As if the living dead aren't enough to worry about, I'm now looking over my shoulder for the living. I'm driving my car instead of biking. My small, second-hand sidearm works for defense, but I'm in need of something long-range.
I nervously meet with my partner, who wears a trucker hat above a blond mullet wig. We've got a few leads on our targets but no way of knowing who's coming after us. The anxiety is setting in, and the gravity of the situation is getting heavier. There are grown men and women following each other. With squirt guns.
Welcome to Assassins, a game of friendly manhunting specially tailored to Missoula. The rules are simple (or they're supposed to be). Your two-person team is assigned a team to assassinate. When both members are laid to watery waste, you take over tracking down their assigned team. And on and on, until you're all that's left. Of course, rule one is don't break the law or put anyone in danger, or you're out. That said, you're hunting and being hunted as well as backstabbed by other teams and non-players.
"The whole game is lies and deceit and double-talk and setups and manipulation," says Joe Berryman, founder and fighting member of Missoula Assassins. "It's almost a way to get that stuff out of your system, and then go back to the real world where you don't lie, cheat, manipulate and screw people over. It's like a big vent," he says, laughing.
Here's a game to make Mark Zuckerberg proud. Every player has to have a Facebook profile with an accessible picture. In fact, the whole game is based in a private Facebook group full of taunting, questions and death reports. Even in Missoula, where everyone somehow knows everyone else, it's important to know the face of your enemy. Maybe you frequented the same pubs this whole time. How good are you with faces and names? Fortunately for the bystander, mistaken identity is rarely a problem. You don't want to get someone wet if you're not absolutely sure they deserve it.
The next step is to find out some addresses and work schedules. Not that it would help too much. Work and home are safe zones, unless you invite your assassin into your home (the vampire rule). And while you're at work, on break or between the door of your employer and your car, there will be no shooting from either party. Doesn't mean you can't follow someone around or get them through the car window, though. Being in the open, well that's just careless.
"The psychological aspects behind this game are rad: It gets weird," Berryman says.
Defense is vital. If you manage to discover the identity of one or more of your assassins (lucky!), you can shoot him or her and you're safe until 5 a.m. the next day. Berryman knows that game all too well from the first incarnation of Assassins, which started in April. After several encounters with his disguised hunter, including an incident where she waited on the roof of his house, he was sold out by (go figure) someone he had sold out. He vowed his revenge and quickly got the ball rolling for a second round.
"I got such an amazing response from the first one. Everywhere I went, somebody would recognize the giant squirt gun"his Nerf Thunder, a fully automatic, Duracell-powered, changeable-clip Super Soaker"and people would say, 'Yeah, man, me and like 10 of my buddies want to play.'"
Plenty of these alleged buddies crapped out when it came time to sign up at the start of July, but the pool of several dozen players in version 2.0 are the hardcore hunters Berryman's hoped for.
This time around is more refined and better planned. There are teams, yards are newly off-limits and a communal safe zone has been established at Bayern Brewery, where Berryman bartends. He says roughly 75 percent of the last game's victims met their doom there, and "there was a calling for at least one safe spot just to hang out and drink a beer. That is one commonality with all the players: Everyone enjoys going out and having a beer."
I feel better, but I still don't feel safe. The whole time I talk with Berryman, at Bridge Pizza, I keep looking over my shoulder. He assures me he has my back, that this is a friendly interview, but he easily could have set up an ambush while I'm stuffing my face with taco pizza. At least I have my squirt gun, a leaky mini M16, on the table. I didn't have such a luxury in the first game, when I was assassinated after finishing a 12-page paper. I was in search of a beer or five, and she knew exactly where I would goI'd been sold out and caught off guard. Others met similarly tragic fates. Several were squirt-gunned in the back, I witnessed an epic over-the-fence shot at Bayern and the setups compounded until more than 40 fell in about a month.
As of press time, I'm still alive. A few players have been compromised, but laying low and letting my counter-terrorism-trained teammate take the lead has preserved my stake in this maze of paranoia. Except, of course, I totally just blew my cover. I guess I'll have to abide by Joe's parting words:
"Trust no one. Absolutely nobody. Shave your head, get a new job and start going to mall bars."