CHAPTER ONE. In which a desperate Whatever plots an act of derring-do; a reporter receives a disturbing premonition; a frog and a gofer receive unwanted visitors; and a game show host is throttled.

Gonzo poked a fork unenthusiastically at his sardine oatmeal. He sighed, and forced himself to start eating. Ever since his chickie-love had moved out, though, breakfast just didn't have the same energy, the old thrill of gazing at a yellow beak pecking away on the opposite side of the table…but he needed the protein and fish oil. After all, oatmeal was rightfully advertised as the "breakfast of daredevils." Oh, sure, Camilla still went on casual dates with him, still talked with him and even finished his sentences as old friends are wont to do. But not being a couple anymore…really sucked. Gonzo sighed again. Yeah, there really isn't a better way to put that. Eating breakfast alone sucks. It's like adding insult to the injury of not having anyone to cuddle with. Although it had been several months since the Christmas show in Vegas, and Camilla's startling announcement that she wanted to be single again, Gonzo hadn't yet summoned the strength to dismantle the large nest he'd helped her build on the loft-bunk of their bedroom. MY bedroom, he reminded himself glumly. She's got her own nest now. He thought she was sleeping with the other chickens back at the Muppet Theatre, but couldn't be entirely sure; when he'd last asked her about it, she'd cackled demurely and wouldn't answer outright. Sheesh. I hope she's not roosting with Black Bart, anyway. That guy's got corn mush for brains, and a pathetic little beak… He knew it was masochistic to dwell on any possible romantic entanglements which Camilla might or might not be involved in currently, but flogging himself – mentally or otherwise – was too old a habit to break.

Trying to distract his wallowing brain, Gonzo picked up the morning's edition of the Daily Squeal (sure, it was a rag, but it had better entertainment news than the Scandal) and flipped listlessly through the "Around the Scrapyard" section. "Ehh," he muttered, "a revival of Ten Little Crawdads? That'll never work. The songs are so outdated…" Hmm. An audience-participation show of 'Night, Mother – "bring your own rope"? Might be fun. Wonder if Rizzo would come with me? He and the rat had kicked around the idea of moving in together once more, but Rizzo had been working (well, he referred to it as "work," anyway) at a cheese-packing warehouse over in Brooklyn for vast chunks of hours lately, so they hadn't had time to move his stuff back into Gonzo's apartment.

Not really reading the rest of the paper, the depressed furry whatever—blue in at least two senses—hopped from his chair and went to the kitchen window. He shoved the sash up, grunting. One of the wonderful advantages of this particular studio, apart from the rent control, was its view: he had three windows, and all of them overlooked the back alley. He'd practiced dumpster-diving many times from here, for the fun of it more than the chance of finding useful items others had discarded; Rizzo had chided him, claiming people normally didn't dumpster-dive from ten stories up, but what did the rat know about conservation anyway? Sticking the newspaper out the window, Gonzo squinted, felt the pleasant October breeze on his scraggly fur, adjusted for drift, and let the paper fall toward the recycling bin below at ground level. He opted to stay inside the apartment today; he just didn't have the gusto for dangerous swan dives after breakfast like he used to. He did, however, stick his head out to observe the paper fluttering wildly to its certain doom and eventual reincarnation, probably as toilet paper.

A sudden gust slapped the paper around, sending the ads and inserts swooping in all directions. "Nuts," Gonzo muttered, annoyed. One smaller piece of paper caught an updraft, smacking him in the nose. Spluttering at the abrupt blockage to his nostrils, Gonzo plucked the sheet from his face, then stared at it.

Large, though blurrily printed letters proclaimed: DAREDEVILS NEEDED FOR REALITY TALENT SHOW!

"Really?" Gonzo wondered, perking a bit. He read the small print closely: "A national cable channel is producing a talent competition/reality TV show to debut this fall! Do you like dangerous stunts, wickedly maiming contortions, life-threatening juggling, or suicidal and possibly final performances? Then WE NEED YOU! Compete for fame and fortune before a TV audience LIVE starting THIS THURSDAY! Apply at the Ars Moribunda broadcasting studio by 5 p.m. Thursday the 13th. Bring performance outfit and at least three instruments of destruction. SERIOUS CONTENDERS ONLY!" An address was scrawled, almost as an afterthought, below the printed announcement.

"Oh my gosh! This is too cool! Oh, wow! Camilla! Did you see this…" Realizing his stupidity, he fell silent, saddened. Of course she wasn't here to see it; not that she would anyway, wherever she was. Though her conversational skills were wonderful, she'd always evaded discussions which would reveal her lack of reading ability beyond third-grade level. It wasn't her fault that she'd been forced to go into show business to avoid feeding her farm family before she'd completed school… Disheartened, Gonzo looked back at the ad. Should he even bother? The thrill was gone. Sure, once a daredevil, always a daredevil…but it was so much better when you had an adoring little chickie cheering from the sidelines…or clucking in utter terror as you plunged to certain death, whichever. "Defying death isn't any fun alone," he sighed.

Still…what if…

What if he entered this competition, and just asked her to be watching him on TV? Wouldn't she be impressed when she saw him doing even more dangerous stunts than Kermit would allow onstage? He realized their lovemaking had dwindled into a certain boring security, a while before she'd asked to call it quits. Maybe she'd simply become bored with the ordinary? Well, heck, how many times can your woman whip you with ropes made of fruit roll-ups studded with thousands of whole cloves, or dance with her claws on your bare back while holding you prisoner in a medieval rack, before it gets tired and old? Nodding in growing excitement, Gonzo read the address again. Is that uptown or downtown? Wait…that says "below street level"…maybe it's technically UNDER town? A dungeon! They must have an actual DUNGEON! How COOL is that!

"Yes!" he said aloud, startling a pigeon investigating his open kitchen window. "Oh, Camilla, you just watch! I'll make you proud! I'll show you I haven't lost the magic, and you'll beg to move back in! Woo hoo hoo!" Chortling, Gonzo scurried into the bedroom, lugged his traveling trunk from the closet, flung it open, and started yanking out drawers. "Better bring the purple cape…and the pink spangled tights, who doesn't like spangles? I wonder if they have a snooty British judge? Hmm, better pack the Union-jack Underoos just in case…and the sixteenth-century manacles, Brits like old stuff, yeah, good, good…"

Happily assembling a trunkful of necessities for this next gig, Gonzo felt almost giddy for the first time in nearly a year. Things were looking definitely up.

"Would you…would you do me?"

Gina glanced up quickly, a smile immediately spreading across her face. The Newsman stared at her a moment before what he'd said hit him and he blushed. "Er, um…I mean…would you perform a reading for me?"

"I will happily do both, my sweetly blundering journalist," his Gypsy girl assured him, leaning forward in her seat at the kitchen table to plant a kiss on her Muppet's long nose. Her newest Tarot deck was laid out before her; she'd been shuffling through it face-up, getting a sense for the slightly different feel of the cards. Although she'd learned on an old Rom deck her grandmother had owned, she'd collected a number of others through the years, usually picking only the ones which boasted lovely artwork. This one, the Halloween Tarot, she'd bought in honor of the holiday, thinking of doing some street readings for a little extra cash. People always tended to be more interested in having their fortunes told around this time of year. Although Newsie had pointed out his salary more than covered their needs, Gina felt better when she had her own income, and her old-fashioned but not insensitive journalist had agreed. Work had been irregular at the Sosilly Theatre, and she wanted some extra funding for the upcoming gift-giving season.

Newsie sat down next to her, fuzzy yellow fingers curled around the latté mug she'd given him; it was bright orange with smiling jack-o-lanterns stacked to form the handle and a narrow mouth which helped divert coffee into his own wide one without spilling any. He liked the ease of use of the mug (coffee stains were one of the reasons he'd stuck with brown sports coats for so long – if he missed, no one noticed), and the fact that she'd chosen something friendly-looking rather than scary to symbolize the holiday touched him. He sipped the pumpkin-spiced froth atop the coffee, smiling shyly when Gina kissed the resultant blob of whipped cream from the tip of his nose.

Gina looked from him to the cards and back. "Are you sure? I have no idea how accurate it'll be, Newsie…most of the time with this stuff, I've always interpreted based on what I could pick up about the customer. And because of the necklace, I doubt I'm going to get much of a vibe to work with." She shrugged, touching the copper beads around her neck. "I kind of figured my street readings would be a lot of old-style Gypsy shrewdness more than accurate sensings of their futures."

Newsie frowned lightly. "You mean you planned on conning innocent people for money? Gina!"

She giggled at his creased brow. "Not entirely…there is an art to this, you know. A lot of it is about reading body language, looking for clues about their finances and love life and general outlook on things by how they appear. I already know who you are, handsome!"

Only slightly mollified, he tried to push past the heat rising in his cheeks again. "Uh…well…just promise me you won't simply make things up, okay?"

She spread her hands wide over the deck. "Eh, the cards know all, the cards tell all! We only translate for the unwitting!" Newsie scowled again at her mock-Czech accent, and she burst into laughter. "Okay, I promise. If the reading makes no sense at all I won't charge anything. Fair?"

"All right," he agreed, and slupped more of the cream along with the hot pumpkin coffee beneath. He had to admit, he did enjoy her enthusiasm for all things autumnal. He'd always loved the scent of turning leaves in Central Park, and the colors of fall, complementing his own golden-yellow and reddish-brown hues. As long as his beloved's idea of Halloween didn't involve ghosts or scary monsters, he was all for it. "So…how exactly does this work?"

"Well," Gina said, "first you have to hold the deck." She turned the cards all face-down and scooped them into a thick pile, tamping them neatly, then placing the Newsman's broad hands over them.

"Okay…" He gazed at her uncertainly but willingly, and Gina smiled.

He's so cute when he does that, she thought. She loved how trusting he was of her now. Going slowly with him in everything new was well worth it for the devotion and tireless dedication he put into it, once he'd learned what to do, and he seemed always willing to learn, always curious. She pressed his hands upon the cards gently. "Feel them, Newsie. Let your energy flow into them. Concentrate on what you want to know. It can be anything at all…about work, or something about yourself, or your future, or…"

"Or my cousin?" he asked, eyes sharp behind those heavy hornrims.

Sobering, Gina nodded. "We can try, sure. Close your eyes and focus on him."

Newsie had pored over genealogical records online for over a month since discovering he had a cousin, previously unknown to him. All they had to work with was a name – Chester Blyer – and the marriage records of both Newsie's mother and his aunt Ethel, although they knew his mother's was a false one. Neither of them had spoken of that fact much; Newsie was deathly embarrassed about it, and worried for his reputation should Fleet Scribbler or the rest of the hacks at the Daily Scandal uncover it somehow. Gina hadn't brought it up after the first night when she'd tried to reassure her Muppet love that it made absolutely no difference to her what his parentage had been. Newsie had stammered and squirmed and acted so unhappy that she'd desisted, and simply held him and kissed him until he relaxed once more.

Finding anything out about the Blyers had proved frustrating. Day after day, Newsie scoured the Internet, poring through court records, property records, marriage and death records, even police files which a friend at KRAK had quietly given him a source for, all to little avail. The two Blyer sisters had married (or pretended to) here in the city back in the '40s, and Ethel had listed her state of birth as Wisconsin, but he had no idea what city or even which county to search in for a Wilfred or a Chester Blyer. Apparently that state was chock-full of Blyers, and he discovered listings for no less than a dozen Chesters…three of whom had fathers named Wilfred. For all Newsie knew, he might be related to all of them! He'd tried contacting each of them by email, ferreting out their online addresses, but received no replies. Phone queries had followed, but none of the people he spoke to knew anything about sisters named Ethel or Florabeth. Unfortunately, the remaining Chester Blyers he'd found listings for didn't have parents named; perhaps the records were sketchy? He had no idea what year his cousin was born, and the Chesters ranged from quite a bit older than him to Gina's age. He had no idea at this point how professional family researchers kept their patience in the face of missing or inaccurate records, unhelpful county registrars, or surly people assuming he was a telemarketer and hanging up on him repeatedly.

Newsie shut his eyes as directed, felt the smooth surface of the top card under his spread fingers, and thought about his mysterious cousin. Will I find him? Is he still living? Does he know I exist? Newsie wondered. He frowned. What if his cousin didn't want to be found? What if he was some sort of black sheep? Well, figuratively, of course; he doubted any of his conservative family would have married a sheep. What if Chester was in trouble? What if he really hated the name Chester, and had changed it, and vanished from the records? What if he was in the Muppet witness protection program, hiding out from monsters? Newsie had been lucky enough to interview one such unfortunate soul, during an investigative report on those brave Muppets who dared defy the monster racketeers who ruled the Lower East Side back in the '70s…

"Newsie. You're jumping all over. Focus on one question," Gina cautioned him, and he opened his eyes, surprised.

"How…how do you know that?" he asked.

She sighed gently, smiling at him. "Because I know you. Settle down, All-Querying Journalist, and focus." He nodded, abashed, and she giggled. "Besides…you scrunch your eyebrows all cute when you're thinking. Makes it pretty obvious."

"Hmf," Newsie snorted, but closed his eyes again and tried to keep his thoughts centered on one question: Will I find my cousin?

After a silent moment, Gina said, "Okay…now shuffle the cards until you feel like they're where they need to be."

He blinked at her, puzzled. "How will I know that?"

"Trust me. Just let yourself…drift a little. Keep thinking your question, and shuffle the deck."

Trying to set aside his skepticism, the Newsman did as she instructed. Oddly, after a minute of randomly moving the cards around on the table (he'd never been any good at standard card-shuffling, and had been chastised the time his mother had reluctantly made him sit in for an absent player at one of her bridge games and he scattered the deck all over the carpet), he stopped, staring at the loose pile of cards. "Uh…there?"

Gina looked askance at the mess. "Okay…interesting method." Before he could decide whether to retort, she continued, "Now pick three cards off the top."

He did so, and when he shot her an uncertain look, she directed, "Turn them over, one by one."

The first card depicted a man in heavy armor astride an equally well-defended horse, riding at an obviously slow pace while holding a small, fat pumpkin. The man and his steed moved without light into a dark landscape. Gina nodded. "Well, that's definitely you! Knight of Pumpkins…he's steady, dogged, cautious, weighs things carefully but never gives up. A knight of great integrity and determination." She smiled at Newsie; he blushed, smiled back, and turned over the second card. This one looked more disturbing: a hapless man was strapped to a revolving wheel with odd symbols and laughing skulls painted upon it, and apparently knives were being thrown at him as though he was the victim of a carnival act; some already stuck out of the wheel around his body, and he appeared deeply upset about the whole arrangement. Newsie looked worriedly up at Gina. She shook her head. "Don't panic; it's not necessarily bad. The Wheel of Fortune just means a reversal. You've had no luck so far finding your cousin, so maybe this means that luck will turn for the better!" Swallowing back his discomfort, Newsie turned over the third card. Gina paused.

"What…what is it?" Newsie asked, looking from the card to her. A greedy bully on the card, dressed vaguely like a masked bandit, stood on a hill with a hoard of Halloween candy in his arms and at his feet, while in the distance costumed trick-or-treaters stood sad and candyless. A moon-face above seemed to disapprove, and five bats watched nearby.

Gina sighed. "Newsie…you can't take this stuff too seriously. Remember that."

"But what does it mean?" he insisted.

"Well…this is a card about humiliation, about someone being really cruel and unfair. Since I know that's not your style at all, this is about what will be done to you."

"To me? But my question was whether I'd find my cousin!"

"Yes…but the first card is definitely you. Knights are harbingers and fighters and defenders, and you do all that every day in your news job, my brave reporter. Add in the qualities of this particular knight…this is you, Newsie, not your cousin, unless he's just like you, which I doubt." She stroked his nose with one soft fingertip. "There's only one you!"

"But…a change of fortune, and a humiliation?"

"Well," she sighed, leaning forward to place all three cards in a row, studying them, "taken all together, this means you're going to run into some worse difficulty in trying to find your cousin than you've encountered already, and someone is going to block you by putting you through something mean, or bullying you. This last card could represent a person who will stand in the way of your search." She stared at the cards a second more, then swept them all into the pile again, mixing them up. Newsie gave her a hurt, confused look. She took his hands in her own. "Newsie, don't put too much stock in this, please! It's not an exact science, you know."

He swallowed, steadied himself, and took a deep breath. "Do it again."

"Newsie…"

"Please. Do it again." He stared hopefully at her. "If…if the reading was accurate, it should come up again the same, right?"

"No, because now you're just focused on the negative things," Gina argued. Shaking her head, she gathered the cards up and tucked them into a large pouch sewn of autumn-colored strips of silk. "I think that's enough. You're taking this way too seriously."

"But –"

"No buts! Unless you're offering me yours," she said, trying to lighten the mood.

Unpersuaded, the Newsman tried again. "Gina, if those are even remotely right, I need to know more!"

"Aloysius…no." Gina kissed him; he responded reluctantly. "You always need to know more; that's your nature, I get it and I love that about you…but Tarot cards aren't guaranteed predictors! I wouldn't have agreed to do this with you if I'd known you were going to get upset over it," she scolded, though gently. Seeing his disappointed expression, she tousled his hair and smiled. "Now come on. If you're done with your coffee, I could use some help in the shower."

He wasn't done, and he still wanted to find out what was meant by a turn for the worse and a cruel humiliation, but his lovely Gypsy taking him by the hand and coaxing him toward the bathroom, with many teasing kisses, made him give in and set aside his worries for the time being. Once under the steaming water with her, she did something else to help him turn his attention to more positive things…but later, as he dressed for work, the Newsman wondered what was in store for him, and just how much he could safely dismiss the dire warning explicit in his cards.

The knocking persisted at the back door. Exasperated, Kermit yelled, "Can someone get that?" He was poring through scattered papers, comparing the shooting schedule for the next movie side-by-side with the theatre's running calendar, trying to figure out which weeks to do what, and how much time to spend in L.A. as opposed to the old stage still going strong in New York. He'd arrived early and tried to have a go at this stuff before his trusty assistant even came in, and was regretting it. Scooter's so much better at figuring this ridiculous nonsense out, Kermit realized. His spirits perked at the sound of the voice coming to his rescue.

"I got it, Chief!" the gofer called as he hurried up from the deserted house seats. He plopped a full-sounding bag with the Donuts á la Snowth pink logo emblazoned on it onto Kermit's desk as he trotted past, and Kermit gratefully inhaled the scent of cinnamon donuts and hot caramel-apple coffee wafting from the bag. As he abandoned the schedules to dig into the perfect autumn breakfast, he heard Scooter talking with someone: "Uh, well, is that really such an issue?... Well, okay…yeah, I guess you can come in…"

Kermit frowned. What now? A fast mental assessment didn't pinpoint what the grievance might be: their power and water bills were paid up; since the renovation of the theatre earlier this year the neighboring tenants hadn't complained so much about the giant spiders or late-night marauding Java worms in the alley's garbage bins; and he'd talked Gonzo out of performing his next act "in the glorious bare felt!" in a futile attempt to woo Camilla back. He turned to see Scooter leading two very dour-looking Whatnots up the back stairs. "Hey, boss? These guys want to talk to you," Scooter said.

"Uh, yes? Can I help you?" Kermit wondered. Both the dull Muppets, he noticed, were dressed almost identically in grey suits and ties, and possessed unoriginal features: one was balding, blue, and had a round grey nose, and the other tall, orange with blue hair, and heavy-lidded. Bland and Blander, he thought.

"You must be Mr the Frog," the orange gent said in a dull, nasal voice.

"That's right," Kermit said, nodding perplexedly.

"We are…" the blue gent began, but Kermit impatiently interrupted.

"Bland and Blander, attorneys at law. Yeah, I've seen your commercials," he said. "Uh, what does a law firm want with us? Did Crazy Harry get caught by Homeland Security again?"

"Er…no. Mr the Frog, we're here on behalf of the Muppet Anti-Discrimination League. Every year, we donate our services to this noble cause, and it came to our attention…" began one of them.

"That you have not heretofore contributed to the fund, and we'd like to formally invite you and your colleagues to do so," the other finished smoothly. Kermit briefly wondered how they told each other apart; even with the differing felt colors, they seemed somehow twins.

"Anti-Discrimination? Why, are people enacting Jim Crow laws against Muppets?" Kermit asked.

The lawyers exchanged a glance. "Who is this Jim Crow? Why does he persecute Muppets?" one asked.

"I think what my boss is saying is, we didn't realize there was any discrimination against us," Scooter jumped in, suppressing a smile. "We've always been treated pretty well here. People love us!"

"Ah, then you are clearly not aware of the struggles many Muppets go through every day, simply to be recognized as equals by the non-felted!"

"And the non-furred," the other lawyer added, and they both nodded sagely.

"Er…no, not that I've ever heard of," Kermit said. "Look, what exactly is it you guys want?"

Bland – or maybe Blander – pulled what looked like a legal summons from inside his coat; Kermit blanched, and Scooter almost moved to intercept it, but the paper was slapped upon the desk with an air of absolute finality. "Then of course you'll want to join us this year and help raise community awareness of Muppets! This is the flyer for the charity walk; we'll send round a courier with the actual sign-up forms later, of course."

"Community awareness?" Kermit repeated, annoyed. "Listen, I doubt there's anyone in the country, much less this city, who doesn't know who we are, and most of 'em love us! I think you guys have the wrong impre—"

"Just give us an estimate of how many of your employees will be participating, and start gathering your sponsors for the walk," Blander said.

"We'll be in touch," Bland added, and the two of them reversed and marched out in perfect step with one another. Scooter and Kermit stared after them, then looked at each other.

"What the hey?" Kermit sighed.

Scooter picked up the flyer gamely. "A charity walk? Sounds pretty tame." He frowned at his boss. "Kinda weird insisting we're victims of discrimination, though."

"Well, whatever. I guess their hearts are in the right place even if their brains seem to be late," the frog sighed, turning back to the mess of calendars and location lists. "Scooter, we need to figure out which weeks we can sandwich in filming, with all the holiday shows coming up…"

"Ya know," Scooter mused, studying the flyer more carefully, "This isn't a bad idea."

"Giving to a charity with no actual purpose is a good idea?" Kermit snorted. "For all we know, those guys are just lining their own designer pockets!"

"Maybe…but look: the walk is on Halloween, through a 'haunted-house' setup, and it's going to be televised live!" Seeing that his boss didn't quite grasp the advantage yet, Scooter continued, "The next movie is supposed to be a comedy-horror flick…"

"And we could plug it by tromping through a spookhouse on Halloween? Hmm," Kermit said, thinking.

"There's sure to be a press junket about it," Scooter offered. "And we could all show up in matching t-shirts, advertising the film."

"We haven't even started shooting it yet!"

"But we're targeting the release date for next Halloween, remember? People associate that sort of thing pretty well, and maybe we'll excite some interest with the spook-movie fans as well as our regular base!" Scooter pulled out a donut and took a large bite of it, chewing while Kermit chewed on the idea. "Plus, I bet the studio will be more willing to negotiate the budget with up-front buzz already out…"

Kermit grinned. "Okay, okay, sold." He dunked his own donut, with spiced mayfly icing, into his coffee and chomped it contentedly. "So, what exactly do we have to do?"

Scooter tapped the paper the lawyers had left. "Looks pretty standard. Any of us who want to join in can; we just each need to get sponsors to pay into the charity fund for doing the walk. I guess they thought a Halloween theme might draw more interest at this time of year. It's more original than the usual call-us-to-pledge thing, anyway…"

Kermit snickered. "Then it's a sure bet those two didn't come up with it!"

Scooter laughed. "No kidding!" He set the flyer aside. "I'll see to posting the signup stuff when it arrives. Now…what did you want to do about the shooting schedule?"

Kermit sighed, and handed over the mess. Yet again, his assistant was here to save the day.

The bedraggled show host waited at the back of the cell while the monster tossed a bent metal bowl of plain oatmeal through the bars, snarling at him. Snookie had learned years ago not to protest, argue, or acknowledge the monsters in any way, lest they take out their resentment at serving as cooks and jailers upon him. He sat still and silent until the monster had moved a few cells down the block, banging on bars as it went to awaken the other inmates not yet up. Snookie had no idea what time of day it was; though the monsters called it "breakfast" it might be three in the morning or four in the afternoon, for all he could tell. The cells were dark, dimly lit at all hours by strange glowing worms which crawled randomly on the ceiling. This routine was all he knew anymore: get woken up by the monsters, eat something tasteless likely left over from the tasteless dinner last night, be herded into the shower room to clean himself up (no talking to the other inmates there, at least, not where the monsters could hear you, and some of them had wicked sharp ears), get dressed in one of the several identical brown-plaid sports coats and grey pants they apparently kept around just for him, and go to the studio to film yet another mind-crashingly awful show. And then hurry to a different set for the next show. And then the next one. And so on, sometimes six or seven of them a day, and sometimes one he'd done the day before would never be repeated again; he assumed it all had to do with the ratings, but since he no longer had access to those golden figures he had no idea what the network's criteria for success were. Then back to the cell, where if he wasn't fast enough undressing they'd strip him –horror of horrors, those furry clawed hands pawing at him! – then another bowl of something tongue-numbingly dull, and mouthwash, and bed.

The monsters persisted in referring to that as "lights out," but the one time Snookie had argued that the lights never went out because there weren't any actual lights to begin with, they'd forced him to do the next episode of "Swift Wits" in the nude. He was only grateful he had a podium to stand behind. He wouldn't step out from it while the cameras were on, no matter what the ratings might be!

He sat on his flat, hard bunk and poked unhappily at the cold oatmeal. How the heck did I wind up like this? he wondered for the thousandth time. A bright childhood, a promising college career, the popular guy at all the frat parties, hired right out of school to take over "Name That Fruit: Extreme Muppet Edition" when Guy Smiley retired as host…it had all seemed so perfect! And then…and then…when the ratings tanked after the tainted-kiwi uproar, he'd been humiliated to have to accept the job as host of "Swift Wits."

And then, the stupid little show had been snapped up by this bizarre network, and everything had changed. He'd be given the wrong clues on his cue card to coax the contestants with. Or instead of a cute little puppy, an alligator would be behind the panel and team up with Carl the Big Mean Bunny to eat the contestant. Or the contestant would insist on phoning a friend, which wasn't even allowed… Any one of a boggling array of dismaying things happened to prevent anyone from actually winning the game. And Snookie discovered that his contract contained a host-imprisonment clause for as long as the game went unwon! Who knows how I missed that? I must've been so pathetically desperate for a job I'd have signed anything… Note to self: always read the fine print, he thought grimly. Gallows humor was all he had left.

"Psst! Chester!"

Irritated, Snookie glanced over at the tiny partition where his cell abutted the one to the right. Fawningham Offawump, the cringing, blobby, tuskless walrus who hosted "Beach Party Fling-O," eyed his breakfast. "Psst! Chester! You gonna eat all yours?"

"Call me that again, and you'll be wearing it," Snookie snapped. He regretted ever telling the walrus his real name, back when he was trying to make allies around here. He glanced down at the awful stuff in his bowl, then set it on the floor and shoved it toward the other cell. "Take it. Get fatter. Maybe soon I'll actually be thin enough to slip through the bars."

"Huh, huh," Offawump chortled. "Nuh, your head will always be too big."

"Shut up, will you? They'll hear," Snookie urged, but it was too late. "Gaaahh!" he choked as a thick paw shot through the bars on a ridiculously long arm, clamping around his neck.

"No get through bars!" the monster roared. It shook him like a ragdoll. Desperately he grabbed at the furry fingers, to no avail. "Bad host! Bad!"

He gasped when it finally released him. "I told him not to throw away food," Offawump simpered, but the monster only glared at him before lumbering off again.

Furious, Snookie picked himself off the floor, not bothering to dust off his shorts and dirty grey t-shirt. He waited until all noise on the block died down, and when he was sure the guards were elsewhere, he sidled closer to the placidly chewing walrus and hissed at him, "They're only letting you do that so they can make sure you're as fat as possible when they roast you."

The walrus paused, shooting him a fearful stare. Yellow eyes narrowed, and the walrus shook his head. "You're making that up, Chester! Nah, nah, Chester, Chester, Chesssster!" it taunted, but Snookie was too angry to lose control now.

"I overheard them talking about it yesterday. It'll be called 'Beach Party Blubber Pit,' and they want me to host it," he improvised, forcing himself to whisper. He saw the walrus' whiskers stiffen, and threw home a final jab: "I didn't want to betray a friend like that, but now I think I'll volunteer!"
"You…you wouldn't!" Offawump said. He stared in fright at the grimly satisfied game show host; Snookie turned away, ignoring the walrus, and grabbed a glow-worm, holding it over the tiny plastic mirror in the corner of his cell so he could see to smooth down his sleek black hair. "Uh…uh…we're friends, right? I mean, uh, here! You can have your grits back!"

"Those were grits?" Snookie grimaced, but still wouldn't face the walrus. He rubbed a broad, yellow-golden hand over his small chin. Hard to tell if he needed a shave or not.

"I was just kiddin'! Oh, come on, Ches—Snookie! I mean Snookie!"

Snookie Blyer took what slight satisfaction he could from the sniveling going on behind him. Frog knows, small and hopelessly empty victories are all we get down here, he thought.

Sighing, he sat on his bunk and waited for the monsters to come get him. Time to start the day. Whatever "day" meant anymore.