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Beauty or the Beast

by Charles P. Schaeffer

Nothing like money to indulge one’s whims, though my invitation is hardly a whim. I watch from the seclusion of my private box seat. A hundred or so of my closest friends and enemies mill about searching out their assigned seats in the grandstand. Nice word that — grandstand — though it is “grand” in the importance of its occupants, more than its size.

Next to me sits my daughter, Marlene, who is foolish beyond words to desire a gambler owing my casino $100,000. As a true gambler, in moments from now, he’ll play my deadly game with his life as collateral. His choice. Admirable for a chronic loser, if I, Alonzo Van Pelt, do say so.

If Lance Forman, gambling addict, triumphs, he wipes out his debt, and as inducement, wins fair Teresa, a beauteous stand-in for my daughter, who will then obey me and forgo further dalliances with this rogue. If he loses, he knows he’ll not see the sun set. As for the legality of such an outcome, the local constabulary, favored guests, know an “accident” when they see one. And I, after all, risk losing a small fortune.

Say what you will, gamblers of his ilk offend me, though they’ve given me the good life: this mansion, its playing fields, the hundred encircling acres, not to mention travel to every corner of the globe, ascending the Matterhorn, big game hunting, bagging a score of Bengal tigers, their heads professionally mounted, tributes to my fine marksmanship.

Now preparations proceed below on the playing field. Two identical wooden structures stand where restless visitors can clearly observe the unfolding drama. Attendants close the doors on the occupants, one in each structure. From beneath the stand, I see Forman, cocky as ever, emerge, surely with fear in his heart, and stride toward the two structures.

* * *

The cruel glint in Alonzo Van Pelt’s eyes burns into my memory. “Good Luck, Mr. Forman,” he says, as, moments before, he shakes my hand in mock sincerity and points to my destination, the two identical structures ahead. My chances of surviving are fifty-fifty, odds I never like, whether I toss the dice or put chips down on the wheel.

Now as the structures loom near, the enormity of the wager is inescapable. I turn for a moment back to the grandstand, toward Marlene, watching, next to her father. The slightest movement of her hand to the right or to the left could speak volumes. Does she miss the opportunity — or merely decline? I wonder as I turn away, resuming my stride, aware more than ever of luck’s fickle nature.

But for Van Pelt, I might walk a different path than this. My accumulation of debt in his casino, no fluke, I realize today as I should have then. So easy for him. Tilting the games in his favor as I — like a fool — sank deeper into the morass of debt. A lesson, clearly for me to learn, for daring to cherish Marlene. A mistake not to be erased by a gambler and mere hunting guide, who once saved a family of Bengals resting by the water by diverting Van Pelt’s greedy eyes — only to have my trick revealed by a slavish gun bearer.

Ah, the structures ahead — no sound or clue from either. The doors inscrutably alike.

* * *

They close the door on my cubicle, and all light goes out. Darkness reigns. Not even a ray from outside. Inside, no sound, no light, no mirror, either, by which I might admire my beauty, perhaps — and the perhaps is large — to later succumb to this gambler, who doesn’t even know my own name, Teresa.

What do you say to the truth — that I am a gift from the pompous Alonzo Van Pelt? A gift to divert his own daughter’s attentions from Lance Forman; that is, if the gambler somehow wins the biggest gamble of his life? And what marks would you give my father? A man who makes the gift possible, because, in his weakness, he accepts Van Pelt’s corrupt bribe in exchange for my part in this odious game?

* * *

Dark like the night forest here. A box, not a cage. Walls all around. But there is the scent nearby, behind one wall, of a creature on two legs, a creature the others with two legs call woman. Quiet. No cry of monkeys leaping from tree to tree... A new scent. A different two-legged creature. One they call man. Men are the ones who come to the forest with the loud fire stick that kills.

Now, a gleam of light from an opening like sun through a forest canopy. More light. A creature with white skin and two legs crouches in the bright outdoors. I smell its fear. My haunches tighten for my leap. But I stop. The scent of this man is not bad. It is a good memory. This creature on two legs once did good. I watched from afar how he led the others with fire sticks away from the water hole. Away from my brothers and sisters and cubs, resting there.

Now another scent, a bad one, worse than all of the scents of the crowd of two-legged creatures in the crowd. Like a baboon in a tree, he perches above the others. He wears the fat of a water buffalo.

* * *

No, I Alonzo Van Pelt, do not believe it! Lance Forman opens the door to the tiger. But the tiger rushes, then leaps over him. What’s that? Warning voices in the frightened crowd shouting at me — “Hide, Alonzo! The tiger wants you!”

* * *

“Not my father,” I watch the beast spring — a striped projectile — his giant fangs bared. I see my father tumble back under the hurtling mammalian weight. Blood spurts from his throat...

There’s Lance hurrying toward me. He shouts, “Now what, Marlene? Now what?”

Copyright © 2007 by Charles P. Schaeffer

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