Danny Moone sat before the dressing table mirror, staring at the face which few people in Ireland would have even recognized three years ago. Now, however, the sensation of seeing that face on newspapers, magazines and even billboards had ceased to be strange.
"Five minutes", said Saoirse, his personal assistant.
Tonight, however ,was undoubtedly the summit of his career so far. For tonight he was presenting his first ever Higgins Awards-- the most star-studded night in Irish television, radio and movies. Anyone who was anybody, not to mention an awful lot of people who were almost somebody, were in the studio audience tonight. The term "prestigious" was invariably used in reports. "Uncle" Browne, the most legendary figure in Irish broadcasting, had presented the show for thirty years running. But tonight was his night.
"They're lucky to have you", he whispered to himself. "Browne was just my warm-up. This is my time! This is my time!".
"OK, let's go", said Saoirse, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Wow them, captain!"
Danny swung around in his swivel chair, drew the beautiful young blonde towards him, and began to kiss her passionately.
"Be careful", she said, breaking away. "You'll upset your make-up!".
"Just need to psych myself up", said Danny, rising to his feet.
"I wonder what your wife would say if she saw you doing that?", Saoirse said, smiling.
"Oh, as long as she lives in the style she's quickly grown accustomed to, I don't think she gives two hoots", said Danny. Saoirse grinned, enchantingly.
Danny walked to the wings of the studio, feeling the familiar surge of adrenalin. He stood listening to his introduction, and at the words "your host", strolled out.
Applause. A few screams. Everyone was aware that this was a historic night.
"Well,", he said, "It's a long way from the Bagenalstown dog show, that's for sure!"
The audience howled their approval. Truth was, the Bagenalstown dog show would be tough compared to this. This was going to be a doddle, he knew. He was "in the zone", and all these hot shots, has-beens, and never-would-be's, were already eating out of his hand.
He sailed through his opening patter, still thinking of Saoirse's lips on his own. Man, he felt good.
"And now we're going to have a few words with our sponsor, Barry Higgins. As you all know, Higgins Bakeries have been the Irish business success story of the last few years, famous for their saucy and often controversial advertising campaigns. Their charismatic managing director was a pastry chef five years ago. Let's meet the man who makes tonight possible, Barry Higgins!"
The audience roared their approval when the diminutive Higgins made his way onto the stage. He shuffled forward with his arms outstretched, groaning loudly. His clothes were in rags and his face and arms had been made up to resemble decomposing flesh-- or to resemble it closely enough without turning the audience's stomach.
"I didn't expect you'd' come in a suit", said Danny. "What's this all about, Barry?"
"Well, partly it's a tribute to my favourite horror shows", said Barry, in his exaggerated regional accent. "And partly it's a tribute to my competitors in business!"
A ripple of applause and laughter rolled around the studio, but before it ended, another sound filled the air. It took a moment or two before Danny realized it was gunfire.
Screams filled the studio. In a matter of moments, five men in balaclavas had rushed onto the stage. They were black jeans and black shirts. More of them stood at the wings of the studio, and others had mingled with the studio audience. All of them carried handguns.
One of the gunmen wrapped his arm around Barry Higgins's neck and placed a gun to his head. Another strode up to Danny, raised his gun towards him, and handed him a card with text upon it.
There was a long silence. The screaming had stopped. Danny stood there, frozen.
The gunman fired a shot a few inches over his head, and Danny raised his hand quickly in a gesture of compliance. He had never been more terrified in his life.
Somehow, however, his professional instincts overcame his terror, and he read the text of the card:
"Ladies and gentlemen of Ireland, welcome to the world's first ever Kill-A-Thon! If this transmission ceases to be broadcast, everybody in this studio will die! If anyone in this studio refuses to participate in this exciting new venture, that person will immediately die. Live! Onscreen! And very entertainingly!"
"Very soon we will be giving out account numbers to which you, the viewers at home, should immediately make whatever donations you see fit, if you want your favourite Irish celebrities to survive the night! We'll be auctioning them off, one by one!".
A whimper rose from the audience, but Danny barely heard it. He was focusing all his attention on the text.
"To start things off with a bang, however, and to show how serious we are, we're going to give the public what most of them have wanted for several years now!"
The gunman with his arm wrapped around Barry Higgins released him, stepped back and slowly raised his gun towards the man dressed as a zombie. Higgins raised his arms in the air, palms outwards, and began to beg for his life.
A shot rang out, and the founder and chief executive of Higgins Bakeries slumped to the ground. The audience screamed.
Danny stared at the lifeless figure on the floor, his mind racing. Within minutes, he knew, everybody in Ireland would be watching this broadcast. Within hours, almost everybody in the world would hear about it. And in this age of the internet, there was no way the footage would ever be suppressed.
If he kept his cool, and if he managed to stay alive, tonight could be a far, far bigger break than he'd ever imagined....