The world loves entertainment. But everybody also wants to get paid for it. 2,078 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“We should just let him in,” Greer said, watching the cop on their CCTV feed.
“Oh, sure,” Hugo replied. “Just bring him right down and show him the whole setup.”
But his tone wasn’t as confident as his words — not nearly. He was her boss but she scared him with her dismissive coldness and chess-move thinking. She didn’t argue it now; she just hit a couple keys. “Officer?” she said into a microphone. “Or is it Detective?”
“Detective Evan Ridge,” the guy said, clearly knowing that it sounded good. “I’m here because a TV writer exited The Farmer’s Market at closing and crossed to a far corner of the parking lot to his silver-metallic Kia Soul. He carried takeout cartons and grocery bags and was jumped by three black-clad men. They beat him, emptied his pockets, took his stuff, stole his car, and left him gashed and bleeding.”
On a screen the cop was looking for the source of the audio (which he would never find). He was wearing a semi-good suit and for almost a minute he’d been examining a metal door without a handle and hidden hinges. Greer and Hugo could see CBS in the far background, as well as garbage bins and some back doors to businesses on the northwest end of The Farmer’s Market.
“Show some ID, please,” Greer said, “and we can save you a whole lot of trouble.”
The guy flipped an LAPD shield, then the door buzzed open. “Three steps down,” Greer directed, “a right, six more steps, and I will meet you at that next door.”
That last phrase was more than informational with its hint of nonspecific promise.
As the detective stepped in, the outer door closed behind him, and Hugo admitted that Greer had called the right play. This guy wasn’t going away, and he would come back with more personnel and paper — eyes, forms, things that reverberated and would have to be dealt with. Better to play it as it was happening — “proactive” it, as it were. (It was Greer who had proactively turned that adjective into a verb, of course.)
Ridge didn’t effectively hide his thorough onceover of Greer, even as his eyes were pulled toward the banks of computers and monitors, a sleek horizon of up-to-the-second installations worthy of an expensive movie. But the hardware was all real and vast and motion-sensitive; down lights dropped cold-white splashes.
“What do you do here?” Ridge asked unofficially, for he was awestruck.
Hugo defensed. “We’re going to need a context to answer that question.”
The detective chuckled: “You’re not a lawyer but you play one on TV? Or maybe you are a lawyer?”
Hugo shook a slow and deliberate no. He was rattled, enough for Greer to see it. “I’m in charge of this operation.”
“I second-command this operation,” Greer said, with enough authority to suggest that her role should be switched with Hugo’s at once. She shook hands vigorously. “Terrible, what happened last night.”
Ridge nodded. “His first very human reaction when jumped by the three black-clad men — Ninjas?! — was to fiddlefuck with how to handle his parcels. The guy’s probably gonna live…ish,” he said. “But permanent stuff happened: miles of surgery, years of recovery, never right again.” He scanned the setup again: it looked like Mission Control. “You must have video of it.”
Hugo shot Greer a look: smarter than we thought. “We do have cameras outside.”
“But nothing that saw it,” Greer cut in. “I reviewed everything as soon as we heard it on the news.”
Hugo and Greer had it all on video, of course. Their conversation this morning had been Hugo wondering if they should find a way to get it to the police and Greer saying no. Because there was nothing definitive in it (dark shadows appearing, pouncing, melting away into darker shadows) and it would only bring trouble their way.
But sometimes shit happened independently and that shit blew over onto your shit and trouble was brought your way after all. So now there was a cop who had stumbled onto their operation and he might believe their story about no video but he was visibly rippling with professional curiosity about what the hell went on here.
“Hard to believe that,” Ridge said, suggesting he didn’t.
“Please take my word for it, Detective,” Greer said, pulling up closer to him, the overheads bombing her chestnut hair, her charcoal turtleneck, her black pencil skirt, her heels on polished concrete. Ridge was affected. She was a woman who pulled an unfair portion of oxygen, and was quite comfortable in the discomfort she created in him.
“Well, okay,” Ridge conceded, “but what’s going on here?”
Greer looked to Hugo and said, “Do you think I can tell Detective Ridge what we do here?”
That was perfunctory: Hugo knew that she had decided, so he nodded.
“We monitor the flow of royalties and residuals of movies, television shows, and videos.”
The detective processed, shrugged, said, “And?”
“All over the world.”
The detective said, “And?”
Greer added, “We take some.”
Ridge really processed that one, his eyes widening.
With deep professional pride, they laid it all out for him. There was never a dark time in the world as far as media content went. There was never even part of a second when something made by someone wasn’t playing somewhere somehow, even if only in bits and pieces — a clip, a frame, a mashup of Loni Anderson movies done by an ironic video artist in Finland. It all earned, even if it was negligible amounts. But it accrued: the flow of resids/royalties was never-stopping, trickles that made a torrent. The expertise of Greer and Hugo, their technical derring/craft/chops — their art — diverted some of it into accounts that couldn’t be tracked or traced.
Ridge was enthralled. “I’ve seen that in movies.”
They chuckled, not without scorn: a screenwriter’s hackneyed plot device with shabby logic scraping off a bunch of money with time-zone changes, Y2K, megabanks changing ownership at midnight, whatever. It was abject bullshit and offensive to pros like Hugo and Greer.
“We actually charge extra for that crap,” Hugo said.
“We take the thinnest amounts—“ Greer noted.
“A skosh, a scintilla, a jot and/or a tittle, just filaments, really,” Hugo added, getting into it. “But that particular conceit?”
“We make them pay an extra nick on that cliché,” Greer finished.
“A nick?” the detective asked.
“An extra nick. A nick comes from everything,“ Hugo said, “but that one costs an extra nick.”
Greer hand-swept the equipment like Vanna White: “Forever.”
They did not go into the macro as Ridge examined the lights and graphs and bars and feeds tripping across monitors.
Organizations, enterprises, institutions, at some point in their development and evolution, take on the characteristics of a biological entity. They want to survive, endure, thrive. That eventually becomes their mission. It was true in corporations, governments, foundations.
“How do you get this past the Writers Guild?” Ridge asked.
Greer cued Hugo: “The Writers Guild brought this to us. Writers burn out, but the Guild will be forever.”
“We executed,” Greer said. “Whiteboard to online-operational in nine and a half months.”
They were that good, their swelling postures seemed to say.
“Institutions defend themselves,” Hugo said. “They take on a life of their own.”
Ridge nodded, getting it. Then he had another question:
“Absolutely,” Greer said.
“Oh, no, not directors,” Hugo said.
“Come on,” Greer said in a get-real tone.
“It’s a lot, isn’t it?” Ridge said.
“Ever hear of The Love Boat?” Hugo asked.
“My grandmother watched it.”
“Never stops sailing,” Hugo said. “No one can stop it. The Chechens love it especially, then the Peruvians; also very big in Tibet.”
Greer did a fast out-of-persona cross-eyed face with splayed hands: Who knew?! Then she immediately resumed Greer.
Hugo continued. “Nobody gets it, but there it is. That’s one fifty-year-old show. Think of all the entertainment out there…”
He nodded to Greer, and she bent to a keyboard. “I started a program when I buzzed you in,” she said. “Since you’ve been here you’ve earned .00002 cents.”
“What?” Ridge said, checking the monitor she was indicating.
“’Institutions defend themselves,’ Hugo quoted himself. ‘They take on a life of their own.’”
“From where?” Ridge asked. “How did I ‘earn’ it?”
“From others,” Hugo said.“They’ll never know what they never knew. You earn it by forgetting that you ever stumbled onto us.”
Greer glanced at a monitor. “Make that .00003 cents.” She stared at Ridge. “This must continue, Detective.”
As the detective mulled, they spliced in.
Greer: “Making money ever-ever by doing nothing.”
Hugo: “That iota just keeps going, passive to hell and back.”
Hugo: “And compounding…”
Detective Ridge smiled a self-satisfied one.
"What are you, about 35?" Greer asked him.
Ridge wouldn’t cop to it — this was L.A., after all. “About.”
Greer did a naked eye roll, the kind that wants its target to see it. She keyed some stuff, turned back to him. “If you retire at sixty-two,” she said, “it’s a high seven-figure payout.”
“But how will you…?” Ridge said.
Greer turned to him and waved a Star Wars-looking wand thing at his suit jacket.
“She just RFID’d your phone,” Hugo said. “We’ll get all the info to you.”
“Please delete everything as soon as you read it,” Greer said.
"And I don’t know this operation exists, correct? And I never breathe a word about it, right?”
They said “Right” simultaneously.
“Walk away? Do and say nothing?" Ridge confirmed.
They nodded soberly.
Ridge thought for three seconds, gestured a thumbs-up in happy agreement, and then turned away. Doors buzzed open for him to go out. He left past the garbage bins, not looking back. They tracked him on one of the computers: he got into his car, turned onto Fairfax, went south.
“There’s only one reason you would hand him the whole schema,” Hugo said.
Greer quickly held up three fingers of her left hand for a beat, then five fingers on her right hand. Protocol 35.
“He’ll be buzzy with it for a few hours, but then he’ll have to tell somebody plausibly that he’s now in show business, couldn’t he?” Greer asked.
“And even if he can keep his mouth shut,” said Hugo, “he’ll have questions. He’ll come back.” He gave Greer the go-ahead to execute.
Protocol 35. In which the spiky-haired blonde girl — Greer shucked her dark wig, revealing short platinum hair — wayward, at loose ends, approaches a man in a bar — Ridge was entering Molly Malone’s, a few blocks away — and says she’s at the end of her rope And she just got into town…
Greer slipped off the turtleneck, showing a loose-necked red T-shirt. She dropped the skirt, which had been hiding frayed denim cutoffs. She kicked off the heels, and toed out some scruffy flats that had been hiding under a desk.
And said, in a voice that sounded like it was from a small town far far away: “Los Angeles is so big!”And she needs some help, and he looks like someone who cares enough to listen…
She put on a pair of wannabe nerd glasses that made her look like she was trying too hard, then did something to her bearing (some internal musculature adjustment) that made her look ten years younger. And then she propositions him but he reveals he’s a cop and she starts crying but they realize there’s a way to work this out…
And then they go off and this is his last night on earth.
A plot device that, despite its chronic overuse both in the movies and real life, usually worked. Unlike the stupid gambit scriptwriters kept trying with “computer stuff.”
Greer slung on a tattered backpack and went out.
Hugo sighed at the ineluctable. Only the secret makers could be trusted to hold the secrets. The outsider Ridge must not know what they did here — time compounded temptation — and one day in the future he would somehow let someone know about their work. Ridge had to go. Hugo repeated to himself: Institutions defend themselves. And he felt better. Then he undid Ridge’s account so it never existed.
For giggles, Hugo checked the in-flow from the time the detective had been buzzed in until his assassin had self-dispatched: $976,445. Negligible, in terms of the worldwide bigger picture, which was a magnificent eleven-digit number, growing by the instant, like the Debt Clock running positive.