Hugh Huffman was a round little man resembling a billiard ball with eyebrows. If you were affluent enough to be in his presence, an experience reserved exclusively for blockbuster churning actors, directors, and fellow producers, you would swear the same because of his single color suits. On Tuesdays, like today, he was the nine ball. A shiny orange suit jacket was wrapped around his rotund figure with an ivory dress shirt and ivory slacks.
This Tuesday was special. Mister Huffman was throwing a party for the cast and crew of “Apple Annie Goes to Paris”, the twenty-eighth movie in the most profitable children’s movie franchise in history.
The long hall leading from the ballroom to his private office was carpeted in red, the walls lined with framed movie posters for each of the Apple Annie movies.
Mister Huffman closed the door behind his guest, an attractive olive-skinned brunette dressed in a gray business suit. Her small oval-lensed glasses hung low on her nose making them more of a fashion statement than practical.
“Miss Parsons, please follow me,” he said cheerily, jaunting down the corridor. Two steps later he stopped midsentence, realizing that he had lost her attention. She stared over her glasses at the first poster.
“Apple Annie Goes to the Zoo,” she cast a glance at the chain of movie posters citing each of his accomplishments. She followed the carpet, taking care to study each poster individually. “Twenty-eight years of accomplishment. Mister Huffman, you amaze me.”
“Twenty-nine years of accomplishment, dear,” he corrected her like she had sullied his reputation. They came across a string of empty frames on the wall, waiting to be decorated as more movies were churned out of Apple Annie and her adventures. “One day these walls may be decorated with posters from a partnership with Fire & Light Studios.”
“Of course, but you know what amazes me the most about your twenty-nine years of movies?”
He held the door open for her, “And what is that?”
“Apple Annie hasn’t changed in the slightest since her first movie. Twenty-nine years and that little girl of yours looks the same as the day she first graced the silver screen.”
Huffman was at the standing bar across the office. The lights shone through the shelves of amber bottles. He lifted a crystal decanter in the air, filled with a reddish brandy. A tumbler was in his other hand containing a single ice cube.
Miss Parsons politely declined, placing her red crocodile handbag beside her chair. He looked in the mirrored back of the bar and used his hand to comb over the few strands of hair he had. He swished the ice in his brandy around as he sauntered to his red leather chair.
“You aren’t the first to ask about Annie,” he sipped his glass, balancing it on his stomach with both hands as he leaned back. “The miracles we can achieve today with makeup and CG still surprise me. Twenty-nine years and the talent our special effects crew has makes me feel like I’m ten years old again.” He strummed his stomach, taking another sip. He cocked his balding head to the side. “Tell me. What is Fire & Light’s interest in the next Annie movie?”
She smiled sweetly, crossing her legs.
“We are not interested in the franchise, Mister Huffman. We’re interested in Annie.”
“Makeup and pixels. We stopped using a real actress years ago.”
“When I commented that Annie looked the same in all of the pictures I was giving you a chance to come clean,” she reached down into her handbag. Huffman sighed in relief when all she pulled out was a manila envelope. She began unwinding the red tie on the back. “Twenty-nine years and Annie is the exact same little girl in every movie. The same blemish behind her ear. The same lips. The same eyes. You can never fake the eyes. We are interested in Annie.”
She tossed the open envelope on his desk. Several pictures of the actress who played Annie slid out, along with other legal documentation.
Huffman dragged a picture across the desk with his finger.
“My niece played Annie, back when we made Apple Annie Goes to the Zoo. She continued playing the role for two sequels, then she was growing too fast to keep up the franchise. This girl,” he tapped the picture with a chubby index finger, “is my niece. She’s thirty-seven years old, and is overseas doing humanitarian work. We still talk. I have the letters she’s written me.”
Miss Parsons leaned over the desk, pushing the picture closer to him, brow furrowed in anger. “Victoria.”
“Her name is Victoria, and she’s not your niece,” she bared her teeth. “These pictures were taken while filming in Paris. All of the cast and crew are denying all knowledge due to NDAs signed in triplicate.”
She jabbed the picture in emphasis. “This little girl is your prisoner, Mister Huffman. You use her to make you money, and you keep her locked here in your estate. I’m ordering you to release the girl.”
Huffman produced a small caliber pistol.
“I don’t believe you work for Fire & Light, Miss Parsons. Who do you work for?”
Before he could react, she was twisting the gun out of his hand. It went off, ricocheting and shattering the crystal decanter in his private bar. Brandy ran down the mirror and onto the carpet. Huffman screamed, nursing his bruised fingers.
He now was staring down the barrel of his own gun.
“Bring me to Victoria you disgusting prick.”
She ushered him back down the hall of Apple Annie posters to the large mahogany doors to the ballroom. The thump and thud of the music could be heard above the din of the guests. She jabbed him in the ribs.
“Try escaping. Try calling for help. I dare you.”
They entered the ballroom arm in arm, gun tucked below her left elbow, jabbing him in the ribs as they descended the stairs into the writhing crowd below.
When he tried pulling away amidst the tightly packed tables and chairs she pulled him closer, forcing him to lead her into the main hall. Before they could reach the door he was spun around by a drunken actor, Evan Penworth, who played the snooty humorless street artist little Apple Annie taught to love in the recent movie. Altogether he wasn’t a bad person, but tonight he had definitely proven the tabloids right about his excessive abuse of alcohol.
“Huffman!” the actor shouted in his face, assaulting them with a cloud of booze and spit. Three young women were hanging off of him. “What a pah-tay!”
“Evan,” he was quick to grab the drunk actor’s hand to shake it. “I’m glad you like it.”
“Come! You must dance with us,” he was swaying so comically it was obvious the girls were the ones keeping him on his feet. He blew a kiss up in the blonde’s face, giggling. “This one here is named Minx… like the rodent. She wants to dance with you.”
He jabbed a finger in Huffman’s chest. On a typical night he’d order a cab and lock the man out of his estate, but he was thankful the actor was pulling him away.
“Evan I would love to—”
Miss Parsons yanked Huffman back toward her, pressing her body against his and her finger across the drunk’s lips. She drew hers close to his.
“I’m afraid Mister Huffman and I have a date,” she cooed, finishing with, “It’s a matter of life and death.”
Evan looked hypnotized. His lips spread into a toothy grin against her slender finger. As she removed it he giggled like a schoolboy.
“Huff you dog!”
They left him behind with his floozies and found silence in the hall. She threw him forward, tumbling, rolling to his knees. The little girl’s life was at stake and this squirrely director was trying his best to hold onto his prize.
“What did I say?” she scowled, kicking him in his buttocks. “Get your ass up and bring me to Victoria.”
He led her to a triple-locked door. Sweat beaded and ran down his bald head, soaking his shirt, as he fumbled with his keys. She pushed him into the door impatiently.
Finally a key fit.
He opened the door revealing a long staircase leading deeper into the basement. Miss Parsons took a couple steps closer, looking down the weathered wooden stairs. They were crooked, and the green paint had begun wearing off.
“You keep her chained up down there?”
Huffman pushed her forward, and she grabbed the railing. The long wooden bar tore out of the wall as she tumbled head over heels twenty-one stairs to the dusty cement foundation below. The door locked behind her.
The white linen handkerchief was sopping with sweat after one pass across his face. Breathing loudly, he snorted and pulled out his phone.
“This is Huffman… yes and yes… I need you to clean something up for me. She’s armed.”
“Are you okay?”
Her ribs felt bruised, if not cracked. Her lips and eye were swollen. The sharp pains in her nose made her cross-eyed. Weak, she felt her face which was tenderer than it was numb. Cupping her stomach, she got to her knees, breathing past the aggravated injuries.
Apple Annie was staring back at her, dressed in a frilly pink dress. Her hair was tied in little brown braids with pick bows.
“Victoria?” she wheezed, only to have a cup of tea shoved in her hand.
“Please, drink. That tumble looked simply awful.” But Miss Parsons didn’t respond immediately. She forced the tea closer to her lips. “It’ll take the edge off. It did for the last person who tried to save me.”
The basement was a fair size, and done up to look like a little girl’s paradise. Murals of cartoon horses were painted across the walls. There was a round table small enough for the little girl to sit at with her stuffed animals: a dragon, a beagle, and a tiger all sitting down for tea. A small door led to her bedroom, where a frilly princess sheets and comforter showed an even greater love for horses.
“How do you know I’ve come to save you?”
“Because every time someone comes to save me they end up down here,” she said grimly. “And they’re killed in front of me to remind me of what will happen if I try to escape.”
Victoria skipped back to the table, and pulled out a chair for her guest.
“Come. Sit down and enjoy your tea like we’re ladies,” she patted the green dragon stuffed animal on the head. “Don’t worry about Bosworth. He doesn’t bite.”
She was to her feet, climbing over the broken railing on the stairs. The lock was solid. The doorknob wouldn’t budge. Victoria shouted from below.
“Please come have tea with me, Miss. It usually doesn’t take Gunther more than an hour to get here. Much to your benefit he makes it quick.”
“Nobody is killing me, or you. I’ve come here to save you and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Back at the bottom of the stairs, little Victoria was sipping her tea. The dire situation had played itself through so many times in the movie producer’s favor that she saw no use in resisting the inevitable demise of her guest.
The gun was at Miss Parsons’ feet. She cried out. Her wrist had twisted on her tumble down the stairs, and now she couldn’t hold the gun. Her left hand was almost as useless.
“Tell me, Victoria. How old are you?” she asked, taking a seat in the tiny plastic chair.
She lowered her cup of tea carefully, and swallowed hard. Her eyes looked suddenly out of place. Full of too many years of wisdom and too many years of experience.
“I’ve been eight years old for twenty-nine and a half years.”
“I’ve been twenty-seven for two-hundred-seventeen years,” Miss Parsons told her. “You and me? We’re the same. Gunther? Huffman? I won’t let either of them kill us. People like us have to look out for one another.”
The latch withdrew, and the door creaked open. The menacing shadow of Gunther cast itself against the stairwell, gun drawn. Gun leading the way, his gaunt figure entered through the doorway.
He wore a black suit with a black shirt and black tie. The only thing shinier than his carefully polished boots was his pale bald head, a ghostly visage with thin red lips and reptilian eyes.
At the bottom of the stairs he looked around, expecting to be shot at. Instead, there was Victoria having tea with her stupid stuffed animals.
“Where is she, little girl?”
“She left,” Victoria explained, holding up her teapot. “Care to join me?”
His cold sunken eyes scanned the basement room for signs of the intruder. Huffman was very specific, stating that she had a gun. A low guttural sound emanated from his throat as he produced a pair of handcuffs.
“You know the drill,” he approached the small table. Victoria already bared her wrists. He always bound her as he searched for his target.
“Please, Gunther. I won’t try to escape. Please don’t make me watch like with the others.”
A moment’s hesitation, then heard the quickening of footsteps. Turning, he took a shoulder in his stomach. Gunther slapped Miss Parsons across the face with his pistol, but was toppled over crushing the table surrounded by stuffed animals. Victoria shattered her ceramic teapot across his face.
Screaming, he writhed on the floor. The tea scalded his face and eyes as he clawed at his face. Miss Parsons kicked him in the head, knocking him unconscious.
Before exiting the basement they left him handcuffed to the radiator. The gun was unwieldy in her left hand, but it was the only hand she could hold it in. Miss Parsons kept Victoria close behind her as they stepped over the splintered railing, and ascended the stairs to freedom.
She wiped a tear seeping out of her swollen eye. She peered around the corner toward the party, then heard the click of a hammer being drawn back.
“Nobody ever gets the drop on Gunther,” Huffman was holding his weapon on her. “Victoria, go back downstairs.”
“No!” Parsons shouted, grabbing Victoria’s hand. “She’s going with me. You’re freeing this little girl.”
Huffman clicked his tongue, “I’ll make fifty Apple Annie movies by the time I’m through with her.” His finger tightened on the trigger.
He spun his head around only to be clocked in the jaw by Evan Penworth. One of his escorts kicked the gun out of his hand as he slid to the floor.
Evan shook his hand, sore from the impact despite the overabundance of alcohol running through his veins. He grinned sheepishly like he had done something completely ridiculous, and looked back at one of the girls.
“Minx dear? Can you show ol’ Huff how much you despise men?” When her wry smile took over he added, “Other than me, of course.”
He leaned down toward Victoria, taking her dainty little hand in his, and kissing it, “Victoria! You be sure and testify against this prick bastard. I’ll second that I never liked the nature of your relationship in the least.”
Evan led them away as his escort proceeded to beat Huff into unconsciousness. Minx was obviously well versed in the arts of physical abuse.
“Miss Parsons, you get yourself looked at. You were much more delectable in the party.”
“I really don’t know whether to be thankful or disgusted by you,” she said, but Victoria was pulling on her arm.
“He always talks like that,” she said, thanking Evan. She gave him a hug, and turned and hugged Miss Parsons. “Thank you for saving me, but that was Evan’s job.”
He smiled that embarrassed toothy schoolboy smile again.
“I’m afraid you beat me to it,” he told her, as he took out his phone to call the police. “Heck of a party wasn’t it?”