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December 08, 2004

Chapter Four

Miranda was being monopolized by Ben Fleck, another junior agent, when I returned. She glanced at me pointedly as I walked by. The glance had a double meaning. The first was whatthe Hell happened in there? The second was Rescue me. Ben was a first class jerk who had been trying for 18 months to get into Miranda's pants; it would have constituted sexual harassment except that Ben was so obviously inept at it.

"Miranda," I said, "Could you please come to my office?"

"Hey," Ben said. "I'm discussing a client with Miranda at the moment."

"That client is in your pants, Ben," I said. "And he's never going to get the job. Miranda?" I held the door open for her as she took her notepad and walked by me into my office.

"Thank you," she said, as I closed the door behind us. "Though you shouldn't be so rough on Ben. He's sort of sweet, in his own lecherous, oafish way."

"Nonsense," I said. "I'm not going to let him get away with anything I'm not allowed to get away with."

"But Tom," Miranda said. "you're neither lecherous nor oafish. "

"Thanks, Miranda," I said, and leaned against my desk. "I'll put that on my gravestone. 'Here lies Thomas Stein. He was neither lecherous nor oafish.'"

"Enough chitchat," Miranda said. "Do you still have a job, or are you just putting on a brave face for your devoted staff?"

"Miranda, did anyone pay attention to where we were going when we went to the meeting?"

Miranda sat in the chair in front of my desk and thought for a moment. "Not that I could tell. You nodded to Drew Roberts as we walked past him, but don't think he noticed. You're a junior agent. You don't rate a nod back."

"Good," I said. "Did anyone ask where I was?"

"In the office? No. Michelle called again," Miranda crossed her eyes slightly at the word Michelle, indicating in her own subtle way that she believed Michelle to be less intelligent than the average protozoan, "but I just told her you were in a meeting. Other than that, my attention was monopolized by Ben, who loathes you and would not ask about you even if he could get a promotion out of it. Why?"

"If anyone asks, I was just out to get a bagel, okay?"

"You're killing me," Miranda said. "I don't normally threaten my bosses, but if you don't tell me what happened in there, I may have to hurt you."

"I can't, Miranda. You know if I could tell anyone, I could tell you." I gave her my best I'm-utterly-helpless look. "I just can't. Just trust me for now, please, and just forget that meeting ever took place?"

Miranda looked at me for a minute. "Okay, Tom," she said, finally. "But if we're not going to talk about the meeting that didn't take place, why did you call me in here?"

"I need you to get my files on everyone I represent. Also, give me the names of the latest agents up from the mailroom, and their client lists, if you can."

Miranda jotted on her notepad. "All right," she said. "Anything in particular I should look for in the new agents?"

"I want someone who is so new that he still could do his mail route with his eyes closed. Someone who doesn't know anything. Me, about three years ago."

"Young and naive. Got it, Tom. Actually, I know just the person."

"Great. Give me about an hour with my files and then have them come for a visit."

"Fine. Anything else?"

"Yes. I'm going to need one of those watercooler bottles. And a dolly."

Miranda looked up from her notepad. "A watercooler bottle?"

"Yeah. One of those Arrowhead Water bottles. The five gallon ones."

"And a dolly."

"If you can find one. They have them in the mailroom, I think. You can have the new agent retrieve it."

I could see Miranda debating with herself whether or not she wanted to ask what the water bottle was for. She finally decided against it. What a pro. "Do you want the water bottle empty or full?"

"Doesn't matter," I said.

"It does to me," she said. "I have to lug the damn thing to your office."

"Empty, please."

She stopped writing. "Okay," she said. "You'll have your files in just a minute." She stood up and walked over the two steps to where I was. I stopped leaning on the desk and stood up. "Tom," she said, "You can trust me; I'll never speak of that meeting in front of anyone. But whatever happened in that meeting, congratulations." She reached over and tousled my hair. It was an old-fashioned and matronly move from someone who was my assistant, and a year younger than I was. It made me grin like an idiot.


Miranda dropped the files on my desk. It was now time to play everybody's favorite game: Ditch the clients.

"This thing is going to take up all of your time from now on," Carl had warned, right after I had signed up for the ride. "You're going to have to formulate a plan and execute it. You're going to have to be an aide to Joshua, as well. Which reminds me: he needs to stay at your place."

"What?" I said. Visions of slug slime coating my upholstery leapt, unbidden, into my mind.

"Tom," Joshua said, "it's not exactly an easy commute between here and the ship."

"We can work out the details later," Carl said, getting back on track. "But what you need to do now, Tom, is go through your client list and as quietly as possible, offload as many as you can. Joshua is your full-time job now."

I stared at the files and had a weird tingling in my head. On one hand, this was an agent's dream -- get rid of the truly annoying clients! Cut the dead weight! Unload the ballast! Every agent who was not running an agency had clients they'd rather be without -- and here I was being told to eject them. On the other hand, as an agent, you're only as good as your client list. Better bad clients than none at all. I was understanding intellectually that my new "client" was an opportunity that comes along -- well, that's never come along before, now that I thought of it. Emotionally, however, it still felt like I was taking the ascending 747 that was my agentorial career and aiming it into the Pacific, while all the passengers, my clients, were screaming in the coach seats, their little emergency plastic airmasks waving in the turbulence.

Enough thinking, I decided. I grabbed the first file.

Tony Baltz. Gone. He was on his way down anyway, since he was too proud to take the roles that had made him famous in the first place.

Rashaad Creek. Keep. I could work through his mother, who was doing most of the heavy lifting in that partnership, anyway. The unsettling Oedipal overtones to Rashaad's situation had always disturbed me, but now I could finally use them to my advantage.

Elliot Young. Keep. Elliot, bless his heart, was not the brightest of studs. I could sit down with him one afternoon and convince him that by buckling down on the series for a season, it would make the transition to films much more profitable in the long run. Who, knows, it might even be the truth.

Tea Reader. Gone. Thank the Lord almighty.

Michelle Beck. Keep. Of course. Michelle Beck was my cover: when a client can rake in twelve million per film, an agent can't be faulted for wanting to spend more time concentrating on that client. Also, flying under the radar or not, dropping Michelle after today's paycheck would be noticed by someone. Michelle and I were bound together for life, or until she pulled a hissy fit and got new representation. If I didn't have her, I would be, as my father liked to say, walking through a thick shag carpet of shit. The ambivalence I felt about this fact was staggering in its depth.

The undercard folks were all toast. It didn't really matter who agented them, anyway.

I was finishing up my client triage when Miranda buzzed me. "Mr. Stein," she said. I could count the times she called me Mr. Stein on one hand, without having to use my thumb or index finger. "Amanda Hewson is here."

"Accompany her in, please, Ms. Escalon," I called Miranda Ms. Escalon even less than she called me Mr. Stein.

Miranda walked in, followed by a gawky blonde who looked like she wasn't old enough to see "R"-rated films without accompaniment. Amanda Hewson had graduated from the mailroom just over a month before. Her two clients were a former Mexican soap opera star who wanted to make it big in Hollywood, but didn't want to learn the English language, and an actor who administered first aid to her after she fainted on mile 4 of the LA Marathon. She represented him, apparently, largely out of gratitude.

She was perfect.

"Amanda," I said, motioning to the chair in front of my desk. "Please sit down." She did. I regarded her the same way Carl regarded me earlier today. It's fair; the distance, careerwise, was not dissimilar.

Amanda was looking around. "Nice office," she said.

My office is a dump.

"It is, isn't it?" I said. "Amanda, do you know why I asked you here?"

"Not really," Amanda confessed. "Ms. Escalon " -- Unseen by Amanda, Miranda crossed her eyes; she didn't appear to cotton to all this formalness -- "said that it was important but didn't say what it was."

I did some more regarding. It was making Amanda nervous, she looked behind her briefly to see if I was actually looking at something behind her, then turned back, tittered nervously. Her hands, restless in her lap, spasmed lightly.

I looked at Miranda. "You think she's the one?" I asked.

Now it was Miranda's turn to regard Amanda. I have to admit, she did a much scarier regarding. Amanda looked about to wet her pants. "I think so," Miranda said. "At least, she's much better than the other possibles."

I had no idea what Miranda was talking about. Then again, she didn't know what I was talking about either. We were making this up as we went along.

"So, Amanda," I said. "Where'd you go to school?"

"UCLA," she said. "In Westwood," she added. After she said that I could see the thought travel through her head: Moron! We're in LA! He KNOWS where UCLA is! God! I'm an idiot! Panic can be truly endearing when it's done right.

"Really," I said. "I'm a Bruin myself. How's the high-speed life of an agent treating you these days?"

"Well, really well," she said, with obvious fervor. "I mean, I'm just getting started, so it's a little rough. I think it'll be a few more months before I really get my legs." She smiled brightly. She was so new that she didn't realize that admitting weakness was a mortal sin among agents. I wondered how she got past the screening process. Beside me, I could feel waves of pity emanate from Miranda. Now I knew why she had suggested Amanda -- she was trying to keep this clearly non-cynical young woman from having the stuffing kicked out of her by her more vicious compatriots.

"Well, I hope your legs are ready now, Amanda," I said. "The officers of this corporation" -- I always thought that phrase sounded dramatic, and I was right -- "have instructed me to inaugurate a pilot mentor project for our newest agents, a sort of helping hand to get them up to speed more quickly. Now, I have to emphasize that this is just a pilot program, and highly experimental. In fact, it's a secret --"

Amanda's eyes actually widened. If I were just ten percent less jaded, I think I might have fallen in love.

" -- so you'll have to keep it that way. It's officially unofficial. Understand?"

"Sure, Mr. Stein."

"Call me Tom," I said. "Amanda, what do you think of Tea Reader?"

Her eyes got even wider. Make that five percent less jaded.

Two hours and a Starbucks latte each later, the Officially Unofficial Mentor Project was underway. Under my "supervision," Amanda would take over the day-to-day representation needs of Tea Reader, Tony Baltz, and my undercard clients. For the first month, Amanda would make detailed weekly reports on "our" clients, which I would read and comment on. That would decrease to twice monthly the second month, and monthly thereafter. During this time, any money made from representing these clients would be split between mentor and student. After six months, pending mentor approval, Amanda could represent up to six of these clients full-time, with all commissions and fees going to her from that point forward. To myself, I figured that any clients she didn't want to keep after six months I would drop in any event.

Amanda was happy because even with a reduced commission rate, she stood to make far more money over the next six months than she could have off her own clients, and would get an automatically expanded client list at the end of it. Plus, of course, my invaluable mentoring services. I was happy because I offloaded my clients. The only one who might not be entirely happy with it was Miranda, because she knew that the reports I was supposed to read and comment on were actually going to be read and commented on by her. But she didn't say anything about it. I was going to have to get her raise soon.

Amanda went of in a haze of blissfulness and promises to "get right on it." She was like a Mouseketeer on "Let's Represent Someone" day. I could almost see her skip to her pod. I hoped her first experience with Tea Reader would not send her too much into shock.

"That was a dirty trick," Miranda said to me.

"What do you mean?" I said. "Look at her. What are her chances of getting a decent client list on her own?"

"Not to her," Miranda said. "To me. Now I'm going to have to add babysitting to my list of things to do."

"She'll be fine," I said. "And anyway, I thought you liked her."

"I do like her," Miranda said. "And she will be fine. Eventually." She put her face closer to mine. "But in the short term, I might as well be a crossing guard, for all the hand-holding I'm going to do. Now. I'm off to get your waterbottle." She walked out of the office.

I was going to have to get her a raise very soon.


I knocked on the conference room door. It was unoccupied. I entered the conference room with the water bottle and the dolly, closed the door, locked it behind me.

"You have got to be kidding," Joshua said.

Joshua had returned back to the aquarium and had stayed in the conference room after our meeting was done. My job had been to find a unobtrusive way to get him from the conference room to my place. Carl wouldn't tell me how he had gotten Joshua into the building unnoticed, and he wasn't giving me any tips on how to get him out. Think of it as your first challenge, he said. Were I palming off the first known extraterrestrial on a subordinate to take care of, I think I'd be a little more concerned.

"We give you three hours to come up with something, and this is the best you can do," Joshua said. "I'm not scared yet, but I'm getting there."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I had to improvise." I wheeled the bottle over and sat it next to the tank. I had figured that a five-gallon water bottle would be big enough to fit Joshua in. Now I wasn't so sure.

Neither was he. He extended a tendril out of the aquarium and sent it down into the bottle and waved it around, as if to check it for roominess. "How long will it take to get to your place?" he said.

"Probably an hour, maybe more," I said. "I live in La Canada. The 405 will be jammed up, but once we get over to the 210, it should be pretty quick. Is it going to be a problem?"

"Not at all," Joshua said. "Who doesn't enjoy being crammed into a five-gallon plastic bottle for an hour?"

"You don't have to stay in the bottle once we get to the car," I said. "Once we're out of here, you can spread out." This wrinkle in the plan was as new to me as it was to him. I had assumed he'd stay in the bottle the whole trip. But my car upholstery was a small price to pay for interplanetary peace. I'd just have to remember to get one of those little pine tree air fresheners.

"Thanks, but no thanks," Joshua said. "The conversation where you try to explain to a highway patrolman why you have 40 pounds of gelatin in your passenger seat is one I think we'd both rather avoid."

I laughed. "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm sort of amazed you know what a highway patrolman is."

"Why?" Joshua said. "You've been beaming 'CHiPs' into space for decades." He wiggled his tendril again, and then sighed. He must have picked that up purely as a sonic affectation because he had no lungs from which to exhale. "All right, here I go, " he said, and started putting himself into the bottle.

He came dangerously close to filling up the bottle. In the last few seconds, a thought popped into my skull: I'm going to need another bottle. It didn't occur to me to question the logic of that thought. He was gelatinous, he should be able to divide up. It became academic when he topped out about three millimeters from the top of the mouth of the bottle.

"Comfortable?" I asked.

"Remind me to stuff you into a medium-sized suitcase and ask you that same question," Joshua said. His voice was diminished and tinny, no doubt due to the relatively tiny amount of surface area he had to vibrate.

"Sorry," I said. "Listen, do you need this open? I'm thinking it might be better if I put the top back on this thing."

"Are you out of your mind?" Joshua said. "Keep it open."

"Okay," I said. "I didn't know. I suppose you need to breathe."

"It's not that," Joshua said. "I'm claustrophobic."


"Look," Joshua said. "Just because I come from a highly advanced alien species doesn't mean I can't be intensely neurotic. Can we go now? I already feel like I want to scream."

I hiked the dolly up on its wheels, wheeled over to the door, unlocked it, and headed out into the hallway. It was still early enough in the day that the office was still busy. I was worried that someone might ask me why I was wheeling a five-gallon water bottle around until I remembered that I was on the second floor, the land of senior agents. A senior agent would naturally assume it was my job to wheel water bottles around. I was probably safe until I hit the lobby.

Which is in fact where I got noticed. As I passed the receptionist's desk on the way to the parking lot, some guy at the desk turned around. "Tom Stein?" he asked.

The Just Keep Moving command left my brain a tenth of a second after the Look Around reflex kicked in. By then, of course, it was too late; I had already stopped and looked back. "Yes?"

The man jogged the short distance over and extended his hand. "Glad I caught you," he said, as we shook. "Your assistant said you had already left."

"I had," I said. "I just had to stop elsewhere and pick something up."

"I can see that," he said, glancing down at the waterbottle. "I guess you've gone past office supplies."

"Who are you?" I asked.

"I'm sorry," he said. "Jim Van Doren. I write for The Biz."

The Biz was a weekly bit of libel written in a snide, knowing sort of tone that implied the folks who slapped together The Biz were just coming from lunch with movie company heads, who couldn't wait to slip them the latest gossip. Neither I nor anyone I knew knew anyone who had ever actually spoken to anyone at the magazine. No one knew how the magazine got written. No one knew anyone who actually would pay to read it.

Van Doren himself was about my age, blond and balding, sort of pudgy. He looked like what happened to former USC frat boys about three months after they realize that their college days were never, ever coming back.

"Van Doren," I said. "No relation to Charles, I assume."

"The guy from Quiz Show? I wish," Van Doren said. "His dad won a Pulitzer Prize, you know. Wouldn't mind getting one of those myself."

"You'd probably have to work for a magazine that didn't devote six pages to an illustrated article about porno pictures on the Internet," I said. "You remember, the one where big star's heads were cut and pasted on to pictures of women having sex with dogs and glass bottles? The one that just about every movie studio in the city sued you over."

"I didn't have anything to do with that story," he said.

"That's good," I said. "Michelle Beck is my client. She was rather unamused by the picture that had her taking it up the back door from George Clooney while eating out Gwenyth Paltrow. As her agent, I'd be required to break your nose on her behalf. Of course, I'd take my ten percent, too." I started walking towards the lobby door.

Van Doren, who was not taking the hint, followed. "Actually, Tom, I knew you were Michelle Beck's agent. It's sort of why I came here. Heard that you got her twelve and a half for Earth Resurrected. That's not bad."

I opened the lobby door with one hand and propped it open with my foot as I maneuvered the dolly through the entry way. "The agency hasn't made any announcement about that to the press, much less The Biz," I said. "Where did you hear about it?"

Van Doren grabbed the door and held it for me. "I got it from Brad Turnow's office," he said. "They faxed out an announcement to the press, and I got the figure from his receptionist when I called to follow up."

I made a mental note to have Brad fire his receptionist. "I can't comment about my client's affairs," I said, "If you're looking for something, I'm not going to give it to you."

"I'm not here to do anything on Michelle Beck," Van Doren said. "I'm hoping to do a story on you."

"On me?" I said. "Really, Van Doren. I'm not that interesting. And there are no pictures of me on the Net having sex with anyone."

"Look, we know we lost a lot of goodwill on that story," Van Doren said. This statement was on the same level as the captain of the Titanic saying, I guess we've taken on a little water. "We're trying to get away from that sort of thing now. Do some real journalism. The story I'm doing, for example, is 'The Ten Hottest Young Agents in Hollywood.'"

"You getting ten agents to talk to you?" I wheeled over to my car, a Honda Prelude.

"I've got six so far," he said. "including one of your guys here -- Ben Fleck. You know him?"

"I do," I said. "I wouldn't call him one of the ten hottest young agents in Hollywood."

Van Doren grimaced. "Yeah, I know," he said. "Frankly, none of the really good young agents want to talk. That's why I'm really hoping to do something on you. I mean, twelve and a half million! I'd say that makes you the hottest agent in Hollywood at the moment, period. You're the money guy, in all senses of the term. This is cover story material, Tom. You need help getting that in the trunk?" he gestured to the water bottle.

I just did not want this guy here.

"No thanks," I said. "It's going up front."

"Well, here," he said, stepping around to the dolly. "I'll hold this while you get the door open."

What could I do? I gave him the dolly and went to open the passenger side door. As I opened the door, I realized I was on the wrong side of it; Van Doren would have to put the bottle in. I felt a mild stirring of panic.

Van Doren realized this as well. "I'll get it," he said, and walked around to pick it up. "I don't suppose you have a cap for this -- if you hit a bump, you're going to get it all over your interior."

"Nope," I said.

Van Doren shrugged. "Your car." He reached down and picked up the bottle, wobbled it slightly, provoking a spike of fear to my mild stirring of panic, turned and maneuvered it onto the passenger seat. As he stood up, his face was red and blotchy. "Out of shape," he said. "Tom, don't take this wrong, but that water smells a little off. You're not planning to drink it, I hope."

"No," I said. "It's from a sulfur spring one of our agents just got back from. You heat it up and soak in it. Good for the skin. But stinky."

"No kidding," Van Doren said. He leaned against the door, effectively blocking my ability to shut it. "So, Tom, how about it? I think you'd make a great profile. In fact, if everything goes well, I might be able to persuade my editors to drop the other nine hottest young agents out of the story. A cover story, Tom."

On a normal day of my life, I would have wanted to be on the cover of The Biz about as much as I wanted to run my tongue over a cheese grater. Today, with an alien in my passenger seat and no clue as to my future in the agency, I wanted to be on the cover of The Biz even less than that.

"Thanks, but I'm going to pass," I said. "I'm not much one for the limelight. I save that for my clients."

"Do you hear yourself?" Van Doren said. "You talk in perfect pull quote nuggets. Come on."

I decided to lie. "I'm late for dinner with my parents," I said, nodding to the door.

He reluctantly backed away. "And concerned about family, too. You're screaming to be made famous, Tom."

I smiled, thought about saying something, thought better of it "I don't think so, Van Doren. Make Ben famous instead." I closed the door and walked over to the driver side.

"Think about it, Tom," Van Doren said, as I got in the car. "I'll be around when you want to talk."

Is that a promise or a threat? I wondered. I waved, started the Prelude, and got the hell out of there.


I got a ticket from the California Highway Patrol, for speeding on the 210.

"That cop was not at all what I expected," Joshua said. "Neither Ponch nor John had breasts. I'm going to have to revise my expectations."

No kidding.

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:00 PM