Bob Sparker in Paradise

Written by Pauli Kohberger, illustrated by Pauli Kohberger and cole-suave (tumblr).

Table of Contents

1. The Garden
2. Rubyred Networks
3. Trouble in Paradise
4. Paulina Sweet...
5. The Informer

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Part 1: The Garden

At the time, it seemed like Bob Sparker was over: his show, his fans, his fame, his entire career. He'd taken the heat for what happened with Alice, and he'd lost his cool at the press conference afterwards. It's over, he thought at the time. I'm finished.

But Mr. King was nothing if not a miracle worker. He had brought up the nepotism in the background of Bob's technical crew, and how Alice Lang had slipped into the lineup with the help of her cousin. They'd tightened up security, and her cousin had long since put in her two weeks' notice. Everyone won.

And, just like that, the controversy disappeared as quickly as it'd began. The phone calls from the newspapers and gossip rags, once hammering Top Tier's offices nonstop, had slowed to a trickle. Not even two weeks later, Bob was back to work.

It amazed him, and more than that, it made him afraid. Mr. King would pass Bob Sparker in the halls or on the street, and he would say hello, in his slow, hesitant way. Bob would stare at him, blank, hearing nothing but what he'd heard that night in the studio--

"That's right, ladies and gentlemen," Miss Information laughed. "Mr. King made that poor contestant disappear!"

--And he'd excuse himself, hurrying away as Mr. King stared after him. Once, Bob turned around and looked behind him, and he'd immediately regretted it. Mr. King didn't look cold or angry. He looked hurt. Not offended--genuinely hurt. People had warned Bob that there were sharks in these waters, and finding out that his boss was one of them would have been one thing. But not being able to tell one way or the other was much, much worse.

Bob Sparker drifted, aimlessly, in the underground. And, one night, he looked up to find himself at the entrance to a sleek and beautiful building, tucked in amongst the apartment complexes and offices beyond his old neighborhood. Beyond the frosted windows were glimmers of green and pink. This was unfamiliar. This was entirely new...

At first he thought it might have been a casino, but there were no loud noises, no angry clattering of bells and no flashing lights. There was only the distant pulsing of crowd chatter, with slow, leisurely jazz music that drifted among the trees. And yes, there were trees--actual trees, not like the spindly little things that dotted the city up top. They were strong and thick, their branches heavy with foliage. From high above were bright lights that filtered through the leaves, dappling the inside of the building with shadows.

Bob looked around, awestruck, as he walked inside. There was a heavy scent in the air, a fruity, floral perfume that nearly made him dizzy. He took one step, and then another--and his foot dropped into something wet and cold.

"Watch out!" came a sharp voice. Bob almost fell backwards before he felt a strong grip on his arm, and he turned to see a lady at his side dressed in a dark vest and slacks, with a heart-shaped face and pale hair that bounced in a bob around her chin. "Better watch that step, sir," she said. "You don't wanna fall in, do you?"

Bob glanced down. "Oh, geez," he murmured, looking into the pool of water he'd almost stumbled into. "I'm sorry, I didn't even see..."

"That's okay," she laughed, guiding him over to a bench. "Happens all the time. I keep saying we oughta put some signage up." She pulled out a hand towel from her pocket and knelt down, drying off Bob's shoe and the hem of his pants. "Maybe some extra lights."

"That's okay, I wasn't looking where I was going." Bob looked up again, his gaze traveling around the atrium. "What kind of a place is this, anyway?"

"I'm glad you asked!" said the attendant in a chipper manner. "Welcome to the Paradise Hotel! And not only is it a hotel, but it's a garden, an aquarium, a bar, and a nightclub, too!" She sprang up onto her feet and quickly folded up her towel. "We like to call this place 'Electricopolis' best kept secret.'"

"No kidding. Look at all these trees!" Bob said. "I didn't know they got that big! And you have water just, out in the lobby..." He leaned closer to the pool. Among the spouts of bubbles, fine and crystalline, he could see brightly colored creatures flitting slowly back and forth. "Are those fish? Are those real?"

"You know it!" replied the lady. She knelt down and pointed to a couple of the fish. "That one's called a carp. Beautiful, isn't it? And that's a rainbow trout, there. And this one, here..."

She pointed to a beautiful little creature with large, elegant fins. It had shiny, blue-red-purple scales of a color so deep and rich that it seemed completely unreal. Bob couldn't even begin to imagine how he'd describe it to Mr. King, or to Margaret, or to anyone else he knew.

"That's a betta fish," she said. "Gorgeous, isn't it?"

"No kidding," Bob mumbled. A feeling of self-consciousness crept up on him. It'd been a long time since he'd felt out of his element.

The guide must have noticed, because she slapped him heartily on the shoulder, hard enough to knock him out of his thoughts. "Intimidated? Don't worry about it!" she laughed. "We get plenty of new faces here! This isn't the first time I've had to give that spiel."

She stood up and dusted off her vest. "I tell you what," she said brightly. "Since you just walked in, why don't I give you a tour of the place?"

"Can you do that? You're not too busy or anything?"

The lady gave him a knowing wink. "Never too busy," she said, "for a star like Mr. Sparker."



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Part 2: Rubyred Networks

The guide slipped her hand around his arm and led him leisurely up a set of stairs that curved around the atrium. She talked on and on about the kinds of trees and plants there were, but Bob only half-listened. He was captivated more by how luminous the trees looked as their wide, flat leaves caught the light, their large blossoms practically glowing.

"It's so colorful," he whispered. "I've never seen so many flowers in one place before."

"Well, this place is run by Rubyred Networks," replied the greeter/guide, shrugging. "Mr. Amar...the president, I mean...picked out all the plants himself. Actually, he designed the whole club, top to bottom! He comes down here at least once a week, just to make sure the place is running okay."

"Wait a second, Rubyred owns this place?" Bob said, turning towards her. "Seriously? You wouldn't think it from the outside. It looks so...nondescript."

"He does that on purpose." Another shrug. "He likes this place to feel very exclusive. Very elite. We don't turn anyone away, but once you step into the Paradise Hotel, the rest of the city won't ever compare. Just look." She reached out a hand to cup a large, heavy blossom, with bright pink leaves and a heavy scent. "Where else can you see flowers like this in town?"

"I-I don't know," Bob confessed. "Top Tier doesn't have anything like this in their buildings. Not even the Jupiter Club. Almost the entire place is black and white."

"The Jupiter's a dusty old antique, if you ask me," snickered the woman. "No offense, but the place is so stuffy I feel it oughta have ghosts inside."

The remark caught Bob off guard, and he barked out a laugh. "I know, right?" he said. "I keep tellin' Mr. King to put some new art in there or something, but he never does! It's embarrassing! I can't take anyone there!"

"It is!" the lady immediately gushed. "For a guy with so much money, you'd think Mr. King could buy himself an interior decorator. Say, didn't you do a live show at the Jupiter once or twice, anyway?"

"Yeah, I did," Bob remarked, tilting his head. "That was a while ago, though. I'm surprised you knew about it."

The lady turned away, smiling and clasping her hands behind her back coquettishly. "Aw, well, I guess I'm a bit of a fan," she admitted, shyly kicking at the ground. "I tell you what, I didn't expect the famous Mr. Bob Sparker to walk into my little place tonight!"

"Well, neither did I! That's one thing we've got in common," he laughed. "Say...you mentioned this place isn't just a jungle, right?"

"That's right. C'mon over here." The lady waved him over. They walked out onto a balcony, hung with vines, that overlooked a large nightclub stage. The jazz band onstage was playing a slow, mellow number that complemented the sparse chatter of the crowd. "It's a bit of a slow night tonight, but eh, it's a weekday. What can you do, right?"

Bob peered over the side. It wasn't barren or anything, but yeah, there could have stood to be a few more people in the pit. Still, he didn't mind. Actually, the privacy sounded pretty nice.

"I might get a bite myself," he remarked. "I'm a little hungry. Gee, it feels like I haven't really eaten anything all night."

"Well, go downstairs and have something, then!" remarked his tour guide. "And who knows? I might even see you down there, too."

She waved to him as she disappeared back into the arboretum. Bob walked down a nearby spiral staircase to reach the dining area, and he sat at one of the tables, drumming his fingers quietly on the tablecloth as he stared up at the stage.

"Anything to eat, sir?" whispered a waiter at his side.

Bob glanced up. "Yeah, just a club sandwich and soda, thanks."

"We have an excellent wine selection, if you'd like."

"Thanks, but..." Bob held up a hand, and then stopped. "You know what? Sure. Gimme some champagne. Somethin' nice."

"Will do, sir." The waiter smiled down at him. "Is it a special occasion?"

Bob grinned up at him as he tried to shake the nervousness from his shoulders. "You know what?" he said. "I think it is."

Within moments, the waiter reappeared with a flute of beautiful, bubbly, golden-white champagne. It was delicious, and soon Bob felt himself settle, hesitantly, into a warm glow of comfort. He was feeling more at ease now than he had in a long time, though something told him it wasn't exactly a good thing.

He'd always heard that Rubyred Networks was trashy, garish, and the head of it a bitter and eccentric man who cared more about his ego than about serving the public in any way. But this place was different from the rest of the town. It was calming, cool, and restful--a far cry from the bright lights and always-on hysteria of the world Bob Sparker inhabited.

There was a lady up on stage, tall and dark, singing in a low and resonant voice, and Bob found himself humming along with the music. He was so entranced he almost didn't notice someone at his side.

"More champagne, mister?"

Bob glanced up, and then did a double take. That wasn't his waiter. Judging from her height and her hair and her same pale makeup, it was the greeter and tour guide he'd been talking to just a few minutes ago. "You look like you've seen a ghost!" she laughed. "I told you I'd see you down here."

"But aren't you..." Bob glanced back over his shoulder, then gestured. "Shouldn't you be back...you know, by the entrance?"

"My relief came," said the waitress, shrugging. "So it's time for me to wait tables instead. I tend to flit around a bit, you know, just do whatever needs doing. So," she added, holding up her champagne bottle, "how about that re-up? On the house."

"Aw, well, if you insist," Bob said, shrugging, with a lopsided grin on his face. "Hey, how come you're treating me so nice, anyway? If I didn't know better, I'd think you were trying to poach me from Mr. King's clutches!"

"Oh, poach is the wrong word for it!" his waitress laughed, pouring a stream of champagne into his glass. "We aren't the kind to sneak into your bedroom and kidnap you while you sleep, you know. Why bother, when Top Tier stars join our network all the time?"

Bob sat back, thinking about this for a moment. He remembered Kiley Queen, the spoiled-sounding teen star who'd jumped ship to Rubyred in the middle of the whole mess with Miss Information. "That happens pretty often, huh?" he remarked. "How come?"

"Well...just between you and me, they tend to sign with us after big scandals, contract disagreements with Zap! Entertainment, things they aren't happy with. Just take that little number up on stage, for instance," she said, nodding up towards the stage. "That's Cici Cerise and her backup band, one of the best blues acts in town. She used to sing for Mr. King at the Jupiter Club, actually."

"No kidding? She used to work for Top Tier?"

"Mm-hmm." The waitress nodded. "Apparently she wasn't happy with the management she was getting at Top Tier. But ever since she started working here, she's been happy as a clam."

Bob let out a low hmm as he chewed on this. "You think I could talk to her?" he asked. "Go backstage and say hello?"

The waitress glanced over to the stage once more, this time with an unsettled expression on her face. "I wouldn't," she said cautiously. "She, uh, isn't always in the best of moods after a show. Stress, and all that."

Stress? Bob thought. You just got done telling me how happy she was.

"Oh," he said. "Well, all right then. Thanks for the heads up."

"No problem!" she replied brightly, nudging him with her elbow. "Enjoy the rest of the show. And, hey--try the grasshopper cocktails here. They're delicious."



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Part 3: Trouble in Paradise

The rest of the show passed without incident, though Bob kept an eye out for his waitress. He couldn't find her--the only other staff on the floor were a tall, thin lady and a shorter, chubbier one with long hair. Neither of them resembled the woman who'd given him a tour at all. It was as if she had disappeared entirely after speaking with Bob Sparker. What was the deal with her? Why was she pulling double duty while only ever interacting with him?

God, maybe I'm hallucinating, he thought, glancing down at his drink. He peered into the glass. But I didn't drink anything before I came into the place, and this soda doesn't taste funny at all.

After the show, the curtains closed and the audience politely applauded. As everyone stood up to leave, Bob shifted through the crowd and made his way to the hall that connected to the dressing rooms. It was laid out similarly to the backstage of Shock 'Til You Drop, though it was dim and quiet, very unlike the hustle and bustle of the TV studio.

He turned a corner to see Cici Cerise at the door of her room, signing autographs for a few of the nightclub patrons. Bob almost took a step towards her, but quickly backed up behind the corner again. At the end of the hall, surveying the small crowd, was the pale-faced waitress herself, her arms folded and her gaze sweeping back and forth.

A minute or two passed. Bob would have stuck his head out to check if she were there, but his nose would have given him away without a doubt. He fished his phone out of his pocket, turned on the camera, and quickly angled it around the corner. There. She was gone, and so was Cici Cerise.

He walked up to the dressing room door and knocked politely. After a moment, it opened. Cici was there, still in her stage outfit, brushing out her long, dark hair. "Yes? Who is..." She trailed off, staring for a moment, and then suddenly jumped. "Oh, it's you!" she laughed, grabbing Bob's hand and shaking it. "You're Mr. Sparker from the electric chair show! I saw you in the crowd! I was hoping you'd come and say hi. What brings you down here, anyway?" she said. "I thought you lived upstairs."

"Oh, I grew up down here, actually!" Bob laughed, shaking her hand. "About a mile or so away, that's my old neighborhood. Hey, you did a fabulous job out there tonight. I hope it didn't stress you out too much."

"Stress me out? Well, not...too much." Cerise shrugged, glancing away. "Not any more'n usual. You wanna come in and have a chat? I was just going to get changed."

"Is that okay?" Bob asked, peering into her room. There was a screen partition in one part of the room, with some clothes draped over it. "I know some people like to be alone after a show...I don't wanna be a bother."

"Oh, it's no problem." Cerise swept back into the room and disappeared behind the partition. "To be honest, there aren't many people that bug me after shows anymore. You saw 'em, right? Just three, four autographs a night." She sighed. "That ain't a quarter of what I used to get."

"I remember hearing you used to sell out the Jupiter Club," Bob remarked, sitting down in one of the empty chairs in her room. "But I guess you like it here, huh? I mean, the peace and quiet is kind of nice, I guess..."

Cici Cerise peeked out from behind the partition, giving Bob an incredulous look. "Are you kidding me? I'd kill for those kinds of crowds again. I can't get out of this dive, but it ain't for lack of trying, I'll tell you that much." She tossed her stage dress up over the edge of the screen.

Bob blinked. "What do you mean?"

"I mean I wouldn't turn down a stage with a couple lights on it and more than thirty people in the crowd, but Rubyred's got me down here five nights a week." Cerise walked out in a dark silk robe cinched around her waist, and glanced up pointedly. "Not that I'm not grateful," she added.

Bob's eyes traveled up and around. Tucked in the corner of the room was a tiny, almost unnoticeable, security camera.

"Whoa," he said, quavering a little. "They have a camera in your dressing room? Is that legal?"

"Yeah, it's legal. That's why I got the screen up." Cici sat down and pulled out a carton of cigarettes, tapping one of them against the box. "It's legal as long as they don't publish the footage, they say. But they got bugs on every inch of this place. I'm surprised you haven't noticed."

"I-I didn't notice at all," Bob stammered. "Where? In the plants?"

"In the plants, in the walls, in the light fixtures." Cici gestured. "They run one hell of a tight ship here. Apparently the big boss doesn't want anyone ruining his precious little garden, whether it's corporate spies or just the workers. I think it's all overkill, if you ask me, but then again, I'm not the one running the show. If I were, I'd get myself out of here posthaste."

"That's so weird, though," Bob remarked, leaning forward. "One of the waitresses told me you loved it here."

"Yeah? Which one?" Cici asked, lighting her cigarette.

"I didn't catch her name, but she's about my height," Bob said, holding his hand out. "Short hair in a bob, real pale skin. Big eyes, too."

Cici took a drag on her cigarette, searching her mind, and then she locked eyes with Bob. "Real fluffy hair, right? Small, sharp nose?" she clarified. Bob nodded. "That was her? You sure?"

"Yeah," Bob said. "That's her. Why?"

"No, I believe you, it's just..." Cici shifted in her chair uncomfortably. "That lady's not a waitress."

"What?"

"Yeah. I don't...I don't think I can tell you any more than that." Cici got up out of her chair and walked over to the mirror. "Sorry. I think you'd better get out of here. It's nothin' personal, I mean..."

Bob stood up. "No, uh, no, it's okay. Thanks for talking with me."

"Mm." She nodded, waving at him over her shoulder. "Bye."

He exited the room and walked off down the hall, shifting his shoulders back and forth, trying to shake off the anxiety that clung to him. She wasn't a waitress? What were the odds she was actually a greeter, too? And why was she feeding him lies about the talent? Did she even work here after all?

And now that Cici had mentioned the cameras, he couldn't stop noticing them at every turn. It felt like every corner he turned had a little red light in the shadows, a tiny eye that followed him wherever he went.

Bob made his way back to the bar, almost shaking with every step he took. There was a bartender there, an unassuming-looking man with a thin mustache, and Bob waited impatiently as he took someone else's order.

I should get out of here, Bob thought to himself. I'll have a drink and then head out. I'll drive--no, wait, I walked down here, I didn't drive. The buses might still be running. I'll grab a ticket and go back up top...

"You don't look too good. Care for a drink?"

Bob looked up. The bartender from before had disappeared, replaced--of course--with the pale-faced lady he'd been seeing all night. "Where did the other one go?" he asked. "Where'd he go?"

"I told him to take a break," the lady repeated, straightening her bowtie proudly. "He's been working all night. He could use a rest. What, you think I'm a ghost?" she laughed. "A hallucination, maybe? You're not that drunk, are you?"

"I'm not drunk at all," Bob remarked. "The only thing I've had tonight is a soda."

"I could fix that, if you'd like." The bartender/waitress/greeter leaned over onto the bar. "What'll it be, Mr. Sparker?"

"I was thinking of having a grasshopper," he stated. Her hand darted out towards a clean glass. "But."

She stopped, and fixed him with a curious look. "But?"

"But I'm not too sure I want anything you're gonna make me." Bob's eyes narrowed suspiciously, and the lady leaned back. "What's your deal, anyway? You pull a million jobs around here. You get fired that quickly or what?"

She laughed, and there was a tinge of nervousness in it. "Haven't gotten fired yet," she said. She grabbed the glass and turned around as she grabbed the crème de menthe, the crème de cacao and a bottle of rum. "I just do a lot of work, that's all, whatever needs doing. I move around," she explained. "I keep an eye on things."

"You sure do."

There was the briefest pause as she grabbed the shaker in both hands. But it only lasted for an instant, and she laughed again as she shook the drink back and forth. The ice clink-clinked inside. "I'm a little bit of a busybody, sure. I tend to poke my nose into things," she said sweetly. "But you'd know all about that, wouldn't you?"

Well. That was the first time this evening she'd thrown him anything resembling an insult, and Bob Sparker sat up straighter. Now he was getting somewhere.

"I might have a nose on me, but I don't spend my time playing half as much dressup as you do," he retorted. "You expect me to believe that nothing fishy's going on here?"

"Only fish we got are in the water," she shot back. She was smiling and winking, but her voice was cold and sharp. "I don't see why you've got to make fun of me, anyway. So what if I like to flit around the place? That's my job and it's my business, get it?"

"What about the cameras?" Bob said. "Is that your business, too?"

The lady froze, dead in her tracks, the shaker posed above a cocktail glass. The drink was a creamy, frothy, almost luminescent green, and Bob Sparker watched as the last drops of it fell slowly into the glass. The lady didn't look at him, and she didn't move.

"I don't like this place," Bob said firmly. "Tell me what's really going on."

The lady replaced the top of the shaker and set it down on the bar, then reached behind herself to untie her apron. Silently she folded it up and set it down onto the counter, and then she turned towards the wall. She dug her fingers into what looked like the side of a wall panel, then pulled it smoothly aside. There was a hallway behind it, long and dark.

She turned back to look at Bob. "Come with me," she said, holding open the small half-door that led behind the bar. "I think it's about time I introduced myself."


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Part 4: Paulina Sweet, Head of Security

"Stop me if you've heard this one before," Bob Sparker said out loud, following behind the bartender as she walked down the corridor. "A TV star's feeling bad for himself, so he goes to this mysterious underground jungle-slash-pleasure palace, only to discover the whole thing is bugged. A creepy lady shows up over and over in different disguises, and leads him down a dark and winding hall..."

"I'm not creepy," she responded, sticking her tongue out at him. "At least, not when I'm not trying to be."

"Does that mean you've been trying to be?" Bob shot back. "Because this whole now-you-see-me-now-you-don't thing has been spookin' me out all night."

She rolled her eyes. "Once I explain everything, you're going to think it's perfectly reasonable," she said. "Just look around you. Does this place look weird to you?"

Bob glanced around. Though the hall was dimly lit, there were some buckets and mops leaned up against the wall, as well as extra A/V equipment. It looked like they were back in the maintenance area of the hotel. It looked fairly ordinary, actually.

"The boss of Rubyred doesn't like maintenance doors or cleaning supplies out where people can see them," the bartender explained. "He thinks they're unsightly. I guess I agree with him." She snickered a little. "And the look on peoples' faces when I show off these secret passages is worth it!"

Down the hall was a brightly lit room. She paused in front of the door, fished out some keys from her pockets, and started to unlock it. Bob glanced up to see SECURITY OFFICE in big block letters on the glass before they walked inside.

It was a space that would have been roomy if it weren't so cluttered. Stacks and stacks of videocassettes covered one of the desks, each one with a white label and thick black lettering. Off to the side was a television mounted on a dolly and plugged into the wall, with a VCR underneath it. One wall was completely dominated by stacks of monitors placed on top of each other, each one showing a different grainy black-and-white feed. There must have been twelve of them, at least, flickering steadily through various cameras placed around the Paradise Hotel. One was for the nightclub stage, one was for the lobby, one was for the bar...

There was a security guard in front of them, sitting in a swivel chair. "I'm back," said the bartender, and the guard turned around to look.

"Well, finally," they replied, standing up and stretching. "Took you long enough. I'm sick of covering you every time you wanna run off and play."

"Oh, stop griping," said the bartender. "Get outta here. There'll be a little extra in your paycheck, I promise."

The guard left the room, shooting a look at Bob Sparker as they did so. The bartender strode ahead, grabbed a dusty jacket and hat off of the back of the swivel chair, put them on, and smoothed them down. Her short, bobbed hair framed her face under her hat, and her eyes were sharp and alert. She was smiling.

"Paulina Sweet, head of security," she said, shaking his hand. "A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Sparker!"

Bob stared. "You're head of security?" he repeated. "Not a waitress? Not a bartender?"

"You got it." Paulina snickered as she thumped down into the chair, putting her legs up on the console in front of the monitors. "I've been here for years, you know. I know every inch of this place. I can get from one end to the other in two, three minutes flat, and I can blend in anywhere, too."

"But why the quick-change act? Why were you shadowing me?"

"Because I wanted to keep an eye on you," she replied, giving him a steely look. "Top Tier's stars don't often come to a Rubyred establishment, you know. I didn't want you causing trouble." Her look softened, and she looked away for a second. "And," she added, "there was something I wanted to talk to you about."

Bob searched the room for an empty chair. There wasn't one, so he leaned awkwardly against the least cluttered part of Paulina's desk.

"I wanted to tell you in private," Paulina said softly, her face still turned away. "I used to work for Mr. King."

Bob leaned forward a little, his eyebrows raised. "No kidding. Were you head of security for him, too?"

Paulina shook her head and turned back around, crossing one leg over the other. "I was in television," she explained. "I...I was going to be a TV star, but things didn't work out." She looked up at him. "I had my own game show and everything."

Bob froze. In an instant, a coldness settled on his shoulders and weighed him down to the spot.

"For a long time I was doing plays and things down here in the underground. And some comedy, too, though I wasn't that great at it." She smiled sadly. "But one day Mr. King's talent scouts must have seen me, because I got a phone call a little while later..."

"Saying that they liked what they saw," Bob murmured.

Paulina nodded. "Exactly. So they brought me to Top Tier, and they asked me where my skills lie. And I told them I could do a little of everything--acting, singing, even dancing. I used to be a heck of a dancer, and a runner, too. To bring in some cash, I even did courier work in the city. Nobody could run like me."

Robbie the rabbit, said a familiar voice in the back of Bob's head. You always could run like hell.

"So they decided that they'd capitalize on that, and they came up with an idea for this show called Spin It 'n' Win It. " She leaned back in her chair, sighing. "It had this huge spinning wheel with different prizes on different parts of it! A hundred dollars, a thousand, a new car, a new kitchenette--or penalty games instead, too. The gimmick was that I'd run on top of the thing to spin the wheel, keeping my balance and everything!" She grinned, her gaze floating upwards as she remembered. "It was amazing."

"It sounds like it," Bob said. "How long was it on the air? I don't think I ever saw it."

Paulina came back down to earth, and the look she gave Bob was withering. "You didn't," she said. "They canned it before it ever hit the airwaves."

"What? Why would they do that? After all that time and money?"

She laughed a bitter laugh. "I'll tell you why. When I was on top of the wheel, I couldn't see where it was going to stop, you get me? But after the pilot went over well with test audiences, the director and producer noticed that it'd be really, really easy for me to stop the machine wherever I wanted. All they had to do was put a little mirror up at the top of the stage where nobody would look, and I could take a peek and pay out as much or as little as the brass wanted me to."

Bob tilted his head. "Wait a second," he said. "Are you telling me they wanted to rig the show?"

Paulina nodded. "They did. I didn't want to do it. Now, don't get me wrong," she admitted, "I'm not that pure of heart. I wasn't concerned about truth and justice, it's just...I didn't want to get caught, you know? I didn't want to jeopardize my entire career. I worked so hard for that spotlight," she said, pained. "You know what that feels like, don't you?"

Bob glanced away, nodding. "Yeah," he whispered. "I do."

"And to have people behind the scenes just mess with it, just toy with it like it's nothing," she continued, almost spitting out the words with distaste. "I couldn't stand it. I asked Mr. King to do something about it. We'd met once or twice before...he said I could talk to him whenever I needed it, so I thought it'd be okay..."

She looked down, her hands toying with each other in her lap. "I asked him to do something about it," she said. "And he did. He worked with the team to rig the wheel anyway. They just didn't tell me about it. It was only when we filmed the next episode--"

She paused and took her hat off to rub at her face. "We filmed the next episode and everybody could tell," she said, her voice strained. "It was a terrible job they did with the machine, because it was all jittery and shaky, and even though it stopped on its own, it looked like I did it. The damn thing nearly threw me off balance, it practically cracked my skull open, and they still blamed me for it. Every step of the way."

Paulina fell quiet. She put her hat back on, adjusted it, and then took a long, hard look at Bob Sparker.

"I don't expect you to believe me," she said. "But I want you to know what kind of a man you're working for."

"I-I don't know." Bob glanced away, rubbing at the back of his neck. "I mean...it's not that I don't believe you, but..."

"You don't believe me," Paulina said, leaning forward. "Is that it? Do you wanna see some proof?"

"Do you have some?"

Paulina stared at him with a cold, hard look, sizing him up--and then she stood up from her chair and walked into a neighboring room. She returned a moment later with a videocassette in her hand. She dusted it off, checked the label, and then popped it into the VCR.

"Look," she said.

The videotape started up. It was grainy, snowy, and for a couple seconds hardly anything could be seen. There were two figures, Bob guessed, one taller and more broad-shouldered than the other. It was dated in September of...three years ago.

"That's Mr. King," Paulina said, leaning forward to point him out. "And there's the producer. You can see them better in a second."

The fuzz cleared away after a moment, but only slightly. There were curtains in that area, and it kind of resembled the studio that Shock 'Til You Drop was filmed in. The camera must have been stuck into a pile of props or something, because part of the picture was shadowed.

The figures on the video spoke to each other. Their voices wavered and clipped a bit, but parts of them were fairly clear. "It should be fine now," said the shorter figure. "We fixed the wheel."

"Good," said the taller one. "We'll be ready to go by tomorrow."

"What did she say?"

"Nothing. She didn't say anything."

"What did you say?"

"Nothing," laughed the figure, and for a moment it sounded just like Percy King. Bob's shoulders seized up in a sudden cringe. "I didn't say anything at all."

Paulina leaned forward and pressed fast-forward on the VCR. "After this they make small talk for a bit," she said, her eyes flickering up impatiently to the screen. "But here's the other part you gotta see."

The figures moved around the set. This time the taller figure could be seen from the front, and--well, he had a dark mustache and fair skin, that was clear enough, but you couldn't tell much else. "Don't worry about it," he said, waving dismissively. The next part was inaudible. And then: "Worse comes to worst, we'll find another star."

Bob tore his eyes away. There was a wave of nausea that came over him, and he squeezed his eyes shut to let it pass.

"It's done," Paulina said. There was the chunk of the tape being ejected from the VCR. "That's all. I know, it's hard to watch, but..."

It wasn't that that was making Bob sick. It was everything else: being shadowed all evening, being coaxed into talking about his employer. Being led to the security hall. Paulina showing him this weird, suspicious video, the strange placement of the camera, and the murkiness of the figures, and the oddly clear audio even though the video could barely be seen...

Bob swallowed hard and looked back up at her. "Can--can I ask you something?"

"Well, sure," Paulina said. "Anything."

"What studio was this?" Bob asked. "It looked an awful lot like Studio 6."

Paulina nodded. "That was it, yeah. That was the one my show was filmed in."

"6A?" Bob pressed. "You sure?"

"Yeah!" Paulina said, nodding some more. "That's the one."

6A's been closed for a decade now, Bob thought. He shifted uneasily, his brow furrowing. That studio's nothing but storage.

He glanced over. The videocassette was resting on top of the VCR. He picked it up, with Paulina watching, and he took a good, hard look at the label. The block letters were big and dark, written in black permanent marker.

P. SWEET, 9/10/____, CONFI--

He could barely read it before Paulina leaned forward and tugged it out of his hand. "Don't go showing that around or anything," she said sternly, putting it back on the desk. "You think I want people knowing about my ace in the hole?"

"No, no, you're right. Sorry," Bob mumbled, stepping back. Slowly, his gaze traveled around the room. "All these cassettes, though...are these yours?"

"Yeah. These are just shows I put on when I'm working so I don't get bored," she explained. "Some of 'em are taped off the TV, but some of it's stuff I had to trade to get. I even got some stuff from inside the studios, too. I can get in a lot of places, you know. That's how you know my stuff is legit." Paulina put the tape next to her on the desk protectively. "So? C'mon, you believe me now, right?"

Bob raised a hand. "Hold on. I need a second, I need--this is heavy, all right?" he snapped lightly. "Gimme a second. I'm just trying to get my head on straight here." As casually as he could manage, he picked up another cassette off a nearby stack.

SHOCK, 3/12/2012, D. MICHEL.

He froze.

"What?" Paulina said, annoyed.

"This..." Bob whispered, his mouth dry. "This is from my show."



Part 5: The Informer

"Well, yeah, I got tapes of your stuff." Paulina shrugged and leaned back again, crossing one leg over the other. "I told you, I'm a bit of a fan. I mean, you're not the best on TV or anything, but--"

Bob's hand started to shake. "I've seen this before," he said.

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He turned and shoved the cassette up to Paulina's face. "It was you!" he shouted. "You're the one Miss Info got her dirt from!"

"H-hey, hey--" Paulina scooched backwards in her chair, putting her hands up. "I don't know what you're talking about, I just--"

"SHOCK, 5/14/2013, A. LANG, does that ring a bell?" Bob hollered. He shook the tape angrily. "You got the footage from my show, and you gave it to Miss Information! You almost got me fired, you two-timing snake!"

Paulina stared at him. Her eyes were wide as saucers, her face chalk-white. And then it deepened into a dark red glower, and she sprang out of her chair. "So what if I did!" she hollered right back. "I own that footage now, and I can do whatever I want with it! You wanna be stuck working for a liar like Mister King all your life?"

"'I'd rather work for him than for anyone who'd employ a vicious little thief like you!" Bob shouted. He turned and hurled the tape on top of the desk, sending a bunch of the cassettes crashing noisily to the floor. "Sneaking around like a rat, trying to sweet-talk me into quitting my job! The second I tell my boss--"

She laughed again, a harsh, cynical bark of a laugh. "You do that. Tell him what's happened and see if you're not the next one out on your ass." She jabbed a finger towards him. "Maybe if you apologize, I'll get you a job here when you come crawling back!"

"I'd throw myself off the edge of town first," Bob retorted. "Look at this place. You lure all your talent away from Top Tier and make 'em stagnate in this backwater dive. You check 'em in, but they never check out, no matter how hard they try. You know what this place is?"

Paulina bit her lip, her fists clenched and trembling at her sides. Her pale face was flushed pink all over, but her knuckles were white.

"It's nothing but a roach motel," Bob hissed, and he couldn't stop a grin from spreading across his face. "And I bet you got the roaches to match!"

"A roach mo--" Paulina's face turned deep, deep red. "You...you..."

She stepped forward. Bob stepped back. And then she lunged, grabbing him by his collar and shoving him back onto the floor. "You think you can just walk into my club and insult me to my face?! You deserve whatever you get, you washed-up--"

"This is pathetic!" Bob hollered, trying to extricate himself from underneath Paulina. "I'm leaving!"

"Like hell you're leaving! I'll have you thrown out!" She grabbed a walkie-talkie from the pocket of her jacket. "I need backup at security, stat!"

Bob yelped and tried to crawl out from underneath her. He scrabbled at the tiled floor and almost made it out the door, but Paulina grabbed his ankle and sent him falling fwump to the ground. His hand flailed and brushed against one of the tapes, and he grabbed it--whichever one it was--and stuffed it quickly into his coat.

"Get off me!" he said, and he twisted his leg free and gave her a hard kick that landed right on her chin. She yelped, then gritted her teeth tight and stood up, driving her heel down hard between his ribs. He gasped.

"You're pathetic!" she spat. "The only reason you've still got a job is because you're Mr. King's lapdog!" She brought her foot down hard again, this time right in his stomach. "You're nothing without him! Nothing!"

"I'm more than you are," Bob groaned. "At least I actually made it on TV."

Paulina stared down at him. He could hear her teeth grinding from here. And then she reached down, hauled him up by the collar--this petite five-foot-something woman who was even shorter than Bob was--and the door flew open, with two beefy-looking guards in black uniforms standing in the hall.

"What the hell happened here?" one of them grunted.

"This guy botherin' you, Miss Sweet?" said the other.

The glower on Paulina's face nearly disappeared. She turned to smile at them as she shook Bob Sparker like he was a rag doll. "Not anymore," she said brightly, and she drop-kicked him to their feet. "Take out the trash for me, would you, boys?"

The guards chuckled. They grabbed Bob, one on each side of him, and half-marched, half-dragged him down the security hall and around to the back door. Paulina Sweet walked behind them, watching as they shoved him out and onto his face in a dusty lot behind the building.

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Bob Sparker laid there, coughing, trying to cover his mouth and catch his breath at the same time. After a moment, he cringed, feeling the weight of Paulina's delicate shoe on the back of his head.

"If I ever see you in my establishment again," she said, "Angelo and O'Donnell here will be doing much, much more than just throwing you out into the street. Imagine how much I could get for footage of that on the black market."

"Do you kiss your boss with that mouth?" Bob groaned. Paulina brought her shoe down thwack on the back of his head. "Hhhfff--agh, Jesus!"

"Boss," said one of the men--O'Donnell, maybe. "We oughta get back inside."

"Hmph." Paulina took her shoe off Bob's head, gave him another swift kick for good measure, and then turned away. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her smooth down her uniform. "All right, all right. That's enough of my time wasted."

She disappeared back into the building, followed by her goons. Bob waited a moment, lying face-down in the dust, before dragging himself to his feet and wobbling out of the lot.

He leaned against a fence further down the street, catching his breath. The entire ordeal had left him bruised, his entire midsection throbbing with pain, and he winced as he reached into his jacket and pulled out the videocassette he'd taken. He hadn't gotten a chance to look at it. And if he were very, very lucky...

P. SWEET, 9/10/____, CONFIDENTIAL. RETURN TO SECURITY OFFICE IF FOUND.

He covered his mouth with a hand and snickered into it. He stuffed the tape back in his jacket and dragged himself away, giggling wheezily all the way down the road.

The End.

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