TwelveCopyright © 2007 Christopher Taylor Buckley
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-446-57981-0
Cassandra Devine was not yet thirty, but she was already tired.
"Media training," they called it. She'd been doing it for years, but it still had the ring of "potty training."
Today's media trainee was the chief executive officer of a company that administered hospitals, twenty-eight of them throughout the southeastern United States. In the previous year, it had lost $285 million and one-third of its stock market value. During that same period, the client had been paid $3.8 million in salary, plus a $1.4 million "performance bonus."
Corporate Crime Scene, the prime-time investigative television program, was doing an exposé and had requested an interview. In her negotiations with the show's producers, Cass had learned that they had footage of him boarding the company jet ($35 mil) wearing a spectacularly loud Hawaiian shirt and clenching a torpedo-shaped-indeed, torpedo-size-cigar in his teeth while hefting a bag of expensively gleaming golf clubs. Unfortunate as it was, this footage was only the appetizer. The main cinematic course was video of the company's recent annual "executive retreat" at a Bahamas resort of dubious taste. It showed the client, today's trainee, along with his fellow executive retreatants-doubtless exhausted after a hard day of budget cutting and crunching numbers-drinking rum punch dispensed from the breasts of anatomically correct female ice sculptures, to the accompaniment of a steel drum band, a limbo bar, and scantily clad waitresses dressed as-oh dear-mermaids. It would all make for a spirited discussion on the upcoming episode of CCS, especially when juxtaposed against the footage they were also running of patients parked like cars in an L.A. traffic jam in litter-strewn corridors, moaning for attention, some of them duct-taped to the wheelchairs.
"So they don't fall out," the client explained.
Cass took a sip from her seventh or eighth Red Bull of the day and suppressed a sigh, along with the urge to plunge her ballpoint pen into the client's heart. Assuming he had one.
"That last one was a lot better," she said. They'd done four practice interviews so far, with Cass pretending to be the interviewer from the television program. "If you have the energy, I'd like to do just one more. This time, I'd like you to concentrate on smiling and looking straight into the camera. Also, could you please not do that sideways thing with your eyes? It makes you look ..." Like a sleazebag. "It works against the overall tone of you know ... transparency." The man was as transparent as a bucket of tar.
"I really don't know why we're even agreeing to the interview." He sounded peeved, as though he'd been frivolously talked into attending a performance of The Marriage of Figaro when he'd much rather be at the office, helping humanity, devising new and more cost-effective methods of duct-taping terminal patients to their wheelchairs so they could be parked in corridors all day.
"Terry feels that this is the way to go. In cases like this ..." The client shot her an "I dare you to call me a criminal" glance of defiance. "That is, where the other side has a strong, uh, visual presentation, that it's best to meet them in the center of the ring, so to speak. We're looking to project an image of total ... up-frontness."
The client snorted.
"That no one is more upset at the"-she glanced at her notes to see what artful term of mendacity they were using at the moment-"? 'revenue downtick.' And that you and management are"-she looked down at her notes again, this time just to avoid eye contact-"working around the clock to make the, uh, difficult decisions." Like where to hold next year's "executive retreat." Vegas? Macao? Sodom?
The client generously consented to one final practice interview. He left muttering about persecution and complaining of the indignity of having to fly back to Memphis via commercial aircraft. Terry had sternly forbade him the company jet. Tomorrow, the client would spend an hour in a soup kitchen ladling out faux humanity to Memphis's wretched, an act of conspicuous compassion that would be inconspicuously video-recorded by one of his aides. If Corporate Crime Scene declined to air it, perhaps it might come in handy down the line-say, during sentencing deliberation. Cass sent him off with a DVD of his practice interviews. With any luck, they'd cause him to jump out his corner office window.
Cass wanted to go home to her apartment off Dupont Circle, nuke a frozen macaroni-and-cheese, pour herself a goldfish bowl-size glass of red wine, put on her comfy jammies, get under the covers, and watch reruns of Law & Order or Desperate Housewives or even the new reality show, Green Card, in which illegal (but good-looking) Mexicans had to make it across the U.S. border, past the Border Patrol and minutemen and fifty miles of broiling desert, to the finish line. The winner got sponsorship for a green card and the privilege of digging ditches in some other broiling-or, if he was lucky, frigid-part of the country.
Yes, that would be lovely, she thought, then realized with a pang that she hadn't posted anything on her blog since before work that morning. There was an important Senate vote on Social Security scheduled for that day. She hadn't even had time to glance at CNN or Google News to see how it had turned out.
The light was on in Terry's office. She entered and collapsed like a suddenly deflated pool toy into a chair facing his desk.
Without turning from his computer screen, Terry said, "Let me guess. You had a wonderful, fulfilling day." He continued to type as he spoke.
Terry Tucker had built a successful PR firm, Tucker Strategic Communications, on the premise that those with a debatable claim to humanity will pay through the snout to appear even a little less deplorable. Terry had represented them all, from mink ranchers to toxic waste dumpers, dolphin netters, unzipped politicians, makers of obesity-inducing soft drinks, the odd mobster, and pension fund skimmers. Terry had apprenticed under the legendary Nick Naylor, at the now defunct Tobacco Institute. Cass had been with the firm for eight years. Terry had promoted her quickly, given her regular raises, and promoted her to partner. He'd never once made a pass at her. He treated her like a kid sister or niece.
"Jesus, Terry. Where do you find these clients? In Dante's Inferno?"
He kept typing. "Huh?"
"The man's ... I've seen more sympathetic people on the E! Channel's True Hollywood Stories."
Terry's fingers went on clickety-clicking. "This 'war criminal,' as you put it, is a client of Tucker Strategic Communications. Someday, if all the crap we learned in Sunday school is correct, he will answer to a higher authority. Higher even than a morally superior twenty-nine-year-old PR chick. In the meantime, our job as strategic communicators is to-"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I just-couldn't we find like maybe just one client who wasn't ... I don't know ..."
"Well ... yeah. Basically."
Terry stopped typing, leaned back in his leather chair, massaged the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger, exhaled pensively. Theatrically, the gesture was just shy of a sigh.
"Do you know what I'm working on right now? What I was working on, before you came in to do an existential download?"
"Let me guess. Raising money, pro bono, for juvenile diabetes?"
"The only time, young lady, you'll hear the phrase pro bono around this office is if someone is expressing a favorable opinion of an Irish rock star. No, I was doing talking points. For our Brazilian client."
"The one who wants to relocate the Indian tribe to make room for the gold mine?"
"Uh-hum. Were you aware that in 1913, this same tribe-I can't pronounce the name-killed two Mormon missionaries?"
"Well, in that case, obviously they deserve whatever they get."
Terry frowned at the screen. "I know, needs work. Maybe if they fed them to piranhas or something. I'll massage it. Want to get a pop? Defaming indigenous people always makes me thirsty."
Ordinarily, Cass loved going out for a drink with Terry. Listening to his war stories about defending the tobacco industry with Nick Naylor.
"Can't tonight. Gotta go back and blog."
"Gotta go back and blog." Terry shook his head. "I'm offering martinis and mentoring. But if you want to go home and blog ..." He looked at Cass with his "kind uncle" expression. "Excuse me for asking, but do you by any chance have a life?"
"It's important, what I do."
"I didn't say it wasn't." He reached out and typed. Onto the screen came the blog's home page.
Concerned Americans for Social Security Amendment Now, Debt Reduction and Accountability
"How many hours did it take to come up with that acronym?" "I know, bit of a mouthful."
"She was a goddess of something."
"Daughter of the king of Troy. She warned that the city would fall to the Greeks. They ignored her."
"And? What happened?"
"You're kidding, right?"
"Just educate me."
"Troy fell. It was on the news last night. Cassandra was raped. By Ajax the lesser."
"Is that why they called the other one Ajax the major? He wasn't a rapist."
"Whatever. She was taken back to Greece by Agamemnon-you remember him, right?-as a concubine. They were both killed by his wife, Clytemnestra. In revenge for his sacrificing her daughter, Electra."
"A heartwarming story. No wonder Greeks look unhappy."
"Cassandra is sort of a metaphor for catastrophe prediction. This is me. It's what I do. During my downtime. When I'm not media-training our wonderful clients."
"It's none of my business-"
"Whenever you say, 'It's none of my business,' I know I'm in for a five-minute lecture."
"Just listen. Your generation, you're incapable of listening. It's from growing up with iPods in your ears. I was going to say, Kid, you're young, you're attractive-you're very attractive. You should be out, you know, getting ... you know ..."
"Laid? Thank you. That's so nurturing."
"You look so, I don't know, oppressed. You work your butt off here-by the way, I'm giving you a bonus for the Japanese whaler account, good work, sales of whale meat in Tokyo are up six percent-and then you go home and stay up all night blogging with people who look like the Unabomber. It's not healthy."
"No. Instead of staring at a computer screen all night and railing against the government and shrieking that the sky is falling, you should be out exchanging bodily fluids and viruses with the rest of your generation."
"Earth to Terry. The sky is falling. You saw about the Bank of Tokyo?"
"No. I've been working on the Brazilian thing."
"It led the news this morning. For the first time in history, the Bank of Tokyo declined to buy new-issue U.S. Treasury bills. Do you realize what that means?"
"They already have enough of our debt?"
"Precisely. Do you get the significance of that? The largest single purchaser of U.S. government debt just declined to finance any more of it. As in our debt. Meanwhile, and not coincidentally, the first of your generation have started to retire. You know what they're calling it?"
"Mountainous debt, a deflating economy, and seventy-seven million people retiring. The perfect economic storm." Not bad, Cass thought, making a mental note to file it away for the blog. "And what is the Congress doing? Raising taxes-on my generation-to pay for, among other things, a monorail system in Alaska."
Cass realized suddenly that she was standing, leaning forward over his desk, and shouting at him. Terry, meanwhile, was looking up at her with something like alarm.
"Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to ... Long day."
"Listen, kiddo," Terry said, "that resort in the Bahamas where our client Albert Schweitzer threw the party with the ice sculptures ... why don't you go down there and check it out? We'll call it research, make Albert pay. Least he could do. Take your time. Stay for a few days. Bring a bathing suit and a tube of tanning oil and a trashy paperback. Take a load off. Get ... you know ..." He waved his hands in the air.
"You use that word more than I do. It's my generation's word, not yours."
"It's useful. It may actually be your generation's major semantic contribution so far. It's pure Teflon."
"They coat frying pans with it so stuff doesn't stick. Spin-off of the space program. Like Tang."
"Never mind. Look, go home. Go to the Bahamas. Hang an 'Out to Lunch' on the blog or something."
He was already back to typing by the time she reached the door. On her way out, he shouted, "If you get any brainstorms on how to make my Brazilian Indian tribe look like bloodthirsty savages, e-mail me."
The computer screen was glowing at her in the dark of her apartment. A prior generation would have called it psychedelic; to hers it was just screen saving.
She showered, changed into comfy jammies, ate a peanut-butter PowerBar, and washed it down with Red Bull. She unscrewed the safety cap of her bottle of NoDoz, hesitated. If she took one, she wouldn't get to sleep until at least four. Unless she popped a Tylenol PM at three. She wondered about the long-term effects of this pharmaceutical roller-coaster ride. Early Alzheimer's, probably. Or one of those drop-dead-on-the-sidewalk heart attacks like Japanese salarymen have. She popped the NoDoz. She could sleep in tomorrow. Terry wasn't expecting her in the office. She wanted a cigarette but had given them up (this morning). She chomped down on a piece of Nicorette gum and felt her capillaries surge and tingle. Shock and awe. She flexed her fingers. Showtime.
She logged on. There were 573 messages waiting for her. Her Google profile had searched for reports on the Senate vote and auto-sent them to her inbox. She read. They'd voted in favor of Social Security payroll tax "augmentation." Jerks. Couldn't bring themselves to call it a "tax increase." She felt her blood heating up. (Either that or the effects of the pill.) Soon energy was surging in her veins in equal proportion to outrage. Her fingers were playing across the keyboard like Alicia de Larrocha conjuring a Bach partita.
She typed: "The buck has been passed to a new generation-ours!"
She stared at it on the screen, fiddled with the font color and point size. It occurred to her that as most of her readers were in their twenties and thirties, they would have no idea it was a steal from John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural speech, "The torch has been passed to a new generation." Even fewer would know that she'd grafted it onto Harry Truman's famous slogan "The buck stops here." Whatever. Cassandra was starting to get hits from older readers. And the mainstream media were also starting to take notice. The Washington Post had called CASSANDRA "the bulletin board for angry, intelligent Gen-W's." Gen-W being short for "generation whatever." Even one or two advertisers were starting to come in, feigning interest.
In a moment of weakness, she'd posted a photograph of herself on the home page, thinking it might bring in a few male viewers. It did. A third of the 573 messages were from men who wanted to have sex with her. She was, as Terry had put it, an attractive girl or, to use the word of her generation, "hot"-naturally blond, with liquid, playful eyes and lips that seemed always poised to bestow a kiss, giving her a look of intelligence in contention with sensuality. She had a figure that, when displayed in a bikini or thong at the resort in the Bahamas, would draw sighs from any passing male. All in all, it was not the package you'd expect to find sitting in front of a computer screen at three a.m., wired on over-the-counter speed and railing at the government for-fiscal irresponsibility? Girl, she thought, get a life.