Anyone surveying the scene that evening would have found it nothing but pleasant. Trees soared into a spacious blue sky and bird songs pierced the air. Imagine, then, the surprise of the casual observer, when a man in his mid-thirties burst out of the seemingly serene forested area and onto the deserted baseball pitch. Even more incongruous, the man was wearing a dress suit with a ragged tear on the shoulder and had blood streaming from a wound on his forehead.

Gary, that was the man’s name, ran in an uneven, panicked way across the baseball diamond, his breath increasingly ragged. He chanced one glance behind him, just in time to see his pursuers emerge in a rough arrow-like formation from under the cover of the trees. They, like him, were wearing suits, but theirs were darker. The men in black, he thought of them. Had Gary not been overwhelmed by fear, he might have noticed that one of the men was bleeding from the corner of his mouth. The knowledge might even have given him a sense of grim satisfaction. But as it was, he had enough to do to keep his vision clear of the alarmingly fast-flowing river of blood.

‘Gary, come back here!’

You must be fucking kidding me.

In a move he hadn’t been sure he could execute, Gary bounded over the perimeter fence and slithered awkwardly down the other side, tearing his suit further as he went. For the first time, he felt a faint stirring of hope. He was now on a city street, which meant people, which meant safety. Surely, they wouldn’t dare … The yells of his pursuers were drowned out by the roar of the rush hour traffic and Gary felt he’d never been so glad to see his fellow humans, even if they were looking at him strangely. He chanced another swift backward glance and was dismayed to see the three men in black at different stages of scaling the fence. It seemed there was no stopping them. What the hell did they want from him?

Gary began to weave through the downtown traffic, oblivious to the blaring horns, his only thought was to get to safety. The hotel where he worked loomed up ahead of him like his own North star. He was dimly aware of his pursuers still, who had now split up in a bid to head him off.

Not taking his eyes off Gary, Boulder Starks whipped out his phone and barked out an order:

‘The target is on the move, I repeat, the target is on the move. South on Main Street. We need backup. Now!’

Oblivious to this, Gary darted through the intersection and began tearing down the sidewalk, nastily aware that one of the goons was rapidly gaining on him. In his blind panic, he tripped over an uneven paving stone and the ground hurtled up to meet him. He cursed as he landed on his hand, twisting it awkwardly beneath his body.

‘Goddamit Gary, get up!’

He scrambled to his feet, the man almost upon him. He could feel the hot breath on his neck when the Gods smiled briefly at him. A woman opened a glass shop door between the hunter and his quarry. The goon ran smack into the door, glass shattering all over the pavement. Gary just had time to see the cuts appear on the man’s face, as he fell backward, landing heavily on the sidewalk. The woman customer looked on in amazement.

‘Jeez, I knew the sales were good, but this is ridiculous.’

The woman’s voice trailed in Gary’s wake. He was on the run again, trying to pick up speed, ignoring the pain in his thighs. He couldn’t stop now. He sensed the others behind him, although he couldn’t see them. Luckily he knew these streets like the back of his twisted hand. He took advantage of this inside knowledge, dodging in and out of the side streets, still headed towards the hotel but in a zigzag pattern. He was starting to have hope again when he was tackled from behind. The two men wrestled in the dark space of the alley, the suit getting the better of Gary, punching him several times in the stomach, knocking the wind momentarily out of him.

‘What you think, you were gettin’ away from us? You won’t be runnin’ again.’

The last sentence was punctuated by another blow to the stomach. While Gary was bent double, the other man lifted his name tag and examined it. Looking up again, he saw that the name of the hotel on the tag was the same as that of the building across the street.

‘Did you really think that gettin’ to work was gonna save you?’ His phone buzzed and he pulled it out of the holder on his hip.

‘Yeah, David here.’

His hand trembling violently, Gary reached for a glass bottle that was lying on the curb.

‘I have the target. We’re on Eighth Street, over by the …’

Mustering all his remaining strength, Gary smashed the bottle across the top of the man’s skull, knocking him into a semi-conscious state. He heaved the man’s body off him and rose unsteadily to his feet.

‘Why in God’s name are you people chasing me? What in the hell do you want from me?’ Gary yelled out his frustration and his fear.

The only reply was the sound of tires screeching, as a black truck rounded the corner and mounted the pavement in front of him. Gary paused momentarily, taking in this unbelievable sight before ducking back down the alleyway and disappearing into the hotel across the street. This time he didn’t look back. If he had, he would have seen the truck skidding behind him and parking slantways in front of the hotel building. Neither did he see the four men in suits tumbling out of each door.

Boulder Starks directed his men:

‘That son of a bitch put a hurting on Dave, but he’s in the hotel now so there’s nowhere for him to run. Go get ’em!’

The men spread out as they ran into the lobby, not even trying to be discreet. Their leader rapidly approached the front desk. The receptionist regarded him with alarm, but his attention was averted, by the sound of the elevator, a ping followed by steel doors swishing open. The other men heard it too and ran towards the elevator lobby, their weapons raised in anticipation. They were too late, catching only a glimpse of Gary’s form, obscured by the lift doors as they closed in front of him.

‘Shit!’ Said Boulder. ‘You take the stairs. I’ll tell you what floor he gets off.’

His four lackeys ran to the stairwell. As they did so, Boulder’s attention was caught by a white, square card that lay on the lurid carpet. He picked it up, turned it over, and examined it. He realized it must have fallen out of Gary’s pocket.

‘Look out, he has key cards. He works here, remember?’

The number on the elevator had ceased to move, remaining static on four. ‘He’s on the fourth floor. Go!’ Boulder pressed the button frantically.

The four men exited the stairwell on the fourth floor, breathing heavily after their exertions and possibly from all the adrenaline. They collected themselves and looked around for any signs of commotion. One of the men in black, gestured silently for two of the others to go left down the hall, which they did. The two remaining men commenced a search of the rooms beside the elevator. One of the rooms had a ‘Do Not Disturb Sign’ on the door.

One man threw a questioning look at the other.

‘What d’ya think?’ He signaled to the door in question.

‘Only one way to find out.’ The other half-whispered.

‘I’m gonna get him for making me crash into that door.’ Said the man called David.

‘I’m gonna check over here.’ His companion moved down the corridor, keeping close to the wall. He entered a room that was being cleaned by a maid. She looked up, startled.

David pressed his ear firmly against the door with the do not disturb sign. He detected muffled sounds. Someone was definitely in there. He took a breath and a step back and kicked the door in. He followed the splintering sound into the room. It appeared empty at first. But:

‘Jesus H. Christ!’ David clamped his hands over his face in pain, as Gary jumped out of the bathroom and scored a direct hit of air freshener into the other man’s eyes. With a great howl of rage, David launched himself blindly at Gary and the two men began to wrestle on the freshly made bed. Despite being smaller and lighter, Gary had the advantage, David being disabled by his pain and temporary blindness. He managed to heave the larger man onto the ground.

‘What the fuck do you people want from me? I’m just a hotel Clerk, for fuck’s sake. I don’t have shit! I don’t know shit! Why me?’

‘We just want your life, Gary, that’s all. Just give us what’s inside you and we can all go home.’

‘My life? You bastards want to kill me …?’

Gary’s incredulity soon gave way to fury as he kicked David as hard as he could in the head. He would have continued if another man hadn’t burst into the room. He flew at Gary and they began to fight in earnest. The new man had the advantage at first, but Gary managed to trip him. There was a sickening thud as the goon’s head connected with the corner of a table on his way down. Gary staggered to his feet. His heightened senses picked up the sound of the elevator as it reached the fourth floor. There couldn’t possibly be more of them! But even as he had this thought, Gary knew that there could be. He looked out of the open door. A man he recognized was walking out of the elevator, relentlessly towards him. He was the one whose lip Gary had bloodied earlier. This seemed like hours ago now, so much had happened in between, but it was probably no more than thirty minutes since their bodies had last collided.

The two men locked eyes and Boulder Starks started to run towards Gary, who shut the door urgently and pressed all his weight against it. He felt pushed helplessly forward as the man rammed his own body repeatedly against the flimsy wooden barrier. Gary heard him call out.

‘I got him over here, come on! Nowhere to hide Gary, you might as well give up. You’re coming with us whether you like it or not.’

Gary looked around wildly for a means to escape. On the other side of the door, Boulder Starks registered the reappearance of his three colleagues. Two came together from around the corner, one was alone, zipping up his pants. Boulder didn’t want to know.

He became aware that several occupants from the other hotel rooms were sticking their noses out to have a look.

‘Y’all better mind your own business, if you know what’s good for you.’

His threatening manner was sufficient to make even the bravest of onlookers withdraw. Boulder turned his attention to his comrades.

‘Don’t just stand there looking at me, kick the goddamn door down, he’s on the other side.’

One of them commenced kicking the door mechanically, but it just wouldn’t budge. He looked at Boulder for direction and Boulder signaled to him to try again. Still nothing.

‘Gary, what you trying to pull, man? You know you can’t stay in there forever,’ Boulder turned back to his men. ‘You two – ram it.’

The other two stepped back into the hallway. Then on the count of three, they ran at the door with all their might. They managed to break the top half, but not without causing injury to themselves. As they stood groaning and doubled over, Boulder pushed them out of his way and climbed through the top of the door and into the room.

Inside was bedlam. A dresser was turned over, in an obvious attempt to block the door. David was lying in a crumpled heap on the floor, blood escaping from unknown locations, while the other man seemed barely conscious at all. Boulder drew his gun and started his search. It wasn’t long before he heard a sound outside the window. He ran to it and stuck his head out. He could clearly see Gary running towards the metro center.

‘Fuck!’

Boulder got on his phone while his semi-conscious colleague struggled into an upright position.

‘The target is on the move again, towards the downtown metro center. I don’t know the fucking name of the street, do I?!’ it came out as a bellow, ‘Just get there quick as you can.’

Boulder climbed out of the window and mirrored Gary’s route down the fire escape. He jumped the last few rungs and ran purposefully towards the metro center. Then the first sign of hesitation as he realized he’d lost his prey. Two trucks pulled up alongside him and more men, darkly clothed, approached Boulder Starks.

‘Where did he go?’

‘I dunno. Bastard could be anywhere by now.’

The two men hardly noticed the bus that was pulling away from the metro center and driving towards the freeway.

Gary crouched low at the front of the bus, attempting to catch his breath.

‘You okay, man?’ The bus driver eyed him suspiciously.

‘Not really. There are people after me.’

‘What did you do? I can’t have no criminal on my bus.’

‘I’m not a criminal, you’ve got to believe me. And these men are no police. I got home from work and they were waiting for me in my house.’

The driver examined Gary carefully. He took at his ripped clothing and the name tag with the hotel name on it. Something told him to give this man the benefit of the doubt.

‘Well, get to the back of the bus and stay down.’ He said finally.

‘Thank you.’ Breathed Gary. Perhaps luck was with him at last.

He crept down the center of the bus, doing his best to avoid the stares of the other passengers. He didn’t blame them, he must look a mess, with his torn clothes and numerous lesions. It was with enormous relief that Gary reached the back of the bus and sat in a vacant seat. He leaned into it and closed his eyes. Could it really be true that this nightmare was finally coming to an end?

Meanwhile, a large black truck pulled up to the left of the bus. Seconds later, a replica pulled up alongside the right. The windows of both vehicles were shaded, but you could tell that someone was looking in. They drove in near-perfect synchronicity, parallel to the bus. From behind the darkened, bulletproof window, Boulder spotted Gary. He signaled to his driver, who accelerated noisily and positioned the truck in front of the bus.

Gary chose this moment to open his gritty, blood-shot eyes. They shot open as he saw the bus accelerate. He looked wildly around him, only to see the other vehicle to the right. Gary pounded the seat in front of him in frustration.

‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me! What is this?’

He half rose from his sitting position and began to look around frantically for a means to escape. Out on the freeway, the other truck had also pulled in front of the bus, forcing the driver to brake violently. Many of the passengers cursed as they fell forward and a cacophony of horns emanated from the cars traveling behind them, as they swerved to avoid rear-ending the bus and each other.

The dreaded men in suits, Boulder Starks at their fore, got out of the trucks en masse and moved to the entrance of the bus. The driver peered out at them, thinking he’d had better days. The man directly in front of the door – their leader, he thought – addressed him:

‘Open the door.’

The driver urgently shook his head. Boulder drew his large gun and pointed it squarely at the other man’s head.

‘Open the goddamn door.’

The driver opened the door.

Boulder stepped onto the bus. ‘Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?’

Gary watched all this from his seat at the back. Outwardly, he appeared calm. His inner workings were a different matter. He caught the driver’s eye in the rear-view mirror – his panicked expression. Then he switched his gaze to the man in black, who was walking deliberately and menacingly towards him. He spoke to Gary now, a sardonic grin distorting his features.

‘Whoa, Gary. You are a hard man to pin down.’

‘Who are you and what do you want from me? I’ve done nothing wrong. I don’t bother anyone but my ex-wife.’

Gary remained like a coiled spring as the man sat a few seats away from him, casually arranging his body.

‘The name’s Boulder Starks. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.’

‘I’d like to know why you guys are trying to kill me.’

‘To be honest, if I wanted you dead I would have shot your ass back at your house when you tried to break Steve’s face in, just like I could just pop you in the head right now. Truth is, I got a client that needs you alive.’

‘For what?’

‘I don’t tend to get into details. They tell me who they want and I go get ’em. For some reason, they want your sorry ass alive and they’re paying me and my men big bucks. So let’s go.’

‘I’m afraid I can’t do that.’

‘The game’s up, Gary. You may as well come quietly. I’ll make you sorry if you …’

Gary wasn’t sticking around to hear any more. He sprang from his seat and pulled the emergency latch on the window in one swift movement, then jumped right out of the bus.

‘Shit!’

Boulder launched himself at the window, but Gary swung it wildly back at him, scoring a direct hit on his pursuer’s chin. With adrenaline coursing through his veins, Gary ran down the median. A few seconds later, Boulder leaped out of the doors of the bus, the other men joining him in an uneven chase. In desperation, Gary took a chance and bolted across the freeway. The others tried to follow but the rush hour traffic proved too much. One of them yelled out in anger.

‘That lucky son of a bitch! I ain’t letting him get away.’

He pulled out his gun and began shooting wildly. Which was unfortunate for the driver of the tractor-trailer who was about to get in his way.

The driver was having an imaginary conversation with his favorite playboy model who was pinned up in the tractor interior when he was distracted by the bizarre sight of Gary running in his direction.

‘What in the hell is that guy running from?’

But before he had the chance to formulate his thoughts, a bullet shattered his windscreen and hit him in the shoulder. In a panic, the driver turned the wheel hard, which led him on a direct path with the wall, just at the second when Gary was running by.

Gary didn’t stand a chance.

The tractor crushed him like a tomato, before crashing dramatically through the wall.

Boulder watched on helplessly and yelled. ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’

He took out his gun and pounded the shooter with the handle.

‘Craig, you stupid mutha fucker! What you go and shoot him for?’

He ended this sentence with a kick in Craig’s stomach.

‘We needed his ass alive.’

‘He was getting away.’

Boulder pointed his gun at Craig and then thought better of it. He roared out in rage and ran towards the tractor instead. He was joined by some of the other men. Breathless, they explored the site of the crash for remnants of Gary’s body.

‘Maybe he got away.’ Suggested one of the men.

‘Don’t be such a fucking idiot, how could anyone survive that?’

Boulder questioned for the umpteenth time why he had to be surrounded by such incompetent morons. Then he spotted Gary’s arm on the side of the road.

‘And I don’t think the dude would leave his arm behind.’

Wearily, Boulder reached for his vibrating phone.

‘Yeah, this is Starks. We were unable to secure the target.’ He paused to allow the other side of the conversation. ‘Yeah. It’s a ninety-seven percent loss. Everything crushed but his arm.’ Another pause. ‘What do you mean, what do I mean? Crushed, man. Like apple sauce.’ Boulder examined his shoes, pristine when he put them on this morning, as he shuffled his feet on the sidewalk. ‘Yeah. We’re on our way to the client right now.’