by Jacky Cowper.
There were four of them left now. It was nearly a week since Kissenger had gone over the wall.
Bethsheda was in the garden, feeding what was left of the small flock of chickens; Shenandoah was crashed out in the bedroom, sleeping off another hard day of sleeping; Garsch was rocking gently on the couch, watching the rerun of Kissengers escape on the wall monitor, and Hogg was in the shower, thinking.
Hogg thought a lot. Damn, it was all there was to do in this place. The walls of the Taskmaster Den seemed to creep closer and closer every day. Shit, he thought, as he soaped his hair for the third time. Maybe the bastard walls WERE actually moving. His grinned in spite of himself. Soap trickled into his mouth and he spat hard to get rid of it. Moving walls, sliding almost imperceptibly closer day on day, week on week, minute by minute. That was exactly the kind of crap these shitholes would pull. He was surprised he hadn’t thought of it earlier. He continued soaping his head, his body, with long circular strokes, working up a really good lather. It was his turn to do the ‘shower scene’ and he was determined to make it a good one for the watching masses. Who knew how many extra votes he might pick up if he looked shit-hot in the shower. Whore. He was a whore. He soaped harder and harder, covering his body until he resembled a large dollop of ice cream. He turned his back on the camera angle. No extra votes then.
His hand reached through the soap and touched the small hard lump that protruded just above his collarbone. He rubbed it gently and felt it move against the tendons in his throat. He pulled back quickly, and resumed soaping.
“What do you think you look like?”
It was Bethsheda’s voice, close behind him. A small hand slipped between his legs and started to work him into a sweat, in spite of the lather and the cool water.
He paused soaping, allowing himself to enjoy the public intimacy. Bethsheda was sticking to her game plan. The public slut. It was rare indeed when she was fully dressed and not acting out somebody’s sexual fantasy. Rumour had it that she was streets ahead in the votes. All the guys liked a girl who would put out for the camera, and even the women enjoyed watching her antics.
Would they stick with her long enough to award her £250,000 though? If they did, the petite blonde, enhanced many times over, both surgically and chemically, would probably be the highest paid hooker in the world. Hogg stopped soaping and reached over to the tap, turning the water on full – and cold. Bethsheda shrieked, suddenly doused by the freezing shower, and ran from the room, slipping twice on the tiles as her high heels skittered.
She missed a chance, Hogg thought. If she’d have hung around she could have shown the camera how erect her nipples were due to the cold. The water was having the opposite effect on him. More lost votes then, he thought, looking down, as he turned off the flow and grabbed a clean towel from the rail. Wrapping it round his waist he made his way out into the main living area. Garsch was still lying on the settee. His flat, dead eyes were fixed on the screen. He was a large black man, his neck as wide as his head. Hogg often wondered how they got the implant past all these muscles. He looked up at the screen, just in time to see the moment Kissenger’s head disappeared, the small bomb shearing it clean from his shoulders and depositing it fifty feet from the rest of the corpse.
The footage had been a huge hit with the public. The way Kissengers body had continued to run for a full two seconds after the removal of his head had gained him an enormous fan base on You-tube. Facebook groups had sprung up demanding that his corpse be declared the winner of the contest. Others wanted the head to win. People are way past sick, Hogg thought.
So rumour had it anyway.
Of course they were cut off from the rest of the world – had been for ten weeks. No one knew where the rumours came from but – rumour had it – Bethsheda had a seriously unhealthy relationship with one of the camera techs, and he kept her ‘abreast’ of developments.
Hogg turned away from the massive screen. He’d liked Kissenger. The small man had had been a real comic. An ex-drug addict, he’d kept everyone in stitches with his wit and endless supply of terrible jokes. Shenandoah hadn’t liked him much, but everyone else thought he was a hoot. He’d hoped to use the money to buy a lung transplant for his teenage daughter, but in the end the solitude got him.
The rumours suggested that the public had responded to his demise with such enthusiasm that the Taskmaster had donated the cash, and his daughter was now breathing more easily for the first time in her life. Such was the fame her father had achieved in death, her future career as a TV presenter was assured. A hospital reality show was lined up for her already, just as soon as she left the ward. Get well soon, Trix, thought Hogg.
Were the rumours just part of the bull? He wondered. Was anyone even watching?
“The votes have been counted. Come to the living area immediately.”
The Taskmasters voice boomed through the Den, loud enough to interrupt even Shenandoah’s sleep. She pulled herself to her feet – foot, really. Shenandoah was playing the disabled card, and playing it well.
She refused all offers of assistance even though her slowness had cost them success in their tasks on repeated occasions, ensuring that they had too little to eat and ramping up the tension in the Den. Hogg suspected she was the ‘spoiler’ – the one they kept in deliberately just to annoy the others and provoke reactions. Gaber had reacted, once, in the first fortnight. He’d called her a selfish freak after the fourth failed task in as many days. The premium phone number reaction from the watching millions had been swift and severe. His head had popped like a ripe tomato, splattering everyone in the room with matter – red, grey and white. They were cleared out to the showers while the techs cleared up. Shenandoah’s expression in the showers was unreadable. Hogg had thought he detected a smirk (one more down – and so easily) but he couldn’t be sure. After that, everyone treated her like royalty. On the fifth week, when Shenandoah had taken to her bed for long periods of time, no one complained. No one missed her.
Now she came stumbling into the main living area, her artificial foot on sideways. Always hungry for the sympathy vote, playing the angle.
She indicated with her crutch that she needed the higher seat tonight, and Bethsheda politely moved away. While Shenandoah parked her ample arse on the comfiest chair in the room, Bethsheda, tonight dressed in a neon string bikini bottom and a pair of outrageously high stiletto heels, perched herself on Garsch’s knee. The big man wrapped his arms around the tiny woman’s waist.
“Oh sweetie,” she whispered. “You can do better than that.” She pulled the massive hands up to her breasts and manipulated the wide fingers so that they began to play with her nipples, making them hard and very erect. “A lady’s got to look her best for her fans.”
“Good evening contestants.” The Taskmasters tin voice thundered through the room. “Here is the result of tonight’s vote.”
Bethsheda looked at Hogg. He stared back at her. She was still smiling as the implant bomb deep inside her neck was activated with a sharp ‘pop’ and her outrageously pretty head was reduced to something resembling mince. Her body shouid probably have hit the floor at that point, except Garsch was still holding her up, playing with her dark nipples. He finally reacted, pushing the body from his lap and tearing off his t-shirt, using the dirty grey material to wipe the foul smelling brain matter from his face. He hadn’t blinked once.
“I’ll never get used to that burned smell,” he said.
He walked over to the well-stocked bar (alcohol was another thing that got a reaction, so was encouraged by Taskmaster) and poured a half pint glass of neat vodka. He downed it in one long draught.
“That concludes tonight’s vote.” Taskmaster said. “Congratulations. You are the final three. Tomorrow night, one of you will win £250,000. Please go to the showers and use some of that wonderful Silkysoap Company ‘Liquid Luxury’ to clean up. Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”
Garsch and Hogg were already well-lathered by the time Shenandoah hobbled in. Hogg was scrubbing as hard as he could bear. He could still feel the hot spatter and he was convinced clumps of Bethsheda were all over his body. The towel hadn’t provided any protection and he had been effectively covered in her.
“You scrub any harder and your skin’s gonna come off.” Garsch’s deep voice rumbled round the room like a distant underground train.
“Maybe that would be better.” Hogg replied. The two men turned their backs on Shenandoah as she removed her prosthetic leg and adjusted the catheter bag that was strapped to the remaining one.
“Can one of you do my back?” she whined.
Hogg shuddered, but it was his turn. He filled his hand with the so-called luxury liquid soap and began to lather the large fat-dimpled back.
“Oh, that’s so good baby.” She groaned. “Lower.”
Hogg had to fight down the gag reflex, but he worked the soap between the wide, flabby cheeks at the end of her spine, and worked the lather in. “Oh, you got a real talent there,” she said, slipping her hand between her legs and beginning to move it around.
“You’re done.” He said to her, retreating back beside the big man at the other side of the shower.
“Not yet,” Shenandoah said. “But soon I will be. I can manage the rest myself.”
Hogg rinsed and left the shower. He was followed closely by Garsch, the huge ex-boxer, afraid to be left alone with Shenandoah in amongst the soap, the steam and the skin.
They made their way back to the bedroom together, and settled down for another night of no sleep.
Garsch lay down and stared at the roof, at the tiny red lights from the cameras blinking in the darkness. Hogg curled on his side at the opposite end of the room. He was counting the beds again, looking at the tally of people who had died in the pursuit of cash. Vinnie the wannabe-actor; Max the disgraced MP, seeking public redemption; Lola the stripper; Rabbit the artist; Pehlt the writer, Gaber the poet. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. £250k for sitting on your butt for weeks on end, and a swift, painless death if you were voted out.
For a gambler like Hogg, with enemies on the outside who could make his death infinitely more drawn out, they seemed like good odds. It was win-win. If he won, his debts would be paid off. If he lost – then it wouldn’t matter. He had no one on the outside they could harm, so calculated he was safer in here.
His thoughts were interrupted by the lumbering figure of Shenandoah as she made her way into the room. Her plastic foot clicked on the tiles as she selected her spot and threw her towel to the floor. She lay two beds away from him, her bulk blocking his shadowed view of the rest of the room. He rolled on to his back and stared at the red lights. He smiled at the cameras and closed his eyes.
His sleep was erratic, short bursts of intense dreaming and periods of wakefulness that seemed to stretch out into the night forever. It was his normal sleep pattern, had been since he had been 12 when his mother had died. He used to look out of his bedroom window at the sky, wondering if she was watching him, the way his father had promised. Now he was finally content. He knew millions were watching him, out there in the darkness.
Hundreds of thousands of guardian angels, dialling that premium number just to keep him safe.
He rubbed the small implant again, felt it move. Maybe he could cut it out. They said it was close to the jugular and ran on the electricity produced by the body itself. They said any attempt to remove it would set it off.
They said a lot of stuff. No one knew what was real and what was shit. Shenandoah began to snore, her sagging neck magnifying the sound so that it almost shook the room. The noise drowned out Hogg’s thoughts and brought him back from the brink of sleep. He pulled the quilt over his head and rolled onto his side, away from the sleeping giant. He heard Garsch stirring in the darkness. Shenandoah’s bed creaked and then a wooden leg snapped with a loud bang as the bed hit the floor.
Her snoring was overwhelmed by Garsch’s harsh grunting. Hogg lay rigid in his bed. Shit, surely they weren’t screwing? A tiny giggle escaped his lips and he had to bite the top of the quilt to stifle the sound, as he imagined that meeting of monsters. No freaking wonder the bed had collapsed. A few minutes later he heard the big man yawn.
“That’s done then.” Garsch said in the dark.
The lights, voice activated, came on. Hogg blinked in the sudden glare and dared to look over at the combined mound of flesh to his side. Garsch was astride Shenandoah. His face was lit up by a cherubic smile. He was staring at Hogg. “I did this for you.” He said.
Hogg’s brow furrowed, then as his eyes focused, followed the big guy’s arms, to the massive hands wrapped around Shenandoah’s throat, her bloated face purple, her tongue protruding, her eyes bulging lifelessly, he began to scream.
His mouth was still open as Garsch’s massive head disappeared, spattering the entire room with gore. Hogg clawed at his tongue, trying to scrape the flesh and bone from the back of his throat.
He was still screaming five minutes later when the wall of the bedroom folded back and the techs frantically entered the room. They dragged him out, through the long tunnels built into the walls of the Taskmasters Den and through a silent door, gasping into the daylight. It was daytime? Hands brushed the filth from his face and someone threw a pail of water at him in an attempt to get rid of the blood. He tried to clear his eyes but the water half blinded him.
“Did I win?” He asked, the horror of the night beginning to be replaced by the slenderest trace of hope. “Do I get the £250k? He did it for me. He couldn’t stand the thought that the ugly fat bitch might have taken the prize.”
“You shouldn’t have said that.”
The Taskmasters voice came from somewhere behind him. “We don’t allow discrimination or offensive language of any form in the Den. Game over.”
Hogg heard the click as a button somewhere nearby, was pushed.