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A shot in the dark

There are real-life perils in a fantasy assassination game.

April 01, 2006|Pamela Wilson | PAMELA WILSON is a design editor for The Times.

I WAS SHOT in the head the other night by my son's would-be assassin.

Arriving home about 7 p.m., I noticed the porch light wasn't on and our dog was barking, but it didn't occur to me that a killer lurked in the shadows near my front steps.

My son heard me approaching and turned on the light. He opened the door, but as I stepped across the threshold, a look of terror spread across his face. Before I knew what was happening, the closing door crushed me against the doorjamb, and the shot meant for him had hit me in the back of the head. I didn't feel any pain, just a trickle of liquid down the back of my neck.

I am a collateral casualty of StreetWars: Killer, a fantasy assassin game being played throughout Los Angeles, ending Monday. It's already been played in New York, San Francisco, Vienna and Vancouver, Canada. Contestants stalk assigned targets, try to shoot them with water guns and, if they are successful, they assume the soaked victim's target and move on to their next hit, all the while trying to avoid being assassinated themselves.

When my son Zack told me he was one of 200 wannabe hit men (and women) who had paid $35 to take part in this three-week contest of wits, patience and paranoia, I was worried. The news is full of stories about people getting shot because someone mistakes the toy in their hands for a real gun.

Zack is 19, and although he's in college and old enough to vote, in many ways, he's still a big kid. StreetWars is a dramatic extension of playing cops and robbers. So my husband Steve and I decided we'd do what we could to keep him safe, even if it meant helping him "kill" his intended target.

For the next week, Zack wouldn't leave the house without his water pistols. Steve and I had to sweep the yard for suspicious persons every time Zack came or went.

As for Zack's target, a cartoonist named Colin, he proved elusive. Luckily, his Silver Lake apartment was around the corner from my favorite market, so I could help my son stake out his victim's home and then do my grocery shopping.

As I waited in the car one day with the engine running, I had to admit, it was a bit of a thrill. Zack talked his way into a locked apartment complex and memorized the code his unwitting accomplice punched into the keypad. I was swept up in the fantasy. I was proud of him for his resourcefulness.

But Colin wasn't home.

Steve took Zack to the Glendale offices where Colin worked, but that too proved futile. Zack waited outside to try to get him on his way to or from his car, but he never saw the guy enter or leave.

On the night that I became a victim, it had been eight days since the game began and no one yet had made an attempt on Zack's life.

It's surprising how swiftly paranoia can turn to complacency. I had almost forgotten about the game when I got out of my car and headed up the stairs to my front door. Even with the dog barking, Zack came to the door unarmed.

I didn't hear his attacker rush up behind me. I just saw Zack's expression, and felt the door shoved into my arm as Zack jumped behind it. Then, the trickle of water down the back of my T-shirt.

"I got you! I got you!" the shooter yelled.

"No you didn't!" Zack cried from behind the door.

"You got me!" I said, as the man ran back to his hiding place in the bushes under our bedroom window.

Instinctively, I went inside and checked on Zack. He was dry as a bone. Instinctively, Steve rushed outside, found the guy hiding in the shadows and bawled him out. "Don't sneak up on my wife like that!" Steve yelled at the adrenaline-pumped man, who turned out to be a guy from the neighborhood named Wesley. "I could have shot you, thinking you were attacking her."

"Didn't you know he was playing the game?" Wesley asked.

Sure, we knew. But in the moment of truth, we reacted instinctively, from an animal emotion that doesn't distinguish between fact and fantasy. The instinct to protect yourself and those you love. That's what makes a game like this so exciting but also what renders it truly dangerous.

In the end, Wesley told the organizers of the game that Steve had threatened him with a gun, even though Steve doesn't own a gun and only said he did in the heat of the moment. Wesley also said he got Zack, and the game masters sided with him. So Zack is out of StreetWars.

"That's OK, Mom. I'm fine with being dead," he told me when I offered to try to get the decision overturned. "Being an assassin is a lot more work than I had in mind."

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