“Game shows are making a comeback,” my new co-worker, Malcolm, advises me.
He’s trying to convince me to go, as he got free tickets and doesn’t want to go alone. He says that we can meet before the show at Queen and Bathurst, near the venue. It’s January and truly cold, but I’ve got no plans tonight, so I accept. The show starts at 7 pm. After work, I grab a wrap and coffee at the local sandwich shop and read the Globe.
At 6:45, I pull on my leather coat and hat and gloves. The wind chill is up, and waiting at the corner is especially cold. Brandon is approaching with a smile and a wave.
“Hey,” I say.
“It’s just on Ryerson Avenue. Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to get there.”
“Sounds good,” I say.
The walk is quick, like Malcolm says. He searches for the address and finds it on the side of the building.
“Here it is,” he says.
It appears to be deserted, that I question if we are in the right place. But then we find the entrance to the building and a man, looking a lot like a Russian mobster in an Adidas track suit, accepts our tickets from us. Inside the building, it doesn’t look like a proper soundstage, but more like a warehouse that has been converted into a black box theatre. The walls and windows have been painted with flat black scene paint and the folding chair seating is in the round, nesting on black risers. The painted black floor has been splattered with rust paint, an amateurish attempt at creating texture.
“Are you sure this is a game show? It looks more like a Fringe show.”
Malcolm doesn’t answer me.
A few minutes later, some hipsters find their seats, with Starbuck’s coffees in hand. By 7 o’clock, there are no more than twenty people in the audience. I just hope that if this is some kind of performance art kind of thing that I can bail before Act II.
A Teamster like tech in black walks out from the front of house and sits at a console. He is big and ugly and covered in tattoos; no one you would want to run into in a back alley at night. The house lights dim and we are now in dark. The lights come up in the round; warm colours of orange and amber. A man dressed ridiculously in an ugly lime green tuxedo and tinted shades, smiles and greets the crowd.
“Hullo, everybody,” he says into a cordless mic, although I’m not sure that it is live.
He’s got to be in his 50’s. He’s wearing pancake makeup, in a slightly orange tint and his dyed black hair is slicked back with some kind of grease. He’s a real throwback.
“I said, hullo, everybody.”
“Hello,” respond a few in the crowd, with some nervousness.
“I’ll be your host for our show tonight. Before I do this, I’d like to introduce my assistant Natalia.”
A young redhead, who is scantily clad in a gold lamé maillot and black fishnet tights and heels, walks out from the backstage. The shoes are far too high for her to manage. She is youthful, there is no doubt, but she is so heavily made up, and looks to be on some sort of drugs. I can’t help but laughing at this charade. Whatever this is, it’s an epic fail. To add to the ridiculousness of it all, they have given Natalia a prop consisting of white poster board with the word “Applause” written in a fat Sharpie.
My co-worker, Malcolm, seems to be oblivious to it all.
“Thank you, Natalia,” the MC says. “Now returning to our show, our reigning champion.”
Natalia holds up her sign and walks around the room, giving everyone a toothy smile. A few in the audience politely applaud. A wooden cart is wheeled out to the centre of the stage by a stagehand dressed like a member of Hell’s Angels. The cart is covered with a black tarp. The giddy MC pulls it off. Everyone in the audience gasps. Under the tarp, and on the cart, is a man, bloody and beaten and tied with rope to a makeshift frame.
“Welcome reigning champion. We’re sorry that we ran out of time on our last show, but we are happy that you could return to finish your round.”
The man is gagged and whimpering.
“Would you like to say hello to the folks at home?” MC asks.
“Where did you get these tickets?” I ask Malcolm under my breath.
“A guy, brought them by work today,” he whispers to me.
I look around the theatre and in the ceiling see little cameras all around, like the surveillance ones used in security.
The MC takes the gag off of the bound man on the cart.
“Help me, please help me,” he cries to the audience.
The MC kicks him in the guts, and he cries out in pain. Everyone in the audience tries to get up and leave, except that the goon from the door and the stage hand start to shoot at anyone attempting to leave the theatre. We all just sit back down. Natalia collects an industrial rubber apron from a hook and places it over MC’s head and ties it into a sloppy bow at the back.
The next ten minutes I cannot even describe as it was nothing short of torture. I cover my face with my hands, so that I don’t have to witness it. That’s what they want, isn’t it? For me to watch?
But I can’t cover my ears to stop the screams and crying or block my sense of smell to prevent the odour of burning flesh. Those ten minutes might as well have been a lifetime. And then there is silence. I peek through my fingers, to see that the reigning champion has been dispatched. Cries come from the audience, but no one dares to look at what has happened.
“It was time for him to go,” says the MC.
The stage hand returns and whisks the cart away. A minute or so later, he returns with an empty cart.
“And now, it’s time for round two of our show,” the MC says.
Round two? What the fuck is that?
“We will need a volunteer from our studio audience. Anyone? Anyone?” the MC asks in a cool demeanour, like a high school teacher might ask, not expecting an answer.
Maybe the question is rhetorical. The hipsters across the way are all in tears, huddling together for protection. My companion, Malcolm, however, seems cool as a cucumber. I look at him for some kind of answer, but there is nothing there.
“Awkay, then. If we don’t have a volunteer, I will choose one.”
The audience is now in a heightened state of distress. I think that I’m in shock, as I am mum, or perhaps it’s some kind of self-preservation technique, believing that my quietness might well save me.
“Eenie, meenie, minee, mo,” he says while pointing at the audience members.
He starts with the person closest to the exit. By my quick calculations, he will end up near me by the time he makes his way around. Everyone becomes quite hysterical now.
“…catcha tigger by the toe, if he hollars, let’em go, eenie, meenie, minee, mo,” he stops at the person just left of me.
“Hullo friend. C’mon down.”
“My lovely hostess, Natalia, will escort you.”
Natalia is completely out of it, so that the MC has to snap his fingers in front of her face.
“Natalia, the volunteer,” he says brusquely.
Natalia tries once again to navigate her heels and step onto the riser without wiping out.
“No, no,” the volunteer says. “Don’t fuckin’ touch me, bitch.”
“Now, no need to be rude,” the MC says.
He snaps his fingers and the two goons manning the place come forward and escort the volunteer onto the stage. It is quite the scene, as the guy has locked his legs around the base of his flimsy chair, so that when they pick him up by the arms, the chair knocks several other chairs as the drag him centre stage. They pry the chair from his legs and tie him to the cart. I give him credit for fighting the thugs, who don’t escape unscathed. He manages a good scratch across the one tough guys face and the other guy’s arm. Once they have him tied down, they both give him a punch in the face. The volunteer spits out some blood onto the floor, right at the MC’s feet.
“Hullo, friend,” the MC says. “Would you like to say something before the game begins?”
“Fuck you, asshole.”
“Tsk, tsk. There’s no need to be rude.”
The MC kicks him in the guts, and the volunteer lets out a groan.
Natalia picks up her cardboard sign and walks around the audience. Not one person claps this time. The MC pulls a scarf out of his pocket and gags the victim, who is now struggling, so that the goons have to come back again and hold his head and shoulders steady while MC gags him. While the goons are distracted, a girl who was crying makes a sudden spring for the exit, but the one thug seeing her knocks her down. He punches her in the face, and leaves her on the floor, unconscious.
“Such a spirited audience,” the MC remarks.
The MC seems rather pleased with that. Everyone is now sitting stiffly in their seats, not daring to even breathe. Natalia exits the stage and return with a chrome and glass drinking cart, with a series of stainless steel tools laid out neatly on the glass surface.
“Thank you, Natalia,” the MC says. “Ooh, what have we here?”
The MC wiggles his fingers over the tools, the way someone would over chocolate assortments from a box of Pot of Gold. The MC settles on some sort of scalpel and begins cutting the volunteer. The volunteer cries out in pain through his gag. I try to cover my eyes with my one arm while mostly covering my ears with the other arm. It is very awkward to hold this position, but I still hear the groans and sobs from the volunteer and MC’s constant torment of his victim. I have no idea how long the torture last, as I’ve lost all sense of time. I feel like my soul has been pulled from my body. I am not really here, but in a dream, powerless over my circumstances.
“Aww, I’m sorry to say that we are out of time.”
I uncover my eyes. I can’t tell if the volunteer is dead or just unconscious, as he is slumped over and not moving. He is covered in fresh blood from head to toe.
“We will continue with our friend on our next show. You will have to tune in to see.”
The stage hand returns and wheels the cart off stage. The MC does his final bit, when I decide that I might actually escape this horror show. The MC takes Natalia’s hand and he bows while she attempts a pathetic curtsy, and then they leave the stage.
The lighting tech turns up the house lights and plays some odd instrumental music. He gets up and makes his way backstage. I avert his eyes.
“Let’s go,” I say to Malcolm, grabbing his arm.
The hipsters, seeing that we have decided to bolt, also make their way to the exit. A Starbucks coffee has been dropped on the floor, half drunk, spilling the contents of some highfalutin bevvy onto the floor. Another audience member grabs their coat, covering their pants. I suspect that the wet spot in their jeans is from peeing themselves.
The Russian doorman, while menacing, allows us to pass through the exit. I avert his gaze, believing that looking at his eyes will burn a hole into my soul. Malcolm follows close behind.
The frigid blast of night air is an assault to my senses, but also a welcome feeling. I pull my cell phone out of my pocket, attempting to call 911.
“What are you doing?” Malcolm asks.
“Calling the police.”
I can’t seem to get any reception.
“They might still kill us. Let’s get the fuck outta here,” Malcolm says.
Without realizing, my legs have carried me all the way to Queen Street now. Malcolm is close behind, but slightly breathless at my brisk pace. I stop suddenly, almost startling Malcolm. I put my hands on his arms to reassure him that we are safe. I now have a strong signal on my phone, so I dial 911.
“911, please state the nature of your emergency,”
“I’d like to report a murder,” I say to the operator.
“Please hold,” she says.
Within moments, I am speaking with a constable, giving the address and quick synopsis of the evening’s events. I decide to seek shelter at a 24 hour Tim’s on Queen. Malcolm decides that he’d prefer not to give a statement, and heads home.
I think I’ve been sitting at a table in the coffee shop for hours, when my cell phone rings. It’s the Constable from 11 Division, calling me back with an update.
“Officers were sent to the warehouse; however there was no sign of foul play.”
“Yes sir. You said that you were seeing a play?”
“It was billed as a game show.”
“We did find some stage blood on the floor of theatre.”
“That’s impossible, I saw him tortured to death. And the other guy too…”
“It must be some kind of scam. I’d like you to come down to the station tomorrow to file a report. This group are most likely moving from city to city.”
“OK, I’ll come by after work.”
I call Malcolm’s cell but it goes straight to voicemail, so I leave him a detailed message before heading home.
The next day I arrive at work a bit late. I barely slept; hearing the screams of the victims, all so real to me despite what the Constable said. I grab a cup of coffee in the kitchen before heading to my desk. I look around for Malcolm, but he hasn’t made it in yet. I decide to try his cell. The electronic voice suggests that the customer I am calling is unavailable.
Tawny, my co-worker in the next cubicle, is sitting at her desk looking at her computer screen.
“Morning Tawny,” I say.
“Wow, you look like shit,” she says.
“Didn’t sleep so well. Hey, has Malcolm been in yet?”
“No, he’s not coming in,” she says, looking back at her computer screen.
“Did he call in sick?” I ask.
“No, he resigned. No notice or anything. HR is pissed.”
I don’t say anything to Tawny after that. I just return to my cubicle and sit at my desk. I take a sip of my coffee, and don’t even flinch as it scalds the back of my throat.
I now let everything from the day before sink in. It was all a setup from the beginning and I was the stooge.