Chapter 14

Dead Giveaway

BY BRIAN HODGE

Every night, without fail, it began like this:

MUSIC: opening of Gustav Hoist's "Mars, Bringer of War"

...A dark and brooding piece of music if ever there was one. Next came the announcer, cheerful, bouncy as a beachball. Monty didn't know where they'd found the guy, but he was the best Don Pardo soundalike he'd ever heard.

ANNCR, VO:

Drop what you're doing... it'll still be there! Come on! Join us now for the most unpredictable hour on television... Deaaaad Giveawaaaaay!

Every night, without fail. Seven nights a week, live on the air, and no reruns.

When Monty first checked his watch, it was a half hour to show time. He slumped a little deeper into the chair in his dressing room. Time on his hands. Time to kill. Would that lead to blood on his hands?

Too late, Monty! It's already there!

So he reached out onto the counter before him and plucked his bottle of Chivas Regal from the carpet of dust beneath it. And drank until it burned. Penance. A little later he was comfortably numb. And could live with himself again.

Time was that Monty Olson lived with just about everybody. In spirit, if not body. He traveled the airwaves, waltzing into bright, sunlit living rooms and bedrooms, borne on the wings of daytime TV. Always a guest, never an intruder, forever welcome. Shows such as Deal of the Centuryand Bet You a Millionhad made him a star. And was he loved? Oh was he ever... because he was the man with the cash, the man with the prizes, the man with the motherlode.

The man with the million-dollar smile.

It was a little tougher to conjure up that smile these days, the big one that wrapped the corners of his mouth almost back to his wisdom teeth. But he managed. Once a pro, always a pro.

Who would have ever guessed it?he wondered for maybe the billionth time since waking up to find that he and everyone else unfamiliar with the rigors of rigor mortis were in a declining minority. Who'd've guessed that they'd still want to be entertained?

Monty fortified himself with another character-building gulp of scotch and reached for his makeup case. He did his own makeup these days, wondering why he bothered. His face was a little flabbier, a little looser, with a few more broken veins mapping his nose. But he was still a regular Clark Gable by comparison with the rest of the folks on the show. Monty peered at the lines webbing from the corners of his eyes and mouth and did his best to erase them with a little pancake makeup.

They still want to be entertained.

It wasn't thatcrazy a notion, not when you gave it time to sink into your already shell-shocked head. Because back in the days when the dead suddenly weren't obliged to stay in their holes and their morgue drawers anymore, Monty had found himself wandering the streets. He didn't want much, only to avoid becoming lunch for some newly awakened cadaver, and maybe to link up with someone else whose blood still ran warm. And he'd seen the zombies in their homes. There they were - by themselves, in pairs, as entire families - parked in front of their televisions just as before, as if nothing whatsoever had changed. Even when all the networks and independent stations had dropped from the airwaves like fruit from a dying tree, they watched the blank screens anyway. Mesmerized by the static.

The watching dead, waiting to be entertained.

Most of the zombies weren't that bright. Most of them weren't much more than two-legged dinosaurs in search of the nearest tar pit to blunder into. But some of them - perhaps those who'd been the sharpest and shrewdest to begin with - had managed to retain enough intelligence that it was downright scary in itself. You looked into those glassy eyes and found that they weren't quite as dull as you'd thought. Or hoped. Yep, the lights were still on and somebody was still at home up there... only now the resident's priorities had been turned on their heads.

Such a creature was Brad Bernerd. Here in New York, he'd been a fast-track network executive with a string of hit shows as long as your arm. Some people, before the demise of what Monty was beginning to regard nostalgically as The Old World, had said that Brad Bernerd was going to launch his own network.

It came about a lot differently than expected, but he got his chance after all.

Monty had wandered up to the studio soundstage of Deal of the Centuryone day, a huge and silenced amphitheater where even the echoes of past applause had died. He stood at center stage, where he'd spent nearly half of his forty-three years, feeling the glorious pressure of the lights burning through him... and he was ready to blow his brains out and die where he'd lived his finest hours.

Except that Brad Bernerd had picked that moment to make an entrance.

He didn't look much different than Monty remembered, except for a fist-sized dent in the right side of his head. He moved more slowly, more deliberately, but he still managed to carry himself with a little pride. A little arrogance, even after death.

Monty just about piddled his pants like a three-year-old when he looked into those unblinking eyes and saw that they recognized him.

They stared forever.

"I have a job for you," Bernerd said at last. The voice held little of its old animated enthusiasm... but that didn't mean it had lost its power to persuade.

Hey guy, no reason to cash in your chips now, was what it boiled down to. Not when the show must go on. Not when I can put you back on the air. Not when you can reclaim your place in the limelight.

And thus was born the first television program conceived entirely for zombies. I want my ZTV.

Monty checked his watch one last time, found that the zero hour had just about drawn nigh once again. He suckled a final pull from the Chivas and left it behind when the knock came at the door, right on schedule.

"Time for the show," said Brad Bernerd when Monty opened the door. "It's show time, my man."

Yeah, like I really need a reminder NIGHT AFTER NIGHT!

Monty wound his way backstage among the skeleton crew that kept the cameras rolling and the lights burning. The boys in the band who kept the show on the road. They needed to do something about the ventilation, but Monty had gotten used to the week-old roadkill smell months ago. Once a pro, always a pro.

How do you do it?they used to ask him, the admirers, the hangers-on. How do you manage to seem so on top of the world every single show?

No sweat, he'd tell them. It was simply a matter of knowing the right buttons and what to do with them. Turn on the adrenaline. Turn on the smile. The charm. The juice. But just as important, turn off the mind. And the conscience. After all, how long can you live with yourself if you acknowledge that your mission in life is encouraging people to debase themselves for cash?

The switches were just about all in the proper on/off positions by the time he strolled over to stage left, behind the three huge doors. The crew was putting the final touches on the displays. Now and again, a foreman would have to restrain an overzealous stagehand from helping himself to one of the prizes.

"I rec... recog... hey I know you." A weak voice from the cage behind Door Number Three. The lights were dimming, and it was tough to tell who the voice belonged to. Still warm and breathing, of course, if she was in the cage. Monty was the only live one that walked thesehallowed halls.

"I knowyou." The voice was thick, but clear.

He was drawn to her voice as a moth to the flame, briefly wondering why she was able to speak coherently. Everyone else in the cage had surrendered to the doses of Thorazine administered earlier. Good old Thorazine. It made the live ones so much more docile. Kept them from agitating the audience. Andthe master of ceremonies.

"Please let me out... please...?" She knelt on the cage floor, her face framed by long dark hair. She wore a red-and-white skirt and a dirty white V-neck sweater with a large red M on the front. Her hands clutched the bars so tightly they looked albino. "Please?"

All switches in place, all systems go.

"Can't do that, babe," he said, and just to charm the fear out of her, he gave her a great big Monty Olson smile. A fine one it was, too, one to rival any from The Old World. When you got it, flaunt it.

"How can you... sell us out like this? You're still one of us." She gestured toward the identically dressed girls sharing the cage with her. "You're not one of them." She was beginning to cry, her eyes glassy but not blank, as she fought an uphill battle against the Thorazine. "How can you sell us out?"

"They'll get you one way or another, and they're the ones calling the shots these days. They're the ones signing my paycheck, as it were. They let me live." Monty knelt down close to her, his voice almost fatherly. "Remember Andy Warhol? Hmmm? A long time ago he said that everyone was going to be famous for fifteen minutes. Remember that? Well, this is your night, babe. You're gonna be seen from coast to coast tonight."

She stared at him, clawing for a little more comprehension, and her fingers opened and trailed down the bars. She stared at the spot they'd been holding.

"Try to make the best of it," he said, and left her. He had a lapel mike to clip on.

"Show time," called Bernerd from the shadows. "Look alive, folks."

Bernerd cued the guy in the sound booth, a forever-young fellow called Deadhead, since he'd died and was then reborn in a Grateful Dead T-shirt. Deadhead's job was to play the proper music at the proper times. He juggled several cassette tapes and managed to do a remarkable job of keeping them sorted.

The music: "Mars, Bringer of War," throbbing with menace.

The lights: coming up from dim.

The cameras: red tally lights winking on, lenses focusing, slack gray faces staring into the viewfinders.

The pseudo-Don Pardo: "Drop what you're doing... it'll still be there! Come on! Join us now for the most unpredictable hour on television... Deaaaad Giveawaaaaay!"

Monty cemented that huge smile across his face and came striding onstage, sharp and natty in his slacks and sports jacket. The bulge under the left sleeve was barely noticeable. Doors One, Two, and Three were at his left, and the enormous wheel of opportunity at his right. Down he went, down to the very lip of the stage as the curtain rose, the final barrier removed...

And there they were. His audience.

They sat politely, somewhere around a thousand of them, somewhere around two thousand unblinking eyes staring back at him. Some of them clapped, or tried their best, clumsy hands slapping together like pairs of gutted fish. Others cheered, sounding like contented cattle lowing gently into the night. A sea of gray faces, agate eyes.

Let me entertain you, let me make you smile.

"Right you are, this is Dead Giveaway, and my name's Monty Olson. Good-looking crowd tonight, wow. Well hey! I know you hate waiting for the fun to start about as much as I hate long monologues, so let's just get right down to it, what do you say?"

The studio audience murmured its agreement, mottled gray heads bobbing here and there. Monty went striding back toward the wheel, feeling more vital than he had all day. The lights, the cameras, the smell of makeup... he knew no better nourishment.

"One thing before we get started, let's run through the rules, shall we? They're simple enough, in keeping with most of your minds out there. Each contestant gets one spin at the wheel, where they can be an instant winner or loser. If the wheel stops on a number, they'll win one of our big prizes behind the three doors. And trust your old Uncle Monty, we've got some real goodies behind there tonight. Only one word of warning... just don't commit the Big No-No. We all know what that is and what that means, don't we, ha ha haaaa!"

As Monty patted the bulge beneath his sleeve, there came from the audience a thick rumbling that was probably laughter.

"So! Who's our first contestant tonight?"

Deadhead began playing Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman" as the announcer introduced the shape beginning to move onstage.

"She's a hometown career girl from mid-Manhattan, a former director of sales and training at a downtown bank. First up tonight on Dead Giveaway... please welcome Cynthia!"

Again, that dead-fish splatter of applause. There were several agitated moans that in The Old World might've been wolf whistles. Cynthia shuffled toward the wheel, tall and angular in the moldering remnants of a pin-striped business dress and jacket. Her mouth was a cruel red splash of lipstick against a white face the texture of dried-out Play Doh.

"Welcome, Cynthia, welcome," Monty said. "Gosh, you sound like a lady who has it all together. So tell me, what do you owe your success to?"

"Brains," she said with a lopsided grin.

Monty dug deep and chortled out a big belly laugh. He had her step up to the wheel, and she gripped one of the many handles circling its edge and gave it a good shove. An overhead camera flashed the spinning image onto the studio monitors. Numbers and prizes alike flicked past the marker, a blur at first, then gradually coming into focus as the wheel lost momentum. At last the marker settled on a huge numeral 2.

"How 'bout that, a big winner first time out tonight!" Monty boomed. On went the wraparound smile. "Tell her what she's won!"

Door Number Two eased upward to reveal a display that resembled the back room of a well-stocked butcher shop. Stainless-steel tables and white-cloaked gurneys were loaded nearly to the point of collapse. A groan of envy rippled through the audience.

The studio monitors and home viewers were then treated to stock newsreel footage of a suburban neighborhood reduced to the apparent aftermath of a war zone. Weeping rescue workers crawled past mounds of burning rubble, extracting victims whole and in part from wreckage twisted beyond recognition.

"Who'll ever forget last May twenty-third?" said the announcer, as cheerful and bouncy as ever. "Flight nine-oh-one out of O'Hare Airport? It crashed a minute after takeoff, but the nation's third-worst airline disaster is yourgain, Cynthia. Direct to you from cold storage in the Cook County Morgue, it's the last of flight nine-oh-one! Courtesy of Dead Giveaway."

Whatever remained of Cynthia's professional composure was abandoned where she stood. She went lurching toward Door Two in a stiff-legged hobble, falling toward the nearest table and overturning it in an avalanche of assorted parts. Two cameras zoomed in and caught her delight... the sweet taste of victory.

The next contestant was a trim lady wearing a tattered dress belted around the waist and a string of pearls. Earrings showed through the matted filth of once-carefully coiffed hair. Her name was June, a housewife from May-field, Ohio, and she lumbered away an instant winner, the proud owner of the thigh and lower leg of what the announcer said had been a marathon runner.

A Brooklyn construction laborer named Carl was up next, entering to the strains of "Born in the U.S.A." His blue workshirt was stained in numerous places where it puckered into the flesh of his belly and chest, and his shoulders looked as broad as a freezer door.

"Whoa, Carl, let's be careful, okay?" Monty said, laughing. "That wheel's gotta last us the rest of the night, you know."

Carl grunted, and a low moan escaped the crowd as he clutched the handle, lurching when he spun the wheel. Then, with the sound of a large, half-rotten carrot snapping in two, the zombie's arm parted company with his shoulder. The arm slithered out of its sleeve like a great gray worm, the hand still holding fast to the wheel. Carl watched in dumbfounded surprise as his arm spun in broad circles, like the last remnant of a child desperate to remain aboard a merry-go-round. Carl looked up, mouth agape, eyes bovine in their stupidity.

Silence, save for the clattering of the marker.

Then a red beacon, and the sound of a buzzer ripsawing through the studio.

"Uh-oh, that's it! The Big No-No!" cried Monty. "Self-dismemberment isgrounds for automatic disqualification!" He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a long-barreled .38, leveling it at the zombie's head. "Too bad, Carl. That was a good spin, too."

The audience uttered a mournful groan at the gunshot, at the mushrooming of the back of Carl's head into gray and maroon, at the thud of his body on the soundstage floor. A pair of stagehands shuffled out to drag the remains away; one licked his fingers when the job was done. Monty reholstered the .38 and grinned broadly and hunched his shoulders. Always a laff-a-minute here on Dead Giveaway.

And on and on it went, a constant, plodding parade of the undead coming to claim their prizes. Shawn, the California beach bum who still had shards of a surfboard sticking from his chest, walked away with a four-pack of heads of various network executives Bernerd hadn't liked. Millicent, who'd been killed shortly after her debutante coming-out party, won the massive arm of a weightlifter and wore it around her neck like a fine fur. And on and on...

Until, at last, the final contestant.

"Looks like the old clock on the wall says we're just about out of time," Monty said. "But hey, let's squeeze in one more, what do you say? Who's up next?"

"Well, Monty, he comes to us from the lower east side, and his interests are slam-dancing and graffiti. Six-foot-two, hair of blue, just call him Fang!"

An imposingly tall figure emerged from oifstage, made even taller by the blue spikes of hair exploding from his head at all angles. Beneath a loose black-mesh shirt, his sunken chest was crisscrossed with chains. His upper lip was eaten away entirely up to his nose, giving him a perpetual snarl. Fang took his place at the wheel.

"Last spin of the night, Fang," Monty said. "Let's give 'em a good one."

And good it was. The wheel spun forever, slowing at last with a clattering of the marker blade. Finally it came to rest on a large 3, and the crowd broke into a smattering of applause.

"Whoa ho ho ho, what luck!" Monty roared; the best he could tell, Fang was grinning. "Another big winner! What have we got for him?"

"They're young! They're nubile! They're fresh from Hollywood! And they're all yours, Fang! The entire female cast of last spring's drive-in theater epic, Cheerleader Party Massacre!"

Door Number Three was up by now, and behind it sat a cage filled with aspiring starlets in identical red-and-white suits. What a shame, to have spent years hoping and dreaming for the big break, that shot on prime-time TV... and to miss it due to Thorazine. It had kicked in hard and heavy, leaving them about as excited as a basket of vegetables. Except for...

The audience was in, for them, a frenzy of excitement. Some were standing, arms waving like stalks of wheat in a summer breeze. Others stomped their feet to no apparent rhythm. Deadhead started some new music, angry guitars and shrieking vocals. Old Blue Eyes it wasn't. The Dead Kennedys, maybe?

Except for...

Fang was in a frenzy of his own, twitching in time with the music like a spastic during a seizure. His head bristled like a mace. Several of the earlier contestants wandered back onstage for the party atmosphere of the closing credits. Cynthia, with a good deal of Flight 901 smeared across her face. Shawn and his cooler of heads. Millicent, modeling her new arm. Fang twitched and slammed himself into Cynthia; an ear went sailing across the soundstage like a crinkled little Frisbee.

And yet Monty found himself unable to tear his eyes away from the girl he'd spoken to before the show. She clung to the front of the cage, swimming upstream against the current of a Thorazine haze while the rest of the starlets slumped in catatonic heaps. Her knuckles showed white against the steel bars.

She's not supposed to do that! She's supposed to be out of it!

She looked thin, painfully so, and no doubt it had been a good long while since her hair had been washed. Her lips trembled, and her eyes loomed huge against the pale of her face. Eyes that fixed, eyes that accused.

Eyes that started rearranging those internal switches. Off went the smile, off went the juice.

"Help me, please," she said, though over the racket on the stage he couldn't hear her, could only read her lips. "Everybody's got a price, what's yours? Is it this?"

And then, in a pathetic attempt at seduction, the girl fumbled with one side of her sweater and tugged it down. Ragged fingernails left red streaks on her skin. And there she stayed, holding the bar in one hand and her sweater in the other. Gauging his price.

Monty suddenly wanted to be sick. Not entirely from the prospect of her inevitable fate... but from the quick glimpse at just what it was that he was made of.

Everybody's got a price, what's yours...

In the absurd simplicity of her offer, she'd somehow managed to show him a truth that had always eluded him before: Greed is the one thing death can't conquer. Love can succumb before it, and loyalty. Friendship and honor. Morality and dignity and even humanity. But not greed, oh no. Greed has an indefinite lifespan all its own, and thrives in the stony soil that can kill the rest.

He gave her the first genuine smile he'd given in years.

Monty reached beneath his jacket to finger the grip of the .38. At least it'd be the merciful way out. And then a bullet for me, maybe?

He pulled the gun out, letting his arm hang by his side. The girl saw, and understood. And in pulling her sweater back up, accepted. Her glazed eyes shut and her face tilted slightly toward an unseen sky. Make it quick, she seemed to be saying.

And then a bullet for me? No, I can't do that, can't do that at all. Because Heaven help me, I need this stage more.

Make it quick? Okay, that much he could do.

Except that by the time he got the gun halfway up, it was plucked cleanly from his hand.

Monty hadn't noticed that Brad Bernerd had sidled over beside him. But now they stood face to rotten face. Bernerd was smarter than he looked, Monty knew that. Apparently he was stronger and quicker, as well.

Before Monty could move, Bernerd pointed the revolver's muzzle at his lower thigh and pulled the trigger.

The thunderclap of gunpowder aside, the effect was much like getting clubbed with a concrete block. Monty felt his leg suddenly swatted out from beneath him, and the next thing he knew he was on his side on the floor, tasting dust.

The gunshot brought everything to a halt... the announcer's closing voice-over, Fang's slam-dancing, Millicent's preening. Even Deadhead killed the music. Everything stopped except the silent scrolling of the credits on the monitors. Once again, Monty was the center of undivided attention. At the bottom of a sea of staring eyes.

He propped himself up on one elbow, grunting, chilly sweat trickling from his scalp. The lights didn't feel quite so warm anymore. He gazed up into Bernerd's runny eyes.

"It would've happened anyway," Bernerd said. He slowly cocked his dented head toward Door Number Three. "She didn't matter."

Monty's mouth gaped. He figured that his eyes were as blank and his brain as empty as everyone else's around him. "Then why?" was all he could say.

"The ratings," Bernerd said. "Time for a change. Your ratings are slipping."

And as Monty pondered this great imponderable, Bernerd simply turned and walked away. The credits rolled on, and the rest of them began to move again, closing in as surely as the cameras. They mounted the stage from the amphitheater... by themselves, in pairs, as entire families. Converging on him with unblinking, hungry eyes.

My ratings? Slipping? SLIPPING?The thought was too great, and it snapped his already fragile mind in two with pencil-thin ease.

He felt the first insistent tug at the bullet wound in his thigh, saw the cameras leering in.

But the eyes of the world are on me now!he thought. And its hands... and quite a few teeth...

Audience participation at its finest.

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