taken a more positive view and thought that the bottle was half full, but those days were long gone. He unscrewed the cap and lifted the neck of the bottle to his nose. He sniffed gently, the way a dog might test the night air, then he took a mouthful, swallowing almost immediately. Cramer wasn’t drinking for the flavour, he was drinking to stop the shakes. He took another mouthful, then another, and then recapped the bottle and put it back into his desk drawer. He had an open pack of Wrigley’s gum on his desk and he unwrapped a piece and popped it in his mouth.

The office was small and windowless. It took up a corner of a large warehouse and was little more than a plywood box with space for two desks, a photocopier, a filing cabinet, a small fridge and five steel lockers. On the wall above the filing cabinet was a chart and Cramer went over to look at it. Two groups were due to start at nine- thirty so he went to check the battle arena.

The warehouse had been built as a place to store goods before they were loaded on to ships on the Thames, back in the days when the east of London was a thriving docks and not just an offshoot of the City’s financial district. As the shipping companies switched over to containers and the river traffic died off, the best of the warehouses were transformed into Yuppie flats and glitzy winebars, but this one was too run down to be remodelled and it had been left to decay. The two young Greek Cypriot businessmen Cramer worked for had bought the warehouse for a song at a time when property prices were falling, and they had turned it into a successful paintball venue where executives could work off their aggression by pretending to blow each other away with paint pellets instead of bullets. There were five floors in the building, linked by a staircase at each end. The new owners had installed fireman’s poles and ladders then had added wooden walls, chain-link fences and other obstacles to make a battlefield which they illuminated with a computer-controlled light and laser system. The top four floors were used for combat, and on the ground floor was the office, along with a changing room and shower facilities, a shop selling paintballs, equipment and clothing, and a large practice area where the players could fire their guns at targets. Cramer went into the shop and turned on the lights. There were no windows anywhere in the warehouse other than in the roof so everywhere had to be illuminated. Racks of sweatshirts and nylon protective clothing were against one wall with a display of goggles and facemasks lined up above them. In a case by the cash register there was a selection of the latest paintguns and cleaning kits. Cramer checked that there was change in the cash register, then went to turn the lights on in the practice area. As he walked across the concrete floor he heard the main door swing open and turned to see Charlie Preston walk out of the sunlight.

“Yo, Mike, sorry I’m late,” shouted Preston. He was a teenager who’d started working at the arena on a Government-sponsored work experience programme but had stayed on as a full-time employee, more because he loved the sport than because of the money. Preston had once spent four weeks travelling across America in Greyhound buses and during the trip he’d acquired a collection of sweatshirts and an accent which he kept in shape by watching American movies. As he closed the door behind him, Cramer could see that he was wearing his Washington Redskins shirt and knee length Miami Dolphins shorts and had on a blue New York Yankees baseball cap. Cramer smiled. It was barely above freezing outside. The boy had style, all right. “No sweat, Charlie,” he answered. “You see anyone out there?”

“Couple of BMWs just drove up. I guess that’s them.”

Cramer hit the light switches and the fluorescent lights above the practice area flickered into life. “Okay, can you check the arena lights program? We’re going to use number six, we were having trouble with the searchlight on number five yesterday so I want to see if it’s the programming or the light that’s not right.”

“Cool,” said Preston. As he walked over to the computerised console which controlled the lighting system, two men arrived carrying nylon holdalls. They were both in their late twenties, well groomed and tanned as if just back from a Mediterranean holiday. One of them dropped his holdall on the floor.

“You in charge?” he called over to Cramer.

“Sure am,” answered Cramer. “Which team are you?”

“We’re the Bayswater Blasters. Is the other side here yet?”

“You’re the first,” said Cramer. “You’re due to start at nine-thirty, right?”

Five more young men arrived, all dressed casually in jeans and sweatshirts. “They here, Simon?” one of them shouted.

“No, you sure they said they’re still on?” the man in glasses replied.

“Sure. I spoke to their captain on Wednesday.”

“Why don’t you get changed while you’re waiting?” Cramer suggested. “Have you guys played here before?”

They all shook their heads so Cramer showed them where the changing room was and gave them photocopied maps of the arena. When they reappeared ten minutes later there was still no sign of their opponents. Cramer watched them as they waited by the main entrance. They were wearing camouflage outfits and military- style boots and carrying futuristic paintball helmets and facemasks. They were all equipped with neck protectors, padded gloves and special vests to hold extra paintballs and had clearly spent a lot of money on their gear. Their weapons were also expensive. Their leader, the one called Simon, was carrying a Tippmann Pneumatics 68 Special semi-automatic which had been fitted with a twenty-ounce carbon dioxide constant-air cylinder and a large capacity bulk loader which would hold up to two hundred rounds. It would pack a punch, Cramer knew, and the TASO red dot sight meant it would be accurate, too, though he also knew from experience that most players who used semi- automatics just kept firing blindly until they hit something, relying on brute force rather than skill. The ‘spray and pray’ method.

Cramer looked at his watch. It was nine-forty. He went over to Simon and asked him if they wanted to start.

“Our opponents still aren’t here,” he said.

“You’ve booked it for the next two hours whether they come or not,” said Cramer.

“Yeah, but there’s no point without someone to fight, is there?”

“You could divide into two teams.”

Simon gave Cramer a withering look. “You can count, right? There are seven of us.”

Cramer raised his hands in surrender. “Hey, okay, I just didn’t want you to waste your money, that’s all.”

Preston walked over, doing his impersonation of a Brooklyn pimp. “They ready?” he asked.

“No, we’re not ready,” snapped Simon.

Cramer explained that the opposition hadn’t turned up.

“Bummer,” said Preston.

Simon looked at his watch, a rugged stainless steel diving model, and made tut-tutting noises. Preston tugged at the peak of his baseball cap. “You could split into two teams,” he suggested. He nodded at Cramer. “Mike here could give you a game, that’d make it four a side.”

Simon narrowed his eyes. “We’re a team,” he said slowly as if addressing an imbecile. “We train together, we have a system, we can’t just divide into two and expect to function. It just won’t work.”

“I’ll take you on,” said Cramer, quietly.

“What do you mean?” said Simon.

“I mean I’ll give you a game. I’ll take you all on.”

Several of the men laughed. Simon looked Cramer up and down. The man in front of him was in his late thirties, a little over six feet and wiry rather than muscled, and looked as if he might be able to handle himself in a fight. But his deep-set eyes were watery and reddened, the cheeks crisscrossed with the broken veins of a heavy drinker and there was a strong smell of whisky about him that wasn’t masked by the mint-flavoured gum he was chewing. Simon shook his head. “What? You against the seven of us? I don’t think so,” he said.

“Come on, Simon, give the guy a chance,” shouted one of his team-mates.

“I tell you what,” said Cramer, “I’ll show you a new game. No enemy flags to capture, no teams. You go where you want to go, I’ll come in and get you. I call it Hide and Kill.”

“You against the seven of us?” Simon repeated.

“What, you don’t think that’s fair?” said Cramer. “How about if I tie one arm behind my back?”

Several of the team began laughing and Simon’s cheeks reddened. “Okay, you’re on,” he said. “I tell you what, why don’t we make it a bit more interesting? Why don’t we have a bet on the side?”

Cramer chewed his gum and looked at the younger man. “How much were you thinking of?”

Simon shrugged. “How does fifty pounds sound?”

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