Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 7

Table of Contents


Chapter 7

The next several days, Stephen, Ricky, and David tried to make sense of an ongoing stream of ideas from Brad and Robert while Kelvin worked with the engineering team to design an infrastructure that could support a large web site with a little bit of extra capacity left over.

"We don’t need much," noted Craig one afternoon, "just enough to put up a proof-of-concept demo. If we get some customers, we’ll buy our own servers and build the full-scale application on them. Just leave us a corner of the room, so to speak, and we’ll make do."

"How big of a corner do you need?" asked Kelvin.

"Only about 20% of the capacity. We don’t want to be greedy. And whatever you do, make sure that no one can find it unless we tell them where to look! We don’t want Brad stumbling across this thing and stealing it again."

As the week went on, they settled into a rhythm of sorts: breakfast at the hotel, coffee at Starbucks, and then an hour or two of reading email, planning for their meetings, and chatting while they waited for Brad to drag in. Then Stephen and the designers would enter their own private Wonderland, where a never-ending stream of garbled references and conflicting suggestions washed over them continuously from Brad and the big screen on the wall.

"It has to be sexy and hip, like Studio 54 meets Boogie Nights, only without any obvious schlong references," said Brad. He paused, chewing meditatively on an Alka-Seltzer tablet. "We could always work those into the background design if we wanted to, though, right?"

"It has to say, ‘I’ve arrived,’ like Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, or Bette Davis in that one with the close-ups," countered Robert, "Sunset Strip! That one!"

"Do you mean Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard?" asked Stephen.

"Don’t get lost in the details, son! Think big picture here, big picture!" said the big picture that was Robert.

Some times, David tried to gain some control over the meetings.

"OK, I think I have enough sense of the feel you are going for," he said tiredly about two hours into one meeting, "let’s talk about the look. What colors do you want to use?"

"Bright colors! It has to be bright and lively! We don’t want people to get depressed thinking about how slim their chances are of winning anything," said Brad.

"On the other hand, we want to be taken seriously. If the site looks like someone threw up Life Savers all over the screen, we’re not going to get the funding we need from the studios," said Robert.

"So bright, but not like candy vomit," sighed David, rubbing his temples. "Well, that gives me a range in which to work. Do you have any more thoughts on the color palette?"

"No green," said Robert. "I hate green. Makes me look jaundiced."

David gave a small whimper and laid his head down on his folded arms. "No green," was his muffled reply.

Dan "facilitated" every design session, which meant that he counted to make sure that everyone was in the room, handed out copies of a meeting agenda -- which looked suspiciously like the same document with the date changed every time -- called the meeting to order, and sat down opposite Stephen. In their second meeting, he had tried calling on each person in the room when it was their turn to speak, but he had quickly fallen behind the rapid-fire exchange between Brad and Robert to the point that he was simply yelling out names at random. After his request for people to raise their hands before speaking was ignored, he sat down and pouted throughout the rest of the meeting. From then on, he just fell asleep five minutes after the meeting started and woke with a "Good meeting, everyone!" when everyone rose to leave. Stephen tried to get him to go and help the technical team instead, but he declined the offer.

"They told me that you needed me more, since they’re just getting all geeky with their system architecture diagrams. I want to be here to help you flush out the details, find the synergies, and create an actionable top-down plan!” Dan flushed slightly. “Besides, they locked the door."

Timothy attended every one of these sessions as well, though he never spoke. He sat in his corner, as far away from everyone as he could get, sketching on his pad and humming to himself. Since agreeing to compose the company theme song, Timothy had music on his mind. What had started with occasional snatches of potential tunes had evolved into a constant state of mind, a seeking after the perfect musical accompaniment to every activity. Now he traveled with his own personal soundtrack, which he hummed or whistled continuously at a barely audible level so that, like Timothy himself, it impinged on one’s awareness slightly but couldn’t be ignored once you were aware of it. After long periods of exposure, Stephen often found himself unconsciously nodding or tapping his pen in time.

Timothy claimed that he was working on the site theme song during each design session, but every once in a while he would look up at Brad as though sighting him for a rendering, and then begin scribbling furiously on his pad. At those times, Stephen would have sworn that the tune Timothy hummed was "Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead."

***

After the third design session, Stephen stayed behind in the conference room and asked Robert to call him so that they could talk.

"No, this is fine, kid. We’re already online, and it takes me about twenty minutes to switch all this stuff over so I can use the headset for the phone. Plus, I like being able to see if anyone comes in. Take no prisoners, take no chances, you know what I mean?" He gave Stephen a monolithic wink from the screen.

"Um, I suppose so," replied Stephen. "Hopefully, this won’t take too long, anyway. I just need to get a sense of the business drivers for this project. What’s the potential market size, what’s our budget, when do we need to go live, things like that. Do you have a copy of the business plan somewhere that you could send me?"

"Business plan?" Robert asked. At least, Stephen thought that was what he said. It was difficult to hear clearly over the alarm bells ringing in his head.

"Yes, the plan that you showed to investors to get them to give you their money. It would say why this was a good idea and how you planned to make a profit. Ideally, it would also tell me how much we have to spend. Do you have something like that?"

"A business plan," Robert repeated slowly. "What an interesting idea! No, we don’t have anything like that. That’s not how things are done out here in LA, kid. Out here, we live on ideas. You can sell a movie in ten minutes with nothing more than a cocktail napkin. And if the pitch is hot enough, the napkin doesn’t even have to have anything on it! Those numbers and schedules are fine for the bean-counters, but the movers, the shakers, the idea men, they look for that diamond in the rough and they grab it before someone else trips over it. Let the accountants figure out the details; our job is to make this chicken fly!"

Stephen tried to recalibrate his approach. "OK, so we can leave the schedule for now and figure it out later. Should I talk to your accountant to find out what the budget is, then?"

"Nope."

"Why not?"

"We haven’t hired one yet. It’s on the list, though."

"You have a list of things to do? Could I see that? It would be a start, at least."

"Well, it’s not really a physical list. More of a metaphysical one, really."

"A metaphysical to-do list?"

"Sure! Find enlightenment, lose 30 pounds, hire an accountant. It’s all up here." Robert tapped his temple, sending a booming through the speakers that rattled the pens on the conference table.

"I’ll need to find some way to get it out of there if I’m going to help you launch this site, and this company, to the world," said Stephen, catching his pen as it bounced off the table.

"All in good time, my boy, all in good time. I’ll try to send you something next week. Meanwhile, don’t forget what I said about Brad. Keep him happy."

***

Kelvin was having a grand time working with the CouldBU engineers. The challenge of building a hidden business application right next to a public entertainment web site was greater than building the entertainment site alone, and the ethical issues were far less interesting than the technical ones. They all convened in Craig’s office as soon as the ADD team arrived each morning and didn’t come out except for meal and bathroom breaks. Soon, all four of Craig’s walls, which were floor-to-ceiling whiteboards, were covered with network diagrams, mock data structures, and scribbled notations. Stephen had rarely seen Kelvin happier.

David and Ricky were another story. Every afternoon, they attempted to interpret what they had heard into drawings, storyboards, and prototypes. Shut into an office together, they brainstormed, sketched, discarded, argued, and started all over again. No convention of scriptural scholars could have matched these discussions for passion or obscurity of material. While the debate was not unusual, the volume and intensity of it was. Whenever their discussions finally reached a Talmudic impasse, they called Stephen in as the tiebreaker.

"When Robert said that the home page had to be as smooth and charming as Cary Grant in Charade, I assumed he meant that blue should dominate," David began.

"I agree with Brad, though," countered Ricky, "Marky-Mark was much better in that role in the remake, The Trouble with Charlie. So clearly, we want to have a strong geometric design to the page. I’m thinking diamonds." Here, he held up a sketch showing a sample home page with an argyle pattern in the background. The page was dominated by a large sketch of a man who appeared to be leaning against the edge of the screen, hands in his pockets, shirt untucked. Squiggles representing text were scattered about the page around the man’s outline, including between his legs and in the crooks of his elbows.

"Who’s the guy?" asked Stephen.

"Whoever they get to be their spokesperson. I’m thinking Matt Damon, to bring out that whole overnight success factor. It doesn’t really matter right now, though: look at the diamonds!"

"Can’t you compromise and use blue diamonds?"

David and Ricky stared at Stephen incredulously, then burst into laughter. "And that is why you are a project manager and not a designer," laughed David, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. "Blue diamonds! Why not green clovers and purple horseshoes as well? Hee hee hee!"

Chagrined, Stephen turned to leave. "I don’t know why you keep asking me in here if you’re just going to laugh at all of my suggestions. I’ll leave it at this for now: if it comes down to Brad’s suggestion or Robert’s, take Robert’s; but be prepared to explain to Brad how you worked his suggestion in at the subliminal level. He seems to think that works. Heck, on him it probably would."

David sobered and said, "Thank you for your help, Stephen. You are right, and I am sorry we laughed. Your suggestion for handling conflicting direction makes good sense. We will have something ready to present to the client before the end of the week."

Mollified slightly, Stephen left, closing the door as he went so that the debates would not bother anyone else. As he walked down the hall, sounds of laughter broke out anew behind him.

***

Outside of his referee/comic relief duties, Stephen had little to do in the afternoons. He had tried attending some of the technical design sessions, but felt the atmosphere cool noticeably when he walked into the room. Whether this was because his presence was a constant reminder of what they were supposed to be working on or whether engineers just naturally distrusted anyone who couldn’t code, he decided to occupy himself elsewhere. Kelvin seemed to be building a rapport with the other engineers, and Stephen didn’t want to jeopardize that relationship by hanging around. He tried to find other things to do, but it was too early to start working on schedules and he wasn’t ready to risk another meeting with Brad and Robert to try to extract more details on the business plan just yet. So he spent the afternoons just trying to dodge Dan.

It all started at lunch on Tuesday. After a grueling session of mixed metaphors and mangled movie references, Stephen wanted nothing more than to sit quietly and eat his tofu. Timothy had even made a concession to the non-Kabbalah eaters by ordering some bread to go with the rest of the lunch, so Stephen was looking forward to seeing if peanut tofu tasted any better inside a sandwich (it didn’t). As he worked his way down the table filling up his plate, Dan sidled in beside him.

"Hey, Stefferoo, how’s tricks?" His chipper voice intruded upon Stephen’s contemplation of the steamed eggplant tray.

"It’s Stephen, Dan, remember? Just Stephen, with a ‘vuh’ sound." Stephen finally selected one slab of eggplant that looked less slimy than the others and moved on to the salad. Chipotle ranch dressing today, yum.

"Right, sorry, Stever. Listen, I thought maybe we could talk, consultant to consultant, and figure out how to divvy up this assignment. I mean, I don’t want to go around pissing on desks to mark my territory or anything, but since I was here first I might be able to give you the lay of the land. I want to partner with you, not be a threat to you."

Stephen dropped a clump of mixed field greens on his plate and looked coolly at Dan. "I don’t see you as a threat, Dan."

Dan was almost comically relieved. "Good, that’s good! I mean, there’s enough here for everybody, right? And we’re professionals, you and I. We know how these gigs work. We’ll just bucket the work, get the blocking and tackling out of the way, and knock this baby out of the park! The important thing is that everyone’s playing off the same sheet of music. Net-net, everyone wins."

I wonder if he even understands himself, Stephen thought, trying hard not to roll his eyes. "That’s fine, Dan. You just keep working on… whatever you do, and we’ll keep plugging away on our end. Sound like a plan?"

"That’s a great thumbnail sketch, but I think we need to put some more meat on it, you know what I mean?"

Hardly. "Well, we’re pretty booked with the design and technical meetings while we’re out here. What did you have in mind?"

"Believe me, I know! I’m in all of them, too. I think we just need a couple of high-level project strategy meetings, where you and I can hammer out the details of how we plan to co-manage this engagement. I’ll be glad to scribe and give you a break after all of those other meetings. We just need an action plan before you guys take off again."

Stephen could tell there was no escape, so he surrendered. "OK, fine. Let’s play it by ear as the week goes on, OK? I’m sure I’ll have some free time."

Since that day, he had desperately tried not to have any free time. Unfortunately, Dan seemed to have a sixth sense for idling, appearing at Stephen’s office door the moment he sat down. Stephen tried locking the door, but that just seemed to encourage Dan all the more. He kept tapping quietly, saying "Stevie, it’s me!" over and over again, as though they had planned a secret rendezvous but Stephen had forgotten to let him in before locking the door. When Stephen finally relented and let him in, he insisted on speaking in hushed tones for as long as they stayed in the office. Stephen had finally taken to wandering the halls when he had free time, checking carefully around each corner before he walked into the open. He was a hunted man.

The most annoying thing about these "confabs," as Dan liked to call them, was not their frequency. Rather, it was the fact that they never actually talked about the work at hand. Dan usually opened their time with some jokes that he had just found on the Internet or some wild urban legend that someone had forwarded to him ("Did you know that a man in New Orleans went home with a strange woman and woke up in a bathtub full of ice with one kidney missing? I tell you, people are crazy."). He then spent the next hour or more relating pieces of his life story, which was frighteningly complicated yet exquisitely uninteresting. Stephen tried hard to look like he was paying attention while he sat there wondering whether he could bludgeon Dan unconscious with his stapler without doing too much damage to the stapler.

As Stephen unwillingly learned, Dan had not been a consultant long. In fact, he was more of an itinerant actor/motivational speaker/entrepreneur who had washed up on the shores of Los Angeles, like so many other Angelinos, when drawn there for a bit part in a movie. Finding that all acting jobs were not as easy to get as the first one, he had started a new career as an e-insurance salesman. His site, CouldBU.com, had sold disaster insurance to a primarily elderly population, with the slogan, "Next Time, It Could Be You." The number of retirees combined with the number of natural disasters in the Los Angeles area had presented a numbers game that he could not lose.

When presented with the opportunity to sell his web domain name to a fledgling entertainment company Dan had reinvented himself again. Rather than just taking a lump sum for his electronic property, he finagled himself a permanent income. After a few days of studying the web sites and other promotional material of the top global consultancies, he put his acting and motivational talents to work and launched on his third (or fifth, depending upon how you counted) career: management consultant.

"So, what exactly do you do for your salary?" Stephen asked late Thursday afternoon, when curiosity finally overcame boredom.

Dan shrugged. "Run meetings, mostly. No one else really likes them, so I just filled the gap."

***

On Friday, the ADD team came in a little earlier than usual. They were leaving that evening to fly back to Boston, but first they needed to present their first visual and technical designs for Brad and Robert’s approval. Greeting the receptionist in her oaken redoubt on the way in the door, they continued through the hallway maze to the set of offices that had been assigned to them for the duration of the project. Stephen sipped his double mocha latte and paused to enjoy the molten chocolate energy pouring into his system, then worried aloud, "I don’t know if we have anything they’re going to like. What if they hate it all and we have to come back next week for more creative meetings?" He shuddered at that thought.

"You sound like my prom dates," said David, and mimicked Stephen in a high falsetto, "‘What if they don’t like what I have to show them?’ I will tell you what I told them: when I am done with you, everyone will love you and want to be just like you, at least to the extent of wanting to be with me. These designs are works of art that will call to the artists that are buried deep, deep within Bradley and Robert. Never fear."

Notwithstanding the comparisons to a nervous girl, Stephen was mildly comforted by this statement. David, for all his eccentricities -- for the presentation today, he was in full artistic regalia: black pants, turtleneck, and beret, with a long white silk scarf and gold-rimmed glasses with no lenses perched on his forehead -- was a skilled designer, and had a knack for penetrating to the heart of what clients wanted to portray to the world. He would come through once again, and then they could all go home to start working on the actual prototypes.

He turned to Kelvin, "How about you? Are your protégés ready to start building whatever it is they’re going to build?"

"They’re already building it, as far as I can tell," said Kelvin. "They’re so nervous about security now that they won’t let me look at any more than snippets of the code, but they’re certainly working at a furious pace. We worked out the basic storage and server capacity requirements for both our site and their demo site, and I have all I need to start the architectural design when we return to Boston. The good news is that I have convinced them to put forth enough effort on our project that we shouldn’t need to add any more engineers to the team. They’ll give us two days a week, and given how quickly they’re picking up the technology, that should result in more production than we planned for before we met them. Of course, that may change if they get anyone interested in their studio portal. If that takes off, we’ll be hard pressed to get anything out of them ourselves."

"It’s better than nothing. I’ll talk to Jack and see if we can have one or two of our own people in the wings, just in case. As far as the presentation today, just keep it at a high level. The engineers already know what you’re doing, and you’ll lose Brad and Robert within about two minutes of talking tech. Just make it clear that it’s under control and give them a sense of what the hardware costs are going to be."

Kelvin was mildly offended. "I have done this before, you know. But point taken: I’ll do my best not to drone on about servers and bandwidth, scintillating though I find it."

At that moment, Connie knocked on the door frame and stuck her head into the office. "Brad’s ready for you."

"Really? It’s barely 8:30. Are you sure it wasn’t someone who just looked like him?"

Connie looked at him oddly, then said, "To be honest, I wondered about the possibility of a body double myself. But I checked his aura, and it’s Brad, if a slightly cleaner version. Come on, they’re all waiting in the small conference room."

Stephen looked at the others, shrugged, and followed Connie down the hallway. David and Ricky gathered their sketches and followed, with Kelvin taking up the rear.

The CBU contingent was already in the room when they arrived, though the video screen was blank. Brad sat at the head of the table as usual, dressed in what, for him, was sober business attire: a cream-colored silk suit over a shiny maroon shirt, with an obviously expensive tie knotted at his throat. As he uncrossed his legs to rise and greet them, Stephen noted that he still wore no socks.

"All right, we’re all here," Brad said, clapping his hands and rubbing them together, "Show us what you’ve got."

"Um, aren’t we going to wait for Robert?" asked Stephen, nodding his head at the video screen.

"He had something come up and won’t be able to join us today. I’ll review the designs and tell him what I think when we catch up. You can leave copies with us to look at later, right?"

"We certainly can, but should we consider rescheduling this for when you both can attend? Is Robert busy all day? Our flight doesn’t leave until late this afternoon." Stephen paused, thinking furiously. He wasn’t entirely comfortable without someone around who could keep a leash on Brad, and he didn’t think any of the CBU engineers was up to the task. "I just want to make sure that both of you get to see what we have done with your suggestions, since this has been such a… collaborative effort."

Brad flushed. "I can handle this myself, without Robert looking over my shoulder." He turned and glared at the screen briefly before turning back to Stephen, "Go."

David rose and, after looking for and receiving permission from Brad, who moved over to one side, carried an easel to the head of the table. Most visual designers did even their earliest sketches electronically now, presenting them to clients either over the web or with a laptop and projector, but David preferred to work with paper when he was first creating a design. He claimed that the tactile sensations of the pens on the paper, the smell of the ink, and the cleansing sensation of crumpling a failed drawing and hurling it across the room all stimulated him more than the sterile pointing and clicking of electronic drawing. So now, just like the pitch-masters of old, he set a stack of drawings on his easel and began to walk his audience through the story of their product.

"We have discussed many ideas and, er, visual concepts in our meetings over the past week, but the one recurring theme has been a sense of excitement, the willingness to dream big. You are selling dreams to people, dreams of fame, of money, of artistic achievement beyond what they could achieve on their own. We want them -- we need them -- to believe that CouldBU.com is their ticket to realizing those dreams, enough so that they will be willing to spend money to buy a raffle ticket for stardom. We wove these two concepts, excitement and dreams, throughout the visual and informational design of the site, as you can see here…."

This was David in his element, commingling artistry and business reality into an alloy of practical beauty. Now that he had begun, any doubts he may have had about the quality of the creative input or his ability to distill it into a workable design evaporated in the heat of his enthusiasm for the vision. He moved smoothly from page to page, pointing out where he had incorporated a specific piece of advice or explaining why they had made certain design choices, occasionally turning to Ricky for comments on how this design also enhanced the usability of the site. He was fully in command of the room, so Stephen sat back and let the words roll over him as he turned his attention to gauging the reactions of the others.

Timothy was actually paying attention for once, staring raptly and, truth be told, a little enviously at David’s designs as each new drawing was revealed. He had stopped humming, too, which was a welcome break now that Stephen noticed it. Thomas had noticed it too, which was probably easier since he was sitting right next to Timothy, and the tightening around his eyes had eased somewhat. Clearly, the subliminal soundtrack was manifesting itself at home as well.

Craig was listening closely, making notes while David spoke. Stephen couldn’t read the notepad from where he sat, but he assumed that the notes had more to do with how one could apply these design concepts to a business application than with a talent search tool. Craig had been tactful enough not to try to press David into service on his shadow project yet, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t try to reuse whatever had been done for the official job. He’s a quick study, thought Stephen, too bad he’s not working for us. Greg, sitting next to Craig, just looked bored, waiting for the technical conversation to begin. Across from him, Dan was already snoozing next to Connie, who sat, pen in hand, ready to take notes if anyone decided anything.

Stephen gaze slid around to Brad, who appeared decidedly less impressed than his colleagues. In fact, he looked ready to explode. He sat, red-faced, his hands clenching and relaxing spasmodically, as though he were torn between making a fist and throwing something, but was ready to do either as soon as he made up his mind. He shifted irritably in his chair, tugging at his jacket as David made a point about site structure, and then rolled his eyes at David’s choice of colors for the menu.

Finally, he could take it no more and sprang to his feet. He pounded the table with a fist, shouting, "No, no, no! You have it all wrong! This isn’t anything like what I asked for! Have you even been listening to me for the past four days? I mean, where do you come up with this crap? This might fly in French Canada, but it just sucks here in the US of A." He grabbed a handful of sketches and flung them across the room, nearly inflicting a lethal collection of paper cuts on Thomas and Timothy, who ducked beneath the table to dodge the onslaught.

"What are we paying you for? Do you even know how to design anything? This is awful, just awful! I thought you guys were the best, but my retarded kid sister could have come up with something better than this! I have never been insulted with such a collection of stupid drawings in all my life, and you expect me to trust you with my vision, my dream of an open casting call to the world? This is a waste of time. I’m leaving." He stormed out of the room, slamming the door so hard that the bolts holding a picture on the wall next to it pulled out half an inch.

Dan awoke with a start and called out, "Good meeting, everyone!”

The remaining occupants of the conference room sat in stunned silence for several moments. Then the silence was broken by a small hissing sound from the front of the room. David stood ramrod straight, a look if intense pain on his face, his eyes shining strangely. He drew in another hissing breath through clenched teeth and let it out, and then another. At last, he spoke.

"No one has ever spoken to me that way before, or maligned my creations in that manner." He sucked in another breath. "I will not weep. I will not give him the satisfaction."

"You go, gir -- big fella," Greg cheered, changing his supportive statement mid-cheer when he was met by a glare from David. "He’s not worth it."

Timothy had gone back to drawing again. "I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” he put in quietly. “He throws tantrums like this all the time. He probably didn’t mean most of that. Except the part about Canada. He really hates Canada."

David worked to regain his composure. "Oddly, that part bothered me the least, since I am not Canadian. I am Quebecois. I do not appreciate him calling us French Canada, though. That was just rude." He glared at the door.

"You should have seen him last week when then caterer brought the wrong sauce for the tofu," Thomas agreed, "‘I said peanut sauce, not sweet and sour! You don’t deserve to live!’ We took the sauce away from him before he could throw it, because I wanted it for my lunch. He stomped off, but he came back later and ate the sauce anyway."

"So what do we do now," asked Stephen, "wait for him to get hungry?"

Thomas thought about it. "Well, give him time to cool down, anyway. Chasing him down now will just make it worse. You might want to see if you can find Robert, too. He’s usually pretty good at calming Brad down."

Everyone returned to their offices, checking quickly around corners as they walked to make sure they didn’t run into Brad as they went. Stephen led his team back to his office, where everyone slumped dejectedly in chairs or on the floor against the walls.

"Does this mean we have to come back next week?" asked Ricky from the floor. "Because I don’t think I can do it again."

"Not if I can help it," Stephen replied grimly. "Your designs were good, especially when you consider the tripe that they’ve been spewing for the past week. You had me believing that this project could actually be successful for a while there. I’m not ready to let that feeling go yet." He punched the speaker on his phone and dialed Robert’s mobile number. From down the hall, he heard a ringing begin. Moments later, Robert’s voice answered from the hallway, echoing weirdly through the phone with a slight delay.

"Hello? This is Robert."

"Robert? What are you doing -- " Stephen punched the phone off and walked to the doorway. "Robert? What are you doing here? I thought you had something else to do today."

"Hello? Hello? Hmm, must have lost them." Robert flipped his phone closed as he walked into the room. "Something else to do, are you crazy? Why would I miss the culmination of all of our good work together? I decided to make the drive today so I could see your designs in person. Those things don’t read well over video. Didn’t Brad tell you?"

"No, he didn’t. He said that you were busy and that he would talk to you about it later."

"That kid…" Robert leaned out the doorway to the office to see if anyone was in the hallway, and then tapped his skull with a finger. "The kid is a little slow in the head. I think he forgot to wear a hard hat a few too many times when he was playing around Daddy’s construction sites, you know what I mean? So what happened?"

Stephen related the entire morning’s events to Robert, who was mortified but not particularly surprised. When Stephen was done, he apologized, "I’m sorry that you had to go through that, guys. He snaps every once in a while, especially when something’s important to him. He’ll calm down. Just wait: I’ll find him in a little while, he’ll apologize, and everything will be fine. It’s just his artistic temperament."

David snorted. "No, I am an artist. He is a pain in the ass."

Robert shrugged. "Fair enough. Now, how about you show me your designs and then I’ll go find our chief visionary and straighten him out."

Stephen yielded his chair to Robert and David ran through his presentation again there in the office. He began tentatively, but gained confidence as he continued with no signs of another temperamental outburst. When he finished, Robert had a few questions, but otherwise seemed very pleased.

"This is great stuff, great stuff!" he enthused. "I can tell that you really understood what I was going for, but were also able to filter out the" he tilted his head toward the hallway and, presumably, Brad, "useless dreck."

Robert left them then to search for Brad, promising to check in again before he left. He turned right out of the office to make a stop in the restroom on the way, and Stephen and the others went left, heading for Thomas’ office and lunch. They had gone no more than a hundred yards when they saw Brad coming the other way. He had loosened his tie and pushed the sleeves of his suit up to his elbows so that he looked like a Humphrey Bogart stand-in, minus the charm. Too late to go the other way, thought Stephen, and gritted his teeth and kept going. Brad accelerated when he saw them, and for a moment Stephen was afraid that he was going to attempt a flying tackle there in the hallway. He braced himself for the collision, but Brad pulled up short and stuck out his hand.

"Hey, I’m glad I found you. I just wanted to apologize for losing my cool in there earlier. I can be a little over-dramatic sometimes. I thought about it while I was walking around the parking lot cooling off, and I think you guys are on the right track. Keep up the good work, and send me the next round of design sketches when you have them. I look forward to developing this with you; I don’t think anyone could have captured my vision better than you did." He shook Stephen’s hand and then David’s, nodded to Ricky and Kelvin, and continued down the hallway behind them.

Stephen turned to watch him until he disappeared around a corner, not really expecting a sneak attack from behind, but not ready to take the chance either. "I miss Boston," he said. The others nodded their agreement. It was time to go home.


Continue to Chapter 8

Please Stop Speaking for Me

I don't generally talk about politics, for the same reasons that I don't put my hand on a hot skillet, but I have had enough. Rick Perry opens his "Strong" campaign spot by saying, “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian,” then spends the next 28 seconds making me ashamed to be called one.  I have a simple request for the Republican presidential candidates, Fox News, Pat Robertson, and anyone with an ax to grind with everyone who doesn't agree with them: please stop calling yourself "Christians."  You're entitled to your opinions and your beliefs, and you're just as welcome to list the people you hate and who you think are attacking you and your way of life as the separatist holed up in his Montana bunker, but to cover your intolerance, bigotry, and racism with the label of "Christianity" is simply grotesque.

I'd also like to say something to my non-Christian friends out there: please don't be fooled.  These opinions don't represent the mainstream of Christianity any more than when a Congressman tells the news what "The American People" want.  For every intolerant bigot shooting his mouth off on television, there are thousands of Christians quietly serving the poor, caring for the sick, and generally showing the love of Christ to their fellow man, simply because they actually read their Bible and that's what it told them to do.  You don't hear about them because they don't make a big deal about it: they just do it.  They aren't seeking power or recognition, and the only change they want to make in people's lives is to make them better.  They want people to know that they are loved, regardless of what they've done.  That's what being a Christian means to them, and to me.

When I see these talking heads on TV, I cringe every time they open their mouths to talk about their "Christian values," since none of them seem to actually have much value at all.  When they self-righteously point at some other group and say, "They're morally decrepit because they don't do what I want them to do," I have to join my friend Handy the Hand-Puppet, and say, "You're making us look like jerks!"

For just a moment, let's go to the source, shall we?  Since "Christians" originally meant "Little Christs," let's see what Jesus has to say about what he wants his followers to do:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
What, only two commandments? That seems too simple.  At least Moses got 10.

"Love God with all your heart?"  What about "Cynically use God's name to cover your intolerance and fear-mongering to trick people into doing what you want?"  That must be what he meant.

"Love your neighbor as yourself?"  That sounds hard.  I'm sure that what he really meant was, "Set up standards of moral living for your neighbors and make sure that they live up to them at all costs.  If they don't, point it out with regularity and let them know that God hates them.  Make stuff up if you have to.  Oh, and don't worry about living up to these standards yourselves.  Since you tell people that you're my followers, that's enough.  You're exempt."

Interestingly, during Jesus' ministry -- a ministry marked by kindness for the poor and partying with the people that the established authorities deemed "morally decrepit," by the way -- he consistently targeted only one group for criticism.  These were the people who had established themselves as the arbiters of who was good and who was bad, and who used religious authority as a means to gain wealth and power.  I suspect he'd say something similar to our conservative figureheads today:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.
“Everything they do is for show... they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!

“...What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith....

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.

"Whitewashed tombs." Couldn't have said it better myself.




Thursday, December 01, 2011

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 6

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.


Chapter 6


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