Grueson

Child game shows are tricky things. For one thing, you have to be able to find a constant stream of good sports in an age group that does not find that sort of thing necessary, and they must be either smart or athletic enough to make the show interesting without it all just seeming pathetic.

Triple Threat was a successful show that struck that balance fairly well. It had a trivia portion and an obstacle course, and doing well enough in either would get a contestant into the final round which put it to the studio audience to cheer for a winner they liked. Not only did you have to be smart or athletic, you had to be a people person.

This was a lot to ask of a 12 year old, which was the median age of contestants on the show. Triple Threat began every Thursday afternoon at 4 on the local stations, and received very good ratings for a game show in the modern world. This was in part because of the somewhat innovative structure of the game itself, but many agreed that it was also due in part to its host: the handsome, grinning Richard Rooks.

At the age of 32, Rooks left no impression behind that, when he was a boy, he wouldn't have been anything less than a champion of Triple Threat. Smart and funny, likeable and empathetic, and wiry and fast enough to keep up with even the most excited 12 year-old competitor, he was a local celebrity. He would get free meals whenever he went out to eat, he was invited to all of the fanciest parties, and he was good friends with both the mayor and chief of police, who both hated each other and were nothing alike.

Richard Rooks was going places. He'd recently received an offer to play a major role in a TV movie, and his agent was making arrangements for the shoot to take place during Triple Threat's filming hiatus. Not just a way of maximizing his income, no, he told news papers that it was his drive to keep the children of the city entertained and away from drugs and predators. He felt he owed it to the thousands of would-be contestants to give them exactly the kind of excitement they craved every Thursday at 4, with reruns on Saturdays at 6.

And PTAs around the city loved him for it.

Of course, with such a fantastic story just waiting to be told about success, smiles, and childish laughter, you, dear reader, are no doubt asking yourself what 'the catch' might be.

'The catch' in this particular case manifests itself as a man. But we'll be getting to him in a bit. First, let us examine the somewhat tragically predictable case of Leslie Tupple.

Leslie Tupple was a bookish girl who felt she had something impressive inside of her. Despite he somewhat tattered hair and garish braces, she would try out for the cheer leading squad every year. Being denied would only serve to renew her drive to succeed in this singular goal, and one day an opportunity presented itself. Leslie was selected for an audition for Triple Threat.

It was a great plan, if she had been able to say so herself. The trivia portion would be a snap for her, and the physical challenges of the game would prove she could handle a little running and jumping. Giving it her all, how could she not come out victorious? And then, with one of those big shiny gold medals Richard Rooks would give her, as he had every winner before, the cheer leading squad would be knocking down her door to recruit her.

Her audition was fantastic. She creamed her competition. A few simple questions, and few stress tests and a quick physical, and Richard Rooks himself gave her that winning smile and a wink, and had said "I think you're going to be one to watch out for," in that showman's voice of his.

Leslie, her mother and father, and her brother went to the studio the night of the broadcast with high hopes. Soon, she just knew, Leslie Tupple would be on her way to achieving all of her dreams.

But the competition... It was tougher than Leslie had expected. She missed two of the trivia questions, and even though she did score the best in that portion of the game, it shook her confidence. She stumbled through the physical challenge, but still did passably well. Going into the final round, she had, by all accounts, a good score. All she needed now was for the crowd to love her.

But, except for three seats in the second row, they didn't. Not enough, at any rate.

Maybe it was her hair. Maybe it was her braces. Maybe it was the fact that her closest competition, one Melanie Black, was an early bloomer, if you catch the meaning. Melanie Black, who had little else but her dazzling looks and that bright, white smile that might have been copied from Richard Rooks himself, took the medal home that night. Melanie Black, who had misspelled the word 'Victory' in the trivia portion of the game, and had fallen literally on her head during one the physical challenges, beat out a crushed Leslie Tupple.

In the dressing room, behind the stage, where the children were instructed to get ready for the show, Leslie hid form the world, still in her Triple Threat outfit, and cried.

"I think you should have won," came a voice from the door.

Leslie was startled. "Oh," she said, trying to hold in half of a sob, "I'm sorry Mr. Rooks. I'll be going soon..."

"Don't worry about it," Richard smiled. Not his toothy showman's grin, but a warm, corners of the mouth type of affair. "Your parents are still trying to get out of the crowd. Take some time, I know it can be rough."

"Is it always this hard?" Leslie said, trying to breath deep to regain her composure.

"Losing?" Richard asked, crossing the room to sit down next to her. "Yeah. A lot of kids take it really hard. You came so close, too. I thought you had it."

"Yeah," Leslie sniffled.

"You did very well, Leslie, and don't let anyone tell you different," Richard assured her. "Were you trying to impress someone? A boy, maybe?"

"No," Leslie sighed. "I was trying to impress the other girls at my school. I really want to be a cheer leader."

Richard chuckled. "You've certainly got the moxie for it," he said with a grin. "Heck, even if you didn't win, what you showed out there tonight is that they better think twice before turning you down again. Sometime, even when you lose, you win, see?"

"You think so?"

"Of course," Richard said. His face brightened as he thought of something, and he reached into a pocket and pulled out a card. "Tell you what, you go find those girls and apply for the squad again. I will make room in my schedule and be at the Hagen Daaz on 5th street next Wednesday. I want you to stop by and tell me how it went, okay? Say 3?"

"Really?"

"Sure! It'll give me a chance to congratulate your parents on the wonderful daughter they're raising, too. Ice cream will be on me, deal?"

"Even if I don't get in?" Leslie asked.

"Oh, come on, like that will happen?"

And then it did.

Leslie, a week later, showed up with her mother at the Hagen Daaz on 5th street at 3 pm. Richard, true to his word, was there and he waved them over. He shook Mrs. Tupple's hand and listened to a downcast Leslie, with a look of mounting horror and indignity, as she regaled him with the story of her now eighth failure to successfully join the cheer leading squad. He was even more upset when he was told that her performance on Triple Threat had been a negative factor in their decision. After all, she hadn't won, so what good was she?

Leslie was tough for a 12 year old, though. She didn't cry this time, she didn't protest the injustice, she just quietly ate her mint chocolate chip ice cream while her mother enjoyed a milkshake and Mr. Rooks had a sundae.

When mother and daughter bid the TV personality goodbye, Richard insisted the both of them use his first name instead of the more formal 'Mr. Rooks.' Leslie's last words to him in that Hagen Daaz were "Goodbye Richard, and thank you for trying to help me!" It was said with an honest smile and a tear in her eye.

Seven months later, Leslie disappeared.

By this point, it was not new. The first time she had run away was 3 months after her appearance on Triple Threat. Her crushed dreams had turned her into a rebellious 13 year old, who sank away from good grades and effort as her self-doubt crippled her drive to succeed. After the fifth month, it was almost routine. She would get mad about something that would confuse or fluster her parents, scream at everyone and storm off, only to reappear a day or two later either at her parent's front door or some public place they frequented. This happened about once every two weeks. Then it became once a week. Then almost every other day.

Open arms and tears and relief greeted her for the first six months, but by month seven, her father was getting sick of this behavior and her mother was a frayed nerve from the stress. Her brother had grown apathetic toward her plight, where once he'd been supportive and defensive of her. Leslie's life changed drastically on the final night her parents saw her, when she threw a plate at her father and ran, streaming tears, out the door.

Her father was furious. Her brother didn't care. Her mother only slept that night because she was sure Leslie would turn up again, as she had before.

It was almost a week later she was declared missing by the police.

And it was a month later when... Well, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Four weeks after the plate had shattered and the door had been slammed so hard it shook the windows of the house, Leslie's brother saw a man on the sidewalk, standing near the front gate of the white picket fence and staring at a picture on the street light pole nearby. The picture was his sister's, worn by the weather, and bearing the plea to contact the Tupples with any information about where she might have gone. This particular event only struck Leslie's brother as odd because the man was clearly wearing a hooded sweater in the middle of July, on a night warm enough to turn the moon orange. Other than that, he was a dark spot in the pool of light that stood like a moat against all intruders when the sun was down.

This hooded man is 'the catch.' But we're not to him yet. Patience is a virtue, dear reader, and for now we must return to Richard Rooks.

Richard Rooks, who gave no outward appearance of distress at the disappearance of a child he might only barely remember from several months ago, was still in show business. They were filming the season premiere of Triple Threat tonight. Between the stress involved in the rote repetition of some choice zingers and knowing that after the show came down he would have little opportunity to sleep before his soiree with the mayor and his high-roller chums. What was a local celebrity to do? He was agitated, actually, in a manner obvious to everyone around him.

This wasn't new. Richard Rooks was always a ball of stress at the beginning of the season. Vacations seemed to work in reverse for him. The more time he spent away from the show, the more high-strung he would get, it seemed. It didn't bother his co-workers, they knew he'd be back to his old self in a week or two, cracking jokes off set and smiling and getting back into his groove. No one suspected anything might be wrong. After all, what could be? Richard Rooks lived the high life outside of this hour-long triathlon of brains, brawn and star power.

When the wrap was called, Rook left the show floor to his private dressing room in a hurry. He nodded briefly to a security guard whose name he couldn't remember, and ducked into the room with his name on the door, locking it behind him.

He took a deep breath and sighed, stretching his arms out. Maybe he was getting old? This job was starting to wear on him. He took off his suit jacket and undid his cufflinks. He would wear a nicer suit, one a little less bright and colorful, to the mayor's bash tonight. But first, a little pleasure before business.

He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of brandy, and with his other hand picked up two cups. He walked slowly now, pouring a pair of drinks and humming a little song he'd made up himself in his youth as he sauntered toward the door that separated the dressing room proper from a small bedroom he occasionally used to get some sleep when the show was in the planning stages earlier in the week.

"Hey, babe, I've got a few minutes," he smiled, nudging the door open with his foot, "so what do you say to having a little more f... un?"

Two glasses of brandy hit the carpeted floor at different times, throwing serious aspersions on a few theories about gravity in dramatic moments. The beverage coated the carpet, and the smell would last for days, but that was the least of Richard's concerns at the present.

On the bed, hands tied behind the back, a blindfold secured over the eyes, and ankles bound together, lay Leslie Tupple. None of those facts surprised Richard Rooks, because, after all, that was the state he'd left her in when he had been called to the stage to start the show. What surprised him was the gaping hole on the side of her head and the blood, oh god the blood, that was absolutely everywhere in the room.

The bottle of brandy followed the glasses, and very soon after was joined by the contents of Richard Rooks's stomach.

"It's a shame," came a voice that made him turn his pale face to look. "She shouldn't have had to die."

"Who the... what the hell are you doing?" Richard demanded. It was the security guard from the hall. The one whose name Richard couldn't remember. It slowly dawned on him that he couldn't remember the man's name because he's never seen him before. But this took place over the course of the following conversation.

"You are quite the monster, aren't you Reggie?" The man at the door said with a smile. The lock had been no problem. Entering without being heard had been child's play. The smile was as unnerving as the calm demeanor the words were spoken with. But it was the name that had been used. That name was what shook Richard to his core in an outwardly visible way.

"Been a while since you've been called that, huh, Reggie?"

"Stop using that name," Richard Rooks spat. "Who the fuck are you?"

"Language, young man," the other man growled. "Reginald Tops. It took me forever to find you."

Richard Reginald Rooks Tops tried to clear his mind and focus, but everything was a roar in his ears. His heart was pounding, both from fear and anger. The audacity of this little nobody to throw these accusation around.. "I didn't murder this girl!" he burst out.

"Of course not," the not-security guard shrugged. "I did. It was a kindness. Mercy. What you did to her, Reggie? What you were doing? That was truly terrible."

"What bullshit are you spouting?" Reginald Rooks demanded. "Who ARE you?"

"My name is Michael Grueson," the man smiled. "Heard of me?"

"Of course not, you horrible man! Someone call the police!" Richard Tops shouted at the top of his lungs.

"You soundproofed the place the day you started entertaining guests, remember? A loser's consolation prize, you saw it as, I guess," Michael said in a mildly disgusted tone, still leaning against the door and looking passively at his nails.

Richard dived for the phone, but the man made no move to stop him. He picked up the receiver and furiously tried to dial and outside line, or 911. It didn't matter though. No dial tone greeted his efforts.

"I cut the line, Reggie. Give me some credit."

Reginald dashed for his desk, and pulled his cell phone out of the top drawer. He never kept it on him during a show, because he loved his ring tone too much. He sneered at the man, who still hadn't moved, and looked at the phone.

"These new devices break so easily these days," Michael said with a wistful smile as Richard stared down into a cracked, broken screen. "I took the battery out anyway," he added after a moment of fumbled desperation.

Richard threw the phone at Michael, but it went wide and shattered to pieces against the wall. "That probably voided your warranty there, Reg," Michael warned. "Can't imagine they're gonna replace it for you, now." He paused for a moment, and then added, "Not like you'll need it where you're going anyway."

But Reginald Tops already had the mostly empty bottle of brandy in his hand and smashed the bottom on the door frame of the now gruesomely decorated bedroom. Shards of glass flew everywhere, cutting Richard's knuckles, but the makeshift weapon was ready and held out in a threatening way.

"I warn you, stay back!" Richard shouted. "I'll kill you if I have to!"

Michael Grueson shook his head. "I'm not some heartbroken little girl you can seduce, Reggie," he said with a note of sadness in his voice. "And I'm certainly not bound and gagged and breathlessly awaiting your return, hoping that you'll just kill me this time instead of having your disgusting way with me. I am not your usual target, Reg. I'm a monster."

Richard heard the door's lock click just as the lights went out. Darkness crashed in on his desperate eyes as they swerved wildly around. It had been a mistake, he realized, to put the light switches for both his dressing room and his private bedroom right next to the door to the hall. The room, electrified with the intensity of the emotion he was feeling, took on a whole different texture. Something in the room had changed dramatically, and it was more than just Richard Rooks's world collapsing in on itself like a dying star.

"I've always liked the dark," Michael's voice pierced the black curtain of darkness, and seemed to be heard in Richard's very soul. The voice was different, as well. Where in the light, Grueson had been calm and almost serene, now there was a throaty, animalistic growl underscoring every word. Richard swung the bottle half wildly around, trying to will his eyes to adjust to the gloom and work his way over to the light switch at the same time. He screamed in terror as he felt something... inhuman brush his bleeding hand.

"Blood in the water," the beastly voice of the intruder rumbled in Reginald's inner being again. "You're going to die now, Reginald Tops."

"Stop calling me that!" Richard Rooks screamed into the darkness. "I'm not that man anymore!" A glimpse of something that might have been a shape, or maybe just his brain playing tricks on him, invoked another round of flailing with the improvised weapon.

Two red pinpoints of... not light, more the absence of light with some color thrown in for convenience... drew Reginald's eyes. He couldn't tear his gaze from them as the voice struck him to the core again. "You never stopped being that man, Richard. Moving 400 miles and changing your name and appearance does not kill the person you were. It does not erase your sins. It does not excuse the new ones. It simply makes it take longer for me to find you, and to do my job."

"Your job?" Reginald Tops whimpered.

Horror stabbed into his very soul as, beneath the two points of non-light, the faintest hints of white teeth, sharp and point and rows and rows of them, began to form into a smile. A hideous, vague impression of joy from something akin to a wood chipper.

"I'm a monster," Michael Grueson repeated, his smile never leaving his face. "And I kill monsters."

It was over in an instant. It took much, much longer for Reginald Tops and Richard Rooks to die, but the fight, if there was ever one to be had, had been lost the moment the lights had gone out.

Two hours later, a security guard no one would recognize quietly left the dressing room of Richard Rooks, and walked, whistling a happy tune not quite unlike one whistled by Reginald Tops several years ago when he raped his first victim, out of the building. He wasn't seen by anyone or recorded by any device. He was never there, according to any official record.

The official record began some two days later, when a janitor noticed the smell coming from the dressing room and used a master key to get inside. Within the hour, the police had arrived, and photos were being taken of a crime scene. The victim inside was identified as Leslie Tupple, and her parents received word of the death of their daughter twenty minutes later, to much wailing and weeping and regret.

Richard Rooks wasn't found for another six hours, despite a desperate man hunt for the man himself throughout the city. No, he was much closer to the scene than anyone could guess. A thorough inspection of the studio's premises revealed one of his fingers in the drop ceiling above the backstage area. Further searching would reveal that most of Richard Rooks, the parts that were still identifiable, at least, were scattered about up there.

Four days later, it was revealed through the public media that Richard Rooks wasn't a real person. That he was originally named Reginald Tops, and that he had been a rapist and tried as such as a minor in a different city almost 400 miles away. The revelation didn't shock the public as much as you might believe, but then again many of the events recounted here are fairly unbelievable.

The Tupples all received grief counseling, especially Mr. Tupple, who felt almost suicidal over his perceived failure to protect his daughter. The therapy worked well, and he paints as a hobby now. Mrs. Tupple would, some years later, actually commit suicide out of grief. Leslie's brother took his anger with himself for failing his sister and went to law school, eventually becoming Assistant District Attorney with an eye out to further his career by nailing every sex offender he ever prosecuted to the wall.

A candlelit vigil for Leslie Tupple was held at her school. The entire cheer leading squad attended, and later organized a fundraiser in her name to spread informational materials on sexual predators and how kids could stay safe from them. Many comments were passed around about such action, while being commendable, was too little, and far too late. Some of those girls carried the memory of their dead non-friend around for a very long time.

Triple Threat stayed off the air for almost two years before it was relaunched with a new host. It flopped a half-season later, and was removed from the air forever.

Deeper investigations into cold case files revealed that in his time on the show, Richard Rooks had been responsible to the kidnap, rape, and eventual dismemberment of no less than sixteen young women, aged 13 to 15. Over several years, through DNA evidence and using the knowledge gained about his M.O. through the Leslie Tupple file, sixteen families eventually learned that the game show host would console a losing girl that caught his eye, and befriend her. He would then, in brief and seemingly casual conversations, turn her against her family and be the only pair of helping hands they would run to in the end. From there, he would eventually turn nasty, binding them and hiding them from the world for his own sick devices, all the while flashing that toothy grin to the rest of the world.

However horrible it may be, sixteen families received closure, and a man who would eventually have a TV documentary made about his disgusting double life was ended in a manner few would describe as unjust.

Michael Grueson stayed away from the aftermath of the death of Richard Rooks, and moved on with his life, as he had so many times before. There were stranger jobs, harder jobs, and more dangerous jobs than this one, and he undertook them all with the same seriousness, deadliness, and vigor, but they are for another time. Until then, dear reader, sleep well. And don't be afraid of the dark.

As long as you aren't a monster, that is.