Authors: Johm Howard Reid
“Manning,” he murmured without glancing up from his milky tea. “Thirty years haven’t changed you a scrap – still the same crawling rock buzzard I had to squash underfoot.” That’s a rough translation. He too spoke in Italian, one of our many areas of conflict. The professor had no Arabic, but spoke Italian so fluently he went and hired an Arabic-Italian interpreter for our remote Egyptian dig. That’s the kind of thing he excelled in. Thirteen of us in the party, but only the professor could talk to the interpreter – and through him to the natives. I’d creamed him though by learning “eyetie” on the sly. And if I’d told the Egyptian authorities everything I knew about the honored professor and his “little dig”, Interpol would have chased him home through two continents, right back to L.S.K. Uni, Texas.
Che c’è dell’antichita?
I asked. Roughly:
What’s doing in antiquity?
Dune-Harrigan reached up with his brawny old hand and swept my arm from his shoulder. “I warn you,
I fully intend to clobber you today,” he croaked, his words scarcely audible. “I will split you into quarters and gobble you up like a starving cannibal.”
Despite my resolve, I couldn’t help stepping back out of range of that menacing whisper. Even the word
(it’s applied to a person abhorrently deformed) made me seize up with fear. I’d kidded myself that I wasn’t afraid of him any more. The old professor hadn’t changed a bit. I’d hoped that thirty years had softened him. I was wrong. His mind was a storehouse of hatred. Every man was his enemy. He didn’t rely just on his brute strength, but catalogued his opponent’s every weakness. He knew my fear of the very grate of his voice.
No, Carmichael Dune-Harrigan hadn’t changed. He was still the same crazy, menacing, malicious, hideously self-sufficient, evilly opinionated bastard.
From the width of the stage during rehearsal, I’d imagined the auditorium a vast barn of a place; but now the houselights were on, I could see I was wrong. What I’d assumed to be the impenetrable gloom of a cavernous hall, was actually a brick wall. There was room for only four rows of audience seats, but spread right across the width of the stage, each row held thirty chairs. In all, one hundred and twenty spectators. No wonder TV producers seemed to have no trouble drumming up audiences for these shows. They provided not only free entertainment but a chance for people to see themselves on TV, and maybe come real close to the stars.
Less than eight feet from the first row – just room enough for two TV cameras and their operators – we contestants would be seated in a widely spaced semi-circle. The quizmaster’s grandly tinseled podium had its own camera and stood on our left.
I exhaled a sight of relief. It was good to know these details in advance and not have them sprung upon you at the last minute. I congratulated myself on my composure.
I’m not afraid of a maleficent old professor, nor of stupid TV cameras, nor of the awkward angles of the stage.
In fact, now that it was lit up and not half-blacked out as it was during our morning rehearsal, the stage looked far less intimidating. If anything, it seemed rather tatty. Although the set decorator had run amuck with tinsel and streamers, it breathed an air of impermanence – a gigantic flower that would bloom into garish life for a single hour a week (actually forty minutes excluding commercials and station identification) and at the end of its run be thrown away into the rubbish, forgotten by everyone – viewers and TV technicians alike – except for one extra lucky contestant. And Professor Dune-Harrigan notwithstanding, Mr. Extra Lucky was going to be me!
“Here’s Manning now!” announced Brian “Bingo” Frobisher, my floor manager friend.
I strode to center stage. An ex-police sergeant knows all the ceremonies and psychology for taking command.
I beckoned Frobisher, over. “Anyone else get the little cards?” I whispered.
“Turned up four more, Mr. Manning: Our sponsor, Peter Tunning – that’s him in the celebrity, dark glasses! He got one, and so did Monty Fairmont. That’s him in the light blue dustcoat! And so did Mr. Kent and Mr. Varnie.”
“What are Tunning’s and Fairmont’s claims to fame?” I asked.
“Well, Tunning’s our sponsor, as I said. You’ll soon know all about him before the afternoon’s out! Fairmont’s our producer.”
“Don’t keep me in suspense. What’s Sponsor Tunning’s claim to fame?”
“He’s an eyetie!”
“An Italian? He looks far too lean for an Italian, and why hide his eyes with those dark glasses? Why on earth does he wear dark glasses in here? What’s he hiding? But I guess it’s every man to his taste. So how many cards do we have in all?”
I raised my voice. The small stage was crowded with around fifteen technicians: cameramen, sound recording men, make-up girls and various assistants “I’m a former police officer. I’m investigating these little cards some of you found in your mail this morning.”
Blank faces all around.
I was forced to lead the witnesses. “I make it eight cards in all. Your producers, Mr. Kent and Mr. Varnie?”
producers, if you please!” snipped Mr. Varnie.
“What’s the difference?”
“Really!” Mr. Varnie drew himself up to his full height. (He almost reached my chin).
“I take it an executive producer is just that – an executive? An ordinary producer does all the hard work.”
“Not in this case, Mr. Whoever-you-are!”
I decided to ignore him. “Your executive producers, Mr. Kent and Mr. Varnie – ”
“Mr. Kent’s gone back to
office!” interposed Mr. Varnie in what could only be described as a disparaging tone.
“Your producer, Monty Fairmont – ”
producer would be a better word!” snapped Mr. Varnie.
“Not in this case – as
yourself would say!” quipped Fairmont, a balding, chubby-cheeked guy in a blue dustcoat.
“That makes three,” I continued. “Plus your sponsor, Mr. Tunning. Which one of you is Mr. Tunning?” I already knew he was the lean, cadaverous gent in the celebrity, dark glasses – but I wanted him to say something. “I am! It is me!” he replied, with more than a fair trace of an Italian accent.
“So we now have five cards, counting Mr. Frobisher?”
“You didn’t count me!” snarled Sedge Cornbeck.
“Or me,” added a little whippersnapper who couldn’t have been much more than twenty years old.
“And you are?”
“Trevor Holden. Everyone calls me
“What do you do?”
“A bit of everything. Mostly I help out as assistant director.”
I must have looked blank (which I was), because he added, “I held out with the directing. The signals are relayed to me on the floor from Monty and Ace in the booth.” He pointed upwards.
“Some say that our Mr. Kent is his uncle,” added Sedge Cornbeck with more than a trace of malice in his voice.
“He’s not my uncle! I got this job on my own merits, not because anyone’s pulling any strings!”
“Boys, boys!” I interposed. “We’re not going to get anywhere if we start fighting amongst ourselves! So to reiterate: I’ve written down – in no particular order – Sedge Cornbeck, our star; Oscar Varnie,
producer; Trevor Holden, youth useful; Brian ‘Bingo’ Frobisher, floor manager; Peter Tunning, sponsor; Monty Fairmont, producer; Art Kent, executive producer (whom I imagine is now in his office, being an executive); and Miss Spookie Williams, production secretary. What does a production secretary do?”
“Anything and everything,” she replied.
“Anyone else receive one of these little cards?” I prompted.
mail until after the
!” came an oh-so-lardy-dah voice on my left.
“And you are?”
“Your director, if you please. And you’d better get used to that idea,
, and not slouch all over the place like you did this morning. Our viewers like to see other faces occasionally,
besides your own!
“If I did that, I apologize. It was unintentional, I assure you.”
To hell with him! “And what’s
name?” I asked, pencil poised.
A deep intake of breath from at least five or six throats. But no answer from Mr. Lardy-dah.
“I can’t add your name if I don’t know what it is!” I persisted.
“It’s on the credits,” began Brian “Bingo” Frobisher, my floor manager friend.
I gave my usual reply. “Never read credits!” I said.
The silence was deafening – as Groucho Marx would say.
Who would give in first?
My new-found friend, Frobisher, the floor manager, tried to break the ice: “He told you: He’s our director, Ace Jellis.”
But Ace Jellis was determined to have the last say. “Well, what’s your
advice?” he snapped in his fruity, lardy-dah voice. “Just go steaming ahead, Mr. Expert. Don’t mind us! Just tell us what to do. We’re all listening. With baited breath!”
“Well, first of all, did
get a card?”
“Of course I got a card!”
“You just told us you hadn’t checked your mail yet?”
“Who would leave me out?
I tried to be nice. “Well, I guess no-one would leave a director out, as I’m sure you’d all agree. But I wouldn’t take these little cards too seriously. Just someone’s idea of a joke. Or a distraction maybe, from one of today’s contestants.” I had a particular contestant in mind, but I decided against spilling his name. No use warning everyone against Dune-Harrigan. His antics would be directed against the other contestants as well as me. If allowed to run free, his intimidations could well narrow the contest down to a simple fight between the two of us!
would take it
than that!” steamed good old Ace Jellis.
too!” agreed Mr. Varnie.
Oh, boy! Two of them – but they were just what I wanted! “You could be right at that!” I agreed.
“What did I tell you!” snapped Mr. Varnie. “What have I been
“But I know how to keep an eye on things,” I assured them. “The old police training wasn’t wasted on me. I’ll be keeping a watchful eye – a very watchful eye! – just as soon as I’m on stage.”
I let that sink in. I didn’t have long to wait. I could already see a quick exchange of glances between Producer Varnie and Director Jellis.
“Well, aren’t you the
one!” Varnie was actually smiling at me. “You’ve drawn number one!”
“But Mr. Varnie, my list has some professor!” began Miss Spookie Williams.
list is out of date, dear! Mr. Manning is coming on first.”
“Glad to hear it,” I said.
Actually the first contestant out of the wings has only a marginal advantage over his competitors, but I was after every break I could get.
The show was due to be taped in an hour, but I didn’t have a moment to fret. Being number one, I was rushed straight off to make-up to have my face powdered, a black tooth whitened, plus my hair firmly curled across my head and taped to the top of my bald patch. Before I could say
, my feet were marching across the stage, and my teeth began chattering through that ridiculous shots routine with Sedge.
The laughter was amazing. So loud, so unexpected, so close! I couldn’t believe the audience was actually enjoying such feeble puns. Must be something else? A clown doing trick pratfalls on the sidelines. Fatally, I couldn’t resist looking past the teleprompter to the other side of the stage. I missed my cue.
“Gave it your best shot, eh?” repeated Sedge with an angry tremor in his voice. I hoped the cozy viewers at home wouldn’t notice, but maybe they would trim this sally before the evening telecast.
“Too many shots, Sedge,” I read overcautiously. I sounded like a robot in a B-grade movie. (The autocue was disguised as a camera so the audience wouldn’t notice).