Stephen McQuiggan

Stephen McQuiggan was the original author of the bible; he vowed never to write again after the publishers removed the dinosaurs and the spectacular alien abduction ending from the final edit. His other, lesser known, novels are A Pig’s View Of Heaven and Trip A Dwarf.

BAMBOOZLED.

‘There’s no need to panic, it’s obvious it’s not you they’re after.’ Barry allowed himself a wry humourless laugh. The three other people slumped around the room, bound as he was hand and foot, regarded him with dinner plate eyes. ‘Think about it for a second – why would anyone bother with a bunch of nobodies like you? I am, undoubtedly, the target.’

‘Why, who are you?’

Barry’s eyes widened now too. ‘Seriously? You don’t know who I am? Really?’ The three other hostages stared back at him vacantly. Barry didn’t know where he was or who these people were, but surely they must have heard of him?

The old man in the corner could be a banker or a businessman. The young woman with the flaxen hair (from where he sat Barry had a great view up her non-existent skirt) was probably an aspiring model; the kind of girl one automatically associated with a furry mammal, a fox or a cat. The guy with the orange baseball cap and pockmarked face was obviously a petty criminal.

Barry was good at summing up people, it went with the job. He found you could tell a lot about a person just by trusting in your assumptions.

‘I’m Wilko,’ said the young guy in the cap nearest to Barry. ‘The girl here is … some foreign name … I don’t think she speaks English. The old dude’s Claude. We were talking whilst we were waiting for you to wake up and, I can assure you, none of us has the first fucking notion who you are.’

‘I’m Barry Malone … Blink Malone? … Host of Blink and You’ll Miss It.’

They must all be feeling as disoriented as I am, thought Barry. He didn’t appear to be injured, none of them did – though the girl had a face like a smacked arse; talking of which, if she just moved her calves a fraction to the right…

He was still feeling groggy from where he had been hit by the gun butt, except … had he been hit? He could remember the gun coming down, but just before that he had felt a prick, a needling stab, and then…

Barry forced himself to concentrate, to piece things together. He had been in his local shop for a pack of cigars, just like he always was every Saturday at eleven on the dot. He could get them cheaper at the motorway services but it was nice to give something back. He could remember the old man, Claude, standing in line with a copy of The Times and a bag of mints, and he had a vague recollection of checking out the girl’s legs as she perused the ready meals in the freezer.

It was coming back to him now. He had been wondering where the hell Betty was, why she wasn’t manning the till as usual. He’d had a long drive ahead, a meeting with execs from Vivid Productions. Then suddenly a masked man had popped up like some jihadi jack-in-the-box from behind the counter, screaming for everyone to put their hands in the air like some demented game of Simon Says.

Then another man was rushing at him, all balaclava and Beretta, the gun arcing down toward him and then… then the needle stab, then darkness, nothing.

I must be in the back storeroom, Barry reasoned. They must have dragged us in here, holding us prisoner whilst they negotiate my ransom. A smile played around the corner of his mouth. Christ, the media coverage on this will be huge, 24/7 saturation – forget Vivid Productions and Prim TV, after all this the BBC would be begging him to come back; the contract would have to be laminated, they’d be salivating so much. If only he could get in touch with his agent and –

Blink and You’ll Miss It?’ Wilko, the one with the orange ball cap, his voice as weaselly as his face, interrupted Barry’s train of thought.

‘What?’

‘You said you were the host of something called Blink and You’ll Miss It. What is it?’

‘I think you must be suffering from head trauma or delayed shock or something,’ Barry sighed. ‘It’s a high-stakes gameshow that pits memory and daring against physical challenges. It’s won a TV Snap viewers award three out of the last four years.’

‘Is it on Netflix or Prime?’ Wilko perked up a little.

‘No,’ Barry said. He despised having to defend himself against streaming fundamentalists. ‘It’s on the Rampage channel. It’s got the highest audience share at that time slot on terrestrial –’

‘I don’t really watch the telly to be honest,’ Wilko butted in. ‘I mainly watch videos my mates have uploaded onto their platforms.’

Barry bit back a scathing retort. Things were bad enough without getting into a slanging match with this overgrown toddler. How he hated Wilko and his ilk – the kind of people who put oranges in their salad; too cool to watch telly, to talk intelligibly – they couldn’t even be bothered to text now, they just communicated with emojis, the hieroglyphs of morons.

They belonged to the new generation who held the nonsensical view that anything clever was stupid. What was the point in ambition when the world was populated by such mental amoeba?

If it wasn’t for Wilko and his apathetic, brain-dead generation, I’d still be on the BBC, Barry fumed, or sold one of my ideas to Disney or one of the big streaming

‘I’ve never heard of it either,’ Claude offered, ‘but then I rarely watch the Idiot Box. I prefer a good book myself.’

‘You people sicken me,’ Barry spat, unable to rein his anger in any longer. Books! What kind of illiterate cretin bothered with books these days!

If only Betty were here, he thought, she’d know what to say to these imbeciles. She had manners that old girl – if she didn’t know something she would just nod her head and pretend that she did.

‘Where’s Betty?’ Barry asked.

‘Who’s she?’ Wilko frowned, ‘She like your co-host or something?’

‘She’s the little old lady who runs the shop, though you probably wouldn’t register her existence unless she ran a Vlog, or something on the –’

There was a deafening sound of gunfire, the sound of something heavy slumping to the ground on the other side of the door.  In the shocked and ringing silence that followed Barry saw the girl hide her face between her knees. It was impossible to tell if she was laughing or crying. In that moment, Barry despised her.

‘I’m afraid,’ Claude spoke in a rattling voice, ‘that may well have been the end of the Betty you spoke of. They dragged her out of here just before you came round and –’

The door flew open, slamming against an aluminium rack behind it, making Barry flinch and emit a rather unsavoury high-pitched squeal. Two men in ski masks entered, one holding a shotgun, the other a baseball bat crowned with rusty nails.

‘Listen up,’ the one with the shotgun barked, his t-shirt spattered with blood and gobbets of god only knew what. ‘They’re refusing to meet our demands, so we’ve informed them we’ll be dispatching you one by one until they come to their senses.’

He scanned the room, his eyes playing eenie-meenie before resting on Claude. ‘Okay Beardy, you’re up next. Let’s hope for your sake they won’t be so blasé about a pensioner, eh?’

Claude started to protest but the man with the bat dragged him from the room before he could splutter a few incoherent pleas. Barry kept his eyes averted, hoping to somehow merge with the wall behind him. He saw the girl bury her head further down between her knees, her shoulders shaking, the tips of her ears a burning red – was she laughing, he wondered again, or crying?

Something was definitely off with her. It wasn’t a normal reaction. Barry felt himself a master at judging character, on his quiz show he could tell in the first few seconds if a contestant was a winner or a loser, it was a gift he –

‘Cheese and rice’ Wilko exhaled, ‘we’re all gonna die.’

‘Don’t be so melodramatic,’ Barry scolded, all the while thinking Maybe you two will, but not I; Barry Blink Malone is worth more alive. I’m their ticket out of here; they wouldn’t dare harm a bona fide celebrity. ‘You’re scaring the young lady.’

There were several more loud gunshots and Wilko screamed, and a hot trickle of urine snaked down Barry’s inner thigh. The man with the baseball bat came through the door, although this time he clutched nothing more threatening than a phone – though that in itself proved quite frightening, for Barry could see that the hand that held it was covered in blood.

‘They’re not taking us seriously,’ he addressed his captives in a jarring conversational tone. ‘They seem to think we’re kidding them.’ He turned back to the door. ‘Dump the bodies out through the window,’ he shouted. ‘Let’s see if we can’t persuade them we’re in earnest.’ He rolled his head round until it clicked and Barry felt like vomiting.

The man looked down at the girl, all scrunched up like a rat foetus, and then at Wilko and Barry, his eyes buffering as he calculated some inner algorithm.

‘We’ll give them twenty minutes,’ he said jovially, jerking his thumb at the girl, ‘then we’ll shoot her. You never know, maybe one of you will survive if they wise up in time.’

The girl emitted a harrowing moan that was only partially covered by the slamming door.

‘Think I’m being melodramatic now?’ Wilko blurted out.

‘Now’s hardly the time to score points,’ Barry shot back, amazed at how calm he sounded considering he could feel his heart throbbing in the cheeks of his arse. Still, he’d always been lucky – his mum often said if he fell in the canal he’d come out with a salmon in his mouth – and he’d always trusted in that luck.

‘If it’s you that’s so important then why don’t you ask them to let the rest of us go?’ Wilko asked, and then began chewing frantically at the bonds on his wrists.

‘Because …’ Because that would push the chances of me being shot right to the top of their abductors’ To Do list ‘…because they’re obviously well beyond reasoning with at this stage.’

Suddenly the previously ridiculous notion of death struck Barry as a very feasible reality; like a cold hand caressing him in a hot bath, it left him feeling breathless, vulnerable. His sudden demise was not part of his well-mapped out career trajectory.

He had always viewed his rise as inexorable – chat show, a series of groundbreaking in-depth documentaries, high profile charity work, and National Treasure status by the time he was forty. He hadn’t so much followed his dreams as stalked them. He had already died once, figuratively speaking, at the Palladium; he had no desire to do so literally.

His agent would be wondering where he was (it was so unlike Barry to miss a meeting) and no doubt the police would soon be out in force searching for him. By nightfall there would probably be vigils held for him across the country. All he had to do was stay alive long enough to be found.

If they shot the girl next, then Wilko, Barry might have an hour or so before they came for him. He was confident in his ability to deluge his captors in a charm tsunami and that would buy him another few hours at least, giving the authorities more than enough time to rescue him. If you’re handsome and smile, his Agent always told him, people think you’re worthwhile.

His bowels rumbled mournfully. Fear always enabled him to shit through the eye of a needle, which was one of the reasons he refused to do live TV; fear also always made him horny.

Barry looked over at the girl, and then turned his eyes on Wilko who was still chewing gamely at his wrists. He caught a glimpse of something shiny; was it an ear-bud? Typical. Wilko was on the verge of being murdered and he was still listening to fucking dub-step or grime-core or whatever the fuck it was that was fashionable at the moment. This generation deserved a bullet to the head.

‘Any joy?’

Wilko stopped his gnawing and held his hands out for inspection; the bonds, though strong, were definitely frayed.

‘Keep going,’ Barry urged, his heart skipping like a scratched CD. ‘Then you can release me and ….’

‘And what?’

Barry nodded over at the girl. ‘And then we could …. you know … release all our pent up tension on whatsername.’

Wilko’s eyebrows shot up in disbelief. ‘What are you saying?’

‘They’ll be coming for her soon. She’s dead anyway. We could get rid of all this stress and, after they’re gone, we’d be nice and relaxed, ready to formulate a plan.’

‘You’re suggesting we should…rape her?’

‘Well, it beats sitting around. It would take our minds off things for a while. The trick is to under think it. Simple pleasures in complicated times, my friend. I’m sure she would be glad of the distraction too. She’d probably ask us to do it if she could speak English.’

‘Man, that’s cold.’ Wilko shook his head sadly and returned to his chewing.

‘I’ve restless cock syndrome,’ Barry shrugged. ‘It’s a real thing, you can Google it.’

I notice you didn’t say no though, Barry thought. If you’re quick with those ratty teeth of yours we might have time for both of us to have a go.

He glanced over at the girl and shivered. She was staring balefully at him from beneath her fringe. Christ, could she understand what he’d been saying? Maybe it was all the snot and tears, but she didn’t seem as attractive as Barry had first thought.  Her hair was a mess too. It looked like a cheap wig. Still, any port in a storm.

‘Jesus, I wish I’d some sniff,’ he bitched aloud. ‘I’d bite through these ropes in one go.’

‘Sniff?’ Wilko eased up on his gnawing.

‘Yeah, you know, blow, coke, trumpet powder.’ Barry usually used cocaine to dampen down his confidence.

‘You don’t look the type,’ Wilko dismissed him.

‘What, too square? It’s all a disguise my naive little friend. In my line you’ve got to come across as wholesome and clean as the Blessed Virgin’s pisshole, but let me tell you, Keith Richards would baulk at my pharmaceutical intake. I’ve done –’

‘Yes!’ Wilko said, straining his hands apart as the ropes finally snapped.

‘You’re not as gormless as you look,’ Barry beamed. ‘Quick, get over here and do mine before they –’

As if the thought birthed the action, the door flew open once more. The man with the shotgun entered, its barrels still smoking and Barry felt his bowels loosen with a greasy wrench. Wilko clasped his hands together, buried them between his lap.

‘Okay, Missy,’ the man said, ‘your turn on the old roulette wheel.’ He gripped her roughly by the arm but she went limp and he had to drag her out.

‘Take him instead,’ Wilko shouted, nodding his head in Barry’s direction. ‘He reckons he’s some big shot TV star. They’ll listen to you when they realise who you’ve got.’

The man with the gun paused, his face inscrutable beneath the ski mask.

‘I’ve done a few local things, just bits and pieces really,’ Barry spluttered. ‘I’d hardly call myself a star. Why don’t you take him,’ he shot a hate filled glance at Wilko, ‘or better still, stick with the girl. Whoever you’re dealing with is bound to buckle for a young, helpless maiden, eh?’

The man pointed the shotgun at Barry’s head. ‘You’d better pray that they do.’ He hauled the girl away, slamming the door behind him and trapping a heavy silence in the room.

‘Don’t just sit there,’ Barry hissed, ‘get over here and untie me.’

‘And what then?’

‘I don’t know, but we’ll have more of a chance if we’re not trussed up like turkeys.’

‘I’m not sure that I should.’ Wilko was regarding him like a man contemplating the drop from a very tall skyscraper. ‘You’re not a very nice person.’

‘Listen,’ Barry said slowly, aghast at Wilko clambering up on his high horse, ‘we need each other. Feel free to strike me off your Christmas card list whenever we’re out of this mess.’

Wilko shook his head, but he was already crawling over to work on Barry’s knots. ‘You really are a complete bastard.’

‘I can assure you I’m full bred.’ Barry smiled. ‘Play this right kid and you could get a show of your own, or a book deal at the very least.’

‘They’re gonna murder that poor girl, murder us too most likely, and all you can think of is your damn career?’

‘I don’t do guilt, okay? If you want to wallow, be my guest but do it on your own time. Let me tell you one thing – this time tomorrow night, when you’re having a long drink and the phone’s ringing off the wall with people throwing cash at you, you won’t even remember what that piece of ass looked like. If you want my professional advice you should embellish a bit, claim you’d a personal relationship with her. That always sells and I’ll back you up. I’d do it myself but I’m still married to Spendthrift number fucking three.’

Wilko stopped his fidgeting with Barry’s ropes. ‘How can you be so blasé about it all, so cold?’

‘Look at my face,’ Barry said. ‘What do you see? No shock or fear, only charisma. I’ve been hitting green lights my whole life with this face. Charisma is what I built my career on and charisma is what will get me out of here, buddy, alive and kicking.’

‘Get out of your own shackles then if you’re so clever,’ Wilko said.

‘Guards!’ Barry laughed at the shock on Wilko’s weasel face. ‘Guards! Get in here quickly; you’ve got a hostage trying to escape!’

The door opened once more, but instead of the men in ski masks in stepped a girl – a girl who looked oddly familiar at that. Barry had just placed her as the moaning wench who had been dragged out only a few minutes before (though now her hair was shorter and an altogether different colour) when he was momentarily blinded by a glare so bright it made his eyes sweat. When his vision refocused she was joined by the two men in masks, their weapons clearly fake under the harsh light.

‘What’s going on? Who are you?’ Barry demanded.

‘No,’ the girl smiled, her mouth a crescent of cruelty, ‘the question is, who are you?’

‘I’m Barry Blink Malone.’ He puffed his chest out. ‘I’m a celebrity and –

‘Oh, but you’re so much more than that,’ the girl interrupted. ‘You’re a celebrity that’s just been …’ the back wall suddenly fell down and Barry found himself staring out at a theatre full of people, ‘…Bamboozled!

There was a smattering of applause. Barry had been in the game long enough to know that the pause the girl had left was a cue for the audience to join in on the catchphrase. Whatever was happening here, it wasn’t going quite to plan. His mind lurched as he finally noticed the cameras panning in on him from all directions.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ the girl was saying, ‘welcome to the very first edition of Celebrity Bamboozled. It’s safe to say it’s been an eye-opener.’

Oh sweet Christ no, Barry thought, desperately seeking for an out.

Wilko sidled up behind him, whispered ‘Look at all those faces. What do you see?’ His breath was hot in Barry’s ear. ‘Not a trace of forgiveness or understanding, only repulsion. And that repulsion is what your career will flounder on when this goes viral. Career? Blink and you’ll miss it, indeed.’

Two floor runners came and lifted the still bound Barry, carrying him off toward his agent who stood in the wings with his head in his hands.

‘Normally we have a chat with our ‘victim’ round about now,’ the girl told the muted, murmuring crowd, ‘but, I’m sure you’ll agree, we’ve already heard more than enough from Blink Malone.’

As Barry was hurriedly carted off stage left he yelled for all he was worth. ‘I was in on the joke the whole time! I was in on it all along!’

But the curtain had already fallen and the hidden mike in his shirt collar long since turned off.

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