Saturday, October 1, 2011

"The Last Thrill"

This is a short story I wrote last year. It's my first real attempt to tell a dark story, and I think I at least succeeded in that respect. You know the drill: By all means--read, enjoy, show it to a friend, but PLEASE don't try to pass it off as your own. That's . . . just uncool. 

2 February 2010
The Last Thrill
C. I. Roll
            “If you came here expecting a quick, merciful death,” the lean, grey-haired man said in an authoritative voice, the shadow of a smile floating ominously on his lips as he spoke, “you will be sorely disappointed. It will be slow. It will be excruciating. And I assure you, it will be worth every penny.”
            A soft round of applause went up throughout the lavishly-decorated auditorium full of affluent and well-to-do citizens, and the man on stage took a modest bow. He straightened out the crinkles in his crisp navy blue suit and allowed his ghost of a smile to become a warm, beaming force of raw charisma. He stretched out his hands to the crowd and continued his presentation.
            “For a surprisingly low price, we can offer the solution to the age-old question: what do you give the man—or woman—who has everything? Simple! You give this person the only thing money ordinarily could never buy: the perfect death. Who among us can completely control the circumstances of their own death? Death lurks behind every corner, in every shadow, and it does not stop to ask you for personal preferences. But we can offer you the death you always wanted—the death you always dreamed of in secret, but could never ensure.”
            This bold statement garnered more applause. But there was one person in the audience who could only look on in a mixture of awe and revulsion.
            “This can’t be for real,” Lauren Bonahan said in quiet disbelief, barely able to touch her finely-catered food. She had come to this dinner party hoping to have an uneventful dinner with a friend, but now her appetite was fading fast. “It has to be some kind of joke.”
            “It’s no joke,” replied Nancy Hale, practically enthralled by the speaker’s words. “I think it’s pretty cool, actually.”
            Lauren turned and stared at her best friend, shocked. “You can’t be serious.”
            “What?” Nancy protested, throwing her hands up defensively. “Think about it, it could be kind of fun.”
            Lauren was about to say exactly how she felt about the matter, but the speaker raised his voice to an almost booming level.
            “Think of it, my friends!” he cried forcefully. “The ultimate thrill—indeed, the Last Thrill. And you can know this thrill, starting at the modest price of ten thousand dollars.”
            The old, dimly-lit opera house was abuzz with chatter and applause, and soon people from every table were pressing forward to talk to the debonair master of ceremonies.
            “Come on,” Nancy called, eagerly grabbing at Lauren’s shoulder. “Let’s go meet him!”
            I have to be dreaming, Lauren thought to herself, feeling like a stranger in her own body as Nancy pulled her numbly to her feet. This can’t be happening.
            As Nancy dragged her through the crowd of unbelievably wealthy socialites, Lauren reflected that it had always been Nancy who got her into messes like this—Nancy who always wanted to play with fire. In private school, where their immense fortunes had brought them together both as best friends and as the objects of resentment and disdain from their peers, it had been Nancy who got them in trouble by sneaking cigarettes into the bathroom. In the expensive college their respective daddies had selected for them, it had been Nancy who brought the boys (usually of questionable moral character) and alcohol to the dorms and nearly got them both thrown out on their squeaky-clean, jewelry-laden ears. And now, three years out of college, it was as Lauren had always feared in the back of her mind but never felt possible until now: Nancy’s going to get us killed. It was always a mostly irrational fear—usually brought on by one of Nancy’s crazy boyfriends or her equally demented driving, but now Lauren felt it in every imaginable form of intuition she had within her, and she was unable to do anything to stop her impulsive friend.
            The man in the perfect blue suit flashed an almost predatory smile, but Lauren couldn’t find the strength to pull away from Nancy’s enthusiastic grip. Soon Nancy began gushing over how amazing the man’s presentation was, and how she would just love to hear more about the services offered by his company; the man in blue was happy to oblige.
            “We offer our standard set of packages, from murder to fire to gangland execution, but we also have customizable add-ons, usually at around a thousand dollars each, depending on the proclivities of the patron,” the man said coolly, as though he were describing the features of an island resort. “Prices are also subject to change if the patron prefers a certain setting for his or her thrill. We also offer a ten-percent discount for the couple’s package—a very good deal if you and someone else have a suicide pact.”
            Get me out of here! Lauren thought desperately, pulling at Nancy’s arm, but Nancy wouldn’t budge.
            “Hey, let’s get the couple’s package!” Nancy squealed enthusiastically, brushing a few errant strands of blonde hair out of her face. “Just imagine what the tabloids would say!”
            Yeah, I’m sure we’d get a big laugh out of it—oh, wait, we wouldn’t, because we’d be DEAD! Lauren wanted to scream, but the words simply wouldn’t come out.
            “I don’t care,” Lauren choked out softly. “Please, let’s just go.”
            “Hold on!” Nancy hissed, annoyed. She turned back to the man in the blue suit. “Go on, I’m listening.”
            “Now, as I was saying, you can add any options you like to your scenario—say, if you want to be shot to death by an armed intruder, we can add sexual assault or even have your body thrown into the deep freeze afterward.” The man’s oily smile was spreading from ear to ear now. “The possibilities really are endless.”
            This has to be a sick joke, Lauren thought, horrified at the repulsive man and his twisted sales pitch. This can’t be real—I have to be dreaming! Why can’t I wake up?
            “Or, if you would rather have something a bit more generic, we do have the standard package. Eustace here can do wonders with a knife,” the man said, gesturing to a short, fresh-faced man in his early thirties who stood by the buffet table, helping himself to some roast beef. As he delicately carved a slice, Eustace smiled and tipped a cordial wave in their direction with the large knife in his hand; the sheer friendliness of this stone-cold killer made Lauren shudder.
            “Come on, Lauren!” Nancy insisted, pulling her mortified friend close in her patented I-really-want-something-and-I-won’t-stop-until-I-get-it embrace. “This could be fun! Think about it—our ‘Last Thrill’!”
            “No!” Lauren cried, finally breaking loose from Nancy’s smothering clutches. “This is sick! Disgusting! I can’t believe you’re actually serious about this!”
            “But—this could be our last chance to do something big together,” Nancy stammered, stunned at her friend’s revulsion. “We’ve done everything together. I don’t know, don’t you think it would be fun to die together, too?”
            GOD, no!” Lauren shouted, not caring how many of Daddy’s friends were staring at her as though she had escaped from a mental institution. “This—no—I’m leaving, Nancy. This isn’t right!”
            As Lauren turned to leave, Nancy reached toward her, but the man in blue stopped her, gently placing a slender hand on her arm.
            “Let her go,” he said soothingly. “We can’t force her to accept the thrill.”
            “I guess not,” Nancy admitted, and as Lauren walked out of the room to the cold, dark city streets outside, she cringed when she heard Nancy’s perky voice pipe up and say, “Well, I’ll take Eustace with the knives for ten thousand, Alex!”
            When she got home late that night, Lauren spent the better part of an hour in a hot shower, trying to rinse away every trace of the horrible feeling she had in the pit of her stomach. It’s only a nightmare, she kept telling herself, hoping she would eventually believe it. I’m going to wake up in the morning and everything will be okay. None of this ever happened.
            At that moment, her cell phone went off. Reaching out of the shower, Lauren grabbed it off the countertop and answered, “Hello?”
            “Oh, Lauren . . . you shouldn’t have run off like that!” Nancy chided, a strange, giddy laughter in her voice. “I was just playing around with you!”
            “Tell me that was all just a bad joke,” Lauren whispered, exasperated but hoping against her feeling of dread that Nancy would tell her the lie she wanted to hear. “You’ve pulled crap like this before—please, just tell me you’re messing with me again.”
            Nancy laughed slightly on the other end, causing an icy chill to run up Lauren’s spine.
            “I really wish you’d reconsider,” she said in a hushed whisper. “This is seriously the coolest thing we could possibly do together. Besides . . . dying alone can’t be any fun.”
            “Nancy, please, just tell me you’re not going to go through with this,” Lauren pleaded.
            “Good night, Lauren,” Nancy sulked. “God—why do you have to be so difficult?”
            Lauren wanted to retort back, but Nancy had already hung up. Lauren looked down at the phone in her hand, considered redialing, and let out a yawn, realizing how completely drained she felt. Barely able to keep her eyes open, she set the phone aside, grabbed a towel, and got ready for bed.
            The remainder of the night was hardly peaceful. Lauren’s dreams were haunted by images of blood—by Nancy’s cocky, smiling, carefree face suddenly cut to pieces by a flashing knife—by Eustace’s pleasant, friendly form hunched over Nancy’s mutilated body, adding a few final touches to his masterwork of gore. I have to stop her, before it’s too late! Lauren thought frantically, tumbling out of bed and grabbing at the clothes that were strewn about the room. She lunged at her door in the dark, and it seemed to melt in front of her. But it is too late, the man in blue’s voice intoned in the back of her mind. Too late for her . . . and too late for you. Lauren awoke violently, pitching herself backward out of bed and landing on the ice-cold floor with a dull thud. With sweat pouring down her face, she staggered into the dark bathroom and felt around for the faucet. Finding it, she splashed her face with cold water.
            It was only a dream, Lauren reasoned with herself. Maybe it all was. But the images in her head were so vivid, so real. In her mind’s eye she saw herself at Nancy’s door, which hung ominously ajar. As she hazily ventured inside, the first thing to seize her attention was the thick, metallic scent of blood—lots of it. The dream was nothing more than a blood-soaked fog, but one which was gnawing away at her very sanity. But it wasn’t real, Lauren reminded herself once again. Still, the harrowing question remained: if it wasn’t real, why could she still smell the blood? Dreading the answer in the deepest recesses of her soul, Lauren reached for the light switch and slowly, reluctantly flipped it on, in much the same spirit as an executioner ultimately dooming the condemned. What she saw on the floor of the shower made her choke back a sob: her clothes from the previous night’s morbid adventure, bunched up and soaking wet with water and Nancy’s blood, precisely where she had left them after staggering back in that night.
            “No,” Lauren wept, picking up the blood-soaked evening dress and holding it to her trembling body. It had been no dream; she had been to Nancy’s penthouse apartment in the night, and found what remained of Eustace’s handiwork. Now her best friend in the world—her sweet, crazy, free-spirited friend—was dead, practically by her own consent, and Lauren had not been able to do a thing to talk her out of it.
            Lauren knelt to the floor for a few excruciating moments, clutching her wet clothes and letting her tears flow freely. But this passed with time. Soon her face hardened and she rose, knowing what needed to be done. There would be no more rest today, not while there was a much more pressing task at hand.
            It was daybreak now, and all was quiet in the quaint office behind the old opera house. The grey-haired man, still wearing his pristine blue suit, sat lazily behind his mahogany desk. The oncoming sunrise sent him into one of his many flights of fancy, which was unfortunately interrupted when suddenly his secretary, a burly man more aptly described as a bouncer, strode forcefully into the luxurious office.
            “Sir, you have a visitor,” the large man said curtly, his perpetual grimace more baleful than normal. “It’s a girl.”
            “Well, send her in,” the man in blue replied offhandedly, still lost in the warming glow of sunrise and wanting the sensation to linger forever.
            “She was carrying this,” the secretary said disgustedly, loosely holding up a .45 pistol the way a horrified babysitter might hold up a badly-soiled diaper.
            “Ahhhh, one of those visitors!” the man in blue declared, sitting up straight in his chair. “Well? Send her in.”
            “Are you certain?” the secretary asked, raising a caterpillar-like eyebrow quizzically.
            “Of course!” insisted the man in blue. “You have her gun—unless she has a machete tucked away somewhere that you missed, I doubt I’m in any further danger.”
            Grumbling somewhat, the secretary lumbered out of the room. Soon he returned, dragging a tall, pretty woman with long brown hair by the elbow. He then forcibly shoved her down into one of the large, cushioned chairs opposite the desk. The woman allowed herself to be treated thusly, but her dark eyes betrayed a seething hatred that would frighten even the coldest of hearts.
            Manners, Aaron!” the man in blue called out, extending a hand toward his disgruntled employee. “This young lady is a guest; treat her as such.”
            Aaron relented and exited then, emitting a low, reluctant growl as he did so. The man in blue, however, seemed to think being left alone with his visitor was a very good idea.
            “So tell me, my dear, what brings you to my establishment?” he asked, smiling with Grinch-like sincerity.
            “You know why,” she snarled furiously. “You killed Nancy Hale.”
            The man paused for a moment, as if trying to recall why the name seemed so familiar, then smiled warmly as recognition flashed.
            “Ahh, yes! The girl from the party!” he exclaimed, snapping his fingers in triumph. “Nice girl. Friend of yours?”
            He glanced at the expression on Lauren’s face and frowned. “I guess so.”
            “You took my gun,” Lauren sighed, “Now are you going to kill me or what?”
            “Kill you?” the man in blue blurted in mock incredulity, “Why would we want to do that? Unless, of course, your check is forthcoming . . . ?”
            “What? No!” Lauren cried, taken aback. “What is wrong with you? Don’t you get it? I came here to kill you! And there is nothing you can say or do that can keep me from going public with this—this sick operation you have here. Do you understand me?”
            “What I understand,” the man in blue replied slowly, “is that you clearly do not understand the wonderful service we provide. What more could the wealthy, the affluent or the completely and utterly bored possibly want out of life other than the right way to end it? Your friend, whether you choose to admit it or not, decided that it was her time. She chose to die the way she wanted to, at the very peak of her existence. Doesn’t it strike you as a better death—a more noble death—than one spent old and infirm in a nursing home, finally finding relief after years of slow, rotting pain?”
            “A better death?” Lauren was astonished at this man’s audacity. “Let’s say you’re right. Maybe there is some measure of warped dignity in being murdered by a sick man with a knife, but that doesn’t make it right. It’s still murder!”
            “Call it what you will,” the man in blue murmured, a serpentine look in his eyes, “but it was she, not I and certainly not dear young Eustace, who chose the circumstances of last night. It was her choice—her blessed, personal choice.”
            “Blessed?” Lauren spat, incredulous. “For someone who finds death so attractive, you certainly don’t seem to want any personal experience with it.”
            “Explain,” the man prodded, leaning across the desk with steepled fingers.
            “You have that gorilla working the front desk to protect you. He took my gun,” Lauren stated matter-of-factly. Her eyes were moist with tears, but they were bitter rather than mournful. “Doesn’t that strike you as a bit hypocritical; the peddler of assisted suicide turns out to be scared of death?”
            “Not at all,” the man replied quickly, leaning back and folding his arms defensively.
            “Really?” Lauren retorted, leaning forward in an identical fashion to the man’s earlier pose. “Explain.”
            “Of course,” the man said coolly, “I am no more hypocritical than the man who declines onions on his hamburger. Some people welcome death, others do not; I fall into the latter category, but stand ready and willing to offer my services to those who do not see life the way I do.”
            “Sounds like you’ve got this all figured out,” Lauren said tersely. “But you can talk all you like; when I walk out that door, the first thing I’m going to do is go to the police.”
            “Go ahead,” the man in blue answered calmly, gesturing toward the door. “This isn’t the first time that somebody hasn’t understood my business. We have an exceptional legal team, as well as some very good friends in very high places, many of whom your family has no doubt known for years, and many of whom you no doubt saw at my gala last night. Believe me when I say we are well above the law. Besides, even if the media got hold of this, the fact remains that any publicity, as they say, is good publicity. And in my line of work, name recognition is a very valuable commodity.”
            “You can’t be serious,” Lauren exclaimed in disbelief, on the verge of jumping out of her chair.
            “Why not?” the man in blue asked innocently. “Look at the tabloids! Controversy sells, and there is nothing the rich and famous are drawn to more than controversy.”
            He leaned closer at this, and dropped his voice to a whisper.
            “The real truth, my child, is that until people start to see death for what it really is—just an ending and nothing more—they will always be drawn to it. That’s what the Last Thrill really is,” he said with a wry smile, “It’s the thrill of the unknown.”
            Lauren wanted to speak—to tell the man in blue exactly what she really thought of him, his business, and where he would be more than welcome to go—to seize the letter opener on the desk and carve Nancy’s name across his scalp—but she could find neither the words nor the motivation. All the hatred, all the rage, and all the venom in her heart had simply drained out, and she was empty inside. She looked at him, neither with contempt nor with any measure of pity, and stood.
            “Well then, I guess we have nothing more to discuss, sir. I’ll see myself out,” she said solemnly, walking away.
            The man in the navy blue suit watched her leave, waiting until she was through the door to call jovially, “Don’t worry—even if you go public with this, we won’t kill you or anything. Unless you pay us, of course!”
            While the man in the office laughed harshly at his own joke, Lauren walked away in silence, maintaining her perfect steely composure throughout the taxi ride home and the plodding transition from elevator to penthouse. Then, when she was finally locked away from the outside world, she exploded. She sobbed, she screamed, she punched an impressive hole through her sheetrock, but nothing could ease her pain. She turned on the television, seeing the same countless news stories of wanton death and destruction in a new and twisted light. How many weren’t random at all? How many . . . ? She tried to calm herself and went into the kitchen, but she couldn’t bring herself to cook anything—how could she? She frantically rifled through her list of contacts, trying to find somebody—anybody—she could trust with this knowledge, but there was no one there—absolutely no one. In many ways, Nancy had been the only friend Lauren could ever have trusted with something this big. Nancy was the wild, enthusiastic one who always had the answers, no matter the crisis, and Lauren was the timid, straight-laced one, the one who never took risks, the one who was afraid to live her life. Nancy was the one who was always there to support her, but Nancy was gone; now Lauren had no one. Her attempt to kill the man responsible for Nancy’s death had failed miserably, and now she was completely, utterly alone. What do I do now? Where do I go from here?
            Lauren sat alone on her couch for a long time; not eating, not sleeping, but only staring at the cell phone that lay on her glass-top coffee table. Amongst the numerous business cards scattered across the table, there were several prominent, respectable journalists, some less scrupulous tabloid hounds, and even some news bloggers. But there was no guarantee that they weren’t privy to the “big secret”—even if they weren’t, it was as the man had told her: any publicity was good publicity. Then, of course, there was trusty old 911—last resort of the desperate soul. But the same problem applied to the police, and if she couldn’t trust them, who could she really trust? Not her high society acquaintances, that much was certain; most of her “friends” had been at the dinner party, and even those who hadn’t been there were too consumed by their general apathy to care about something this important. Not her family, far away from everything on vacation in the tropics—her family, who had never cared where she was or what she did, and certainly weren’t about to break precedent now.
            There was another card in the midst of her pile, one which made her blood run cold and her skin crawl just as much as the man to whom it belonged. Somehow Nancy must have dropped it in her purse the previous night, or had she unconsciously picked it up herself during her confrontation earlier that day? Whatever the case may be, there it was, grinning up at her like a white cardboard demon, ready to devour her soul at a moment’s notice. Lauren was afraid to look at it, but she couldn’t bring herself to get rid of it, either; it was her last remaining link to Nancy, even though it was indirectly responsible for her death. Lauren rested her beautiful, sorrowful face in her hands and thought about the man’s last words to her. This has been a nightmare, she thought, but maybe there is a way to put an end to it. Maybe . . .
            The thought was horrific, but her weary, tortured mind entertained it nevertheless; how could she not consider it? Was not every other option available to her exhausted?
            After this nightmare, don’t I deserve a thrill? Lauren reasoned with herself, laughing and crying simultaneously. I have nothing left. I have nobody else. God help me, he’s right; what else is there for me? What else could I possibly do? What else . . .?
            Suddenly all became clear. Lauren dried her eyes, newfound purpose reigniting her soul. Her smile grew, almost monstrously, and she lorded over her myriad scatter plot of cards like some grandiose puppeteer. Oh, yes, she knew exactly what needed to be done.
            With a final low chuckle, Lauren Bonahan reached across the table and selected a card. She then picked up her phone and started dialing, pressing each button in a giddy, almost crazed motion, almost comical in its deliberate forcefulness. She held her breath as the phone rang, then exhaled deeply when a familiar voice gave reply. Her pounding heart began to slow, and Lauren closed her eyes, a peaceful smile on her lips.
            Maybe I can wake up from this after all.