‘It’s the … Ultimate Prize.‘
Sound exploded – clapping, feet stamping, cheers so loud the noise weaved and warped in Stevie’s ears, turning to yelps, howls, animal voices from human throats.
The studio lights were too bright for him to see the audience, but he’d felt them througout the competition, heat pouring from them, an energy verging on hysteria.
‘We welcome back Stevie, our winner from the last round.’ The host, Louis, placed a manicured hand on Stevie’s shoulder.
Louis smelt of old sweat, of grease overlaid with aftershave so strong it hooked in the back of Stevie’s throat. Louis’ shiny suit was darker under the arms, the shirt damp beneath the flapping jacket. When he released Stevie’s shoulder there was a patch of cold left behind as the sweat evaporated.
‘Now, Stevie.’ Louis’s face was in his, false sympathy oozing from under the melting pan stick. ‘You’ve been a marvellous contestant all the way. Hasn’t he, folks?’ A turn to the crowd, absorbing the whoops and cries. ‘You’ve won some money too. But this is the Ultimate Prize. We don’t want you to win some money. We want you to win all the money.’ He winked at a camera, its red light flashing back. ‘And the freedom of your wife and son of course.’
The monitors showed the footage he had seen everyday for the past week – Sarah and Danny, dirty faces streaked with tears, huddled together, bare feet tucked to their bodies. Danny’s tiny body shivering on a dozen screens. Stevie flicked over the picture, searching for wounds, for signs of weight loss, but the monitors snapped to black, leaving an after image on his retinas, his family in negative.
Again, Louis’ hand on his shoulder. ‘But to win all of this, you know there is one more round to complete. Just one more.’
The control was in Stevie’s hand, trigger greasy under his forefinger.
Louis’ voice seemed to come from a distance as the monitor flickered into life again. ‘Your last target, Stevie. And here she is.’
The image resolved. CCTV footage. A young woman – younger than Sarah – sitting on a bench, tying her shoe laces. So young. Blond hair bouncing in a ponytail. Had she been one of the mug shots at the end of the news? An eco-terrorist? A trade-hater? He tried to think, but the memory wouldn’t come – there were so many Accused these days.
The red dot of the laser sight blipped on her chest, bobbing up and down with Stevie’s unsteady breath. She tied one lace, moved on to the other.
‘The Ultimate Prize, Stevie. Come one, folks, let’s give our champion some encouragement. The Ultimate Prize, The Ultimate Prize …’
The words turned to howls, screams, there was the girl, but she had Sarah’s face, then she had Danny’s, streaming with tears. Stevie’s finger slipped on the trigger.
He wiped his hand on his jeans then gripped the control again.