Monday, March 28, 2005

Chapter 1

How does the old saying go? Be careful what you wish for...

It had been almost two months since I’d moved into Lupa Schwartz’s large Victorian at 808 Hazelwood Ave. in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh to better cover the famous detective’s exploits for the news department of Gamut Magazine. Unfortunately, in that time he hadn’t had one single case worth writing about. We had come close a couple of times as a few cases showed promise; like the disappearance of the Goth legend, but that had proven to be a suicide, and the huge gun theft that Schwartz had refused to investigate because he said the victim had deserved to have his munitions stolen. So I’d been left with nothing to cover, and I’d been forced to edit other people’s work just to earn my salary.

It was especially frustrating since I knew that in the six months leading up to my move from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, Schwartz had been involved in no less than seven story-worthy cases, two of which I had covered personally while living in Cleveland, though I’d had to travel to do it. A harsher irony was that the writer I was currently editing was the new entertainment writer, Clement Foyer, who had gotten the job with my help and had only just immigrated to Cleveland from Pittsburgh at the same time I had emigrated the other way.

So I found myself developing cabin fever, and actually wishing that somebody would hurry up and kill someone so I would have something else to do. It was with that secret desire needling at the back of my mind that I had settled into the den with Beverly Seanesy, Schwartz’s cook, to watch that Friday’s installment of the third season of Overlord, the hit reality game show that was all the rage during that February’s sweeps period.

I had tried to convince Schwartz to join us, but he had refused saying that reality television was, “the entertainment equivalent of rubbernecking an accident.” I told him that this show was different. It was about problem solving, and the psychology of group dynamics. But the truth was that as game shows go, there was nothing particularly original about Overlord. In fact, the premise borrowed heavily from several pre-existing shows. Of course, I wasn’t going to tell him that.

He begrudgingly permitted me to explain to him the premise. “Sixteen strangers are selected to live together for just over three months in a walled complex,” I began trying to make it sound as enticing as I could in a Victorian study on a hill in Pittsburgh. “With their every movement under constant surveillance, they’re divided into two teams of eight, and the teams compete against each other for rewards and the right not to take ‘the test’ while also working together to solve puzzles and (starting with a million dollar kitty) to build a pot that could be the grand prize for one finalist.” I leaned in to make this next part all the more titillating. “The twist is that one of the contestants is actually playing a completely different game. He or she is the overlord, and therefore knows the solutions to the puzzles in advance.”

“That seems a rather unfair advantage,” Schwartz said condescendingly stating the obvious.

“Well,“ I defended, “the object for the overlord is to sabotage the group effort to build the pot without being discovered. You see, any money he or she keeps from the team pot goes into the overlord’s pot. Each week, all of the contestants on that week’s losing team are tested on who they think the overlord is. They rank each of their fellow contestants from both teams on a five point scale as to how likely they think it is that he or she is overlord, and the contestant who ranks the actual overlord lowest overall is eliminated.”

“What if two or more contestants wind up with the same low score?” Schwartz asked, and I could not tell whether his interest was feigned or real.

“In the event of a tie,” I explained, “the contestant who’s mean score for all other contestants skews furthest from accurate is eliminated. And what makes the game fun, and adds to the confusion, is that several contestants are strategically behaving suspiciously so that their fellow contestants might score them with a higher probability as being the overlord.”

“I can see where that might be interesting to some people,” Schwartz demurred. “You said there are two pots, but only one winner. How is that decided?”

“In the final episode each season,” I told him, “when all but one contestant and the overlord have been eliminated, the two remaining gamers play one final round for the pots that they had built. The fourteen eliminated contestants are brought back into the compound to form a jury, and the two remaining players are given the opportunity to offer evidence to the jury that their opponent was the overlord. The former players (now judges) then use the same voting system as before to rank the two remaining contestants, and the one who scores the highest is eliminated, because it means the majority feels that he or she is overlord. At that point, the host appears with two envelopes, each containing a check for one share of the pot. If the winner was the overlord, he or she receives the overlord’s share, and it means the jury was fooled. If not, then the other share is presented. It is not until the moment that the check is presented that the audience learns if the overlord won.” He nodded agreeably, and this is where I screwed things up as far as getting him to watch an episode.

I continued talking about the show like an excited fan. “This season premiered just after new year, so by this time seven contestants have been eliminated. None of the early losers had been particular favorites of either Beverly or myself, so we’re still glued to the set each Friday night rooting for our personal favorites. Beverly decided that she was championing Seth, this muscular lothario type with a receding hairline. My personal favorite is Gwen, the thoughtful mother of three who’s secretly playing all sides against the others. We also each have our picks for who we think the overlord is. I’m convinced that it’s Brad, the slim class-clown type who couldn’t even solve puzzles well enough to qualify as a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. Beverly think it’s Peter, the under-the-radar studious one. However, one that we both agree on is our pick for please-God-let-him-be-eliminated-next guy. We both want Myron off. He’s abrasive, he’s dirty, and (worst of all) he’s unattractive.”

“Enjoy your program,” Schwartz said walking away to play with his cars.

“Oh my God, Cattleya!” Beverly said as she chewed on a piece of popcorn, her blue eyes showing a twinkle of giddy excitement. “I can’t believe he just said that.” She was referring to Myron, who’d been shown making a comment about Gwen’s rear-end to Julia, the too gaunt wanna-be swimsuit model. In reality, the scene was on tape from earlier that week, so he hadn’t actually “just” said it at all.

The video we were being shown was of the food challenge from the Tuesday before. It had played live on the Internet, but most of America waited for the edited version to be broadcast on television before they watched. It was impossible to schedule time to watch the live games anyway, since they were not played on a regular timetable. None but the most pathetic voyeurs could afford the time to watch the twenty-four hour streaming video feed on the net.

The comment which had shocked Beverly had come just after the host, Dale Martin, carrying a large plate of lutefisk (a foul smelling gelatinous Norwegian delicacy made of dehydrated cod re-hydrated in a lye bath) had walked into the middle of the compound where the contestants had gathered. The offending remark had been a comparison between the jiggling mess on the plate and the contestant-at-issue’s ample rear.

After Myron’s crack, the host began to explain the rules for the challenge. It was to be a simple eating competition. Each team would be given four plates with the same amount of lutefisk to consume. The first team to show four empty plates and four empty mouths would win the challenge. Since the blue team had one more player than the red team, one of their players would have to sit out, and the red team got to choose which player that would be. Without hesitation, the red team unanimously selected Myron; and when Dale asked Gwen why Myron had been chosen, she took full advantage of the opportunity to take her revenge.

“Have you ever gotten a whiff of Myron?” she asked. “He probably grew up eating that stuff.” The joke made for good television, although it probably alienated a large portion of Gwen’s Norwegian fan-base.

The game commenced, and it was like “rubbernecking” a car-wreck as Schwartz had said. The repulsed expressions on the faces of the contestants, the occasional retching sounds, the random exclamation of “This is disgusting,” the host’s repeated warnings to watch out for the bones and his reminders that there were chuck-buckets over near the garden, all added to the sympathetic nausea experienced by the viewers. As the game progressed, it became obvious that the blue team was going to take the title; but with Dale’s urging not to give up, the red team made a valiant effort. At one point, it seemed that Candace, the elderly retired school teacher, was going to lose what she’d ingested giving the game to the reds by default; but she persisted, and the blues took another immunity.

With pale faces and Myron pumping his fist, the blue team gathered to celebrate, while the nauseated red team consoled one another as best they could. Even Charles (the red team’s best player who had finished his plate even before anybody on the blue team) took the loss with grace.

Then, before going to commercial, the scene shifted to a live shot of the contestants gathered in the big hall. “That stuff was pretty bad, huh?” Dale Martin asked the assembled teams.

There was a general acknowledgment, and Myron even seemed to have lost his smirk. In fact, while the others had all recovered since the lutefisk ordeal of three days earlier, Myron -- who hadn’t even eaten any of the lye-soaked mess -- seemed a little green himself.

“Charles, how bad was it?” Dale asked the champion eater from the losing team.

“It was bad,” Charles admitted. “I don’t think any of us were able to actually keep it all down.”

“You didn’t,” Dale admitted, as the producers cut to a pre-edited split-screen montage of the players from both teams running to the bathroom, with their heads in buckets or kneeling before toilets. “Every one of you, lost it later that day,” Dale’s voice-over proclaimed. The scene cut back to the live shot, and we saw the players shaking heads and laughing at the sight of themselves puking on national television. In fact, the only one not laughing was Myron, who seemed even greener after having watched his peers losing their lunches.

“Myron doesn’t look so hot,” Beverly said to me, as on the screen Dale babbled his reminder that another of the red players would be going home when they revealed the results of the test after this commercial.

“He never does,” I said.

“No, I mean, he looks sick,” Beverly said.

“Maybe he has a cold,” I said as the sound of Mia Giovani, Schwartz’s private live-in mechanic and the final member of our household, issued from the hall as she entered our house.

“Hello?” Mia shouted as she returned from her date.

“We’re in here, dear,” Beverly announced.

Mia poked her cheerful face into the den, her black hair glistening with snow. “what are you watching?” she asked.

“Overlord,” Beverly answered. “Care to join us?”

“Not tonight,” Mia said. “You’re taping it for me, right?”

“Just like every week,” Beverly said. “How was your date?”

“It was all right,” Mia said. “We had to cut it short because Trevor is taking his son to a ball game tomorrow. Speaking of tomorrow, are we still on for the movie?”

“Absolutely,” Beverly said. “We’re all going to the seven o’clock showing right after dinner.”

We made a little more incidental small talk about the next day’s movie selection as Mia thawed from her time in the February freeze. Eventually, the Overlord graphic filled the screen.

“Commercial’s over,” I announced, and Mia excused herself as Beverly and I re-centered our attention on the screen.

Dale Martin was reminding the players of the rules for “the test” more as an aid to the short memories of the viewing public than for the benefit of the players who had been living and breathing this game for eight weeks now. He then commented that per the rules, since the red team would be down two players there would be a readjustment, and the blue team should be considering which of their players they would be passing to the red team. Then, just as Dale was about to take the red team to the testing room, Myron began to make retching noises. He stood and ran for one of the bathrooms, his progress tracked the whole way by an array of wall-mounted camera’s. Several of the contestants were shown in close up with an odd look of concern on their faces.

“What’s wrong with Myron?” Gwen asked.

“He hasn’t been feeling well since dinner,” Julia answered.

“We all ate the same thing,” Seth said, “so it can’t be food poisoning.”

“Maybe he has the flu,” Charles observed.

“Well, if he does, he’s definitely going to the red team,” Julia sneered.

“Dale.” An amplified voice could be heard emanating from a wall speaker.

“That’s our producer, Todd deMarc,” Dale announced to the camera. “Yes, Todd?”

“Dale, the doctor is coming in to check on Myron. Go ahead and take the contestants into the testing chamber.”

“What do you think is wrong with Myron?” Beverly asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he never got over that case of Montezuma’s revenge they all had in week one.”

With picture-in-picture, we were shown the red team being seated to take “the test” while the main image concentrated on the blue team’s reactions. Depending on the situation, there was often a lot of drama in the main screen during the testing. This should have been such a week. The blue team should have been huddled in cliques or passing signs to indicate who each would vote to pass off to the red team, but that wasn’t happening. Everybody knew that except for Myron’s own vote, it would be unanimous to send him to the red team. Heck, he might even vote himself over.

Soon, “the test” was completed, and the contestants were being escorted back into the main hall. This was when the audience was usually treated to a tense moment while the vote was tallied and the name of the losing contestant would be announced on a large plasma-screen. However, circumstances had changed.

“Dale,” the voice of Todd deMarc was heard again.

“Yes, Mr. DeMarc?” Dale said.

“The doctor wants to examine Myron more closely. We’re going to go to commercial now, and when we come back, we’ll announce whether we’re going to allow him to continue with the game.”