hrough his office wall, Martin Gifford heard the lobby television blare forth with the Biff Potter commercial and all he had to do to see it was close his eyes. Biff Potter, bottled-in-bond complexion, the face of an over-the-hill basset hound and an off-the-rack leisure suit draped across the sort of body that somehow made you think of a '49 Packard left out to rust. And, of course, the music. Party music on a clarinet. "Ebb Tide," "Rose Marie," and two dozen more of Biff Potter's biggest hits, never mind you never heard of him. Up to twenty years ago he still had a group of his own. A scant four years before that, they spent an entire week with a song almost in the top forty. That was a lot of years, Martin Gifford told himself. Whatever else, the guy had staying power. And finally, after three decades of barely keeping self and soul together, a generation of infrequent gigs in the sort of smoky, boozy disreputable groggeries closed for the night more often by the police than their managers, Biff Potter had an album all his own, and a commercial, and the sort of success that might satisfy a man who was really desperate or truly wise.
And Martin Gifford, up and coming young television executive? What did he have? A television station to run, too many people to deal with, and a sense of humor that was eroding into knee-jerk cynicism.
And one thing more. The damnedest puzzle he'd ever run into.
Gifford got up from his desk and shut the door, closing out the strains of "Wild Irish Rose," and the voice of an announcer urging him to have pencil and paper ready. It might have been his idea to produce the commercial, and it might have made a fortune for the station, but today his tolerance for things pertaining to Biff Potter was at an all-time low. Gifford didn't like "Lady of Spain," even on the accordion.
That didn't stop him from feeling a twinge of guilt as he returned to his desk. Shutting the door like that was almost like blaming poor old Biff. Lord knows, it wasn't Biff's fault. Gifford couldn't help wondering if anything had ever been Biff's fault. He'd certainly never met anyone else who seemed so put upon by life, or who took it with such bemused grace. Shutting another door on Biff Potter -- however figuratively -- seemed somehow like betraying a friendly puppy.
But there was still that puzzle.
It was nothing more than a simple clause in the middle of the second page of the otherwise standard contract Potter had signed with the station. "Any matter pertaining to or dealing with the Soul of Biff Potter shall, during the period in which this contract is in force, be under the control of Martin Gifford." Gifford, who negotiated this contract, reading it at least a dozen times in the process -- and who'd read or glanced at it at least that many times again since -- had never noticed this clause before.
He was, in fact, willing to swear it wasn't part of the contract he'd signed four months before, but it was sure there now. And just as surely, there was his signature at the bottom of the page, along with Biff's.
The phone rang and Gifford picked it up to hear the voice of Lauren Justus, his secretary. "Him, again."
"Not here, I hope."
"No, another phone call."
There was no need to ask who "he" was. Tommy Hillier, Biff Potter's manager, had already phoned three times this morning, each call less coherent than the one before. Faintly over the line from Lauren's desk, Gifford could hear the closing strains of Potter's commercial. "Okay, put him through."
"Well," Hillyer asked without preamble. "Have you read that thing?"
The edges of Hillier's normally soft east Tennessee accent were roughened with emotion and Gifford found himself trying to identify which one. Anxiety? Hillier said, "You there, Marty?"
"Right here, Tommy."
"And you read it?"
"Yes I have. It's all very cute."
"It sure is, but you just keep one thing in mind, Sport. I'm not the one who wrote that contract up."
Martin Gifford sighed. It seemed to him that he was popping sighs the way Job grew boils, but in this place, at this time, a sigh seemed an appropriate response. "All right, it's there. And I concede," Gifford went on, "that it was typed by someone with more sense of humor than smarts, here at the station." Actually, considering what the station had been six months ago and that most of the people working for it then were still here, it was uncomfortably possible the clause could have been sneaked in by someone who took it seriously. Gifford hoped Hillier wouldn't bring that up. "I still don't see what you're driving at."
"Well, Jesus Christ," Hillier said. "We're talking about a man's immortal soul.
Gifford glanced at his watch and realized that if he tried he could be late for his next appointment. "Oh, come on. It's not a big problem. We've worked comfortably under the provisions of this contract for almost half a year, which has to have some legal standing. Look, Tommy, why don't I take this to our lawyers and ask them about it? If they say it doesn't make any difference, we can simply ignore it. The contract only has a few more weeks to run, anyway."
"I don't think we should ignore it, Martin."
"I'll bet you don't. I'll bet you'd rather we renegotiated the whole thing right now, just to see if you might not be able to get a bigger slice of the pie for your client -- and, incidentally yourself."
"All I want you to do is sign Biff's soul back to me. It won't cost you one red cent, Sport."
"Of course not."
"I mean it. Not one red cent. I'll pay any costs."
Gifford's emotional computer toyed with the response of surprise only a moment before deciding on suspicion. He said, "You don't want to renegotiate?" and he said it slowly.
"Hell, no. Do you take me for a crook or something?"
"Tommy, you don't even believe in souls, or have you forgotten? If you did, your own would have gone for cash years ago."
The self-conscious bonhomie of Hillier's laugh came over the phone. "What makes you think it didn't? Hell, Martin," he said, his tone becoming solemn. "I don't mean that. I'm a religious man. Souls are serious things. It's just not right to go signing them away like that, especially the soul of an overgrown kid like old Biff. The Lord only knows how much has already been taken away from the poor guy. He needs a break. He need every break he can get."
"How will something like this be a break for him?"
"It'll help his self-esteem," Hillier said. "All you got to do is type up a letter. A simple agreement. What's so hard about that?"
"That clause doesn't mean anything."
"Then why's it part of a legal, binding contract?"
Sarcasm got the better of Gifford. "It's part of something, that's for sure."
The line was silent for the space of a heartbeat, then Hillier said, "Well, if that part doesn't mean anything, then neither does the rest of it."
That was a point worth pondering except for the fact that the more Gifford pondered, the more annoyed he became. It was fully possible that a frivolous clause could invalidate a contract, and if all these months those records were flying out to the hinterlands with no legal agreement behind them, it could be a problem. And it looked as if Hillier were offering an easy way out, one that wouldn't cost the company any extra money.
The only problem was, Hillier wasn't the sort of man to let an opportunity to gouge someone to his own profit slip by. Gifford was convinced the only reason Hillier hadn't dumped Potter during the lean years was that he was either too absent minded or lazy to send him a letter telling him about it. Now that Biff Potter was enjoying a small but remunerative notoriety, Tommy Hillier was cashing in on every bit of it he could. It seemed unreasonable that there wasn't some pot of gold or at least brass at the end of this shabby rainbow. But Gifford couldn't figure what.
And it did seem like a way out.
"Okay," Martin Gifford heard himself say, "send us a letter setting out the terms and if they're agreeable --"
"They'll be very agreeable, Martin."
"Tommy, just tell me one thing. How do you expect to cash in on this?'
"That's a lousy thing to say," Hillier snapped back. "It's a lousy clause you don't even want in the contract. Besides, I thought you were trying to ditch that born again image at your station."
"I'd feel a lot better if I knew your angle."
"Well, much as I hate to disappoint an old poker buddy, I'm giving it to you straight."
"We never played poker together in our lives."
"Not with cards, we ain't."
Gifford hung up the phone and reached for his pipe. It wasn't there, of course; he'd given up smoking, to the delight of his doctors. Just last week they'd given him a clean bill of health with his annual physical, but he wondered if they hadn't missed something: an incipient ulcer, say. He leaned back in the chair and stared at his favorite stain on the ceiling.
Tommy Hillier began in the late sixties booking rock bands in rural North Carolina high schools, and managing groups with names like Sam the Clamm and the Jammers -- all of whose members were out of show business now unless you counted appliance rental stores as a branch of entertainment. He spent some time in Macon, Georgia on the fringes of the legitimate recording business, but as far as Gifford could tell had never so much as met an Allman Brother or even been in a recording studio. Somehow Hillier became Biff Potter's agent when fortune cast the clarinetist adrift on the tides of the roadhouse circuit in South Georgia.
The bottom line about Tommy Hillier, so far as Martin Gifford was concerned was that while such clients of his as Biff Potter lived in aluminum trailers out by the airport, their manager never seemed to lack for expensive suits, fast cars, and flashy girl friends.
Gifford removed his gaze from the blemish on the ceiling, looked down, and was grateful. Lauren Justus was standing in the doorway.
A tall woman, gracefully slim, she had sultry, intelligent features. Her wide, full mouth was almost always curved in the sort of smile that reminded Gifford that few problems were ever really as important as they seemed at the time, and was so curved now. But it was her eyes that were her most striking feature. Gifford could never describe those eyes except with words like 'startling' and 'changeable.' Or, perhaps, astonishing.
She brought a cup of coffee to his desk. He said, "You mind reader," and took a long gulp of it.
"It almost makes me forget about wanting to smoke," he said. Then, as she started to go he said, "Sit down a moment."
"How could you tell?"
She laughed. "Four phone calls in the same morning from anyone means trouble. From Tommy Hillier it probably means World War II just broke out and he's cornered the market in nuclear bombs. Or thinks he has."
"Close enough." Gifford picked up the contract on his desk. "Remember this?"
She took it and glanced at it. "Sure."
"Check back and find out who typed it up."
"No need to. I remember it well. It was me."
"You?" Gifford said, astonished. "I thought someone in legal --"
"Don't you remember? It was standard form. It took you an afternoon to negotiate the terms. It was all pretty simple. You handed me your notes, I typed the thing up. It was signed the same day. Everyone seemed happy."
"Oh, yes." He remembered now. He couldn't, however, imagine that clause getting past Lauren Justus. She wasn't one of the station's old line Bible-thumpers: he hired her himself, and considered it the smartest move he'd made since becoming the manager of good old Channel 73. He leaned forward and tapped the contract. "There's something funny on the second page."
He got up and went around the desk. "Right here. Remember this clause?"
"Sure I do. It doesn't seem funny to me."
He glanced down where he was pointing. The paragraph dealt not with souls but with insurance. He took the contract from her hands and scanned the page, finding nothing more spiritual than an explanation of sliding royalty terms. He read it again, more carefully, but still couldn't find the offending clause. He read both pages. There was nothing.
"Is something wrong?" Lauren asked with admirable understatement considering what his expression must look like.
"I'll be damned," Gifford said.
Lauren laughed, perhaps a trifle nervously, perhaps not. "What's going on here?" she asked.
"I don't --. I just --." His explanation sounded lame before he said it. Still clutching the contract he sat back down. "Hell. I guess I've just had too many calls from that son of a bitch Tommy Hillier. He's trying to weasel out and he's found a pretty strange wrinkle. I don't have his angle figured out."
"He wants a new contract?"
"He must. This one's just about run its course." He ran the facts through his mind. "Sales are starting to drop off n Biff's record. We've got fewer than ten showings in the next two weeks on the commercial, most of them late at night. After that, I don't really know if we'll ever run the thing again. The demand is gone. It's that simple. We'll either sell off what's left of the records at a discount or scrap them."
"Who'll buy them?"
"Well, Potter had that option, but my guess is he doesn't have the necessary cash. Besides, that doesn't seem to be what Hillier's after." He drank more coffee then set the cup on the edge of his desk. "To be perfectly honest, Lauren, this thing's about got me whipped. It's that strange."
"It's what you get for taking a job where you have to associate with people like him. You should have taken that cable job."
"It's no different in cable."
He sat a moment, saying nothing, not knowing what to say. Where the hell had that clause gone? He had seen it, hadn't he?
Lauren Justus got up to leave the room. She paused at the door. "You know what your problem is, Martin? Deep down inside, you really like this job."
"Thanks. Now I'm really depressed."
She closed the door behind her and he leaned back and closed his eyes. How the hell could Hillier work a thing like this? Hypnosis? Over the phone? Of course not. Such things weren't possible, were they?
He opened his eyes.
The contract was still in his hands, still turned to the second page. He looked down and read, "Any matter pertaining to or dealing with the soul of Biff Potter, during the period this contract is in force, be under the control of Martin Gifford.
His hand reached for his pipe. It wasn't there.
fter lunch, it was business as usual. There was a meeting to convince one of the city's largest stereo dealers that Channel 73 was a new Channel 73 with just the demographics to be right for his commercials. After that came a meeting with a Holiness minister and two of his deacons (one on the board of the city's largest bank, the other a senior vice president of a development firm specializing in major shopping malls all over the country) to reassure them that Channel 73 was the same old 73, and needn't be denounced from the pulpit for its changes. The meeting ended with all assembled parties on their knees as the minister led prayer. There was a quick meeting after that with the station's public service director about this year's United Way campaign, and for the first time today Gifford found himself able to speak with something akin to enthusiasm. Yes, it would be nice to have those twenty- and thirty-second tapes around to fill those embarrassing slot for which no commercial had been sold. But wouldn't it be nice if some of them were shown at a time when people might be watching, as well?
When that was over, there was still to much afternoon left, and too many special interests needing tending to.
Gifford didn't exactly take this job blind. There were moments, however, when he wished he had. It would be an excuse.
It is a fact of life that small, independent local television stations can always earn a comfortable profit by exploiting that quirk of human nature that dictates human beings will pay perfectly good money for nothing better than to have their faces and voices on television. Foremost among such people are the very religious, whose desires are bolstered by the conviction that their being on television will help save the world, and by the possession of the means to gather sums of money large enough to support their goals.
When Gifford first considered becoming the manager of Channel 73, he found it a typical small-time independent religious station, gathering up that bread which is cast upon the water of Ultra High Frequency by preachers who often mask their show business aspirations in piously phrased references to God's personal urgings that they broaden their ministries. Though it was certainly no threat to the popularity of what could be found on the Music Channel, Gifford reflected, some of the gospel music was pretty good.
And Gifford had to admit that in other ways some of the rest of it was pretty good, also. He had watched with a qualified but unflinching admiration, the antic skills of a faith-healer who yelled into the ears of the hard-of-hearing and proclaimed he had driven from them the very devils of deafness. Another demon-driver Gifford watched with greater dismay: this pulpiteer, upon chasing imps from possession of poor, hopeless souls, would dutifully and without the slightest appearance of shame, warn his congregation that those devils turned loose would surely seek out as their next abodes, such sinners as had not graced the collection plate with sufficient generosity. Gifford had never in his life heard such a rustling of paper as followed that pronouncement.
In a crowd of such showman and their partisans, the efforts of the well-intentioned and generally sincere small-timers were as motes of dust upon a gravel road. They seldom attracted donations in sufficient numbers to finance another thirteen weeks of God's video ministry.
Channel 73 was owned by Harry Putnam Royce, Dr. Harry Putnam Royce, who made his fortune with a chain of popular chiropractic clinics. As recently as five months ago, those clinics were the station's major advertiser. Royce claimed to be an avid Christian and never missed the Thursday Downtown Christian Businessman's Breakfast or a Sunday on the tennis court. His steel-gray hair was meticulously styled and his monthly clothing bill exceeded the station's news budget. His current chief interest, tennis aside, seemed to be the Rev. Linwood Calderon's Morally United American Christians Movement. He frequently was a guest speaker at civic groups on the evils of sex and violence on television, and the men he claimed to most admire were Fred Silverman, Ted Turner, Linwood Calderon and Col. Tom Parker. But once he suggested to Gifford that there was money to be made in a cable television game he wanted to call "Fucking for Dollars," and Gifford had never completely convinced himself the man was joking.
The first time Royce asked Gifford to come south and take over the management of Channel 73, Gifford flatly turned him down. Gifford was programming director of a network affiliate in Chicago at that time, and there was every reason to suspect he would go much further in television than Royce could promise him. The money offered was more than adequate, and it was made all the sweeter with the sucrose of a number of subsidiary deals that were legal, even respectable, and potentially quite profitable. More to the point, Royce promised Gifford a free hand. A simple handshake and a complicated contract spelled the effective end of Channel 73 as a major force for American fundamentalist religion.
One of the side deals was a partnership with Royce of a company for the production of CDs and tapes to be sold through television commercials. That was where Biff Potter entered in.
The second half of Gifford's afternoon was pretty much like the first except that the faces and problems were technically different. The station's new format was starting to pay off and they were, at last, even acquiring a new reputation. The profits assured Gifford of job security, but they did nothing to lessen pressure.
It was one of those rare Mondays when there were no civic functions demanding the appearance of 73's manager to prove his station really cared. At five o'clock he was actually finished for the day, but because he knew exactly what Peachtree Street traffic was like at this hour, he stayed at his desk to scan trade publications.
At about a quarter past the phone rang. It was Tommy Hillier. "Have you thought over my offer?"
"I thought you were sending me a letter."
"That ain't good enough, Sport. I need something tonight. As soon as possible."
"Hell, you agreed to it. I thought maybe I could just bring this thing straight over to you and get your John Hancock on it."
"Before our lawyers get a chance to read it over?"
"Well, I want to get it tonight, not tomorrow."
"I'm busy tonight," Gifford lied.
There was a moment of silence from the phone and Gifford imagined the working of the gears in Gifford's head. What was he up to, anyway?
"Listen, I know you don't believe me, Marty, but I swear to you, I'm not pulling a thing. All I want to do is buy the guy's . . . the guy's soul back. That's all. I'll do anything you want, sign anything, any agreement you want me to sign as long as we can get this thing done right away."
"Tommy . . ."
"Just name the price. Any price you want. I'll guarantee it to you. Listen, we can work this thing out in fifteen minutes, but we need to do it tonight. I'll meet you anyplace you want. Just name any price."
Glancing at the clock, Gifford saw that rush hour traffic would still be intolerable. Momentarily he considered giving in just to get this man out of his hair; but something in Hillier's whining tone added to his irritation and made giving in impossible. Besides, he couldn't trust the man; he knew Hillier was a crook, and if Channel 73 didn't get the short end of whatever deal Hillier had going, he knew poor Biff Potter would.
"I'm just too damned busy," Gifford said.
"Any time you name tonight."
Gifford felt himself growing angry and tried to keep it out of his voice. "The contract runs out in a few weeks, Tommy."
"I can't wait till then. I need to get with you about it tonight. Look, you type the agreement up, anything at all, any terms, so long as you turn Biff's soul over to me. I'll drop by later tonight and pick it up. But it's got to be tonight. Angel Cussler says --"
"Angel Cussler, my adviser. According to --"
"Yeah, I guess so. He gives me pretty good business tips."
"You guess? What is he really, a psychic adviser?'
There was a moment of silence. "Look, is isn't important who Angel is."
"Hell, here I've been thinking you were trying to pull some sort of swindle and the truth all along is that you've fallen for one."
"Give me a break, Marty --"
"I sure will. You call up this Angel Cussler guy and tell him the deal, whatever it is, is off. And you keep away from me until Biff Potter's contract runs out."
"Marty, for Jesus' sake --"
"I'm busy. Goodbye." He hung up.
The office was so insulated from the engineering and studio sections of the station that it might as well have been in another part of the city. With the door closed, he couldn't even hear the television in the lobby. Somehow the silence after Gifford cradled the phone seemed unnatural. He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes tightly and didn't even miss his pipe.
He expected the phone to ring again but it didn't. He couldn't say whether or not he was disappointed, but he was certainly grateful. He left a little past six. He caught a lull in Peachtree traffic and drove to the apartment where he lived alone.
Treating himself to a fast drink and a slow dinner, he decided to spend the evening with a good book and some better music. There would be no television.
Just as he finished filling the washer with his dishes, the phone rang. Hoping Hillier had not somehow gotten hold of his unlisted number, he answered it anyway and was relieved to hear Lauren's voice.
"Have you been listening to the news?" she asked.
"No. I've been listening to John Coltrane, instead. Why?"
"It's Tommy Hillier. He's dead. They think it's suicide."