The embezzlement plot thickens. Is the humanoid studio chief responsible? 2,357 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
A burst of applause erupt from the guests gather tightly around the stage as the sequined and feathery-topped Afro Brazilian Samba dancers sway and jiggle and prance and twerk — isn’t that the expression? — their bronzed asses atop several stationary floats inside the cavernous Barker Hangar at Santa Monica Airport. My arm candy, the actress Romy, grinds her hips, drink in hand, as the paparazzi go wild. She ass-bumps me as I lift up my arms and clap to the beat. “Get loose!” she orders me above the din.
Who does she think I am? A studio boss doesn’t get loose. But I can fake the appearance of having fun on such occasions. I mean, I am programmed to enjoy parties like these staged by the studio. And this is such a lavish after-party for the world premiere of our new film Endless Juggernaut.
“Romy! Over here! Romy!” the photogs scream as the humanoid lifts up her skirt and gives them a glimpse of bronzed leg. She’s drunk on camera flashes. What am I to do but go with the flow? After all, publicity is a game and, as studio chief, I must play my part. As I say, I take no delight in such extravagant affairs, but I see the need for them. They are part of the studio marketing effort for a film I inherited from my human predecessor Les Freeman as he was being kicked to the curb. No matter how you look at it, Endless Juggernaut — the title I suggested for the North America release, mind you — is now my responsibility although I never would have greenlit the film had I been in charge at the time.
After we dance, I notice the picture’s producer, Benedicto di Carlo, threading his way through the crush. He rubs his hands together with glee.
“You look happy,” I tell him.
“And who wouldn’t be?” he says through his Italian accent. “I have to give it to your team, Richard, they certainly know how to throw a party!”
Di Carlo is a front man for the Russian mob, or so it is rumored. Apparently, the real Mafia, Cosa Nostra, won’t have anything to do with him because of a crime reformer uncle elected to the Italian parliament. His family’s money was generated through state-sponsored construction jobs, I’m told. There are also rumors of prostitution, drugs and money laundering, but until charges are levied, he is a box office magician and that’s all that matters. His previous three films have each racked up half a billion to a billion worldwide. I want to do business with this man. But he is well aware that I am a robot and so it irritates him that I have no flaws to speak of and he must go through me.
“So, Richard,” he says, hesitating, “I want to let you in on something.”
“I need more money.”
“I’ll have to talk to Sig.”
“You do that. But, remember, this is for your protection. My people wouldn’t want anything to happen to your little woman.”
He chuckles. “No, Marietta. Your other woman. Your programmer.”
“Oh, right. Yes, I see.”
“And be sure we do it just as I laid out when we were on the yacht in Cannes. That way, nobody gets in any trouble and I get these investigations off my back and yours.”
The board room is deathly silent as I enter, briefcase in hand.
Several men clear their throats. The stenographer, a drab woman with chubby jowls and an ill-executed dye job, walks around the table and adjusts the microphones before returning to her chair and placing a plug in her ear.
The meeting gets under way with the usual blather of time, place, etc., until we come to the issue at hand. Robert Myers Welch, the chairman, gets to the point.
“We have a serious problem,” he says.
Again, silence all around.
“I received notice that two FBI agents want to see me about the Benedicto di Carlo Productions situation. I have already discussed this with studio security and they say that Sig’s signatures were definitely forged. By whom, we are not yet sure. But, according to Armstrong Bank, the number of checks and the amount of the payments were intended to fly under the radar. Very clever. A studio like ours is accustomed to large expenditures, but here the cash withdrawals were minimal. But they add up. Now, before I agree to speak to the FBI, I want to get Richard’s recollections on the record. Our attorneys have made it clear to the FBI that since Richard is a robot, he is not liable to criminal responsibility. But we are. Is that clear?”
Again, there is silence around the conference table.
“So, Richard, tell us what you recall. Did you sign these checks made payable to Benedicto di Carlo Productions?”
I open my briefcase and remove a sheaf of papers and place them before me on the conference table as the stenographers reminds me to speak into the mic. I begin reading from my prepared notes.
“On April 18th at 9:05 p.m., I met with Benedicto di Carlo in my office. We were alone and we talked about how we intended to market Endless Juggernaut. He worried that the premiere and after-party could be expensive and I said I had found additional monies that could be spent on the Brazil Carnival-themed atmosphere envisioned by our marketing department. He seemed satisfied but then mentioned that his production company required additional infusions of cash. This was money over and above the funds already spent on the production. When I asked him what his production company needed the additional cash for, he said it was to cover unexpected production overruns.”
The chairman of the board interrupts me. “Richard, did di Carlo say what these so-called ‘unexpected production overruns’ entailed?”
“No,” I reply. “He did not.”
“And you did not press him?”
“No. I had no intention of paying him the money unless he showed me invoices.”
“Then how did this check with Sig’s signature come into being? Do you have any idea?”
“It must be a forgery.”
“Yes, but do you have any idea how someone would get his hands on blank checks on the studio’s account? Did you give di Carlo any blank checks?”
“I do not recall.”
Board Treasurer Albert Shields interrupts. “Could you repeat that?”
“I do not recall,” I repeat.
“You don’t recall if you handed him a blank check?”
“That is correct.”
“But you must recall!”
The chairman interrupts. “What we need to know, Richard, is if you gave him a blank check?”
“I do not recall.”
The board members look ashen-faced.
“He doesn’t recall?” Shields says, his lower lip trembling. “Good Lord.”
The chairman swallows hard and presses me, “But Richard, surely you didn’t hand over to di Carlo a blank check — or blank checks — with your approval, did you?“
“I do not recall.” I stare down at my prepared notes. “Shall I continue? There is more.”
But the board erupts into what I can only describe as a maelstrom with members springing to their feet and impatiently pacing the room while everyone seemed to be accusing the others of malfeasance or outright criminality. Not for the forgeries, mind you, but for authorizing me – a robot— to become studio chief. There are threats and counter-threats and the slamming of fists on the conference table.
“This is worse than the Begelman scandal!” one board member shouts.
“We’ll be ruined if this gets out!” yells another.
One member stands by the window and stares down at the street below. He lowers his voice but I can still hear him say, “If this pane of glass weren’t here, I’d say we all should jump.”
“Begelman? I’m not familiar with that name,” Marietta tells me as she checks my circuitry. “Who did you say mentioned that?”
“Somebody at the board meeting this morning.”
“I’ll look it up later,” she goes on. “But for now, I have to do some more work on you, Richard.”
“I’m not sure it matters anymore. The board wants to terminate me.”
“That’s one of the reasons I’m doing this flash inspection,” she explains. “You really caused a stir, Richard.”
She ignores my question and I sense that she is hiding something from me. It wouldn’t be a first time.
Judith’s voice comes on the intercom. “Jonathan is here. Shall I send him in?”
I look down at Marietta. “Well?”
She shrugs. “Okay, but make it quick. I’m under strict orders to fix you, pronto.”
Marietta then leaves by a side door and in walks Jonathan. He does not look happy.
“So, the shit is hitting the bloody fan,” he says grimly.
“Meaning, we got to think.”
“That’s what I do best,” I joke, but it really isn’t a joke.
He plops himself down in a chair across from me. His hair is askew, as if he has been twirling it in his fingers while mapping out things in his mind. He blurts out, “Do you realize what’s going on in that frigging board room?”
“You tell me.”
“They’re debating how to replace you, Richard. They think you screwed up. We screwed up. All of us who work for you. Meanwhile, they’re all lawyering up.”
“Because, since you’re a robot, you can’t go to jail. They’re liable for everything you do. Now everyone has a target on their back.”
“Does that include Marietta and Todd?”
“Shit, yeah. Todd is seeing an attorney even as we speak. The feds are gonna come after anyone who advises you.”
“What should we do, Jonathan?”
“Well, for one thing, we have to buy time and hope this doesn’t leak to the press until we come up with a game plan. I mean, if it does leak, we can all kiss our jobs goodbye.”
“You look miserable, Jonathan. Is there anything I can do?”
“Do? DO?” He leans back and laughs. “Yeah, got any Prilosec? That’s only for starters. Then get me a razor blade to slit my wrists.”
“Don’t be so grim, Jonathan.”
He looks at me and says, “So, they tell me you changed your tune in the board room. You told me and Tanner right here in this fucking office that you didn’t sign that forged check. You said you dot your ‘I’s’ differently and the signature we showed you didn’t resemble your signature. But a little while ago inside that board room, you told the directors of Titan Pictures that you can’t recall if you gave Benedicto any blank studio checks.”
“Why don’t you just ask him?”
“Because he’s lawyering up and vowing to sue us if this gets out!”
“I think he’s a very bad man, Jonathan.”
“Yeah, but we’re in business with him for two more pictures!”
“Calm down, Jonathan.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to shut your bloody trap on all of this forgery crap until we get a game plan. I need time to figure things out. Like, who would want you to do this to us?”
I am standing at my office window staring down at the studio employees leaving work for the day. Outside my office, raised voices cause me to turn and see Marietta and Todd yelling at each other.
“You fucked with him!” she shouts. “You went behind my fucking back and you re-programmed Richard to sign those fucking checks!”
“That’s bullshit, Marietta, and you know it!”
“Look who’s calling who a liar!”
“Who paid you to do it? Another studio? You got a secret deal brewing somewhere, Todd? Is that it?”
“Listen to you! I can’t believe you actually believe this shit!”
She pushes him with both hands and he’s knocked back two steps before he catches his balance. Then she crumples to her knees and begins sobbing.
Todd looks bewildered, unsure of what to do. He timidly goes over to Marietta and places a hand on her shoulder. But she shakes it off in anger. After a few moments, he turns toward me and then leaves the room without saying another word.
Shortly after, Marietta gets up, crosses the room and locks the office door. A sly grin greets me as she approaches and says, “Richard, we don’t have much time. Do you have the plane tickets?”
“And you’re sure you wired the funds into the bank I told you about in Luxembourg?”
“Yes. Quite sure. Now, where are we headed?”
“France. It has a history of reluctance to send people into the U.S. criminal justice system. I’ve forwarded the equipment I’ll need to make sure you operate proficiently. And what I need, I’ll procure in the future.”
“At your suggestion, I have a limo waiting out front. Our flight departs in two hours, thirty-seven minutes.”
“Good,” she says, patting my arm. “Once there, we’ll rent our own car like that film Two For The Road with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. We’ll drive to the French Riviera and enjoy seeing all the wonderful sights.” She rises on her tiptoes and plants a kiss on my lips. “I want you all to myself. We’ll find a place and live there forever. After all, they can’t put us in prison. The worst they can do is find us and shut us down.”
“What about Todd?”
Her demeanor changes. “He has Romy,” she snarls. Her gaze now meets mine and she coos, “I want you, darling. Only you.”
“But I… can’t… I don’t know… what it means to be….”
“In love?” She purrs like a kitten. “I’ll teach you, dear. I’ll teach you like Todd once taught me.”
“But you’re a bot. At least, that’s what you told me.”
“Yes, darling, and only you and Todd know that. I was his secret project. So, it must remain our little secret, too, okay?”
“And it will be our little secret that I’ve developed feelings for you.”