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Jeremy tried twisting his shoulders, but the raw chafing against his bare skin told him the rope binding him to the chair was too tight. He couldn’t free himself, no way, no how. The bitch could tie a knot; he’d give her that. He glanced across the room to where his shredded garments lay in the opposite corner and grimaced. Just two days ago, he’d paid $295 for that Brooks Brothers shirt. At least she’d left him his socks and boxer shorts...and a modicum of decency. For that, he was thankful. But, what the hell was her intention?
His lips wound into a snarl as he looked at the woman leaning against the basement wall under the casement window. “Gloria, enough of this bullshit!” he said, his eyes like bits of flint. “Untie me, and I’ll just forget this ever happened.”
For a split second, she stopped what she was doing and glanced at him but then went back to staring through the grimy glass at a setting West Texas sun, her fingers idly fondling the barrel of the sixteen-gauge shotgun next to her.
The light reflecting off her gaunt features told him it was the ‘golden hour’, the time of day that photographers craved. Not that it mattered down here in this dirty, scorpion-infested hellhole -- no one was likely to come knocking on this particular door to take photographs. Of course, he hadn’t a clue where he actually was.
When he’d left his house shortly after noon, she’d sneaked up behind him and clobbered him with something...something hard (it might have been the butt of the shotgun she was a’totin’). Sometime later, he woke up in the backseat of his own car, head pounding, wrists and ankles bound together with a couple of those white, plastic tie things. The subsequent ride had been long and uncomfortable...very uncomfortable. She never said a word the entire time.
She finally stopped stroking the shotgun and turned away from the window. “Jeremy, you can forget whatever you like, I don’t really frickin’ care, but I can guarantee you one thing: You will never forget this night.”
Planting his feet against the floor, he lunged upward for the third time since she’d forced him to hop down the rickety steps and sit in the chair. Unfortunately, the effort only managed to exacerbate the headache lurking behind his eyes -- he might as well have tried to lift a cement truck. She’d obviously secured the chair to the floor as well. He’d have to try to talk his way out of this. He wasn’t known as “El Bastardo”; the most reviled but most listened to shock-jock at WZCM, for nothing. Words were weapons, and he knew how they could slice...or cajole.
“Look, Gloria. I know we haven’t been exactly on the best of terms, but--.”
“Best of terms!” she screamed, cutting him off. Her voice reverberated off the walls of the musty space, the level of ferocity hard to imagine coming from someone so emaciated. Physically, she looked almost third-worldly, even though he recognized the Galliano summer dress she wore. He always thought the butterflies on it were a bit too much, but back when she wore it on the air, it did accent her assets. That was twenty-five or so pounds ago. Now, it just hung on her.
“After what you did to me...and on the air?” she hissed, taking her voice down a notch but somehow increasing its intensity. “Yeah, you might say we haven’t been on the ‘best of terms’.” Her pale blue eyes, dark bags sagging beneath, glared as if someone had switched a gas range on behind them.
“Okay, okay,” he agreed. Best to humor her, at least for now. “I might have gone a little too far with that, but you know how it is. Hell, you were in the same business, even if you preferred to think of yourself as a news reporter.”
“You bastard! Don’t you dare equate your ambush of me with legitimate journalism. What you did was personal and don’t deny it. Ever since I kicked your ass in the 6:00 o’clock slot three years ago, you’ve been looking for a way to get even, and now, thanks to you, I’ve lost my job, my family--” The words caught in her throat, “and my...my self-respect.”
“Fine, think what you will,” he said. Enough of being the nice guy. She wasn’t the victim here -- he was. “But, you’re the one who got caught with Taylor in that sleazy motel, not me.” He let a smirk drift across his face. To be honest, he wouldn’t have minded being the one with her...at least back then, back when she looked inviting. “So, what is it you want?” he asked. “Revenge? Seems kind of petty given you’re the one who precipitated the whole thing, don’t you think?”
She took her hand off the shotgun, moved away from the window, and shuffled toward a chrome kitchen table chair sitting opposite him -- her Gucci handbag laid on top of the seat’s ripped, faux-leather surface. Behind the chair, a video camera was mounted on a tripod -- the light on the front was red; it was recording.
Gloria picked up the handbag, sat down and crossed her long legs. The look on her face, calm, reflective. Whatever resided in that troubled mind of hers, she knew exactly what she was doing.
Her bloodshot eyes focused on him.
“Well,” he finally said after a few moments of silence.
Gloria reached into the bag and pulled out a pistol -- the woman was a walking armory -- but it was not just any pistol. It looked like something out of an old John Wayne movie, a classic six-shooter. They didn’t even make those anymore, did they?
“What do you think you’re going to do with that? Shoot me?” he asked.
“On how truthful you are.” She reached into the bag once more and extracted a bullet -- a single bullet. Smiling, she clicked open the latch, jammed the shell inside a chamber, and expertly snapped it shut. She’d obviously performed that task before. “We’re going to play a game,” she said, her voice throaty, her eyes suddenly intent, almost mischievous.
“Game? What kind of game?”
She smiled. It was a cold, calculating twist of the lips. He’d never seen that from her before. It sent a chill down his spine.
“Let’s call it ‘Truth or Die’,” she answered. “I have a question for you. Answer it truthfully, and if I’m able, I’ll let you go. But, if you lie to me--.” She spun the cylinder with the palm of her hand and pointed the pistol at him.
If she’s able? What the hell did that mean? The woman was nuts; however, it was obvious what the ‘game’ was.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Russian Roulette?”
The quirky grin, fixed on her face like so much dried and peeling plaster, told him she was far from kidding. “Okay, you’ve got the gun,” he conceded. “What’s the question?”
Gloria sighed and blinked so slowly that for a moment he thought she’d drifted off. When her eyelids retreated, she looked relieved, as though the weight of the question had been a long-standing burden, something she’d never be rid of.
Now, he was curious.
“How did you find out about Taylor and me?” she asked.
He almost laughed out loud. Like he would ever give up a source, even a compromised source. She knew better than that. “Honey, if you think I’m going to tell you that, you must be crazy.”
She leaned forward and steadied the revolver with her right hand. Garish light, from the single naked bulb hanging above, deepened the shadows beneath her eyes, making her look every bit the madwoman she was. “Just answer the question,” she growled.
“Fine,” he said, taking a hard swallow. The bitch wasn’t kidding; besides, he could smell liquor on her breath -- that was never a good sign for someone in her state of mind. “Actually, it was just blind luck,” he said, confident that he could invent and sell her on any story he wanted. “I was in the area and happened to see you go in the motel and—“
The sound of the revolver’s hammer dead striking an empty chamber stopped him in mid-sentence. She’d pulled the damn trigger! “Whoa...wait a minute. Jesus, what are you doing?” he moaned. His crotch suddenly felt warm, and then he smelled the rancid odor of urine. His cheeks burned at the realization of how his body had just betrayed him.
“I’m not an unreasonable woman,” she said, ignoring his embarrassment, “but I told you what would happen if you lied to me, and you just did. However, I forgot to tell you that you’re not the only participant in this game.” She pressed the gun to her temple, smiled, and pulled the trigger.
“Damn,” Jeremy wheezed. His mouth felt as dry as Texas dust. For a moment, he’d almost wished the gun had fired, but then he realized if it had, he’d be stuck where he was, and wherever that was, he doubted anyone would come looking for him soon. She was smart enough to think about that. He’d die in this Godforsaken hole if she didn’t cut him loose.
“That wasn’t too much of a risk,” she said. “With all the time I’ve had on my hands lately, I’ve been practicing the spin thing.”
She seemed genuinely pleased with herself. He imagined her in some nondescript motel room, sitting on the bed with a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam resting on the bedside table, spinning the cylinder time after time after time.... Just his bad luck that she hadn’t already blown her brains out.
“But, of course,” she went on. “We’re down to four chances now. Two for you and two for me. Guess you’d better start telling the truth.”
She leveled the pistol at him once more. “Answer the question.”
He tried to shift in his seat once more; he couldn’t move an inch, even on the wet surface. “What do you want me to say, that someone you know gave you up?”
Her eyes told him that was her big concern. She must have entrusted someone with her secret, and whoever it was knew all about her sordid sex games played out in backwater hotel rooms with the city’s big kahuna. To someone like Gloria, that kind of betrayal had to be avenged. He could use that. If he could get her interested in someone else....
The gun shifted back to her head.
“Wait! Stop! That wasn’t my answer,” he screamed. She pulled the trigger anyway.
Once again, she leveled the gun at him. The barrel opening looked like a small cannon in the shadowy light.
“We’re down to two now, cowboy. Guess you’d better fess up, don’t you think?” she said with a lilt in her voice. She was enjoying this.
“All right, all right,” he mumbled. There was no way out; she was too determined...and too demented. “The mayor’s driver owed me, I won’t go into why, but when he found out about your on-going little tryst, he told me. I dropped him a c-note to let me know the next time you two got together. That’s how I got the photos of you and the mayor, and I gotta tell you, that piece--.” His eyes drifted away at the thought, but then quickly looked back at her when he realized he had said too much.
She studied him for a moment, confused, and then said, “It wasn’t just about getting even, like I thought, was it? It was worse than that. You did it for the...ratings. Just for the Goddamn ratings.”
How could she not understand? “Of course, I did. It’s all part of the game, you know that!” he bellowed. His eyes darted toward the camera behind her. It was recording everything, and he had no doubt it would be on YouTube or the local late news tonight. Most of the other news hounds hated his guts too. Like he cared.
Tears cratered in her sunken cheeks. “You destroy people’s lives, and all for the most ridiculous reason there is...for ratings.”
She rose and stumbled across the room, her mascara-blotched eyes never leaving his. “Jeremy, you are a small, unhappy man,” she sniffed as she knelt on the dirt floor at his feet. “But, you told me the truth, so I’m not going to shoot you.”
Relief flooded through his body. He may have just shot his career in the ass, but at least he was still alive. However, the smile on her face looked somehow...unfinished.
“Thing is,” she said, fondling the gun, “the game is not quite over. I wonder: Just how lucky are you? Just two chambers left. One empty, one not. It’s fifty-fifty now.”
She raised the pistol to her head and pulled the trigger.
|The Tooth Fairy War and Other Tales|
Timothy O. Goyette