Tanya Kaitlin shut off the water, stepped out of the shower and slowly dried herself before putting on her favorite black and white bathrobe. That done, she reached for the matching towel that hung from one of the small hooks behind her bathroom door and wrapped it around her beach-blonde hair, turban-style. Despite being only lukewarm, her shower had produced more than enough steam to completely mist up the large mirror on the wall just above the black granite counter basin. Tanya stepped up to it and used her hand to clear a circular patch on the mirror. Leaning forward, she carefully studied her reflection. It took her only a couple of seconds to notice it.
‘Oh hell, no,’ she said, turning her face so she could better see her right profile and using both of her index fingers to stretch a patch of skin by her chin. ‘No fucking way, Mr. Zit. I see you coming.’
Tanya fought the urge to squeeze the small pimple. Instead, she opened the left drawer under the basin and began roaming through its contents like a woman on a mission. It was packed full of bottles, tubes and vials containing oils, creams, lotions, and whatever else new ‘miracle’ skin treatment had been recently advertised in any of the many fashion magazines she bought religiously.
‘No, not you . . . not you . . .’ she murmured as she moved items around. ‘Where the hell is it? I have it, I know I have it.’ The roaming became a little more frantic. ‘Oh, here we go.’ She breathed out a sigh of relief.
From deep inside the drawer she retrieved a small white tube with a roll-on tip at the top. She had never used that particular product before, but an article she’d read just days ago had rated it one of the best five acne-fighting ‘potions’ on the market at the moment. Not that Tanya had a problem with acne. In fact, she had incredibly healthy skin for a twenty-three-year-old, but she sure as hell was a ‘just in case’ girl. The amount of beauty products she had purchased over the past two years ‘just in case’ was staggering.
Tanya unscrewed the cap, rechecked her reflection in the mirror, and gently used the roll-on tip on the small pimple that was threatening to break out on her chin.
‘That’s right, Mr. Zit, you’re zapped,’ she said, looking triumphant. ‘Now fuck off my chin. And you better do it before the weekend.’
Tanya was just about to start her body and face moisturizing ritual, when she heard a sound coming from her bedroom, or at least she thought she did. She opened the bathroom door, readjusted her turban to uncover her right ear, stuck her head outside, and listened for a brief moment. The quirky melody she heard told her that she was getting a video-call request from one of her three closest friends.
‘Coming . . . coming,’ Tanya said, rushing out of the bathroom and into her bedroom. She found her smartphone vibrating on her bedside table. It was moving unevenly from side to side, as if it was dancing to the song itself. She snatched it up and checked the display screen – incoming video-call from her best friend, Karen Ward. The time read 10:39 p.m.
Holding the phone in front of her face, Tanya accepted the call. She and Karen video-called a lot.
‘Hey, babe,’ she said as she sat down at the edge of her bed. ‘I just had to zap a zit on my chin, can you believe it?’
As the image materialized on her smartphone screen, Tanya frowned. Instead of seeing her best friend’s face in full like every previous video-call they’d made to each other in the past, all Tanya could see was a close-up of Karen’s deep-set blue eyes, nothing more. And they were full of tears.
‘Karen, is everything OK?’
Karen didn’t reply.
‘Babe, what’s going on?’ This time Tanya’s voice was leaden with concern.
At last, and very slowly, the image began to zoom out, and as it did Tanya felt fear clothe her like an ill-fitting coat.
Karen’s fair hair seemed drenched in sweat. It stuck to her clammy forehead and the sides of her face like moist paper. Heavy tears had caused her eye makeup to smudge and run down her cheeks, creating a crazy pathway of dark lines.
Tanya brought her phone closer to her face. ‘Karen, what the fuck is going on? Are you all right?’
Again, no reply, but as the image continued to zoom out, Tanya finally realized why. A thick leather gag had been tied around Karen’s mouth so tight it had skewed her face out of shape and dug into the corners of her lips. Blood had already begun to trickle down her chin.
‘What the hell?’ Tanya breathed out the words in a wavering voice. ‘Karen, is this a fucking joke?’
‘I’m afraid Karen isn’t able to speak at the moment.’
The voice Tanya heard through her tiny smartphone speakers had somehow been digitally altered. Its pitch had been turned down several notches, making it sound scarily deep. Too deep for a human voice. A time delay had also been added to it, causing it to drag inconsistently. The result was a voice that could easily fit the image of a demon in a Hollywood movie. Tanya couldn’t really tell if the voice was male or female.
‘What . . . ?’ She frowned at her screen again. She could see no one else. ‘Who is this?’
‘Who I am is not important,’ the demonic voice replied in a steady monotone. ‘What’s important is that you listen carefully, Tanya, and that you do not hang up the phone. You can’t see me, but I can see you. If you hang up, the consequences will be severe . . . for Karen . . . and yourself.’
Tanya shook her head, as if trying to shake away a bad dream.
Confusion turned into perplexity.
As the image zoomed out a little more on Tanya’s screen, she was able to notice that a thick rope had been used to tie Karen up to a dinner chair. Tanya narrowed her eyes at what she saw. She recognized the chair and the large poster on the wall just behind Karen. The images were being broadcasted from Karen’s own living room.
Tanya paused, considered the situation for a quick second then tilted her head to one side skeptically. This has to be a joke, she thought. And then it dawned on her.
‘Pete, are you back? Is that you with the fucking devil’s voice?’ Tanya’s tone was now a little steadier. ‘Are you guys fucking with me?’ She undid the towel from around her head, allowing her damp hair to drop down to her shoulders.
‘Ha-ha-ha, you guys. C’mon Pete, Karen, quit it. This ain’t funny, you know? It’s quite freaky, actually. I nearly peed myself.’
Still no reply.
‘C’mon, you guys. Stop it or I’ll hang up.’
‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you,’ the devilish voice finally answered, maintaining the same monotone as before. ‘I’m not sure who Pete is, but maybe I should find out. Who knows, he could be next on my list.’
Still Tanya could see no one else on her screen other than Karen. Whoever the person with the demonic voice was, he or she was probably the one doing all the filming, though the phone had probably been placed on some sort of tripod, as the footage seemed rather steady for a handheld device.
This is nuts, she thought, keeping her gaze locked on to her best friend’s eyes.
On the screen, Karen sucked in a deep breath and the air seemed to have entered her nose in thick lumps, because her entire head shook with the effort. New tears welled up in her eyes before overflowing them and running down her cheeks, creating even more dark-tear pathways.
Tanya knew Karen well enough to know that those tears weren’t fake. Whatever it was that was happening, she now knew it was no prank.
‘Though I’d love to chat some more,’ the fiendish voice continued. ‘Time is of the essence here, Tanya. At least for your friend, Karen. So let me tell you how this is going to work.’
‘I have placed a bet.’
Tanya wasn’t sure if she’d heard right. ‘What? A bet?’
‘That’s right,’ the demon confirmed. ‘I placed a bet with Karen here. If I lose, she will be set free and neither of you will ever hear from me again. I promise you that.’
There was a deliberate long pause.
‘But if I win . . .’ The person at the other end of the line allowed those words to simply hang in the air ominously.
Tanya shook her head as she exhaled. ‘I . . . I don’t understand.’
‘It’s a very simple game, Tanya. I call it, surprisingly enough - Two questions.’
‘All you have to do is correctly answer two questions for me,’ the inhuman voice explained. ‘I’ll ask them one at a time. You can give me as many answers as you like per question, but we can only move to the next question, or if we’re talking about the second question, end the game, once you are able to give me a correct answer. If you take longer than five seconds to answer a question, it counts as a wrong answer. For your friend, Karen, to be set free, all I need is two correct answers.’ There was a millisecond of a pause. ‘I know, I know. It doesn’t really sound like an exciting game, does it? But... I guess we shall see.’
‘Questions? What kind of questions?’
‘Oh, don’t worry. They’re all directly related to you. You’ll see.’
Tanya had to draw in a deep breath before she was able to speak again. ‘And what happens every time I give you a wrong answer?’
Tanya’s question caused Karen to shake her head ever so slightly. Her eyes widened, this time full of fear and terror.
‘That’s a very good question, Tanya,’ the voice replied. ‘I get the feeling that you’re a smart woman. That’s a good sign.’
There was silence for a moment, as if the line had gone dead. This was a product of the pitch shifter and time delay being used by the caller.
‘What I can tell you is that, for Karen’s sake, let’s hope you don’t.’
All of a sudden, Tanya’s breathing became labored. She didn’t want to play this game. And she didn’t have to. All she had to do was hang up.
‘If you hang up the phone,’ the person at the other end of the line said, as if able to read Tanya’s thoughts, ‘Karen dies and I’ll come after you next. If you disappear from the screen and I can’t see you through your phone’s camera anymore, Karen dies and I’ll come after you next. If you try to call the police, Karen dies and I’ll come after you next. But let me assure you that that would be a futile exercise, Tanya. It would take them nearly ten minutes to get here. It would take me only one to rip your friend’s heart out of her chest and leave it on the table for them to find it. The blood inside her veins would still be warm by the time they got here.’
Those words sent bolts of fear down Karen and Tanya’s spines. Karen immediately began screaming behind her leather gag and hysterically wiggling her body from side to side, trying to fight her restraints, but to no avail.
‘Who are you?’ Tanya asked, her voice beginning to falter. ‘Why are you doing this to Karen?’
‘I suggest that you concentrate on the problem at hand, Tanya. Think of Karen.’
It was then that Tanya saw new movement on the screen. Someone dressed all in black had positioned him or herself just behind the chair her best friend had been tied to, but Tanya couldn’t really see past the person’s torso.
‘Jesus, what kind of sick prank is this?’ she yelled at her phone, now fighting tears herself.
‘No, Tanya,’ the demon replied. ‘This is no prank. This is as real as it gets. Shall we start?’
‘No, wait . . .’ Tanya pleaded, her heart now beating twice as fast as a few minutes ago.
But the person with the demonic voice wasn’t listening anymore. ‘Question one, Tanya: How many Facebook friends do you have?’
‘What?’ Confusion masked Tanya’s face.
‘How many Facebook friends do you have?’ the voice repeated, this time a fraction slower than before.
OK, now this has to be a joke, Tanya thought. What kind of silly question is that? Is this shit for real?
‘Five seconds, Tanya.’
Tanya’s puzzled stare searched Karen’s face. There was nothing there but fear.
The evil voice began counting down. ‘Four . . . three . . . two . . .’
Tanya barely had to think about it. She had checked her profile just before jumping in the shower. ‘One thousand, one hundred and thirty-three,’ she finally replied.
The air inside Tanya’s bedroom seemed to thicken like heavy smoke.
Finally, the person standing behind Karen’s chair began applauding.
‘That is one hundred percent correct, Tanya. You’ve got a good memory. And that answer just got your friend one step closer to freedom. All you need to do now is answer one more question correctly and this will all be over.’
Another deliberate long pause.
Without realizing it, Tanya held her breath.
‘Since Karen is your best friend, this next question should be a walk in the park for you.’
‘What’s Karen’s cellphone number?’
Tanya’s brow creased with doubt. ‘Her number?’
This time the demon didn’t repeat the question. It simply started the countdown. ‘Five . . . four . . . three . . .’
‘But . . . I don’t know it by heart.’
‘Two . . .’
A choking knot came to Tanya’s throat.
‘One . . .’
‘This is stupid,’ Tanya said with a jittery giggle. ‘Give me a second and I’ll get it for you.’
‘I gave you five, and those five seconds are up. You haven’t answered me.’
This time, there was a new tone underlying the demon’s voice. A tone Tanya couldn’t properly identify but, whatever it was, it filled her heart with terrorizing fear.
‘You wanted to know what happens when you give me a wrong answer . . . watch this.’
© Chris Carter 2015