So, it turns out that the family homestead in Oregon is not the writing haven that I hoped it would be over Thanksgiving week. Go figure. Anyway, here's the next installment in our thrilling saga; I hope you enjoy it. And if you're new here, try Chapter One on for size.
Thirty minutes later, everyone had gathered in the "small" conference room, an echoing space that easily seated the ten people who were there with room for another twenty besides. A giant video screen, currently showing an image of a huge Robert Miller seated behind a desk, dominated one wall. There was a camera pointed at the conference room as well, but it wasn’t currently in use because Robert had no interest in seeing them. The microphone was live, though, presumably so that he could confirm that he had their rapt attention.
Brad sat beneath the screen, still wearing his sunglasses and looking like any sudden movement would cause his head to roll right off. He dropped two Alka-Seltzer tablets in a Styrofoam cup of water, stared at it thoughtfully for a moment, then dropped in two more. The cup foamed angrily, a miniature Vesuvius threatening the Pompeii of legal pads and plastic pens scattered around it. The hissing of the tablets was the final straw for Brad’s poor head: he laid it down on the table to await relief.
Thomas had taken advantage of the break while everyone moved to the new room to find Timothy, who had apparently been in his office the whole time but had left the lights out so that no one could tell he was there. Now, Timothy sat in the corner of the conference room, as far from the screen -- or Brad, Stephen wasn’t sure which -- as he could get, drawing on a sketch pad with a charcoal pencil. Thin and pale with a narrow beard, he was a mirror image of Thomas. A fun-house mirror perhaps, with very bright lighting. He had smiled briefly when David and Ricky introduced themselves and then withdrawn to his sketches as soon as the others filed into the room.
Greg had begged off from the meeting, citing network administration duties, but had given Craig a warning look as he moved off down the hall, clearly urging him to behave himself in front of the guests. Connie sat beside Craig now, pen poised, ready to take notes. If she’s really psychic, maybe she should take the notes before the meeting and save us the trouble of having it, Stephen thought uncharitably. She looked up at him quickly and fingered a crystal hanging from a chain around her neck. Her knowing smile made Stephen nervous until he saw her turn it on Ricky as well, who clearly was not thinking anything at the moment. Kelvin sat beside Stephen, still chuckling to himself.
Dan had disappeared as soon as the impromptu meeting in Thomas’ office broke up, then abruptly reappeared at the conference room door, agendas in hand, just as everyone was gathering. He winked conspiratorially at Stephen as he handed him his copy, saying, "Let’s talk later about how we can kick this engagement in the butt." Stephen wasn’t sure what that meant, but he dreaded the conversation just the same. The fact that Dan thought they were on the same side made him a little queasy.
"OK, is everyone there?" Robert’s voice boomed through the room. Various unenthusiastic murmurs of assent assured him that they were. "Fantastic! Brad baby, you still with us? From the hissing coming through the mike, it sounds like it was a four-tab night. Were the girls pretty, at least?"
"I have no idea," mumbled Brad, squeezing the words past the oaken tabletop. "I’m pretty sure they were women this time, though."
"Good enough, buddy, good enough," Robert chuckled titanically and Brad moaned and squeezed his head between his hands. Thomas began fiddling with a gigantic remote control. After brightening and dimming the lights in the conference room, raising the screen halfway and lowering it again, and setting off some sort of alarm, he finally managed to lower the volume on the sound system. Meanwhile, Robert continued his soliloquy.
"Thanks for flying out here to be with us, gentlemen. I’m sorry I couldn’t be with you in person, but traffic between there and Malibu is murder and I have some other matters to attend to out here. That’s why we set up this great video conferencing system, so that I could be there for you whenever you need me. I think it’s worked out well so far. Right, boys?"
Craig rolled his eyes. Timothy winced and slouched lower in his seat, trying to hide behind his sketch pad. Thomas nodded, caught himself, and shouted, "Works for us, Robert!" He pressed a large red button, clearly labeled "MUTE" on the remote, and Robert’s voice faded into silence. He turned to Stephen and grinned, "That was the first button I figured out how to use on this thing. Now he can blather on all he wants and we don’t have to listen. We can’t hear him, and he can’t hear us!"
"Are you sure that’s -- " Stephen began.
"Wait, he’s almost done!" Thomas punched the mute button again.
" -- why I believe that you’ll be the team to hit this one out of the park for us!" Robert concluded.
Brad’s brew had nearly ceased its fizzing. He pounced on it and downed it in one gulp. "Right," he gasped, "let’s get this over with, so I can get to bed. What do you have for us? Sketches, storyboards, some sort of demo?"
David gaped. "We… do not have anything yet. We need to hear from you what it is you want to create."
"Didn’t we tell you this already? We want the world’s first completely online talent search! How hard can that be? Hell, I could probably do it myself after taking a class or two. What have we been paying you guys for?"
Stephen was prepared to step in at that point, but David had dealt with this before. "You cannot simply slap some paint on a digital signboard that says, ‘Talent show tonight in the high school gym.’ If you want to be taken seriously, you must have a serious design. You must have a strategy." Here he paused, seeking an analogy that would resonate. "Would you film a movie without first hiring a cinematographer to present your story in the best way possible?" Brad shook his head, as did the giant Robert behind him. David concluded, "I am your cinematographer. Give me your pitch."
This they understood, and both Robert and Brad were silent for several minutes as they mustered their creative ammunition. Robert was wearing a wireless earpiece for the conference, which was good because thinking apparently required pacing. He began doing so furiously now, so that the conference room denizens only saw fleeting images of his legs whisking across the screen. He was wearing shorts, which failed to improve the view. "OK, Brad, we talked about this, didn’t we? We need this site to have the wow factor of a summer blockbuster, but the subtle touch of a late fall costume drama. We want to attract both men and women, so we’ll need to have lots of babes, but have them doing smart stuff. Reading, working, doing sports. Softball! That’ll bring in those girls who like other girls. Ooh, could we use that, too? No, that’ll scare off the stage moms. We’ll save that for the porn spinoff. Is someone writing this down?"
"Porn spinoff. Got it," repeated Connie.
"Don’t put that part in the official minutes. Last thing I need is another lawsuit. Just send me a note about it."
"Unofficial porn spin-off. Got it."
"But what does softball have to do with a talent search?" asked Ricky.
"Nothing directly," replied Brad, visibly improving as the medication took hold. "Like you guys said, we need to create the feel, set the mood. This is good clean fun. Minus the, uh, girl-on-girl stuff, of course. We need to let people know this is a fun place to be, that we’ll take care of them. We have to make them want to trust us with their dreams. That’s when they’ll give us their money."
"Right," shouted Robert from somewhere off screen, "get ‘em in the door with the teaser and it’s easier for them to stay put than to get their money back and go home to their miserable lives!"
"We need just the right feel," Brad mused, "a sort of Mickey Mouse meets Marilyn Monroe. Fun, but sexy."
"Clint Eastwood tough, but Matt Damon sensitive!" said Robert.
"Angelina Jolie sexy!"
"Tom Hanks funny!"
Thinking he had caught on to the game, Ricky jumped in with, "Ben Affleck smooth!"
Brad glared at him, and Robert stopped pacing to put his face directly before the camera. "Let’s try to be serious, OK?" Robert said witheringly. "We’re trying to work here."
"Sorry." Abashed, Ricky sat back down.
Brad continued. "The music should be powerful like Celine Dion, but just screechy enough to make them feel that they could do better. Like that glee club show!"
"And with a good beat. All those pop singer wannabes on TV had a hip-hop beat behind them."
"We’re having music?" asked David.
"Of course!" shouted Brad. "Every good story needs a soundtrack!"
"I don’t compose. I am strictly a visual artist. Though I suppose I could try."
"Don’t worry about that. We’ll have Timmy do it, right Timmy?" Brad rounded on Timothy, frozen like a chipmunk before an oncoming truck. "You’re not doing anything else, are you Timmy? You can compose our theme song."
Thomas quickly intervened. "Leave him alone, Brad."
"Well, what else is he doing? All he does is sit there and draw those comic books, and I get gorily killed in every one! You have serious issues, Timmy."
"And stop calling him Timmy! You know he hates that. His name’s Timothy, and he’s not going to write a theme song for you!"
Timothy slowly unfroze. "No, I can do it," he said quietly, looking at Thomas, not Brad. "I took composition in college. I’ll do it."
"There we go, all set," said Robert, pausing to adjust his camera, which had been knocked askew by his pacing. "I think we’ve given you enough to work with for now. Why don’t we take a break, have a nosh, and give you boys some time to absorb everything. If you have any questions we can set up another meeting later this week. OK?" Without waiting for anyone to object, he reached out and cut the connection. The screen went blank.
As the others rose to leave, Stephen turned to his team. "Let’s stay in here for a few minutes and debrief before we head out for lunch." Dazed, the other three simply nodded and stayed in their seats as the room quickly emptied.
Thomas shook his head. "No one goes out to lunch here unless they have a deal to make; the restaurants are too crowded for casual dining. We’re catered. Just come on down to the room across from my office when you’re ready. It should be here in a few minutes."
Craig stopped at the door, turned back, and smiled. "Having fun yet?" He darted out before they could respond or, possibly, throw anything.
"So," Stephen began after closing the door, "How are we doing? Could you make heads or tails of all that?"
David shook his head. "I do not even know who all those people were that they mentioned, or what I am supposed to do with them. Except for Madame Dion, of course. Are the others musicians as well?"
"Not really, but I don’t think that’s the point. They were using them as references, a sort of sign pointing toward how they want the site to feel -- " he broke off as the screen suddenly flared to life again. Robert’s face appeared, taking up the whole wall as he peered into the camera.
"Are they all gone?" he asked. "I thought I heard everyone leave, but turn on your camera so I can double-check."
Stephen obliged, panning it across the room so that Robert could see the remaining occupants. Following Robert’s instructions, he also took it off its tripod and waved it under the table to show that no one was hiding there.
"Thanks, kid. You can’t be too careful in my business. Listen, now that it’s just us, let me try to make things a little easier for you. Ignore everything Brad says. The guy’s as dumb as the proverbial bag of hammers, and what few brain cells he once had have been pretty much destroyed by now. I need to keep him happy so that he keeps spending Mommy and Daddy’s money, but we’re never going to make this thing a success if he actually has a say in its creation. Let Brad talk all he wants, but when it comes to actual creative decisions, just listen to me and we’ll be all right. I’ll do my best to keep him out of your hair when it comes time to do the real work.
Robert leaned in conspiratorially, providing a ten-foot-high close-up of his extremely hairy chest. "Whatever you do, though, don’t make him angry! We need him to keep writing those checks, at least for now. Gotta run. We’ll talk soon." He clicked off again, and the screen went dark. This time, Stephen unplugged the microphone and camera before anyone spoke again.
David still looked puzzled. "So, which part was I supposed to ignore?"
That evening, the CouldBU team took the ADD team out to dinner. "After all," said Thomas, "we’ll be paying for the meal, so we might as well come along and enjoy it too. I hope you like seafood."
They went to an exclusive bistro near the beach that was familiar to all of the CBUers. The van came in handy this time, enabling everyone to get there using only two cars. And the look on the valet’s face as they piled out of the side doors was worth the tip, Stephen thought. Brad had declined the invitation to dinner, claiming other appointments, while Connie said she wasn’t comfortable eating in front of her employers. That left Craig, Greg, Thomas, and Timothy, who were clearly used to eating out together. In fact, the host at the restaurant seemed to be expecting them: as soon as they entered the restaurant he ushered them to a large table on the covered veranda.
Stephen was famished. The catered lunch had consisted of steamed vegetables, slabs of something that David assured him was tofu, various sauces, and several bowls of sticky goop that were either side dishes or construction materials. After staring at the choices for several minutes, he had attempted to make a sandwich out of the goop and two tofu slabs, with unpleasant results.
"What exactly was that stuff we had for lunch?" he asked as they sat. He looked hopefully along their table for a basket of bread, but there was none. The waiter was on the other side of the room, looking the wrong way. I’ll give him fifteen seconds, Stephen thought, and then I’m going into the kitchen myself.
"Good, wasn’t it?" enthused Thomas. "I’m on that new Kabbalah Zone diet that all the stars are on now. Schwarzenegger used it to slim down for his first gubernatorial campaign! You can eat all the organic vegetables and whey products you want, but no meats until after sundown. Processed foods and carbohydrates are only allowed on Saturday. This catering company specializes in unique dietary needs, and they have a whole Kabbalah Zone menu. I’ve lost five pounds already!"
"I can imagine you would lose weight pretty quickly, since ‘all the organic vegetables and whey products I want’ is a pretty small amount," Stephen commented. "Any chance we could get some sandwiches or something on the side tomorrow?"
Thomas shrugged, "I don’t know if they do sandwiches anymore, but I’ll see what I can do. You really should try it, though. You stop craving breads after a week or two, though the intestinal, er, complications can be a little disconcerting."
"Thanks, I’d appreciate it. Bread to start, please! Preferably before the water. Or the specials." The waiter had arrived and begun his greeting. At the look on Stephen’s face, he closed his mouth and scurried away in search of several baskets of bread. In moments, he returned with not only bread, but various dipping oils as well.
"Would you all like water, as well?" he asked.
Ricky glanced up from his bread basket in surprise. "Since when is that optional? Is there a shortage?"
"No sir, but not all customers prefer it. Would you like fizzy or regular?"
"Um, regular, I suppose. Do I need to specify ice or no ice, too?"
Thomas came to Ricky’s rescue. "Two bottles of each, please." The waiter waited as Thomas scanned his guests. "On ice and with ice for the table." The waiter nodded and left again.
"Ordering food is very complicated here," opined Ricky.
"Not like getting a latte, huh?" needled Stephen.
"That’s very different. Every piece of that order is a component of the whole drink experience."
"Well, once you get a handle on this experience, then I’m sure your coffee expertise will come in quite handy. Meanwhile, I need some bread." Stephen reached into the basket that the waiter had placed directly in front of him and tore a huge steaming hunk off of the loaf. "Ah, much better."
Once they had ordered the rest of the meal and everyone had settled in with the drinks and waters of their choosing, Craig spoke up. "We should probably get this out of the way now, to save you another couple of days trying to figure it out." He gestured to himself, Greg, Thomas and Timothy. "We’re married."
"All four of you?" Ricky asked. "And I though Massachusetts’ marriage laws were liberal!"
"No, not all four of us! Well, yes, all four of us, but not all together. Greg and I are married and Tom and Tim are married." Craig held up a hand. "Spare me the comments on how cute our names are together. We’re aware, and no, we didn’t do it on purpose." He looked at the other three. "Well, not entirely, anyway.
"I just wanted to get this out in the open now. Some people are uncomfortable with it, but it seems to be easier to deal with if we just discuss it instead of trying to pretend that we don’t have relationships. Plus, it makes some of our conversations at the office a little more understandable. If you have a problem with us, well, that’s your right, but I hope that we can all be professional and work together regardless." He paused and looked around the table. No one else spoke. "Thoughts?"
Ricky responded first. "Given my ancestry, I can hardly judge anyone else’s sexual practices. As long as you don’t bring any family spats into the office, I don’t mind."
David said, "Please! I am an artist! Most of my friends are gay and on their third marriage. You have nothing that can surprise me." He cast a sidelong glance at Greg, who was smiling mischievously, and added, "but please do not try."
Kelvin was predictably unfazed. "According to some studies, ten percent of the population has homosexual tendencies. While those studies are somewhat in dispute, I don’t really care as long as you do your jobs well."
Everyone looked at Stephen now. He shrugged uncomfortably. "Well, it’s fine with me, too. After all, you’re not the first gay engineers I’ve met, and I don’t expect that you’ll start making out in the office or anything." He thought for a moment. "Is Brad gay, too?"
"Well, he certainly compensates like someone with a few skeletons in his closet," replied Greg. "But no, we’re fairly certain that he’s straight. Some might say flamboyantly so. Whatever he’s compensating for, it’s not that. No, we’re the only fags in the office," he concluded airily.
Stephen winced at the term, and Craig elbowed Greg. "Stop it. You get way too much pleasure out of making other people uncomfortable, and you think you can get away with it just because you’re cute. That doesn’t work on everyone, you know, and it’s hardly fair."
Greg, attempting to look contrite, apologized in a singsong voice, "Sorry, Stephen."
"It’s OK. I just spent a long time in Southie learning not to call people that. When you say it, I can taste the soap that my Mom used to teach me that lesson."
"Eww. Well, it’s better than what my Dad used to try to teach me not to kiss boys." The food arrived at that moment, and everyone gladly accepted the distraction. It was some time before anyone spoke again, other than to compliment the meal.
While they waited for dessert to arrive, Craig returned the conversation to business. "So, what did you think of the creative meeting today? Was it all you expected and more?"
"Well, it was definitely more," replied Stephen carefully, still unsure of the relationship between Brad, Robert, and those at the table. "They gave us a lot of ideas to work with, though I’m not exactly sure what we’ll do with them yet." He looked to David for help.
"The… images they conjured gave me a strong sense of… theme," he struggled gamely for a moment, but finally gave up. "Feh! I can make neither heads nor tails of their suggestions. They are either idiots or savants, but I cannot tell which! You tell me: which are they?"
Stephen’s fears that this outburst would put them on the next plane home were quickly allayed as the other four men burst out in laughter. "Possibly one of each," Craig laughed, "or some combination of both. Brad clearly leans toward the idiot end of the spectrum."
"That seemed to be Robert’s assessment as well," Stephen offered cautiously. "He blinked back on after you all left and basically told us that his suggestions were the only ones we should take seriously. Brad’s money covers a multitude of idiocies, though, doesn’t it?"
"And has for years," Greg agreed. "It’s not his money, though, if we want to be precise. It’s his parents’. Daddy’s a big developer in Arizona, and as far as we can tell, it’s cheaper to pay for Brad’s projects out here than to keep him around home. He apparently tried his hand at the family business, but for some reason the concept of an all-sand desert-themed golf course didn’t catch on. He had a point, though: it was much less expensive to build and maintain."
"And what about Robert? Is he the brains of this operation, then?" Kelvin asked. Then, faced with four affronted looks, he quickly added, "Present company excepted, of course."
"He’s all sizzle, no steak, to quote -- well -- him," said Craig. "He was a great agent in his day, and can talk a good enough game to get a producer to cast Adam Sandler as MacBeth -- "
"That was him?" David interrupted. "It is just as well I do not know where he lives."
"But he doesn’t know a thing about technology, in case you haven’t figured that out already. Eventually, he’ll learn enough buzzwords to convince his Hollywood friends that he really has made the jump to Internet venture capitalist, but I doubt he’ll ever be able to make this site succeed."
"So now you’re telling us that we shouldn’t listen to either one of them?" asked Stephen. "Because given how much talking they do, that’s going to be a challenge."
"Oh no, you should absolutely listen to both of them," said Craig. "And build exactly what they ask you to build."
The looks on the faces of Stephen, Kelvin, Ricky, and David could best be summed up with the sound, "Hunh?"
To ensure that the full import was not lost on their hosts, Stephen vocalized their collective confusion. "Hunh? Why should we listen to them and do exactly what they say if it’s doomed to fail?"
"Come on, did you actually think otherwise?" rejoined Craig. "I mean, really, an online talent show? It’s not the 90s anymore: people expect the Internet to actually do something useful."
"Well, it seems farfetched, I’ll admit, but if it were executed well, and marketed exactly right, and had some celebrity talent to back it up, and there was nothing good on TV, it could… work," Stephen finished lamely.
Greg reached across the table and patted his arm. "You go with that, Hon. In fact, you go out and do just that: execute it well. Execute it spectacularly, in fact. And take your time."
Craig leaned in, now, too, "You see, the more time they spend talking to you, the less attention they’ll pay to us, which will give us the time we need."
"Need for what?" asked Stephen. "You’re going to be working with us on this, aren’t you?" He looked over at Thomas, who was at the other end of the table trying to pretend that he couldn’t hear them over the noise in the restaurant. "Thomas? Tom! Oh come on, you can hear me just fine! What are you going to be doing while we sit in meetings with Brad and Robert?"
"Don’t bring me into this," Thomas said petulantly. "I think that the talent search is a great idea, with a lot of potential! It’s a great improvement! I said as much to Brad when he came back from meeting with Robert."
"Improvement over what?" asked Stephen. "What did he improve?"
"I was getting to that," said Craig, shooting an irritated look at Thomas. "CouldBU wasn’t Brad’s idea; it was ours. At least, the genesis of what became CouldBU was our idea. We wanted to build a secure high-speed portal to link the studios, talent agencies, and production companies, a sort of Hollywood village market where they can share ideas, post casting calls, send bios and head shots, etc. Basically, all the things that they do now by fax and courier could be done a hundred times faster online. And with the security that we would provide, they could control access to their communications, so that it’d be harder to steal their ideas. Just think: no more summers with five disaster movies, all starring Jude Law! It really can’t lose.
"We came up with this idea a year ago, when the three of us -- me, Greg, and Thomas -- were working together on another project in San Francisco. We talked to some friends in the biz and they thought we were on to something. Hollywood runs on contacts, though, and we didn’t have any. Except Thomas. He knew Brad from college, and had kept in touch mainly by going to premieres of movies that Brad had worked on in some way. He called Brad and told him our idea. Brad said he would shop it around and see what people thought. He invited Thomas to come down for some meetings, but Thomas declined." He paused to glare at Thomas again.
"I had a date!" Thomas countered defensively. Timothy, who was busily sketching something on the tablecloth, colored but didn’t look up.
Greg picked up the story while Craig and Thomas continued to glare at each other. "Anyway, we didn’t hear from Brad for about two weeks, and then he shows up in San Francisco and tells us to pack our bags and get our cute butts down to LA. Except he didn’t say butts," he said as an aside to Stephen, "he said -- "
Stephen raised a hand. "I get the picture. Move on."
"Touchy. He told us he had sold the idea to a big venture capitalist who was looking for the next big thing. Except the whole industry portal thing was too boring. It needed more sizzle. So over drinks and, I suspect, a joint or two, they had a huge epiphany together. Except he didn’t say epiphany. He said ‘epissany.’ And so CouldBU was born, out of Brad and Robert’s epissanies."
"I don’t understand," said Ricky. "Why did you move down here and agree to work on this if you were convinced it was going to fail?"
"Two words," said Greg, "stock options. Lots and lots of stock options."
"Aren’t stock options worthless if a company goes belly-up?" asked Kelvin.
Greg frowned, "I hadn’t thought of that." Then he brightened. "Well, we could still go public before we go belly-up. Never overestimate the intelligence of the stock market." Kelvin conceded the point.
"Two more words, then," added Craig, "capital funding. We went to Brad in the first place because we needed money to build our project. After we got over being really, really mad at him, we realized that he could still fund the development. He just couldn’t know he was doing it. That’s where you come in."
"Us?!?" The picture was becoming clearer to Stephen, and while he wasn’t sure he liked it, he also wanted to hear them explain themselves before he flew off the handle. He was right at the edge of the handle, though, and his grip was loosening.
"Right. We had already decided that we needed ADD’s technology for our project, and we suggested to Robert that he bring in the experts to help us do things right the first time. Our plan was that you would work on the CouldBU site while we worked on our portal."
The urge to curse long and loudly rose up in Stephen with a force almost too powerful to contain, but his promise to Jenny was stronger. Barely. He made a few choking noises and a sound that could only be described as spluttering before finally working words past clenched teeth. "You want us to be a…" he checked the word, decided it was acceptable, "bloody diversion?"
"Not a diversion exactly," Craig replied. "Well, yes, actually: diversion is the right word. But the job hasn’t changed: you’ll still be building the site you were hired to build. You’ll just be doing it without having to worry about us holding you back. No dead weight slowing you down. And we’ll be glad to pitch in if you get into real trouble."
Stephen’s teeth had not yet unclenched. "Gee, that’s big of you."
"Oh, and Brad and Robert have no idea how many people it takes to build a software application, and they clearly have more money than sense, so if you need more engineers from your side you can always bring on more. That way, you won’t suffer from not having us working with you full-time. So really, it’s a win-win situation!"
"Excepting the part where we have to build something that’s doomed to spectacular, messy failure. I don’t know that I’d call that a win."
"It all depends upon how you look at it." Craig began ticking off points on his fingers, "You get paid handsomely to work on an exciting project in the entertainment industry. You get to spend the winter in LA instead of Boston. You have clients who will spare no expense because they have no sense of what things should cost. And when it’s all over, you’ll have a great story to tell over drinks back home. What are a few more creative meetings with the Wonder Twins compared to that? It could definitely be worse."
After concentrating for several moments, Stephen finally unlocked his jaw. Working it back and forth, he mused, "’It could be worse,’ huh? You seem to think that I should find that comforting. Right now, it feels more prophetic, and not in the good ‘You will meet a tall, dark stranger’ way. More like ‘And the angel opened the seventh seal, and the earth shook with a great earthquake.’"
Continue to Chapter 7