At five of midnight, as measured in Capital City, holostages around the world sprang to life.
“How 'zit going?” asked the smiling voice.
In one house, four people sitting before the stage smiled back. They, as did the rest of humanity, recognized the voice of Spike Punch. Spike appeared as he did every week, sitting in his blue swivel chair with a clipboard in one hand and his over-sized pocket watch in the other.
“Did you enjoy last week's crime of,” the camera moved in for a close-up and Spike gave it his best lecherous leer, “rape?”
John Roby looked over at Mary Paul grinning.
Don Paul looked at Darlene Roby nodding his head.
Spike continued. “It's apparent that some of you enjoyed it too much. For example, a Mr. Henry Acobs accidentally killed his victim.” Spike laughed it off as always. “Shame, shame Mr. Acobs. That of course violates the rules and you'll have to be prosecuted for it.”
Spike disappeared and an alleyway replaced him. A man lay on his back, among the refuse lay his clothes. Two women stook over him as he cowered in fear. One of the women lowered herself onto him, straddling his hips.
“Hurry ladies, you only have four minutes. Not,” Spike added as an afterthought, “that it lookes he last longer than that.”
John and Darlene Roby laughed at the scene but it sounded tense and forced. Dan and Mary Paul blushed and pretended to be sharing a magazine.
Spike reappeared. “As I said, there are only four minutes until rape is once again illegal. But never fear for I am here,” he chuckled at his own joke. “We'll have a new crime for you and it's sealed in this white envelope.” He pulled it out of his coat. “No one, not even I, know what's in it. But we soon will all know.”
Mary looked at her husband. “I wonder what it was like before crime of the week?”
“Horrible, most likely. All those pent up emotions ready to explode at any moment.” Dan pulled her closer. “Don't worry though, we now have Spike.”
“Or,” interjected John with an upraised finger and his most prophetic voice, “does he have us?”
Mary tried to quiet him. “Hush, dear, it's almost time.”
“Now as always, before I open the envelope,” Spike waved it tantalizingly, “let's go over the rules.”
One by one, scrolled through the air:
*The said crime is valid from midnight Sunday until 11:59pm the following Saturday.
**The victim may do whatever is necessary to protect his or her self. This does not exempt the victim from prosecution for any illegal acts committed whilest protecting themselves.
***The 'criminal' assumes all risks of being interfered with by samaritans, passerbys and/or the victim's relatives.
“A lot of legal whopoo,”Spike stated boldly. He leaned closer as if to whisper secretly into each viewers ear. “We all know that in the real world it's dog-eat-dog.”
From all four speakers a clock chimed and Spike looked at his watch, as he did every week, with surprise. The four people watching him also looked at their watches. In unison, all five asked, “is it that time already?”
“As of now, rape is illegal again,” the scene shifted to the alley with the two women on top of the man. Spike suddenly loomed large and authoritative, “they're breaking the law now but we'll get the deviants.”
“He's wasting our crime seconds,” Mary complained softly, almost to herself.
Spike's smiling face once again filled the stage. “The new crime of the week is,” slowly, agonizingly he tore the envelope open, “breaking and entering.”
Eight billion breaths were released as the crime was beamed around the world.
Dan and Mary had left a hour ago and John was still preparing for the week-long assault. Darlene put away the last of the coffee cups and after checking the alarms, started upstairs. By the morning she knew there would be millions of break-ins around the globe.
“I'm glad Dan and Mary came over,” John was saying behind her. “Waiting for Spike's announcement by yourself gives me the feeling of -.”
“- the world being against you?” Darlene nodded her head. “It's the only side effect of the program. Suicides are always higher on Sundays.”
They went into the bedroom and John barricaded the door behind them. Wordlessly they undressed and slid into bed. Darlene pulled the blankets up to her neck. “What I would hate would be doing something personal and someone breaks in.”
“Don't worry, I'll protect you,” John said, patting the mound of his pillow and the .44 under it.
The next morning John dressed and took his Monday pill and read his paper. “Our neighborhood was almost untouched,” he called out to Darlene.
“It won't be tonight. Not when the toughs hear about it.” She came down the stairs wrapped in a filmy robe. “You're going to be late, dear,” she said, looking at the clock.
He refolded the paper as he rose. “You'd better get dressed. Don't want some game player getting carried away.” He kissed her a quick goodbye before going out the front door.
When he came home at five, Darlene was a nervous wreck. She rushed to him, heaving with sobs. “The Lutz's, five houses down.” She stopped to compose herself.
“Someone shot them.”
John dropped down onto the sofa numbly. “Damn it, goddamn it.” He held his head in his hands. “It's not even murder week.”
For the next three nights he was greeted with the same horrifying news. Each night one house closer to theirs. By Friday, Darlene was locking herself in the bathroom with a shotgun and a pot of coffee. John had to use his thumbprint lock to get in each night and would enter cautiously armed with his derringer at the ready.
He came home Friday night and Darlene rushed up out of the basement. She had been crying, her mascara leaving black tear marks down her cheeks. She collapsed in his embrace as she uttered curses between outbursts of grief. He smoothed her hair calmingly as he led her over to the sofa.
They sat in each others arms til midnight. Slowly, he got her back to talking.
“I heard about from a policeman that came to investigate,” she started.
“Investigate what?” John asked softly.
“Someone broke in next door. Dan was home and tried to protect him and Mary.” She blew her nose and dabbed the tears away. “Shots were exchanged and one of the intruders was killed but so were -,” Darlene wailed in sorrow, unable to finish.
“Dan and Mary,” John said incredulous. He sat stunned and unable to move for almost five minutes.
When his strength returned he rose angrily. He stalked around the house locking windows and doors. He gathered all the guns and knives and dropped them in the bedroom.
“John, what's wrong? What's happening?” Darlene kept demanding.
He grabbed her by the wrists and attempted to drag her upstairs. “We're going into hiding till Sunday. No one's going to get us.”
They locked the bedroom door behind them and barricaded furniture in front of it. John shut off all the lights and huddled in the corner with Darlene. He lay the .44 next to him and turned the holostage on.
“- so let's calm down out there,” Spike was saying. “Before we get back to our movie just another countdown report.” A man smashing in a window replaced Spike. “Twenty two hours and forty five minutes before we open another envelope.”
John cut the sound on the holovision.
“John, we forgot food.”
“If you can't hold out till tomorrow then we'll just -,” his voice betrayed his indecision, “- think of something.”
They drifted off to sleep in the blue of the holovision.
Darlene woke in the middle of the day to find John shivering next to her. “Are you cold?”
“No, why?” his voice quavered.
He stayed silent, watching the mute stage. “Can I admit something?”
“Of course,” she looked up into his eyes searching for something.
“I'm scared. Scared of the world and scared of what it will do to you.”
She huddled closer to him. “It's not going to do anything.” Softly she kissed his cheek. “Not if we have each other.”
John watched the holostage. On it, an alien from a 20th century movie followed his silver robot into his seamless saucer. With a soft hum, the saucer lifted from the baseball diamond leaving the humans below stunned. “We've only got twelve hours left,” he mumbled half to himself.
“We'll make it,” she reassured him with a pat on the arm.
“If we do, let's move to the Caribbean. I've heard they have no crime of the week on Bermuda.”
“How do they survive?”
John's face glowed with wonder, “trust.”
She snorted in disbelief, “take your Saturday pill, Johnny.”
He slipped the blue capsule into his mouth. He bit into it and let the sweet liquid contained to leak out. He closed his eyes and let himself be drawn into the dark well of sleep.
The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was Spike Punch's smile looking out on him. Spike was speaking rapidly but silently. John hit the volume switch and Spike spoke, “- so with only fifteen minutes left on breaking and entering we're going to start the countdown.”
Darlene stirred beside him. “Is it Sunday already?”
“Fifteen minutes still.”
She stood and stretched. “I'm going to go downstairs and bring some food up.”
John shook his head, “it's not midnight yet.”
“But there's only fourteen minutes left. Everyone's home getting ready for next week's crime.”
She pushed the furniture away from the door, unlocked it and went downstairs. “Be back in a minute,” she blew him a kiss.
John lowered the holostage's volume. He hefted the .44 in his hand and waited for Darlene and tomorrow. “Just let me get through the next ten minutes,” he said to no one.
Glass downstairs shattered and Darlene's high pitched scream cut through him like a knife. “Darlene,” he whispered hoarsely.
No sound came from downstairs. John crouched in the corner, his .44 at ready. His breathing sounded hollow and loud. He held hi breath when footsteps climbing the stairs echoed up the hall.
With only the blue glow of the holostage for light the doorway was like a black maw to hell. 'Darlene, I'm sorry, I should have gone for food.' He wiped his forehead, a cold sweat. 'I'm so frightened I've broken into a cold sweat.'
He stopped thinking when the dark shadowy form filled the doorway. Raising the .44, John pumped the trigger twice. Darlene screamed and fell in front of the holostage and Spike's smiling image.
John dropped the gun and rushed to his wife's fallen form. “Darlene, I had no idea -,” he whispered hoarsely.
She placed weak fingers on his lips. “Hush.” She coughed up blood. “Damn cat scared me.”
Her hand dropped and her chest was still. John broke down and wept uncontrollably. “Christ, what have they done to us.”
Behind him, Spike ripped open a crisp white envelope. “This week it's murder,” Spike laughed joyfully.
The Earth shuddered briefly as eight billion people pulled back on the world's collective trigger.