James was walking in to work when the door of the van slid open beside him and the men jumped out to grab him. For a moment, he thought he was being robbed; then he thought he was being kidnapped. By the time he realized what was really happening and began to scream for help, it was too late: the door was closed and the van was speeding away.
The host was a tall, cadaverous man in a tuxedo, who stood in a circle of bright light on a dimly lit stage or dais. James had his own spotlight, but his spot was in front of the host and slightly below him. Everything else was completely dark, so black it might have been void, and that was what kept him from trying to run: a primal, creeping fear of what might find him if he left the light.
"Welcome, welcome, one and all!" The host had his arms spread wide, the gesture emphasized by the extra length of a black cane in his right hand and the top hat in his left. "Today's contestant is James!"
A soft whisper went through the blackness around him, and James shivered.
"What do you have to say for yourself, James?"
He swallowed. "Please," he said. "I just want to go home."
The host's smile widened, transforming his face from cadaverous to skeletal. "Hear that, folks? He wants to go home. Well, James, that depends on how you do today." He turned to the audience, and rolled his top hat up his arm so that it fell into place atop his head. "Now, we all know how the game is played... but I want to remind you not to distract our contestant. An interruption could result in a forfeit, and there's nothing less entertaining than a forfeit. Got it, folks?"
The same low susurrus went through the darkness, soft and inhuman, and James shivered again.
As the sound died away to stillness, the host gestured with his cane. "Come, James! Let's get started!"
A new light appeared, spearing down to illuminate a wide, round table with handles around the edges. "It's time to spin the wheel!"
James took a cautious step towards the table. For a moment he was afraid that he would have to cross the darkness, but the small circle of light moved with him. He took another step, and another, until his spot of light merged into the larger spot around the table. As the host had indicated, the top of the table was actually a sort of wheel. He looked up at the host. "Do I have to?" he asked, quietly, desperately.
"James, James, James," said the host. "It's the only way to find out what happens next."
Reluctantly, James took a grip on two of the wooden handles that extended like spokes. Looking down on the table, he could see the way the surface was divided into slices of color, each with its own bit of text. Cranky Co-worker, read one. Traffic Jam, said another. A third one said Tornado! in a cheerful-looking script, and at that point James quit reading and squeezed his eyes shut.
"Don't hold back," advised the host. "Give it a good, strong spin." His voice was rich with anticipation.
James wrenched on the handles, throwing his weight to the side to get them spinning. Then he flinched back; the top of the table turned with a horrible, loud buzzing, like the noise of a hungry insect magnified to the volume of jet engine. He caught himself with his foot on the edge of the darkness, and turned back towards the table.
The initial buzzing dropped to a rapid, mechanical clicking as the wheel slowed. James watched, mesmerized, as it spun. It slowed further, clickclickclick becoming click-click-click and then click... click... click... A wide stretch of crimson with the words Fatal Accident rotated towards the pointer on the far side of the table, slowing, slowing... but the wheel clicked past it and stopped on Seasonal Illness instead.
There was another whisper of sound in the darkness around him, almost a sigh. There was an audience out there -- there was something out there -- and whatever it was, it sounded disappointed.
The host, however, never missed a beat. "Seasonal illness!" he cried. "That takes us today's challenge..." he drew the words out, building anticipation, then gestured with his silver-headed cane. "The dartboard of diseases!"
The large light went out, taking the table with it and leaving James still in his own small spot of light. A new light came up, this one angled down to show the dartboard. It looked like every other dartboard that James had ever seen, but it was taller than his head, and each little area was -- of course -- inscribed with long words in a cheery script. A second, small light came up to reveal a low table or podium.
For a moment, James hesitated... but then the light that was shining on him started to drift towards the podium. Suddenly terrified of being left behind in the darkness, James hurried to keep up with it.
On the podium, he found three darts. They were large, like lawn darts, but balanced differently; not so heavy towards the tip.
"Go on," said the host. "Take your first throw."
James made a throwing gesture, testing the weight of the dart in his hand. For a moment, he had a wild vision of throwing the dart at the host and making a run for it, but he knew what would happen: the lights would go out. The lights would go out, and the darkness would claim him.
Instead, he looked at the dartboard again. The bull's-eye was empty of text.
"Very good," said the host, smarmily encouraging. "If you can land a bull's-eye, you -- or someone in your family -- won't become sick. But, of course, the spaces closest to the bull's-eye are filled with the worst diseases, while the ones around the outer ring are the mildest. And your first throw... will be for your daughter."
James nodded to show he understood. He considered for another moment, then made his throw.
The dart slammed into the outer ring.
"Stomach virus!" cried the host. "Looks like James is in for a rough night! Let see what he does next, with his wife's health on the line."
Soft whispers floated through the room, then died away. James lifted the second dart. It was identical to the first, and he had a feel for it now. He took careful aim, and threw...
"Bull's-eye!" cried the host. "Ladies and gentlemen, you saw it yourselves! No illness for James' wife!"
A soft whine or groan spilled through the darkness, still so quiet as to be barely audible. The sound of it raised the hairs on James' neck.
He lifted the last dart and took aim at the target again. He took a moment to focus... drew back... and threw.
For a moment it looked like a perfect shot. Then it struck the dart that was already in the bull's-eye and bounced off to the side.
"Oh," said the host. "That's too bad. Looks like it's pneumonia for you, James. Well, thanks for playing... and, for the rest of you, I hope you'll join us again next time!"
All at once, the lights went out above the dartboard, the podium, and the host himself. James occupied a single, small circle of light with nothing but darkness around him. Cautiously, he put a hand out, but the podium wasn't just hidden in the darkness; it was actually gone. Something brushed against his hand, and he yanked it back into the light.
A moment later, a whole series of small spotlights came on, making a path across the polished concrete floor. A final light came on, illuminating a narrow metal door with a bar across it. James hurried over to the door, aware that the lights were going out behind him, and pushed on the bar. The door swung open, and he stepped out onto a concrete sidewalk. The door swung closed behind him, and he realized he was standing outside his office.
He coughed, feeling drained and weary. The day was gone; he could see Bob, an accountant from the office across the hall, coming out of the building with his briefcase in hand.
Resigned, James started towards his car. It was going to be a rough couple of weeks. He hated this time of year.