Written by Pauli Kohberger
Dear Mr. Bianchi, started the letter, and Bob Sparker inwardly cringed. His show had been on the air for a year now, and by now, he'd been hoping for the company to just refer to him with his stage name instead. Most people did, like his cast and crew (not to mention his adoring audience), but every time he received a letter that called him Mr. Bianchi, he felt embarrassment twist him into knots.
It took him a quick walk around his apartment and two glasses of water to work up the courage to read the rest of the letter. When he did, he felt foolish, because there were only three more lines:
Your presence is hereby requested at the Top Tier Electric Co. winter party on December 17th at 7:30 PM. It will be held in the ballroom on the first floor of the company building. Please feel free to bring a guest.
He glanced at the calendar. The 20th was tonight. It was four in the afternoon. He had three and a half hours to prepare for the company party.
"That's what you get for not checking your mail on time!" admonished his mother over the phone. "What, you'd like to bring me along? Well, that's sweet of you, but..." And she changed the topic completely. So much for a guest, and that was ten minutes gone he could have used to find a tuxedo.
But by this time, every tailor on the top level of town was booked solid, and none of the rental shops he went to had anything left in his size. As a last resort, and with an hour to spare, Bob Sparker looked into the depths of his wardrobe.
Green, purple, yellow, red... he let out a groan as he searched through suit after suit in his closet. Everything he had was bright enough to ward off predators, not to look classy at a company party. The closest thing he had to black tie wear was a dark blue suit with tiny hot-pink polka dots, and that was the last thing he wanted to show up in, even if he did work it like a pro.
He pulled it aside, and at the very end of his closet, the very back, there was something glittering in the dark. He pulled out an old white suit with gold pinstriping, something he'd bought a season or two before and completely forgot about. It wasn't exactly discreet, but it'd have to do, and it complemented his cotton-white hair in a snowy, wintry way.
He brushed his hair, smoothed down his lapels, considered a tie (all his colors clashed), then a bow tie (white-on-white, okay, that would do), and cleaned off his favorite pair of white shoes. And then he realized he actually had to step out the door and start walking to the party, and he was terrified all over again.
It'll really be okay, he tried to think, as he dragged himself down the steps of his apartment building. There'll be a million people there! You just have to try not to stand out, that's all--
in your white-and-gold suit, with that nose of yours--
and it'll go by in a flash.
The ballroom was beautiful. The whole place was hung with white cloth and gold stars, silver snowflakes and crystal chandeliers. As Bob Sparker swept off his coat and hung it up, he couldn't help but wonder what he'd been worried about. Look who matches the décor.
He wasn't the only one who noticed, too. As people turned to look, dressed in blacks and whites and almost nothing in between, Bob Sparker swept through the crowd effortlessly. He danced through the room as lightly as foam on champagne, laughing and introducing himself as he sparkled in the crowd.
Still, he didn't really seem to make much of an impression. People would look at him and laugh politely, and introduce themselves, and then they drifted away as easily as they came. What did a game show host have in common with a banker, or a model, or a film director? Certainly not enough to hold a conversation.
Bob searched the crowd. There must be someone here he recognized.
He turned. Leaning against the wall was a surly-looking man, probably a little younger than Bob himself, dressed in a black tux with dark sunglasses that slid down the bridge of his nose. He was jotting something down in a pocket notebook, and he paused to push up his glasses before he started again. For a moment, he glanced up, and--well, Bob couldn't tell for sure, but it looked like they caught each other's eyes.
Oh, yeah, Bob thought. Isn't that Jam? I think he's in the music biz...I know we've met before.
Bob drifted closer, slowly, not wanting to look too concerned. He flittered here and there, grabbed an hors d'oeuvre or two...
"Hey," Jam said bluntly. "I've been watching you in the crowd. You came down to earth pretty quickly, huh?"
"I guess so," Bob half-laughed, half-sighed. He reached out to shake Jam's hand. "Well, it's good to see a familiar face, anyway. What've you been up to, buddy?"
If Bob was being honest with himself, they weren't actually buddies at all. They weren't anywhere near friends, and even "coworkers" was stretching it. Jam worked in music production, and Bob was a game show host. They'd met maybe twice before, and each time, Jam had cut off the conversation like he had some other extremely important thing to do instead.
"Not much," he replied. "Working. Writing."
"Nice, nice." Bob nodded. "Me, well, things are goin' okay on my end."
"Of course they are," Jam replied, looking down at his notebook. "You're Top Tier's newest acquisition. Not that I'm jealous," he clarified carefully. "I'm just saying that's the way it is."
"You may not be jealous, but you certainly don't like it, huh?" Bob tried to laugh, folding his arms in front of him. "Every time I see you, you're actin' like I'm gonna give you a rash."
Jam furrowed his brow a little, glaring. "You're right," he admitted. "Frankly, I think your whole 'sadistically throwing people into electric chairs' shtick isn't exactly the kind of image Top Tier ought to be cultivating."
"Oh, sadistically, huh?" Bob laughed, putting a hand over his heart. "Now, now, Jam, it ain't that kind of show. This is family-friendly entertainment, for the most part. You've seen all the warnings at the commercial breaks, right?" He tugged at his lapels and affected his deep stage voice. "Don't try this at home, folks!"
Jam glared at him, and opened his mouth--then closed it, and shook his head. "Whatever," he said slowly. "I didn't come here to argue with you about it. You'll get what's coming to you one day," he said, gesturing squarely at Bob with his pencil. "And I'll be here to say 'I told you so.'"
"I'd be honored to have you witness my fall from grace," Bob said, bowing in mock respect. "Anyway, it wouldn't be the first time I've had to eat crow."
"I'm sure," Jam said, and this time he was even grinning a little around the edges. Bob grinned back--maybe he just needed a sparring partner to get going. "Well, the Kings seem to love you, anyway, so you've got it made for now."
"Really? Say, is Mr. King here tonight?"
"Of course he is. I haven't seen him around, but then again, not many people do," Jam explained. He looked up and scanned the crowd. "Usually it's easier to find his daughter. You know her, right? Margaret King?"
"I don't, actually," Bob confessed. "I've met the boss once or twice, but every time I get into the studio, it's always 'oh, Miss Margaret was just here! You're three minutes late this time!' I don't get it," he complained. "For a girl-about-town, she sure is hard to catch."
"You've just got bad luck, that's all," Jam chuckled. "Anyway, she's easy to find if you look for her. Real tall, bright orange hair. Real bright, in big ringlets. And she can holler like nobody's--"
All of a sudden, a rich, high voice burst out over the crowd. "Excuse me! Excuse me! Your attention, please!"
Everyone turned. Bob's gaze swept up the vast staircases that led to a balcony at the far end of the ballroom. And there she was, Margaret King, standing on the steps with a glass of champagne in one hand. Oh yeah, Bob thought. That's gotta be the town princess.
Jam's description was spot on. The ringlets in her hair looked thick and soft, and they were of a gold color so rich it was practically orange, popping out among the whites and silvers of the ballroom. She stood straight and tall with a silvery faux-fur shawl around her shoulders, dressed in a slim cut of dress that showed off her graceful arms. She was looking around, her gaze passing over each person in the crowd, and she was smiling.
"Told you," Jam said dryly. "She can get loud enough to raise the dead."
"I'd like to welcome all of you to Top Tier's winter party!" she announced. "We've got more people here than ever this year, so why don't we get this show on the road?"
A few steps above her, a tall man dressed in a dark suit, with black hair and a neatly trimmed mustache, slowly stepped down towards the ballroom floor. Bob recognized him immediately--that was her father, of course, Mr. Percy King--but he was easy to miss when his daughter was so bright and bombastic. Strangely enough, the head of Top Tier almost blended into the crowd.
"Thank you, Margaret," said Mr. King, and his voice was low and calm, almost sleepy. His gaze traveled slowly around the room, taking in every face in the crowd. "I'd like to thank all of you for attending. This year has been a massive, resounding success. One of the best years in the company's history, in fact."
A wave of enthusiastic applause swept through the crowd.
"Thank you," Percy said again, bowing slightly. He turned to someone in the crowd. "As you all know, it's traditional to have a round of speeches before the party gets underway. Mr. Kelly Kim, would you like to start us off?"
A few feet away, a tall, sweet-looking man with puffy white hair and tired eyes stepped out from the crowd. "Holy moly," Bob whispered, leaning close to Jam. "Is that Cowboy Kim? I used to listen to his show every day!"
"Sure is," Jam said, his voice swelling with pride. "He's one of the nicest guys in town. Knows almost everything about radio, too. He taught me a lot, even though he didn't have to. Hard to believe guys like that still exist around here."
Kim looked back and forth, smiling, with a hint of nervousness around his eyes. "Well," he said slowly, his voice warm and rolling, "I don't think I'm all that great at speeches. But every year I see more new blood in the crowd, and I'm fairly certain there's a couple folks here who are leagues better than I am at comin' up with something to say."
There was a gentle drawl to his words, and just hearing his voice stirred up memories of listening to Cowboy Kim's Radio Rodeo after school. Bob's heart fluttered.
"So I'll keep it short," he continued. He raised his glass of champagne. "To another year of good work, good friends, and good company. And to my good friend and all of yours," he added, "Mr. King."
There was an immediate rush of applause through the crowd. Everyone raised their glasses, and Mr. King nodded politely.
"Thank you!" Margaret said, clapping her hands together. "Thank you as always, Mr. Kim. It's really a pleasure to have you with us." She dug out a folded-up piece of paper from her purse. "As Mr. King said, it's customary to have our most well-known stars give a brief speech to kick off the winter party. We start with the stars who have been with us the longest, like Mr. Kim here, and then we work our way down to those who've just recently signed on." She laughed and gave Bob Sparker a knowing look. "So, who's next..."
"Wait, I need to make a speech?" Bob whispered, covering his mouth with his hand. "The invitation didn't mention anything about a speech!"
"Don't sweat it. It's like two seconds long," Jam replied, leaning close to him. "Just say some glowing thing about Mr. King and how happy you are to be here. It'll be fine."
"This is my first time here, though. You sure it's okay to just butter him up like that?"
"Listen," Jam said, rolling his eyes. "It's really, really not that big of a deal..."
Bob leaned back and put a hand to his head. The next person stepped forward to raise their glass, and then the next, and then the next, and Bob's brain was working so quickly he couldn't even hear what they were saying. Oh my god, I'm drawing a blank here, Bob realized. Do I need to introduce myself, or does everyone already know who I am? Wait, is that arrogant of me? It is, isn't it?
Eventually, Jam stepped back--wait, had he gone already?--and nudged Bob with his elbow. "Your turn," he said. "See? It's nothing. Raise your glass, give a little toast. You'll do fine."
"Oh," Bob said, jumping a little. "Oh, thanks." He lifted his glass and stepped forward, drawing himself up to his full five-foot-something height. "Um, first, I'd like to say...being that it's my first time at the winter party and everything," he said, gesturing with the champagne, "and bein' that a lot of people here probably don't even know my name, though I bet they can't forget my face..."
There was a ripple of laughter through the crowd. Hard to forget that nose.
"Given all that," he continued, "it's a real, true honor to be here. When I was a kid," he said, stammering a bit, "I remember listening to all the programs on the radio about life up in the top tier. All the glitz and the glamour and the lights, twinkling like diamonds. 'Like a million little wishes,' they said. I never forgot that line."
The laughter turned to murmurs. Many of the guests nodded, even Kelly "Cowboy" Kim, and a warm rush of pride bloomed in Bob's chest.
"So, living in the underground like I was, right downstairs in the second tier--it really got me," he laughed, tapping the floor with the toe of one shoe. "Hook, line and sinker!" Another bout of laughter, louder this time, more genuine. "And I tell you what. Some days, thinking about this place is everything that kept me going. After all those years, after workin' my way up the ladder, I just want to say..."
He paused for a moment, raised his glass, and grinned. "Well, I'm just proud as anything to be here. Happy holidays, folks!"
The laughter petered off into an expectant silence. The guests were all staring at him, quietly, and then he noticed Jam nodding over to Mr. King. You forgot him, he mouthed.
"Oh, yeah," Bob added quickly. "And I'd like to thank Mr. Percy King for making it all possible! Thanks, boss--it's a pleasure to be one of the stars in your system!"
That did it. Cheers and applause erupted from the crowd. Mr. King laughed and clapped his hands, more emotion than Bob had seen from him from the rest of the night. Even his daughter looked surprised, and she put her hands together politely as she smiled over at Bob.
"That was a good speech," Jam whispered, leaning close. "You just made that up?"
Bob nodded. "Yeah. It shows, huh?"
"Yeah." Jam paused for a moment, thinking. "I mean that in a good way, though. It sounded like you meant it." He tilted his head. "How long did you say you've been with the company?"
"Only about a year," Bob whispered back. "And you?"
"Three. Listen," he said, glancing nervously towards the crowd as they started to close in on the two of them. "Don't let this place get to you, okay?"
"What? What do you mean?" Bob started, but he was jerked to the side by a tall, thin lady with a high-pitched voice.
"I know you!" she chirped. "That man with the electroshock show. Who'd have thought you'd be such a charmer?"
"I hear his show's climbing up the ranks, too," someone exclaimed. "Looks like Top Tier has a new golden boy!"
It took no time at all for Jam to disappear behind the crowd. Bob looked from side to side, and he couldn't hide an ear-to-ear grin as he saw all the glittering guests around him. It seemed like everyone in attendance was toasting him, raising their glasses, talking to him, complimenting him, and he loved it, base and shameless though it was.
"Golden, huh?" he said, preening. "Good thing I picked this suit. Looks like I'm dressed to fit the bill!"
"I expected you to wear something a little more shocking," snickered someone else. "Get it?"
"Careful," Bob laughed. "The lightning puns are my bit, and I'm awful territorial. Don't go stealing my thunder, now!"
More laughter. Unfortunately, the guests were pressing in close, closer, almost sweeping him to the other end of the room. Bob looked up to see Margaret King by one of the balcony doors, stifling a laugh with one hand. Come up here, she waved with the other. I want to talk to you.
Bob blinked, then stood up on his tiptoes and pointed at himself. Me?
Yes, you, she gestured, laughing. Get over here.
Thankfully, a lifetime of growing up in the dark and crowded underground had trained Bob to weave and dodge through large groups of people, and he noodled his way under the arms of one of the executives on his way out of the group. "Sorry, folks," he said. "Something just came up, but feel free to keep talking about me. I'm sure I'll be able to hear you from outside!"
Bob slipped out onto the balcony and closed the door behind him, and immediately the clamor of the ballroom faded into a distant murmur. "Sorry about that," Bob sighed, adjusting his tie and starting to sweat. "What's up, Miss King? I mean, it's a pleasure to meet you," he said, correcting himself. "Sorry, uh, I know we just met--"
"Oh, don't act like that," Margaret laughed. She sat down on one of the balcony seats and crossed one leg over the other, very casually. "I'm not going to bite you. Not hard, anyway. I was just thinking about that speech you gave."
"Did you like it? It wasn't rehearsed or anything," Bob said quickly. Margaret lifted her hand, and he shook it eagerly. "Just somethin' I came up with, uh...for..." His eyes traveled up and to the right, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. "Mr. King!"
How long had Percy King been standing there, tall and silent at his daughter's side? He was even taller than Bob had imagined, easily topping six and a half feet, and he grabbed Bob Sparker's hand and shook it slowly--almost languidly. "Don't worry about it," he said. "My daughter usually does the talking, anyway. We did want to speak with you privately. If I may say so, your speech was very touching. Very heartfelt. Very...what's the word I'm looking for, Margaret?"
"Sincere?" Margaret chimed in. "Genuine?"
"Both," Percy said. "I appreciated it quite a bit."
"Well, thanks very much!" Bob gushed, grabbing his hand again and pumping it a few quick times. "That means a lot to hear, it really does. I know I ain't that high on the ladder, not yet, but this is a real honor, believe me, Mr. King! And Ms. King," he added.
Margaret laughed. "Just 'Margaret' is fine, really. Oh, and 'Margie' is okay, too," she pointed out. "But don't call me 'Meg.'"
"She doesn't like that," Percy chimed in.
"Margie, not Meg," Bob repeated, miming the act of scribbling on a notepad. "Got it. And how do you like your coffee, ma'am?"
"Cream and two sugars," she responded without missing a beat. "Do a good job, and maybe I'll promote you to my secretary."
"From a game show host to a secretary!" Bob exclaimed, sitting down on the bench opposite from her. Percy followed suit, sitting next to his daughter. "I guess people were right," he continued. "I really am climbing up the ladder, huh?"
"You certainly are,'" Margaret said, twirling one of her fat ringlets around her finger. "You're our #3 primetime earner. Soon to be #1, if you keep up the good work."
Bob let out a low whistle as he leaned back. "Number one. No kidding."
"I know!" Margaret said, clapping. "I mean, we always have a number one someone, but it's not every day a rookie host gets into the top three slots in his first year. Shock 'Til You Drop is making us a fortune!" she laughed. "I'm just sorry I haven't kept up on talking to you about it!"
Bob searched his memory, then tilted his head. "What do you mean?" he asked. "I don't think we've sat down and talked at all, have we?"
"We must have," Margaret said. "I remember meeting you somewhere...I can't remember where, but I know I did."
"With all due respect, I think I'd remember," Bob laughed. "See, every time I go into the studio, people keep tellin' me I miss you by a couple minutes. What, is there some other handsome devil with a long nose going around saying he's me?"
Margaret stared at him for a moment, her brow furrowing in discomfort, and Bob immediately backpedaled. "Or I could be wrong!" he said, trying to laugh it off. "Anyway, I'm sure you hobnob with a lot of game show hosts, it's nothing."
"She's the de facto liaison between the main company and Zap! Entertainment. She prides herself on keeping all of them straight," Percy explained, putting an arm around Margaret's shoulders. "Don't worry about it, dear. You come by it honestly--I forget all kinds of things."
"I probably brought you your coffee," Bob offered. "You know, I used to do that, back when I was a kid. I used to be a gofer at Zap! Entertainment."
"I don't think so," Margaret murmured, her eyes drifting off to the side. "When you were a kid, I would have been a kid too, and I don't remember..."
Something suddenly fluttered in the back of Bob Sparker's mind. It was something colorful and faint, some kind of memory he couldn't place. When you were a kid, I was a kid...
And then Margaret sighed, shook her head and turned sharply to the side. "Anyway, I'm very offended," she said, drawing her fur closer around herself in mock-haughtiness. "I can't believe you'd forget meeting a lady as refined as myself! Now you have to say something witty to make up for it," she snickered. "Under pain of death."
Bob drew back in an exaggerated wince and put a hand over his heart. "You wound me, Miss King," he groaned. "We just met and now I have to throw myself off the balcony. It's a long way down, you know!"
"No, I'd rather tie you to a pole and put you on top of the building," Margaret laughed. "I'll put you to use as a lightning rod."
The two of them giggled together, their voices ringing out over the skyline. Percy King watched them with a wide, happy smile, affectionately drawing his daughter closer. "Margaret," he said, and he leaned in to whisper something into her ear. She shrugged, nodded, then whispered back, putting a hand over her mouth. Her father nodded.
After a moment, he stood up, dusted off his immaculately tailored suit, and looked down his nose at Bob Sparker. "My daughter and I," Percy King pronounced, "are very happy with you. We think you're a lovely addition to the Top Tier family, and you will be an invaluable asset as the years go on."
Bob stared. "Um. Thank you, Mr. King."
"Oh, dad, don't be so formal!" Margaret snapped, giving her father a gentle whack in the arm. "Mr. Sparker, what I wanted him to say is that we'd love have you drop by the penthouse if you want to. You're nice, and we like you. So come by and crash at our place sometime, won't you?"
"Seriously?" Bob said, blinking. "Crash, just crash, like take a nap?"
Margaret shrugged. "If you want to. We have this great sofa in the parlor. Jam comes over a lot too, if you know him."
"Do I ever," Bob laughed. "I don't know if he's too keen to have me turn up at your place, but hey, thanks for the offer. I think I'll take you up on it, seeing as how my apartment's, uh, nothing to write home about."
"Where do you live?" Percy asked. "Space is so hard to come by on the top stage nowadays. My poor stars practically have to draw lots for apartments now."
"Tell me about it," Bob groaned. "I live in one of the complexes over on Pearl Street."
The Kings practically recoiled. Margaret leaned so far back it looked like she was going to fall off the bench. "Pearl Street? You have it worse than I thought," she said. "That place is a dump. I used to date someone who lived down there."
"That won't do," Percy said, shaking his head. "Not at all. We'll move you to someplace closer to the studios."
"And we'll get you some furniture, too," Margaret said nonchalantly. She turned to her father. "Do you think he needs a car?"
"It's a good thing to have," Percy replied, nodding. "I think it'd suit him, too."
"A car?" Bob repeated, his jaw practically hitting the floor. "What, a--a car?"
Margaret and Percy laughed and nodded. "Yes, of course!" she explained. "You know, we drive them all the time up here. It's much easier than taking a taxicab, and much safer than riding the bus. You get popular enough and you ride the buses, you'll get mobbed!"
Percy tilted his head. "You...would like one, wouldn't you?"
There was a strange kind of pause in the air. Bob Sparker's eyes were glued to his boss, and Margaret's eyes were glued to Bob. And, slowly, he nodded. "I've been dreamin' of a car ever since I was a kid," he confessed. "I didn't, uh..."
I didn't have the money for bus fare, he almost said. I had to walk all the way up to Diamond Plaza every weekend to perform my magic show in the street. Every Saturday morning I walked the route the buses took, and every Saturday night I came home with money in my pocket for me and my mom. I did that every week, until the day someone from Top Tier called my house and said their talent scouts had liked what they'd seen. That day changed my life. I think you changed my life.
"I didn't think I'd actually have a car of my own," Bob Sparker said instead. "I thought it was just a pipe dream. But hey, I mean..." He shrugged, and he did his best to grin, even as tears started to well in the corners of his eyes. "If you two are offering, then hell, I'll take it!"
"Oh, sweetie," Margaret immediately said, leaning over and clasping Bob's hands in her own. "It's okay, really, don't worry about it! You don't have to pay us back or anything. We're just happy to help. Isn't that right, dad?"
"Of course it is," Percy said. He leaned over and held out his hand. "Is it a deal, then?"
Bob blinked, smiling, and clasped Mr. King's hand in his own. "Absolutely," he said. "I can't thank you two enough. I really, really can't. Thanks a million, I--I mean it!"
Mr. King grinned, shaking his hand firmly. "Like my daughter said, you have nothing to worry about. We're happy to protect and provide for our stars," he said. "I think you'll find that, in the years to come, we'll take excellent care of you."
"Absolutely!" Margaret gushed. "It's our Christmas present to you, okay? Welcome to the family," she laughed. "We're so happy to have you with us, Mr. Sparker!"