Is he a fierce Hollywood mogul or a fearsome studio zombie? He’s still deadly. 2,476 words. Story and illustration by Mark Fearing.
Mo Merkleman was buried at Forest Lawn on an unusually warm and rainy day. Funeral guests got mud on their shoes, but that didn’t stop the throngs of agents, producers, real swear-to-god movie stars and studio executives who showed up in the rain. There were whispers that he was buried with his Oscars.
Mo was a legend. A small in stature guy who appeared larger. It was an optical illusion; his charisma radiated out like heat waves off hot asphalt. He was a throwback to the golden days of Tinseltown and yet totally modern. He went from running the largest talent agency to opening his own shingle and producing box office hits. Then he spent 25 years in charge of the largest studio. The reams of dirt he had on everyone in the industry were pure Old Testament.
But he was dead now. Or that’s what everyone thought.
Exactly eight months later on an unseasonably humid and rainy day, Mo Merkleman showed up at Gate 2 in his Bentley. It didn’t take long for him to talk his way past the guard. And when Annabelle Lee looked up from her reception desk and saw Mo’s identifiable gait lilting down the hall, she almost screamed. But instead she put that energy into withholding belief in what she was seeing.
As the figure came closer, Annabelle could plainly see it was Mo carrying a box of some weight because he struggled with it. He was pale with saggy skin. His grey hair was a bit thinner than last she’d seen it. Then she looked into his eyes. They were different but not in a bad way. There was something so hypnotizing about them that she found it difficult to look away.
“Annabelle! Delightful to see you! What’s on the hook this morning?”
“M… M… Mo? Is that you?”
“Oh sweetie…” When Mo was in an unguarded moment, he easily fell into paternalistic-sounding crap though it never came across as anything but menacing when he said it. “I know it’s a shock. But it shouldn’t be. Not even death can keep me from this job. And get the executive team together to meet in my office.”
Annabelle sat dumbfounded. Mo’s office was now the office of Ben Karlane who’d won the top executive battle after Mo died. Ben had never been a favorite of Mo’s so Annabelle knew how this would go down. “It’s Ben Karlane’s office now, Mo. He’s head of the studio.”
“A guy who used to be in charge of selling shoes? That man is an oaf. He should be running a five-and-dime store, not a movie studio.”
“And he replaced my desk with Ikea crap? What the hell!” Mo yelled, not losing a beat for a dead man. Ben had redecorated Mo’s office at a cost of a $160,000 just weeks after his death. Mo’s boat of a desk, looking like a set piece from a 1930s office comedy, went out the window. Ben was all about mid-century modern.
Mo carefully placed the box he was holding on Ben’s desk. “I brought my babies with.” And by babies he meant his five Oscars which were never far from his reach. “Can you bring me some towels or something? I need to get my babies shining again.”.
Annabelle smiled. “Mo, first off, aren’t you dead?” What else could she say? It was the right question and the polite question.
Mo turned to Annabelle and she saw his eyes: pale and milky but as entrancing as a night sky with distant stars twinkling.
“No big deal.” And that was it from Mo on the subject.
Annabelle thought it a good answer. “We missed you. Hasn’t been the same.”
“Well, it won’t be exactly the same now, but it ain’t gonna be Benjamin fuckin’ Karlane’s studio either.” Mo said.
Just before 10 AM, Annabelle brought additional chairs into Mo’s office and watched as Mo finished polishing his Oscars and lining them up on Ben’s slab-top desk and taking care to place them equal distance from each other. They looked like pagan totems awaiting sunrise. All the executives filed into Mo’s office as he greeted them by name. Ben wasn’t there. He had a breakfast meeting which would turn into a lunch meeting which meant he’d just roll calls from his car on the way to an early dinner meeting.
No one bothered to tell him about Mo. Yet.
Mo explained that he’d called a meeting of the board tonight and would shortly be reinstated as head of the studio. Of this he had no doubt. None of the executives blinked, though Melissa from accounting looked like she was going to shit. But this wasn’t that unusual for her. Mitch from production was thrilled. He’d always been a favorite of Mo’s and barely survived the reality show-like fights that ensued after Mo’s passing. Or, as Mo called it, his “mistaken retirement.”.
“I’m still head of this studio. Nobody fired me. The board never booted me. I was on an unscheduled sabbatical and Ben stepped in doing his best with his limited abilities. I wasn’t gone any longer than a visit to a dry-out clinic.” Everyone laughed and agreed.
Annabelle was amazed. For a dead man, Mo had chutzpah.
“And how could I ever part with these, my babies?” Mo gushed, turning around and gazing lovingly at his Oscars. The statuettes glowed brighter when Mo focused his penetrating gaze upon them.
After the meeting, everyone filed out except Mo, Mitch and Annabelle.
“Mo, what was it like being dead?” Mitch asked.
Mo plopped into an original Eames chair, leaned back, crossed his hands across his belly and began to speak. “Through fire and water, I fell to the lowest dungeon of the highest peak. Then darkness took me and I strayed out of thought and time and stars wheeled overhead and everyday was as long as a life age of the Earth, but it was not the end. I felt life in me again.”
Mitch cocked his head. “That’s Gandalf’s speech from Lord Of The Rings, The Two Towers.”
Mo smiled. “And more beautifully-written than anything I can say about it! Let’s leave it at that. Annabelle, set the board meeting in the big conference room and write a press release that my death was a mistake. Mitch, get ready to kick this studio back into high gear!”
The office buzzed as Mo made calls explaining his death and funeral as a creative undertaking. Everyone he talked to knew Mo had a million secrets about them and enough dirt to fill a landfill. Sp no one dared question a thing.
At the board meeting that evening, it was more of the same “Welcome backs” and “Good to see you agains.” Ben Karlane finally showed up after avoiding the calls he’d been getting all day. He sat quietly, stunned into disbelief. The years at Wharton, the ass-kissing of higher-ups, the moving through companies selling crap, all to get his chance to become a Hollywood mogul. When the board voted to reinstate Mo, Ben congratulated the old bastard and accepted a demotion to Studio Production Coordinator, whatever the hell that was. He stared at Mo, certain this was just an actor in make-up who was out to fuck up Ben’s life. Now he had to figure out who was behind this scam. He looked directly in Mo’s eyes for a moment but the empty depth was unnerving. Ben felt dizzy and looked away. Right then and there, he knew what he had to do. Yeah, Mo had Oscars and dirt on everyone in town, but he was too old dead or alive. It was time for him to go and if Ben had to be the one to make this clear, he would. Entertainment was a world for young people.
After the board meeting, Mo drove to his Holmby Hills estate. He was thrilled that everything was falling back into place.
Ben, meanwhile, made calls to the board to complain but no one picked up to listen. He stopped off in a Santa Monica sushi restaurant here he knew Annabelle and a friend were dining. She was shocked to see the former head of the studio stride in and literally pull her into the men’s restroom. Her roommate captured a few photos on her phone just in case this needed to go to TMZ.
“I really believe it’s Mo. Maybe he wasn’t really dead, or maybe he just took a break and…”
“No way!” interrupted Ben. “The only place where zombies have any impact in the real world is in Gale Ann Hurd’s bank account.”
“I don’t know anything. Why am I even talking to you? You’re not my boss anymore,” Annabelle finished.
“But I will be again and then you will wish you were a zombie,” Ben threatened.
Annabelle’s eye roll was to indicate that didn’t even make sense.
Ben decided there was only one person left to call: the guy who always knew everything that was going on — Mo’s attorney, Eddie Tider. He and Mo had been friends since the beginning of time.
“He called me, Ben. Sounded like Mo. Said he wasn’t ready to leave the studio yet. I stopped in for a quick hello. I know it’s Mo. I’ve been doing paperwork to bring him back. You wouldn’t believe the forms I have to fill out. I have seven associates on it right now.”
“And you believe he came back from the dead?”
“Well, returning to life isn’t completely unprecedented. Wouldn’t you?”.
“Eddie, seriously, we’re talking about a zombie running a movie studio.”
“Stranger than fiction, life often is. Between you and me, I think his Oscars have something to do with it.”
Ben pulled the phone away from his face and swore up a storm. “Are you fucking kidding me? Eddie, this is a ridiculous conversation!”
“You’re the one who called. Actually, don’t call again. I’m Mo’s attorney. Until he’s really good and gone, I can’t take you on as a client. Have a good night.”
Just past midnight, Ben was drinking his third Scotch sitting in a bar that was too far south in Santa Monica to be called Santa Monica by anyone but realtors. He realized he was backed into a corner. He reached inside his suit coat and felt the reassuring cold of steel.
It was late but Mo settled in his living room to read scripts. He returned with fresh insights and an altered perspective on the big issues in life. He wanted to find new material to express this right away. And he wanted an opportunity to add a few more Oscars to his collection. He wasn’t tired and believed he might never sleep again after the long nap he took.
The intercom beeped. Ben Karlane was at the gate.
Mo was expecting this and buzzed him in.
Ben parked his Tesla and checked that his gun was loaded. He had no idea how this would go down but was pretty sure this was a two-bit actor impersonating Mo and a real gun firing a real bullet into a random vase would scare him into a retreat. If it wasn’t an actor, Ben hoped that bullets worked on the living dead. And anyway Ben was certain he couldn’t get arrested for murdering someone already dead.
Ben flew through the front door, nearly pushing Mo backwards. “Who are you?” he shouted all pointy fingers and angry eyes.
“You know damn well who I am,” Mo responded. “I have my job back and after looking at the mess you made the past 8 months I think your time here is over. You’ve been running a damn accounting company, not a movie studio!”
“Is this make-up? Special effects crap? You expect me to believe that you crawled out of a grave? What’d you do, call an afterlife Uber?”
“That’s always been your problem. No fucking imagination. You’re a stock boy at a toy store who doesn’t even like toys.”
To Ben, the man sounded like Mo. Not just the voice, which was a bit more worn, but the syntax and the self-righteousness and creative bullshit. “Tell me Lazarus, how exactly did you come back from the grave?”
“It wasn’t easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. But once I was outta the ground, which I honestly don’t remember much about, I headed for my house. Just a poor schlub in dirty clothes wandering the freeway. Reminded me of when I first arrived in this town, except now I had my box of Oscars with me. My house was still my house. My keys still worked. All my clothes were still here. That was the best shower I ever took. And my staff knew it was me right off. And everyone is doing the work to get my life back up and running.”
Ben couldn’t take this mumbo-jumbo out of a bad B-movie story session.He jumped forward and grabbing Mo by the neck expecting a mask to fall off. But Mo was heavy like a balloon filled with wet cement. And up close Mo smelled of dirt and his skin sparkled like frost on a leaf. Ben’s arms began to tingle like he stuck a fork into a power outlet and finally Ben looked into Mo’s eyes. Milky white with pupils so dark and deep they didn’t reflect light.
Ben let go and stepped back, frightened for the first time but thinking he could play this one more way before pulling out the revolver.
“You’re a zombie. A freak of nature. A dead-ass old man. And just because you have shit on everyone in this town, you think you’ll be fine? Remember how the public freaked when they found out Jews were running movie studios? How do you think they’ll react when they find out that now it’s a member of the living dead!?”
The smile on Mo’s face dissolved and he stepped into Ben’s personal space. “I’m a lot of things but I’m not a dumb-ass like you. I’m a movie mogul made smart enough and vile enough for this town. And now I’m a zombie, too. And I’m fucking hungry.”
Mo’s instincts were always uncanny, even when it came to a quick killing. Though he knew that maybe this wasn’t the highest quality brain to eat, but then again he had to satisfy his appetite for humans.
Ben’s body was buried in the back garden just beneath a statue of Pan. Ben’s car was dumped Downtown.
Mo Merkleman greenlit awesome kick-ass movies that made a lot of money. And if a few of his junior executives disappeared from time to time, no one bothered to look too hard.