empty. The Ruler, his staffers, they’re all stuck in the Vast, unable to journey on such short notice. I turn the knob. And like a gift, the door opens.

I glide in, shut the door quickly. Take off the Visor. The suite is empty, the air undisturbed. I press my ear against the door. Footsteps outside, too hurried to be anyone’s but the security staff following me. The footsteps march quickly past the door, fade away. It’ll be minutes before they circle back, if ever.

I take in the suite. It’s larger than expected, perhaps the size of two typical suites, with a bar in the rear, velvet sleepholds on the ceiling, a sliding glass door that opens to two rows of cushioned exterior seats that peer into the arena. The dim lights go dark, enshrouding me in black. The show is beginning.

I slip through the door to the exterior rows of seats. Glance over the edge into the arena.

Only the stage is lit, dimly, an orb of faint gray gleaming off the bare floor. The arched glass roof of the arena, usually smoothly concaved like a dome, appears oddly granular and bumpy. It takes a minute to realize why: there are hundreds, thousands, of balloons bunched up there. I know what they have planned. At the cl**ax of the evening’s event, they’ll drop all the balloons. It’ll be quite the spectacle: thousands of colorful orbs descending to the floor while tinted moonlight beams down through the domed glass.

From the suites to my left and right, soft sounds. Clinking of wineglasses, restrained whispers of conversation. I edge back from the edge, not wanting to be seen, and slink into the second row. A good place to set up for the kill undetected.

The master of ceremonies takes the stage. He’s yammering on, but I’m not paying attention. I need to focus on the task at hand. I take out the sniper rifle. Screw on the hollow, cylindrical silencer. Load and chamber two rounds. There won’t be time to clear the shell casing, then load and chamber a third one. Pandemonium will ensue quickly, and I’ll have to drop everything and book out of here in two seconds flat.

It hits me then, that this cool, clean weapon in my hands is the very instrument that will bring death to Ashley June. That the bullet will smash through her head, whipping past the fall of her auburn hair. I remember all those years in high school when I’d sat behind her in the classroom, how I’d longed to reach out and touch her hair. I think back to not long ago, back at the Heper Institute, the night of the Gala when we’d lain next to each other and I stroked her hair. I remember how those silky strands felt like a miracle, the warmth of her hand in mine, the lilt of her voice in my ears.

Applause breaks out from the crowd of thousands, deafening and raucous. They’re alive, not just images on a screen. They’re alive, they’re here, everywhere around me, and the thought, cold and wet, prickles my skin. I stare down into the stage floor, a pit of blackness. Somewhere in that mass of thousands stands Sissy. How many times has she been inadvertently bumped, touched, had skin grazed across hers? How many times has she stifled a flinch, scream, jolt?

The master of ceremonies’ voice is rising, building into an excited crescendo. I hear his words in the back of my mind, distant, as if miles away. He’s talking about the Heper Hunt; he’s talking about the hunters; he’s talking about Ashley June. The winning hunter, that’s what they’re calling her now, the Valiant Victoress. The audience is impatient, starts clapping in rhythm, faster, louder, feet stomping the floor on every level.

Somewhere down there, Sissy is mimicking everyone around her. Trying to stay apace with the claps and foot stomps. One mistimed clap, one stomp too late, and eyes will turn, heads will pivot. Noses will twitch.

I should never have let her go alone.

I shake my head. Can’t let these thoughts distract me. Let my mind slip one millimeter and that misaligned trajectory will send my shot a meter off-target. Need to blank my mind, sharpen my focus. Because if I miss, Sissy dies.

The arena lights dim further. Only one spotlight blazes through the darkness, a hazy beam that hits the side of the stage.

A figure steps into that light. A pearly white luminescence, and a cascade of red lava flowing from the top. That is all I see at first: red and white, brilliant, stark, vibrant.

It is Ashley June. In a crisp white frock, a pair of satin white pumps. And her hair, more voluminous and longer than I remember, a deep pulsating redness emanating from it. She walks to the center of the stage with confidence, her strides sure-footed and brisk. No shades. But something off about her eyes. She’s holding something in her hand, small enough to almost fit into her palm. She stares up at the audience, drinks in the sight of tens of thousands of her new, adoring fans. She’s a natural at this celebrity thing.

I kneel into position, place the barrel of the sniper rifle on the top of the seat in front, stare down the scope. Thumb the focus wheel slowly. Trying to locate Ashley June, finding her, the blurred, bloated outline of her body crystallizing into sharp clarity.

She is so close, she is only an arm’s length away. Her skin is an iridescent white, her hair the color of a rose in bloom. She is glowing. Her beauty has ripened. She seems more real, more alive, than in all the years I’ve known her.

My hands tremble. I lose her in the sight.

She starts speaking in that inimitable voice that is both sweet and seductive. Except her voice is huskier now, more textured than before.

I close my eyes, inhale. Find her in the scope again, center her within the crosshairs. My index finger drifts along the trigger, curling around the metallic curve. I begin to pull.

Ashley June speaks, her head moving left to right and back left, along every level of the arena. Establishing eye contact with thousands, making every person feel personally touched. Even as I feel her eyes reach the Luxury Level, even as they careen toward my suite, I can’t move. I’m frozen. My finger, pressed white against the trigger, comes to a stop.

She is not Ashley June. She has only the outward form, but Ashley June is no more. This is a mercy killing. Take her out now. Take it out. Put it out of its misery. Before its eyes swing around, center on me, before it puts me in its crosshairs. Because although everything is dark as night to me, it is clear as day for her.

Pull the trigger. Pull the trigger, already.

I can’t. My finger’s locked into place. Or maybe it is the trigger, maybe it’s stuck. I pull harder, feel the trigger shift minutely. Any moment now, any split moment, and the sniper will recoil in my hands.

Its eyes swing across my suite. Then stop. For a split second, I think it sees me, its eyes meeting mine through the scope. Black beads for eyes staring at me. It is wearing black contact lenses to protect against the dim spotlights. The hair on my neck rises. A connection, thick as corded rope, forms between us. I feel it as palpably as the cold metal in my hands. Ashley June on the other side, tugging. Then her eyes shoot past me, past my suite, to the one next to mine.

Take her out. Take it out. Plug it.

But my finger can’t seem to move.

Then a realization. Thumps me in the back of my head.

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