Surviving my shoot-out required good posture. I took my usual stance, feet shoulder width apart, hand at the ready next to the holster. High Afternoon. Okay, I made up that phrase, because we can't duel at High Noon like in that old black-and-white movie. Not as easy as gunfights in the Old West. We have law and order here in Richmond, Commonwealth of Virginia, a part of the Old South.
[High Noon Scenes]
I know, I know. Guns and I don't mix. But last time I saved the world, this creep fired twelve shots at me. TWELVE. And I could do nothing. NOTHING. Better safe than mega sorry. No. Terra sorry!
To pretty up the ew, I dressed the part of a cowgirl. Right down to the hat. Not one with a giant crown like a Cattleman or Carlsbad. My five foot one and a quarter inches could drown in those. I wore a ladylike petite flat Gaucho hat. Matching my hot pink ponytails, natch (as in “naturally”—when you code programs all day, you obvi save characters whenever possible). Had to settle for a Halloween-costume version in a paler color, but it came with cute white lace strung around the brim. Perfect for my white-and-blush dress. Hello Kitty couldn't stand prouder herding cats.
The bright halogen bulbs hanging from the warehouse ceiling added to the heat burning in my chest. Meeting face-to-face brought with it bigger risks than just fashion faux-pas.
We couldn't do this outside. Never mind the cold and rain in April. We probably broke half a dozen laws, the anti-dueling statute included. Virginia outlawed them two-hundred years ago. As a precaution, the kids I battled with only knew me by my handle, my hacker name, Cowabunga Dude, or CD for short.
To hide our tracks, if we needed to make a quick getaway, we used standard equipment traceable to no one. The ugly rawhide pouch and belt also sorta made things fair. Even Gigasploit, with all his daddy’s money, couldn't buy a win.
Better for the two girls in the group already handicapped by going against boys raised on horrible first-person shooters. Bad enough that the long belt left the holster hanging low on my right hip no matter how high I pulled the other side. Got used to it.
Focus. Flexing my fingers warmed them up for the showdown. My pinky joint crackled from the tension.
Gig acted out his best Lone Ranger impression in a blue shirt, red hanky around his neck, and a white Stetson—a real one. No mask. He probably wanted to wear it. Age fifteen, he was the baby of the Ad Astra Hacker Club. Okay, I come in second with only a year and two months (precisely 6.627% of my life) on him.
But the rest of our members weren't that childish. Most played hooky from college (me included). The price for finding new friends after that creep wasted my online hacker buddies last year. Don't want to think about it.
I know. I joined a hacker group in real life. Me. With boys. IRL. After all that happened in school. But surviving a hellfire missile in my secret mission for POTUS, the President of the United States, built courage. I could take on anyone. Almost.
Fair fight. Gig and I stood equally tall. Not that size mattered here.
I waited for the signal, ready to snatch the black grip. Had a rep—as in reputation—to lose. The other eight kids' eyes bore into my back. Maybe sweat ran down Gig's face too. My gaze fixed on the area that counted.
For this round, M0sc0wb0y, our fearless leader with a Russian accent, handled the formalities. “Ready.”
The howling theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly haunted my head. I'd studied all the famous onscreen duels. One shot. One chance. One win. All or nothing.
[Experience the Song]
Calm down. Cold air filled my lungs and quenched the flames. Free your mind and your body will follow. Blankness took over.
Quick draw. Point. Hold my breath. Pull the trigger. Yank the plastic pistol down to increase my chance of hitting something.
Two laser beams shot across the smooth concrete of the loading dock. Almost simultaneous beeps announced both hits. The different angles of the light told the tale. The wannabe Lone Ranger next to me had chickened out. Aimed for the safe area—and a low score.
Standing tall like Mommy taught me, I blew imaginary smoke from the tip of the bar code scanner. “Deputy Marshal Kitty Earp always gets her mango.” My markswomanship rivaled the Old West lawman famous for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but I couldn't really call myself “Wyatt” while playing this game.
I handed the gun to M0sc0wb0y. His finger caressed the back of my hand. Just a light touch. Accidental perhaps. Sparks raced up my arm and caused a jerky withdrawal. Involuntarily. Perhaps.
He checked the displays. “Gig's peachy, but CD nailed the mango again.”
We didn't play uncool and dangerous games where we shoot at each other. A laser in the eye could cause mega damage. This place had industrial-strength scanners. They coulda hit the top pallet on a four-level rack if those fit in this one-story building. Some manager bought a wet dream of expansion.
When we discovered that the soup kitchen closed after lunch, we kinda invited ourselves in. A worn-out lock on a skylight helped, so technically we didn't commit breaking and entering. We just borrowed the space for fun and games in person rather than just meeting online. It also let us take advantage of their inventory in the warehouse behind the storefront, but only for target practice. No stealing from those in need. Or bothering anybody.
Most of the square building held long metal racks and huge refrigerators full of foodstuff. A few windows let us see outside—and allowed passersby to snoop. Fortunately, a lawn separated us from the street. Plus, we stayed as far in the back as possible, where the aroma of oregano, garlic, and cornmeal summoned Mommy’s Italian-American aura to watch over me.
Separated by the customary twenty short paces, each shooter faced a pyramid of stacked fruit cans with barcodes showing. Edges, including the seven-can base, consisted of pineapple topped with a solitary mango. Peaches made up the inner triangle with a single cherry center. The heart gave the second most points, twenty, since a bad aim might still hit another fruit. Only the best risked shooting the surrounding air by targeting the head for thirty. Those hitting the non-vital skin earned a measly five.
Dragone, our second in command and official scorekeeper, added the results on his tablet computer. The legendary creature in his handle hinted at his Chinese heritage. He competed with me for best fashion sense. His tight black slacks and ankle booties would fit in at any hip New York City nightclub.
“Cowabunga leads by fifteen.” The app he'd coded showed the tally, complete with colored fruit symbols for every hit making up the score.
Ad Astra Hacker Club
Laser Canned Tournament
1. Cowabunga Dude 255 🥭🥭🥭🥭🥭🥭🥭🥭🍑🍍
2. M0sc0wb0y 240 🥭🥭🥭🥭🥭🍒🍒🍒🍒🍑
3. Dragone 225 🥭🥭🥭🥭🍒🍒🍒🍒🍒🍍
4. Gigasploit 205 🥭🥭🥭🍒🍒🍒🍒🍒🍑🍍
No surprise who led the rankings. I learned from the best Spaghetti Westerns. That, and a lot of practice.
Time to visit my babies. “I need a break.” A table held my pale-classic-rose laptop bag and a small, tubular pet carrier. Don't leave home without them. In front sat my white, double-walled plastic tumbler decorated with Hello Kitty stickers. Amazing how each duel parched my throat. I toasted and chugged the water like a fine barrel-aged whisky. Tasted the same to me in my imagination. Didn't know much about hard drinks.
[On the Table]
My fan club surrounded me and complimented my score. The tongue-tied boys usually expressed their admiration with thumbs up or other gestures. Not sure how I should react to them. Both girls in the club got a lot of attention.
The other kids didn't get why I hung out in front of the huge refrigerators with polished steel doors. A paranoid girl needs her mirrors, and not just to check her mascara. I could also eavesdrop on convos behind my back by turning my head slightly.
In the reflection, Gig sidled up to our leader. “Moscow.” His hushed words barely covered the nervous cracking of his knuckles.
“What's up, Gig?” In preparation for the next duel, M0sc0wb0y wiped a scanner pistol clean with a blue microfiber rag he brought from home. More hygienic. And left no fingerprints. Just saying.
“Er, are you two, er, is she…”
“I wish. CD had some bad experiences with boys.” The scanner joined its twin on the table. “Are you interested?”
Even in the fuzzy image, Gig’s red-faced silence could compete with the pale tomatoes left to ripen next to him.
M0sc0wb0y pointed at my fan club. “Line starts there.”
It’s complicated. I really liked our glorious leader. Tall. Smart. Debonair (learned that from a romance novel). And so much older than me. Twenty-two. He had no idea MIT accepted me into their computer science program at sixteen. With a generous donation from my parents, I could take all my courses online. No more bullying. Middle and high schoolers don't like the smartest girl in class.
He did call me by my nickname. Mega plus.
Police sirens invaded my non-romance. My heart jumped higher than during any duel, despite all our prep. No drill compared to the real thing. The temperature inside reached boiling point.
Visible through the glass door of the store, a black sport utility vehicle with flashing lights stopped at the curb. Two stereotypes in suits and sunglasses sat in front. Heat rose to my head. Seen it before. Absolute worst case. And total overkill. Federal Bureau of Investigation. If the Fibbies only knew that they'd cornered kids playing fruity games.
“Code Red! Code Red!” Dragone alerted all delinquents at the top of his lungs.
Everybody rushed for their designated door or window. Leave it to our general to have planned out the most efficient escape for a dozen hackers trapped in this building.
M0sc0wb0y’s hot hand pulled me toward our way out.
“Wait. My babies!” I broke free and snatched the laptop bag and pet carrier. Clutching them close, I followed my knight in shining leather jacket to the side door.
A glance out the small window showed the deadly flaw in his plan. He'd assigned us an exit next to the front entrance, close to his BMW. Fifteen long steps in the line of sight of the two agents coming from the SUV. My punishment for his brain fog from many all-nighters hacking away at something. He wouldn't tell. And I'd never find out once we have separate cells. Not to mention, Mommy having a heart attack when she got the news. Could it get any hotter in here? Yes.
M0sc0w pulled out his remote starter. Seriously? Outrun the Fibbies and race them in his Bimmer (Don't get me started—purists like him only call the motorcycles “Beamers”)? Sweat seeped through my dress before my feet even took a step.
Rattling noises came from the other side of the dry wall. Not much protection against real bullets.
Lucky break. Instead of smashing the locked glass door, the incompetent agents disappeared around the corner. No backup to guard our escape route. Yay.
We bolted into the open. Ten steps to go.
The backdoor of the SUV swung open. Trapped. The Fibbies had hidden backup. “Cowabunga Dude.” A familiar voice shouted my name.
All that drama for nothing. My heart went from hundred to zero in 1.4 seconds. He still did that to me. “Derek?” Could my relationships get any more complicated, please? My first crush shall remain banished from my mind. Then came Derek. Digital Media Director turned staffer to POTUS. And married. 'Nuff said. I know how to pick 'em.
To the deafening sound of my heart pounding in my ears, he leaped from the SUV and came over, my maybe-boyfriend eyeing him with suspicion. Lovely. A jealousy drama where neither of the two knew the tingles that swept through me each time I saw them. Someday I'll tell one of them. Perhaps.
Derek deserved a jab to his ribs for scaring me.
As a Southern belle, I only elbowed out a polite nudge. “You! Mega heart-attack.”
“I'm sorry. It's an emergency.”
Once again, his crisis became my problem, with the two men now facing each other.
Derek, veteran of many political fights, hid his emotions behind a stone façade, despite my fearless leader's eyes launching deep, penetrating scans into him.
Maybe an introduction could wipe away the awkwardness. “My, er, friend Moscowboy, leader of our hacker club.” I then turned to my maybe-boyfriend. “Derek and I fought in the trenches of the presidential campaign.” Too early in our relationship for more details.
Dragone’s Acura and two other cars sped out of the side street and off in different directions. From a safe distance, a handful of kids on bikes and skateboards watched.
“Can we talk?” Derek pointed to the SUV.
I signaled M0sc0wb0y to stay back and took the remaining seven steps to my doom.
Derek slammed the door shut. “The President asked for you.” His eau de cologne filled the small space. Pungent with a note of bergamot, like a fresh, hot cup of Earl Grey tea spiced with lemon.
“Heidi? Why?” Risking my life for my country once ought to suffice. Even among best friends forever.
“It’s so top-secret, those guys will smuggle us into the White House.” His thumb pointed through the darkened rear window at the agents trotting back to the car.
“Just like that?”
“You didn't answer your phone. We had to trace its signal to here.”
“No pockets.” I pointed at my dress. Even my moronic hero couldn't disregard a girl’s fashion reality.
“You're old enough for something more ... adult.” Or maybe he could.
“Pink isn't just a color. It's an attitude.” And my boys found my clothes sexy.
“Not tonight. I brought you an evening gown. Size two, right?” Something long and burgundy in a clear dry-cleaning bag lay on the leather seat next to him.
“A gown?” Obvi sexy didn't count tonight. Not that I had a choice. My closet contained nothing for such a formal occasion. I had no clue what to get. No time to fetch Mommy for her expert fashion opinion either. At least he got the size right. Helps that his wife Melody shared my height.
“It's the White House.”
True. Mommy would expect me to show decorum in the Prez's home. But. “Last time I helped you, bombs and hellfire came down on me.” Some things a girl doesn't forget. Or forgive. Even for chocolates. Which he failed to bring, natch.
“No comparison. It's all computer forensics work. Perfectly safe.”
“I don't know.” My prior sheroics earned me half a night’s stay at a luxury hotel. Nothing more. Other than the friendship of my idol Katy Perry. Even so.
“Heidi promised a pair of glasses as reward.”
“I don't need glasses.”
“Very special glasses.”
Charmer. Curiosity wouldn't kill this KatyCat. But I couldn't abandon Heidi in her hour of need (#BFF).
On my terms, though. I earned it. So I held up the pet carrier by its handle. Guinea pig eyes stared through the nylon mesh. “Katy has to come along. She goes frantic without me. Separation anxiety.”
Pink pet carrier, $15. Purple hair highlights, $6. Red-faced Derek, priceless.