Read Merryll Manning Is Dead Lucky Online

Authors: Johm Howard Reid

Merryll Manning Is Dead Lucky (2 page)

    “I sincerely hope so! Sincerely!” returned Mr. Varnie.

    “When he can actually hear the audience, don’t you think?”

    Mr. Varnie – a man who had obviously no use for women – ignored her.

    “Continue, please!” ordered the mike.

    It was hard to share the M.C.’s enthusiasm for this dialogue garbage, chalked up in such commanding letters on the cue cards, but for a chance at $80,000, a man will do almost anything.

    “Catch any bank robbers?”

    “Embezzlers…”

    “Who put that line in?” asked the loud-speaker – but it wasn’t Bingo, the floor manager. I was looking right at him and he hadn’t so much as winced. Presumably the voice was that of the producer. But where he was and who he was, I hadn’t the faintest idea.

    “I asked to change it,” I offered the unknown.

    “No changes allowed!” propounded the natty Mr. Varnie. “Read the script as written, if you please!
If
you please!”

    “Any bank robbers?” Sedge repeated.

    “Some big shots.”

    The M.C.’s smile faded. “I should say that line! Just me!”

    “No! The cue card says
Manning
!” I objected.

    “Okay, Sedge. Your line it is,” conceded our unseen producer.

    That made me mad!
No changes allowed!
“Then what do I say?” I yelled.

   
“You say,
yes
.”

    “Catch any bank robbers? Any big shots?” The M.C.’s smirk seemed to have an added zest.

    “Yes.”

    “Welcome to
Strike a Fortune in Fifty-One States and Worldwide Districts
, Merryll Manning! And what part of our wonderful states or worldwide districts are we going to have a shot at tonight?”

    “
We
are going to Hollywood,” I improvised. (The chalked cue-card merely answered
Hollywood
). 

    “Remember to wait for the laugh!” boomed the loudspeaker.

    “If I hear any laughing,” I started to say, but the floor manager drowned out my reply with another blast from his mike: “Okay, he’s the last one. Test the lights!”

    “Hold it, Bingo!” Sedge barked. “Our just too delightful sponsor has changed his copy yet again!”

    Groans all around!

    “Okay, Sedge. Testing the timing. Stop watch: Go!”

   “Tunning’s Totally Tempting Travel Tour Tickets can give you the best time of a lifetime at Mount Placid Fulsome Falls Holiday Home Reserve, Idaho! For neat, well contained comfort at an amazingly low price, you can’t beat Mount Placid Fulsome Falls Holiday Home Reserve, Idaho! Neat, well-contained comfort at an amazingly low price with Tunning’s Totally Tempting Travel Tour Tickets! Mount Placid Fulsome Falls Holiday Home Reserve, Idaho! Just one of the one eight three magnificent locations you can access with Tunning’s Totally Tempting Travel Tour Tickets.”

    Suddenly the big arc lamps around the set began alarmingly flashing on and off. “What’s up?” I asked.

    The floor manager gave me a pitying look. “Relax, relax! Testing the panic button, that’s all. It’s the producer’s signal to stop the take. Nothing to be afraid of!”

    “Who’s afraid?” I yelled back. “Not me!”

    For once I was glad of my quick temper. That yell had restored a lot of self-confidence. In fact, when I entered the station’s canteen, I actually felt I could eat a sandwich or two – though maybe it was just as well the luncheon fare didn’t run to anything more exotic.

     In point of fact, the canteen was surprisingly poor and shabby, and its facilities pretty basic. Yet, despite its lack of both visual and culinary delights, the place was nevertheless packed with technicians and backroom people. Even a well-behind-in-the ratings TV studio like Kenovarnie’s employs an enormous staff.

    Anyway, there I was, balancing a miniature jug of milk on top of a foil-wrapped salad sandwich in one hand and a carton of coffee in the other, while I searched vainly for an empty chair, when I spotted the floor manager waving at me. Not again! No further reminders about waiting for laughs, thank you; but his table seemed to harbor the only empty chair in the place, and people were piling up behind me.

    “They treating you well, Merry? I don’t think you got my name: Brian Frobisher.”

    “I thought it was Bingo.”

    “Just an inside joke.” He extended his hand. Without his mike, he was surprisingly friendly. “First show?”

    “Never been on TV before, if that’s what you mean. Though I’ve sure watched plenty in the past couple of months.”

    “We’re always on the lookout for contestants with unusual occupations. Never had a retired cop before. So, bingo! This could be your lucky day.”

    “I’m not exactly retired. I left the force because I thought there would be more money and more excitement – plus much less paperwork – as a private dick. I was wrong.”

    “Maybe not wrong. Maybe just a little ahead of yourself?”

    “Meaning?”

    “Mr. Kent’s looking for a full-time security officer,” Frobisher offered.

    “Mr. Kent?”

    “The important half of Art Kent and Oscar Varnie, who own this studio. Mr. Kent wants to hire a full-time, senior security officer. So why not you? Bingo!”

    I smiled. “I’m not Bingo – you are! But opening and closing gates, making sure no fan or would-be contestant gains admittance without a portfolio of credentials, and – above all – that no clown parks his vehicle in Mr. Kent’s or Mr. Varnie’s space – that’s not my game at all. Thanks for the offer, but no thank you!”

    “We’ve got plenty of bread-and-butter security already. What we need is someone to crack down on this sort of worry.”

    Bingo Frobisher reached into his pocket.

    “Not a threatening letter?” I exclaimed.

    “How’d you guess?”

    “It’s a trade secret. Let’s see the letter anyway.”

    “A card actually.”

    Bingo Frobisher was right. One of those 2x3 file cards you can buy at any stationers.

   
WARNING!You will lose more than a fortune if you go to air to-night. .

    “You’re not taking this nonsense seriously?” I asked.

    Bingo nodded.

    “Green ink?” I queried.

    “Bingo!”

    “I’m not color blind! I can see the green ink. I want to know if it rings any bells. For example, do you use green ink to mark your scripts?”

    “No. But you saw it – green’s the light we use on the set to indicate which camera is turning.”

    “So Sedge knows which way he has to face! Yes, I got all that. How was the envelope actually addressed?”

    “No envelope. It was in the same bag as all my other mail.”

    “That confirms my opinion that it was either a crank or a joke from some employee. Your mailbag has a name tag?”

    “Bingo.”

    I wasn’t sure if this was a “yes”, or if “Bingo” itself was the tag. But I pressed ahead anyway: “Anyone else receive a card?”

    “Not that I know of. But the public has access to the bags. They’re kept just inside the entrance.”

    “The bags have name tags, you say. So why would someone single out your bag? You’re not the star!”

    “Search me!”

    “As I said, a fellow employee. Who else knows the names of floor managers?”

    “It’s on the credits at the end of the show. Prominently!” Frobisher pointed out.

    “Who reads credits?” I asked.

    “A good percentage of our listeners, Mr. Manning!”

    “Listeners?”

    “I meant viewers.”

    “I take it your background is in radio, Mr. Frobisher?”

    “Call me, ‘Bingo’. Everyone else does. I’ve been in TV fifteen years now. Hard to shake off all the old vocabulary.”

    “Getting back to your little warning card, you neatly dodged my question. Did you
ask
around if anyone else received one?”

    “Maybe we all got one?” Bingo Frobisher pondered. “I didn’t ask around. I just kept it to myself. Until now.”

    “So
ask around
then! Where are all the others anyway? I don’t see Sedge or Miss Williams or Miss Jackson or the producer or anybody else from the crew – except you.”

    “They’ve got a meeting on just now. On the set. Look, you’re a professional. Come and talk to us.”

    “So this wasn’t sheer chance. You deliberately kept this chair vacant for me. Why?”

    “Isn’t it obvious? Come and talk to us. Bring your sandwich with you.”

    “It’s not worth the trouble. And didn’t you just tell me  nobody else received any cards but you?”

    “I minimized.”

    “So, who else do you suppose?”

    “I’d say Sedge and Mr. Varnie, for certain. Others, I’d have to ask around. Most people just throw stuff like this away!”

    “I suggest you do the same.”

    “That’s what I did last week. And the week before. And the week before that! Now I’m worried. Really worried. At first, I thought it was the work of some druggie or brain-dead related saphead, but I actually saw Sedge fingering a similar card this morning – or at least it looked like a similar card.”

    “A practical joke?” I suggested.

    “So I asked Sedge to show me his card, but he said it was none of my business. So I showed him my card. And bingo! Then he told me that Mr. Varnie, Trev Lynn and Monty Fairmont also had similar cards. And so did Miss Williams.”

    “Why didn’t you tell me all this at first?”

    “I wanted to size you up. Measure your credentials.” He glanced at his watch. “We’ve got a meeting on now. On the set. Look, you’re a professional. Come and talk to us.”

    I was all set to give him my “Thanks, but no thanks!” routine, but then I thought,
Why not?
Getting another feel of the set and the personnel would certainly give me more confidence. Not only did I have to correctly answer nearly all the questions in my own preliminary round, I then had to knock out five other contestants as well. The climax was a free-for-all in which those who were still in the running could answer any questions that were shot at the group. Whoever got the most correct answers within a certain time limit, not only won the $8,000 for the night, but was automatically in the running for the $80,000 final round. True, $8,000 would solve my immediate financial problems, but who’s going to knock back a chance at that final, easy-street jackpot?

    “I’ll be along in five or ten minutes,” I replied.

    “You know the way back to the set?”

    “You never hear of conscription?” I asked. “It’s nice to live in a time of selective service, but when I was a young man, a stint in one of the armed forces was compulsory. If I can find my way through deserts and jungles, I reckon a couple of corridors and a few flights of stairs won’t detain me.”

    He stood up. “I’ll tell the others to expect you.”

    Before Frobisher could move away, I leaned in close and whispered, “You see that old warrior over there with the ugly bald head, all sun-burnt and wrinkled?”

    “Don’t worry! Make-up will soon take care of him.”

    “I was going to ask if you knew him, but it seems you’ve answered that question. But just to confirm – he’s one of this afternoon’s contestants, isn’t he?”

    “What’s it to you?”

    “I think I know the clown, that’s all. Is his name, Carmichael Dune-Harrigan?”

    Bingo! The floor manager allowed himself a brief nod of confirmation before he hurried off.

    Carmichael Dune-Harrigan, formerly professor of antiquities at Linneth Scott Keene University, Texas. Probably now retired – for at least ten or twenty years. I remembered the bastard well. In fact, that’s putting it mildly. The old ex-professor was a relic, left over from the bad old days of the 1970s when the professional Egyptologist was only ten per cent scholar but            ninety per cent pirate. And of all the plunderers who raided the valleys of the Nile during the reigns of the puppet kings, few were more feared than Dune-Harrigan. His quick temper and prodigious strength, allied with his reckless disregard for both personal and group safety, were legendary. And I had personal experience of his mercurial temper and powerful fists. He was the main reason I escaped from L.S.K. Uni, hitch-hiked all over the south-east, ended up in Miami and joined the police force!

    And hell! Dune-Harrigan wasn’t just an expert, he was a walking textbook on Ancient Egypt. One consolation though – he didn’t know a bar about movies. Wouldn’t know John Wayne from Charlie Chaplin!

    At least I wasn’t afraid of him any more. I elbowed my way over to his table and clapped him on the shoulder. “
Come sta, professore?
” I asked, using Italian to needle him.

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