Read Merryll Manning Is Dead Lucky Online

Authors: Johm Howard Reid

Merryll Manning Is Dead Lucky (8 page)

    I helped him close up the museum for the day and we then made our way to First Aid. Again, he took the trouble to re-assert that he knew nothing of Brunsdon and his disappearing crossbow. This time, I believed him.

    When we finally reached First Aid, we found the nurse had received a call to the gridiron field and would be tied up for at least half an hour. We sat in her pillbox of a waiting room, jammed in with two students – a gangly youth with broken  spectacles and a bleeding nose, and a young woman who kept us all alert by weeping uncontrollably.

    True to form, Dune-Harrigan paid no heed to his audience, but commenced a hearty account (in Italian) of the joys of living in Ancient Thebes.   

    Even with a clear head, I would have found it a challenge to decipher five or six words out of a breathless ten, but with my brain spinning like a Ferris wheel, I just leaned against the wall and let him talk on and on, undisturbed. But suddenly he said something that bothered me. It was the simple phrase, “Of course, I haven’t been back there since.”

    Where was he talking about? Back
where?
He’d gone on a few sentences before I interrupted, “Where are you talking about, professor? The Valley of the Kings?”

    “Yes, yes, of course the Valley of the Kings. Where in blazes did you think?”

    “You haven’t visited the Kings,” I hazarded a guess, “for five or ten years?”

    “Yes, yes! Where do you think I’m talking about?”

    “You haven’t been to Egypt for ten years?”

    “Nearer twelve. A man doesn’t like to travel at my age, and I never did like flying. It’s bad for the health.”

    “Then where did you buy your Anubis and all your other new baubles?”

    I thought his face would explode. If it were not for our two witnesses – the weeping woman and the gangly youth – he’d surely have attacked me again.

    “There’s always been a fair-sized, international black market in Egyptian relics, eh, professor?”

    “What if there is? It’s nothing new!”

    “But now it’s far better organized,” I said. “And if you’re mug enough to buy contraband from organized crime, you’re going to pay. And continue to pay!”

    “Si, si! I promised Mr. Julio eight thousand dollars, to be exact.”

    “You’re mad! Mr. Julio is not the local Mafia boss for nothing. He’ll expect more than that. Much more!”

    “Yes, information. So I have given them information. I have told them how to enrich themselves with eighty thousand dollars.”

    “
My
eighty thousand?”

    He smiled.

    “The eighty thousand I intend to win on
80 Questions
?”

    He was laughing now. “Si, si! That eighty thousand.”

    But I wasn’t fazed. If he intended to frighten me, he’d not succeeded. Probably lying his head off anyway. But I would have the last laugh, “And what about
your
eight thousand, professor? The eight thousand you owe for Anubis and his friends? How will you pay for them?”

    “Simple! I will disappear. Simply disappear!”

 

 

7

 

Having spent the weekend nursing my throat, by Monday night I could breathe and talk almost normally. I was still pretty sore, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me taking a seat with the audience at the taping of the next segment of
80 Questions
. I needed to know who and what I was up against.

    Only seventeen other early arrivals were already seated. Even the set itself was deserted except for a couple of cameramen and the extra-friendly floor manager, Brian “Bingo” Frobisher, who spotted me straightaway. He didn’t just wave but stepped right across the set. “Hoped you’d be here,” he said. “You’re early!”

    “It seems that’s all to the good,” I replied, noticing how heavily his owlish face was creased with worry lines. Even in the half-lit auditorium, his skin looked hot and sweaty. “What’s up?” I asked. “Another love letter?”

    Sure enough, I guessed right! Without speaking, he handed it over:
You ignored the warning. You saw the happening. This is your final warning.

   
“All of you get this one?” I asked. “Same people as before?”

   
“Sedge is all cracked up. He says he won’t go on. Can you talk to him?”

    I was smug. “I think I can set his mind at rest.”

    “Convince him that pen was fired at you. Not him!”

    “I don’t think it was fired at anyone. I’ve come back to the official explanation: Just some member of the audience fooling around. It has nothing to do with the love letters and their
ignored the final warning
scenario. In fact, I now know who’s sending these little love notes.”

    “For instance?”

    “Professor Dune-Harrigan, that’s who!”

    “But he’s out of the contest now, so why’s he still sending them?”

    “To cover his tracks. If he stopped now, we’d know for sure it was him.”

 

We found Sedge in his dressing room at the end of a bleak corridor on the other side of the stage. He was not alone. Monty Fairmont, the producer, was there, already clothed in his regulation blue dustcoat. Plus his pal, Ace Jellis, the lardy-dah director. Plus the sponsor, Peter Tunning, still wearing his wrap-around celebrity, dark glasses. Plus the winsome, impeccably groomed, super-cool cutie-of-all-tasks, Spookie Williams.

    Good old Bingo Frobisher and I just managed to squeeze ourselves in. As for sitting down, that was impossible. No room in the room! It had just the one chair – occupied by Sedge – plus one battered dressing table which also served as a desk. There was also an old but bulky wardrobe, a large, full-length mirror and a rusty wash basin. That was it. No windows, no pictures, no flowers, no framed photos of smiling celebrities.

    Sedge was all dressed up in his usual bright purple suit. Fully made-up too, his skin reflecting that light olive tan considered so essential for TV. Spotlighted by the mirror, he seemed a garish oddball in our sober-suited, anemic-fleshed company.

    “Manning here feels the dart was accidentally let loose by some member of the audience fooling around. It has no connection whatever with our love letters,” Bingo announced without any preamble. “And Manning also is sure as hell that old Dune-Harrigan is the responsible party for all these said ‘love’ letters we’ve all been receiving.”

    “Manning tracked him down?” asked Sedge eagerly.

    “Sure I did! We won’t have any more trouble from him. He’d be mad to try it again.”

    “Why not?” asked Monty Fairmont in his soprano voice.

    “And why, oh why, did he do it?” Jellis echoed in
his
lardy-dah voice.

    “To throw a scare into you all,” I explained. “That’s Dune-Harrigan all over. He wanted to make you all so nervous, you’d lose the plot. And at the same time, it would make him feel really confident that he’d get away with any tricks he’d pull to put himself in the lead.”

    “Sounds feasible!” agreed “Bingo” Frobisher.

    But producer Fairmont was not convinced. “But Harrigan lost, man! He lost!”

    “Yes, what was his game? What was his game?” Jellis echoed, “That’s what I can’t understand.”

    “Look! I know Dune-Harrigan. I know what he’s capable of. Do you think this is my natural voice? Dune-Harrigan had his hands around my throat and was choking the life out of me!”

    “You know him?” cried Spookie Williams, losing her cool. “That’s just not possible!”

    “Sorry to spoil your research. It was thirty years ago maybe. But the old leopard hasn’t changed his spots. He’s mad. Raving mad! Sending another set of threats is just the sort of mad thing that a crazy – ”

    “I want him stopped!” Sedge exclaimed. “Stopped right now! Stopped dead!”

    “You’ve got it!” I assured him.

    “No more threats?” Sedge persisted.

    “No more threats!”

    But they didn’t believe me. All show people are deadly superstitious. But after I told them a bit more about D-H, they finally calmed down. Sedge even decided to go on with the show. We all filed out of his dressing-room, ostensibly so he could get himself ready – though what additional preparations were necessary, I couldn’t fathom. Spookie Williams remained behind, allegedly to calm the last of his nerves.

 

 

8

 

Monty Fairmont’s budget didn’t run to a professional warmer-up. It was Sedge himself who delighted the audience with some quick quips and randy repartee: “How many lovely ladies over thirty are here tonight? None? I didn’t think so. Aren’t we lucky, men? Any Scotsmen here tonight? I had a Scotch friend once. A beer truck ran over him. It was the first time the drinks were on him. Did you hear about the postman and his canary? He trained the canary to deliver mail to window-boxes at a Rooming House. One day, canary never came back. It teamed up with a ventriloquist and gave the postman the bird…”

    Whoever was writing Sedge’s stuff, I was amazed
he
hadn’t received any threatening notes. I felt like writing him one myself.

    “Let’s hear some cheers now... Come on, I know all you lovely people can cheer much better than that. Let’s really lift the roof off now… That’s the way! I knew you could all do it! Now if you keep your eyes on this TV screen just above your heads here, you’ll see all the things that our producer wants you all to do. See, he’s got it up now:
CHEER.
So let’s have another really big cheer… That wasn’t bad. Certainly more solid than your first effort. But I’m still sure you can all do much better than that. Try it again!... That was better. Much, much better!
APPLAUSE.
Let me hear some really solid clapping… That wasn’t too bad!, but you’ve got to really let yourself go. Put more heart into it! Lots more heart! Lots!”

    “Can we stand up?” some eager attendee asked.

    “Sure you can stand up.”

    “Whistle?”

    “That’s fine by me! Now last but not least:
LAUGH
. Let me hear some real big belly laughs. Smiling’s no good. Our lovely viewers at home can’t hear you smile.”

    Tonight’s contenders were into New Orleans (jazz), Eden (gardening), Washington (politics), Broadway (stage plays and musicals), Geneva (prominent people), Athens (Olympic sports), the Swiss Alps (mountaineering, camping). It sounded promising, but it turned out to be a really dull show. All the contestants played safe. They just sat back and patiently waited for their own turns, all keen to score high marks on their own topics. Nobody was game to potentially lose any points by butting into a different topic except for the jazz man who made one lucky strike into prominent people and thus boosted his final score to sixteen correct answers out of sixteen questions. If ever there was a weak race to the finish line, this was it!

    But despite the lack of excitement and the foregone result, the spectators cheered themselves into a frenzy while Sedge was congratulating the winner. People were standing up, whistling, clapping, hurrahing, and stamping their feet. The camera had moved into a tight two-shot of toothy Sedge and the cool cat jazzman and was now pulling back for the final thank you to all the runners-up – good sports all, who will each receive a free travel discount voucher worth $200 for any Totally Tempting Travel Tour of their choice – when it happened.

    One of the towers supporting a bank of twelve arc lights at the back of the set, suddenly came crashing down. A loud explosion, splintering of glass, red and blue flames. Half the set blacked out.

    Switched off in mid-cheer, none of us moved for five or six seconds. Then a woman screamed and the panic was on. Clambering over seats, pushing, elbowing, shoving each other aside, people fought their way to the narrow exit.

    Jumping nimbly on to the set, I wrestled the mike from Sedge (who’d frozen like a pillar of ice), and shouted: “I’m a security officer. Stay calm, please! The fire is out. No reason to panic. Nobody’s hurt.” But no-one listened. I tried again. But the mike had short-circuited. It was dead. So the flight continued. An old man was knocked back over a row of chairs. His glasses went spinning, who knows where. A middle-aged lady was slammed against a wall. I shouted, “Calm!” Nobody wanted to hear me.

 

 

9

 

Well I did my best to stop the panic, and somebody must have noticed. Early the next morning, the producer, Monty Fairmont, was on the phone in his best soprano voice, inviting me to a conference “right here in Mr. Kent’s office” that very afternoon.

    “Who’s Mr. Kent, when he’s in his office?” I asked.

    “Art Kent? Big Boss Kent? He
owns
the
whole
studio. Junior partner is Mr. Varnie. That’s why the whole studio is called Keovarnie’s.”

    “Doesn’t sound very logical. Why not Kentvarnie’s?”

    “I’ll give you a little tip, Mr. Manning. Don’t even
think
of looking for logic in the entertainment business. Don’t even give it a thought!”

    Boy, oh boy, if ever a place was top-heavy with staff! And Keovarnie’s was only a so-called “minor studio” in Gower Street, Hollywood!

    All the same, I wasn’t too eager to accept the invitation and what with mentally cogitating “for” and “against”, I arrived at Kent’s office a little late.

   To my surprise, there was only the one receptionist and the office itself seemed somewhat small. No super-sized executive suite for Big Boss Kent!

  Producer Monty Fairmont, his director, Ace Jellis, and sponsor Peter Tunning were already seated in a tight semicircle in front of Kent’s desk. Miss Spookie Williams occupied a smaller chair halfway behind Jellis and Tunning. Further down the room, just a pace from the door, Sedge was sitting on a stool against the wall. No-one, least of all, big Boss Kent, took any notice of my late arrival. No more chairs were on offer, so I leaned myself against the wall alongside Spookie Williams. Although I did my best to attract her attention, she didn’t give me so much as a glance.

    “We’re not about to throw in any towels,” Boss Kent was declaring. “The show goes on! Is that readily understood? Understood? I want to see a big slice of enthusiasm here!”

    “I want to see no more people hurt. It turns them against the station. It sours them against the advertiser,” argued Tunning. “I say we cancel.”

    “Who asked you? Did I ask you? Nobody asked you. You’re only the cash sponsor.”

    “I sponsor no longer. I am threatened too. Along with Monty and Ace. I want to cancel.”

    “That’s okay with me. Real okay! But I refer you to the cancellation clause in your contract, Peter. Pay me $50,000 and I’ll be only too happy to accommodate you. You got 50,000 smackers handy?”

    “I want no more people hurt!”

    “So who was hurt? Go on, tell me! Who was hurt?”

    “A lady with broken glasses, an old man hurt his knee, a younger man – ”

    “Broken glasses, hurt knee, lost shoe, stopped watch – I’ve heard that recital ten times before! So we paid them all off! That’s what we did, we paid them all off.
I
paid them all off!
The station
paid them all off. Not
you
, Peter! Am
I
whining? Are
they
whining? You bet they’re not! What’s your beef, Peter? Did I ask you to contribute? Was it
your
money I paid out?”

    “So just what in the name of oligarchy are
you
intending to do? Ace and I particularly want to
know
!” exclaimed Monty Fairmont in his best lardy-dah voice

    Boss Kent abruptly decided to include me in the discussion. “Hire a policeman!” he announced.

    “Please don’t ask
me
,” I countered. “As you yourself would say, it’s against the rules.”

    “I’m not forgetting. Station owners never forget! You can keep the money you just won. Just make sure you don’t win any more! In the Grand Final, you come up empty.”

    “Empty? Who’s kidding who? I’m in line for eighty thousand,” I reminded him. “Eighty thousand! I should throw it away?”

    “You hear what the man say!” declared Peter Tunning. “From now on, you work for us!”

    “You won’t lose a nickel by it!” Kent threw in a sweetener.

    “That’s all right then,” I agreed. “If you’re willing to guarantee me an eighty thousand fee, I’ll gladly pass up the opportunity to win another eighty in the Grand Final. I’m not greedy!”

    “At two thousand a month – ” Kent began, but I was too quick for him: “I’d clear eighty thousand in only forty months. Forty months! Think of that? Thanks, but no thanks! I want ten thousand a month.”

    “No way!”

    “Okay, to keep this haggling short, I’ll settle for a measly five thousand a month – and that’s my best and last offer!”

    “Half that?”

    “No way!”

    “Three thousand a month – and that’s
my
last offer!”

    “Okay! But I want bonuses.”

    “For what?”

    “For missions accomplished! Is it a deal?”

    “Within reason.”

    “So what exactly do you want me to do?” I asked. “Where do I begin?”

    Boss Kent stared at me in amazement. “What in hell are we talking about here?”

    “I’ve already seen Dune-Harrigan. He won’t be fooling around with any more poison cards, that’s for sure!”

    “Who gives a damn about some old fruitcake sending a few poison cards? God damn it! We want you to put a stop to whoever’s trying to sabotage our show!”

    “Hear, hear!” cried Monty Fairmont.

    “I’m ready and able,” I assured Kent and the rest of them. “I’m merely telling you we can cross Dune-Harrigan off the list.”

    “He wasn’t even on it! For your information, Dune-Harrigan wasn’t here the night the tower fell.”

    “That tower with all the lights didn’t fall all by itself. It was pushed! Pushed, I tell you! Pushed!” Monty insisted.

    “No accident!” agreed “Ace” Jellis, coming to the support of his pal. “No accident at all!”

    “Take a bit of force?” I asked.

    “Considerable!” Kent readily agreed. “And you’d need to know where the fulcrum was and how you could maneuver yourself against it.”

    “Rubbish! That tower should never have been there in the first place. I told you at the time that position was all wrong. I wanted you to take out some of the seats. I warned you that tower was potentially unstable. I warned you! I warned you again and again! And so did Monty!” Director “Ace” Jellis had evidently decided not to leave all the running to his producer pal, Monty Fairmont, and was finally hitting his stride.

    It was time to pour a gallon of oil on these troubled waters, but Boss Kent got in ahead of me. “Unstable, be damned!” he cried. “Some maniac hooked a loose cable around one of the tower’s legs!”

    “Now it all comes out!” screamed Monty Fairmont. “What other bits of information have you still got up your sleeve?”

    “Let’s not argue amongst ourselves!” I shouted. “The hows and the whys are unimportant. It’s sure to be one of the ex-contestants, still smarting over the fact that he was dropped out. Naturally he’s convinced himself that happy event was everybody’s fault but his own. He’s dead certain
he
was cheated out of the eighty thousand, therefore
nobody
gets the eighty thousand!”

    “Now someone is finally making sense,” Kent agreed. “Give Manning the drop-out list!”

    Miss Spookie Williams – fair-haired, impeccably groomed and self-consciously super-cool as usual – handed me two closely typed pages. “Not even a smile or a cool-as-cucumber hello?” I whispered.

    “Get lost!” she whispered back.

    “I’m here at Mr. Kent’s invitation, remember.”

    “You’re here because you want to get your paws on $80,000, and this way is a sure bet.”

    I was about to tell her where I really wanted to get my paws, but she was too quick for me. I was forced to make eye contact with Boss Kent instead.

    “Suspects unlimited – our dropout list of beaten and dismissed contestants,” Kent explained. “Everyone eliminated from the first six shows. Thirty-six names, with ages, addresses, phone numbers, occupations, hobbies and areas of expertise.”

    I wasn’t at all sure that Kent was on the right track, but he was paying the piper!

    “I’ll need to look at the tapes of these six shows,” I said, playing along. “Put faces to all these names before I chase them up.”

    “No problem. Monty, tee that up, will you?”

    “No can do! Tapes wiped clean.”

    “That’s dead right! Wiped clean. Standard industry practice.” Director Ace Jellis speedily backed up his producer.

    “What the hell do you mean? Wiped clean! What about our library copy?”

    “Library copy? Who’s kidding who? We never make one.”

    “That’s right. Never make! Ask Oscar!
His
orders.”

    “You’re damn right, I’ll ask Oscar!”

    “Don’t waste your time!” I said. “If these boys say the station has no tapes, then the station has no tapes. What we’ll do is advertise. Think of all those devoted viewers out there. We’ll end up with dozens of offers.”

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