It all started three months back. I had recently graduated from a small, expensive, liberal arts college. Of course, I was unemployed. My parent’s patience wore thin and I found myself gently nudged out the door. I decided to move across the country to New York City, a place where my lofty intellect and knowledge of philosophy would be valued.
I soon found out that literally no one wanted to hire a twenty-two-year-old with a degree in philosophy. To my credit, though, I decided that I wasn’t going to crawl back to my parents and beg for them to take me back in. I got a job as a busboy at a ritzy restaurant in Manhattan, and found a tiny apartment in a cheap neighborhood in Brooklyn. My roommate and I lived on top of each other, but it didn’t matter since we both spent most of our time working so that we could afford the insane cost of living in New York City.
I have never been more aware of my ordinary, middle class upbringing than when I was working in Manhattan. The place oozes with wealth, prestige, and opulence. Trust fund kids, hedge fund managers, fortune 500 CEOs, actors, artists, trophy wives, filthy rich Russians, Arabs, and Chinese. They speak a different language. I mean, yeah, they’re speaking English, but when I was clearing their tables, mopping the floor, or changing kegs I could understand nothing of their conversations. They spoke of exotic vacations in Monaco and Bali, bragged about their investments, and complained about their housekeepers and nannies. They might as well have been a different species. They certainly treated me as if I was something lesser than them; not quite as human. Not one of them has so much has spoken to me, let alone made eye contact.
My lucked changed, or so I thought, when the owner of the restaurant asked me to fill in as bartender for a private party he was hosting over the weekend. I jumped at the opportunity, the owner of the bar was well connected, and owned bars and restaurants in major cities around the world. Bartenders could make good money in New York City if they build up the right kind of relationship with customers. I practiced my cocktail recipes and wine pouring for the rest of the week, and hoped that this might be my first big break in the city.
The night of the party rolled around. I found myself behind a well-stocked bar with two other guys I had never seen before. Both were around my age, and both looked like they had never worked behind a bar before either. This was my chance to stand out, who knows, if I met the right person maybe they would offer me a job at their business.
The owner of the bar arrived an hour late to the party. Accompanying him were a dozen men that all looked to be in their late thirties or early forties. An aura of power and wealth surrounded all of them. These were men that had been born into elite society. They were accustomed to success; everything came easily to them. The restaurant owner smiled at his friends, gestured to the bar and said, “Have a drink, relax, reminisce over last year’s games. We’ll reconvene at midnight to begin this year’s festivities.”
My bartending abilities were never put to the test. Their orders were simple: whiskey on the rocks, gin & tonics, craft beer, and the occasional glass of wine. They were all deeply immersed in conversation. Occasionally they would look over at the bar and gesture towards one of us. I assumed they were talking about how we were all obviously inexperienced bartenders. Eventually one of the men broke off from the group and sauntered up the bar. He wore a suit that somehow seemed to glimmer in the dark light of the bar, I imagined that it cost more than I would make in ten years. He flashed me a smile, and asked me for a glass of Glenlivet 25, and told me to make it neat. I stared at him blankly for a moment, before he chuckled, and said, “That means no ice…”
I nodded, and spun around before he could see my face turn red from embarrassment. Minutes later I found the bottle he had asked for, and poured him a full glass. He asked us about our childhoods, if we ever played sports, were any of us veterans of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, and so on.
He soon returned to his group of friends, and they all appeared to be listening intently to whatever he was saying. Well, I blew it. He’s probably over there telling all of them how terrible of a bartender I am. I picked up a rag, and moved closer, wiping down a table near them, hoping to hear what they had to say about me. It sounded like they were placing bets on something, I wondered what men as powerful and wealthy as these would bet on. I took another step forward, trying to hear more, but spun around and found the restaurant owner towering over me. He glared at me and said, “Know your place” and roughly pushed me back towards the bar.
At midnight, the owner gathered everyone around the bar and began pouring shots. He called the bartenders over and said, “You guys deserve a break, have a drink with us,” as he filled our shot glasses full of a dark liquor.
One of the men, stepped forward, raised his glass with a deeply scarred hand, looked directly into my eyes and said, “Udachi!” The rest of us followed suit. Whatever was in the shot glass hit me hard. I felt the blood rushing towards my head, grabbed onto the bar to steady myself, and watched as my two fellow bartenders slumped to the floor. I looked up to see the men standing by the bar, watching us with wide smiles. The scarred man chuckled as he watched me struggle to remain standing. He leaned over the bar and whispered into my ear, “Spokoynoy nochi”, and then pushed me backwards. My body slammed onto the marble floor and blackness enveloped me.
I awoke hours later to find that I was no longer in the bar. I found myself, along with the two other bartenders, sitting in the middle of a large, barren warehouse. Rays of sunlight shone through high, broken windows. I attempted to stand up, but found that heavy rope bound me to my chair. Out of the darkness emerged a lanky man with bleach blonde hair. He wore a balaclava on his face and a charcoal tailored suit. In one hand he carried a Taser and in the other he held a clipboard. When he was a few feet away from us he paused, looked down at his clip board and said with an aristocratic British accent, “Ah, yes. You three gentlemen have been chosen to participate in today’s games.”
The bartender sitting to my right, I think his name was Brad, struggled against the ropes tying him to the chair. He began to scream, but the blonde man took two quick steps forward and pressed the Taser against Brad’s neck. He said to Brad, “I will have to use this on you, if you scream again, but I suspect that you will want to be in peak physical condition for the games today, so I highly recommend that you stop that bloody screaming.”
Brad looked up at the blonde man with crazed, desperate eyes, struggled against his bonds for a second more, but then gave up, slouching back into his chair.
“Splendid. Now where was I?” said the blonde man. “Oh, yes. Now I remember, you three will be today’s participants in our annual hunt. He paused for dramatic effect, and then continued, “We play for the highest stakes. If you win, we let you go free, with a tidy sum of money for your troubles, of course. If you lose, well, whatever remains of your body will be unceremoniously buried under the concrete foundation of this warehouse.”
The other bartender, I can’t remember his name now, began to sob. The acidic smell of urine stung my nose. The guy had pissed himself. The blonde man laughed and said, “Mr. Gordon, you have won your first bet. Subject B urinated after hearing the rules of our game.” A few cheers went up from a dark corner of the warehouse. I could just vaguely make out a group of men in the shadows behind the blonde man.
The blonde man said loudly, “Now let us begin today’s games.”
Two large men wearing hoods emerged from behind us, untied “Subject B”, and roughly pushed him out of his chair.
The blonde man puffed out his chest and said, as if he were a professor lecturing his students, “Now I’m sure the three of you have all read, or at least know the premise of the short story, ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ written by Richard Connell.”
We all stared at him. Brad cursed under his breath.
The blonde man continued, “Well, it is a true story. Sanger Rainsford, the hero of the story, was the founding member of our secret society. You three are lucky enough to be our prey for this year.”
Brad cursed and struggled against his bonds, his face turned red and veins bulged from his forehead. “Such a shame, you really are only hurting yourself with such childish behavior,” Said the blonde man as he stepped forward and used the Taser on Brad.
“Where was I? Oh, yes, the rules: The game is now played with a few modern updates, as well as an urban twist. We are currently in the middle of an industrial park in New York City. We give you, the prey, a one hour head start. After one hour, your assigned hunter will give chase. Instead of hound dogs, he will use GPS to track you. The GPS is built into a mesh vest which the three of you are all wearing under your clothing. A small explosive has been sewn over your heart to ensure your compliance with the rules of the game, and to keep you from going to the police. Your release from this compound will be staggered by three hours to discourage you from working as a team. The hunt lasts for thirty-six hours, if you are still alive at the end of the hunt then we will deactivate your vest, twelve million dollars will be deposited into your bank account, and you will be free to go on your way. Any questions?”
I remember wanting to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. The Most Dangerous Game? The story my middle school English teacher had us read? And this clownish caricature of a man with his bleach-blonde hair and posh English accent? It all seemed too surreal to be true. I wanted to wake up, and find myself back in my dingy little apartment in Brooklyn. I even pinched myself. I did not wake up.
Brad began to regain consciousness, while the other guy, “Subject B” or whatever his name was, began to crawl towards the blonde man. “Please, please, just let me go. I won’t tell anyone. Just let me go!”
The blonde man raised a perfumed handkerchief to his nose and frowned at the man groveling before him. He called out to the shadowed group behind him, “Senor Suarez, you placed the highest bid on the right to hunt Subject B, let’s get this started, shall we?”
A young man of Spanish origin stepped forward. He wore a dark blue tracksuit, a small backpack, and had a black stocking knit cap on. He eyed the sniveling Subject B and sniffed, “This is the trash that I paid 2 million euros for the right to hunt? I can hunt hardened criminals in Russia for a quarter of the price!”
“My apologies, Senor, but remember, you are also paying for the pleasure of manhunting in New York City! Perhaps a bit of fresh air will liven him up a bit,” said the blonde man. He turned to the two henchmen standing to either side of Subject B, and said “Throw him outside.”
Subject B’s eyes darted back and forth, first to the blonde man, then to Brad, and then me, silently pleading for help that would not come. They opened a door at the far side of the warehouse and threw Subject B out of it. “Start the timer!” yelled the blonde man. “Now initiate the live stream!”
A large countdown clock appeared on the wall directly in front of us. A moment later an aerial video feed of Subject B appeared next to it. “Excellent, the camera drones are online. We will watch the games in HD this year gentlemen. They don’t offer you this in Russia, now do they! We offer a level of service that cannot be met by the Kremlin. Let the games begin!” said the blonde man with a dramatic wave of his manicured hands.
The timer began to tick backwards, but Subject B refused to move. A few minutes passed and he still had not moved. Senor Suarez began to curse in Spanish. Without warning, Subject B pulled off his shirt. Under it he wore a black mesh vest with two thick, dark squares on the chest. He began trying to pull it over his head, but it was too tight. The zipper on the back of the vest seemed to be locked in place. He picked up a piece of broken glass of the ground and began to saw at the vest.
The blonde man sighed, and said to Brad and me, “Watch closely. There are sensors woven into the vest.”
Senor Suarez’s curses became louder and more profane, “I demand a complete refund.”
“Of course, of course,” said the blonde man darkly. Moments later there was a low thump, and Subject B fell to the ground. The camera drone swooped lower to inspect the body. A grapefruit sized hole could be seen in Subject B’s chest. Glazed eyes stared up at the sky past the drone.
The blonde man looked at me and motioned for the two henchmen to untie me. “You are next. I hope that you will put on a better show.”
The blonde man called forth my hunter, a man named Dmitri. A tattooed man stepped out of the shadows. He appeared to be wearing a New York Police Officer’s uniform. Dmitri gestured to his uniform and badge, smiled at me and said in lightly accented English, “To help me blend in, it isn’t easy carrying a gun without a badge in New York City.”
The two henchmen pushed me roughly out the door of the warehouse, and the hunt was on.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the bright sun after the darkness of the warehouse. I surveyed the landscape, trying to figure out where the hell I was. I started to run down the road that led to the warehouse, changed my mind and doubled back. Where the hell should I go? The police? Back to my apartment? Find someplace to hide and wait out the thirty-six hours? I was at a loss as to what to do.
I heard a soft whirring noise from above, and discovered that they were tracking my movements with three small airborne drones. A quadcopter drone hovered about twenty feet above me, shadowing my movement. The odds were against me. They had GPS and drones tracking my every movement, and could kill me at any moment with the explosive strapped to my chest. Who knows if they would even honor the head start they promised me. I quickly realized that this wasn’t meant to be a fair fight, same as how a big game hunter in Africa uses expensive weapons, guides, and equipment to ensure that they have the distinct advantage over their prey.
I began to plan my way out of this. Their advantage was through their superior technology. They had drones, GPS, and a remotely controlled explosive attached to my chest. I had to equal the playing field, but how could I do that? Going to the police was out of the question. They would immediately detonate the explosive sewn into the mesh vest they strapped onto me. I jogged down a side road, still thinking about how I would stay alive for the next thirty-six hours.
Then it came to me. I could even the playing field by going underground. Their technological advantage would be weakened underground. No drones, GPS, or radio-controlled explosive if I moved far enough underground. I quickened my pace, and headed towards the tall skyscrapers on the horizon. I needed to find an entrance to the New York City subway system. I passed by more and more people as I left the industrial part of the city and moved into the residential and commercial areas. I fought the urge to run up to a police officer on patrol and beg for help. The drones still hovered above me, although they were much higher now to avoid attention from pedestrians.
I finally reached an entrance to the subway, and looked down at my watch. Almost thirty minutes had passed. The guy hunting me, Dmitri, had almost certainly left by now. These were not the type of people that played by the rules. Trusting them was a sure way to get killed. I descended the stairs to the subway and hopped over the turnstile since I did not have any money on me, and waited on the platform for the next train.
Five minutes of waiting and no train. I sensed someone watching me, and looked around. At that moment, I saw Dmitri step through the entrance and onto the same platform. He was close enough that I could see the tattoos not covered by his fake police uniform. Orthodox Russian church towers were visible on his neck, and Cyrillic writing wrapped around his wrists and onto his hands. Great, this guy is part of the Russian Mafia, I might have had a chance against a wealthy CEO with bloodlust, but this guy was likely a hardened killer.
His cold blue eyes locked onto mine and his lips curled into a demonic smile. He walked towards me, his ice-cold eyes never leaving mine. I did not pause to think. Fight or flight, and I chose to fly. Dmitri was about twenty yards away from me when I jumped off the station platform and onto the tracks. I heard gasps and cries from the crowd on the platform and a loud curse from Dmitri. I sprinted down the tracks and into the dark tunnel. I glanced over my shoulder and saw an enraged Dmitri standing on the edge of the platform. He looked as if he were about to jump down onto the tracks and give chase, but at that moment the next train pulled into the station behind me.
I had about five minutes until that train caught up with me. I was in decent shape, but I knew there was no way that I could out run a train going full speed. My only hope was that someone let the train conductor know that I had jumped onto the tracks, therefore delaying the train.
Ten minutes passed and no train. Things were finally beginning to turn my way. Maybe I could wait out the hunt underground in this tunnel. After the thirty-six hours were up I could emerge from the tunnel and leave this ordeal and city behind forever. In the back of my mind I knew that would not work. The conductor had likely alerted the police to a person on the subway tracks. The police would start combing the tunnels soon for me, and I was a dead man if they caught me. My captors would trigger the explosive as soon as they knew the police had taken me into custody.
I walked for a while longer and eventually found myself at a fork in the tunnel. The tracks continued to the right while an empty, smaller tunnel veered off to the left. I debated which way to go. Going right, and following the tracks was sure to get me to Manhattan. However, I had no idea how much longer they would delay the train for, and my hunter, Dmitri, was sure to be waiting for me at the next station. If I chose to go left, then I had a greater chance of evading Dmitri for a while longer, but I had no idea where that tunnel led.
At that moment, I heard a shout from behind me and saw the bright glimmer of a flashlight bobbing up and down. A gruff voice called out, “Hey kid, what the hell do you think you’re doing down here!”
At first I thought Dmitri had found me, but I soon realized that it was the train conductor. I relaxed, and told him that he wouldn’t understand.
“Yea, I’m sure I wouldn’t understand. Depression and suicide are a hell of a thing, but buddy, you’ve gotta think about the danger you’re putting other people in by jump’n in front of trains! Hell, look at me. I’m fifty years old and following some kid into a dark tunnel. If I trip and touch the third rail, then I’m toast!”
The guy thought I was trying to kill myself. It couldn’t have been farther from the truth, but I decided to play along. I responded, “Yeah, sorry Mister, didn’t think of it that way.”
“C’mon, follow me back, there’s a police officer waiting back on the platform. Let’s get you some help,” said the conductor.
I stepped towards the conductor and he began to smile, but stopped. He moaned, tried to speak, but when he opened his mouth only blood emerged. He fell to his knees, and in the dim light I could see Dmitri standing behind him with a bloody knife in his hand.
Dmitri laughed softly and took a step towards me. He murmured, “You have been well worth the price. Haven’t had a hunt this fun in years.”
I began to slowly walk backwards, not daring to take my eyes off him for a moment. He said, “It is funny that you thought you could make it to the end of the thirty-six hours. That would have been bad for both of us. It would have been a failed hunt for me, and you still would have died. The explosive on your chest is set to a countdown.”
I responded, still walking backwards, “Why am I not surprised, you cowards have given yourselves every advantage in this so-called hunt.”
Dmitri paused for a moment, and then cursed at me in Russian. “You have quite the mouth for someone that is about to die.”
I laughed at him, trying to act more confident then I felt, and said, “Drop that knife and fight me like a man. What? Are you scared that a poor, simple guy like me could beat you?”
His eyes darkened and jaw clenched as he silently raged. This wasn’t going as he had planned. I guess he had been hoping that I would beg and plead for my life. I wasn’t going out like that. I still had one more trick up my sleeve. It was a gamble, but it was my only chance.
Dmitri cursed at me again, and took another step forward, knife still in hand. I turned and ran. I could hear him laugh and give chase. I sprinted for about fifty yards and then hopped over the third rail, and spun to face him. He slowed to a walk and closed the distance. I cursed, begged, pleaded– anything to keep him distracted. We finally stood face to face, with only the third rail separating us.
He started to congratulate me on being such a worthy opponent, but I cut him off mid-sentence and spat in his face. He roared and took a step forward, but his foot connected with the third rail and his body convulsed as thousands of volts of electricity surged up from the third rail and through his body. The smell of burnt flesh sickened me, but I felt relieved that my gamble had paid off. I had figured that Dmitri, a man accustomed to extreme wealth, had never been on a subway system. Public transportation was something alien to a person accustomed to being chauffeured in luxury cars, jets, and helicopters.
I was not home free yet. I still had the explosive sewn into the vest to deal with. I only had an hour left until the explosive would detonate. I clenched my teeth and forced myself to search the body of Dmitri. I first pulled the knife from his still smoking hands, but then remembered what had happened to Subject B when he had tried to cut the vest. I dropped the knife, and searched the charred remains of Dmitri.
There had to be some way to unlock this vest. They had to remove the vests somehow after the hunt has ended. My stomach lurched as my hands brushed against his burnt flesh. I closed my eyes and searched his pockets. My hand closed around what seemed to be a small key.
I pulled the key out of his pocket, took my shirt off, and searched for a place to insert the key on the vest. I stretched my arms behind my back and found a zipper. I followed the zipper with fingers until I found a small lock holding the zipper in place. The key did not go into the lock at first, probably because the electricity from the third rail had warped it, but I forced it in and twisted. I pulled the lock out and removed the vest.
I could hear voices coming from down the tunnel; probably the police coming to check up on the conductor. For a moment I thought about waiting for the police to find me, and then explaining this whole ordeal. But I knew better. The ultra-rich have a way of getting away with murder. I don’t doubt that any investigation into this “Most Dangerous Game” would end up with me dead.
I jogged down the tunnel towards the next station. Once there, I would grab my things and get out of this city as quickly as possible. I’ve learned my lesson. There’s no place in New York City for a simple guy like me.