Living in the general LA area.
My proxy is a Jennifer Anniston (a gift from some thankful producers), and she appeared on my watch with a panicky little smile. “Joho’s calling.” Joho’s my agent, never calls, usually doesn’t respond to my own. So something was up.
My heart sank when I saw their face. “What? What is it?!”
“Roger I need you to sit down. This is honestly bad. Bad!”
“I’m in the back of a car, I’m alone. I guess the Amazon job fell through?”
“No, they want you, they love you. You start on Monday in Vegas, same as before.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
Joho looked like a victim in a hostage video. “An hour or so ago, someone made a bet. On the open web. About you. A big bet, it’s 12 million dollars, more or less.”
“Me? Who would bother? This is one of those celebrity betting sites?”
“It’s different, it’s called Karmic Takedown, a new one…” A long pause, a tortured look. “They bet 12 million worth of Ethereum that you’ll be alive on Monday morning.”
Processing that took a moment. “Wait… They bet I’ll be… alive?”
“Roger, think about it. It’s completely anonymous, it’s untraceable, it’s all on the blockchain, so it’s public and private. And someone took that bet, understand?! And do you know how that person wins that bet?!”
“Yes. They get 12 million if you’re NOT alive by Monday. I already see 8 smaller 1 million dollar bets that you’ll be alive by Sunday. Which means they probably outsourced it.
“Who would want me dead?!”
A sardonic raise of an eyebrow from Joho.
“I mean 12 million dollar dead. –Sure, that’s my job, It’s literally my job to piss people off, but not to that extent!”
“First thing, we have to keep you alive.”
“Glad we’re on the same page.”
“That car you’re in. You called with your phone?”
“No one knows it’s me, Jennifer set up a dummy account.”
“You know why they call it a dummy account? Because you’re a dummy if you think it’s anonymous. Every move you make with that phone is traced and tracked and with very little effort tagged to your real life persona. Doesn’t matter if you’re using a fake name, any idiot with a credit card can buy that info online after a government mandated five minute delay. Get the fuck out of the car, Roger!”
“Joho, please tell me this isn’t some prank show you’ve signed me up for. This is real?”
“Get out of the car!”
I reached over and slapped the front screen of the passenger cabin for attention and the company’s driver emoticon appeared. “Car, pull over. It’s an emergency!”
A puzzled emoticon. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sick. I’m going to throw up.”
A ‘thinking’ emoticon, then a concerned emoticon as it said, “You will find travel sickness bags in the seat compartment in front of you. We should be arriving at our destination in less than 20 minutes. I sincerely hope that you feel better for the rest of our journey together.”
I tapped my watch, “Jennifer! Get the car to stop!”
She appeared on the interior screen with an embarrassed smile. “I couldn’t help listening in. Kind of crazy, huh? I mean, Jeeze, what’s with that?!”
Jennifer is one of the most expensive consumer proxies you can buy and she has my power of attorney and access to all my accounts, so with a small amount of bribery she was able to ping the proxy of a doctor in San Antonio who was willing to deliver a diagnosis of claustrophobic panic disorder which convinced the customer service proxy for my car to pull over to the freeway shoulder a few seconds later.
I climbed out, breathing the dry air only slightly fragrant with the ongoing ridge fires along the San Bernadino mountains. The sun had begun to set, glinting off the cloud of tiny drones zipping back and forth over Downtown LA. But as the door slid closed and the car pulled back into traffic, a handful of those little black shapes from overhead seemed to follow after. And of course they could now see me.
“You still there?” It was Joho. They and Jennifer were fighting for control of my watch. Joho eventually won. “Get off the freeway now! News drones love stranded ex-celebrities. Hide your face!”
I heard a loud screech, then a crash. Was it the car I’d been riding in? Horns started blaring as a darkness of drones coalesced over the freeway ahead. I hopped over the embankment and slid down a weed-covered berm into a small homeless encampment, leaving the freeway behind me as I meandered through old camping tents and lean-tos of discarded trash. A few people looked up casually as I passed, but no one seemed to recognize me. Not surprising, since I hadn’t been famous for almost two decades. If you don’t remember me, it’s not surprising.
I was world renowned for about three months, 19 years ago. I was on the first season of that reality show S.P.E.-Live! where teenagers had to reproduce the Stanford Prison Experiment in a gulag they’d built up in the pacific northwest. The showrunners hadn’t much experience and I was way too young, though I know that’s no excuse for my behavior.
Seriously, I get embarrassed even thinking about this and memories of those days come back to me on a regular basis like a punch to the stomach. The way the show worked, they split us kids into two groups, one set became the guards and the other one prisoners. I was to be a guard for the first four weeks. We had little narratives and chores we had to execute, but that was the whole show. It was meant to give a window into the moral hazards inherent in the American carceral system.
And boy did it work. I became an asshole. I was never popular in school, I was unsocialized, and having a little power for the first time in my life went straight to my head. They had to pause production after two weeks when monitors caught me beating some jock in the head with my flashlight for talking in the lunch line. I became infamous, the poster child for abusive authority at the age of 17, and virtually unemployable overnight.
Like most people in my early 20s I’d just become a corporation. We were only then beginning to understand as a culture the legal benefits of incorporating every citizen, and on the recommendation of my agent at the time I’d floated some bonds to fund what I had hoped would become a lavish Hollywood lifestyle. Instead, I woke to the pinging of my phone, alerting me that I was already in default. My agent had dumped me, my bonds were underwater, and given that I’d financed my bonds through debt, based on expectations of future earnings, I had a negative net worth and creditors had already sold my debt online to the highest bidder. Worst of all, our producers decided to make this a ‘learning moment’ and the big surprise twist for week three was that we were all to switch places. It was my turn to be a prisoner and the jock I’d smacked with my flashlight would be my guard.
Nothing Americans like more than watching a bad guy taken down a notch. But I’d been bullied enough in high school; I didn’t want a sensationalized version of that experience broadcast around the world to an audience who’d already decided I deserved it. So that very afternoon I climbed over the rough log fencing of the gulag and ran into the woods. No one really expected that because it was winter and rained more days than not. The whole point of a gulag is that they put them where no sensible person would ever try to escape.
Unfortunately, I was never a boy scout. I didn’t know anything about camping, and the only piece of survival knowledge I possessed was that moss grew on the north side of trees. And you know what? It doesn’t. It grows all over the place, that was complete nonsense.
But I knew they’d sue me if I went back and refused to participate. So I started marching in the general direction of where I figured the sun was going to set, thinking that sooner or later I’d hit the coast.
Luckily, I stumbled onto an abandoned hunting cabin and holed up for four days burning furniture and prying open cans of expired tuna. And when they finally found me? That’s the amazing part. In those four days of relative comfort in that old cabin in the woods, modern media had transformed me from abusive toxic teen to misunderstood victim of modern media culture.
You see, they figured I’d frozen to death or fallen into a ravine, and a dead teen victim is so much more clickworthy than a live teen asshole. They rehabbed my reputation by cancelling the producers who had played off my insecurities and encouraged me to act out. That saved my reputation and provided me with fame for a solid month or two as I went on the talk shows and podcasts crying my heart out at the lessons I’d learned along the way.
But the real lesson, the most important lesson I learned, was that development people only really want you for the social role they’ve hired you to fill. If you can bring some life to that, whether it’s the self-sacrificing mother, or the arrogant heartthrob, or the asshole prison guard or the victim of circumstance, then there will always be a place for you on next week’s show. Doesn’t matter what the program is, just that you scratch that emotional itch.
Which is how I learned to be the character guy.
Once they let me back in proper society I hit the producers up for a job. They felt guilty and brought me on in development. Pretty soon it became clear that I had a knack for emotional arcs. Crafting them, bending them to our collective will, working with talent to help them realize what they needed to become in order to succeed on a given show.
Now I’m the person they call when a reality show isn’t working out and they need someone to come in and clarify the emotional landscape. I help craft the conflict and I like to think I’m good at it, because I understand at the end of the day that someone’s always got to be the asshole or no one’s going to watch.
So have I made myself a few enemies along the way? Sure. There are reality actors around the world who’d like nothing more than to put me back in that gulag under lock and key. Are some of them unhinged enough to want me dead? Probably. Unless you work in the business you can’t imagine the ruthless sociopaths I’ve come across on both sides of the camera. But 12 million dollars worth of dead? That’s a different beast. Mainly because the ones who want me gone are the ones who didn’t work out, the ones we kicked off the island. There’s no way one of those reprobates could get their hands on that kind of money, unless they married rich or won a lottery.
But pondering the wheres and whyfores is difficult when there’s a two day contract on your life and potentially dozens of anonymous subcontractors out there trying to collect a fee. I had one person I knew I could trust, Joho, since they made their living off me and had nothing to gain from my death. And I had my proxy, Jennifer Anniston, a high-end open web model, which was supposedly anonymous when it went out over the internet to do my chores.
But how anonymous is anonymous? At that time HBO’s parent company, Neuralink, had just taken over, promising to decentralize at a granular level the control of all media properties including, of course, Jennifer Anniston’s likeness and her character’s personality from the show Friends.
And there were thousands if not millions of Jennifer Aniston proxies out there working on behalf of their owners. So if that code base is unified and self contained, who’s to say one Jennifer couldn’t spy on another? Or one freelancing admin couldn’t slip a universal access token to an interested third party? I had to trust Jennifer, because you need a proxy to get anything done these days, but I couldn’t trust her completely because I know how easily money can warp even the most honest corporate intentions.
The sun had just set behind the skyline as Jennifer appeared on my watch. “You okay, Rog’?” This was young Jennifer Anniston by the way, from the first run of Friends, not the later one at the hospice. She had that ‘I want you to know how concerned I am’ look, and I couldn’t help wondering if the image was just a mask covering a sociopathic hacker out there hoping to sell my whereabouts to the highest bidder on some anonymous open web platform like Thielville or GaltsGulch.
“Jennifer I want you to hook me up with Joho, but I don’t want you listening in on the call okay?”
“Well, sure, if that’s what you want…”
“It needs to be absolutely private.”
“You know I’m here to help. It is my job!” She looked hurt.
“Don’t get upset, it’s important.”
“I’m a proxy, we don’t have feelings.“ A petulent toss of her hair.
“Fine, Jennifer, call Joho.”
“I’m not Jennifer! I am Rachel Green! The character from Friends Classic. And I would appreciate it if you’d use my correct name. You have not purchased the rights to relate to me as the award winning actress Jennifer Aniston!”
“MTV Movie award for best villain, thank you! I’ll get him on the phone and NOT listen.”
“Also Golden fucking Globes for best performance by an Actress in a television series, asshole.”
She disappeared and Jojo came on. Sweat glistened on their face.
“Thank goodness. You know, there was a huge accident on the 101. I thought they’d got to you.”
I was walking under the freeway now, headed for the first street bridge. My clothes were dirty from sliding down the embankment, but if an interested drone got a clean shot of my face, they could upload that to the open web. Then recognition algorithms might spot me and sell that info to virtually anyone in a matter of seconds. I had soot from the road on my hands and rubbed some dark lines along my cheeks to hopefully confuse any cameras in the vicinity.
“Joho, what do I do?”
“I’m going to call a car under my name.”
“But the car will know it’s not you. They’ll think I’m UberJacking.”
“That’s why you’re going to need to cover your face with a mask. Tell the car you’ve just had a facelift or you’re contagious. There’s that new virus from Florida. Say you’re worried about that.”
“I didn’t bring a mask today.”
“Anything in your vicinity?”
I looked around and there were a few plastic trash bags full of garbage thrown from passing cars. “Nothing I want to touch.”
“What about your underwear? You wear boxers or briefs?”
“Pretty sure your face has been worse places.”
Honestly, it didn’t take more than 20 seconds to hop out of my culottes, pull off my boxer shorts, climb back into my pants and yank the boxers over my head. I peeked out the leg openings as I headed toward the first street bridge over the LA River. If you’re not familiar, our river hasn’t had a regular flow for years, it’s little more than a flat cement viaduct unless it rains, which it almost never does. In other words, I could not jump to safety if anyone came at me while I was crossing over.
Sidewalks in both directions were blocked by a hodgepodge of tents and sleeping bags that hung by bungie nets over the side. With the boxers over my head and my newly filthy clothes no one seemed to notice me picking my way along through the bustling crowd. It was also a pretty decent Central American marketplace and the smell of pupusas reminded me I hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before.
“The car should be coming up behind you,” Joho said from the watch. “A blue single seater. Remember, you’re Joho and you’re concerned about respiratory poliomyelitis.”
“Polio is a thing now?!”
“Some teenager bought the virus specs through one of those dark sites then combined it with seasonal flu as a science experiment. He did it all online, never had to touch a pipette.”
“That’s a nightmare.”
“They were delivering it to the kid’s high school and the Fed Ex guy slipped and fell, cracked open a vial. Now a big chunk of Palm Beach is paralized. They call it the FedEx Flu.”
The car came up on my left, moving slowly. I jumped in front, waving my hands and it stopped. But the door didn’t open. I came around and knocked on the side window. It lowered maybe two inches. This was one of those crowdleased autocars without a screen up front. They’re leased online to an operator sitting at home dispatching vehicles and answering questions. A female voice said, “I need to see your face please.”
“I’m Joho Holbein.”
“Why are you wearing underwear on your head?”
“I’m worried about that polio flu.”
“No, that hasn’t gone west of Alabama. I’ll need to see your face if you want a ride. This is UberJacking area.”
“Okay, look, I just had a facelift, okay? I’m embarrassed and my cheeks are all blotchy and swollen. My client base can’t see me like this, I look like a drunk raccoon.”
I continued to argue, but she wasn’t having it: “Listen, little man! I’m an independent contractor, understand? I’m just barely holding it together here in bumfuck Idaho in a shared apartment with two people who I despise, both of whom can hear me talking right now. This car is leased, I’m bidding for clients hour after fucking hour and my margins are razor fucking thin. I can’t afford secondary insurance! One UberJacking and I’ll be out on the street right next to you.”
I couldn’t argue with her logic. But I’m a natural born haggler. Eventually she agreed to let me ride if I sent her corporate account a bounty in stablecoin to cover secondary insurance for a year and the associated emotional distress she was feeling over the imminent prospect of homelessness. l’m embarrassed to say how much it cost, but it got me off the street and into Downtown LA.
Joho booked me into an anonymous celebrity rehab clinic under their name, which was situated in the top floors of the gas company tower overlooking Pershing Square. This clinic had a half billion dollar anonymity policy, and all the mid-level celebrities went there, though paparazzi drones are always hovering in a cloud around it and climbing up the walls of the building.
Of course, nobody just goes right in.
We drove into a sub garage about four blocks away, then through a pair of metal gates, where an unmarked elevator door opened from a blank cement wall. I hopped out and got inside, hoping that the car’s dispatcher hadn’t somehow recognized Joho’s voice on my watch and realized I was an impostor. The doors closed and we accelerated sideways along an underground tubeway courtesy of the Boring Company, which had failed miserably as a purveyor of popular transit but found its niche selling micro-subways to the super wealthy. We slid to a stop and the elevator opened on another elevator, this one heading to the penthouse floor of the gas company tower.
At this point, I knew I was safe, for the moment at least, because they’d be liable if someone managed to get to me inside the building. Of course that half billion dollars worth of insurance wouldn’t help me if I were dead. Joho told me where to go and I headed on my own down the elegant hallway to an open door which lead to a massive suite overlooking the city. The sound of the door closing behind me with a gentle click released a flood of panic I’d been holding back. I yanked the boxers off my head and stared out at the reddish purple sky filled with the swirling flow of drone traffic. “What the hell, Joho?!”
“You should be safe here till Monday, though you’ll miss your first day of work.”
“But what if they just make another bet?”
“My problem is I can’t figure out who would spend that kind of money on you…”
“Thanks,” I said. “But it’s true. Hasbeen celebrity dev guy. The only people who recognize me anymore are middleaged moms and communications grad students studying the death of narrative.”
“So…” Joho said, “It must be someone you pissed off at work. Someone you convinced to take the fall for an emotional arc or someone you lied to.”
“I don’t lie! I mislead. You can be sued for lying. But who has that kind of disposable income except the super wealthy? No one I worked with.”
“You sure no misfit teen was the son of a one percenter?”
“Maybe? Who knows. The question is how do we stop them?”
“Roger, if somebody rich enough wants you dead, you’re dead. Money is anonymous, but no matter how much you try to hide it, you’re not.”
“No shit; It’s never been easier to bully people into suicide or ruin an innocent life, but somehow every psycopathic stalker manages to buy his ex’s whereabouts online from crowdsourced drone footage.”
The fact is, we’ve decentralized and abstracted and privatized and automated ourselves for decades, but without using any of that newfound efficiency to free us from the sort of drudgework humankind has been living with since they began work on the pyramids. We’d been optimizing for efficiency rather than happiness, and it felt like everyone I knew was nearing their breaking point.
–I’d been rambling on like this for a good two or three minutes before Joho finally cut me off: “Roger, stop it! You’re going off the rails. Let’s back it up, reverse chronological order: who are the last three people you really pissed off? I mean really. Blind spitting murderous rage.”
“That would be my last job.”
“That one job!?”
“You know I’m the fall guy for the producers. They tell me what they want, I make it happen, then everyone gets to blame me. It’s why I make the big bucks.”
“This was the quasi-reality show Elizabethan thing?”
“Tudor period. Everyone took on roles from the court of Henry the Eighth.”
‘Everything but the beheadings are real,’ was our slogan and they’d brought me in when the guy playing Henry turned out to have a conscience. He just wasn’t ruthless enough and the show had become a massive bore.
I ended up convincing Anne Boleyn to launch an assassination attempt and that horse laxative in Henry’s plum pudding was enough to fire up his blood lust. He threw the whole family into the Tower of London and we ended the season with a pentuple beheading. Historically speaking, it was a completely inaccurate shitshow, but the ratings soared.
But then SheighShay, the woman playing Anne Boleyn, attacked me with the jagged edge of a broken Faberge egg at the wrap party and the guy playing Henry Percy, her spurned lover, tried to dose me with a jello shot full of LSD. They’d become two thirds of a romantic throuple during shooting and felt that I’d cut short their budding careers with my narrative guidance.
Then of course there was the line producer, Anita, my ex, who realized halfway through season one I was having an affair with Catharine of Aragon who was played by the Anomona, the Catalan singer who first rose to fame as the partially animated AI cyborg, ALLofUS. She dumped me once editing locked, which kind of broke my heart, but Anita vowed revenge nonetheless.
“Step one,” Joho said, “I’ll tell them you’ll be a day late on the Amazon job. “Step two, we figure out who’s behind this. No way that much money doesn’t leave some kind of trace.”
“What’s step three?”
“Step three, we monetize. This is narrative gold, if you live.”
I had to admire Joho’s business sense, if not their tact. Meanwhile, I asked Jennifer Aniston to anonymously research my potential enemies. Turns out that SheighShay and the guy playing Henry Percy had become VR family roleplay influencers and seemed pretty contented with their pseudo-incestuous lives. Anita, meanwhile, was more successful than ever with her new production company, though I remembered quite clearly from our two year relationship that she knew how to hold a grudge. I found it hard to imagine she’d want me dead. Begging for mercy with a few broken limbs, sure, but she simply had too much ambition to roll the dice on an execution that wouldn’t help her move ahead in the world.
I heard a loud thump beside me and turned to see what I gradually realized was the bloody body of a seagull sliding down the outside window.
Then a smack! against the glass, near my face. It was a pigeon this time, flown right into the window. The side of the building could probably take anything short of a rocket attack, but it was unnerving and macabre. I saw the murky flutter of wings just out of sight in the darkness. I slowly came closer, pressing my face to the cold glass to see a pair of pigeons just barely swerve away at the last second, wings batting frantically.
Then as my eyes adjusted, I saw them out there. Not the birds, the drones. A swarm of them no bigger than my fist, operating in unison. They were working out there like sheepdogs, chasing local birds, channeling them right into the window of my room.
“Jennifer, do you see that?! What’s with that?”
She appeared on the inside of the window. “I’m tapped in,” she said, “But what the hell?!”
“It’s a message,” Joho said from my watch. “They’re sending a message, they know you’re here.”
“But what am I supposed to do?!” I asked, as a small songbird ended its life against the window beside me. “What do they want?!”
“It’s not a message for you, it’s for the managers of the building. And the message has been received, we’re being kicked out.”
“Can they do that? My life is being threatened.”
“The building’s reserved the right to refuse service and that’s what they’re doing. They have to protect their insurance policy, Roger. Wish it weren’t so, but you gots to go.”
We figured the longer I stayed the worse it would get, so I grabbed my boxer shorts and sprinted down the hallway to the elevator.
There were five or six anonymous exits from the basement and Joho arranged for the elevator to meet one at random, while Jennifer purchased a car in Joho’s name and had it delivered to the underground subway annex where I finally ended up. This was turning into a pricy adventure, but since I didn’t want it to be my last, I told her to spare no expense. Just to be safe, I’d left my phone upstairs at the rehab clinic and there was a burner waiting for me in the back seat.
The car was a Neuralink Spinthrift in bright pink and purple. “Nothing’s more anonymous than loud bad taste,” Jennifer said, as we rocketed down the claustrophobic tunnel, out of an East LA warehouse and then sped south through the expensive part of Compton. Thankfully the new car was stocked with a bar and some fast-acting psylocybin to go with my zero calorie gin and tonic.
Shortly after I downed my first drink, Joho appeared on the rear screen with more bad news. “Amazon just let you go.”
“That bet on your life was picked up by a half dozen influencers and it’s everywhere now. it’s a nostalgia play. No one can figure out why anyone would care enough to have you killed, so it’s poignant and sad.”
“Thanks, I’ll put that on my LinkedIn profile.”
“There is a small bit of good news though.” Jennifer appeared on the monitor beside Joho, looking hopeful and perky. An embarrassed smile.
“Your stock has gone up almost 1100 percent since yesterday!”
Now this needs a little explaining, because most people when they incorporate at 15 or 16 don’t bother going public unless they think they have a good chance at making it as an influencer, actor, or lifestyle object. I think only about 30 percent of Americans are public corporations now, the rest are all private. But in the early days of my budding career, success seemed inevitable. I’d gone public right after I landed my reality show gig, and that helped me issue those bonds that went underwater immediately after my fall from grace.
Of course in the days after my humiliation, after my rehabilitation, I’d become a bit of a meme stock, with investment clubs pumping and dumping me in a monthly roller coaster of peaks and dips. It was embarrassing of course, and my reputation dropped even lower, but I would always sell a little at the peaks, and that paid my rent for a good 7 years until the next generation of hipsters came along and had no idea why Roger Whittaker Inc. was supposed to be interesting. The downside of it all was that 20 years later I owned maybe 20 percent of my own stock. I was a minority owner of myself.
But now that stock was going through the roof.
“Jennifer, what exactly is the price at?”
She told me and I felt like making another drink. “Jennifer, how much would I get if I sold the rest of Roger Whittaker, Inc.?”
It was over 14 million dollars. Now that’s not as much as it used to be, but it’s nothing to sneeze at, certainly when the bet on my life was a few million less.
I realized then and there that if I was going to climb out of this mess I couldn’t just react. I needed to fight back.
“Jennifer, what if I sold it all and bet on myself?”
“I’m assuming you meant that question for Rachel Green, rather than the award-winning…?”
“—Fuck you yes! What if I sold the rest of myself and bet on my own death? Joho, would that help? A 14 million dollar bet that I’ll be dead by Monday. Then whoever picks it up will for sure want to keep me alive! At least two million dollars more than the other guy.”
“We can’t guarantee it’ll work,” he said on the monitor, “but it couldn’t hurt.”
So I did it. I took advantage of my infamy, just as I had for most of my life, and sold every last share I owned of Roger Whittaker, Inc.
Thanks to the skyrocketing stock price, this earned me 17.4 million bucks that I immediately staked to the very same open website hosting the original bet. I put everything I had on my imminent demise. I admit it felt a little weird placing 17 million dollars on a bet that I’d be dead in two days, but then I realized how seldom things have ever worked out for me in this life. If the past was any prologue I’d lose this wager for sure.
“Somebody’s already taken the bet!” Jennifer cheered. “They want you to live!”
“Of course that doesn’t immediately fix anything,” Joho said. “The original bets are still out there and those will get paid off if you don’t make it. So I recommend you keep your head down and…”
It was at some point around here that they shot us with an RPG, or rocket propelled grenade.
At that time, if you remember, the Canadian civil war had just ended and all sorts of military paraphernalia was flooding south to the US. You could buy an RPG on the open web for less than two months of personal browser history. But thankfully the Neuralink Spinthrift is built like a tank.
I heard a loud boom, the windows went black, and the car spun around both the Z and Y axes as we toppled end over end, rotating all the while, and then down the sloping walls of the LA River, through brush and debris and nesting migratory waterfowl that flew into the sky with a shriek.
When we finally scraped to a stop I was covered in gin and tonic and the floor of the car had become the ceiling.
Jennifer flickered on the monitor trying to speak as Joho called from my watch, “You should be safe inside the car, I’ve called public and private police, as well as an independent firetruck crew.”
But then one of the windows exploded inward and a hydraulic claw jammed its way into the cab of the car, opening like a mechanical flower and folding the door of the car back on itself like a lace curtain.
It happened so fast I didn’t have time to panic, I just watched in awe as the door seemed to melt away and a pair of faces appeared in the gaping hole. Two middle aged women wearing goggles and riot gear, one taller than the other.
“You want to live?” the tall one asked, pointing to me.
“I’m recording this!” Jennifer yelled from the monitor, upside down.
“These aren’t our faces,” said the woman. And I’m still not even sure what she meant by that, but it chilled me to the bone.
“How much are you supposed to make for killing me?” I asked her, sitting up. “Which bet did you take?”
The woman smiled, “If we were going to kill you, you’d be dead. We’re taking you hostage, then we’ll see who bids highest, the ones who want you alive… or everybody else.”
They dragged me from the car onto the slimy cement flats of the LA River, then into the cab of their personal three-man copter.
We flew straight up and I looked down to see dozens of lights converging on my smashed car from either side of the embankment. Then we quickly powered south, following the river.
I held my tongue and studied the situation for any information that might help later on. We took evasive maneuvers as we neared Long Beach, from inside an ever-shifting cloud of drones. The kidnappers had a fleet of them with similar heat signatures to the copter and they would dart out at random intervals then silently make their way back to the swarm.
The shorter of the two kidnappers was busy whispering to her proxy as the taller one studied me with a strange smirk on her face. She took off her goggles, chuckling to herself.
“You’re trying to figure out why anyone would care, aren’t you?” I said.
She shrugged, “I don’t question culture anymore, I exploit it.”
“The prospect of murder doesn’t bother you?”
“We’re all complicit to some extent,” she said. “Our country, our society, they murder in our name every day. Add it all up and we’re individually responsible for a couple of murders a year once you average it all out. What’s one more?”
“Can I at least ask how you found me?” I said. “The car wasn’t in my name, I’m using a burner phone. What’d I do wrong?”
“It’s your Neuralink.” She said this like I was an idiot.
“That’s been proven mathematically anonymous!”
“The content is, sure.” She studied the drone traffic out the window. “What you think, where you go, what you see, all that is private. But we don’t look for that. We track your patterns of engagement. It’s the way you access the web, the ebb and flow, it’s a fingerprint of how you think. We just bought a shitload of anonymous public realtime data from the greater LA area and matched it to the fingerprint from your public facing access files. Boom, problem solved.”
“That must have cost a fortune.”
“Can’t hide from people with money,” she said with a shrug. “And we’ll be getting a lot more out of you.”
Then the short one cackled. “We’ve got our first bid!”
“Already?!” The tall one punched me in the shoulder. “See! They like you!”
“They want to talk to him? Is that okay?”
“Sure,” the tall one said magnanimously, checking some data on her watch. “Put ‘em on the monitor.”
Then the screen resolved to Anita’s face.
This is my ex, Anita, the one I last remembered throwing a pewter serving dish of southern fried larks’ tongue at my head on the set of Henry the Eighth.
She and I have always had this weird domination thing; we’re essentially frenemies who both get an erotic charge out of mentally out-maneuvering each other.
It was never healthy, but that was one of the longest relationships I’d ever had. We stared into each other’s eyes, each one waiting for the other to speak. All I knew was, if I was going to die at her hands, I wasn’t going to speak first. I sat there stone faced for a good minute and a half, which amused the two kidnappers to no end.
Finally Anita cleared her throat. “I suppose I should apologize.”
No comment from me.
“These people who just captured you, they seem to be particularly skillful independent contractors attached to some copycat wager someone made against you based on our initial ‘authentic’ bet. Honestly, none of this was expected.”
“You put a 12 million dollar bounty on my head, Anita!”
“Kind of,” she said on the monitor with a shrug, “But not really. You see, yes, I made the bet. But I also took the bet. It was a wash trade. Didn’t really cost me anything.”
For some reason that shocked me more than anything else. “Anita!? I could have died! I spent 17 million dollars and change fighting that! Why would you do this?!”
She tried not to laugh and almost succeeded. “Two things, really. I figured once the news got out –which of course I made sure it did– your stock would take off and you’d sell what you had left to set up a counter bet. Which you did. And which I took.” She paused to let me catch up, relishing the look of anguish on my face. “Roger, at the end of the day, I don’t want you dead. Which is why I’m so ‘sorry’ about this whole kidnapping thing.” She made air quotes when she said ‘sorry’ just to tweak me. “We’ll bargain them down as much as we can, using the money I’ll win from your bet. But don’t worry. I can’t imagine anyone would counteroffer more than a few hundred dollars for a sadsack ex-celebrity. So barring more unforeseen troubles, you’ll live.”
I could sense she had something worse up her sleeve. I could see the gap in her two front teeth as she sat there, quietly smiling. “You said there were two things. What’s the other thing? Why go to all this trouble to bankrupt me? You’re smarter than that.”
“Well, I’m producing a new show and I need you onboard.”
“Are you kidding! This is for a show!? You’re the one with the grudge, not me! You know I’m a whore, Anita; I’ll work for anybody. You didn’t have to go to this much trouble just to hire me on a development job.”
“No,” she said, “This one is in front of the camera. It’s a reunion rematch of the Stanford Prison Experiment. You’ll be a prisoner this time, and we’ve managed to find that kid you hit with the flashlight. Funny enough, he’s a cop now.”
“Absolutely fuck you!” I yelled, “I will sue!”
Anita shook her head, those beautiful curls bobbing in perfect counterpoint to the movement of her face. “That brings us to the other thing. You see, when you sold the rest of your stock, that was me buying it. I’m now the majority owner of Roger Whittaker, Inc. And since I am both CEO and the entire board of Roger Whittaker, Inc., you really want me on your good side.
“I’ll change my name!”
“Sure,” she said, “you can do that, call yourself Burt Shitheel or whatever. But I own the intellectual property of Roger Whittaker, which includes all the name recognition and experience that you have earned up to about an hour ago. Which means that for any future employment that is based on experience that you developed as part of the intellectual property of Roger Whittaker, even if you’re called something else, we, or rather I, will take a hefty percentage. I bought 68% of you fare and square. You know how litigious I am, just try to hire yourself out as anything other than a fry cook or a taint masseur.”
At least I was smart enough to know she’d beaten me.
I sat back in the seat of the copter with a groan, ignoring the amused smirks of the two kidnappers who’d already opened champagne and were celebrating my capture.
“You know, Anita, you really fucked me.”
And she smiled that beautiful gap-toothed grin, face growing large on the screen of the copter’s cabin as she leaned in, “–And so much better than you ever did me.” That cut to the bone, but Lord it was so well timed.
I had to admit, even then, that she’d never looked more beautiful.
It took the entire first season of The Stanford Prison Experiment Returns to win her back. And the first 10 episodes were literal torture. But Anita eventually forgave me for my past transgressions, she helped me fight my way to the top of the rankings in episodes 11 through 16.
And shortly after the show failed to be picked up for a second season, she agreed to sign a two-year marriage contract, with an open-ended option to extend. Ultimately, I think we make a pretty good team.
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