[The Game] When Michael Met Claudia

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'Listen, I think we'd have fun. You know, together?'
'You mean you think we'd end up having sex?'
'No. No no. Not at all. Sex never even entered my head. I never said a thing about sex...'
'You didn't have to. You've been staring at my tits the whole time we've been talking.'
'I have not.'
'Yes you have.'
'I have no... I was watching your hands to make sure you wouldn't hit me again. Look it. I just want you to have a drink with me.'
She sighed. 'Well, I need to think about it,' she said, pausing for a moment. 'Okay, I've thought about it. No.'
'Okay. Not quite the reaction I was hoping for' he said, wiping the blood from his mouth and considering the stain on his coat sleeve. He glanced back up, just in time to see her dive over the side of the building.
'Oh for fuck's sakes...'

Chapter 12

"You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else"
- Albert Einstein

Press play

Cardenio, present day.

'You ready?' Gabriel asked.
'Born ready' Michael replied with a waggle of the eyebrows. As they spoke, Victoria fitted his earpiece, switched his pocket watch on and generally fussed over him like he was about to go into mortal combat.
'I'm okay really' Michael told her.
'I'll be the judge of that' she said, pulling his waistcoat tighter, securing a strap at the back which held a metal tube in place.
She patted her hand on it. 'It's there if you need it'.
'Jesus this feels like a corset' he said.
'Worn a lot of corsets have you?' she asked.
'May have'
'Yeah, can we concentrate?' Gabriel said, 'Now, don't get cocky. Remember what I said: observe only. Just jump, find your way there, observe the exchange, do what you have to do and get yourself home via the jumplink at the museum, ok?'
'Rape, murder and pillage. Got ya'
'Michael? Please try to take this seriously'
'I am taking this seriously. I'm nervous. I make jokes when I get nervous'
'You've nothing to be nervous about. It's simple: observe record and do not interact. We're not interested in what's in the bag as much as where it goes. This stuff is getting through and we need to know how. Use your knowledge of the city to help you. You'll be there in the middle of Fallas so there'll be plenty of distractions to shield you when you get there. Maria will be here at Cardenio, monitoring your every move. We can hear what you hear and see what you see via the camera in your button hole. Just keep the watch turned on at all times. That's your transmitter. If you need guidance, directions, or well, if anything goes weird, you call for help. I said, you call for help. Got it?'
'Got it' said Michael.
'Okay' said Gabriel slapping him across the shoulder and turning him to the painting on the wall. It was a painting by Ignacio Pinazo Camarlench.
'All going well, you should jump into the city somewhere near the Turia riverbed. It'll be bedlam. Fireworks, hippies, cops, screaming and boozing'
'I remember. I used to live there'
'Yeah but this time you'll be jumping into the past. The disorientation may screw you up for a few minutes. This will, more likely than not, make you puke your guts out. When you get there, use the watch to track the bag being used in the exchange. We have a timestamp on it, so it should show on your screen as a green dot.'
'We're ready' Victoria said, pulling Michael's coat over his shoulders. Gabriel nodded at her, and then looking to Michael, opened his hand towards the painting. 'I think you know what to do from here'.
'Think I do' said Michael.
He took a deep breath, rolled his shoulders, stepped up to it and gently placed his hand on the side of the frame. He waited a few moments and then carefully, gingerly, he touched the palm of his left hand on the canvas. Just as the world shat itself and began to dissolve into a screaming mess, from deep inside the canvas a voice screamed like a crazed matador on crack: 'De Puta Madre!'

Time exploded, opening like a bursting bag of colour. Controlling the nausea, Michael scanned down into the spirals, images and sounds, smells and noise which were whistling past at light speed. He saw trams, horses, wide hats, an antiquated artillery barrage hammering a crumbling town wall, a naked girl with a rose between her teeth walking through the streets of a village, cats in holes in the walls, forward, forward, scanning and screaming down alleyways of an Alicante pueblo, television sets unloading from trucks, package holiday sideburns, tanks in the streets, the King addressing the nation, drugs in bars, parties in cars, forward, forward, scanning and falling, controlling the spirals, gangs and cops, fireworks and giant burning effigies. Slowing down, breathing through it, velocity decreasing, the movie wound down and stopped. Stepping out into the past, Michael smiled. Nausea washed over him. He groaned and reached into his coat for a bottle of water. Valencia. Arde nena, arde. The city of the bat. Fallas - the biggest fireworks and explosives festival in the world. Crema - the night of the great fires. The greatest party on earth.
'Michael, can you hear us?' said Maria's voice from inside his ear.
He threw up. 'Yes, I can hear you' he said.

Valencia, Spain. March 19th 2005, 11.27pm.

At the corner of Avenida de Francia and Glorieta de Europa, overlooking the City of Arts and Sciences, is the tallest building in Valencia. At the top of this gleaming white shaft of steel and green glass, sits a penthouse apartment. In this apartment, two men sat either side of a table on a balcony, looking out over the orchestrated insanity that was erupting across the city below. Rockets. Explosions. The world's biggest firework festival, the sky lit up like a Christmas tree on acid, the air filled with distant thundering, barking dogs, the streets filled with beer and trinket-hocking hippies, mangy dogs swirling at their feet, the honking of a thousand moped horns, terrified tourists, drugged up Goth girls, fishnets and labrets, Amstel and air horns, screaming and dancing, paella and pissheads.

The two men sat quietly, sharing a bottle of red wine, enjoying the unusually warm evening. Lighting a cigarette, the elder of the two, a 45 year-old Spaniard, opened a large sports bag and passed a small satchel across the table top. The younger man, a 27 year-old Swiss national, glanced down at it. He then reached behind him and handed over another bag: small, bulging with promise.
'Thank you' said the Spaniard. 'I don't need to remind you that you never saw me or spoke to me'
'Of course' the Swiss replied.
'No-one must ever know we were here'
'Yeah. I think the boat's sailed on that one' said a voice from beside them. They both looked up to be confronted by the sight of a woman with dark hair, a dark blue dress and biker boots standing before them. There was a large spiral tattoo on her left shoulder, another on the palm of her right hand. She was unarmed, but somehow managed, by the simple act of standing there, to suggest that extreme violence could be forthcoming at any moment. A momentary pause gave way to a flurry of limbs and flying objects. The table crashed over, wine sloshing over the balcony as the younger man tried to produce a gun from his jacket. Not fast enough. She was behind him before he had it aimed, twisting his arm around with an audible snap, the gun falling to the floor. He screamed. The Spaniard, almost too horrified to move for a moment, spun away from her and made a lunge for the door but somehow found himself running straight into her fist. She stood quietly as he collapsed to the floor, blood streaming down his nose.
'Thanks' she said, placing the satchel into the bag that was slung over her body and stepping onto the ledge of the balcony. Wincing, the younger man made a lunge for his gun, and fired off a shot. Too late. She was gone.

Less than five minutes later, and almost two kilometres away, Claudia sat herself down on the roof of an apartment on Caballeros, in the heart of the Carmen, the historic centre of Valencia. Twenty metres below her, the party was now in full swing. Crema had begun; the annual burning of the enormous sculptures which each barrio had spent almost a year making. Now after twelve months of work, all of them were going up in flames. She smiled, enjoying the noise. She took a sip of the beer she'd stolen on the street below and began to open the bag.
'I knew there used to be a lot of bag snatching in this town. I just never imagined it would've been you' said Michael.
Claudia looked up at him. After a few moments her face creased up in a smile. She closed the bag, letting her eyes run over him. 'Nice suit' she finally said with a satisfied smirk, folding her arms.
'You like it?'
'I dunno, I think that whole Victorian combat gear look is becoming a little worn-out if you ask me'
'Meh. Maybe. Well generally speaking I look like a bum, so this is an improvement'
'Yes. Very dapper. And yet, you still manage to make it look slightly shabby. So, you signed up did you? Became a good little Cardenio agent?'
'Looks like it.'
A firework exploded nearby, shaking the whole building.
'And, don't tell me, you're here to stop me making off with the bag? Well,' she said, shifting her weight to an elbow, 'let me ask you something: do you even know why you're here? I mean why you were sent here to get this?'
'Well, I wasn't actually. I was sent to watch the deal go down, but since you fucked that up for us I decided to intervene.'
'Intervene?'
'Yes. Well, that and something else. I'd like to buy you a drink'
'You'd what now?'
Michael reached into his pocket and pulled out his watch. Claudia didn't move. Slowly, so that she could see him do it, he powered the unit down. A volley of abuse could be heard through his earpiece, finally bleeping out to nothing.
'Gabriel won't like that' she said.
'Probably not, no'
'You want to buy me a drink?'
'Yes. Well, officially, I'm here because I want that bag. But, really I'd like you to stop, stay five minutes and have a conversation with me. A drink. In a bar. Us two.' He flicked his middle finger from himself to her and back to himself. 'Together, like normal, regular people'
'I hate to break it to you, but we are not normal, regular people.'
'I know that, but you know hey, we can pretend right? Just for half an hour'
'You said five minutes...'
'Yeah, but you'll be having so much fun that before you know it a half hour will have gone by'
'Really?' she said, smiling despite her best effort to hide it. 'You're that charming are you?'
'I have my moments. Seriously. Just have a drink with me. Just sit and talk to me for a bit'
'Not a chance' she said, rising to her feet. 'They looking after you?' she asked quickly, smoothing her dress down.
Michael looked at her, readying himself for her to make a move - a jump. Either off the building or for his throat.
'Yep, they're a good bunch I suppose'
'They are' she said with a nod.
'So why did you turn them down?'
She snorted. 'Too many rules'
'Will you have a drink with me? Or are we just going to have a fight over that bag?'
'A fight? Us? You realise I can kill you in an instant, don't you?'
'Possibly. But I'm hoping we can do this another way'
'Which is?'
'Well, how about we start with the drink?'
She took a step forward and looked at him carefully, looking into his eyes. After tilting her head an instant, she sighed, rolled her shoulders, frowned, the small scar on her face creasing up. 'Nah' she said slowly, 'let's not.'
In an instant she had shifted, her body beginning to slide away into a blur. He jumped as fast as he could, reaching out to take her hand. The force of the fist in his face caught him by surprise. His knees buckled, legs wobbling beneath him and after listing like a galleon, he fell backwards off the roof, and landed on a balcony, his ass meeting the surface with a loud bang. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.
'Ouch' he said.

'What's happening? What the fuck is happening?' Gabriel roared. Sitting in front of a giant wrap-around screen, Maria and Victoria monitored a map of Valencia, video streams and CCTV swirling into mini windows beside the map. Crackling audio feeds added to the sense of bedlam. Behind them Gabriel paced, furious. On the screen, a green dot was moving from building to building, racing across the labyrinthine streets of the Carmen. Some six to seven seconds behind that dot was another, a blue one, which was also moving from building to building. Although the pattern of the dots seemed to be almost random, jumping from building to building, street to street, they were getting closer, moving in tandem. They seemed to be making their way along Calle de Caballeros.
'What are they doing?' Maria asked, in genuine disbelief at what she was seeing.
Gabriel and Victoria exchanged glances.
'Playing' Gabriel said.
'What?' Maria asked.
'Playing. They're playing.' said Victoria.
'He's really done it now' Gabriel said under his breath.
'She's gonna kick his ass' Victoria said in agreement.
'In slow motion'
'Actually, I was gonna say she'd probably do it at 140 beats per minute, but yeah...'
As she finished her sentence, the door burst open behind them, with almost fifteen agents coming through the door, coats flapping, shoving each other out of the way to see what was happening.
'What the fuck do you lot want?' Gabriel barked.
They stopped dead in their tracks. Ryuichi, one of the younger recruits, was the first to speak.
'We heard that Michael is chasing Claudia. We wanted to...'
'Wanted what?'
'To watch'
'Holy shit' said a woman from the back of the group. 'Look how fast he's moving'
'Fuck me' came another voice.
'Okay, now everyone settle down and be quiet. This is still a live operation...'
'Jesus Christ on a bike he almost has her'
All heads snapped back to the screen.
'I doubt it' said Gabriel.
The voices continued from behind.
'Is that even possible.... how can they move that fast? Sweet Jesus he just jumped two buildings...'
'Everyone shut the fuck up' roared Gabriel.

Left. Right. Twist. Jump. Pulling across the empty space, Michael was spat out of a rip above a rooftop, an explosive the size of a house erupting just ten feet from his ears. He crashed to the roof, rolling as he landed. Momentarily clutching his hands to his ears, he staggered upright and started running again. Jump. Clear. Down again. Over the side. Letting gravity take control, he waited until he felt the pull of his own weight in the air, the moment of terminal velocity, saw the thread and kicked at it. An instant later he slammed into the ground in a street thirty feet away and started sprinting again. Up. Off the wall, he kicked outwards, side-shifting through a 1970s breeze-block horror and into the corridor of an apartment building. Through the window, across, rolling upright and keeping his legs moving. He caught a glimpse of her, dissapearing over the lip of a building. Seconds later he was behind her, slipping as he emerged from the rip. His hand managed to catch her leg. But not fast enough. The ferocity of the kick almost sent him off the building. He spun, catching her shoulder with an arm. She swung a hook at him, his arm deflecting it, another from the other side. Again and again, she launched punches and kicks at him, controlled, sequenced, a boxers movement in each one. Somehow he managed to block them. And then, just when it seemed he had his ground stood, she had him in a headlock, dragging him backwards.
'Persistent fucker, aren't you?' she snarled as she drove a knee into his back.
'You have no idea' he said, twisting out of the headlock and grabbing her by the waist. She lashed out with her other knee, walloping him in the face. He thought he heard a crack inside his head. Reeling like a drunk Michael tried to steady himself, her moving in with a murderous look and a raised fist.
'Wait' he yelled. 'Just fucking wait. Stop trying to, you know, murder me for five minutes and just listen?'
'No'
'Just shut... will you just stop for a second? Ha? Can you do that? Are you capable of shutting up for a second, and you know, actually just fucking listening for once in your life?'
She paused, looking at him. 'You know for a guy who just punched me, you've got some fucking nerve'.
Another barrage of explosives detonated twenty feet away, momentarily deafening them both. Flames from the fires below licked over the edges of the buildings around them, plumes of water from the fire engines filling the air above with smoke. An orange glow had filled the whole sky.
'Excuse me? You just tried to knee me in the nuts'
'Of course I fucking did, you twat. And I'm gonna do it again in a seco...'
'Just. SHUT. UP' he roared.
She did.
'Good. Now, will you please have a drink with me?'
'Didn't we just have this conversation?'
'Nope. A conversation is where two people talk to each other. You didn't answer me'
'Funny that'
'Listen, I think we'd have fun. You know, together'
She stared at him. Tilted her head. Opened her mouth and then closed it again. 'The what now?'
'Fun. I think we'd have fun'
'You mean you think we'd end up having sex?'
'No. No no. Not at all. Sex never even entered my head'
'Ya ha. Really?'
'I never said a thing about sex..'
'You didn't have to. You've been staring at my tits the whole time we've been talking'
'I have not'
'Yes you have'
'I have no... I was watching your hands to make sure you wouldn't hit me again. Look it, I just want you to have a drink with me'.
She sighed. 'Well, I need to think about it' she said, pausing for a moment. 'Okay, I've thought about it. No'.
'Okay. Not quite the reaction I was hoping for' he said, wiping the blood from his mouth and considering the stain on his coat sleeve. He glanced back up, just in time to see her dive over the side of the building.
'Oh for fuck's sakes...'

'His balls. I'll tear his balls off. So help me God Victoria, with my bare hands I wil tear his balls clean off and I will feed...'
'Calm down will you? He's doing fine.'
'He wasn't supposed to interact with anyone. Especially her.'
Victoria grunted, her eyes still on the screen. Maria tapped frantically on a keyboard.
'You know what he's doing don't you?' Gabriel asked. Victoria didn't look at him.
'He's actually trying to be charming with her'
Victoria leaned forward, leaning on a button on the desk. She spoke into the screen. 'Medical team on standby please'

Right. Left. Twist. Shift. Jump. Across another rooftop, scrambling across breaking tiles, coloured explosions ripping the air open as he ran. Her silhouette flipping over a balcony ledge, hitting the ground and running. He sprinted up the side of the building, jumping into a rip and emerging in front of her. His hand reached out, grabbing the bag strap. Just as he thought he had it, she seemed to spin through the air, twisting him around as she moved. He sensed the kick coming and blocked it with an arm. Another spin on her heel and he caught her again, her arm around him, wildly lashing at him with her free fist. He caught the hand just as it was about to split his head open and held on as tight as he could. Momentarily they froze, locked against each other, neither one able to pull the other down and neither one willing to let go, their faces close enough that they could feel each other breathing.
'What do you say' he wheezed, 'we have a break for a second?'
'No thanks' she said, launching a headbutt at him.
He reeled backwards, his head feeling like someone had just detonated a grenade in it. Another volley of explosives went off, the sky filling with blooming fireballs above them. Momentarily he was unsure if he was actually seeing them, or if he just had concussion. Then he noticed it. The bag. In his hand.
'Ha haaaaaaaaaaa!' he shouted, pulling the bag away from her and extending his other hand out to block her, a feeble smirk on his face. He motioned to throw the bag over the edge down into a burning Falla below. The flames were huge, slapping at the space around them. 'Seriously. Hear me out' he said with a giggle.
She paused, a look of volcanic anger on her face.
'I mean it Michael. I'll actually hurt you. Like really hurt you'
'Claudia?'
'Yes?'
'We could have a hoot together...'
'Oh Jesus tap-dancing Chr... I see. You reckon do you?'
'I do'
'Okay. And the fact that we've never spent time together, or even so much as spoken to one and other, doesn't make you question...'
'Yes, we have. You know we have. Don't bullshit me. You know we have. You know what happened in that nightclub wasn't just drugs, or some other mystical mumbo-jumbo sci-fi bollocks. That was real. I felt it, so did you...'
'That was not real' she said angrily.
'Yes it was. If it wasn't real, then how the fuck do you know what I'm talking about?'
She laughed again, derisively, her face a mask of fury.
'Shut. The. Fuck. Up. You know nothing. Listen to me: I'm not what you want or need. You just think you do. Now, fuck off'
'I can't do that. I can't let you leave'
'Because of the bag? Or because you want to get me into bed?'
'Again with this...'
She lowered her arms, stepped towards him, her stance softening. 'Michael?'
'Yes?'
'I'm gonna say this nicely, okay? It's never gonna happen' she said with a smile. 'Never. Not ever. You got that?'
He straightened himself up, sniffing.
'Okay. Fine. Grand. No problem. I hear ya. The whole me liking you, and you hating my guts thing? Yeah, grand, I can live with that. Fine. Fucking groovy in fact. But, seriously now, you're not leaving here with this bag.'
'Oh. Really? Ye reckon?'

'What the hell are they doing?' said a younger voice from the group at the back. The two dots had stopped moving and seemed to be in the same spot.
'Maybe they're talking?' said another.
'Please' said Gabriel loudly. 'Can everyone shut the fuck up?'
'They could be getting it on' said a woman's voice. Someone else sniggered.
'Well they are there a long time' said Maria, her eyes fixed on the screen. 'Maybe he's managed to get her to liste... no. Wait. Yeah, she's thrown him off the roof again'

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Enhanced image, captured from a Valencian CCTV feed, March 19th 2005.

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This page contains a single entry by birdbath published on March 25, 2009 8:00 AM.

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