She's a font of game ideas, but what else lurks in that pretty little head?
| He stood, slouched over, reeling from the kick in the face he had just received, and the girl in the lime bikini took a running step toward him, built up her momentum with a cartwheel, bounced high into the air, evading his defensive roundhouse swing, and landed on his shoulders. Locking her ankles, she threw herself backward, pulling him down with her, and began to squeeze his neck between her powerful legs.
Vern struggled to escape, rotating his left stick as fast as his thumb would go, but the girl on the couch next to him had her thumb tapping her blue button like a woodpecker after a grub, and the shapely legs of the girl on the widescreen TV in front of them tightened inexorably as Vern's lifeline crept toward zero. His struggles were hopeless, and eventually the stamina bar blacked out and "Submission!" flashed repeatedly on the screen as his opponent jumped up and danced around the ring, playing to the cheering crowd as she paused over his beaten body to flex and showboat.
"That's great fan service," the girl, Lindsay, said as the game returned to the match-up screen. "Teenage boys are gonna love her!"
"Yeah, but something's wrong," Vern replied. "If I was a heel, I would have punched you in the ribs so hard, you wouldn't have been able to breathe."
"What if I controlled your arms by putting my weight on your wrists?"
"Useless, at least if we're going to maintain any hint of realism. Steven Steel is a body builder who outweighs the Blonde Tornado by at least a hundred pounds. There's no way she could control his arms, not if she wants to maintain her scissors."
"They shouldn't be fighting in the first place, but yeah, I see your point."
Lindsay flipped her long blonde hair back from her face, and studied him with her ice-blue eyes. Vern had some fan service of his own playing in his head, but he'd given up the idea of acting on it years ago; girls like Lindsay saw him as a non-entity, all but invisible against the background of their exciting lives. The miracle was she was sitting here on his couch at all.
"You know," she said after a long pause, "you could program in some heel moves. Eye gouges, hair pulls, that sort of thing, that the player could choose to use as an option."
"You mean, just start cheating? What happens to the pure wrestling aspect then?"
"No, no, as part of his character selection, the player would decide whether he wanted to be a heel, and if he did, a few extra moves would be added to his set. They could vary by character, or character type."
"Why would anyone not play as a heel, then?"
"Hmmm." She laid back against the arm of the couch, eyes closed in thought.
The fan service fantasy accelerated.
"I know!" she exclaimed, sitting up suddenly, face animated. "If you do a heel move in the referee's line of sight, you're instantly disqualified. The player would not only have to watch the opponent, but the referee, too. You'd have some advantageous moves, but they'd be balanced by the risk of getting caught using them."
"I like it," Vern said, seeing a whole new field of possibilities opening up before him. "Yeah, I like it. I can code a couple to try out, along with the referee's responses by tomorrow if I don't hit any snags."
"You want to start that now?"
"Don't see why not. The sooner we can get this in front of Raul, the better."
"Okay. I'll come by tomorrow and we can run some test matches. About ten?"
"Make it noon. I'll probably be up until the wee hours."
"Noon it is. I'll bring Jack's. What would you like?"
"A chicken sandwich, two tacos, and a cola."
He reached for his wallet.
"I got it," she said, standing up. "You can get the hundred-dollar dinner when we celebrate."
He had met her, what, three weeks ago, a month? Time had flown since he'd bumped into Lindsay. Literally bumped into her. He had nipped into Albert's, a little mom-and-pop bakery/deli that did a thriving business in defiance of the big box down the street. He had just bought a small club and a cola, backed away from the counter, still exchanging pleasantries with the clerk, and backed right into her. She held a sticky bun in one hand and a coffee with no top in the other, and in his carelessness, he knocked them both to the floor.
"I'm so sorry—" he began, spinning around, but his tongue mutinied as he came face-to-face with a vision of loveliness. An inch taller than him in her platform shoes, she wore a crestfallen look as she regarded her lost snack splattered on the dusty linoleum. Those pale blue eyes came up to regard him, not pleasantly, from a swirl of fine golden hair.
"I- I'm so sorry. Let me replace that. Anything you want, just pick it out and I've got it."
"That's fair," she said, and turned toward the pastry bin. She certainly wasn't happy, but at least she wasn't attacking him. He waited by the counter while she picked out another bun and doctored her coffee. He offered to clean up the mess, but the counter man said that wasn't necessary, that accidents happen.
The girl returned with the same things she had had before.
"That will be seven eighty-two," the clerk said as he rang up the order.
Vern paid for her order, then went out onto the sidewalk patio and found a small table. To his surprise, and not a little dismay, she followed him. Dismay, because he knew what girls like this thought of computer nerds, and weren't generally shy about expressing.
"May I join you?" she asked.
He almost declined, wanting nothing to do with the tirade he was sure was coming, but he figured he owed her.
She pulled the chair opposite him and took a seat while he kicked himself for not getting up and holding it for her. She didn't seem to mind, though.
"Lindsay," she said, offering her hand. He took her fingertips and they exchanged a barely-in-contact handshake.
"Vernon," he said. "Vern Barber. I'm really sorry about that in there. I don't know what—"
"Forget it," she said. "Accidents happen. Do you come here often?"
"Not really. It's a little steep for my blood."
"Mine, too," she said. "It must have been kismet."
What the hell was this? The only thing girls like this ever said to him was some variation on, "Out of my way, dweeb!"
"Maybe. Do you come here a lot? Oh, no, of course you don't. I'm sorry, my mind's on something else."
"You need to stop spending so much time being sorry. What is it that has you so distracted?"
Her eyes were laughing now as her lips caressed her pastry. They didn't seem to be laughing at him, though. He was on unfamiliar ground here.
"A new game we're working on, that is, my studio."
"Really. I love games. What's it about?"
"Well," he said with a blush, looking down at the table, "professional wrestling, I'm afraid."
"A fighting game, then? I especially love those."
"You do? Well, if you like, you could come back to my place and try out the alpha version. I've been tweaking it, and an extra opinion could really be a help."
Whose mouth was this, and what was it getting him into?
But she accepted, came to his apartment, and played his alpha copy. She thoroughly enjoyed it, and began to make suggestions for improvement. Some were about the look, some about the on-screen movements of the wrestlers. All were good, and all were incorporated. But the best of all was her idea for the D-pad. Instead to using it slide toward and away from the opponent, she suggested that it be a switch, and depending on what position it was held in, one of the directions or neutral, it would open a new set of moves for the wrestler. This blew the game wide open, and within a week of programming it, the game was recognized by the coworkers he showed it to as a future legend of the genre.
They met almost every day, playing and tweaking the game, going out for meals together, watching an occasional movie on his big-screen TV, and by all appearances becoming good friends. No sort of romantic involvement ever came up, not that Vern dared to raise it. He was on cloud nine just being around her, and wasn't about to risk anything that might pop the relationship that he was certain was as fragile as a soap bubble.
Eventually the day came when they had pushed the envelope as far as far as it would stretch. Vern called Raul to set up the demo. Everything would hinge on whether Raul liked it, but Vern was confident. There had never been a wrestling game like this, not independents, not those licensed by the big productions. Raul wasn't stupid. He knew a moneymaker when he saw one, and Hard Core 'Rasslin' would render every other fighting game obsolete at a stroke.
Vern invited Lindsay to come along.
She resisted; Vern had done the work. It was his project.
"I'd like you to be there. So many ideas were yours, I couldn't have done it without you."
"I don't know..."
"For luck," he coaxed. "Besides, there might be a little surprise in it for you."
"Big Fat Games," Lindsay read on the door. "I didn't realize this was a local studio. I just loved Dragon Slaughter."
"I wrote the castle sewers subroutine for that. And when you live in L.A., everything's a local studio," Vern said with a certain amount of pride.
He led her into the waiting room where the receptionist greeted them with a smile.
"Vern!" she said. "We were beginning to think something bad had happened to you."
She gave Lindsay a cursory once-over.
"I see it wasn't bad at all!"
"At ease, Samantha," Vern cautioned her. "We have an appointment with Raul."
"Oh, well Orlando's in there showing him some drawings. He shouldn't be much longer. Just have a seat."
They did, and Lindsay's eyes darted around the walls, taking in the posters of past successful games, and lighting on a display of key personnel in raised metal letters behind Samantha's desk. Third under Coders was Vernon Barber, but the name of the president seemed to amuse her.
"Raul Smith?" she asked quietly.
"His mother's Mexican. She named him."
A kid in a skater shirt, jeans, and sneakers came out of Smith's office embracing multiple rolls of art paper.
"Oh, hey, Vern," the kid said. "The boss says to send you in if you're out here. Who's your date?"
"Just a friend."
"That's too bad!"
"Oh, can it! I'm sorry," he added to Lindsay.
"Relax. It's not the first time."
They entered Raul Smith's office. Other than the much larger desk littered with every sort of form, letter, and piece of stray artwork imaginable, it wasn't that much different from the reception office. Vern remembered to hold her chair this time, and they took seats in front of the big boss's desk as Smith studied her over an unlit cigar.
"Good to see you at last," Smith said by way of greeting. "What's this, you find yourself a girlfriend while you were out loafing?"
"Just a friend, boss. This is Lindsay."
"Hi," Smith grunted with a nod. "Friend, girlfriend, whatever. You come to work, or give a tour?"
"To work, of course. I've got the beta ready for testing, and you're gonna be amazed. There's never been a fighting game like this."
"What's she here for, then, to spy for Sony?"
"Not at all. She's a gamer. She especially liked Dragon Slaughter. There are a lot of innovations in this new game that were her ideas."
"Is that so?"
"You know, Barber, a team of developers put a shit-ton of man-hours into creating this game. I hope you haven't screwed it up too bad."
"I know that, sir, but this is going to be the next Halo, the next Mortal Combat. It's going to change the industry forever. Would you like to take a look at it?"
"That's what we're here for. Hook it up to my big-screen, but I warn you, Barber, after that buildup, I'd better be blown out of my socks!"
"Prepare to be barefoot, sir."
The demonstration was wildly successful. Lindsay and Vern played some sample rounds, and Smith was as impressed as Vern had ever seen him. He quizzed Lindsay about her suggestions, and the thought processes behind them. He brought in the development team, and while there was some professional reserve about their work being changed, they couldn't pretend they weren't happy about the dump trucks full of money that would soon be backing up to their door. It was coming up on quitting time when the meetings broke up and the well-satisfied employees prepared to head home. Vern hung back with Lindsay.
"Raul, now that you've seen what we have, I have a request."
"Sure, what is it?"
The boss was pleased, and there was no time like the present.
"I'd like to give Lindsay here a little something for her work on the project."
"Work? You're the coder. She played some games with you. What do you want, a credit?"
"Well, sir, given the projections that financial suggested, I don't think ten thousand would be out of line."
"Ten thousand? What, dollars?"
"Sir, the money people said a hundred million the first week. Ten thousand is pocket change, and this wouldn't be half the game it is if she hadn't been playing it right along with me, and making all those suggestions."
"You're sure about this? She really contributed that much?"
"Raul, the D-pad switch alone would have made this a world beater. Couple that with the heel moves, the leave the ring option, the cheating behind the ref's back, why, she's a huge part of this."
"Well, all you say is true, and if she was responsible for those innovations, maybe what you ask is fair."
He opened his desk drawer and examined four check books. Selecting one, he began filling out the check, beginning with the date and $10,000.
"We'll pay her from the consulting account. Lindsay?" he asked. "L-I-N-D-S-A-Y?"
"What's her last name?" he asked, looking squarely at Vern.
"Well, uh, I don't..."
"You don't know your girlfriend's last name? Oh, that's rich! What's your name, miss?"
"Lindsay Walston, W-A-L-S-T-O-N."
"Walston," he repeated slowly as he wrote it in. He signed it, tore it out, and passed it over to her. She accepted it with trembling hands, then leaned over and kissed Vern on the cheek.
"Thank you," she said quietly. "I don't want to seem like a gold-digger, but if I leave now, I think I can get to my bank to deposit this."
"Go ahead," Raul said. "We have some business stuff to tie up anyway."
"Thank you, Mr. Smith." She rose and kissed Vern's cheek again. "See you tonight, honey. Maybe we can celebrate."
Honey? Things had just taken a most unexpected turn!
"What the hell is this?" Smith demanded the second the door closed behind her. "You're letting this girl make changes to our upcoming project and you don't even know her last name?"
"I didn't even realize it, sir. It just never came up."
"Well, what do you know about her? Maybe she is a spy for Sony. Or the red Chinese. Maybe she's a serial killer. What do you know about her, anything?"
Vern searched his memory to find that he really knew very little. She was friendly, she was nice, and she seemed to genuinely like him; that alone had been suspicious to him at first, but her friendship came to be like a drug to him. Anyway, friends don't grill each other about their backgrounds. What he knew had been enough. Now, it seemed, it wasn't.
"She's nice, Raul. She's smart, she knows games, and she didn't take her knowledge to Sony, she gave it to us of her own free will."
"Free will? I just handed her ten thousand dollars! That doesn't sound free to me."
"She didn't know I was going to ask for that. I brought her here to help me demonstrate the game. She didn't even want to come."
"Vern, it's a good thing you're a hell of a coder, because you're also one hell of an idiot. What you say is true, we'll recoup that ten Gs in the first minute of sales, but the next time you want to bring in a freelance to work on a game with you, you bring them here first, and if I like them, I'll put them on the payroll, is that understood?"
"It had better be. You'd be hard to replace, but one monkey don't stop no show."
After the hiding he had received from Raul, Vern was more than ready to spend the evening with Lindsay, but she didn't show up that evening. He called the number she had given him, but it rang, and rang, and rang. He gave up after six calls. He didn't see her the next day, either, nor the next. In fact, it was the morning of the fourth day before he saw her again.
He had stayed up late playing his ultra-modded version of Skyrim until his eyelids were heavy. He turned off the game, began to catch a second wind, and watched some videos on YouTube until he was almost asleep in front of the computer. Then he had taken a long drink of milk from the carton and stumbled off to bed. Within minutes he had fallen into a deep sleep.
It was no surprise, then, that he hadn't stirred until a familiar voice began to call his name.
It barely registered at first.
He began to drift up toward the soft, gentle lilt of her voice, fabulous dreams mixing with reality until she grabbed his hair and snatched his head back.
"Vernon! That's better. Are you awake now?"
She was dressed in form-fitting black material and sitting on the edge of his bed.
"Yeah, I'm awake. What time is it?"
He tried to sit up, but his arms wouldn't move from behind his back, and he felt the bite of steel at his wrists. Handcuffs.
"It's one-forty in the morning, and we have a little problem, Vern."
"It seems that your Mr. Smith's check bounced."
"What? That's impossible."
"It's not only possible, it's a fact. So we're going to go pay him a little visit, you and I."
"At one in the morning? I'm pretty sure Raul wouldn't like that."
"That doesn't concern me. Where does he live?"
"I can't tell you that. I'd lose my job. We'll go see him in the morning. I'm sure it's just a mistake."
"Oh, it's a mistake, all right. The bank told me that that account was closed over a year ago. It was his mistake, and a bad one."
"Well, if he passed a bad check, go to the police."
"Are the police going to cash his check for me, Vern, hmmm? Anyway, if the police got their hands on me, they'd forget all about any silly little check. No, I'm afraid I need to handle this myself. Where does he live, Vern?"
"I can't. I can't tell you that. I need this job, especially now with the new game about to release."
"That's too bad," she said, lifting a small satchel onto the bed. "I was really starting to like you."
She opened the satchel and took out a rod-like appliance with a cord running from the handle, leaned down beside his nightstand and plugged it in.
"What is that?" he asked, panic beginning to grow on his face.
"Soldering iron. The brochure says it will reach five hundred degrees. How badly do you need your eyes, Vern?"
He could already smell the metal of the iron heating up. Taking a firm grasp on his fear, he pulled in a deep breath.
"HELP!" he screamed. "HEL—glug, argh."
When he opened his mouth for the second scream, she had popped a wadded-up cloth in his mouth. Freed from her hand, it had quickly expanded, filling his mouth, and before he could try to push it out, she looped a slip-knotted stocking around his head and cinched it up to hold the gag in place.
"Now, now, can't have you waking all the nice people sleeping in this building, can we?"
Wide, terrified eyes watched her as she lifted the iron and spat on the tip. Her spittle hissed explosively into steam.
"If you decide you want to tell me anything, you just shake your head up and down. Now, then, Vern, where does Mr. Smith live?"