"Step right up! Step right up, and win a prize! All sharpshooters and amateur gunslingers, step yourselves on up to the booth and win a shiny new toy for your special sweetheart!"
John's 'special sweetheart' isn't speaking to him at the moment, because he's had to cancel yet another one of their dates to help his flatmate out on a case. So instead of winning her a cheap stuffed teddy bear and then sharing a fried snack on the ferris wheel he's lurking around a fairgrounds playing backup to London's most lunatic detective. Who has now completely disappeared, he might add.
He could go off looking for Sherlock, but experience tells him that's an exercise in futility. He'll only find him holed up, comfy-as-you-please, in the back of some beat-up camper caravan sharing cheap brandy and expensive cigars with a tattooed circus freak. How Sherlock manages to have 'contacts' in every seedy corner of London's underground, John doesn't want to guess...
Rather than drive himself mad on ithat/i fool's errand, John eyes the shoot 'em up booth keenly. It's been awhile since he's been to the firing range, and if he's honest with himself, he's missed it. He'd always been a crack shot, and not just for an army doctor: he could hold his own against any one of Her Majesty's finest. There were a few pretty girls in bright summer dresses standing not far from the booth...maybe just a few moment's diversion...
There's a fair few customers up at the booth already-macho blokes with their willowy, big-eyed girlfriends standing behind them, cooing over stuffed bunnies and Tweety Bird t-shirts. There's an empty spot on the end, though, and John steps up and plunks down his money.
"Hey, here's a shooter! Here's a shooter! Lucky number 8, right here on the end! Big strong fella, ready to win a girl a prize, all he needs is the girl! Any takers, any takers?" The obnoxious carnival barker in the retro red-striped hat winks at the gaggle of girls off to the side even as he slips in his sly dig at John.
He doesn't have time to respond before the next round is starting. The game is shooting rubber pellets at moving targets: little wooden ducks circling round a track on rails. The track is moving rather fast and the tiny targets are nearly impossible to hit: almost every bloke on the line strikes out, but John manages to nail three ducks.
When a bell sounds to signal the end of the round, there's a lot of grumbling from the other competitors...words like "fix" and "scam" are muttered angrily, while disappointed girlfriends either whine about the prizes they didn't win or soothe shattered egos and suggest a trip to the dodg'ems instead.
John, on the other hand, is invited to choose a prize from the First Level. He spies a particularly lovely brunette watching him out of the corner of her eye, and politely invites her to choose something from the colorful assortment of cheap plastic bobbles and paper-wrapped sweets. She picks out a red lollipop, and smiles her thanks. John is thinking about asking for her name, and wondering whether this officially counts as 'cheating' and something he'll have to tell Sarah about later when the barker announces that the next round is starting. The particularly sore losers have left their spaces at the shooting gallery and new, eager young blokes have replaced them with their own entourages of girlfriends and wives.
John notices that the dark-haired girl with the cherry lolly and her group of friends have moved closer to the booth, and are now openly watching the proceedings with interest.
The little bell sounds, and John starts to focus. He was a little rusty during that first round, but now he's starting to get the hang of things: he subconsciously calculates the approximate speed of the targets, and aims for the empty space just a fraction of a second before them, so by the time he squeezes the trigger and sends off the little rubber pellet, the duck is there waiting for it.
This time he manages to hit five of them.
Once again, he's the only shooter who's had much luck. Another bloke has managed to hit two and is feeling rather chuffed, but his victory is quickly deflated when he finds his wife is busy chatting to her sister about the handsome stranger on the end who's been invited to pick another prize, from the Second Level this time.
John invites the same girl and her friends up to the booth, and as a petite blonde with faint brown freckles on her nose looks over the collection of trinkets, he finds himself surrounded by her friends. He laughs good-naturedly as they compliment his skill: why yes, he has handled a gun before; he was in the army; no no, he's retired now. His audience is captivated, eyes all wide at his modest assertions of bravery and skill. He can't help but feel a little guilty at how easy it is: the "former soldier who's seen action and been wounded in the war" story always works, every single time. Like the little moving ducks, he's getting the hang of this crowd of girls, aiming his attentions skillfully, in just the right direction to bring up the little red flags that tell him he's hit his mark.
The girls are nothing but smiles, but he can't help but notice the glares of all the other patrons.
John plays another round and then another, and his skill is improving with each successive turn. The barker is annoyed, because other carnival-goers have decided it's useless to compete against the sharpshooter, but the gaggle of girls are delighted, as they've all now had a chance at winning a prize. They're whispering amongst themselves and urging each other to go up and ask him to go out to the pub with them later, when another customer walks up to the booth.
"I'll have a go, thanks." She drops her money onto the counter and tests the weight of the air gun in her hand.
"Lucky lady, ready to take on our defending champ! It's Beauty over Brawn, ladies and gentleman, step right up to get into the competition!"
No one takes him up on his offer, though he continues to hustle the crowd for a few minutes longer.
While he does, John eyes up his new competition. She's dressed in a curious blend of old and new clothing: sleek, form-fitting trousers of a shiny, almost iridescent cloth; a fur-lined jacket with leather ties; and what appears to be a digital watch with far too many digits. She peers over at John from under a cloud of curly blonde hair and smirks: "I hate to disappoint your fan club, but I never could resist a good shooting match."
Her voice is husky and seductive, playful—but nevertheless, taunting. John blinks out of his reverie and smiles politely. "Well, may the best shooter win!"
She laughs just a little too heartily. "Indeed!"
John hasn't time to respond, as the next round is starting: the bell goes off, and the little ducks begin to circle round their mad, erratic tracks.
Even though he's concentrating on the targets with the laser-like focus he learned from his army training, he can't help but notice that his competitor is doing ivery/i well—incredibly well! Almost ipreternaturally/i well! It had taken John a few rounds to hit his stride and get into the rhythm of the game, but this woman beside him doesn't seem to need a similar adjustment period. He can hear the targets pinging and dropping back, and some of them disappear from his own sights before he's had the chance to pull the trigger. He briefly wonders if this woman doesn't spend all of her free time at traveling fairs, practicing her shooting skills, but he doesn't need a second look to tell him that she's not the kind of woman who would bother. Without asking, he can imagine she's got better things to do.
The round ends to a hushed silence. When the players' totals flash up on the digital scoreboard, John can hardly believe his eyes: he's hit 7 targets. She's hit i20/i!
In a rush, the silent spectators spring back to life.
"Cor, that was brilliant!"
"Was you in the army, Miss?"
"Wow, where did you learn to shoot like that?"
That last question came from John's dark-haired fan—her lips are still swollen bright red from her cherry lolly. But now, instead of casting shy glances at John and giggling with her friends, she's turned her golden doe-eyes onto his competitor. "That was just iamazing/i!" she gushes.
The woman smiles at her indulgently, and thanks her for the compliment. "There's nothing to it, really: it just takes a bit of practice and concentration. Why don't you step up and give it a try?"
The girl is reluctant and shy, not sure of herself: but after a moment's careful prodding, her new mentor has her set up at the station next to hers and is showing the girl how to brace her gun hand at the wrist with her other arm.
During the next round, John's curly-haired nemesis istill/i manages to hit twice as many targets as he does, despite watching her new protégée's progress out of the corner of her eye and tossing her the occasional bit of constructive criticism or word of encouragement. Despite her initial nerves, the dark-haired girl has managed to hit a few of the targets, and is jumping up and down gleefully before bending over the glass counter to pick out her own trinket.
Her friends crowd round her, offering congratulations. Soon a couple of them are encouraged to take up their own places at the counter, and their self-appointed instructor moves down the line, correcting posture and showing them how to space their feet. She moves elbows up and shoulders down and teaches them how to line up the sights and aim for where the ducks are igoing/i to be, rather than where they are.
During the next few rounds John regains his composure and starts to steadily improve again, but no one's paying any attention now: the girls are far too excited at their own increasing competency, and all the blokes who've gathered round to watch are intent on the curly blonde goddess whose score has now broken thirty targets. The barker flits happily back and forth along the gallery between rounds, handing out sweets and stuffed animals: the cost of the prizes he's giving away is far outweighed by the money he's raking in now.
Amid the noisy, happy chatter surrounding the shooting gallery, a man's voice can be heard above the din. "River! River, come here!"
The sharp-shooting woman flinches for a moment and squints worriedly into the crowd. Her features relax when a girl with long, tangled dark hair springs forward, lit-up eyes fixed on the colorful prizes dangling from the roof of the fair booth. She's followed closely by an equally dark-haired young man, his features clouded with worry.
"River! Please don't take off in a crowd like that!" His breath is coming short, but the tight look of worry is starting to leave his face.
The girl doesn't pay much attention to what he's said. "Look, Simon! Look at the pretty!" Her sweeping gesture encompasses the whole of the prize gallery, but her eyes are fixed on one object in particular: a large plastic snow globe with a miniature of the London Eye inside. She moves to the one empty space at the booth and starts to pick up the gun.
"River!" Her companion, Simon, steps up to stop her. He puts a hand over hers protectively and lowers the gun back down to its holster. "River, you know you're not supposed to touch guns..."
The patrons that were crowding round the gallery take a few steps back from the pair at this announcement. Neither of them seems to notice.
River, in particular, is untroubled. "Simon, you needn't worry! It's not a real gun—there's no explosive reaction set off by the firing mechanism. It's simply a pneumatic tube of compressed air set to release a rubber projectile, the velocity of which has been carefully calibrated not to impart lethal force. Even if it were discharged on a human being at close range, it would result in severe contusions, but no particularly lasting damage..."
She seems ready to test out her theory on her companion, when the barker reaches across the counter to grasp the barrel of the gun. "All right, Missy! So far as I can tell, everything you've said is correct, but you're still gonna have to keep the barrel pointed at the shooting gallery and away from the patrons!"
River turns back to stick her tongue out at her companion, Simon, and then indicates with a nod of her head that he should place the requisite coins on the counter so she can have a go at winning her prize. With an exaggerated sigh, he complies, and soon the next round is starting.
John has a fantastic round, hitting 15 targets, but no one is interested in watching him play anymore. The curly-haired sharpshooter is still racking up the points, hitting close to 40 targets, and the new girl, River, has a pretty damn good first round, hitting 14 targets despite flinching each and every time one of the ducks takes a hit.
Simon is suitably impressed. "River, that was great! Look, you get to choose a prize!"
She isn't happy, though. "Not good enough to win the pretty snow globe!" she says sulkily.
"But you were fantastic! Look at how many ducks you hit..."
"That's just it!" she says angrily. "It's not nice to shoot ducks!"
"Well, they aren't real ducks..."
She treats him to a look of disdain. "I know that. But they're so cute! It still isn't nice to shoot them..."
"Well, if you'd rather move to another game..."
"But if I can't see them..."
"Right...wait, what?" Simon's sense of alarm is too slow to respond—the bell has signified the start of the next round and River's started shooting.
Every other player stands with their feet planted firmly in a triangle stance, their bodies straight and rigid, both arms raised to support the gun and eyes focused intently on the little moving targets. River stands haphazardly, eyes closed and head bent with her long, stringy dark hair falling over her face. She holds the gun in one hand, and her other arm dangles limply at her side.
And the targets are falling like dominoes. One after the other, the little ducks spring backwards and the little red flags that signify the target's been hit fly up. The other shooters soon notice that the targets are gone before they've even had a chance to sight them. Twenty seconds into the round, every other player has lowered their weapon and now stands staring in awe at the strange girl who's able to take out an entire shooting gallery's worth of targets with her eyes clasped firmly shut.
Her companion, Simon, stands off to the side looking as if he'd like to intervene—if he weren't rooted to the spot. John couldn't blame him: when he thinks back on it later, he doesn't think he'd have been able to move then, either. Everything seemed to have been happening in slow motion—the whole world frozen except for the girl with the gun and the little moving ducks.
The bell dings, and time speeds back up again. Every eye is turned toward the girl in the loose floral dress, hefting the air gun as if it were no more important than a stick of candyfloss. Everyone is staring, but the girl is completely oblivious.
She opens one eye first and peers at her score. She opens the other, and turns to Simon, beaming. "78! Yay, I can get the shiny snow globe!"
River turns her expectant gaze onto the barker behind the booth, but he just stares back at her dumbly. Then, without a word, he turns and removes the globe from its shelf. He sets it down in front of the girl, who shoots him a brilliant smile, shouts her thanks, and then dashes off into the crowd, the dark-haired man following after her.
The curly-haired sharpshooter to John's left is the first one to recover. "Curiouser and curiouser..." she mumbles under her breath.
Somehow, her words have broken the spell, and the crowd starts moving again, noisily discussing the spectacle they'd just witnessed.
"Did you see that?"
"I can't believe it!"
"That girl isn't right..."
The woman herself seems to be undisturbed. "Well, enough fun for one day!" she announces to no one in particular. Then, turning back to the booth and addressing the barker: "I do believe I'm ready to collect my prize! I think I have enough points for that big one back there..."
"Yes, Ma'am," he answers simply, not having fully regained the use of his voice. He grabs down the black and white ball of fur she's gesturing towards, and hands it over. "You have more than enough to pick something else..."
"No need!" she waves him off. "I've got what I wanted." She turns her back on the booth and begins to scan the crowd. "Now, where did he get off to?"
John is about to gather up his pride and set off in search of Sherlock when he spies the man himself coming toward him through the crowd. He isn't alone, either: walking with him is another tall, gangly man dressed in tweed and a bow tie. He has the face of a student and the wardrobe of a professor, but somehow he manages to look completely unlike either.
The woman next to him is looking in the same direction, and smiling brilliantly. Before John can hail Sherlock and his newfound friend, she's doing it for him. "There you are, sweetie! Over here!" She's addressing the man in the bow tie, who returns her silly grin and barges through the crowd in a flurry of elbows. Sherlock strides after him in his wake.
"There you are, John!" Naturally, he's speaking in a tone that suggests that John was the one to wander off in the first place... "We've got what we came for, time to be off..."
John has questions: many, many questions. But before he can ask them, Sherlock is stalking away, slipping seamlessly through the crowd. He tosses a quick "Until next time!" in the general direction of the man in the bow tie, who doesn't seem to be paying him any more attention.
Before he scurries off after Sherlock, he can hear the strange, tweedy man exclaiming over the stuffed prize John's sharp shooting rival apparently won for him. "A badger! A big, giant badger...oh, this is brilliant! Just the thing for the empty chair in the console room...you know, I shall call him Charlie!"
"Sherlock!" John calls, addressing the back of his flatmate's head. "Sherlock, who was that man?"
He doesn't break stride to answer. "My contact!"
Helpful, as always. "Yes, but who is he? What does he do?"
"A little bit of everything. More than that, I'm afraid it wouldn't be good for you to know."
John's caught up now, which means he's now half-skipping alongside the taller man to keep up. "That woman he was with! She's the best shot I've seen...well, she was the best shot I'd ever seen...until this girl came up—long, scraggly dark hair and baggy dress—and she took out the whole shooting gallery! Every single target! With her eyes closed!"
Sherlock merely glances over his shoulder. "Oh, was she there, too?"
His casual remark has John spluttering. "She? You know her?"
"Yes, John—a talent like that, you've got to keep your eye on. But she's harmless—well, mostly. In any case, it's interesting that the two of them were together. A rather peculiar spot for the two Rivers to meet..."
John falls behind a step trying to wrestle the information he's just been imparted into some semblance of sense. When he's fairly sure he can't, he runs to catch up. "I'm sorry, what?"
"Yes, that was a rather unclear way to put things. Sorry, John—I suppose it's your own influence, though; that silly blog you keep..."
"I have no idea what we're talking about anymore."
"It doesn't matter, John. Perhaps another day, another time stream..."
"Until then, follow me! The game is on!"