The Game Show Killer
Written and illustrated by Pauli Kohberger
Table of Contents
1. Paulina Gets Fired
Paulina stood in the elevator, her hands fidgeting at her sides. She plucked at the fabric of her well-kept slacks, needled at the strings inside her pockets, and tried not to chew a hole through her own cheek. He’s gonna let me off easy, I know it, she tried to convince herself. He likes me. We’ve known each other a long time… Has this elevator always been this slow?
The doors opened into a massive room. It was nearly as large as a tennis court, and the entire back wall was made of glass. Through it she could see alien shapes moving in the thick, dark water, cast in an eerie blue light by lamps from beneath the aquarium. The fish swam round and round, some looking at her with eyes as big as saucers. Others had no discernable eyes at all. And one of them had a tiny light of its own on a long, thin tendril, dangling right above its hideous maw.
“Paulina,” came a cold, clear voice. She snapped to attention. At the end of a long carpet, a pale and sickly-looking man—his hair and skin a gauzy white, his form beautiful even in his gauntness—laced his fingers together. “Why did I receive a call from the head of Top Tier this morning?”
“I-I dunno, boss,” Paulina stammered. “Why?”
“This isn’t a riddle, you goon!” President Amar roared, bringing his hand down onto the desk with a sound like a gunshot. Paulina jumped. “I had to spend thirty minutes convincing Percy King that I wasn’t responsible for his dim-bulb host coming home with bruises. Would you care to explain why you moved without my explicit authorization?”
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I thought…I thought it was the right time. I mean, you always said Sparker was the weak link in TT, so I thought I could help you.” The excuses tumbled out of her as she gesticulated. “I know you’ve always wanted him out of the picture! I just jumped the gun a little, that’s all!”
“That’s all? Do you realize the nightmare you’ve put me through?” Amar spun around in his chair to face the aquarium, sighing irritably. “I've already had my hands full with that idiot nephew of mine terrorizing Sparker and his friends on the road! Don't tell me you two came up with this on your own."
“I don't know anything about that, boss,” Paulina groveled. “I swear! I can talk to him, if you want," she stammered. "He and I get along real well, but--"
Amar spun back around, his gaze cold. “No, I think you’ve done quite enough for one day,” he declared. “I wouldn’t dream of imposing any more work upon you. Collect your things from the hotel, Paulina. I’m terminating your employment, effective as of…” He glanced at his watch. “Now.”
“Did you hear me? Get out of here,” her boss ordered. He pointed towards the door with an immaculately manicured white finger. In the lamplight, it sparkled like snow. “Go back to the underground, where I plucked you out of the dirt and dust. I’m sure those rats in the tunnels will be more than willing to welcome you again.”
“Please, no,” she begged, quavering. “Please, Mr. Amar, I can make it up to you!” From out of the shadows, two figures approached, winding their arms around hers, dragging her towards the exit. “I swear,” she cried out, “I’ll make it up to you!”
Paulina had made the trip to the tunnels hundreds, if not thousands, of times, but it was one she was hoping she’d never have to make again. To get to the town’s generators, the workers had to take buses to the lowest residential tier, 1-1, and then board the massive freight elevators that carried people and equipment down, down, down towards the very bottom of the city. Past the isolated farms, the crowded factories, and the prisons was the heart of Electricopolis itself: the power plants.
Past the prisons, she thought to herself. Even lower than the convicts.
The power plant was ring-shaped, like the rest of Electricopolis' layers, and large enough to be a town in its own right. The electricity transfer lines criss-crossed each other and sprawled outwards in a jumble of wire and metal. Radio towers for worker use jutted upwards, blinking red and yellow, and the fluorescent lights flickered weakly.
Distantly, the wind whistled through the vents in the walls, but it wasn't enough to dislodge the dust and grime that settled on every surface. Paulina pulled her face mask up over her nose and mouth.
"D24," came a short, clipped voice from a man with a notepad. "D24."
She checked her work ticket, then looked up. “Here.”
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” the foreman remarked. “You’ll be on Team F, laying cable from points 28 to 32.” He reached down, grabbed a spool of heavy-duty cable, and shoved it at her. “Get going, don’t slack off, and don’t cause any trouble.”
As she walked past him, she heard him let out a knowing, smarmy chuckle. A wave of revulsion rose in her. “And welcome back,” he added.
At the end of the day, Paulina dragged herself into the bar. It was the only one in the maintenance tunnels, and it was crowded at all hours of the day and night with workers nursing their drinks and swapping stories. As she collapsed into an empty seat near the back of the room, she felt herself start to unwind and relax. This was where she felt most comfortable--in the din and dimness of a crowd of people. After the harrowing experience of being pinned under the eyes of Mr. Amar and the foreman, she relished the chance to do the pinning instead.
Her eyes wandered around the room, pulling from one end of the bar to the other. Some of the women were playing cards, some of the men were arguing over who owed money to whom, and some of the others were watching the television. It was a dingy, black-and-white little thing, looking about twenty years past its prime. It was playing Shock 'Til You Drop, one of the ones Paulina recognized as a rerun, and most of the folks at the bar were whooping and hollering whenever the contestant managed to weather another of Sparker's electric shocks.
Only one man at the bar was silent. His eyes narrowed, and his mouth pulled tight into a barely restrained grimace. Oh, now this was a kindred spirit.
Paulina grabbed her glass of water and shoved herself into a gap between the barstools. "That show's on almost every night," she said. "You like it?"
"Not…" the man cast his gaze from the television down into his glass. "Not very much."
"Me neither," Paulina said, nudging him with her elbow. "Somethin' about that guy just rubs me the wrong way."
The man looked up at her for the first time. His eyes had deep hollows under them, as if he hadn't slept a wink, and his voice was hoarse. But his fingers tightened around the glass with a strong grip, and his features hardened, even as his voice betrayed his curiosity.
"You mean Bob Sparker?" he asked.
Paulina nodded. She watched him, and he watched her. For a moment, they traded stares. And then the man gave way once more, looking down again. And he admitted: "I don't like him much either."
Jackpot. Paulina leaned over, curious. "You know him?" she asked.
"I met him once or twice, back when I worked up top." On the television screen, Bob Sparker cavorted around the stage, cackling with laughter as he threw the switches to the electric chair. "I tried to give him some…career advice, but he just blew me off. Ungrateful, if you ask me."
The man blinked. "Hey, the same thing happened to me. Well…sort of. He was ungrateful, that's for sure."
"You wanna talk about it?"
"Well…" He fingered his glass, drained it, and then confessed: "I used to know him growing up. We used to be…best friends. But now that he's a big star, he completely blew me off. Acted like he didn't owe me anything. Like I was just some big burden to him." The words came out quickly, in a rush. "It makes me so mad, when folks go up top and then suddenly they're too good for--"
He heaved a sigh, shuddering, and put his hand over his eyes. "For the rest of us," he finished. "Sorry. I guess I got worked up."
"Hey, don't apologize." She leaned over and patted the man on the shoulder. "I feel the exact same way. Those assholes like to just use people and throw them away," she lamented. "Just like me."
"Exactly." The man nodded. "You get it. You're the only person who does." He looked around, then leaned in. "Everyone else acts like they're gonna make it big someday. Like they're going to go to an audition once they get the time and the money, and then they'll be stars too. Can you believe that?"
Paulina laughed. "Delusional."
"Yeah," he said, echoing her. "Delusional."
Their laughter faded out, covered by the chatter of the bar. Paulina and the man looked at each other. She smiled. He smiled back. Slowly, he reached out a calloused hand.
"It's nice to meet you," he said. "I'm Sam Gale."
"Nice to meet you too," Paulina replied, grabbing his hand and shaking it heartily. "Name's Paulina Sweet. You know," she added slyly, "I think we might just get to be friends."
He invited her back to his dormitory, a small one-room apartment where some of the workers lived. He told her the whole sordid story there, and what a story it was--full of resentment, bitterness, despair, near-traffic collisions and even a fist fight, to boot. By coincidence, Samuel Gale's run-in with Bob Sparker had occurred only a few months before Paulina's, and they bonded over their shared hatred of the man. Paulina's hatred, however, was mostly a result of her professional rivalry; it was obvious that Gale's dark feelings came from a much deeper place in his psyche. The poor guy truly felt that he was owed Sparker's adoration, his attention, some small part of his golden shine, as payment for having once been his friend.
Paulina had absolutely no sympathy for him. But she did recognize an opportunity when she saw one.
"I used to live near him," Sam Gale said, his eyes dewy and dark. "But I can't go back up there anymore. The idea that I might see him again--it's been killing me."
"You been to a therapist?"
Good, she thought. She moved closer to him, slinging an arm around his shoulders. "Can you tell me something?" she asked. "If you did end up seeing him again, what would you want to…do to him?"
He buried his head in his hands, groaning. "I don't know. I don't want to fight him, not physically. I just…" He let out a deep sob. "My head and my chest keep pounding. I just want him to know how it feels. I just want him to understand how much it hurts."
"I know, pal. I know." Paulina patted his shoulder and pulled him close. "What if I told you I could get you on his show?"
Sam laughed and wiped at his face with his sleeve. "Don't bother," he said. "He already said I wouldn't be any good."
She leaned in, whispering. "I'll make you good," she said. "I'll make you a shockproof, voltproof machine."
"How? Cheating or something?"
"No, no cheating. That's the beauty of it," she explained. Slowly, a spark of life began to shine in Samuel Gale's eyes, and he looked up at her, blinking tears away. "We'll do it fair and square, so he can't ignore you anymore. You'll beat him on his terms, and then he'll have to give you your due. Would you like that?" she asked sweetly. "Does that sound good?"
His gaze lifted away, and he stared into the distance. Somewhere inside him, Paulina knew he was there on the stage, triumphant. "What would I have to do?" he asked.
"I tell you what." Paulina turned towards him and clasped his hands in her own, like a child sharing a secret. "I have some money saved up from…some side jobs I've been doing. What about you?"
"I think I might have some, too."
"Good, good." She patted his hands. "See, I'm a game show junkie. I have tapes of almost every program on TV, and the ones I don't have, I can get. We're gonna need to know everything about everything. Quiz shows, endurance shows, obstacle courses, guessing games. And I know a great gym we can train you at."
"Training? Quiz shows? But I thought we were just going to--"
"One step at a time, pal," Paulina snickered. "Consider me your game show coach. By the time you make it to Shock 'Til You Drop, you'll be more god than man. If you're prepared to give me a year of your life…"
She grinned terribly.
"I promise you that you'll bring Bob Sparker to his knees."
2. The New Normal
Bob Sparker remembered the feeling of the VHS tape inside his jacket, the hard plastic pressing against his ribs. He remembered laughing as he walked home, swaying from side to side, bruised and aching from his altercation at the Paradise Hotel. Paulina Sweet had tried to make him defect from his company, and her henchmen had beaten him when it hadn’t worked, but Bob was the one who had stolen the only bargaining chip she had.
The tape was a gritty, grainy, almost certainly faked piece of evidence implicating Percy King in rigging his game shows. There were too many holes in her story to make it likely that she was telling the truth, but it didn’t matter one way or the other. Bob was nothing like her, and Mr. King was nothing like that. Neither of them could be manipulated so easily. After all, not even a string of scandals could oust Sparker from his place at the top of the ratings.
So he returned to his work with a newfound zeal. He watched over his contestants, cheered them as they endured the gauntlet of electric shocks, and far more often comforted them as they surrendered; and more than one, this time, left in a stretcher. But that was fine, because there were always more lining up to take their place. His electric chair was never empty.
And gradually, contestant by contestant, episode by episode, Bob Sparker began to change…
Margaret King stood in the corner of Bob Sparker's dressing room, her arms folded in disdain. The star himself was seated at his large mirrored vanity, with Mr. Percy King, his boss and Margaret's father, seated close by.
“What’s wrong with these people?” Bob complained loudly, pulling at his white hair with his brush. “Mr. King, you gotta get me some better contestants. These ones are made out of paper. They can’t even take a little shock.”
“They can take a little shock,” Margaret said, “but that's not what you're giving them. You have to be more careful, Bob.”
“She has a point,” Percy mused, stroking his chin. “Remember what happened with Miss Lang.”
“Miss Lang was a fluke,” Bob snapped. “How long are you two gonna lord that over me? Besides, if you got me someone bigger--someone tougher--then we wouldn't have to worry about it, right?”
“You're missing the point,” Margaret argued. “These aren't just toys for you to play with, Bob. They're real people.”
“They’re real people who line up around the block to get a shot on my show,” he retorted, jabbing his hairbrush towards her. “As far as I'm concerned, for the half-hour I've got them in that electric chair, I can do whatever I want to them!”
“Within reason,” Percy coughed.
“Within reason,” Bob added quickly. “And they eat it up and beg me for more. You've seen them,” he said. “So what's the problem?”
“The problem is--” Margaret struggled to get the words out. She gestured emptily, frustrated, and then finally turned to her father. “Dad, tell him it's not right!”
Percy glanced between them, his brow furrowed in thought, and then he let out a nervous, unnatural-sounding laugh. “Now, now, no fighting,” he said patronizingly. “Margie, you don't have to worry. I'll make sure to find someone sturdy enough for Bob's show.”
“That's not what I--” she began.
“Actually, there is something,” he said, opening one eye slowly. “Have you heard of this fellow making the rounds on daytime TV?”
“Who?” Bob asked. “The guy who won at the quiz show? The one with the bag on his head?”
“The very same. He was on The Twenty-One just last week and swept the whole show. A flawless victory, start to finish.”
Bob rolled this around in his mind. “That blackjack show? What, did he count cards or something?”
Percy shook his head. “Impossible. They have a machine shuffle after every hand. I had a look at the footage,” he explained. “It looks legitimate to me. It’ll have to go to air, now. Not a good look for The Twenty-One.”
“Yeah, well, that’s their problem.” Bob nearly turned around again before doing a double take. “Wait, are you saying you want that guy on my show? Seriously?”
“Why not? He’s certainly drumming up some hype.”
“Hah!” Bob Sparker barked out his sharp, high-pitched laugh. “Gambling and memorizing trivia answers is one thing, but that doesn’t mean he can make it in the electric chair. Gimme a call when he does something really amazing.”
Percy smiled. “Well,” he said slyly, “rumor has it that he’s supposed to be running Concrete Jungle right now. Maybe you should turn on the television and take a look.”
Bob stared at him for a moment suspiciously, then grabbed the remote and flicked on the TV that sat in the corner of his dressing room.
Concrete Jungle was a physical challenge show where athletes scaled an obstacle course. On the television, there was a slow pan up a twisted structure of metal and piping. On the starting platform, high up above the crowd, was the indistinct silhouette of a man.
“Our next contestant wishes not to be named,” whispered the show’s commentator. “He’s known by his fans as the ‘Game Show Killer.’”
The camera cut to a close-up; his body looked disappointingly average. Bob expected either the lithe, sinewy runner-type that usually excelled on Concrete Jungle or, his favorite, the hulking sides of beef who likely pushed people around at their day job. This man was neither. His eyes peered out from his dark executioner’s hood, and, wordlessly, he stepped forward to begin.
“So that’s your mystery man,” Margaret said. “Why’s he hiding his face?”
“Not even I know the answer to that one,” Percy confessed. “But maybe Bob here can be the one to find out. Now, look. He’s starting.”
The bell sounded. The man rocketed forward off of the starting area with a running leap. He tucked and rolled carefully as he hit the next platform, and then the next. He jumped up, grasping the rings that dangled from a bar, and swung his body through the air. The man’s movements were practiced, workmanlike, almost mechanical. Despite that, there was a piercing look in his eyes, a hunger that Bob recognized but couldn’t place. Who was this guy?
Suddenly, flames roared up from beneath him. Sweat began to bead on his arms and legs. His hand slipped--he swayed--he recovered--and Bob Sparker realized he’d been leaning forward, right on the edge of his seat.
The masked man shimmied up a rope, picked up a rubber hammer, and swung it hard at the bell. The sound roared out over the cheers of the audience as a rain of confetti fell from above.
“Well.” Bob leaned back and turned off the TV. “I see why you like him."
“I don’t know. Something about him annoys me. The ‘Game Show Killer.’ Hmph.” Bob kicked up his feet and crossed one leg over the other. “Winning over and over...it goes right to your head. I think I’d be doing him a favor by taking him down a peg, don’t you think?”
“Doing him a favor?” Percy chuckled. “Now, now. You don't have to justify it to me. If you want him, he's yours.”
Margaret glanced between Bob Sparker and her father, the two of them laughing with each other. A chill crawled along her arms, followed by the prickle of anger. She turned and grabbed the doorknob, shutting the door with a slam.
She stood there outside the dressing room, rubbing at her face with her hands. Fine, she thought. Put him on. I hope he really does kill your show.
3. Sparker Live! / Hoodlum Hunting
“We have a treat for you today, folks!” Bob Sparker announced. “We have a very special guest with us...”
Bob put a hand on the back of the electric chair. He spun it around to reveal the masked man already in it, his eyes gazing out stonily from beneath his executioner’s hood.
“That’s right, folks! The one, the only...the Game Show Killer!” Bob whooped. “What a name, huh?” He leaned down and pointed his microphone at the man’s face. “Tell me! What do you have against my noble profession, anyway?”
No response. The man’s hands just tightened on the arms of the chair.
Bob pulled back. “Well, no worries!” he said cheerfully. “We’ll get an answer out of you one way or another! Ladies and gentlemen, let's give our mystery man a big round of applause!”
The audience went wild. Columns of sparks lit up the stage as the spotlights focused on the man in the chair. Behind his hood, his eyes narrowed.
“Now, this is a special live show,” Bob said, “so what you see is what you get! Will our hooded hero withstand every jolt on his way to the finish line, or will he tap out for a few thousand dollars? You'll get to see it all as it happens, with no smoke, mirrors or editing! So don't blink--and stay tuned!”
“Where are you going?” Jam asked, nearly stumbling as he tried to keep up with Margaret as she dragged him by his hand.
“We are going to do something productive,” she said. “Instead of sitting around and watching Bob's slide into complete degradation, we're gonna do a little detective work. Come on!”
She pulled Jam into her car, a shiny golden convertible with paint that glittered like diamonds. “Remember that guy who terrorized us on the road?” she said. “I looked him up online. Word is, he records his little joyrides and uploads the videos for people to watch. So if we're lucky, we can catch him and figure out who he is.”
“Is that really such a good idea?” Jam protested. “I'd be happy never seeing them again--”
“Me too, but I'm in a bad mood and I want a fight, so we're going hoodlum hunting.” She pulled back the gearshift on her car as she let out a growl. “Just tell yourself we're doing everyone a public service!”
Soon they were back on the roads circling Electricopolis. The wind, dry and cold, whipped at Margaret's jacket and stung Jam's lips. “Listen,” he said. “We don't even know for sure that he's out here--”
A beam of light cut through the dark. Jam recoiled as a pair of headlights flashed in the rearview mirror. For just a moment, the two of them caught a glimpse of the familiar red-and-yellow paint job before the headlights pivoted upwards, glowing so brightly that Jam, even with his glasses on, found himself squinting.
“There he is,” Margie hissed. She pulled her car to one side, and the other one followed behind her. They were clearly trying to block her.
She turned on her turn signal, waited for Speed Demon's car to switch lanes, and then she slowed down, pulling her car further back until she was level with her rival. “Tell them to roll down the window,” she said. “We gotta talk.”
Jam leaned over the passenger side door. “Hey!” he called out. “Roll down the window! We just want to talk!” The other car's engine roared in response, its headlights flashing. Jam leaned back. “No good,” he said. “I think they're looking for a race.”
“Then they'll get one.” Margie gritted her teeth. “I had this lady tuned up just to keep up with this little shit. Let's see how they like this!”
Before Jam could get out a word in edgewise, Margaret's convertible pulled forward and past Speed Demon's car. She jerked the steering wheel hard to the side, trying to cut them off, but the driver deftly maneuvered out of the way.
As Margaret's glitter-flecked car weaved and bobbed around Speed Demon's, Jam felt himself sink lower and lower into the passenger seat, trying not to lose his mind out of anxiety. They'd barely escaped from this person once before, and now Margaret was picking a fight with them on purpose?
He looked over at her. Her jaw was clenched tight. Her hands gripped the wheel so hard her knuckles were white. And there were tears forming at the corners of her eyes…
The car lurched. Margaret pulled ahead of Speed Demon, then braked and yanked the steering wheel hard, sending the rear of her car flying out at an angle. There was a deafening squeal and the smell of burning rubber as Speed Demon did the same, leaving curving tire tracks on the asphalt.
There was a moment of quiet before Margaret stepped out of the car and tried to yank open Speed Demon's door. “Was that enough of a race for you?” she hollered, as Jam followed behind. “Come on, get out here!”
The door opened and the driver tumbled out onto the ground, fumbling with their helmet before finally yanking it off. He couldn't have been more than fifteen or sixteen, with a freckled face framed by a mop of blond hair. “You again?” the kid asked, and then all the color drained from his face. “You're... you're Margaret King.”
“That’s right!” Margaret said, kneeling down. “And I’ve had enough of being terrorized by a little kid like…” She paused, then leaned in, peering. Her eyes narrowed. The teenager started to sweat. “Wait a second. Don't I know you?”
“Do you?” Jam chimed in, leaning over her to get a look for himself. “Hey...you do look kind of familiar.”
“I dunno what you're talking about,” the kid stammered, trying to put his helmet back on. Margaret grabbed it out of his hands. “Hey, give that back!”
“You're with that creep who runs Rubyred!” Margaret exclaimed. “That’s where I've seen you! Look, Jam, he's got the same hair and everything,” she said, pointing. The boy turned away, scowling. “Remember? We met at a party one time, but you didn't stick around. I barely got to shake your hand. You're Giuseppe's cousin, right?”
“Nephew. But don't even think of lumping me in with that guy,” Speed Demon spat. “This car's the only thing he ever gave me. Says it'll keep me out of his hair. What do you want with me, anyway?”
“Well, I was going to beat you up,” Margaret said, cracking her neck back and forth. “What do you think, Jam?”
“Jesus, Margie, he's just a kid!” Jam sputtered. “Listen, uh, Speed Demon--what's your real name, anyway?”
“F... Francis. It's Francis.”
“Francis? Seriously? No wonder you’re using an alias,” Margaret said. Francis rolled his eyes and reached for his helmet, which Margie jerked out of the way. “Anyway,” she snickered, “I'm sure your uncle's gonna be thrilled when I tell him you were caught terrorizing the heiress to the electric company.”
“Wait!” Francis said, holding up a hand. “Don't do that, okay? Please? He'll kick me out if you do! He said if I cause any more trouble, he'll send me underground!”
“Then quit your stupid joyrides,” Margaret said. “Maybe I oughta just keep this helmet, huh? Just to make sure you behave?”
“Come on!” Francis complained. “Okay, listen. You're friends with that weirdo game show host, right? Bob Sparker?”
“Yeah,” Jam said. “Why?”
“If you gimme that back, and you don't tell my uncle I messed with you…” Francis hemmed and hawed. “I'll tell you something about that guy on Sparker's show.”
Margaret blinked, lowering the helmet. “The Game Show Killer?”
“Yeah. That guy. His, uh, agent works for my uncle,” the boy explained. “She's real shady. She was telling Giuseppe that she found some guy who used to know Bob Sparker, and they're gonna try to get Sparker sent to jail. I dunno how, but something's supposed to happen during the live show…”
“Sent to jail?” Jam echoed. He glanced at Margaret. “Think we oughta tell your dad?”
“That's no good,” Margaret murmured. “The show's broadcasting right now!” She tossed the helmet back to Francis, then turned to Jam and handed him her keys. “Here. Take these and get my car back to the garage. Francis,” she ordered. “Let's go!”
“Go?” the teen said. “Go where?”
“To the studio!” she replied. “You can make it, can't you?”
“Of course I can make it!” scoffed the driver, fixing the helmet back over his head. “Get in!”
Jam looked up. “Margie,” he said. She paused, the passenger door open, staring at him. “Just...be careful, okay?”
Margaret paused, looking a little taken aback. Then she smiled, gave Jam a thumbs up, and disappeared into Speed Demon's car. Within moments, the car tore away back onto the roads, leaving only a cloud of dust in its wake.
4. Breaking Point
The third shock ripped through the Game Show Killer's body. His hands tightened up on the ends of the electric chair's arms, his knuckles paling, his teeth gritted behind his hood--but with no other response.
“Well, well, well,” Bob drawled. “Looks like our mystery man’s weathered the first three shocks without breaking a sweat.” He leaned over and rubbed at the man’s hood with his thumb. “Well, a little bit of a sweat,” he added, and then, with a flick of his wrist, fanned out a thick wad of hundred-dollar bills. “So, will you stop now and take the cash?”
The man stared at him unblinkingly, and then shook his head. Bob whooped and threw his hand up, sending the money cascading over the stage. “He’s going for it, folks!” he exclaimed. “The Game Show Killer’s giving it his all! That means I can take off the kid gloves,” he said slyly. “Shock number four, coming right up!”
The jolt of electricity ripped through the man’s body as Bob Sparker watched, grinning. The fifth sent him doubling over, his eyes losing focus, hearing nothing but a ringing in his ears. Slowly, and as if through water, the sound of Bob Sparker’s endless patter reached his brain.
“Now, this is the part of the show where we talk a little bit about you,” said the host. “So, how about it? Anything about yourself you wanna share? Any formative experiences that led you to become the masked man you are today?”
He held out the microphone, jiggling it up and down impatiently. He leaned in to whisper: “The silent treatment is good, but we’ve got time to fill. Give me something to work with, will ya?”
The man breathed heavily, and stared at Bob Sparker through piercing eyes partially hidden by his hood. Still, he said nothing.
Bob let out a laugh of barely disguised annoyance. “Looks like someone needs a lesson in good TV,” he declared. “Fire 'em up, boys! Shock number six!”
This time, the man sat up ramrod-straight, his fingernails digging into the arms of the electric chair. The air seemed to crackle and burn as a buzzer sounded over the roars of the audience.
“He's into the Big Three now, folks!” Bob grabbed the top of the Game Show Killer's head through his hood, lifting him up in his seat like a marionette on a string. The man's defiant eyes now looked glassy. “You still with us, big guy?”
The G.S.K. shook Sparker off, breaking his grip. The audience let out a low ooooh, and Bob, grinning, looked back and forth between his contestant and the crowd.
The man chuckled darkly under his breath. And then, in a low whisper that only the host could hear, he muttered: “And you said I couldn't take a little shock.”
Bob stopped, facing the crowd, frozen in place. The color drained from his face, and he whipped around to face the man. “What did you say?” he hissed.
“Say that again!” Sparker shrieked, leaning in towards his face. “You say that one more time!”
Again, nothing. Bob Sparker's face darkened to a deep red, and with one clawlike hand he grabbed the man's hood and jerked it up roughly over his head. There, in the chair, his brow slick with sweat and his eyes sunken in, was a man that Sparker, and only Sparker, knew.
The two stared at each other tensely. There wasn't a peep from the audience, and even the technicians glanced among each other in confusion. And then, suddenly, the host laughed brightly, whirling back to face his adoring crowd.
“What a surprise, folks!” he announced. “It's my great pleasure to introduce to you the true identity of the Game Show Killer...an old friend of mine, Mr. Samuel Gale!”
The audience erupted into cheers. Sparker grinned, stepping backwards so he was standing near Sam Gale, looping an arm around his shoulders in mock affection. Gale looked bewildered, clearly not having expected this reaction. “A reunion like this,” Bob explained, “calls for something special!”
He moved a foot backwards and to the side. He pressed down. In an instant, the lights onstage changed from a brilliant lime to a lurid purple. The wings began to rotate and fold outwards, revealing enormous painted lightning bolts that directed the audience's eyes to the center of the stage. A sign descended from the ceiling: DANGER! HIGH VOLTAGE!
“Time to make this a night to remember, folks! It's time for our very first High Voltage Mode!” Sparker moved back, placing his hand on the lever near the electric chair. “From now on, these next shocks are as strong as we can legally allow! If you’re still conscious after three of these suckers, I’ll give you anything you want!”
He threw his head back and started to laugh, a crazed, high-pitched cackle that seemed to rip through the air like a knife.
“That’s right, ladies and gentlemen!” he whooped, much to the delight of the crowd. “A new washer-dryer! A hi-fi stereo system! An all-expenses-paid vacation! But why stop there?” he asked. He leered at his contestant, and Sam Gale, looking terrified, leaned away. “Want my apartment, Sammy? Take it! My car keys? They’re yours! Like I said, pal--a-ny-thing you want!”
Offstage, one of the production assistants waved their hands in agitation, trying to catch Sparker's attention. This wasn't planned, they tried to communicate. Cut to commercial. But Sparker ignored them, jabbing a finger directly into the nearest camera. “Keep that thing on!” he barked. “From now on, there are no more commercial breaks! You're going to catch every second of this, you got it?”
Baffled, the cameramen acquiesced, swinging their equipment around to focus on the green-suited man and his contestant in the middle of the spotlights.
"That's better!" Sparker snapped. "I want every eye in the city on you, Gale! I want everyone to see the moment when I kill the Game Show Killer!"
"Now, for those of you just tuning in, let me explain a couple things!" Bob Sparker wound a finger into the collar of his shirt, tugging it outwards. Sweat glistened on his flushed brow, and his lips were pulled back in an ever-present grin.
"We have here Mr. Game Show Killer himself…" He grabbed Samuel Gale's hair and forced his face up. His contestant squinted into the spotlight. "...or Samuel Gale, as I know him," Sparker explained. "An old buddy of mine...or he used to be, before he nearly killed me twice!" He let go of Gale's hair and wiped his hand on the breast of his jacket. “This one goes out to all you bullied kids out there!" Sparker cackled. "Revenge is a dish best served crispy, folks! Time for high voltage shock number one!"
He turned, grabbed a lever on the wall, and pulled it down. There was a buzzing sound, and the very air itself seemed to crackle with electricity. Gale's fingernails dug into the arms of the electric chair as he sat straight up. It was a moment before he could hear Bob’s voice over the ringing in his ears, and feel the wiry grip of his hand on Gale’s shoulder.
“Sturdy fellow, isn’t he?” Bob snickered. “You know, Sammy, it’s a real shame. I kind of liked you, before you spent all your time trying to get me killed!”
“I never meant to hurt you,” Gale wheezed, still bent over. “I didn’t…”
“You pushed me in front of a car!” Bob exclaimed, grabbing the arms of the electric chair and leaning over into his face. His eyes were wild, and his hair seemed to float, full with static electricity. “And then you tried to choke me! If I weren’t such a live-wire, it might have worked, too!”
“Because you wouldn’t listen!” Gale yelled back.
Bob wheeled away from him and slammed the lever down again. The second shock ripped through Gale’s body. “That’s right, I didn’t listen!” Sparker hissed. “Why would I listen? Why would I care about you? Always needling at me, insulting me, acting like you were my friend…”
“You...you did care,” Gale retorted weakly, bringing up his gaze to stare at the other man, his eyes sunken. “You always cared. You were always there.”
For just a moment Bob’s face became blank--his eyes wide in something like confusion or, perhaps, terror--but it quickly turned to rage as he lifted the lever up and slammed it down again, again, again. Gale’s limbs stiffened, his eyes fluttering wildly, as the world became white at the edges and his body sang with pain. At the end of it, his head lolled, his lips moving.
“What was that?” Bob asked, tilting his head and leaning over to listen.
Gale’s voice was barely more than a whisper, but the microphones picked it up. “Code red,” he breathed. “Code red.”
Bob pulled back, laughing. “Oh, I get it,” he said. “You want to call it quits now, huh? Too bad! You wanted to be on my show so bad, you’re gonna stay!”
“Code red!” Gale raised his voice as much as he could muster. He looked over one shoulder, then the other, searching for the presence of someone he couldn’t see. “Code--”
At that moment, the sound of ripping drywall and buckling metal rang through the air. Dust billowed into the studio. As it cleared, the silhouette of Speed Demon’s car could be seen, its fender looking worse for wear. An unsteady Margaret King stepped out of the passenger seat, coughing and waving away the dust as she covered her mouth. The cameras turned to focus on her, the car, and the giant hole that they’d made in the wall.
“That’s enough,” she finally announced, after catching her breath. She stepped forward, cracking her knuckles. “Speed Demon, go get that guy out of the chair! I’ll deal with Bob!”
Bob stared, and then burst into a cackle. “Well! How about this, folks? Miss Margaret King, the princess of Electricopolis, makes a mess of my studio and then tells me my game is up! Now, now,” he said condescendingly, waggling a finger at her. “I’m the star here, not you, and I say the show must go on!”
“You think I’m gonna just stand here and watch you kill a man?” Margaret responded. “I don’t want to have to fight you, but…”
“Fight me!” Bob laughed. “I’d love to see you try--and I bet the audience would, too! But first…”
Speed Demon was still struggling with the belts of the electric chair. Bob shoved him away, cleanly pulled the straps off in a few smooth motions, and hefted his contestant up out of the chair. “Sorry, Sammy,” he hissed. “I’ve gotta borrow this for a moment.”
He threw Sam Gale onto the ground nearby. Several technicians scurried forward to pull him offstage. Bob Sparker whirled around, sat in the chair, reached back a hand and gripped the lever. “Now remember,” he said, winking at the cameras. “Don’t try this at home, folks--I’m a professional!”
“Wait!” Margaret yelled, stepping forward. “What are you doing? You can’t--”
He yanked the lever down. There was a flash of light, the smell of smoke and, rising above the gasps of the crowd, the sound of crackling and Sparker’s high-pitched, maniacal laugh.
Margaret shielded her eyes, blinking away the brightness. But from within the cloud of smoke and dust, a hand darted out that raked sharp nails across her cheek. She yelped and stumbled backwards, and soon the rest of Bob Sparker lunged from the cloud, nearly knocking her down onto the floor.
Margaret caught herself on one of the painted lightning bolts. She steadied herself and forced her head upwards, taking in the form of the man she used to call her best friend.
He looked like a monster. His green suit was ragged and spiked at the shoulders, and his lips were pulled back in a grin so extreme she could hear his teeth grinding together. His eyes darted back and forth madly before landing on her, and his voice was strained, like his vocal chords were too tight. “Sorry about that pretty face of yours,” he remarked, flexing his hands, his fingers stiff and tense like the claws of an animal. “I was aiming for your throat!”
“Bob, stop this!” Margaret protested. She weaved back and away from another swing of his hand. As his nails passed close to her neck, she could feel a tingling, like static electricity jumping from his skin to hers. “Gahh!”
“Oh, you felt that, huh?” he taunted. “That’s just a little taste, sweetheart! Lay a hand on me and I’ll light you up like a Christmas tree!”
“Fine!” she said, exasperated. “Then I won’t lay a hand on you, that’s all!” She stepped backwards out of the range of his hands, once, twice--and then brought her foot up to slam the toe of her rubber-soled shoe up into his chin.
He went flying, hit the side of the set and crumpled to the ground in a groaning heap. For a moment there was silence in the studio, and then the audience burst into a flurry of cheers, whistles and applause.
Margaret stood there, panting, and then turned to the audience. She could barely be heard over the roar of the crowd. “You shut up!” she spat, waving a hand sharply. “I can’t believe you people! Not a single one of you did anything to stop him! And you,” she said, jabbing a finger towards the tech crew. “Turn off those cameras! This show is over!”
6. The Show’s Over
The whole story came out only a few days after the incident. Samuel Gale’s “agent” was revealed to be Paulina Sweet, who threw Gale to the wolves in order to bait Sparker into committing murder on live TV. The gambit had nearly paid off, as Paulina, waiting backstage, did nothing to cut the power upon hearing Gale’s code word, as she had promised.
Sparker’s lawyer said as much. He painted the situation as two rogues taking advantage of an unstable man, driven to rage by his deep-seated trauma at Gale’s actions and the constant electrocution to his addled brain. In short, Bob wasn’t--had never been--in his right mind. And so, Percy King’s money paid for Bob Sparker’s freedom once again.
His show was canceled, of course, but not without having first achieved the highest ratings in all of Top Tier’s storied television history. “Everything evens out,” as Percy King said, tapping his champagne glass against the one held in Bob Sparker’s pale, numb hand.
“I’m so sorry,” Bob croaked, unable to even take a drink. “I’m sorry, boss.”
“Don’t be,” said Percy, patting him on the shoulder. “You had a good run, my boy. And this city loves nothing more than a comeback story,” he said. “Give it a year or so. I’ll make sure you’re back on the air.”
"But…" Bob licked his lips nervously, his mouth dry. "What about your daughter? I almost…"
Percy smiled his enigmatic smile. "She's fine," he said. "Just a couple scratches, that's all. She was worried more about you."
"Of course. You always were her best friend, you know. Everything will be fine," he emphasized. "You'll forgive each other, you'll have your comeback story, and everything will be just as it should be."
Inwardly, Bob expected to see in himself some spark of gratitude or relief; but there was nothing there.
“Hey,” Jam said quietly, his hands in his pockets. “Thanks for coming.”
“Mm.” Bob leaned over the railing on the roof of the company headquarters. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
“I just wanted to see how you were doing. You got out of the hospital pretty quickly, all things considered.”
Of course I did, Bob thought. That’s how it always goes.
“And Margie’s worried about you,” Jam continued. “She says she tried to call you, but you weren’t picking up.”
“I guess I haven’t been up to talking,” Bob lied. “Not to the girl who almost fractured my jaw.”
“From the sound of things, you left quite a mark on her, too,” Jam replied. “But I get it. She cares about you, though.”
“So, what?” Bob turned around, turning his nose up towards the sky. “She cares enough to send me back to the hospital? Where they strap me down and…” He shook his head. “No. I’m not going back there.”
“Then what? There’s gotta be someplace you can go.”
“I just want to stay here.” Even as the words came out of his mouth, Bob wasn’t sure if they were true. “I just want everything to go back to normal.” He covered his face with his hands, peering out between his fingers. “Jam,” he said. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” Jam said patiently. “I just think…maybe this place hasn’t been good for you.”
“Top Tier,” Jam clarified. “The company.”
Bob stared. His face grew white, then a sudden dark red. “I’m already on suspension,” he said, quaking. “Are you asking me to quit? My job? The only decent job I’ve ever had?”
“I’m not--calm down,” Jam said, putting his hands up. “Bob--”
“Shut up!” Bob spat. He stood up, his hands balling into tight, pale fists. “Just shut up! I’m sick of you,” he babbled, the words falling out of his mouth even as he instantly, painfully regretted them. “Your holier-than-thou attitude, your fake concern, the way you think you’re so much smarter than I am…”
“Bob, stop!” Jam stood up, reached out and grabbed his wrists. “Just cool it, okay?”
“I’m sorry,” Bob panted. He looked down, avoiding Jam’s gaze. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. It’s fine,” Jam said. “Just talk to me, okay? Please. For Margie’s sake, at least.”
Bob twisted away, breaking Jam’s grip. “I’m sorry. I can’t...I can’t. Not right now.”
He turned and walked back to the stairs, leaving silence behind him.
Once again, Bob found himself saved by the grace of his employer, and once again he found himself wandering the mazelike streets of the residential layers, the dusty concrete roads underneath his feet. He walked, his hands in his pockets, his face turned down, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, until…
He looked up. There was a woman peering at him from partway down the street, holding a broom nearly as large as she was, sweeping the walkway that led to her small house, crowded on both sides by townhomes that dwarfed it. She looked familiar, mild and meek.
“It’s me,” she said, patting her chest. “Alice Lang. Do you remember me?”
He blinked. “Alice,” he repeated, and then he stood up a little straighter, a sparkle of life coming back into his eyes. “Alice! You live here?”
“I moved here,” she clarified. “After the settlement.”
“Oh,” he murmured. “Right...the settlement.”
She stared at him for a long moment, her head tilted, her eyes large and clear. She searched him, and her brow furrowed in concern. “Do you want to come in?” she asked.
Her house was small but neatly kept. As the two of them made their way back through the living room to the dining room, canvases began to appear, hanging on the walls at first, but then proliferating in such a number that they leaned against the walls and were crowded in stacks on the floor. They bristled with thick oil paints in shimmering reds, yellows and greens, their lushness like windows into a distant world. As they walked, Alice explained:
“That settlement changed my life,” she said. “I have enough to live off of while I keep painting. I’ve even sold some, though not very many.”
“You made these?” Bob said, his gaze moving from painting to painting. “That’s amazing.”
“Well, I always wanted to be a set painter,” Alice replied, covering her smile with a thin hand. “Ever thought about that offer you made me?”
“What, hiring you?” Bob said, blinking. “I mean, I would, in a heartbeat, but...you’ve heard the news, right?”
“News?” she repeated. “I don’t watch much TV anymore. Actually,” she confessed, “I don’t even own a TV.”
Bob stopped in his tracks. “Wait a second,” he said. “You don’t know? I got canceled,” he admitted. “I...I don’t have a show anymore.”
Alice led him to the dining room and swept some crumbs off the table, then motioned for him to sit. “Tell me,” she insisted. “What happened?”
He sat down, the chair creaking only slightly under his weight. “It’s a long story,” he sighed. “You sure you wanna hear?”
She did. She listened as he detailed the reappearance of the ghost from his past, Samuel Gale, and everything that had come after it…
When it was all over, Bob was bowed over onto her dining room table, his hands covering his face, too exhausted to manage anything beyond a strained and wheezy sigh. Alice leaned over him, rubbing his arm.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“No,” he croaked. “I’m sorry. This would never have happened if I hadn’t sent you to the hospital. That’s what started this entire thing…”
“You might be right,” Alice said, “but you can’t do anything about that now. What can you do?”
Bob looked up. The bottoms of his eyes brimmed with tears. “What can I do?” he repeated. “I…I don’t know. I don’t think I need to do anything.”
“Because of Mr. King,” he explained. He rubbed his eyes, sniffling. “I mean, I love the guy. He’s done so much for me. He swept that whole mess with you under the rug, he got you this nice place, he said he’ll put me back on the air, he...he…”
Bob stopped. He paused, staring into space. Alice leaned over to look, and saw that something had shifted behind his eyes.
Alice broke the silence gently. “That’s not what you want, is it?”
“That’s the thing,” Bob admitted. “It is what I want. But if nothing changes, then people are going to keep getting hurt. I’m...I’m going to keep hurting people.” He turned to her. “I don’t think he cares if I hurt people. Mr. King, he--I think he only cares about the ratings. Not about me. Not about you. I don’t think he even cares about his own...”
He trailed off. Alice clasped his hand in her own. Slowly, Bob folded his fingers over hers.
“Alice,” he said slowly. “These paintings… Especially this one, with the light coming up over the mountain…"
"Can I buy them from you?”
“Of course,” she said, pulling back a bit in surprise. “I mean, I’d be flattered. But why?”
Bob stared at the painting of the sunrise, and Alice watched him. He looked deep into it, seeing something there that she could only catch a glimpse of.
“I have an idea, I think,” he ventured carefully. “But I’m going to need your help.”
This is where it all started, Bob thought to himself. I always end up here...in the hospital.
“He wants to see you,” said Dr. Flask, opening the door to the hospital room. “I told him it was a terrible idea, but would he listen? No.” He paused, expecting Sparker to make some kind of remark, but he said nothing. “In any case...don’t hurt him.”
“I won’t,” Bob said quietly. “I promise.”
He passed through the doorway and stripped off his overcoat, then sat down on a stool placed next to the patient’s bed. Sam Gale laid there, his eyes closed, his chest moving up and down with slow, even movements.
After a moment, he opened his eyes slowly and gave the doctor a weak wave of his hand. “Thanks, Dr. Flask.”
“I’ll be back in ten,” said the doctor, checking his watch. “Try not to kill each other.”
The door closed with a click and left the two sitting there in silence. They stared at each other for a long moment, the quiet of the room settling between them. One of his arms laid motionless on the bed, fixed with an IV. Bob’s eyes traced the line back to the bag of solution.
“You look like hell,” Sam said, breaking the silence. “I heard that lady did a number on you.”
Bob smiled, touching his jaw lightly. “You don’t look much better,” he replied. “I’m sorry.”
“I almost killed you,” Bob said. “I think that at least deserves an apology.”
“I owe you one, too,” Sam sighed. “For...for not getting the hint. For agreeing to such a stupid, harebrained scheme. If I’d known who that woman was, I never would have given her the time of day.”
Bob reached over and laid a hand gingerly on the man’s shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault, Sam. Anyway, she’s in jail and you’re not, so there’s that.”
“Yeah.” Gale gave Sparker a lopsided grin. “And you’re out of a job.”
Sparker shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “...For now.”
“For now? You mean they’re letting you back on after you tried to kill Percy King’s daughter?”
Bob shook his head. “That’s the crazy thing,” he admitted. “When Mr. King learned about it, he just laughed it off. He said the ratings were the highest they’ve ever been, and that was what…” His voice faltered. “That was what really mattered.”
The silence fell again, and it grew stifling. Sam opened his free hand, extending it a little. Bob took it. It felt strange, cold, almost like a statue.
“Tell me something,” Sam said slowly. “It wasn’t like this when we were young...was it?”
“No,” Bob replied. “Remember that time we went to the Summer Theater?”
“The abandoned one?”
“That’s the one.” Bob gave Sam’s hand a squeeze. “We found the costumes in the back and tried them on, and you found the microphones hidden in the boxes. I…” His mouth grew dry. “I told you I wanted to be a star, that day.”
Sam Gale smiled sadly. “It hurts, doesn’t it? All of this.”
“Yeah.” Bob’s voice cracked as he tried to hold back a sob. “It...it hurts a lot, Sam. It’s like we’ve been twisted and pulled so much that--that we don’t even resemble ourselves anymore. It’s okay if you can’t forgive me,” he added, sniffling. “I wouldn’t either, if I were you.”
“It’s not about forgiveness,” Gale said, his fingers tightening around Sparker’s. “And if it were, I’d be the one asking for it. I just…” He sighed. “I just want to be free. From you, from this. From everything.”
“That’s right,” Bob whispered quietly. “From everything.” He paused, then lifted his other hand. He clasped Sam Gale’s hand in both of his own, warming him. “I know you said it wasn’t about forgiveness, but…” He swallowed. “I forgive you, anyway.”
“Thank you.” A squeeze. “I forgive you, too.”
They were quiet for a moment, and then a polite knock came from the door.
Bob Sparker stood up, tucking his overcoat under his arm. “You gonna be okay?” he asked Sam.
“Yeah,” the patient replied. “I’m getting the best care in the city.” He grinned. “At least, according to my doctor.”
“Be careful with that one,” Bob joked, as Dr. Flask stepped back into the room. “Flask's got absolutely no bedside manner at all.”
Dr. Flask rolled his eyes. “That’s enough out of you,” he responded, waving Bob out the door. “He needs his rest. You’ve done enough damage for one lifetime.”
“I know, I know.” Bob stood in the doorway, hesitating. He turned away from the man in the hospital bed. “Hey, Sam...goodbye.”
The door closed behind him, leaving Bob Sparker alone in the empty hallway of the hospital.