Roderick Gonzales and his brother, Raul, lurked in the darkness with the patience of predators.
Their target -- Franz Aliquo, the Supreme Commander of the Shadow Government -- had already spotted them once and, with his bodyguards, slipped away into the San Francisco night. But in his haste, Aliquo had left the door to his North Beach safe house ajar, a mistake the Gonzaleses were quick to exploit.
The brothers slipped inside, guns ready, and waited. Three hours later, just after the bars closed, Aliquo and his entourage returned, scurrying from the car into what he thought was the safety of the apartment.
"As soon as I see a piece of his fur coat, I let loose with a blast," Roderick Gonzales recalled, relishing the memory. "He was surprised, with it coming out of the dark like that, so he tried to run across to the kitchen, and my brother got him from the other side and he just was knocked over.... He was soaked like he had just come in from a storm."
It's not exactly a scene from "The Bourne Identity" or "The Godfather," but for Roderick Gonzales it was a moment of triumph -- sealing him as the grand champion of the San Francisco version of a bizarre game of squirt-gun assassin designed to help adults get in touch with their inner hit man.
The game, called StreetWars: Killer, is an elaborate version of hide-and-seek, an update of older assassin role-playing games. It is played on city streets by scores of participants armed with water guns. For weeks, they stalk, pursue and ambush in the hopes of being the ultimate -- and dry -- hit man.
The game is poised for the leap from the margins to the mainstream: Earlier this month, a "CSI: NY" story line intermixed real murder with a fictional StreetWars-type game. And Aliquo, the game's co-founder, says he's in talks to steer the game into a reality TV show.
StreetWars began two years ago in New York and, in addition to the November game in San Francisco, has also been played in Vancouver, Canada; and Vienna. A new game, with more than 200 assassins, was to begin early today on the streets and in the buildings of Los Angeles (details at www.streetwars.net).
Although it may be hard for most to see a serious threat in squirt-gun-toting adults who refuse to grow up, the game has picked up a wide range of critics, including New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who suggested last year that Aliquo "could use some psychiatric help."
And the Cincinnati-based Parents of Murdered Children criticized the game as an insensitive mockery of violence in a society that has one of the highest homicide rates in the industrialized world.
"Murder seems to be the only tragedy that we make a game out of," said Nancy Ruhe, the group's executive director. "We don't play rape. We don't play cancer. We don't play airplane crash.... If you stop to think about it, would you play Clue if Professor Plum was sexually assaulting Miss Scarlet in the Billiard Room with a pool stick? Then why is it acceptable for Professor Plum to murder Miss Scarlet?"
But David Markland, who grew up "during the last burp of the Cold War" as a fan of James Bond and other spy thrillers, takes a lighter view.
"I don't see anything psychologically wrong with people wanting to play this," said Markland, 33, a Hollywood resident who signed up for the L.A. game. "Is it any more childish than fantasy football or even softball leagues? All entertainment is escapism. This is just a little more extreme."
Still, the game has "inherent dangers" and is susceptible to misinterpretation by those not involved "as assassins stalk their targets, sometimes sneaking onto their property, and then using guns that outsiders may perceive as real," he said. "I also made sure to have a conversation with my girlfriend about the game, to make sure she was cool if I started having strangers knocking on my door at odd hours trying to shoot me with water."
Organizers said they try to work with local police during the games, but department spokesmen in New York and San Francisco said they knew nothing about the games -- and wouldn't unless complaints were filed.
But the element of assault as play, potentially spinning into real fights, poses one of the game's risks, as does providing personal information about where you live and work to fellow players who are not screened, said a dubious Craig A. Anderson, an Iowa State University psychology professor.
"I certainly would not want to provide details of my life to 200 strangers who are interested in a stalking/killing game," he said. "Spending a lot of time looking out for potential threats and thinking about how to find one's 'enemy' can produce subtle changes in how one perceives the rest of the nongame world."
The rules are basic. Organizers map out a section of the city in which all of the contestants must either work or live -- preferably both. The terrain of the Los Angeles game stretches roughly from Glendale west across the southern part of the San Fernando Valley to the 405 Freeway, south over the Hollywood Hills to parts of Santa Monica and Venice Beach, and north of the Santa Monica Freeway.
The L.A. game was open to anyone older than 18 with a $35 entry fee, but registration is now closed. Organizers try to keep most games at fewer than 200 players. Players submit basic personal information, such as where they live and work, and a photograph, used for an ID card. At the start of a game, each player gets another player's card, and the hunt is on, using squirt guns, small hoses and the occasional water balloon. Once a player is hit, the successful assassin takes over the victim's assignment.
A few places are out of bounds, such as where a target works, and bars ("We like to encourage drinking," Aliquo said). The first player to capture his or her own card wins a pot of about $500. If after three weeks more than one player survives, the game is extended a week and Aliquo is added as a target -- the first player to hit him wins.
And once Aliquo gets involved, the game becomes street theater as he and his "bodyguards" move among "safe houses" using dark-windowed limos and other symbols of criminal excess, often dressing in vintage clothing or other costumes.
Such games can be a societal mirror, even if warped like a carnival funhouse's.
"They tend to model what is going on in society at large," said Garry Chick, a professor in Penn State's College of Health and Human Development. The board game Monopoly "developed early in the last century but only caught on during the Great Depression, so people could play with lots of money even if they had little."
Assassins have been enjoying a bit of a cultural renaissance, at least in Hollywood. In addition to this year's Oscar-nominated "Munich,"Tom Cruise played a contract killer in 2004's "Collateral," Pierce Brosnan made the transition from James Bond to a burned-out hit man in last year's "The Matador," and the 2003 Belgian film "Memory of a Killer" focused on an assassin in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
And Matt Damon has made a cottage industry of Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne, the former CIA killer with his own memory troubles.
USC social psychology professor Jerald Jellison thinks the leap from daily routine to assassin-style fantasy has a lot of appeal -- especially for fans of spy stories, who get to role-play as the ultimate predator without crossing moral boundaries.
"It's a way to add zest to your life," Jellison said, comparing the intensity of the hunt to the excitement that comes with a new romance. "You could be your hero -- James Bond, or whoever you wanted to be."
Indeed, Aliquo said he began StreetWars as a way to relieve a general ennui among him and his friends. "I just wanted to see what it was like to live in an action movie and add a little bit of excitement to life," said Aliquo, an equities lawyer by day. "Daily routine was very much getting to me."
For organizers and players, StreetWars allows them to relive portions of their childhood. "Honestly, the whole game is about recapturing the fun and freedom you had as a kid," said Aliquo, who organized the first game through a Brooklyn adult kickball league in which he plays.
Joanna Balsamo signed up for the L.A. game for a similar reason -- escapism.
"Something like this throws the element of fun and paranoia into your life for three weeks," said Balsamo, 25, of Silver Lake, who works up to 12 hours a day as a chemist. "At the end of the shift I transform into an urban assassin who hunts down my targets, while also being stalked because of the price on my own head. It's the chance to safely live the double life of a regular citizen and a trophy-hungry assassin."
Aliquo said the game differs from paintball and other mock-killing games because it requires strategy in the real world. Players seek each other out on real streets and sometimes concoct elaborate traps.
Innovation is rewarded. Some players design their own squirt guns to hide up a sleeve. Others have gone to comical lengths to soak their target, including, said co-founder Yutai Liao, activating a sprinkler system.
One player managed to evade several attempted hits until, hiding in a car, he lighted a cigarette and cranked the window down a slit to clear the smoke. "Someone," Liao said, "popped him through the crack in the window." Another player had a colleague set up a target for a fake job interview, then nailed the victim at the end of it.
"Once the game gets played and people realize the kind of humor it's played with," Aliquo said, "it becomes a lot less scary and more of just the kind of fun we had as kids."
Still, the game can get too creepy for some. Roderick Gonzales said one of his early targets in the San Francisco game dropped out after Gonzales and his brother spent an evening stalking the man's apartment. "He really did get scared," Gonzales said.
And Liao said some of the players in an earlier game in New York got a little overzealous, including driving the wrong way down a one-way street during an attempted hit.
"We don't want the cops mad at us, so we don't want to encourage players to do that," said Liao.
And, so far, public reaction has "surprisingly been OK," he said. "Other than Mike Bloomberg calling us out as mentally unstable."