59890643-867B-4900-8146-81E992CA588B

The Bot That Shook Hollywood
Part Two

by Robert W. Welkos

The robot studio chief is interrogated about embezzlement. 2,011 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by Mark Fearing.


I have a home. It is a penthouse on the Wilshire Corridor. My apartment features floor to ceiling windows with a view of the coastline and concrete ribbons of freeway. Many of my guests say the view is breathtaking. Beverly Hills is up the street. The studio pays for the digs: sophisticated Jamie Drake décor. Poggenpohl kitchen. Boston ferns situated about.

I am meeting Tanner Gilroy in a few minutes. Jonathan will accompany him.

This should be interesting.

The doorbell rings and the maid answers. “And who shall I say is calling?” I can hear her ask.

“He’s expecting us,” Jonathan replies.

I am a state-of-the-art humanoid and the first of my kind studio chief of Titan Pictures. My executives wait for me in the living room and then I make my entrance. Shake hands.

“Richard, this is Tanner, our head of security,” Jonathan says grimly.

I nod politely. “Gentlemen, shall we have a seat?”

We arrange ourselves on the L-shaped sofa. Tanner, in the middle, asks if we can all speak in confidence. I tell him that is fine with me. Jonathan says it is fine with him if it is fine with me. Tanner reaches into the inner pocket of his suit jacket and removes an envelope, opens it and shows me a check.

“Could you examine this?” Tanner asks. I examine the check. It is made out on the studio account of Armstrong Bank. The amount is $9,600. “There are a series of these. The signature on this check, as you can plainly see, is Sig Stoneman, the studio’s executive vice president and chief financial officer. Yet, I just came from Sig’s office and he says the signature on this check isn’t his. It’s a forgery. He said he never signed any check for this amount.”

“Perhaps he is mistaken,” I say.

“Sig?” Tanner shakes his head. “Nope. He remembers ever penny he ever spent. He’s just built that way.”

“What do you want me to do about it, then?”

“Well, Sig says his signature was forged. But then he recalls that your handwriting sort of resembles the signature on this check.”

“But I don’t sign the checks of the studio,” I tell him. “It’s not in my programming.”

“Yes, well, he definitely recalls you sending him a birthday card awhile back and he showed it to me. I gotta admit, the handwriting looks sorta like the signature on this check. And this isn’t the only check, mind you. There are others that have been sent to me by the bank. All for varying amounts under $10,000 — to skirt IRS reporting requirements, I assume. And all containing the same Sig Stoneman signature. Richard, I’ll need a handwriting sample from you. Two, actually. But first, I want you to write your name on a piece of paper and then I want you to write Sig’s name beneath it.”

“Are you accusing me of a crime, Tanner?”

“No, not at all. Just got to jump through a few hoops. This way, we clear you and Sig right off the bat. But you should know, these forged checks in his name add up to a couple million dollars. But since they’re in such small amounts, they just slipped right through accounting.”

Jonathan hands me a pen and paper. “Here, Richard. Just write your signature the way you always do. Then write underneath it Sig’s name so we can compare them.” He places the paper in front of me on the glass coffee table.

“Very well, gentlemen, if you insist.”

I scribble my name and then Sig Stoneman’s by way of comparison. I return the pen to Jonathan, who collects the piece of paper containing the two signatures and shows them to Tanner. Together, they study the signatures in silence.

Jonathan then asks the studio’s head of security, “Do you think these have any similarities to the one on the check?”

Tanner squints at the check once more. “I’m no handwriting expert, to say the least, but if you put me on the stand I’d say they’re written by two different hands. What do you think?”

Jonathan nods. “They’re similar in places, but not identical.”

I clear my throat. “As you can plainly see, gentlemen, I always dot my i’s. But whoever signed this check wrote the ‘I’ in Sig with a slash mark over it — not a dot.” I blink twice.

“Anything else you see?” Tanner asks me.

“In my signature, the ‘a’ in Richard is separated from the ‘h’. The forged check contains no such spacing between any of the letters. I would think that might be an important point of comparison when gathering evidence. But, of course, I’m not a handwriting expert, either. Other than that—“

Jonathan interjects, “What should we do, Tanner?”

“Richard isn’t programmed to sign alternate signatures,” Tanner says. “At least, that’s what Todd and Marietta tell me. And no one is closer to him than they are. I think he’s in the clear.”

I lock eyes with Jonathan for no more than a second. I then shift my gaze to Tanner and ask, “What do you plan to do with these sample signatures?”

“Take them to a handwriting expert. Maybe a couple of experts. The EVP/CFO who claims his signature has been forged. Not on one check, but on a whole bunch of checks over a period of time. Richard, can you think of anyone — anyone at all — who might have access to blank checks issued under the studio account at Armstrong Bank?”

“Not really.”

“I guess it could be an inside job at the bank,” Jonathan muses. “Then again, it could be somebody here at Titan.”

“Or,” Tanner says, “someone walked into Sig’s office and stole the blank checks.“ The security chief then asks me, “Do you have any blank checks here in your office?”

“Some.”

“Why is that?”

“I believe they were left by my human predecessor, Les Freeman.”

Tanner looks worried. “Why didn’t you alert me. Or Sig?”

“I never thought to inform anyone because I am not authorized to write checks, Tanner.”

“Right. Well, I have to see who has access to blank checks besides the two of you. All I know is that the studio is out a couple mil when you add it all up. Right under our noses. And we’ve got to come up with some answers pronto for the independent auditors. Shit, I’ll probably have to put some of our employees under a lie detector. It’s gonna get messy.”

“Do you want me to take a lie detector test?” I ask.

“No, with you we have other means of finding out what you know.”

“Examine my circuitry, you mean?”

“Right.”

“Do my programmers Todd and Marietta know?”

“Not yet, but your they will. They’ll have to help us out.”

“Is that it? I have a meeting in a few minutes, gentlemen.”

Then Tanner directs another question at me. “This check here was paid to Benedicto di Carlo Productions, Richard. But they say they never received it. We’ve asked to look at their books, but they’re balking. They have that new film coming out, don’t they?”

Endless Juggernaut. And two more projects in development.”

“You ever personally meet with them?”

“I’ve met Benedicto on several occasions. In my office. Twice in New York City. Once at Cannes.”

“Cannes, huh?”

“We were on his yacht. It was during the film festival. He wanted some privacy to discuss certain ideas for future projects.”

“Why on a yacht?”

“Showing off, I suppose. Although I do recall him saying to me, ‘The walls have ears.’”

“He actually said that?”

“Yes.”

Tanner and Jonathan are lost in their own discussion. “I’ll check the security cameras and see if anyone broke into their offices,” Tanner is telling him.

“That’s good. And I’ll make up a list of people who you should interrogate,” Jonathan says.

Tanner thinks a moment. “So, Richard, the Golden Rule here at the studio goes like this: we keep things hush-hush until we can’t anymore. That’s the way Les Freeman handled things and I assume that’s the way you handle things, right?”

There is an awkward silence until Jonathan pipes up, “Richard agrees.”

As they depart my office, I can hear Jonathan remark to Tanner, “At least at this point the FBI doesn’t need to be brought in. I mean, if that were ever to happen, I’d be sick to my stomach. We’d need to take a whole different approach.”

I blink twice.

Sick to his stomach. A bot doesn’t think that way. Perhaps I was wrong about Jonathan.

The studio provides me with a girlfriend. Her name is Romy. She is a robot.

Romy has auburn hair with carefree flounces that blow in the Southern California breeze. It can be styled up, down or in an array of swirls and curls. She accents her look with colorful scarves. Her bikinis are daring even for Hollywood. Her plunging necklines are the talk of parties. She flutters her lashes with the confidence of an Ava Gardner.

Romy’s role is to provide me with arm candy along the Red Carpet. Marietta thought I should have a companion for whenever I am out at special events on studio business. Todd concurred. More importantly, the board of directors of Titan Pictures signed on to the concept — at quite a cost.

Romy is named after Romy Schneider. Not an exact replica of the late Austrian actress who died too young. I am told that would be too crass even for Tinseltown. But she is beautiful in the way humans can be. Todd and Marietta had a vigorous argument over Romy. Marietta insisted that she be feminist through-and-through with the savvy fierce determination of an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Todd thought that an international look would appeal to the studio’s global aspirations so he called up on his iPad some vintage photos of Virna Lisi and Claudia Cardinale. Marietta hated Todd’s suggestions. They settled on the name Romy, even allowing the female bot to have a slight Austrian accent. Marietta thought it lent an air of mystery to Romy’s persona. Todd thought she looked hot.

Obviously, I have never slept with Romy, although she likes to tease that she is great at giving oral sex just to see if I get aroused. I don’t, of course.

Where Romy resides is still a mystery to me. I ask Todd if she lives with him and he doesn’t respond. I remember standing at my office window one day gazing down at the lunch crowd and seeing Todd and Romy walking arm-in-arm across the lot. When I asked Marietta where Todd and Romy might be headed, she said something about the start of a three-day holiday weekend and that Todd knew a friend who had a place in Montecito. When I asked her if Todd and Romy would be spending the weekend in Montecito, Marietta clammed up.

Todd has seen Romy naked many times. And Romy thinks nothing of undressing in front of him. She also undresses in front of me when she’s in my apartment, knowing full well I don’t get erections. Still, I can confirm that she has what humans call a perfect body. One day, as I was being reprogrammed with the latest MPAA data and Chinese box office figures, I could hear Marietta call Todd a “filthy pig.” He laughed and said she was being prudish. There was this other time in my apartment when I saw Marietta lay into Todd. She asked if he had to be present during Romy’s fitting and he insisted that he did. And Marietta gave Todd this sideways glance that spoke volumes. Now, mind you, Romy’s circuitry was shut down at the time, so she wasn’t about to flirt with anyone. But Todd made it clear he wasn’t going anywhere. So, Marietta crossed the room to the bar and poured herself a drink as Todd hovered around the motionless Romy. When he was done updating her circuitry, he remarked, “You look hot, babe.” Marietta poured herself a second drink.

Part One. Part Three.

 

About The Author:
Robert W. Welkos
Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the film industry for 15 years for the Los Angeles Times. Before that he was an assistant city editor for the paper's Metro section. He previously was an AP correspondent in Reno. This excerpt is from a second novel he’s writing. His first, The Blue Poppy, was published in 2012.

About Robert W. Welkos

Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the film industry for 15 years for the Los Angeles Times. Before that he was an assistant city editor for the paper's Metro section. He previously was an AP correspondent in Reno. This excerpt is from a second novel he’s writing. His first, The Blue Poppy, was published in 2012.

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