Across the room, the rack of TVs flooded with red light. All of them showed the same picture: a man with an unlikely muscular build in leather harness and a kilt jogging through the levelled ruins of a city.
Dirk Merrit said, ‘Remember him?’
Carl was getting a very bad feeling. ‘He’s the partner of your latest sacrifice. The one in Brooklyn. The one you said you weren’t interested in. The one you said would give up after he was left on his own.’
‘Because he was younger and more inexperienced, yes. But he has managed to reach the ruins of Los Angeles after all. He’s been beaten back three times, but he is persistent and clever. He’s a stayer after all. If I don’t do anything, I do believe he’ll reach the oracle soon. And if he has the password that gets him past the oracle, or if he can guess it, he’ll be one step away from the source of those valuable trinkets Mr Hunter Smith likes to sell on eBay.’
‘So put the wolves on him,’ Carl said.
The wolves were a bunch of players in a Romanian click farm, paid by Dirk Merrit to defend the Los Angeles basin from intruders.
On the TV screens, the muscular man jogged past a row of dead palms. Their shrivelled fronds were etched black against a swollen red sun.
Dirk Merrit said, ‘His game profile suggested that he was the junior partner. But now I’ve had to revise my opinion. Not just because of what he has achieved on his own: I’ve read the emails he exchanged with our sacrifice, too. He’s a prodigy.’
‘I thought you’d given up trying to crack that laptop.’
When Carl had kidnapped the latest pilgrim and his girlfriend, he’d brought the guy’s laptop back too.
‘It was quite a clever little bit of encryption. But as it turns out, I’m cleverer,’ Dirk Merrit said complacently. ‘I read every one of this player’s emails, and he’s easily the equal of his partner. Which means that he’s equally worthy of my attentions.’