Read Merryll Manning Is Dead Lucky Online

Authors: Johm Howard Reid

Merryll Manning Is Dead Lucky (7 page)

    “Sure thing!”

    “Now are you through?”

    “Just where is this crossbow now? I’d like to look it over.”

    “That’s a good question. You’re improving!”

    “You gave it back to Brunsdon?”

    “He wanted it back, of course. But that’s just the problem. We couldn’t find it.”

    “And where did Brunsdon see his crossbow last?”

    “He says he put it down on the floor beside his table. Somehow it got moved.”

    “Maybe Security saw it on the floor after the show and locked it up somewhere?”

    “No joy in that direction. We’ve already asked.”

    “Asked about what?” came a voice from behind.

    It was my friendly floor manager, “Bingo” Frobisher.

    “Brunsdon’s hellish crossbow,” I replied.

    “Don’t stir up that warpath for God’s sake! Brunsdon’s threatening to sue us if we can’t produce his hellish bow.”

    “Maybe I can help you there, Mr. Frobisher.”

    “Call me
Bingo
. Everyone else does.”

    “Maybe I can help you there, Bingo? I’ve a good idea who took it.”

    “Bring it back and you’ll earn our undying gratitude.”

    “The promise of a steady job would be nicer – if I don’t win the $80,000, that is.”

    “I’m sure I could convince Mr. Varnie.”

    “A monetary reward would also be nice! Any more of those warning little 2x3 cards turn up in the mail boxes?”

    “Not that I know of.”

    “I think
one
person is responsible for both the wayward bow and the destabilizing threats.”

    “That’s
exactly
the way I think too!”   

 

 

 

 

 

 

6

 

I finally ran Dune-Harrigan to ground at one of California’s lesser universities where he was officially billed as the curator of a so-called Archaeological Museum. Third-choice palaces of learning can’t afford too many guards, so the gates were wide open and the attendant was only too happy to spark a bit of excitement into his Friday afternoon by giving me detailed instructions where to park my old Ford and how to find the Lanzkov Museum.

    As I expected, the museum was deserted. I threaded my way through a maze of dusty display cases to the curator’s office. Seated behind an enormous barrier of a desk, old D-H was studying details in an 8x10 photograph with a magnifying glass. True to form, D-H wouldn’t be caught dead doing something the easy way – or the way everyone else would perform a similar task – so he held the magnifier steady in his right hand while he moved the photo up, down and across with his left.

    Yes, even the very sight of the man I found disturbing and unnerving.

    But he, of course, was thoroughly unperturbed. Throwing the photo across to me, like a professor to a student, he asked, “What do you make of this, Manning?”     

    It was an Ancient Egyptian comic strip. I could no longer decipher the hieroglyphics in the balloons, but the pictures painted some joker drinking down cupfuls of wine while giving out pearls of spurious advice. I decided to ignore it. “You saw the quiz show?” I asked.

    “Why should I? Past events don’t interest me.”

    “The immediate past, you mean?”

    “Precisely.”

    “Yet you remember our last meeting?”

    He laughed. “Still carry a few scars, do you?” he crowed in Italian. “I can whip you again. Any day!”

    “I don’t mean our fight in Egypt,” I replied in English. “I mean the little chat we had in the TV canteen the other night.”

    “
Che peccato!
I have already forgotten it.”

    I indicated a pile of blank 2x3 file cards on his desk. “Why distribute your love letters to people in the show?
You have been warned
and all that sort of stuff. Perhaps you will remember
that
?” And with that phrase and from this moment on, our entire conversation was carried on in Italian.

    “So you saw them? So they showed them to you – the great detective?” He smiled broadly.

    “Yes.”

    “And what was the great detective’s advice?”

    “I told them the author was a psycho.”

    He was pleased as Punch. “Excellent! I bet that frightened them?”

    “Yes, you scared them. Didn’t do you too much good though.”

    “You saw what happened. I almost won!”

    “You’ve no-one but yourself to blame for your loss. As usual, you became too confident.”

    “Look who’s talking!”

    “I don’t need to frighten people or place them at a disadvantage,” I insisted. “I can win on my own terms.”

    Dune-Harrigan stood up and came towards me. The years had treated his body kindly. The rough, bald head was always ugly – now more so than ever – but there was still power in those great arms and those brawny hands.

    The professor used to wrestle – not those fake, well-rehearsed comedy turns you see on TV – but the real stuff. In a headlock, he could break your neck. He’d once picked me up like a bag of chaff, held me over his head and thrown me twenty feet. No excuse. He was just showing off.

    “And yet you come to me?” he asked.

    I didn’t understand him. “
Io non comprendo
.”      

    “You won. I lost. I was eager to seek you out. Yet you come to me?”

    He’d walked around and was now well behind me. I had to turn my head. “I don’t like being shot at – with arrows or pens!”

    He was fumbling with the door. “What are you nattering about?”

    “Brunsdon’s bow. He wants it back.”

    Dune-Harrigan locked the door and held up the key before dropping it into his pocket. “I can’t fathom what you’re going on about,” he said. “All I know is that I’m going to thrash you. And then perhaps you will run away again – for another thirty years. Perhaps they will then give the prize to the runner-up.”

    My blood froze, but I stood my ground and faced him. Five times he’d wrestled me thirty years ago, and won every time – but he wouldn’t dare try it again? He was a bully, an egomaniac, but no fool. He was trying to scare me witless. That was his way. But I wasn’t about to let him know he was succeeding. Not a backward step! Not a single twitch of fear! Instead, I called his bluff: “Give me Brunsdown’s bow and open that door. I never want to see you again.”

    “Brunsdon, I remember vaguely. His bow? What bow?”

    I was beginning to believe him. Dune-Harrigan was so self-centered, he’d probably taken no notice of Brunsdon at all, let alone his bag of tricks.

    Thus I made the same mistake I’d made thirty years ago. I was thinking, not watching. I’d allowed my eyes to turn inward for a fatal second. He leaped forward. By the time I saw his hands coming at me, it was too late to step aside. I was jammed against his solid desk. In one rush, he wrestled me to the top of the desk and I was flailing around like an upturned beetle. My legs and arms were kicking out in all directions while he pinned me down with his hands and pressed the weight of his right arm into my throat.

    Scrabbling madly among the papers on the desk, my hand closed around a metal ruler. I slammed it against Dune-Harrigan’s head. He took no notice. His arm pressing against my throat stabbed my brain with more pain than I could bear. I was passing out. The room was spinning. My eyes refused to focus.

    Rousing myself for one last effort, I drew my hand back as far as possible and with every last ounce of my failing strength, I brought the sharp end of the ruler down against his left cheek, It actually cut across his ear, causing him to jump away in shock.

    Coughing and spluttering, I rolled off the desk and fell into its chair.

    Dune-Harrigan was shouting and screaming at the top of his lungs: “
Malfatto
, you have almost sliced my ear in half!” But his cursing was interrupted by an even louder and far more insistent knocking on the front door.

    Left with no choice but to answer the door, the professor was confronted by one of the university’s security guards who had heard the commotion and had actually bestirred himself to come and investigate.

    Dune-Harrigan was all pardons and excuses. “An accident,” he explained. “Demonstrating various hand-locks in Egyptian wrestling, you know. But we slipped against my desk. I’ve cut my ear and my friend’s had the wind knocked out of him.”

    The guard looked to me for confirmation, but I couldn’t speak. I tried to form words, but none came. I was gasping for air. To my dismay, I couldn’t even stand up. I waved my hand as a plea for help, but the idiotic guard, taking my wave as a friendly “hello”, turned his back on me and walked out the door.

    Quick as a tarantula, Dune-Harrigan closed the door and relocked it.

    I’d dropped the ruler – my only weapon – on the other side of the desk. My eyes sought vainly for a substitute. Nothing! Nothing at all usable except a shelf of colored glass paperweights. And now Dune-Harrigan was coming in for the kill. But surely he realized that in the event of a fresh ruckus, the guard was likely to return? No, you couldn’t trust Dune-Harrigan to think straight. That was not his way at all. He’d always act first, plan an alibi later.

    I was still coughing and shaking. And there was nothing I could use to defend myself – nothing I could throw at Dune-Harrigan except the stupid glass paperweights – and a fat lot of good they’d do. He’d merely to step aside. But far better to go down fighting than simply chuck in the towel. I seized the nearest of the paperweights, a crudely amateurish statuette of Anubis, the jackal god, gaudily painted and colored – the sort of expensive trash that tourists bring home from the souvenir shops at Cairo.

    To my surprise, even allowing for the fact that it was fashioned from glass, Anubis was surprisingly heavy.

    And to my even greater surprise, Dune-Harrigan stopped dead in his tracks, his body shaking, his eyes widening in fear.

    Now Anubis was a fearsome god in the underworld. The Ancient Egyptians shuddered at even the very mention of his name because his duty was to weigh the deceased’s heart in the balance. And if that heart didn’t tip the scales in your favor, you were doomed to spend eternity in hell.

    The Dune-Harrigan of old had not only openly pooh-poohed such superstitions, but actively trod them underfoot.

    Maybe he’d picked up a few scruples in the last thirty years? I raised my arm.

    “
Fermo! Fermo!
Stop, I beg you!”

    Puzzled, I examined the little garishly colored god far more closely. Then it hit me. The professor was up to one of his old tricks. No wonder he was so desperate to win that $8,000! He was smuggling genuine relics out of Egypt, disguised as trashy, modern souvenirs.

    But now he had an even better reason to get rid of me! I actually saw him kill a man once. A thief in Cairo who tried to steal what the good professor himself had already stolen.

    Maybe I could bluff my way out? I balanced the powerful little god in the palm of my hand. “Unlock the door, professor, and open it up real wide.”

    He did so.

    “Now let me tell you one little thing,” I continued, trying not only to find the right eyetie words, but even just to speak. “You and I both know you possess a whole boatload of this stuff, both legitimate and smuggled. Both stunningly on display and extremely well hidden in your house. I could have turned you in a thousand times in thirty years and earned myself some real nice, real easy cash rewards.”

    “Why didn’t you?”

    I swallowed hard. The old fool wouldn’t understand, but I told him anyway. “Because I respect you.”

    To my intense surprise, a great light dawned on his ugly – and now bloody – old face. “
Si, io comprendo!

    I’d underestimated him. “A man may rat on his friends,” he proposed, “but he respects his enemies, eh?”

    “Yes.”

    He sat down heavily. “You can put that down!” he said, nodding towards Anubis. “I wasn’t going to hurt you anyway.”

   
Oh, no! Not half!
I pointed at my lacerated throat. My ears were thrumming and my eyes spilling so many tears that I could barely see which way the room was spinning.

    “You’re woefully out of practice, my dear enemy. You’ve forgotten absolutely everything I took such pains to teach you!” He put his fingers to his ear for a moment, and then pulled them away. His fingers were sticky with blood. “Damn! Thanks to you, I’m obliged to take a walk to First Aid.” He smiled – his teeth glittering like a serpent: “You’d better come with me. We can talk on the way. It will be safe enough. Nobody understands Italian in this place. Yes, we do have an Italian department. It boasts all of a dozen students – all twelve of them and their tutor currently confronting their utter lack of knowledge in Little Italy, N.Y.”

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