"May I sit here?"
The young woman glanced up from her magazine, looking me up and down briefly, smiled a quick smile, and then nodded. She returned to her magazine, sipping her coffee.
I sat and took a sip of my own coffee. It was cold.
"That's an interesting tattoo you have there."
Her eyes flicked to me and then self-consciously to her wrist. On that slim wrist, between thumb and forefinger, was a perfect tattoo of Nike's Wing, coloured blue and white to look like a bird's wing complete with feathers. It was a beautiful and striking emblem of Victory. She moved her hand beneath the tabletop.
"Thank you," she said quietly, returning to her magazine.
I placed my own wrist on the table loudly, the skin slapping the surface with the smack of skin and bone. Painted clearly on the flesh of the wrist was a similar Wing of Victory.
"I have one too," I said softly, staring into her eyes which had suddenly shot up to stare directly into mine for a long hard moment.
"Good for you," she said cautiously.
"It is a remarkable coincidence, don't you think?" I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders and glanced nervously around the small café. "Yeah."
I laughed quietly. "Don't worry. I'm not some weirdo. I'm not here to hurt you or anything. I'm here to talk, that's all."
"I don't feel like talking, thanks."
"Well, that's too bad." Her voice was suddenly tinged with anger. "You can't have a conversation with yourself. I just want to drink my coffee and read this," she waved the magazine in my face, "in peace."
I held up my hands. "Ok, ok. Drink and read all you like. I'll just sit here and let you. Go right ahead. You don't have to speak to me if you don't want to."
I took another sip of my cold coffee. A shiver went up and down my spine. I glanced out of the front windows of the café.
"Not a very pleasant day today, is it?" I said amiably.
"Not really, no," she replied absently without moving her eyes from the magazine to look out the steamy windows of the diner at the cold rain out on the street.
I took a long, hard look out those windows, looking not at the rain or the weather or even the passers-by; I was looking through the rain and the weather to the building across the street. Was that window open just a crack?
I moved my attention back to the young woman. "Have you ever seen an assassination?"
Her eyes zipped up to meet mine, wide in confusion and borderline fear. "I'm sorry?"
"Have you ever seen an assassination?"
"No. Why? Are you an assassin?"
I laughed a quick laugh and picked up my coffee mug, holding it from one finger, angled away from me. I held up my other finger to tell the woman to wait.
Before she could finish her thought, the mug vanished in a splash of coffee and ceramic shards. The handle hung from my finger loosely. There had appeared a small hole in one of the café windows.
"Now you have seen an attempt," I said, putting down the mug and shrugging apologetically to the waitress looking venomously at me. I grabbed a few paper napkins from the dispenser on the table and began blotting up the cold liquid.
The young woman jumped up and stared at me, then swivelled her head to look all around her. "What the hell was that?"
"An assassination attempt," I said simply. "Please sit down. And keep your voice down."
She stared at me, mouth agape. She sat down.
"Who would want to kill you?"
I laughed. "Who wouldn't?"
"How can you laugh? Someone is trying to kill you!"
I waved a hand in dismissal. "Oh, don't worry about that. He tries every other day. So far he's missed every try."
"Do you think this is some sort of game?"
I laughed. "What else can it be? It's all a game, with winners and losers. One day, one of us will win."
"But why every other day?"
"Because I try to kill him every other day as well. He takes a shot at me one day and then I do the same the next day. It continues until one of us succeeds."
"But why? Why do you want to kill each other?"
"Why not?" asked I with a smile wry. "Why do you drink your coffee with sugar? It's a personal choice, of course."
She levelled her eyes at me. "Most people do not try and kill others. It's morally wrong."
I sighed. "Firstly, most people don't do most things. Most people are not garbage men, yet this job exists. Secondly, morality is a quaint idea in this day and age, where the world is ever-shrinking and different cultures continually clash. Add that those who proclaim themselves to be the moral leadership tend to be the most morally corrupt, and morality has become just another word. Like virgin or communist or bastard. These words don't mean anything anymore; relics of a bygone time. I suppose you're going to tell me that killing someone is morally wrong but sleeping around isn't? I'm sure I can find someone in this very café who would say that what you do is morally wrong as well."
"There are some things that are naturally wrong. Killing people is one of those things."
"Nope. Sorry. You're wrong. All you're doing is trying to make yourself seem better than me. Try and separate the two of us. That we are not alike." I levelled a finger at her. "But let me tell you something: I am exactly like you. Exact in every way. One day I was a boring, normal person with a boring, normal job- just like you. The next day I was both an assassin and a target." I stared straight into her eyes and smiled grimly. "And so can you."
It seemed for a moment as if her breathing had stopped and she was on the verge of death then and there. She paled and fell back against the seat back; her mug held limply in her fingers. She snapped out of it quickly. Her eyes steeled and body firm.
"No," she said, raising her hands and waving them at me. "Nope. Not at all. I'm not listening anymore to this." She rose form her seat and made to leave.
"Please," I cried, grabbing hold of her wrist, our tattoos almost merging. "You have to listen. I'm going to be dead soon and I need to tell someone. Please, you have to listen."
As she looked down at me, my eyes pleading for her to stay, my one link to the real and normal world, I could see her indecision, her reluctance to be dragged into my game and my affairs. She could leave me behind right now, walking out on this link to a new view on life, leaving me to die, or she could sit and become part of this wild and dangerous life from which she may never emerge alive. She knew this. I stole a glance outside the cloudy mirrored windows to the building across the street and that narrowly opened window. The muzzle of a rifle hid somewhere in that darkness behind that sill. Behind that muzzle lay a finger and a trigger, as well as the closest man I had ever known.
The kill-or-be-killed game had brought me closer to the man than I have never known with anyone else. I watch his life, his family, his meals and he watches mine. One day I am behind the rifle, my fingers on the trigger and my eye to the scope- him in the crosshair. The next day the roles are reversed.
Today I am in his scope and it is his eye behind the gun. And this girl is the only thing between us, stopping us from ending this game of death and terror.
My eye flicked back to the girl, her eyes still on mine, her hand and wing in my hand and wing, our paths crossed.
"Please," I pleaded again.
Slowly, the girl sat down again.
"What do you want me for? Why me?"
I shook my head. "As soon as I saw your tattoo, I knew it had to be you. To have the same tattoo as I have is too much of a sign for me to ignore. We were meant to meet, I'm sure of it."
"Exactly. We were fated to meet right here and right now. Over cups of coffee."
She looked around her at the surrounding café, with its customers and servers. The man in the corner who comes in every day and orders the exact same thing; the waitress who secretly hopes that someone would ask her out; the aging owner who served in the army, a time whose actions still haunt him at night; the single mother who would much rather the company of a man to the company of a mug of coffee. These people who live their lives day to day, making choices about their lives.
And here sat this girl and I, the two of us fated by destiny to meet and talk. Were we here because of our decisions or because of something bigger, greater than we could ever imagine?
She looked back to me. "If we were supposed to be here right now, what's the purpose?"
I shrugged. "Dunno. But it doesn't matter, really. We're here because we're supposed to be. No matter what we chose to do, now can only be as it has been predicted to be."
"So if I decide to leave right now, it's already been foretold? And if I decide to stay, it's the same?"
"Hypotheticals don't matter," I said. "Only actions. Whether you want to go or stay doesn't matter; only if you actually act on those feelings."
She shivered. "Ok. Fine. Whatever. What do you want to talk to me about? Am I going to be killed by this guy across the street?"
A shake of the head. "Oh no. We're not allowed to harm bystanders. On purpose, anyway," I added.
"So what do you want from me?"
"I want to talk."
I looked at the table. "I'm not sure. I just know I have to talk to someone." I held up a finger as a thought came to mind. I dug around in my coat pocket and fished out a coin. I held it up for her to see. "Head's and we talk about you. Tails we talk about me. Ok?"
The girl looked at the coin for a long moment, as if feeling the weight of her decision. "Ok," her mouth breathed softly, her eyes never wavering from the metal disc.
Suddenly the coin was in the air, moving as if in slow motion, spinning and turning and the parabolic arc of destiny; what goes up must come down. Our eyes followed the roundel up, up, up and down, down, down. It landed on the tabletop with a clang that turned heads all throughout the café, all eyes joining ours to watch the turning and dancing metal of Fate.
As it came to a rest we exhaled the breath we had both been holding.
"Ok then," she said slowly. "We talk about me."
Placing the coin back into my pocket, I nodded. I waved to the waitress and asked for two more coffees. Another glance out of the windows and I focus on the girl.
"So," she begins, "what do you want me to say?"
Our coffee arrived. "Anything. Anything you want. Tell me about you and your life. Your hopes and dreams. Aspirations. Loves. Hates. Anything."
She sipped her coffee and looked me deeply in the eye.
"I hated my parents," she said finally. "When they were alive I hated them with the intensity of the oceans. I had no one reason to hate them; I just did. It felt natural to hate them. Just like some people don't like crowds or can't stand bread crumbs in their butter, I hated my parents.
"They never really treated me badly, and always found the money to give me all that I needed, but there was never enough money to get what I wanted, you know? I had clothes and my own bedroom and food, but I never could afford the right clothes or the cool shade of lipstick. I could never fit in perfectly with the people I wanted to fit in with. And because of that I was always an outsider. I blamed my mum for being too sick to work and take care of me and I blamed my dad for not working a good enough job to give me the things that I felt I needed. Because of this I think is why I hated them the most. There were other things too, such as how my dad would chew with his mouth open, or mum would relax on the sofa with her legs spread too far apart. Little things that slowly add up over years to turn into hatred."
"Did you're parents love you?" I asked, sipping my new and warm coffee.
"Oh yes. I know they loved me. But they were who they were. Everyone has their little faults. Foibles I think is the term for them."
"What was it that you wanted from them?"
She shrugged and looked glum. "I really don't know. Perfection, maybe? Mums should be glamorous and wonderful at cooking, not sick and spending most of the day in bed. Dads should be fatherly and assertive, not indecisive and wanting to be more like a friend than a parent. They were lovely people, but that didn't stop me hating them."
"You hated yourself?"
"Of course I did. All people hate themselves, at least a little bit. I hated my parents! How do you think I felt about that?"
"So how did it all end?"
"They died," she said simply.
"Do you still hate them?"
"And you hate yourself? The imperfect daughter of imperfect parents?"
I smiled grimly. "The sins of the parents are passed onto the children."
"Yes! That's it exactly!"
I leaned back into the chair. "We all feel that. Some more than others."
"Do you feel the same toward your parents?"
"Oh yes. Don't get me wrong, I loved them dearly when they were alive, but now they have been a curse. They left me a sour legacy, you see."
"I don't understand."
I looked again to the window across the street, just beyond the girl's head. Only just in view. "My father's name carries a heavy burden. I have been forced into a life I don't want simply because of my last name. Fated, again, to act as I would rather not act."
"You said only actions matter. If you don't want to live your life like this, don't. You said so yourself. Whatever you pick is how you are meant to live."
"Hmmm," I said, thinking. "Yes, but I am damned no matter what I chose."
"Then maybe you're damned anyway. Your only option is to pick the best way out possible."
"The lesser of two evils, you mean?"
"Right," she said, nodding vigorously.
Together we sipped our drinks, the steam slowly beginning to fade as they cooled down. The rain outside seemed to have only become stronger since last checked. The windows were heavily fogged over. Somewhere behind the bar came the rumble of a cheap heater.
"What are you looking for in your life?" I asked suddenly.
She looked shocked for a moment and then settled into a pensive expression. "Dunno, really. Happiness?"
"And what would make you happy?"
"Someone who complements me."
"To make you finally perfect?"
"Yep. That's it. I need to find someone who can make me perfect. To fix the faults of my parents. Someone who can fix me."
"Have you tried looking for this person?"
"Oh yes. Every day of my life I look out for the person who could be The One."
"And what do you look for?"
She smiled in embarrassment. "I'll know when I find them. Perfection has a way of grabbing hold of you and not letting go. It makes you pay attention to it. You can't help but be sucked in, drawn to it."
"Perfection…" I mused, tracing my finger in a circle upon the table. "I wonder what that looks like?"
She shook her head. "I don't know. I've never seen it. I only hope that I will know it when I see it."
I stared her directly in her eyes and slowly said: "What if you don't recognise it when you see it? What if it passes you by?"
She closed her eyes as she thought about this. "I pray that I don't miss it."
We were silent for a moment, each buried in our thoughts. We sipped our coffee absently.
"I don't want to talk about me anymore," she announced suddenly.
"That's fine," I said. "You've said enough."
There was another moment of silence before she spoke up again.
"So this guy who's trying to kill you…"
I rested both elbows on the table, leaned forward and motioned her to do the same. Our noses were almost touching across the table, eyes taking up each other's world, the secret passing solely from one mouth to another.
"I said it was a game, and that's the truth. It's greatest game ever played. A game to the death."
"What do you win?"
I smiled. "To live."
"Is it worth the killing? You were a normal person before this, you said. Are you cut out for killing others?"
I nodded. "I was normal, but now I'm something more than most people. I'm a killer, yes, but I am living life exactly as if each day, each minute, were my last, because every day I have people trying to kill me. I'm free to do whatever I want."
"Until you are killed."
I chuckled. "Is it?"
"Of course it is! Why should you kill others for some game? You don't need the threat of death to live your life without limits!"
"Winning the game isn't important. The end of a journey is never the important part- the journey itself is important. How we play the contest is what makes us alive. Some people hide in dark corners, hoping that they can just wait out the game and survive. Others walk the streets of the cities looking for opponents to kill, actively hunting and working their way up the ladder. Then there are people like me, who live their lives to the fullest, killing those contestants we come across, but not hunting for others. I'm using the game as my excuse to live life. So is the man across the street. If he really wanted me dead, he could just walk in here and shoot me; instead he waits there in that room, waiting for me to make a move or leave the building. He knows I won't, but he waits anyway. He's taken his shot and now he could be watching me talk to you, or he might have left." I paused. "And it's not crazy, just unorthodox. Like I said, simply because most people don't do it doesn't make it wrong. Unusual maybe."
"You think he's gone?"
I shrugged. "He could be. Or he's just waiting for a good shot."
She sipped from her cup absently, leaning back and eying me. "
"Can anyone play this game?"
I could feel the smile creep upon my face. "Yes. All you have to do is accept the rules and the fact that you could die at any moment from any stranger on the street."
"How do you tell who's playing and who isn't?"
I fished into my pocket again, pulling out a small phone-sized device. I placed it on the table.
"Every player is logged in this directory. Every person on the radar is a threat and needs to be killed."
Gently, the girl picked up the machine, cradling it in her hands and gazing lovingly at it.
"So this is the key to the entire contest?"
"All you have to do is ask to join and you can be included. You will be entered into the player directory and become both a killer and a target." I paused, waiting.
As she gazed into the liquid crystal display of the small plastic device, her face took on a glow and her eyes began to shine. Her whole body seemed to change as she decided her fate.
"I want to play."
I reached over and took the device from her hands, holding it up between us, pointing its built-in camera at her face. A push of a button and a click of a lens and her face appeared on the display. I turned the machine around to show her.
"Now you can play."
She took the machine again and looked at her own image and the accompanying red dot on the radar screen.
"Keep it," I said, standing up suddenly, turning my gaze from my companion to the fogged up widows, the dark shadow of the opposite building looming large.
She quickly stood up as well, looking into my eyes. "Are you sure? Won't you need it?"
I nodded. "I'm sure."
She took my hand in hers hands, grasping it tightly. Our tattoos once again merged into one single image of Victory. And more.
Together we walked to the glass doorway, hand in hand, past the various customers huddling against the gloom and cold, past the waitress whose eyes followed us as we passed. The tiled floor squeaked under our shoes and the doorway was suddenly before us. The girl and I exchanged a look before I placed my hand upon the door handle. I slowly pushed open the door and the bullet ripped through the air, almost soundless in its path, stopping precisely where it was intended- the centre of my heart. My last thought was one of the mundane, yet strangely it gave me a sense of closure to my life: Our coffee had gone cold.