Authors: Johm Howard Reid
“How close are you to Mr. Kent, Spookie?”
“No closer that you are, sweetheart.”
“I still think he treats you with reasonable courtesy.”
“It depends on how you define ‘reasonable’. Anyway, I’m not stupid. He’s probably angling to get closer.”
“And will he?”
“Depends what he puts on the table. So far, zilch!”
I looked at her in surprise. “You’re honest, anyhow!”
“I’m honest with myself. If the price is right, just about any woman will sell herself to the highest bidder. She’ll pretend it’s love of course, but deep in her heart she knows that money talks and so-called romance is just a booby prize for the also-rans.”
“Okay, if honest answers are the flavor of the day, I’ll ask you a different one. Why did you select me as a contestant?”
“You looked like you could put on a good show – spoke well, looked reasonably photogenic, had an appealing background and above all, you radiated confidence and looked like you wouldn’t seize up in the middle of the program.”
“You took lots of notes. Where are they?”
She arched a delicate eyebrow. “You’re asking to see your own file?”
“And everybody else’s. I’m out of the contest – unofficially. I want to learn how to lose. How to not get selected, how to not make the program.”
A questioning eyebrow.
“The would-be contestants who weren’t contestants because you didn’t select them.”
“What about them?”
“What mark did you have against them? Why weren’t they selected?”
She shook her head slightly. “Various reasons: Wrong accents, poor speaking voice, facial impediments, nervous twitches, lack of poise, not particularly self-confident, or on the other hand, radiated far too much confidence…”
“Wrong sex?” I suggested.
“Male applicants outnumber women four or five to one. So I make a special effort to select women – even if they don’t have
“Good for you! Now let’s say I’m a new applicant. You’ve never seen me before. Would you take me on, or not?”
“But you selected me before?” I argued.
“That’s exactly why I’m not selecting you today. Some people try to double up. They think they can fool me with beards and make-up, different clothes, hair styles and even accents.”
“So what’s your ideal contestant?”
“Self-confident, well-spoken – but not too self-confident or too well-spoken – with no scars or obvious deformities. Good-looking teeth – either real or false – are essential. Will take baldies, but reject men’s hair that’s too long or curled, unless professional artists or musicians. Applicants should also be not too handsome, but never over-plain. Applicants must not be bad-mannered, boorish, or wear the wrong clothes. But on the other hand, they must exhibit a bit of sparkle.”
“Not too stupid, not too bright?” I suggested.
She shook her head. “No, it’s more like something that binds them to the audience. An attractive personality is what I look for! Big movie stars have it, also-rans don’t. And of course all of them must be able to talk good American English!”
“I can do that all right.”
“That’s what impressed me about you. Nerves well under control. You wouldn’t freeze up on the set.”
“An average Joe with nerves of steel?”
She shook her head. “An average-
“Preferably with an unusual occupation or some specialist hobby?”
“But why unusual?” I asked. “Why get away from the average? Isn’t it important that viewers identify with the contestant? Why not accountants and actuaries? Doctors and dentists? Firemen and farmers?”
“Firemen, I’ll take.”
I couldn’t help smiling. “Grocers and carpenters then?”
“They’re not romantic. Why do people watch TV?”
I knew the answer to that one. “To pass the time, because they’ve got stacks of even more boring things they need to do.”
“Is that why you go to the movies or watch DVDs?”
,” I insisted.
“You’re mobile, yes. What about people who can’t get out or have no money for DVDs? Who are too tired or too involved, or are simply too lazy? Where’s their share of romance, glamour, the exotic, the unusual?”
I laughed. I really couldn’t help it. Despite my best resolves, I was beginning to like Spookie Williams. She was a woman of spirit and intelligence after all, not just the walking-talking, kewpie doll she appeared at first sight.
“I’d love to continue this conversation later. But I don’t want to miss Tunning and my check for $8,000. Where do I find him?”
“You’re going to see him now?”
“Why not? The sooner I get his check – my check – into the bank, the sooner I can treat you to a dinner with all the trimmings, and we can continue this fruitful conversation.”
“I imagine he’s gone back to his office. If you’d like to wait thirty minutes, you can take me with you. My car’s in the repair shop and I need a lift.”
I smiled. “I know where I’d love to lift you, darling!” I whispered to myself.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing, dear! Nothing!”
For an outfit that was promoting $80,000 (and then some!) worth of questions, the head office of Tunning’s Totally Tempting Travel Tours was located in an extremely large but unfashionably rundown, old building in a far from travel-conscious corner of the city. A bustling if somewhat down-market market occupied the whole of the ground floor (and then some!), while a host of assorted but mostly battling small-businessmen had outlets and offices on the upper levels. Peter Tunning was installed in a poky, two-room suite (if you can call two rooms, a “suite”) on the top floor. He’d upgraded the walls a bit with familiar blow-up photos of bustling Hong Kong and romantic Honolulu, but the end result would still have been only two points short of depressing if were not for the girls – three of them operating an impressive switchboard, doubtless routing calls to and from the Totally Tempting franchises.
The door of the inner office was open, enabling Tunning to pounce on us as soon as we entered his suite. He looked as creepy as usual, even though he’d removed his coat. He was still sporting the wraparound, celebrity dark glasses.
“Mr. Manning, how you like it, eh?”
Repressing a shudder, I wrapped my arm around Spookie’s waist and held her close. For once, she raised no objection.
“Well, how you like it?”
“Interesting!” I managed to say.
“When I come to this country eighteen years ago, I have only three hundred lire in my pocket but one big idea in my head. Three hundred lire is not much, no?”
I knew but didn’t want to let on, so I nodded agreeably: “Italian money? Probably worth about ten cents, I guess”.
He laughed. “A bit more than that. But the big idea I have in my head, she is worth a million dollars.”
“You don’t say!”
The big idea of chartering his own ships and planes and packing them to the limit was not only plain as day, but had been used a hundred times before. Nevertheless, I tightened my grip around Spookie’s waist and looked into Tunning’s impenetrably sun-glassed eyes with an air of interested expectancy. But before he had a chance to re-state the obvious, Spookie spoke up: “Tunning is not an Italian name, Peter!”
He smiled and nodded his head. “Ah! That is what troubles you? Pietro Tarentino from Verona, at your service, signorina.”
“Why Tunning?” I asked.
“Have you knowledge of any other Tunnings?”
I shook my head.
“That is why! Pietro Tarentino of Verona does not like to be one of the crowd. I like to be unique.”
I released my hand from Spookie’s waist.
“We are all of us unique,” I argued. “We all of us have our own agendas – our own likes and dislikes.”
“That’s for sure!” Spookie agreed.
“And speaking of unique,” I continued, “there’s the matter of my prize money.”
“Of course. I have it ready.”
And there it was! Passed from his hand to mine: A nice check for an even nicer $8,000! I put it safely in my pocket.
To my surprise, Spookie was keen to do some shopping in the busy markets on the ground floor of the building – a diverse collection of small-time traders and battling stall-holders, selling everything from moldy cheese to almost-too-ripe fruit, from dreary, second-hand clothing cast-offs to cleverly copied Paris fashions, from two-dollar, monogrammed shopping bags to twenty-dollar wrist-watches, from pathetic, plastic toys to ungainly – but no doubt spurious – furniture antiques.
Spookie told me she’d discovered this bargain-hunter’s paradise on her very first expedition to Tunning’s office. After pointedly telling me that she didn’t want me to tag along, she promised to meet me in half-an-hour at the Nothing-Over-$2 stand, which, although it was situated right at the back of the markets, was easily recognizable by its glitteringly gigantic $2 sign on its makeshift roof.
I kept telling myself that I had a lot more important questions to ask her. I wasn’t spellbound by her obvious charms. In fact, I wasn’t falling for her at all. No, not me. I was immune to every single one of her feminine attractions. Yeah, like hell I was! Counting the seven minutes of my early arrival, she kept me waiting twenty-three minutes.
“Are we still rich?” she asked.
I patted my pocket.
“You can carry my bag.” She indicated a new, super-large, imitation leather shopping bag filled to almost overflowing with oranges.
“Planning a party?” I asked. “Where’s the gin?”
“A bargain.” She tossed her head back, sending her hair swaying. My God, she was doing something to me. “I couldn’t resist them. You may have one or two – as payment for your gallant services.”
I pulled a sour face. “I don’t like oranges.” I almost added,
Now if you were to make some other offer…
“A pity!” she answered. “That’s the only offer you’ll get!”
Could she read my thoughts?
Just a lucky guess!
“Now I want to buy a bird cage. You can help me get it home.”
“I’ll be glad when your own car’s back on the road,” I murmured softly to myself. But she heard me! Behind the blond waves of hair, her little ears were sharp. “You can leave any time you like, Mr. Manning,” she said coldly. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll manage somehow!”
“But I do worry about you,” I smartly answered. “So help me, I can’t help it!”
So I followed her like a sheep dog as she threaded her way through the crowded aisles to one of those Chinese emporiums that tempt passers-by with seemingly unguarded wicker baskets, chock full of lavishly picturesque fans, green Buddhas, assorted scarves, enticing linen-ware and embroidered slippers. She had just about pounced on her bird cage when most of the shoppers around us suddenly scurried away in pursuit of some amazing bargain just announced on the public address system. We could now see clear to the entrance gates about seventy or eighty yards away.
“Perhaps you won’t have to put yourself out after all?” she announced, as she stepped quickly towards the gates. “Gino!” she called out. “Gino!”
Just outside the gates, a leather-jacketed, shiny-helmeted youth sat astride his motorcycle. He glanced up when he heard his name, then suddenly quick-started his bike and roared off. By the time we reached the kerb, there was no sight of him.
“Not Gino after all,” I murmured.
Spookie frowned. “That was Gino all right. I know him. And he knows me. I know all his little tricks and his sleight-of-hand. He works here, and I know his bike. So it looks like you’ll still be taking me home after all.”
“That will be real nice. My guess is your Gino caught sight of me and thought to himself, ‘I’m not going to take that guy on!’ And off he went.”
Spookie’s frown turned into a smile. “He saw you all right, Merryll. He knows you. Shall I call you,
“He saw you all right, Merry. I know more about Gino than anyone on earth. You’d be surprised! But Gino is jealous – although he has no right to be.” She took hold of my left arm and twisted it around her slim waist. “Just avoid dark alleys for the next month or so.”
I was tempted to withdraw my arm, but what the hell! If she wanted to play games… I held her tight with both my hands, pressed her close to let her know how I excited I was, and kissed her passionately. She didn’t return my kiss but, on the other hand, she didn’t push me away either.